Boom Fernandez is an experimental multi-genre artist based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Under the name Boom chr Paige, Fernandez has been involved in a wide range of musical endeavors, initially as the guitarist of the 90s alternative trio Society Burning, and, since 2003, as a solo act, releasing nearly half a dozen critically acclaimed albums and EPs. Back in May, Fernandez put out his latest solo album, Membranes, which serves as a branching-off point from his last EP, 2015’s House for Serial Killers.
I caught up with Boom to discuss his formative musical environment, his decade-long stint with Society Burning, his new direction with his solo career, as well as what he has assessed about his journey thus far.
You were born on the fourth of July and named Boom, after the boom from fireworks. Having a name like that, did you simply learn to live with it?
Yeah. I think my dad gave me that name, and growing up, I hated it (laughs), but by the time I decided I wanted to be a musician, it stuck out, and it was pretty fitting. I was a big fan of Sting, and liked the idea of having a single name. It was just Boom for a bit, then I added a variation of my middle name, Christopher – with the ‘chr’ – and it just kept growing from there.
It’s cool how you were influenced by Sting, so rock n’ roll was definitely a part of that early exposure. Alongside that, you were also drawn to lots of other types of music as a kid, from disco to jazz to opera. Were you thinking of creating music at this stage, or were you simply absorbing everything you could?
That’s a good question. I feel like I wanted to do that too; it wasn’t just listening. I’d listen to melodies, rhythms, and harmonies and they would click with me, but they would also speak to me in a way that I wanted to make those sounds myself. I was really weird as a musician (laughs). I didn’t want to learn how to play other people’s music as much as I wanted to emulate the feeling that those sounds would give me. That was really the big driver. When I was 11, I started making music once I had a guitar, and I wanted to figure it out and make my own sounds with it.
In 1991, you were part of the band Society Burning, and that was a big time for underground and alternative music. Did being with those guys help shape your musicianship in the same way?
Oh, tremendously! So, I got exposed to a recording studio when I was 15. I saw my jazz teacher play, and thought, “I definitely want to record albums.” When I joined Society Burning, the leader of the band was also a teacher for one of the recording facilities in college. I learned a massive amount just watching over his shoulder, from mixing to song arrangement to experimentation, and things like that, and I came into Society Burning on the avant-garde scale of just making noise. They brought me into the band because I could at least play guitar (laughs), but I was also adding extra elements – like metal, classical, and jazz overtones – to what they were focusing on, which was a Front 242 or Depeche Mode sound. They taught me how to integrate that, and be a little more structured – even though I wouldn’t call it ‘structure’ (laughs). We were an industrial punk band, and weren’t necessarily supposed to follow a specific form. But like you were talking about, the 90s were a time when alternative rock was becoming a more viable sound. Lollapalooza comes about and Nine Inch Nails is in the top ten. Music changed, and it was a good time to allow that stuff.
During that time, you were brought into Society Burning as their guitarist. Aside from them, were you also part of any other bands?
Yeah, there was another band I was part of in college called Your Mother. I’m not sure what we were, but that band was a grunge/punk kind of offshoot. Dave, the leader from Society Burning, actually engineered that session. A couple of months later, he was bumming around campus trying to find a cigarette, and when he found me, he recognized me from that session, so we started chatting. While we were talking, he noticed I had Duran Duran on my table, and he liked that I was into other types of music besides grunge, so that’s how I eventually got into Society Burning.
It’s interesting how before the band was called Society Burning, they were called the Watchmen. Interestingly, it was a popular band name in the early 90s. There was the Watchmen from Canada, who had that song “Boneyard Tree,” and then the Watchmen from Singapore, who had that song “My One and Only.” It’s cool how all three of these bands existed, each with their own identity.
Yeah, definitely! It’s kind of funny how everyone landed on that same name. We were made aware of that when one of the record labels we were appealing to said, “Isn’t this the Canadian Watchmen,” and that must have been around 1992.
Right around the time of their first album!
