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Flowertown: "Our Tendency to Join Disparate Content Together Sometimes Lends Itself Toward the Strength of Our Songs"

In a place called Flowertown, Mike Ramos and Karina Gill craft a landscape with tender melodies and lo-fi dreams. While the duo are known for their individual projects (Tony Jay and Cindy, respectively), their new album Tourist Language (Paisley Shirt Records) furthers Flowertown as a project with a voice all its own. I caught up with the band over email to talk about their "patchwork" collaboration process, as well as the new album's inspirations and lyrical intricacies. 

Paperface Zine: What have you been listening to, reading, watching or spending a lot of time doing?

Karina Gill: I've been listening to the Cuneiform Tabs record that came out a few months ago on Sloth Mate, as well as Cindy Lee's Diamond Jubilee. I also listen to the radio a lot: KALX and KQED around here. Some great books I've read recently: I Heard Her Call My Name by Lucy Sante and The Door by Magda Szabo. Usually, I watch a lot of garbage, but recently I've been watching classic and not classic vampire movies. When my time is my own, I spend a lot of it walking around the city.

Mike Ramos: The new Yu Ching album, The Crystal Hum, on Night School is beautiful. The recent Rose McDowall and Sorrow reissues have also been on heavy rotation at home. It Could Happen to You by Chet Baker and the Charlie Brown Christmas album are never far from my turntable. Bookwise, I've been working my way through some Ray Bradbury short stories and Simple Passion by Annie Ernaux. I wish I had more time for walking right now, but the cat has had some health things come up, so I've been spending a lot of time at home, keeping her company and working on recordings.

PZ: What's the reception been like for Tourist Language since its release at the end of February? 

KG: It's been nice! The people at Monorail in Glasgow are always really kind and supportive about stuff we make. Around here, we're all working on our projects and collaborating with friends. I think the focus is more on what's going on, shows, etc., and less on products. But, people have said nice things.

MR: I think Saint Kevin of the Paisley Shirt, at least or at most, deserves some acknowledgement for this one making its way onto a record. We originally wanted this to be a cassette, but were pleasantly surprised when Kevin offered vinyl. Since it's been out, people have had nice things to say about it. I always appreciate when people think it's worth their time to listen to any of the music I've been involved with.

PZ: The title track is the sunniest of the eight songs on this release, can you tell us a bit about this one and how it became eponymous? 

KG: If I remember correctly, Mike sent me a voice memo of a chord progression, or something close that I then approximated. I added to it, then he added to it. One thing I was thinking about was different kinds of belonging and not belonging. I think we liked it as an album title because it mirrored the two word pattern: Flower-town, Time Trials, Half Yesterday, Tourist Language.

MR: I've always enjoyed "sunny" sounding songs with lyrics that aren't (Strawberry Switchblade for example.) I don't think Karina ever explained her lyrical content in this one to me, but I tried my best to mirror her structure in the second part. I think our tendency to join disparate content together sometimes lends itself toward the strength of our songs.

PZ: Can you tell us about the video you released for lead single "The Ring?" Karina, did you film this one?

KG: I think we both wanted a video that included the people who have played with us as the live version of Flowertown – Kevin, Evie and Andy. A friend of mine had told me about a short film he had made in art school where he put the camera on a lazy susan in the middle of a table and it captured people eating meatballs. I asked permission, but clearly just ripped off the idea. We went to a Vietnamese restaurant in The Richmond district in San Francisco, ordered lunch, put the camera on the lazy susan and pressed record, so I can't say I filmed it. Filmed by Lazy Susan. Mike and I edited it together and included some public domain footage I found on The Internet Archive involving the paint. A friend pointed out that we make a ring around the table – which is nice and not something I'd thought of.

MR: For this video I showed up and ate a lot of food.

PZ: I also really dig the opening track "00." What can you say about the inspirations behind it? 

KG: Funny you ask. This one has more of a direct lineage than most. Mike and I had both been laughing about something we read that someone said. We were laughing because it was supremely pompous but almost as if they didn't realize it – which seemed even more hilariously pompous. I wrote the first part and then just sang "oh oh" over what I had for the chorus, thinking Mike would replace it with words. But it stayed. A friend mentioned that they liked the "oh oh's" because it's not like us (usually so wordy) and there's a deadpan delivery that seems contrary to the emoting I guess you're supposed to do when you sing "oh oh."

