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Clean is Dirty: An Interview with Flowertown

The birth of San Francisco’s Flowertown makes for a good story: longtime Bay Area scene compatriots Karina Gill (Cindy) and Mike Ramos (Tony Jay) compose a song together for an upcoming show in later winter 2020, and the day before they’re slated to play it, the world stopped. The songwriting didn’t. While the rest of the world slowed, Flowertown wrote and recorded at a rapid pace, with two limited-release cassette EPs on Paisley Shirt Records. Those two EPs have been remastered and combined into the Flowertown LP, released by Mt.St.Mtn in the US and available via Midheaven outside the states.

If you’re familiar with either Cindy or Tony Jay, you’ll have a good sense of what to expect: stripped down, echoey and melodic. It’s two friends writing lo-fi goodness in the least-good of times.

You’re unlikely to hear much influence of Liturgy or of the Vince Guiraldi Trio’s A Charlie Brown Christmas – the records that saw Ramos and Gill through the pandemic – in Flowertown. Instead you’ll find two EPs melded into a cohesive long-player; a record with its origins in pandemic isolation but with a path that appears to be continuing beyond that.

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U: The record is billed as by sort of a pandemic band that started by tape trading. Is that about right?

Karina Gill: Close. We decided to try to write a song together right before the pandemic because our bands are going to play on the same bill, and we thought it’d be fun to have a song we played togetherBut then that show got cancelled. I think it was supposed to be March 16, so it was like the very beginning of pandemic. (But) Mike and I had a fun time doing that song and so we started sending little voice memos back and forth, basically building songs that way.

Which of the songs was that first song?

Mike Ramos: “World Peace,” the last one on the first tape. 

Your bands are definitely complementary; they make sense on the same bill. How did that come together in your songwriting process?

MR: Well I think both Cindy and Tony Jay played shows together prior to Flowertown. And so I think that we recognised that there was some complementary aspect to the music of each of those projects. And then I think just having conversations with each other about collaborating, and then, you know, “World Peace.” I find that, like, in my own songwriting I can get kind of lazy sometimes, and I feel like Karina is a much harder worker than I am. And I think that’s good because she pushes me to try harder, whether it’s writing lyrics, or just coming up with little seedlings of ideas to pass on to her to work with, or vice versa.
KG: Mike and I play in our own bands but we also once in a while would both help our friend, David Castillo, with one of his projects where he covers Jeanette songs. You know, I really didn’t know how to play keyboard but Mike was like “oh, it doesn’t matter.” And it actually didn’t matter. I could learn it well enough, and execute it, you know, with some… some poker face, you know. But I think that where Mike says I make him work harder, he actually probably works harder, because he has a lot more of the technical skills than I have. Like if there’s any bass guitar on Flowertown, that’s Mike – things like that. So there’s a lot of kind of complementary [ways] in how we work, you know – we can sort of fill in those blanks a little bit.

The LP is a compilation of two tapes. What do you feel like the difference is, if any, between the first recording and the second recording?

MR: Are you talking about the like the first EP versus the second EP or the first song versus the second song?
KG: No, she’s talking about the first side and the second side.
MR: I noticed when listening to the test pressing that it sort of feels like as you progress through it gets more hi-fi.
KG: Which is not saying that much!
MR: I mean, it’s pretty lo fi throughout. But I feel like by the time you get to the end of Theresa Street that side two… I noticed that, you know, we sound more comfortable playing with each other and the writing seems to have jelled considerably by that point.

I felt like I could hear… not necessarily a cleaner recording because clean is a dirty word to some people but… 

MR: Clean is dirty. 

[laughs] …clean is dirty, but were both EPs recorded on four tracks? 

MR: Yeah. So the voice memos are just kind of when we’re still piecing things together and brainstorming ideas, but then the actual recordings usually start on four track in Karina’s basement, and then when those four tracks are filled, (they’re mixed) in Pro Tools and, you know, sugarcoated on the computer a little bit. I find editing on the computer to be infinitely easier than staying in tape mode, but everything starts in tape mode and (for) the most part is on tape, initially.

I know you’ve done a few live streams. Do you mind elaborating on the difference between that and a live show, and what it brings you as a performer?

MR: I think that’s a question we’ve all been thinking about. I think Flowertown only had one live stream, right?
KG: And then both Tony Jay and Cindy have done others. I had the chance to play two outdoor, you know, socially distanced shows with Cindy over this time. Actually more than three, I guess. I mean, it’s really different to play to a present crowd. In some ways it’s scarier becauseyou know, here you are, in person, with real people, and they’re looking at you and waiting for you to do something interesting. But on the other hand, I feel [a] sort of alienation of playing to an iPhone or laptop or something – it feels less high stakes in some way, but it also feels kind of deflating because there’s this sense in which there’s like a pretending happening, you know? There’s a little bit of playacting going on because you are imagining that maybe there’s somebody out there, but there’s not that sense of actually seeing people look bored or interested or drunk or whatever... it’s pretty different for me.

