FERALCAT FINDS FOOTING AS BONA FIDE FRONTMAN
By Erika June Christina Laing
Originally published on First Angel Media ~ 06.01.19
Roger Romero is a man of the sax. During his solos, the twenty-six-year old goes into a zone, becomes a part of the soundscape. His tight dark curls form a tidy mop that springs as he gesticulates, his horn like another limb of his body. Behind his clear-framed glasses his eyes are shut tight. His fingers fly, rippling the muscles in his forearms. You can see that he is feeling his way around the space of the music, caressing the edges, stepping out and then back inside.
“How did you do that?” people ask him later.
“Ask the guy who did it twenty minutes ago,” he says, “I don’t actually know.”
You may have seen Roger play, either in his first big Pittsburgh band East End Mile, or in myriad other groups or open stages where he frequently appears as a guest star. He laughs and dances during the songs, dipping in and out of those magical musical zones. He is on stage all the time, but never in the center, never the front man.
“I’m like this mystery figure,” he says, “I’m just this guy playing the saxophone, but you don’t really know him.”
That’s about to change because all this time Roger has actually been incubating, gestating something secret and special. A year ago, he began to take action, working under veils to capture his artistic persona and transform it into a beastly sound he calls Feralcat. His voice is one that has been transmuted into instrument. It is practically lyrical in its quality, stepping up front the way a vocalist would. He composed the entire album himself, producing it with his talented younger brother Hansel and recruiting some of his favorite local musicians to perform and record the six tracks on the self-titled Feralcat debut album. The music is a unique blend of jazz fusion and prog rock that will take you away to another land with pivoting musical directions that create journey through song. Soaring instrumental melodies contrast with heavy guitar rhythms to bring together tones of darkness and light, depth and playfulness. In its freest state, Feralcat is a roving, seeking, and feisty being, but at this moment it is trapped and clawing at the walls of its confinement until its release on June 1st at Mr. Smalls Theatre in Pittsburgh, PA.
The album is a study in melding the many facets of Roger’s character. He is a second generation American with origins in the Dominican Republic, a seasoned jazz musician, a degree-holding materials engineer, a writer, an afterschool program teacher, co-creator of The Attic Music Group, and a self-professed nerd of video games and pop culture. Musically, his influences are all over the map.
“I’m a jazz musician who loves metal and hardcore music and at the same time I really get down with R&B, hip hop, soul and I love bumping to dance and trap music. There’s [all these] pockets of me.”
The foundation of his musicality began before he was even born.
“My Dad was sort of a pop star in the Dominican Republic in the seventies,” Roger says, “In the sixties and seventies, rock was just coming out in the States and the Dominican Republic was way late, so they were the first rock group that was kind of like The Beatles for their age. They were all fourteen and fifteen-year-old kids.”
Roger says his father Rafael played thousands of shows across the Caribbean nation, beauty pageants and anything that young people were excited about.
“Because they were the only real rock group in the Dominican Republic at the time, they got a lot of opportunities to perform around the country even at that age.”
Unlike many young people who would be lured by the fame, young Rafael Romero had bigger dreams than pop stardom and decided to go to college to study architecture. However, music still held part of his destiny. At that time, deep unrest permeated the citizens as they lived under the presidency of Joaquin Balaguer, a shrewd and indomitable political figure who was hated for ruling the country in a repressive and brutal manner that resembled his dictatorial predecessor, the ruthless Trujillo. Roger’s father used music to express his dissent. When Balaguer shut down the university for a year, he took it on the road.
“He was in this rebellious folk fusion group that toured around the country and stemmed from the college,” Roger tells me. His father was the band’s director, singing and playing guitar.
“It was really pretty important for the time because college kids tend to be the rebellious youth that gives voice to a generation.”
It was through this group that Roger’s father met his future wife, Lucia.
“My mom was hired as a studio violinist. She used to teach violin and performed on it when she was younger. The band went on a series of show dates and tours with the string section and that’s how they met.”
Soon after, the young couple moved to the United States to pursue a different life for themselves.
“Neither of them wanted to be professional musicians,” Roger explains, “They had their professions that they wanted, but they’d always been around music and loved it a lot. My mom’s dad was a professional musician that toured between the United States and the Dominican Republic in salsa bands, so she was back and forth between the states and the DR for most of her young life. She went back for college. She knew she wanted to live in the United States and my dad just kind of followed.”
They started out where a lot of Dominican immigrants land, New York City.
“There was a section of New York called Washington Heights and that’s where I spent probably the first six or seven months of my life. Then we moved to the Bronx where there’s also a heavy Dominican population.”
Roger says his parents kept the family moving out and up.
“They were straight American Dream all the way through,” he says.
Eventually they moved to New Jersey where his brothers were born. The hard-working couple, Rafael now a special ed elementary school teacher and Lucia a school psychologist, scrimped and stretched so that they could move to a suburb where Roger and his brothers would have the best education possible, but they never lost their Latin roots. Now, like so many second-generation Americans, Roger straddles the border of two cultures.