Yeah. Either way, we didn’t want to potentially have beef with other bands who shared the same name, so we pivoted. One day, Dave was watching the news, heard the phrase ‘society burning’ and just went, “Yup, that works.” I liked it too, especially since we were going towards a more aggressive, loud, and rowdy direction.
On a more serious note, in the mid-90s, you were diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. At this point, you’re remixing for other artists. How was your workflow following your diagnosis, and at what point were you inspired to start a solo career?
That’s another good question. So, the cancer hit me out of the blue, and it took the wind out of the sails as far as performing on stage. It was tiring, and I was living with it for a solid year before any real diagnosis. The record label we were with at the time, Cargo Records, reached out to me and was like, “Hey, could you do remixes for us from your house?” I tried one, and they loved what I’d sent back, so they just kept giving me new mixes to do, and I realized I was getting better at mixing and production. Secondly, I was developing a new sound that didn’t fit into Society Burning, and it wasn’t in that same industrial kind of vein. It was sounding closer to electronic music – something I was more interested in – bigger synths, interesting rhythms…It just ended up sounding different than what I was typically putting out. Also, I didn’t touch the guitar. It was such a weird phase for me. By 1999, I wasn’t working with any Society Burning stuff, so I started producing my own output, and it was definitely coming across as more dance-heavy. I was in the night clubs more often once I had a clean bill of health, after six months of chemotherapy, so I had a whole new lease on life. Dark stuff wasn’t interesting anymore because I’d just been down this dark path – being at the end of my rope, throwing up on the floor, and having many of these terrible moments. So, I started feeling a bit more upbeat, getting into breakbeat types of cuts, loops, and, at that point, working almost exclusively on the computer. I think I pushed myself to go into the studio just for the fun of it – walked in, saw what it was like, and noticed whether the experience changed at all. I had various computer setups – Mac, PC, Ableton, Cakewalk…
Cakewalk! Now that’s a blast from the past!
Yeah, I had them all (laughs).
When faced with those circumstances, it’s not easy to find people who would accommodate you the best they can. Sometimes, you work with a label, you’re diagnosed with a disease, and they’ll say something like, “Pity for you, but we’ve gotta keep this machine rolling!”
Oh, yeah! And Chase from Cargo Records was wonderful with that – closer to a friend than he was a label boss. The bands I got to work with were also absolutely wonderful. Thinking back, I’d made two friends from the band Purr Machine. That was fun, and they’re wonderful people. You get to know those people on a different level, so they actually cared about how I was doing. That was a great environment to be a part of. It was really upstanding people creating works of art, you know?
In 2003, you put out your first solo record, Breakcore Restoration, is that right?
Yeah, and it really wasn’t breakcore; I just like the word (laughs). But yeah, I’d just started going for it – putting stuff out there and pressing limited runs on my own. I didn’t want to appeal to a label at this point. There were so many resources, and you could get onto different services on your own, since the record industry had changed. I didn’t want to go on whether someone approves of one of my tracks or not; I was just going to roll with it. The one downside about not being on the label, though, is not having the benefit of the music getting a bit of a push.
Yeah, you’d have to fend for yourself.
Right, right. It tends to aggravate me a bit. There were these massive lapses before I’d release anything, and then I’d fit it into an album and try to pass it off as one work. That was the only ‘gotcha’ about that era.
So, after you released more stuff, the most recent transition would be from House for Serial Killers, which was 2015, to Membranes, your current album, in 2021. Considering your output altogether, that’s three eras of music. Were you always keen on changing your style as time went on, whether that involved adapting to the shifts in musical climate, or just generally growing as an artist?
I think I’ve been somewhat cognizant of what was going on musically. I mean, I wouldn’t lie to you and say, “I would love to rock out to 150 beats-per-minute bangers, with full, cranked guitars,” but it’s not to say that that isn’t on my mind. But there was one track on there that led me down a certain path – it was “Jailbreak,” and that’s actually the most boring track on the album.
