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Into the Mystic 

God bless the Skaters

Wednesday, Jan 11 2006
"How do you think your individual sounds blend?" I ask Spencer Clark and James Ferraro as we sit facing one another in the cluttered living room of their flat at 25th and South Van Ness. All around us are precariously piled stacks of records, books, dusty video cameras, Radio Shack electronics, and current projects: mock-ups of upcoming cover art, half-finished collages, photographs, etc. This pad isn't a home, it's a workshop.

"We are reacting to each other's projections of our inner images," Ferraro replies, skipping lightly over his words, as if he's not quite comfortable with the language he's using. A couple of his fingers playfully twist a small patch of his Afro.

Like me, Ferraro grew up in a low-income home in upstate New York, is of Italian descent, and wears a battered brown corduroy sports coat. Unlike me, he is half African-American. Ferraro continues, "Spencer will have something in his mind, and it manifests itself in the sound that he's making. So my images are getting affected by his images. We are reacting off each other's projection."

"We are both reacting off ourselves," Clark anxiously adds. Tall, skinny, and full of nervous energy, Clark (who apologized for wearing dirty pants because pants his size are difficult to find and he only owns three pairs) is always anxious and always up for good conversation. "We are both kind of playing separately, but there are two parts to it. We are both very much involved in our own universes, but our own universes have been shaped by each other. And even if that wasn't the case, we still have two levels of reactions: the ones with ourselves and then with each other."

Over the past three years, since meeting at an all-day improvisational noise jam when they both called San Diego home, Ferraro and Clark have developed, as you can plainly read, an intuitive, radically abstruse language when talking about their music and visual art, informed, in parts, by mysticism and surrealism, in which subjective states of mind and the objective world are intentionally confused to the extent that both fuse into a single, undivided whole.

"With music, as I try to do with visual art," Clark lays out, exhibiting an honest passion for his artwork, "I try to create these phenomena that exist in this world and in an imaginary world at the same time." Clark, who is an academically trained photographer, will go on to mention his favorite artist, the Chilean surrealist Roberto Matta, saying, "He was an architect, and he started to think about the inside and the outside at the same time."

As the duo known as the Skaters and as solo artists, Ferraro and Clark, who are flat broke and currently without phone or Internet service, spend most of their days and late nights not working but huddled in their bedrooms jamming, obsessively exploring through the use of nontraditional instrumentation and the creation of abstract sound "the inside and the outside at the same time," and in the process experiencing what Ferraro calls "private imaginations."

The end result is not what you would expect -- i.e., a pretentious, painfully dry avant-garde free-noise. Quite the opposite, it's a totally out there, vocal-dominated psychedelia, based, structurally speaking, on the open-ended drone heard in industrial music, minimalism, experimental electronics, folk, world music, and free jazz. And, like the best free jazz -- the early, fiery stuff: Trane, Ayler, Sanders -- the Skaters' noise-drenched cosmic soul is driven by their need to, in the words of Ferraro, "grasp something that is beyond what you can verbalize."

"I experienced a ton of academic music that is uncomfortable for people to play," Clark tells me, recalling the time he spent living in Germany, just after graduating from college. "The musicians were uncomfortable and the crowd was uncomfortable. I remember coming back and wanting to do something different. I wanted music to be something expressive. At the same time, I heard recordings by Archie Shepp and John Coltrane. It was very inspiring music."

Clark and Ferraro record their jams onto cassettes (sometimes old, warped cassettes found in a box on the streets), which they then turn into CD-Rs or even more cassettes. Either way, their releases, featuring lo-fi, black-and-white collage work for cover art, are ultralimited artifacts. No more than maybe 100 exist of each release.

Making up for this scarcity, Ferraro and Clark have produced, just within the past 18 months, no fewer than nine CD-Rs, seven cassettes, and one LP either as the Skaters or as solo artists. For the latter, Ferraro employs several aliases: the Wooden Cupboard, Teohihuacan, Newage Panther Mystique, Acideagle. Vodka Soap is Clark's lone pseudonym. The Skaters' profound fascination with the metaphysical as well as altered states of being pervades these cryptic nomenclatures, but is reflected in the titles of their group and solo efforts even more so: Crowned Purple Gowns, Mountain of Signs, Animals Speak the Spirit Tongue, Pavilinous Miracles of Circular Facet Dice (pictured above left), and Reactionary Meditations Within the Chandelier of Our Head.