“I usually cut the set a little bit short because I can’t stand those imaginary things people aren’t actually saying.”
– Mike Ramos


MR: I second what Karina said. I think in a live setting it’s easier to read the energy of people that are there than it is to read the energy from a telephone, or iPhone, whatever, but there’s less at stake when you’re doing it in front of the phone, because you don’t… it almost feels like you’re alone in your room, performing, but at the same time I still sort of get some minor stage fright, playing shows, and I think that even when there is a live audience I’m imagining all kinds of things happening in people’s heads, you know, I started freaking out about, you know, everybody hating what I’m playing and I usually cut the set a little bit short because I can’t stand to sit with those imaginary things people aren’t actually saying.
KG: I don’t know if I can read the energy in the room, ever. I always just think everyone’s bored out of their minds. So I don’t know how much reading of energy I do in any case.
MR: But you’ll at least get, like, people clapping so you’re okay, like you get the closure at least.

You have the song “Flowertown” and the band’s called Flowertown…

KG: It’s actually kind of a story [and] it starts with Mike.
MR: I play in another band called April Magazine, and we toured in Japan (at) the end of 2019.  And the first show that we played was in a town, this little island off… like in the bay, Osaka Bay, called Tokushima and our friend was explaining to us the festival they have every year, like this parade and like tons of flowers and somehow the English translation came across as – he started calling it a Flowertown to try to make it easy for us to understand.  And, and so we just kind of fixated on that phrase, “Flowertown,” and then somehow brought that phrase back to Karina.
KG: One of Mike’s bandmates was telling me the story and for some reason, when Mike and I started this project, we decided to actually do something with it. I don’t quite know why but that memory of that story seemed like the right thing, the right name.
MR: I forget what else we were considering calling it.
KG: Yeah, there were some probably some like very bad sort of pandemic-related names that we luckily did not go with.

So between the two tapes… do you mentally think of them as two tapes, or do you think of them at this point [as] a cohesive album?

KG: I think of Flowertown as a cohesive thing, so to me it makes total sense to collect the songs in different ways. And in fact, you know, what Mike said earlier about the songwriting kind of gelling, I’m not sure I agree. I feel like there’s something always true about Flowertown songs – even if [they’re] different [from] one another. I don’t think it changes. I think the collection makes sense.
MR: I guess initially maybe I thought of them as being separate things, but I feel like at least sonically and songwriting-wise they do fit together. I think Karina touched on [it]; we just never stopped writing, and so there’s always overlap. Like, we have the next album all done and mixed and mastered ready to… we’re just kind of waiting for that to come out later this year. But we’re already working on a batch of songs for the one after that. And so maybe the timeline gets a little blurry for me, but in hindsight, it’s a little easier [now] for me to pick out how things fit together.

So it doesn’t feel like a uniquely pandemic project that’s got an endpoint?

KG: I think at some point, that’s what we sort of assumed, but it’s fun, and for me it’s really, really different from Cindy. I have no desire for it to stop – I think it started off definitely as this feeling of a kind of time-out-of-time that was happening. And I think maybe it still has that character even if things get more back to as they were before.

My last question for each of you is not necessarily which bands or records have influenced you, but which bands or records have gotten you through this past pandemic year?

MR: A Charlie Brown Christmas would be the most played record in my collection. But I also have, you know, It Could Happen To You by Chet Baker [that] I listen to a lot. Free Advice by Cindy [and] the self-titled Cindy album are always in rotation. And then also this other band, Cindy Lee. Not to be confused with Cindy. I have a few of their records and enjoy those a lot as well. It’s just nice to listen to all of these to clean the slate whenever I’m trying to not fixate on what I’m working on too much.

Is that what A Charlie Brown Christmas is, a slate cleaner or…?

KG:  A constant companion, actually.
MR: It’s like an audio baptism, just starting over.

So A Charlie Brown Christmas is your Linus blanket? 

MR: Yeah, I guess so.
KG: That actually is really apropos. That pretty much sums it up!  

Karina, what about your pandemic listening? 

KG: I was just thinking as Mike was talking. I’ve definitely been listening to all these local bands. I mean, Paisley Shirt Records has put out tape after tape of stuff worth listening to. There’s a band called The Lice that I’ve listened to a bunch, and the mixtape that went along with that one. I’m listening to The Reds, Pinks and Purples, that You Might Be Happy Someday record came out a few months ago. I have the Tony Jay collection, which definitely gets to play plenty, along with April Magazine. Mister Baby, The Umbrellas, lots of local people. And I guess, aside from that, I have a couple of records in my collection that maybe are kind of a slate cleaning situation. There’s this strange but good death metal band called Liturgy that I saw a few years ago, and I bought their record, and it’s, it’s kind of like, each song is just the crescendo of death metal for about three minutes and it ends. It’s a great record.