An Interview with Brainfeeder’s Ross From Friends

Mano Sundaresan speaks with Ross From Friends about lo-fi house, working with Flying Lotus, and his new LP, 'Family Portrait.'
By    July 30, 2018

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Felix Clary Weatherall, who releases music under the moniker Ross from Friends, has had to overcome the limiting scope of the genre tag. He’s jumped hurdles as a leader of lo-fi house, the sort of veiled, semi-ironic rabbit hole that could only emerge from 2016 Facebook groups and YouTube search algorithms. Lo-fi house’s “Broke Boi” is Weatherall’s “Talk To Me You’ll Understand,” an intimate affair with a guitar sample and muffled synth groove that somehow evokes nostalgia on first listen. That’s what the aim of a lot of this music seems to be. It lingers, drones, cycles. It’s spiritual in the way a routine deeply chiseled into your memory can be. It also works live; Weatherall, who is based in London, has taken his music throughout Europe with a trio, supporting Little Dragon on their most recent tour.

Weatherall and his peers have had to deal with their share of detractors, who claim that lo-fi house is lazy, homogenous, and not serious enough (has this ever been a legitimate criticism?). In this light, his recent signing with Brainfeeder feels as much like a stamp of approval as it does a turning point in his career.

On his debut album, Family Portrait, Weatherall distills his memories in ways more vivid than before. He progresses from his lo-fi house roots towards glossier, more serrated soundscapes, although songs like “Wear Me Down” and “Don’t Wake Dad” feel familiar. You hear the influence of his father, who, in the 1980s, spun glitzy hi-NRG music and Italian disco throughout Europe as a touring DJ. Weatherall’s absurdism ties it all together—there’s a track on here built around Weatherall repeatedly whispering, “Thank god I’m a lizard.” The music shares the same DNA as Aphelia, the EP he released earlier this year on Brainfeeder, but it feels like a much grander achievement. —Mano Sundaresan

How did Flying Lotus find out about you?

Ross From Friends: I asked him how he found out about me, and he said that friends came out one day and showed some of my music to him. I was just fascinated because it seems like two completely different worlds. How could that possibly have happened? He said one of his friends came over and just showed him some of this music, and he really liked it. He followed me on Twitter, and then he just messaged me straight away after that, being like, “Oh I really like your music.” And I was like, “Wow, thank you so much.” And within an hour, he was like, “Do you want to release an EP on Brainfeeder?” I was like, “Whoa…what the hell. Crazy.”

Have you met him in person?

Ross From Friends: Yeah, I met him in person once. He was screening a film in London. It was a couple short films that eventually became part of Kuso. He played this afterparty in a club that’s not too far from me. I went down there, and I managed to get right to him, just as he finished. I was like, “Hey I’m Felix, Ross from Friends!,” and then went back to the backstage area and chilled out with all his guys and stuff. It was really weird because the backstage area there was tiny. It was like a hospital room or something, this bright, white little box, and it had so many people in there. And it was really cool because he was biggin’ me up in front of everyone.

There’s something singular about Brainfeeder. You see an artist signed to the label and check out the artist off that association alone. How’s the label been treating you? Are they letting you do whatever you want musically?

Ross From Friends: It’s interesting because I wanted to steer away from the previous music I made. But I know they like my previous work. They never put any pressure on me to make any music that I didn’t want to. They never gave me suggestions of what I should make or shouldn’t make. They literally just said, “Make exactly what you want to make. Just do what you want to do.” They just gave me total creative freedom. And I was like, this is amazing, because now I can really just explore something I’ve never done before. It felt like a real opportunity to do that. I kind of just took a bit of a risk, and I was like fuck it, I’m just gonna make something that I just haven’t made before. I challenged myself to do that, and that’s how the album came out.

Did you have a vision for Family Portrait before going into it? Or did you just start making songs and this emerged?

Ross From Friends: I did start just making songs. I just started making songs similar to what I’ve made before. And then I was like, this isn’t right. I had a year of just doing that, of just making pretty similar music to what I’ve made before. And then a little while down, I was like no, I don’t want to do this anymore, I want to break away. So I completely ripped apart all of those tracks and left the skeletons of those tracks there, and pulled out loads of stuff and threw loads of other stuff in there in a really weird, dynamic way.

After that I felt like I found a sound that I really liked. I didn’t want it all to be quite similar music throughout the album either, and so that’s probably why a lot of it sounds different, there are different themes that go throughout the album. So I just tried to think laterally about the whole album, just trying to produce something that was different and had its own particular sound to it as well.

Were you recording all this music over the past two years?