“There are elements that are unique to me sometimes that I don’t even recognize,” he says, “I notice it more living in Pittsburgh where I’m not surrounded by Latino culture at all.”
He fondly recalls that when he was growing up, especially during his time in New York and as a school student in the Bronx, going out dancing with his family was a regular part of life.
“Salsa, meringue, bachata,” he says, a thrilling zest of Spanish briefly embodying his accent. “It’s not [even like] you “go out” dancing. That’s just always the activity that’s always there, and always loud ass music all the time, on the streets and everything.”
Once he was living in the suburbs, American culture became an increasing part of his life. After the age of six, he almost exclusively spoke English and most of his friends were non-Latino kids from the area. Together they loved video games and Pokemon and listened to all types of music.
“I just grew up an American, you know, I didn’t grow up Dominican. There’s a lot of elements of the [Dominican] culture that I don’t have. I feel ostracized from some of my family or community for [that]. And then there’s elements of things that I [do] have from that culture that makes me sometimes feel ostracized [as an American].”
It is a kind of dichotomous identity issue that is common to second-generation Americans, who often report a feeling that they don’t quite fit in anywhere. On top of that, Roger faced the typical struggles of a youth with an eccentric personality.
“There were early elements of me trying to express a certain individuality that I remember getting bullied for in middle and high school,” he says. “I was just a band geek and a nerd, so I did well in class, and I went to band right away. I didn’t really click very well with a lot of people and I always just found myself in the fringes, which was, in hindsight, probably the best because I met interesting people.”
Roger and his two brothers, Hansel and Allan, grew up to be a distinctive crew, a trio of handsome lads each with their own style, and all award-winning musicians. Like baldness, the desire to live a professional musical life seems to have skipped a generation in the Romero family.
Roger beams with pride as he tells me, “Hansel is an incredible arranger, vocalist, producer, and mixing engineer.” These are talents Roger leaned on in the creation of his Feralcat album, which he hopes will bring some attention to his brother’s considerable prowess as a producer.
And Allan? He is a touring member of the world class competitive drum and bugle corps, The Cadets. “They’re bad ass,” Roger says, “He plays euphonium in that band, which he taught himself by the way. He’s a tenor saxophone player but he taught himself euphonium so he could play in The Cadets. That’s insane to me. [He’s] like the only person who can do that!”
Roger says his parents have only been a source of encouragement along the way.
“They’ve never had an agenda for [us]. There was never a, “you need to be a doctor, you need to be an engineer, you need to be a lawyer.” My parents were always super supportive of music. They would take us everywhere, came to all of our concerts and all of our competitions. And they knew! They knew all of all of us were good at this. There wasn’t ever a shred of doubt.”
Still, all three excelled academically as well, and continue to be determined workers in all endeavors they set their minds to.
“We put a lot of that pressure on ourselves actually because [we knew] that even though we lived in an upper-middle-class neighborhood, my parents were swimming in debt. There is a whole lifestyle that they can’t necessarily have, but [that] we have the opportunity to have as young Americans with our whole lives ahead of us. And so I had always put that pressure on myself to succeed in some way that’s financially stable.”
Though Roger has a degree in engineering from Carnegie Mellon University, and worked at PPG for a time after college, he now considers that career more of a safety net.
“I know I can find a job that’s stable and that I can be in an industry and support myself that way.”
But he probably won’t need to. In college, he additionally acquired a minor in music that has afforded him ample skill and opportunity for musician work post-graduation, from performance to teaching. It is also where he started recording his own compositions and learned the ins and outs of putting together arrangements of musicians to get the kinds of sounds he wanted, a skill that has come in handy as he gathered the talent for his current solo debut. The album features his former East End Mile bandmate, Caleb Lombardi, on keys, as well as Brandon Lehman and Drew Bayura on guitar, Chris Trepagnier on bass, and Allen Bell on drums. Recorded by Drew, produced and mixed by his brother Hansel, mastered by Kris Crummett, and with artwork by Felipe Arenas, Roger fully acknowledges how many talented minds came together to turn his dream into reality.
“It’s weird calling this a solo project because I’ve worked with a lot of people to get this vision out. I want to make it clear that this is my baby, like I put all the elements together, [but] I had a producer, a mixing engineer, and a mastering engineer. I had people playing my parts and making suggestions to my arrangements, and I took all of those because I’m looking to make the best sound, not necessarily to make and approve of every little bit that happens. Part of producing this record has been bringing people in that I thought could elevate the music beyond what I thought was best.”
Feralcat is like a thesis that expresses the amalgamation of who Roger is at this moment, but it’s also a distinct form somewhat separate from himself. Through Feralcat, Roger exposes his identity by melding the musical genres within him and by challenging himself to take the helm as a front man. He even playfully explores his singular sense of fashion. In promotional materials he is depicted with a penetrative gaze, friskily baring his chest, a ten o’clock shadow cast across his face.