Mike: I think of this one as a diss track. Both Karina and I are sensitive people (maybe too much sometimes.) I think we were able to channel some of our feelings about certain interactions with said someone into the lyrics.

PZ: I feel like your production has gotten progressively fuzzier on each release, especially on "00" and "Count To Nine." How do you think your sound has evolved since the early days of the project?

KG: People talk about art exercises where you give yourself very specific parameters to work with so that the result is marked by its limitations. That's Flowertown, just not so intentionally. The production reflects what was happening at the moment, what was available, what apartment we were in when we were ready to record, what had or had not been left at the practice space so not available, etc.

MR: I think the way we work together has gelled and become more confident over time. I actually thought that "Half Yesterday" was slightly too hi-fi compared to the previous recordings and tried to convince Karina to help me steer things back toward Flowertown and away from real life. I've always enjoyed the look of older films because they can feel like worlds all to themselves.

PZ: What does your collaborative process look like? There's a strong conversational element to your lyrics.

KG: That makes sense. Often, one of us will write a verse or a chorus or some combination and pass it along to the other who adds a verse or bridge or whatever. Things are taken from actual conversations sometimes, like the bitter fruit rolling in the back seat – a mutual friend offered us the orange in the back seat of her car, but with the caveat that it was probably bitter. Neither of us wanted the orange. All Flowertown songs have both of us involved – sometimes I offer a chord progression and Mike starts the lyrics, sometimes the other way around. Sometimes an aspect of a song is offered whole and the other person adds lyrics or whatever. They are a patchwork.

MR: We also spend a lot of time evaluating demos, structures, lyrics, and the actual recordings themselves, tweaking things over the course of several mixes until they feel right. Content-wise, we glean inspiration from everyday things that lend an observational quality of sorts to the songs, kind of like mundane journal entries.

PZ: You originally recorded your cover of "No Good Trying" for a WFMU Syd Barrett tribute! How'd this opportunity come about and what made you pick this song? 

KG: Michele at WFMU reached out to me to ask if Cindy or Flowertown would be interested in contributing to the fundraising comp. Seemed like fun and for a good cause – WFMU is great. Michele also suggested that she could hear us doing "No Good Trying" and I thought that was a good call. Mike and I recorded it together one evening. I brought along a toy accordion I'd had for a long time and recorded it through Mike's delay and Rat pedals which became kind of central to our version of the song. I also got to use the "samba whistle" setting on my casio which was a rare opportunity.

MR: To be honest, I don't really care for Syd Barrett's music all that much, and even less about Pink Floyd. But I think it's fun to cover songs because it helps me understand another person's process, how they structure songs, and the choices they make. I think it's cool when artists make covers their own and are able to present them differently than the originals

PZ: Who are some of your favorite bands in the San Francisco scene at the moment that our readers should check out? 

KG: Now, Katsy Pline, Violent Change, April Magazine, Famous Mammals, Figure Eight, Acephalix, Vivian Panache, Croissant, Peace Frog, and Magic Fig.

MR: Yea-Ming & The Rumours, Tam Lin, Chime School, Kan-Kan, R.E. Seraphin, and Al Harper.

PZ: What's next for Flowertown or the other projects you're in like Cindy or Tony Jay? I see Cindy is going on tour with Horsegirl in June. Karina, how excited are you for that? 

KG: Yes, definitely excited for the US tour supporting Horsegirl. I've never toured in the US outside of brief California trips, so it'll be an experience. We're going to a lot of towns I've never been to and everyone in the band is looking forward to Niagara Falls between Toronto and Buffalo. There's talk of an overseas fall tour, so we'll see what comes of that. Cindy is working on recordings too.

MR: Tony Jay is playing the Slumberland Oakland Weekender thing in June and then a Japan tour later this summer. There are also a couple releases in the works.

Tourist Language is out now on Paisley Shirt Records.


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