Ross From Friends: Yeah, it was exactly two years. I made loads of loads of music in that time, and sometimes I’d take elements from one track and put it into a different one, and just tear things up, and start again. I just experimented loads until I was just settled with what I really wanted to do, what kind of sound I wanted to make.

Do you consider yourself a perfectionist? Or do you sometimes let your intuition hasten the process?

Ross From Friends: That definitely does happen. I think with every track I was trying to perfect it as much as possible, but the bits that would really excite me were when I’d complete a whole part of a track really, really quickly. It was a nice dynamic thing to do, and it was way different from how I had been approaching it before, just being really meticulous and stuff. Sometimes it was me trying to be perfect, and other times it was me trying to rip things up and start again and try to do something dynamic and really quickly.

You’re a big Madlib fan, right?

Ross From Friends: Oh yeah, big time. He’s like the complete opposite of me, but that’s like the beauty of his production. Sometimes I can do that, but he just does it to another level. It’s not like he just makes the same music either. Every track has some mad new idea in it. It’s so impressive.

Were you making all this music on the road?

Ross From Friends: It was always when I was on the road. When I did have a window to get in [the studio] I’d just spend really, really long periods of time in the studio. Just really crazy hours, like morning until the next morning. Stupid, stupid hours.

You mentioned in the press materials that your dad was a significant influence on this album. Where specifically does that influence manifest here?

Ross From Friends: A lot of it was stylistic things. Sonically, his influence was in the styles of it. He was into all this eighties dance music, this mad dance music. So a lot of the synthesizer stuff that’s in there, and a lot of the four-to-the-floor patterns definitely came from him. And also, the emotional themes that run throughout are quite indicative of my relationship with my parents, just a kind of sad feeling towards the past.

I know your dad was a DJ. Did he tour when you were growing up?

Ross From Friends: He was never really a DJ. It was mainly in the late eighties and early nineties. He would do squat parties. I don’t think he ever wanted to do it professionally. He just loved the music and hated money. I don’t think he ever wanted to get rich or be successful. He just had a fucking pure love for the music which is so admirable.

Did he have side jobs to keep money coming in?

Ross From Friends: He always had little ventures. He was always really jammy with money or he’d be on the dole. Unemployment money from the government, basically. He just always lived hand-to-mouth, and he was just really poor. Both my parents were. He always just had some mad venture that he was doing. He’d always be trying to sell something or trying to create something and sell that. I don’t think he ever wanted to fuse his music with trying to make money because it’d probably lose some kind of value for him.

Despite that, did he invest a lot in your musical upbringing? Was he trying to turn you into a successful artist?

Ross From Friends: No, never. He never did, neither of my parents ever pushed me to do anything like that. I think they did enough by indirectly influencing me and my music tastes and my passion for music. But they never got me lessons or anything like that, they couldn’t really afford music lessons or anything. I just kind of took it under my own steam and took my influence from them and learned how to do it myself.

Are there any records that you associate with your dad?

Ross From Friends: Definitely. All of these really obscure, hi-NRG 12-inch records. Hi-NRG is this kind of music which is this fucking zany, European dance music. These really harsh synthesizers, this really bright, cheesy thing. I remember just hearing so much of this when I was a kid. I kind of liked it—it was the only thing I listened to when I was a kid—so it was definitely present in my childhood. There’s a handful of these songs that really stick out in my head as like, yeah, this is my dad’s music or mom’s music that I used to love.

Did you break into producing through watching YouTube videos?

Ross From Friends: Well I think I got into it before YouTube, but when I was making music on Reason or GarageBand, I was trying to figure out what it all did basically, like how things worked. There weren’t any videos about it. But then when I started using other software like Logic and Ableton, I started looking at YouTube videos and trying to teach myself that. And the same with guitar—that was kind of my main instrument when I was 14 or 15﹣I just taught myself how to play that, just looked at videos on YouTube on how to play guitar.

I know you were in a rock band in your teens. Was your trajectory at the time still towards electronic music?

Ross From Friends: I think so. At the time when I was in a band and we were making guitar music, I was fully focused on that. That was my favorite music at that time. But I always listened to bits of electronic music, just for nostalgia’s sake. I listened to all the music my dad showed me. At some point I just started listening to modern electronic music—I think probably when I was like 16, 17—and as soon as I started listening to it I started making it as well. I was always really interested in recording music as well. So I would always record my guitar music and lay drums over it and stuff. Ever since I picked up a guitar, I was always recording it on the computer.

I think my favorite song on Family Portrait is “Thank God I’m a Lizard” just because of how ridiculous it is. The beat is constructed around this sample of what sounds like a little girl saying “thank god I’m a lizard” over and over again. What’s the story behind that one?

