Immigrant Songs

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.

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.”

“That's when we took over his garage,” says Jericho's brother, Oliver Saria.

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.

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.

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 his influences.