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Consider the Source: An Interview with John Ferrara

John Ferrara - photo by Tiffany Kitana
Photo by Tiffany Kitana

As the world becomes more connected, a deeper mixing of culture and ideas creates fresh and innovative music. One example of just that is the band Consider the Source, a trio that blends influences from all over the world with a style they call Sci-Fi Middle Eastern Fusion. While that may sound outlandish, the group’s sound is just as cohesive as it is exploratory. That cohesiveness is thanks in large part to bassist John Ferrara.

The New York native grew up in a musical family and picked up the bass at 13 years old. After starting with classic rock, a friend of the family gave Ferrara a mixtape of slap bass songs which eventually turned the budding bassist on to artists like Victor Wooten, Jonas Hellborg, Primus, and Marcus Miller. He formed Consider the Source in 2004 with guitarist Gabriel Marin and drummer Justin Ahiyon. The group quickly found a foothold with a strong fanbase, especially in the jam and prog-rock scenes.

Their latest release, World War Trio (Part I): Put Another Rock in That Bag, was released last year. The six part suite is a musical journey that showcases the band’s compositional strengths and rock style. Its followup is due this summer.

We caught up with Ferrara to get the scoop on his techniques, the band’s group, and their upcoming album.

World music is a huge influence on your group. How did that come about?

We all grew up in New York, but we all had different inspirations. When the band first started, it was our original drummer Justin Ahiyon and [current guitarist] Gabriel Marin. I knew the drummer from growing up and playing music together. Gabriel and Justin were both really into the Middle Eastern and Indian stuff. They met at a party and started talking about that stuff and eventually jammed. Justin called me up and said, “Hey man, you’ve gotta play with this guitarist.” I had already been in bands with Justin, so when he met up with this guy it was just logical that it would be the three of us together.

At first we were just kind of jamming on the Indian stuff and Middle Eastern stuff. Gradually we all three got more into it, [and] I started studying Indian music independently. There’s a South Indian instrument called the kanjira. It’s like a tambourine, but certainly not played like a tambourine. When you hear the best guys play it, it sounds like a full drum set. I studied with a master kanjira player named Ganesh Kumar. I would bring my bass and have lessons with him where he would play something or speak something with voice percussion and I would try to replicate it on the bass. So it was part of our sound from the very beginning.

That doesn’t sound like a typical lesson.

It was funny, too, because when I first came in he saw me with the bass and looked kind of confused. I was always a little bit into Indian music through Jonas Hellborg and his stuff with Selva Ganesh and Shawn Lane and guys like that. I was a big Jonas Hellborg fan. It was always kind of loosely in my ear, but studying it formally didn’t happen until the band started. I thought it was cool because I could really further my rhythmic capabilities through learning this music.

So I’d take lessons from him and he would show me different rhythmic modulations and things that are very centric to South Indian percussion. I would take notes and try to remember as much as I could, then as soon as I got home I would say, “Well, can I turn these into slap bass rudiments?” I would write them down and practice them every single day. I used it as a springboard to further my chops.

Obviously, you have a lot of chops, but from what I gather, you’re more about getting the musical idea first and then figuring out how to do it.

There’s a time for trial and error, but I feel like that’s a last resort. First you have to see if you have something to say [in your heart or your head]. Once that’s there, you can start developing exercises from it or developing a riff or a song. If you hear it in your head, then that’s part of what you have to say. If it resonated with you at one point, it’s still in there and you’re trying to find a way to replicate it, that is your voice. That’s where it exists: in those moments. It’s cool to write something first then try to develop exercises on it because then it’s just other ways of figuring out how to say the same thing.

Consider the Source has such a unique sound, I imagine it was tough to book gigs when you started out. Did you find your niche, or did you build it?

We’re building it. We found certain genres that have embraced us. Right now, probably our biggest scene is the jam scene, which is weird because we didn’t come from listening to anything like that. Gabe and I grew up listening to a wide range of stuff. It was jazz, it was classical music, it was metal, and for me it was funk and hip-hop, too. But we never really listened to Phish or the Grateful Dead or anything like that. Our current drummer Jeff Mann is more into the jam stuff but he has a wide palette like we do.

For us, it was weird that we found ourselves in that scene because it’s not really our point of reference. We’re also growing in the progressive rock scene. Some of the people who are into Animals as Leaders or Periphery or Between the Buried and Me are coming to our shows because they’re hearing us on their Pandora station, which is pretty cool.

We didn’t really have a strategy at first. The way the whole band started and the sound developed very organically. Even though there was the Middle Eastern stuff, we were really into classical and metal and grunge. We didn’t set out to be any of those things. We just jammed, and what came out is what came out. The same kind of thing happened with our fan base. It wasn’t like, “Let’s attack this scene or attack that scene.” It was just, “Let’s play music for people and see what happens.” We would play a lot of loft parties in Brooklyn and Manhattan. It was an eclectic mix.

