In Conversation: Ross From Friends

House music’s lo-fi hero goes global...

It’s been six years since British producer Felix Weatherall assumed perhaps one of the most memorable musical moniker of recent times.

Since then, as Ross From Friends, he’s gone on to carve as much of a reputation for his sublime lo-fi jams as he has a penchant for the absurd. Following a number of low-key releases on the likes of Distant Hawaii and Lobster Theremin, March 2018 marked the announcement of Weatherall’s partnership with Brainfeeder.

The subsequent arrival of his inaugural 'Aphelion' EP in April marked a subtle shift away from the often ironic undertones that many, including this writer, had often detected in his work. The release of Weatherall’s long-awaited debut LP, 'Family Portrait', in July rewarded listeners with a masterful blend of nostalgic dance tunes and contemplative weirdness –a stellar offering that simultaneously felt like both a departure for listeners familiar with Weatherall’s lo-fi trappings, whilst still feeling distinctly grounded in the familiar world of Ross From Friends.

Paul Weedon caught up with Weatherall the day before the release of 'Family Portrait', to discuss his journey to Brainfeeder, his ever-changing creative process and the origins and continued importance of his absurd namesake.

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This has been a pretty exciting week for you, hasn’t it?

Yeah, I'm very excited. Tomorrow’s the big album, obviously. So, yeah I'm really excited. Very nervous for people to hear it. I can’t wait.

Reviews have started trickling through. I know you've had reviews over the years, but is it weird to see yourself plastered in mainstream publications now?

Yeah, I know. It's pretty mental. It definitely is… It’s also kind of weird because you sort of do see if from behind a veil. Nothing's really changed in my life, much… It's not like I’ve got fans outside my door, or anything. Hopefully it stays that way.

Yeah, exactly. You definitely want to keep it low-key, for sure.

I think I’d panic if I had that much attention.

I might be wrong, but when I first heard your music, I kind of assumed that there was something sort of in-jokey, or at the very least ironic, about a lot of your earlier tunes. It felt like there were some jokes in there that listener wasn't necessarily privy to. Was that sort of the case?

Yeah, mate, definitely. All the time. I used to sample my mates’ laughter and stuff like that and put that in there and then just like use little quips – usually stuff that would end up ruining the song because I’d just put something in for a bit of a laugh and then I’d put it out and be like, “Oh, that would probably get played in clubs if it didn’t have that joke in it,” basically. Things where I'd fade things weirdly because I thought it was funny.

But, yeah, a lot of the time, when I was making older tracks especially, I’d show them to mates I was living with and they’d always give me loads of input and then I’d be chatting with them and make it a bit of a laugh, to be honest. But the album was such a solo piece of music that I didn't have anyone else’s input. I was like, “I’m going to take this seriously and go pretty deep within myself with it.” I think there are some jokey things though, like track titles and little clips and stuff like that that I find funny still.

The way the Internet has taken your sound and kind of co-opted it with their own aesthetic has been kind of interesting to see. I think one of the first times I ever became aware of your music was when somebody cut that video of that Russian kid dancing to 'Gettin’ It Done', for example.

[Laughs]. Yeah, mate. Now people talk to me about that video and they were like, “That's such a good video. Who's the kid?” I literally have no idea. That was just a fan- made video.

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Yeah. I guess it's a weird chicken and egg situation, but has that aesthetic kind of influenced you in any way at all?

It hadn’t really, to be honest. I hadn’t really thought about the aesthetic that much. I was kind of just making it up as I went along. Obviously, you do have aesthetic considerations, but I never thought of myself as being a kind of lo-fi artist or a VHS guy, or anything like that. It was kind of incidental really and it just made sense for the kind of tunes I was making. If I was going to have a wailing 80s guitar line then the rest of the track should suit that too.

So, what tends to be your starting point when it comes to creating a tune? Has your creative process changed a lot over the years?

Yeah, it definitely has actually changed quite a lot. When I start a tune, I usually spend ages just looking for samples. It always starts with a sample. I would dig through for ages and ages and then I would actually start doing stuff… Sometimes I'll start with drums or start with a melodic thing, but try and keep that like the starting point. It's very open.

And sometimes I’d approach it where I want to finish the entire structure of the song first, or I want to finish the entire instrumentation of the track first and then structure it. I try to challenge myself when it comes to how I start the track and how I continue on with my creative process.

