Oakland-based musician Anthony Ferraro describes Mind Out Wandering, the debut LP from his band, Astronauts, etc., as a record of a strange year in his life. He’s referring to 2014, which began with him performing in places such as Tokyo and Australia as a touring keyboardist for Toro y Moi. Around the same time, he also met the woman he would marry.
“My wife and I met briefly in college through mutual friends but seriously met at the beginning of last year,” Ferraro recalls, “and that sent me on the journey of making this record. It took a lot of its shape from the trajectory of us getting to know each other and the development of our relationship. There are bits and pieces of other things in there, but that’s the skeleton of the record, and a lot of the lyrical content has to do with that.”
Astronauts, etc. began as a computer-produced solo bedroom project by Ferraro, his brand of dreamy synth-pop first making waves in 2012 with the track “Mystery Colors.” Mind Out Wandering marks a departure from previous Astronauts, etc. releases in that the new tracks were recorded on analog equipment in a San Francisco studio with the jazz-trained musicians who form the live incarnation of the band. Throughout the album, hazy indie rock melodies fuse with ’70s R&B grooves as Ferraro fronts the proceedings on piano and Rhodes, singing in a smooth falsetto.
“For us, being on a limited budget meant taking a lot of the first takes, or a lot of the second takes, and not over-finessing everything and bothering too much about perfectionism,” he says. “All the tracks on this record were recorded with a live instrument base, where we were all playing together … It was done that way intentionally so we could perform it live and have it sound not too far from the recording.”
Toro y Moi’s Chaz Bundick has been a mentor to Ferraro ever since a chance meeting in 2012. He designed the cover art for Astronauts, etc.’s debut EP from that year, Supermelodic Pulp. Ferraro credits Bundick with having an influence on the sounds being referenced during the recording of Mind Out Wandering.
Chaz has a reverence for the ’70s,” Ferraro says. “There was a lot of osmosis going on during the time that we spent touring together.”
Ferraro, 25, was born in Newport Beach, California. Both of his parents played piano, as did his older sister. He remembers being a child and drifting off to sleep while his dad played songs by Elton John and Billy Joel, or church tunes. When Ferraro began taking piano lessons at five years old, “it seemed like a sensible thing,” he says.
At 10 years old, however, he was diagnosed with a form of arthritis that prevented him from exerting himself physically for extended periods of time. Although that meant that he couldn’t participate seriously in competitive sports, it didn’t affect his piano playing, the activity from which he derived self-esteem and a sense of identity. He continued with classical training through his teens and was poised to become a concert pianist. During those years, he didn’t listen to much pop music.
“I remember getting my driver’s license and burning a bunch of cds,” he says. “Maybe that was when I started listening to more modern music, getting a car and just filling up a cd jacket. I remember OK Computer was a cd that I put in my car and didn’t take out for a couple months.”
When Ferraro began his collegiate studies at UC Berkeley in the fall of 2008, he flirted with majoring in computer science. “I was kind of computer-crazy in high school,” he recalls. “I was one of those kids who stayed up late installing different distributions of Linux on my computer to feel like I was a hacker or something like that.” But after a semester, he settled on musicology as his major.
In the spring of 2010, he auditioned for admission to Baylor University’s piano performance program and earned a scholarship. But he never got to Baylor. His arthritis began to flare up in his fingers, and he decided to forfeit his spot in the program. Disheartened with having to abandon his dream of becoming a classical concert pianist, he dropped out of Berkeley and returned to his parents’ house in Orange County, where he would contemplate other avenues to creating music.
While juggling jobs in retail and construction, Ferraro familiarized himself with Ableton Live digital audio software and began writing his own music, at first working within the realms of folk and rock. Influenced by artists such as Beach House and Portishead as his learning progressed, Ferraro steered his music toward dream pop while finding a falsetto and laying the groundwork for Astronauts, etc.
“Falsetto probably came as a result of listening to a lot of Bon Iver and stuff that was on the crest of the wave when I started to listen to popular music,” Ferraro says. “I think I’m a little scared of my chest voice. My goal is to venture down there pretty soon.”
After a year in Southern California, Ferraro returned to Berkeley to complete his degree. In the spring of 2012, while working at a Philz Coffee near campus, he had his first encounter with Bundick.
“He had just moved from South Carolina to California and didn’t really know anybody,” Ferraro recalls. “I kind of recognized him. I wasn’t super familiar with Toro’s music at that point, but I knew that I had seen his face around, and I probably heard one or two of his songs. So we just struck up a conversation and decided to go bowling.”
A year later, Bundick invited Ferraro to become a touring member of Toro y Moi for a leg that coincidentally began in Orange County. Ferraro’s family attended.
“Being on the road with Toro y Moi for a couple of years and having gone straight into that from college was a pretty drastic life change, and a really exciting one,” he says, “but one that can throw you for an existential loop, going from city to city sitting in a van or a bus, trying to make sense of your life.”
Ferraro continues to combat the unpredictability of his arthritis. Physically, he can go from being able to sprint to needing a cane to not being able to sit up. He was hit particularly hard with immobility after one tour with Toro y Moi.
“Right now, I actually feel fantastic,” he says. “I haven’t felt this healthy in a while. I’ve been dancing around a bunch of different medications, and I landed on one recently that hopefully is going to turn out to be more permanent … But I’ll say something like that, and then I’ll be totally clotheslined by it a week later.” He laughs, then concludes, “I’m cautious about it.”
After recording Mind Out Wandering near the end of last year, Ferraro’s earlier interest in computer science caught up with him when he fell in with a group of hackers. They were introduced to him through someone his wife’s yoga instructor was dating.
“I ended up speed-teaching myself a couple of programming languages,” he recalls, “and I hacked together this little algorithm called Hypothetical Beats, which was one of several algorithms featured in the first-ever algorithm auction that took place at the Smithsonian Design Museum in late March.”
When Ferraro was adopting and rejecting potential monikers for his musical endeavor, he settled on Astronauts, etc. partly because his friends would refer to him as a space cadet. It also had to do with him wanting to explore different places when it came to the aesthetic of the project and not recognizing boundaries. He admits that there are moments on Mind Out Wandering where he’s aping elements of classical music because it’s been such a big part of his education. But now he wants to move further away from the genre’s structured way of thinking about music as he’s gaining an appreciation for a more open-minded approach.
“The next record, I kind of want to be unrecognizable from this one,” Ferraro says. “I admire artists that end up somewhere new every time and see which of their fans are willing to journey with them from place to place. Astronauts, etc. is sort of a way to say, ‘We’re going to go all over the place,’ and, ‘Come with us if you want.’”