The jam scene just sort of embraced us, and they have a lot of people. There’s a lot of people in that scene that go to festivals, and there’s a real community there that other scenes we could fit into don’t have as much. They might have more of an online community thing, but this is a real tangible thing.

When was the moment that you decided that the band could be your main gig?

It was a gradual thing. When the band first started, my music life was in a weird place. I had put too much pressure on myself as a player and was disconnected with what music should be. So I was studying psychology in college and doing the whole academic thing. I figured I would just do music on the side. When the band started, I was really into it from the first few minutes of our first jam. I thought, “This is something special.” But I was still in this academic career and the other guys were, too. We all had these prior commitments. We started playing these shows and they were going really well. A lot of people were coming to see us and getting to know us. Then we started to play [out of town shows] and they went really well. We started looking at the other things we were doing and I realized I didn’t want to study psychology. Part of the reason I was so done with the music thing [before] was that I wasn’t able to play the way I had wanted to play. I couldn’t use all the unorthodox ways of playing the bass that I was into in a cover band and for hire gigs, but I can write a song based on them in this band.

The more we all started realizing how special of a thing it was we had, somewhere towards the end of graduation I decided that this was it. Since then, Gabe and I haven’t looked back.

What kind of stuff are you practicing lately?

I always have a few of the band’s songs on my plate that I’ll touch base on every now then. I’ve been working on a Bach cello suite and I’m going over “Teen Town” again. Every few years I’ll just go over the Jaco Pastorius stuff that I did when I was younger to try to develop my fingerstyle chops a little bit more. Besides those two I’m always working on basic stuff like intervals and major scales. I’m going over rudiments for my slap bass stuff. I have a page of different sticking patterns that my drummer gave me. I’ll go through them and take the right strokes and play them with my thumb and take the left strokes and make them plucks. Then I put the metronome on really slow and just go through those to get more of a repertoire. It really helps.

I’m also working on different tapping exercises. I’ve been really into Philip Glass the last couple years. He’s such an incredible composer, and all of his stuff is arpeggios played as poly-rhythmic ideas. So I’ve been writing stuff in that vein and trying to improvise with those ideas, too, almost to also replicate the sweeps that my guitarist does. He’s a pretty fast player so it’s hard to match that all the time. I found that with tapping, though, you can get a pretty comparable thing. It’s pretty sweet, but it’s also very, very hard [laughs].

Speaking of Philip Glass, it sounds like there’s some of his influence on your latest album, World War Trio, Pt. 1, during the intro.

Yeah. The harmony was actually more inspired by Bach, but I wrote that really tap-heavy bass line a few years ago before I was really into Philip Glass. Some of the counterpoint things are loosely inspired by Bach. That bass line is also an example of what I was saying before as something that can’t exist in most bands. You can’t do that and get hired for a wedding gig. That was something that just developed over the course of a couple years.

The album is a little different than your previous stuff. Are you heading in a heavier direction?

Not necessarily. Initially we were thinking it would be part of a double album. First of all, we have way too much material for even two album [laughs]. But it also stands alone. We’re more known for our ethnic and Middle Eastern side. It’s built into our “Sci-Fi Middle Eastern Fusion” description. Our fans know that that’s not all we’re about. We also have a progressive side, a classical side and stuff like that. This was just to give our compositional, progressive rock, classical based side the highlight. There’s no improvising. It’s just a through and through composition. We really wanted to show our fans this other side that we take seriously and see how they like it. Then we’re going to drop the double album and say, “By the way, we haven’t changed that much. Here’s the rest of our improvised stuff and world influences.”

What is the concept behind the album and the six-part song “Put Another Rock in That Bag”?

It’s not a concept album in an overt way. It’s more that we’re always writing and we’re backed up. We have tons of stuff so we’re always throwing stuff out there. I’ll have an idea and show it to Gabe or vice versa. Just through doing that we’ll see that certain riffs we write will just work together. It just happens naturally. We didn’t start out saying, “Let’s write a concept album and make it 25 minutes long.” It was more like, “These pieces have to go together,” even though [the parts are quite different]. “Part I” is almost straight-ahead like a Muse tune. “Part II” is a lot more post-apocalyptic sounding, and “Part III” is a lot more somber. But there’s some kind of quality that all the parts have, whether it be the motifs that we use or the tapping or syncopations, for some reason they all felt like one song. It tells a story. We’re not even sure what, but the parts flow into each other. It was pretty obvious which parts should go where once we had all the individual sections written out. It just kind of happened.