Despite digesting all these titles -- some more than others -- I am still in the dark regarding the Skaters' actual recording process, which is one of their music's key intrigues. At no point do these swirling dreamscapes offer the listener a peek behind the curtain. Their origins are forever obscured, giving them a shadowy air, as well as prompting me to ask Ferraro to please tip the Skaters' hand.

"At first, I was doing more textures. Now it's more just vocals," is all I get from the guy as he leans back in his chair cradling a bottle of wine between his legs. He may appear aloof, but he's not. Ferraro, whose huge prankster smile reveals a missing tooth, loves to goof around and is generous to boot. (This is his wine I'm drinking.) However, a part of him always seems to be elsewhere; as he says later in the night, "It's important for me to be in a very imaginative world. I just kind of enjoy being in that world by myself." Ferraro's "imaginative world" fully reveals itself in his solo work. On the Wooden Cupboard's Boiling the Animal in the Sky, for example, the Skaters' typical use of writhing feedback is downgraded to a warble 'n' buzz, which Ferraro enlists as a backdrop for his tribal, Velvet Underground-like percussion, chiming guitar, and choked, on-the-verge-of-weeping doo-wop falsetto. Stringing together scraps of simple folk melodies, Ferraro sounds like a child who, in the dead of night, is seized with ecstatic tension because his mind has stumbled upon something that just totally overwhelms his being. He wants to scream, but he can't for fear he'll wake up his parents.

As for Clark: "I first got a keyboard, but I didn't like it," he offers. Of the two, it's Clark who is more traditionally articulate, as well as more conceptual in his thinking, which makes sense after listening to a copy of his Shadow-watcher Levitations cassette, a chilly industrial free-blues. "So I went to Wal-Mart and got a karaoke machine," he continues. "With that I thought I could create feedback with the microphone. Then I started to try and match up my voice with the tones, because I am always trying to confuse two different things, two different sounds, and try to make them one."

I caught a glimpse of that karaoke machine earlier tonight, when I walked past the first bedroom just off the hallway. It was surrounded by an assortment of half-broken gear strewn across the floor: wires, microphones, a battered guitar, thrift-store hand percussion, and a boombox (which I believe is what these two musicians use for recording their music).

The chaotic setup looked essentially like the Skaters' live array. Kneeling like Muslims praying toward Mecca, Ferraro and Clark, with their backs to the audience, cup their microphones so closely to their mouths they might as well be eating them. This produces distortion, which the Skaters manipulate through breath control and a range of primal wails and spiritual ululations, in effect creating an organically undulating wall of fuzz. And if this starts building into something "truly glorious" (as Ferraro puts it), then both the Skaters' asses begin gently dry-humping in rhythm, as if Wilhelm Reich's orgone energy is bubbling up through their respective bodies (which it probably is). However, Clark is adamant to point out that the full-bodied, ritualistic jams heard at the Skaters' performances are a different beast from the sounds captured on their cassettes.

"I don't want recordings of our live shows," Clark states, growing steadily more animated. He was dead tired when I arrived, but now he's ready for a beer at the Phone Booth, which is just around the corner from here. "There is a very specific sound that James and I are interested in having. It's a tape sound. If someone were to mike us properly and capture the space between the sounds, then that would conflict with what we are going for. We want the tape heavily submerged in the sound where there are confusing things happening."

"We don't want it recorded pristinely," Ferraro echoes, adding an alchemical flavor to his explanation. "The tape is a good way of obscuring that and making something that sounds like a landscape in your mind. That's pretty much why we've decided to record on tape."

I usually find gear talk to be a total bore, but the Skaters' utterly unique manipulation of the sloppy imperfections intrinsic to their battered instrumentation, cassette "technology," and shoddy boombox allows them to dissolve Clark's "space between the sounds" (i.e., reality perceived as an objective, three-dimensional space). Their wailing vocals, sparse percussion, and accompanying tape hiss jell, transforming into these soulful psychedelic soundscapes, which are startlingly accurate sonic representations of the dreamy existences the Skaters have developed through an incessant roaming of the imagination and exploration of "the inside and the outside at the same time" on a daily basis.

"We don't look at this stuff too musically," Clark reveals, looking over at Ferraro. "This is more like experience."

"I think a lot of folks make music just to make music," Ferraro offers. "That's fine. But I'm not into it. I prefer making music that's grasping for something that is indescribable."

About The Author

Justin F. Farrar


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