And is there a point where you kind of definitively know that it's done? Are you one of these people that could tinker with it endlessly?

Definitely… When it came to making the album, I had to physically set myself a deadline. It has to be finished by this date, because I was just tinkering with it endlessly. I would sit there with finished tracks for days on end just putting things in, taking things out and doing nothing to it… I eventually had to say, “Yeah, this is just becoming obsessive.” So I had to tell myself when to stop. I worked up to a deadline and then I just stopped, basically. And that's when the album came out.

Did being signed by Brainfeeder have an impact on that, to some extent? Did Flying Lotus have any creative notes for you at all?

He actually didn’t. I was sending him tracks over and over again and he would be like, “Yeah, this is great. It sounds cool.” And then, eventually, I was like, right, he's saying these are great, but how am I going to know when it's actually finished? I just asked him what happens next. Like, when is it finished? Is it finished? And he was like, “I just want you to put out the exact album that you want to put out. I support you as an artist, so I just want you to believe in what you’re doing.”

So, that was that was his advice, which was the most liberating advice possible. After he said that to me I was like, “Fuck. I can do anything I want.” And so I ended up just making something that was like completely different… Well, what I thought was completely different to what I’d made before.

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How you came to sign to the label? Did Flying Lotus just reach out to you?

Yeah. He did. He just started chatting to me. He followed me on Twitter. And then he just started talking to me a whole bunch, just saying, “Yeah, I really like your music.” And I was like, “Whoa. What's going on?” One of the absolute legends of electronic music is just talking to me on DM.

And so we were talking for a bit, for probably like an hour, back and forth, and then pretty much straight after that he was just like, “Do you want to do an album and an EP on my record label? I was like, “Fuck. Holy shit. Yes, of course. Yes. Definitely.” It was just so staggering. And this was quite a long time ago now. This was probably two years to the day, I reckon, that he messaged me and it's been an ongoing relationship since then.

And having to sit on that since then too…

Mate. I know. Just trying to not tell everyone that I know. It’s been so hard… If I was talking to someone like a journalist or someone who was asking, “What have you got on in the future?” In my head I was screaming, “Brainfeeder, Brainfeeder, Brainfeeder.” Thing is, we know it’s a horrible question and we ask it anyway. Yeah. Now my dirty little secret is out in the open. Lovely.

Before we spoke I floated a question to someone at the label and they told me I wouldn’t get a serious answer, but I’m going to ask it anyway. Why Ross From Friends?

Well, funnily enough really, Ross From Friends was… We used to have these top Trump Trumps cards when I was a kid and, basically, I had all the characters from Friends on there. And it was like, you know, Rachel, Joey, Gunther etc. Stuff like that. And then, for some reason, Ross’s card said ‘Ross From Friends’ on it, rather than just ‘Ross’. And so, you know, yeah it came entirely from Top Trumps.

That's amazing. That’s great.

Pretty cool, huh?

I mean, talking about the scene more broadly, obviously you know DJ Boring and DJ Seinfeld and those guys. Seinfeld's talked a lot about the fact he was told quite early on, “You’ve got to change your name. Nobody will take you seriously”. Did you ever have to contend with that attitude at all?

No, I don't think so really. I’ve been told I might have to change my name for legal purposes because of the TV show, but I’ve never been confronted with, “Oh yeah, no one’s going to take you seriously”. I don’t know. That’s kind of the whole shtick really. You're not really meant to take it seriously and that's like that's part of the appeal. So if I were to lose that then it would lose that appeal. That’s not to say I might not go down a different path at some point, but for now a lot of the appeal is the characterisation of the name.

It also completely throws people when you tell them you’re interviewing Ross From Friends. [Laughs]. I’ve had it before – this happened really early on – where we had a gig on at The Yard in Hackney, which is like a theatre, and so it was billed as ‘Ross From Friends’ and I think we were co-headlining, or something, so it was quite big on the poster.

And when we turned up there, I spoke to the promoter, which was my good friend Sammy from Magicwire, the record label, and he was like, “Man, you’re not going to believe this.” But there were these two girls who turned up in dinner dresses to see some kind of speech from David Schwimmer in the theatre. It was absolutely absurd.

But there have been so many little stories like that that have come from the name. You can’t ditch a moniker like that. Oh, mate. No way. No way. That’s the thing. And whenever I get asked a question about my name, it’s like; I can’t possibly get pissed off with that question. I’ve sown my seeds.

