It takes 15 minutes to turn into Tony Jay. “I have all the stuff down here,” says the San Francisco singer-songwriter, who—like another face-painted rock ’n’ roll personality, Alice Cooper—is both a persona and a band. Even when he’s rehearsing deep in the Mission Street practice space he calls the “meat locker,” he refuses to be photographed without a forbidding layer of black metal-style corpse paint.
But anyone who’s closely followed the Bay Area music scene for a while knows Tony Jay as Michael Ramos, a multi-instrumentalist who’s played in a litany of bands in the dream-pop scene orbiting the legendary and long-running Oakland label Slumberland Records. The list of artists he’s played with over the years includes Cindy, Flowertown, Al Harper, Sad Eyed Beatniks, Grandma’s Boyfriend, The Cherries, and April Magazine.
Perfect Worlds is Tony Jay’s Slumberland debut, and it’s an auspicious development for a moniker that started as a way to prevent people from listening to Ramos’s music.
“In 2006-ish when I first started recording music, I would export songs from Pro Tools to iTunes, and it would be under my name,” he says. “Then friends on my computer would want to listen to it, and I would get shy and embarrassed, so I tried to come up with a generic name that sounded like an artist’s name so they wouldn’t click on it.”
The name became a default for anything Ramos wanted to record by himself, and the Tony Jay Bandcamp is filled with albums with names like 2011 and 2012 that document the odds and sods Ramos recorded in those years. “At some point I realized that the Bandcamp server was much more reliable than my own computer,” he says.
Perfect Worlds is a more collaborative effort. Ramos laid the basic tracks down with multi-instrumentalist Kelsey Faber in 2021, deep in the pandemic. Overdubs from percussionist Cameron Baker and vocalists Alexis Harper and Karina Gill came later.
“Kelsey came over and we just had a day of jamming on keyboards and guitar,” Ramos says. “We just would mess around until something sort of gelled and then just hit record and just play it for as long as we could without messing up and then moved on.”
Recording began not long after Ramos suffered a bike crash that left him “on the couch for two weeks with bruised legs and road rash, on tons of weed and Tylenol.”
“Mike [Schulman] from Slumberland had asked if we would submit an album to them, and I just gave myself an artificial deadline at the end of the year,” says Ramos. “Then I fell off the bike and was just stuck at home for several weeks, and [writing songs] was the only thing I could really do aside from movies and reading.”
The bike crash, the sedated circumstances of its writing, and “a moment romantically in my life where things were coming apart at the seams” all fed into the pervasive melancholy of Perfect Worlds. The overwhelming impression across its 13 short tracks is of fogginess—maybe pandemic brain fog, maybe just typical San Francisco weather.
“I’ve always had an affinity for fog and the colder end of San Francisco weather over the sun and the heat,” he says. “A lot of the songs were written or started on foggy days.”
Lethargic guitar strums echo through thick walls of reverb. Thick clouds of amp hiss descend like a low-hanging fog. It’s often not clear who’s singing, and though Ramos categorizes Tony Jay as a “dejected crooner of the quotidian,” his vocals combine with Harper’s into the androgynous blur that’s long been a hallmark of the dream-pop genre.
Ramos is not the kind of songwriter who works songs out on an acoustic guitar before hitting the record button. “I think it’s more like a mood for me,” he says. “A mood will strike, and I want to record, but I don’t necessarily have a song idea. So I’ll play around with chords, and then whatever sounds good first is the song.”
The slightly dissociative mood of the record is matched by its striking black-and-white cover art, based on a photo Ramos took in the “wig district” of Mexico City: dozens of disembodied mannequin heads on a shelf in a closed storefront, their quizzical eyes seeming to follow the viewer expectantly.
One could project all manner of symbolism onto this photo (“these archetypes and ideals that have been sculpted”,) but it’s one of dozens of photos Ramos has casually taken over the years for potential use on flyers and album covers. As a photographer, he gravitates towards what he calls “broken infrastructure”—rusty chains, trash, pipes.
“A lot of what San Francisco puts money into is creating the façade of cleanliness,” he says. “It’s a stupid idea, but if I was mayor, I would create a new city department just dedicated to installing, like, useless pipes on the walls and weird paint jobs. I find that stuff amusing a little bit, but also comforting. I like a little bit of garbage on the street.”
Get Tony Jay’s Perfect Worlds here.