What’s the story behind the title?

Most of our titles are quotes from shows and movies and books that we like. When you take the quote out of context, it could take on a very different meaning. We find something really cool with that. “Put Another Rock in That Bag” was a Louis C.K. quote from one of his specials. He talks about a dream he had with Gene Hackman and he’s just telling him to put rocks in a bag. It’s a ridiculous skit, but it was just one of those moments where we saw that and thought it was the perfect title for this project. It’s got the rock connotation and it’s got the weirdness.

What’s the scoop on the next album?

The new album is going to be in ways more like our older stuff. It’s going to have some of the world influences and Indian and Middle Eastern influences. We’re going to have some acoustic tracks which we haven’t on an album since Esperanto. It’s got more of the epic compositions; not quite as long as “Put Another Rock in That Bag” but pretty long. Then it has our improvisational side with a lot of solo sections. We take those in many different directions. For our acoustic tunes, sometimes we’re soloing with acoustic instruments. I have a Kala U-Bass that is my main axe for our acoustic sets. I have a GoldTone Banjo Bass, too. Gabriel plays different instruments from the Middle East like the saz, a dotar, and a few others.

John Ferrara with Banjo Bass
John Ferrara SlapStick photo by Chris Cleary

Besides [World War Trio, Pt. 1], it’s been four years since we’ve had a studio album. The performance on it is a lot better. We’ve become better players in the past four years and so the compositions are stronger. We feel like we have grown to a point where we can say more compositionally as well. We’re really excited for our fans to see that aspect.

We did a lot of experimenting in different sections with sound effects rather than just techniques. There are tons of new directions for us but still under the same heading of world influences and progressive rock and jazz influences.

You have plenty of touring lined up. Are you going to be playing “Put Another Rock in That Bag” in its entirety?

Yeah, since we dropped the album that’s been the plan: to do the whole piece. We’ve also added a couple of solo sections for the live show, just for the fans who are missing that in the the midst of a 25 minute composition. We came up with some ways to do it that are still true to the composition. We’re still touring that album so people can expect to hear that. We’ll also be playing some of the tunes that will be on the next album, but we don’t want to give away too much of that.

Give us a rundown of your gear.

I have a Hartke LH1000 head and a HyDrive 4×10. I have two Foderas: a five-string Monarch with a Kahler bridge and a four-string Monarch. [The four-string] doesn’t have a Kahler bridge, but it will at some point. I also have a Kala U-Bass and a GoldTone Banjo Bass. The Kala has a very African kind sound to it, but it has all these other qualities where you can tap with it and it sounds almost like synth bass. It’s pretty wild.

John Ferrara with SlapStickPedal-wise, I have an ME-50B multi-effects pedal, a Line 6 DL4, an MXR Phase 90, and a POG2. The tone I get on “Put Another Rock in That Bag, Pt. III” is kind of like a fretless bass sound, but it’s partly from the ME-50B and partly a setting on the POG2 that gives a really round chorus type of sound. I can’t get that sound with any other pedal. Then I have a Boss OC-3, a Boss EQ, a Pigtronix compressor, and a Bass Crybaby.

One other thing I have is the SlapStick. The latest one I got is called the Mezzo. It’s about my height and it’s just like a washtub bass mixed with a hand drum. It’s so awesome! I have one of their smaller Noodle models, too. This tour is the first tour that I’ll use the new Mezzo.

It’s weird [because] it’s kind of a bass instrument and it’s kind of a percussion instrument.

John Ferrara SlapStick photo by Steven Philips

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Share your thoughts

Greg Halloran

Thanks for the insight about the study of Indian music!

I find it funny that after Ferrara explains his inspiration by Bach, the next question is “Are you headed in a heavier direction?” With Put Another Rock In That Bag, I imagine cannons firing and soldiers charging when all the double bass is going and then there is a funky (and likely Bach inspired) break that makes me imagine everyone dropping their weapons to dance and celebrate a common love of a music. The freedom that Ferrara allows the audience by not ascribing an authoritative story behind the song is invaluable. It speaks to the caliber of his musicianship that he is focused on the sound. We can all hear our own story and it will be different every time the song is performed.

I also really like how Ferrara states that he expresses his own ideas and does not write by a process of trial and error. I never thought about it, but my own music has always struggled because I use the process of trial and error hoping something will stick rather than focusing on a single concept.

ericgarland

I got a chance to meet Mr. Ferrara at a club date in St. Louis. Not only was he one of the nicest and humblest cats you’ll run into, when the band started up it was the first time I had had my mind blown in far too long. These guys have a truly original concept and they all just play the audience’s face off. I’m psyched to see more of their story, so thanks No Treble!