Ross From Friends: [Laughs] That was just me being really obsessive in the studio. I was listening to this tambourine loop that I found, just listening to it for ages and tweaking it. I don’t know if it was me tripping out or hallucinating or something, but I could eventually pick out the words “thank god I’m a lizard” and they were repeating. I was like what, that’s crazy.

So I recorded myself just saying “thank god I’m a lizard” over the top of it. So that’s me whispering “thank god I’m a lizard” basically repeated over the entire track. But actually, weirdly enough, earlier today I had an interview with this Japanese publication, and she was saying that when she listened to it, it sounded like the Japanese equivalent to “everything’s OK” which was strange. But I’m glad it translated to something positive.

Glad that’s explained. I wouldn’t put it past you to dig into reptilian conspiracy territory.

Ross From Friends: Yeah mate, of course. I was thinking, “Oh god, people are gonna think I’m in the Illuminati or something.” I feel like it probably says something in every language.

I read that “John Cage” off the last EP was originally supposed to be part of a hip-hop side project you’re working on with a friend. Do you think you’ll break further into that realm?

Ross From Friends: I love making that kind of stuff. I’ve always made hip-hop and made stuff with rappers and things like that, but I’ve never released it and I’ve never wanted to release it properly. That song really got released because I sent it around to a few people and they were like, “Yeah this is dope, but get rid of the vocals and it’ll be better.” It’s just really refreshing to make because I don’t have to take it seriously, and I feel like if I start releasing it, then I’ll have to start taking it seriously. It’s kind of more of a fun thing I do.

Do you have any rappers you’ve been into recently?

Ross From Friends: Oh mate, JPEGMAFIA. He’s just absolutely incredible. He’s my favorite hip-hop artist I’ve heard in so long. His approach to shit is so crazy. I don’t know if he’s a perfectionist with his beats or he really just throws everything in there and it just naturally comes out great, but his beats are so Space Age, they’re great.

I managed to catch him live. It was his first show in London, at this tiny little club. He just turned up with a laptop with iTunes on it, and he was like, “I’m gonna play some songs for you now.” And he just straight away ripped his t-shirt off and screamed straight into his first track, just like pure energy throughout the whole thing.

He has this tiny bit of irony in everything he’s doing. The music is super meticulous but he also sometimes says some random shit.

Ross From Friends: That’s what dumbfounds me as well, because obviously he must be a fucking genius because his beats are out of this world. But at the same time, the shit that he talks about can be so dumb, and his whole presence is kind of silly. It’s kind of fascinating.

You mentioned that you tapped into a certain emotional instability on this album. Are they any specific moments in your life you’re pulling from?

Ross From Friends: There definitely are a lot. But when I’m making the music itself, I just feel something deeply emotional and never attribute it to any specific event. There’s nothing I’m trying to talk about. I’ve just got something in me that’s emotional, which is a result of various things I guess. It’s just an overarching feeling, and whenever I’m making emotional music I really tap into that. That’s really what holds my attention when I’m making music—that feeling that I’m constantly getting when I’m making it, which is kind of cathartic, I guess.

The critics of lo-fi house all call it emotionless and derivative; hopefully they read this.

Ross From Friends: I try to ignore them completely. Obviously they’re pretty present constantly, but I try not to get affected by them all too much. My musical taste hasn’t been changed by it either, which I’m happy about. But I feel like my musical taste and the music I want to make has changed naturally. I always wanted to be constantly trying to make something new and interesting. The music I was making before was kind of like, I’m just adapting. I’m just moving on and making different music.

I think with that whole thing, sometimes the negative press comes across because it’s assumed to be quite lazy. It feels like lo-fi’s been associated with “not much thought put into it” which is something I really don’t think of my music. I put so much into it. It’s not very nice to hear that someone thinks that it’s just cheap. That genre association, it’s not something I’m a massive fan of.

Do you like being thought of as a leader of that wave?

Ross From Friends: don’t really mind how it’s perceived, or whether I’m some kind of demigod or something like that. I never intended for any of that. I never intended for that genre tag and I never intended to be considered a leader of some scene. It just trivializes it a little bit, being associated with some kind of genre tag, I suppose, especially as I’ve actively not really engaged with it that much. But it’s cool, it’s awesome that people like my music, I suppose.

There’s that legacy component in this. You’ve probably already been immortalized as a vital part of this lo-fi house scene.

Ross From Friends: That’s true, yeah. That’s a really cool thing. But it’s just unfortunate that the tags have come along about it being lazy. And a lot of it is lazy, but a lot of it also isn’t. It’s a bit of a weird one to navigate, but I don’t mind it too much.

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