Immigrant Songs

The Skyflakes -- and the piNoisepop Festival -- put Filipino-American indie music on the map

Ron Ramos began crafting solo electronic pop tunes at a young age. "When I was a kid I used to study my Casio, trying to get that electric guitar sound just right," Ramos says. When he joined Bandsilog, he continued that trend, sketching melodies and rhythms on a keyboard and a drum machine. Tricia believes this process adds to the quality of her husband's tracks. "I think it allows him to write for every instrument, like he can hear how it should all go together. And it makes him arrange it differently than other writers do."

Several of the numbers on the Skyflakes' Calling in Sick -- which contains six recent songs plus a half-dozen older ones never before released on disc -- retain Ramos' electro skeletons. (The group changed its moniker in 1999, taking the name of a cracker available in the Philippines.) "Happy Now?" is essentially one of his demos with Tricia's vocals added on, while "505" glides along on a drum machine pattern augmented by other instrumentation. The remaining tunes also reflect Ramos' careful process: Rarely do indie rock songs sound so thought out, as if they had been conducted instead of played.

That's not to say that Calling in Sick is a dry listen. Plenty of punk 'tude shows through via Ramos' gloriously cathartic solos, Oliver's scattershot drumming, and the thumping bass of piNoisepop's Jesse Gonzales, who replaced Pahati in January 2001. The music's got a definite '80s vibe, and the band admits to loving New Order, Depeche Mode, the Sugarcubes, and the Descendents. Even so, the sound isn't overly reverential.

Akim Aginsky


Saturday, Aug. 24, at 7 p.m.

Admission is $12 and open to all ages


Bindlestiff Studio, 185 Sixth St. (at Howard), S.F.

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Lyrically, Ramos swims against the generally peppy tone of the music, much like another of his influences, the Smiths. "I really try to make them contrast," he says, comparing his lyrics to the overall character of the music. "Instead of making happy songs, I'll make it a little darker, sort of negative."

In "Kresge Day" a girl drops acid and wanders around the UC Santa Cruz campus, thinking she's going insane, while in "Vent" a young kid asks his angry father to not "take it out on me." "Talk About Today" gets into the head of a know-it-all asshole stuck in the past; "Calling in Sick" is a sideways update of the new wave classic "88 Lines About 44 Women," with Tricia reeling off a litany of lame co-workers. (Part of the fun of the Skyflakes' tune may be hearing Tricia say things like "Jimmy's a prick" in her childlike voice.) But the band's best synthesis of pop-punk bounce and tart lyricism is "Meathead," a song about a big-forearmed, truck-driving metalhead moron who shoves people around for laughs -- a tale inspired by a trip to see Rage Against the Machine in 1999. "Most of our fans are pretty nerdy, so they can relate," says Jericho.

"Meathead" first came out on the Skyflakes' second cassette, 2000's Red Leader. The musicians made only 100 copies of that tape and the previous one, Econofast!, handing them out to friends, fans, and other bands they met through piNoisepop. At first, the Skyflakes played solely Filipino-American shows, either at Bindlestiff or with other pinoy groups such as Rubymar and Love, Daria (which Jesse Gonzales managed for a spell). But once Jesse joined, the Skyflakes really took off.

"Jesse's bass made our songs more melodic," Ramos says.

"I think when Jesse came in, we started thinking, 'Let's [play] more,'" Tricia admits.

Of course, it didn't hurt that the bassist hitched up right before two heavily attended shows: piNoisepop 5 at Bindlestiff and the National Asian American Telecommunications Association's "Directions in Sound" showcase at the Justice League (held in conjunction with the S.F. International Asian American Film Festival). The latter was especially rewarding, Jericho says, because the band members felt included in a larger world.

"The Fil-Am ties aren't that strong with the Pan-Asian community," Jericho says. "We're like the weird brother of Asia. Some people don't even see Filipinos as Asian -- they see them as Pacific Islander."

Oddly, the group sometimes gets a better response when it plays outside the Filipino sphere. "The Fil-Ams are into nu-metal or real slick pop ..." says Jericho.

"... or '80s cover bands," adds Ramos.

"We support the scene but we don't want to get stuck in it," Jesse says diplomatically.

To that end, the Skyflakes began playing non-Filipino venues such as the Stork Club, the Voodoo Lounge, and USF; this February the band was honored to be included in L.A.'s Pop American Style Festival. In addition, last October's piNoisepop accepted non-Filipino bands for the first time, and this week's seventh event features more than half non-pinoy acts. A Skyflakes split 7-inch -- with local Asian-American outfit the Clarendon Hills -- is forthcoming, along with Ramos' first electronic record (under the name Goldar).

Ramos and company aren't abandoning their roots, of course. The quintet appears at the three-day piNoisepop Festival, as it has at every one before. And Ramos' label, Filipino Underground, just released a compilation of pinoy artists called Casino & Fine Dining, Volume 1, with plans for a second one after piNoisepop. Most likely, 10 years from now some Filipino-American kid is going to be mentioning the Skyflakes as one of hisinfluences.

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