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Trampoline’s Pat Ferrise would probably feel self-conscious about his music and image even if he were not the music director and a DJ at WHFS (99.1 FM), Baltimore and Washington’s modern-rock behemoth. After all, on Trampoline’s two CDs, 1994’s Dormer and the brand new I Want One of Everybody, and even on a recent split 7-inch, Ferrise doesn’t show his face. Instead, he coyly flirts with the camera, posing with his back turned or playing peekaboo with one or both hands covering his mug.
But precisely because Ferrise plays a powerful role at HFS, helping weed through hundreds of records each week as well as spinning the tunes himself on weekend afternoons, his shyness tends to be accentuated. Friends, music writers, and others always want to talk about the station. Reviewers tag Trampoline as “the pop band led by WHFS DJ Pat Ferrise.” And the low-key Ferrise, with a penchant for self-deprecating jokes, nervous laughter, and Austin Grill’s lime cilantro dressing, simply wants to keep the two sides of his life separate.
Of course, that’s hard to do. Not everyone will let him. There are those turned off by HFS’s embrace of the decidedly nonalternative (Dave Matthews Band, Blues Traveler) and the decidedly mediocre (Alanis Morissette, Stone Temple Pilots) who cast a skeptical eye on a DJ’s band. They wouldn’t if they met him: With a singsong voice and a tendency to enunciate every syllable and to dissolve the end of sentences into gales of laughter, Ferrise is a model of grace and good humor.
“I like my job, but there’s a certain amount of baggage that comes attached,” Ferrise explains over enchiladas and margaritas at the Glover Park restaurant. “I think for people who are really preoccupied with the whole indie ethic, there’s some baggage there. But there’s nothing I can do about that, and I really don’t care. If I cared, it wouldn’t make any difference anyway.
“I totally try to downplay that,” he says. “I don’t know why I’m so self-conscious about that. It’s goofy. I can make fun of myself for it now. Well, I mean, I know why I’m self-conscious. I want them both to be their own thing. I don’t want it to be, ‘Hey, it’s the DJ guy having a record out.’ They’re really two different things. There’s something different about listening to music and trying to pick it out for other people, [compared with] writing your own songs and doing whatever you want to.”
Ferrise throws on his best British accent and does Spi¬nal Tap’s Nigel Tufnel. “So it’s similar, yet different in that way.”
But if the indie purists turn up their noses, they’ll miss what will assuredly rank among the year’s finest pop records. They’ll also miss the point. Ferrise probably has more ties to the D.C. indie-pop scene than just about anyone. He helped compile the Give Me the Cure benefit album, last year’s excellent collection of local bands covering their favorite Cure songs for AIDS research. And someone from practically all of D.C.’s best bands has played on Ferrise’s two records. The honor roll includes Poole’s Harry Evans and Jeff Booth, Edsel’s Sohrab Habibion and Geoff Sanoff, Girls Against Boys’ Eli Janney, Fugazi producer Ted Niceley, and members of Chisel, New Wet Kojak, and Manifesto.
A major advance from the somewhat sleepy Dormer, Everybody is loaded with unabashedly melodic pop, some masterful minor-chord melancholy, and a broader palette of emotions, textures, and instruments. Ferrise’s vocals are crisp and confident, light years from his radio voice’s often dour deadpan. With producer Rich Costey (Swirlies, Lilys) manning the boards, there are more keyboards and high-tech loops here, like the one that ends “95 Degrees.” A slide guitar lights up the chorus of “Thunder Invites Summer In,” while “Send the Letter Back” offers splendid acoustic sadness. And in an ideal world, “Coronado,” with its chorus of “Who she loves I don’t know/But she comes and she goes all the time,” would be the summer’s beach-blanket hit.
“I wanted to get away from the folksy sound of the first record,” Ferrise explains. “I really like music like that, but I didn’t want to make just another folksy-sounding record. So I actually got an acoustic guitar and rocked out. Rich is really into the whole technology thing, while I’ve always been kind of afraid of that. When someone says ‘keyboard,’ I think of the worst connotation, like some really bad Kraftwerk imitation. But he had some really good ideas that really changed the kilter of some of the songs.
“The last record was kind of haphazard,” he says. “And that was kind of neat. It had its cute quality. But I like records that have a similar feel to them, a consistency of mood and texture. REM’s Murmur is like that. So’s [Pavement’s] Slanted and Enchanted. I wasn’t trying to imitate those records”—he lets out a loud laugh—“All right, I was trying to imitate them completely. Sometimes you do something and just immediately say, ‘What a rip-off. Who am I kidding?’ Then all you have to do is think about Oasis. You feel a lot better.” He laughs even louder.
So while Ferrise tried to give his second record a distinctive new feel, he didn’t succeed at putting together one fixed cast of musicians as he had hoped. Instead, he assembled a shifting roster of indie-rock illuminati.
“I pay them well,” he cracks. “I’d rather be in a full-man band with other people. But it’s just never worked out that way. I’ve been playing music for the last 10 years, and it’s always just been me. I don’t know if subconsciously I just can’t get it together with other people, or what. But it’s always easier to just find people that have some time and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got some songs. Let’s get together.’ I’m half-baked at best on a lot of instruments. I always thought I was lucky to snag other people that are better at playing their instruments than me. It’s hard for people to resist the temptation of going into a recording studio.”
Ferrise included. He’s been living in radio and recording studios ever since his days at West Virginia University, where he did college radio and played in a series of bands. (One of them, Esmerelda’s Happy Cafe, was entered in a late-’80s Snickers New Music Contest by one of Ferrise’s friends and ended up a finalist. The winning song then appeared on a compilation with other victors including…a young Hootie and the Blowfish.) He came to HFS after graduating in 1989, and started work at the station part-time.
Put him on the spot, however, and Ferrise seems to enjoy playing music more than his higher-profile job of selecting and spinning songs. “I knew you were going to ask me that,” he says, smiling. “It’s kind of like I said before. I think things are always more interesting when you get to be directly involved. When you’re writing songs and you get to be in the studio, that’s so much fun. That’s not to say it isn’t fun listening to other people’s music. Both jobs are active, but I think one is more creative.”
Ferrise admits that he can’t always play his favorite songs on the air. (Danielle Howle, the Apples in Stereo, the Lilys, Magnetic Fields, and the Spinanes are among his favorite acts.) He quietly adds that he doesn’t necessarily like everything he plays. (His deadpan delivery, however, more puncturing than that of MTV’s Kennedy, makes his shows eminently worthwhile. Here’s Ferrise introducing a new Alice in Chains song: “They did one of those Unplugged things for MTV, and now they’re making an album out of it. There you go.”)
Although he doesn’t like to talk about it, it’s clear Ferrise loves both his jobs. But when he calls back the next day to talk more about how indie fans might view his band because he works for HFS, it’s clear that he cares a little more than he lets on.
“It’s hard. I feel about it,” he says. “I used to be one of those indier-than-thou people. It’s not for me. It’s self-righteous, pretentious, and adolescent.” And, he suggests, irrelevant.
“[Edsel’s] Steve Raskin doesn’t tell people he’s an award-winning graphics designer. The people in Jawbox all have neat jobs that they don’t talk about,” he says.
Ferrise could be even busier this summer if a planned Trampoline tour comes together. Then there’s an upcoming cover of Suzanne Vega’s “Cracking” and another for a Patsy Cline tribute. After that, Ferrise will start thinking about recording a third record—which probably still won’t sound like anything played on the radio.
“I’ve thought about that,” he laughs. “And I’ve decided it’s going to sound just like Pearl Jam.” CP