By Margaret Welsh
Pittsburgh Current Music Editor
You won’t find many bands in town like Feralcat and the Wild, or frontmen like saxophonist Roger Rafael Romero. The six-piece plays a high-energy blend of proggy arena rock and heavy jazz fusion, while also drawing plenty from free jazz and underground art-punk. Supported by a skilled ensemble of musicians on guitars, keys, bass and drums, Romero’s saxophone takes the place of a traditional vocalist.
It’s certainly not unheard of for the saxophone to be front and center (especially in the jazz world), but more often, it’s relegated to support status. Romero wants to change the way listeners think about improvisational sax.
“l wanted the whole vibe of being a frontman but without having to sing,” Romero says in a phone conversion in mid June. “I see a lot of jazz musicians as my heroes, and so I still see saxophone at the forefront of a lot of instrumental music that I care about.” It’s not just that his instrument stands in for a voice. A dynamic and engaging presence (for proof, Google some live performances), Romero plays his saxophone like it’s a part of him.
He mentions Christian Scott, a New Orleans-based trumpeter who melds jazz with hip-hop and rock as an influence: “[He’s] super fashionable and ridiculously intelligent and thoughtful, methodical when it comes to approaching music.” Romero also found direction watching concert footage of jazz-fusion artists of the ‘70s and ‘80s, and of icons like Freddie Mercury and Prince.
“The energy was so different from one to the other, even though it’s the same number of people [in the audience] and the same kind of stage,” Romero says. “I see front-people and I want to do that, and I see these guys who play super intelligently and super artistically on their instruments and I want to do that. So it just kind of made sense to do them together.”
On the band’s Facebook page, Romero describes the desire to break out of the pigeon-holing of his early days as a musician, playing, as he puts it, “seated jazz concerts for adults.” Feralcat and the Wild, by contrast, is music meant for dancing, or maybe even moshing.
But moshing, in public at least, is currently on hold. Feralcat and the Wild were all set to tour this past spring, with a stop at SXSW. When that was canceled, “I lost quite a bit of motivation,” Romero admits. Without being able to collaborate with his bandmates, he, like many artists in quarantine, began to turn inward, writing music on his own.
He’s still writing for the band. But he’s also been writing for himself, under the name “Feralcat,” and his Bandcamp page is full of experiments and short, intimate pieces that feel like pages torn from a journal.
“I kind of wanted to make it this really obvious trial-and-error for me. I don’t want to pretend like the things I’m putting up there are finished products.” The titles of the pieces reflect that work-in-progress feel: “onmylove.f3ralcat,” “witheringrose[addsax].f3ralcat.” In a way, these are notes Romero is writing to himself, in case he wants to eventually go back to make more polished versions. For now, though, he says, “instead of going back and fixing something I’ve done before, I’m like, ‘Oh, I’m going to make something else.
“Like, here’s where I am now, and then here’s me yesterday, or two days ago, and its little snippets for what’s going on in my brain.”
First, Romero makes a beat that he considers serviceable (he’s emphatic about not being an actual beatmaker), then uses it as a canvas for improvisation. “With the saxophone I get limited in my range of motion …I can really only play one note at a time.” With home recording, he can take that single voice and reproduce it, layering the sound into something new.
Romero grew up in New Jersey and moved to Pittsburgh to study materials engineering at CMU. But he was always driven by music. Over the years he’s steadily dug himself a place in the Pittsburgh music community. For a time he worked as a server at the now-closed James Street Gastropub and Speakeasy, where he was exposed to a constant stream of live performance. “I loved getting to see so much live music, [seeing] legends like Roger Humphries playing jazz [then] going down in the Speakeasy and seeing a punk show… it felt like both my worlds were mixing when I was there.”
These days Romero teaches music full time via two different non-profits, Hope Academy, in East Liberty, where he gives private lessons, and Center of Life in Hazelwood, where he’s the assistant jazz program coordinator.
He knows the local scene well, and recently went semi-viral with some playful but nonetheless scathing Twitter jokes about the way Black artists are treated in Pittsburgh.
“Pittsburgh about to be like, ‘Love Everyone and End Racism: Rusted Root, Buffalo Rose, and Livefromthecity’ sponsored by Walnut Capital, Gentrifiers Anonymous, and the entire East Liberty Farmers Market,” he tweeted on June 11.
Romero was surprised by the number of likes and retweets: Tweeting, he says, usually feels like sending thoughts into the void. And he felt kind of bad about mentioning specific artists by name for the sake of a joke. “But,” he adds, “I think there’s something to be said about how that tweet gained traction ….if there wasn’t any element of truth to it, people wouldn’t be retweeting it.” Quite often, the kinds of events he was making fun of — nominally intended to celebrate Black artists and unity in the music scene — are organized by gentrifying forces that are simultaneously pushing Black residents out of their communities.
And, Romero says, there’s an element of disrespect in the way Black artists in the city are treated, “when you’re kind of lumped on a bill where musically it doesn’t make sense ….and that happens pretty frequently. So that was kind of the takeaway from those tweets, and that’s kind of what i was trying to exemplify.”