By Ian S. Port
By Tony Ware
By Emma Silvers
By Gary Moskowitz
By Alee Karim
By Ian S. Port
By Ian S. Port
By Derek Opperman
There aren't many rockin' role models for Filipino-American musicians. Among the few are guitarist Kirk Hammett from Metallica (he's one-quarter Filipino), axeman Joey Santiago of the Pixies, the Brothers Baluyut from Versus, and all the members of S.F. thrash metal band Death Angel. It's not a huge trough to drink from, which Ron Ramos, guitarist/songwriter for local indie band the Skyflakes, says is not that surprising.
"A lot of Filipino culture is defined through hip hop, which is kind of different from other Asians in America," says Ramos. "When we grew up, it was all hip hop; there were no bands and nobody played instruments. ... We were the only people we knew who grew up listening to the Smiths and the Cure."
Such influences have served Ramos and the Skyflakes well. The group has become one of the Bay Area's best indie rock secrets, with a sound that mixes seriously catchy riffs and sweet vocals with a disturbing lyrical undertow. The quintet's new CD, Calling in Sick, harkens back to the touchstones of altrock, yet still carves a course that's fresh. But for all the band's achievements, the Skyflakes would never have come to pass if a couple of hardcore punks from the Philippines hadn't been forced to immigrate to South San Francisco.
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In 1989 Jesse and Ogie Gonzales were teenagers living with an aunt in Marikina City, playing in a punk band called Valley of Death. The group was at the peak of its career -- signed to Manila's Twisted Red Cross label, drawing good crowds, reviewed in S.F. punk bible MaximumRocknRoll-- when the Gonzales' parents got official consent to bring them to the Bay Area.
"We were heavily involved in the underground [over there], but when we moved here we just watched shows," Ogie says during an interview at his Haight District apartment.
The siblings were into the thrash metal scene -- their first U.S. concert was Metallica at the Concord Pavilion -- but they couldn't find anyone to play with. Instead, they became involved in the Filipino-American theater scene, doing sound and music for the arts group Teatro Ng Tanan, located at Bindlestiff Studio. "Always in the back of my mind, though, I wished we could put on our own shows," Ogie recalls.
Inspiration finally struck when the veteran Filipino band Eraserheads played its first Bay Area show at Oakland's Henry J. Kaiser Auditorium in 1998. (The group was considered its country's Nirvana, because it showed that rock could be hugely popular in the Philippines.) Waiting in line for the sold-out show with Allan Manalo, the Filipino-American director of Bindlestiff, the Gonzales brothers luxuriated in the shared community. "It was just so cool to see, because it was a bunch of Fil-Ams and immigrants gathered to see this band," Ogie says.
On the spot, the threesome concocted piNoisepop (the first syllable is pronounced "pee"), taking its name from the word pinoy, slang for a Filipino man, and the local Noise Pop Festival. (The organizers joke that they're still waiting for a cease-and-desist order from the larger event.) Thanks to Manalo, they knew they had a venue -- one that was available for all-ages shows. Now they just needed some acts. "First, we thought, 'Are there any Fil-Am bands?'" says Ogie. "We didn't know any except for [S.F. indie rock band] Julie Plug." But after putting out the word via e-mail and Web lists, they received 10 responses, which Ogie says far exceeded their expectations at the time. One of the inquiries was from the Skyflakes -- or as the outfit was then known, Bandsilog.
In the summer of 1998 rhythm guitarist Jericho Saria formed a band called Rice Eater with another Filipino-American guy and two Vietnamese dudes. "We played 'Boys Don't Cry' five times," Saria laughs. "Only got it right once."
After Oliver showed a proficiency on the skins, he went out and bought a new kit with his tax return. "He was drummer by default, because he could afford it," Jericho quips.
During a jam session at Bindlestiff, Ogie Gonzales told Oliver about the call for piNoisepop bands. Oliver and Jericho wanted to take part, so they called upon their cousin, Omar Pahati, and their sister's boyfriend, Ron Ramos, to complete Bandsilog. (The name is a joke based on a Filipino suffix: When ordering any meat dish, you can add garlic, fried rice, and egg to your dish by attaching -silog to the name of the meat.) After trying out some cover tunes, the musicians realized they lacked a decent singer. Naturally, they kept it all in the family by tapping Tricia Saria, Jericho and Oliver's sister (and now Ramos' wife), for the job.
"They told me, 'You're not as bad as us,'" Tricia deadpans.
One brother remembers the situation differently. Explains Oliver, "She couldn't stand us, so she said, 'Let me try.'"
After a week of rehearsals, Bandsilog played its first show -- the opening set at the initial piNoisepop Festival, in November 1998. The group performed ragged covers of Luna, the Ramones, Marvin Gaye, and the Cure, and trotted out one original, which it never played again. It wasn't the most auspicious beginning, but the cover tunes hinted at the band's odd mixture of influences, one that would blossom into something uniquely charming.