“I don’t subvert myself to a traditional male masculinity model,” he says. “I associate more along the lines of Prince with a little bit more fluidity. It’s not man or woman. It’s more like, I want to be me in a sense that I can wear makeup and I can be a certain type of person that is not describable in one way or another. I just want to be me and a part of me loves being a little bit like a sexy Prince vibe, but also, you know, talking about Pokemon.”
Roger says he likes the challenge of simultaneously portraying his dorky and seductive sides. “I can be a sexy nerd and I can be a band geek who loves to talk about John Coltrane for hours. Then at the same time I’ll go salsa dancing or something. You can be all of these things, at least in my head. I’m just allowing myself to be all of these things.”
In spite of all this exposure, Roger considers himself an introvert. Out in public, he is comfortable hanging by himself in the back of the room, observing the world around him, but through Feralcat he highlights aspects of himself that he does not often reveal to the world. These are just some of the reasons he chose to use a moniker for the project rather than his name.
“I wanted a “Childish Gambino, Donald Glover” kind of situation where my artistic persona is Feralcat, but if I wanted to do anything else creatively or be a sideman, I’d be credited with my own name. I’m establishing Feralcat as a very particular artistic identity. I can expand on that, I can be more than that, but when I’m on stage playing that music, I’m Feralcat.”
“And where did the name come from?” I ask.
“Cat is what jazz musicians call each other. It’s like slang, “Hey, what’s up? This cat’s real good. I’m playing with all these cool cats,” and feral because I kind of feel like an outsider, a little bit lonely in my own musical direction.”
Roger says that when he arrived in the city, he felt it was difficult to crack into the jazz scene in particular.
“There was no particular discrimination against me as a jazz musician in the city, but there’s young people being propelled because of a certain lineage, and established musicians in Pittsburgh that didn’t really accept me. There was no sense of, “oh let’s help this young musician grow.” It always just felt competitive. I felt very out of place playing in the jazz community in Pittsburgh, so the feral part of it is me owning that. “I am the outsider and now you better respect it.””
The Pittsburgh music scene is burgeoning in all genres and as such is experiencing various growing pains, one of which is a concomitant cliquey nature that insidiously draws lines around groups of musicians, lifting some while suppressing others. A few local artists aim to effect change from within by attempting to reach outside these borders through collaboration. One such group is the band of intergalactic space funk luminaries, Starship Mantis. They are the other act that will be playing at the Feralcat album release party.
In an unusual tactic, the party is actually a double album release as Starship Mantis will be celebrating a new record of their own, their sophomore creation, “Black Hole Radio AM/FM”. With their danceable pop-funk grooves and intelligent musicality, Starship Mantis is experiencing a meteoric rise in popularity. They seem to use their growing clout to support minority artists whenever they can. Beni Rossman, bassist for Starship Mantis, was eager to share his perspective.
“Pittsburgh’s music scene is as segregated as it’s community,” says Beni. “There’s so much buzz about “the future of the scene” and how we can “change it” but those questions rarely ever incorporate the sentiments of minority artists living here.”
Beni says the real question is how to give those artists a better platform to showcase their art.
“Women and people of color creating genuine and contemplative art are barely given the time of day by the media and most performance venues. I very firmly believe that collaboration across genres and groups is the best way to break the cycle and that using any platform of privilege to make a musical experience better and more diverse is a no-brainer.”
He adds, “Roger is an artist that I’m fortunate to call a friend and to have seen grow as a musician and I’m proud and honored to share the evening with him and his debut musical experience.”
Roger’s goal is similarly for the benefit of others, hoping that with this record he might inspire people to step out and boldly make the unique music that moves within their souls.
“I’m really just trying to open up space for people to open their minds and think, “Hey wait, the saxophone can do that? I’ve never heard that with heavy metal behind it.” [You hear it] and then you’ve opened up your mind. Maybe a trumpet player can play with a Klezmer band or something. All these genres are mixing together anyway. The music or art that you make should always be straightforward and true from you, rather than something you feel like you should make.”
As for Roger’s future, he hopes to dig in deep with tours and the whole musician experience, but his ultimate dream is to come back from those experiences and become a music professor at a university. Akin to his father, fame is not necessarily his goal.
“I don’t want to be sucked into the music industry and be another cog of someone else’s mind or production. I want to have my name be synonymous with hard work and individuality, not fame. If I’m famous, it’s because I’m known as an artist who stuck to his guns.”
So far, so good. The Feralcat album is musically an exquisite snapshot of a cross-section of Roger as he is today, authentic to his history and vulnerable to his future. It is completed by his own methods and with the people around him that he admires and who have helped him grow. It is exactly the achievement he set out to conquer, the risk he challenged himself to take. It could lift off or it could crash and burn, but at the end of the day he says, “There should always be a next time you get up on stage.” Rest assured, there will be many such days, and probably as Feralcat too, because amid all the sweat and tears poured into the album there is a thread of genuine ingenuity. Feralcat is more than just another sax-driven jazz record; it is a someone and a something, and it is entirely new.
WATCH & LISTEN:
Feralcat’s First Music Video – Castle Song
Photo Credit: Nicolette Kalafatis