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Have you found it kind of weird watching other musicians follow behind you? Obviously there's a huge swathe of DJs that are coming up now through, like DJ Windows XP, where there’s this self-conscious, self-referential thing going on.

Yeah. Definitely. Like yeah, when I started seeing names crop up like, DJ Seinfeld and DJ Sabrina the Teenage DJ, I was like, “Man. This is fun. This is pretty crazy.” It was like a nice validation that the name was a good thing, in a way, and it kind of started something in a back area of YouTube and the Internet.

Do you listen to any of that stuff yourself?

Yeah, I definitely do. I still listen to that kind of music and some of it's really good. But it's just annoying that it’s become quite saturated and just churned out really loosely. I suppose quite of lot of dance music is kind of like that anyway, but I still do. I don’t think the name or the fidelity of a track would put me off. If it’s good music then I’ll still enjoy it.

You've never really so settled on a specific sound or genre. I think you mentioned before that 'John Cage' was originally intended for a hip-hop project? What for you is the distinction between a Ross From Friends track and any other kind of project?

Yeah, I have all of these side projects that I’m doing – like what I'm doing with the boys from the live show. I suppose what distinguishes that is it’s a different line-up, but for my own personal projects I never… I don’t know. I think they’re all just starting to become Ross From Friends.

I had the idea that I was going to separate everything and just have these side projects and doing all this shit, but they’ve gradually started to become part of this world… And that was after some advice from my manager who was like, “What do you think about just doing this as Ross From Friends?” And I don't see why not.

Now I’m doing stuff with Brainfeeder, a pretty open label, I don’t see why not. All of it still carries a certain quality and a certain character that I see across all of my music. And especially the album – it’s just like quite a big collection of different tracks and they were all kind of meant to be different aliases, really. There are three or four different aliases of music in that record, but actually it does still feel like it still is somehow consistent.

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To some extent, I guess genre has become a little bit meaningless over the last couple of years, especially for DJs.

Yeah, for sure. Yeah. Especially with like quite a big wave of eclectic DJs, you know, ones that just flit from genre to genre… Within dance music and DJ culture, you can play anything at a club and it’s really exciting – pop music, disco, house and techno, IDM and the worlds all kind of collide, in a way.

I was thinking about that recently in relation to the album itself and it was like, it is kind of an eclectic bunch of tunes and I thought, why not actually? As a DJ, that’s what I do as well.

When you're putting together an album like 'Family Portrait', were you consciously thinking about how it was going to translate to the live show?

Kind of annoyingly with the album, I kind of consciously didn't, which has sort of shot us in the foot a bit, because now it’s really difficult to play it. When I was making it, I was thinking this was really good heady, headphones kind of album and now I’ve started trying to bring it to the other guys and we were like, “Shit, this is actually really difficult.” There are all these complex parts and it’s structurally way different to what we’re used to and a lot of it’s about sound design, so we were racking our brains about how to make it work.

We’re starting to get it together now and we’re starting play the songs out and it’s just a new challenge…

So when do you guys kick off the tour?

It starts in September. Kick it straight off and then it’s a full on headline album tour, so we’re going to North America and Canada and we're now looking to go back to Australia for the New Year as well. It’s going to be absolutely crazy.

And in between all that, is there any kind of scope for collaboration with Flying Lotus and your label mates?

Yeah, I’d absolutely love to. I’ve kind of floated that idea. Maybe something will happen. I'm very hopeful. I reckon he’s just super busy and stuff. I mean, I’ll be in LA. I’ll be heading that way, so I reckon we’ll meet up and maybe something will happen. Fingers crossed.

I’ve never been that good at collaborating though, weirdly enough. Unless it’s with someone I’m comfortable with. I get in to an erratic state where I’m in the studio, running around, twiddling knobs and jumping up and down and stuff, so I need to be comfortable in someone else’s company.

I guess you’ve got the self-awareness to know that that's kind of your comfort zone, I guess.

Yeah, for sure. I’ve only really been able to make music with really close friends who aren’t proper musicians or anything, apart from the boys in the live show. We’ve managed to make some music together because we’re best friends as well, but yeah, that’s definitely a limitation of mine when it comes to collaborating.

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'Family Portrait' is out now on Brainfeeder.

Words: Paul Weedon / @TwoTafKap

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