“This is tough. Let me think about that for a moment.” Dominick Fernow falls silent. He’s struggling to conceive whether criticism of his latest record, Frozen Niagara Falls, will be at all relevant to his art. “Of course I care, but it’s a hard thing to understand…” Silence again.
His guttural timbre slowly builds as he phrases and rephrases his answer. “Well, let’s put it another way,” he restarts with intrepidity, “when my friend Function finally completed his first album he said there would be a lot of criticism and he welcomed that because it was nothing that he personally hadn’t felt or thought of before. And I thought that was a very true statement.”
Self-negating and brazenly frank, Fernow ruminates over the importance of an artist’s role in art itself. “If you actually consider art practice in itself, it’s really not very special,” he says with assertion. “There’s no shortage of artists. It doesn’t really mean anything to be an artist. It’s more how you relate with your audience. People hide behind this idea that just because they’re an artist somehow, their work has value in itself. I don’t accept that. Art really only has value after the audience determines its value.”
Verging on twenty years active, Fernow has both singlehandedly and collaboratively canonised New York’s noise and power electronics scene. His back catalogue is an uncompromising matrix of limited edition cassettes and seven inches. Performing under diametrical bynames including Vatican Shadow, Rainforest Spiritual Enslavement, Tortured Hooker, Exploring Jezebel and his most realised project, Prurient, Fernow’s mushrooming international fanbase has spored from Brooklyn basement shows to Boiler Room livestreams. His work ethic seems infinite, unsatisfied and omnivorous.
“I wouldn’t say that being prolific is a good trait.” Fernow blurts a controlled cackle. “It’s kind of a dirty word in
relation to music. There’s this kind of discrepancy because music has to do with manufacturing and distribution of a product versus making one of something. It’s an interesting contradiction if you think about it. How does one quantify art when we’re pressing thousands upon thousands of copies of the same record?”
Yet Fernow’s unyielding index of releases doesn’t come from any sense of pride or lack of restraint. He only writes when he is struggling; both creatively and internally. Prurient’s last studio album Bermuda Drain was a derisive departure from the clamour and discord of his earlier work, opting to realign the structural format of pop music contained in the parameters of experimental techno.
Two years on, Fernow’s struggles with Frozen Niagara Falls were almost cataclysmic. “The record spawned out of fear and anxiety that we had nothing to present,” he admits. “It really only came together in the final moments. I was even calling the label about not knowing what we had. They didn’t hear anything until the last minute. So the entire time we were working, they just had to take my word for it that something was happening.”
Fernow is first to say that his most recent release is “unmanageable, unlistenable and demanding”. It’s an obstinate heave of dissonance riddled with Carpenter- esque synth lines. Yet through this constant dualism comes a balance that could be regarded as Prurient’s most cumulative work to date. “In the past I’ve made records out of bad periods as some sort of way to deal with something that’s happened.” Fernow is animated yet sincere. “Not in a cathartic way but in a transformative way. To try and take that kind of negative energy and do something creative with it. Whereas this particular record was something that in itself was a kind of crisis.
“It was like the whole absence of a point, a nihilistic absence saying what does it mean to be an artist and who gives a damn,” Fernow declares. “The crux of the crisis itself was me asking why the fuck am I doing this? So this project took so long because I was unable to realise that unlike the past, where I was defeatist and had Prurient as the outlet, the actual process of creating this record was defeatist.”
￼"There’s a lot of value in love and death"
The actual process saw Fernow move back to New York from Los Angeles. Here, he began re-establishing his perception of the city he made his name in. “Moving back was like seeing your ex-partner and they just don’t look that hot anymore,” Fernow laughs facetiously. Yet this was not the archetypal idea of an artist fastened to the concept of nostalgia. “It’s this brutal reality of facing age and time. Nostalgia’s a very dangerous thing. I had to accept that all relationships, be it personal, sexual or geographic have one common denominator and that’s you. It’s one’s self.”
Fernow argues that rather than feeling like a victim of circumstance, you have to take responsibility over your actions. This viewpoint expands to the city Fernow’s music seems tied to. “The disfunction of cities is what brings them greatness,” he continues. “New York is a small place and that’s part of why it’s so terrible. But the congestion is actually its strength and its power. At some point it’s a mathematical equation based on what will happen. If you take enough people, ram them in to this prison cell, something is going come out of that whether you like it or not. It’s a universal truth. That took time to understand. The whole discomfort and misery and suffocation and the oppression of this city is also why it’s a great place to get things done and to work. It’s a demanding lover that calls you at the worst moment.”
These sentiments can be embodied in a single line from Frozen Niagara Falls’ A Sorrow With a Braid, “What you remember isn’t the way it was.” Fernow grows excited by the connection. “When I was editing those lyrics there’s a whole section about the need to destroy nostalgic pretences and that’s exactly the essence of what I’m trying to communicate.”
In the liner notes of Frozen Niagara Falls is a list of recommended reading on the topic of love and death. Beneath this list is the phrase, ‘The boundaries of love are not limited to the flesh’. In Fernow’s most recent struggles and successes, is this his closing avowal for Prurient as we currently know it? Fernow pauses again, ensuring every word is as imperative as the last.
“There’s a lot of value in love and death. We take great lengths to hide death from our world. We put makeup on people when they’re dead to make them look like they’re alive. You go to the grocery store where our meats are very cleaned and packaged. We don’t like to see things get killed. We don’t like to see people suffering. Out of sight, out of mind. That line is a battle cry for the human spirit, but it also intrinsically addresses our fragility and the kind of hopelessness of our situation.
“We have to die but we’re cursed by this idea of consciousness,” he argues. “As for Prurient, I certainly hope this isn’t the end, or even the best Prurient record, because then the game is over and I’ll just have to throw myself into Niagara Falls.”
Frozen Niagara Falls is out now via Profound Lore