Yeah, I didn’t really care for it, but I like what I had planned, which is to take a journey into a certain space and worry less about, “There’s a verse, there’s a chorus, there’s a verse, there’s a chorus” – that repetition of trying to make it radio friendly. With “Jailbreak,” I laid down a path, and then over time, made the sounds how I wanted to make them, and that was what I wanted to do with Membranes. I wanted that same velocity. I didn’t want any rules, or anyone to recognize any repetitive parts or choruses. I wanted these motions that would move as the piece progressed. Again, the issue with “Jailbreak” is that I kind of lost myself recording it, and it ended up being a six-minute song when it didn’t need to be (laughs). So, that grow-up factor was like, “Let’s make it listenable for someone else, not just me.” Just like I’m sure you’ve felt when you listen to your own music – you listen to it for hours.
Yeah, of course!
Yeah, I mean you can play the same thing over and over and over, right?
It’s interesting how one of the most boring songs ends up changing your direction (laughs). It goes to show that you should always put something out there, because the outcome could be totally unexpected from what you’d initially set for it.
Yeah, you’re spot on with that. I’ve learned over the years that with the stuff you may think isn’t quite there, go for it. Pull yourself into it and give it everything you can, and if you don’t like listening to it, maybe someone else will. Society Burning had a song that I thought was trash by the time it made it onto the record, but people were commenting, “Woah, this is crazy! It’s really cool how you came up with those ideas!” And you’re like, “Ugh, well, yeah.” I would have left the track off the album if I could have (laughs). But don’t be your own critic, right? You’re going to critique yourself plenty, but there’s no reason why you should be your own censor too. Just put it out there, and let people enjoy the reality of it.
Whether people like a song or are indifferent to it, put it out anyway.
Absolutely. Musicians these days have files and files of ideas that can fit into an album. You may come back to them and even reserve them. I’d say take the time, finish the idea, or at least get it to a level of completion, and just roll with it. To that point, I wouldn’t say I hated “Jailbreak” once I finished it, but when hearing it in the context of the other three songs, I was like, “Ugh, yeah, that wasn’t good.” But the thing to do, once you move forward, is to take the ideas you like about that song and apply it to another one. That’s the idea with Membranes.
So, with the instrumental aspects that branched off from “Jailbreak,” another influence for the new album is the progression within the circumstances of Covid. In terms of Membranes coming together, how did all these things synchronize?
Let’s start with the glue of it. First, the main thing was I just wanted to get back out there. With all the time spent in my house, the songs just felt like a document of it in some form. I was listening to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon album at the time, and had this musing of how people don’t listen to full albums anymore; they’d rather just put a bunch of singles on a playlist. I was missing the days of the LP, when you wouldn’t think to put the needle on a certain band of the disc; you’d just let the whole side play, and it calms you down. I would have a format that makes me think in a 20-minute block, basically. I knew that I didn’t want a nonstop 20-minute thing, so I had to break it up. But I had this idea where there were two sides to play with, and I decided on two themes. Since everyone was going through the pandemic, I thought of two mental pictures of what the pandemic looked like to me. There was an early version of it, which was “weird, but kinda hopeful things would end quick,” which was in March of 2020. In the later version of it, which is November, it’s out of control, the death toll is astronomical, people around the world have died, and meanwhile, you’re in a state of numbness about the fact that even more people are going to die. Then, you get curious if you’re also going to die. It was heavy during that time. You’re missing things, and you’re wishing you can do things again. You have two different sides – the hopeful side and the dark side, but there was still a thought of, “Well, hopefully it’ll go away.” Then, it came down to actually cultivating these sounds, and I’d tell my wife to write something down. I always ask my wife about what I’m working on, because she’s a great soundboard and very in tune to what I’m recording. I wanted to write songs for the album without it being a soundtrack to Covid. So, one of those sides would be chipper-ish and I’d want the other side to be kind of dark, but with a hopeful undertone. Then, I’m thinking about these little pockets, where I don’t want to emphasize, “Oh, here’s the song about the death toll,” or, “Here’s the song about the news story.” That was just too obvious, so I was like, “I wonder if I could make a sound that represented fabric going over a bed of nails. What would that sound like?” I’d go into my home studio with that vision in mind – just start putting sounds in and have them not be obvious, but related to that mental image, and just go. I used most everything I wrote, and I actually had to recycle a couple of tracks. “Black Sky” came from earlier chord progressions that I was working on, and “Outside Sarah & David’s” came from while I was staying with my cousins, Sarah and David, in DC. Those two were kind of outliers. But I brought all these tracks together and deciding, “Okay, these fit within the ‘March’ space – side A; they sound kind of off and confusing, but not harsh,” while the dour and heavy songs were for November – side B. It ends up getting lost in some of the concept, but I love the organization of it because each song is independent. I didn’t want to trivialize what the world’s been through, but I also didn’t want to take it too far and come off crass.
What I noticed is that while the rhythmic approach stays consistent, there’s a nuance to it that receives greater emphasis, and that’s the atmosphere of the tracks. It’s a lot more soundscape-based, if that makes sense.
That’s true – that’s absolutely true. It was also an opportunity to be able to reach into chord voicings that I’d learned from my jazz years, but couldn’t really employ unless I was writing jazz. It was more movement-oriented, and when I say ‘movement,’ it wasn’t like, “Oh, here’s the beat, then here’s a rhythm section.” It was like, “Pull that back, and imagine water plinking in the back of a warehouse,” which becomes the rhythm at that point, and then, “What’s next? Maybe a door creaking.” You know, that type of thing. I wanted it to be soundscapes, but not like a sound effects album (laughs). I took it to that point with “Outside Sarah & David’s” with the noises of sirens and cicadas, but that’s the extent of what I’d created as far as emulating real-world sounds. “Above London” was me literally dreaming about flying over Heathrow airport, back when I used to travel, and representing that whole circular motion around the city. I wanted to capture that intense anticipation when you’re going to land, and what that feels like, and turn that into this surreal pattern of what it’s like to circle around London. The goal was to not worry about how things like drums, or compression ducking and other studio tricks, would affect the music. More like, “What’s a sound that someone could really lose themselves in, and not feel nervous that I would yank the rug out from under them?”
Right, and you do a good job of capturing those sentiments, especially that naïve, but jittery and confusing optimism. It really reminded me of how I felt when I first heard of Covid. I initially thought it was simply a China-wide issue, as in “Here’s this thing in China, and I wonder how those Chinese bands I love are going to tour with this going around. Then, I ordered a CD from China, and was wondering whether it was safe to touch, and getting ready to brave it.
Yeah, that’s exactly right! I remember back in the early 2000s when everyone was in a panic about white dust on envelopes, because of Anthrax poisoning. That fear of a global spread of something shows how interconnected we are. I remember making the bad choice of watching that Steven Sodeburgh movie Contagion right when Covid broke out (laughs)! That’ll put you in a different mood, right? But it was both amazing and frightening how spot on it was, like, “Oh my God! We couldn’t stop this thing even if we tried.” And it goes back to like what you were talking about with the CD. I have a question for you, did you manage to get the CD?
Yeah, thankfully everything was okay. When it comes to Membranes expressing that contrast of moods, the dream sequences in the album really brought that out. “Dream Sequence A” is curious, expansive, and has you overwhelmed, but hopeful, while “Dream Sequence B” is bleak, fragmented, and stagnant. You’re not paralyzed, but you feel stuck.
Definitely! It’s cool that you could sense that, and this is something we’re all going through around the world. If you’d gotten all of this in your head, and took away the stipulation about it being a specific style or song, just echoing what’s inside your cranium, that’s what might come out. “Dream Sequence B” is also a place where I explored having really off-kilter drums. I whipped those up in Native Instruments Reaktor, and just let it go. They were kind of going against my sensibilities, but it felt right, like, “This is that harsh state that we’ve been in,” and I wanted to challenge myself to not only materialize that idea, but complete that picture, and wrap it up in a way that kind of leaves you hanging. It goes into “Morning Sequence B,” and I at least relieve the pressure by giving you some repetition, but it’s in that same area where it’s not necessarily scary, but it’s also not comfortable. I took the album in those places very deliberately, and I could think about it very clearly. In March, once my kid was sent home from school, basically for good, I was at a bar with friends, and we were speculating more about what was going to happen with the presidency, rather than with the virus. Then, going into November, we were thinking about how to support local businesses, like, “Let’s not get a Turkey for Thanksgiving; let’s get take out at one of these restaurants.” It’s a whole different vibe and attitude. The first side is aloof, but kind of fun, while the second side is dark and heavy.
All of that goes into not only how you compose the music, but produce it in the same way. Do you feel you’ve improved in your abilities as a visionary?
Right now, I think I’m at a point where I know when to turn something up, and really focus on what I want to achieve sonically. Back in Society Burning, I was plagued with the need to have to do it all, and put everything out front with the remixes and even some of the solo stuff. No focal points, just because I was just going for it, having a good time, and loving the beats that I’d created. With this album it’s all about, “Let’s make a point, focus on that point, and make certain that it comes through.” I’d like to think that I’ve grown into that – just a lot of trial and error, going for it, and thinking about what I’ve done. It’s one thing to be plugging away and putting sounds down, but I think going back and reflecting on that, and also writing things to get them out of you so that you could enjoy them again, that’s the way.
How do you feel after making Membranes?
I honestly feel quite a bit of relief because, like we were talking about, I didn’t end up writing a Covid album. I’m 100 percent certain that if I picked it up two years from now, I’d never put it back on. I don’t think I’d want to relive 2020 and 2021 ever again, but I wanted to write something that was impactful and full of depth that I would listen to it in the future and enjoy it, and be able to listen all the way through. Like I’d mention, I want the experience to be like an LP – something to play fully and enjoy. That’s what I set out for, and it makes me want to write another album, I’ll tell you that.
Putting your career into perspective, what have you learned about yourself, both as a musician and as a person?
I learned that I like immediacy and urgency. I like those aspects to be a part of the experience, so it’s less about polishing a certain frequency or making a certain concept picture-perfect, as long as you’re honest with yourself. The other day, I put on the Miles Davis song “So What.” When you listen, you’ll notice that the right channel in the recording is distorted and overdriven, but it doesn’t matter; it’s still a great track (laughs)! So, that’s something that I maybe dove too far down the producer/engineer realm and tried to make it more immaculate, but I actually don’t like that. I don’t like the “push-play-and-loop” ideology. I like the imperfections, the tweaky bits, and the off-kilter rhythms, because it sounds human to me. I like to monkey around with things and make sounds like something’s on the verge of breaking, because that’s what’s in the soul of this type of electronic music. It’s complicated with a computer – in all of its perfection – to emulate the real world, and that can end up ruining some of the sounds you’re trying to create, but immediacy and urgency helps that process. I like there to be a lot of heart in things, that people can be engaged with their full emotion. It works on both sides of the coin, because that’s how I like my life. I don’t want to be a casual passenger to this world – to watch things, take them for granted, and float onto the next day. I want to be an active part of it. Whether it’s heavy, sad, uplifted, or overjoyed, I want to feel all of that. This journey has definitely taken me further into my own livelihood. I’m taking what’s thrown at me, making the most out of every situation, and not feeling afraid of my emotions.
That’s really good! Lastly, anything you’d like to say to your fans?
Thank you for putting up with all my shit over the years (laughs)! I’ve got people who stuck with me through some of the weirdest times. If you’ve been interested in what I’ve been doing up to this point, as long as my brain still works, I have every intention to keep kicking out sounds like this. The goal is to keep exploring how I feel, and if my music has something about it that you feel too, then call me up. Let’s get coffee (laughs).
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