Flying Circles

Colleen Johnson is most known locally from her work in the band Silver Shadows, but a wonderful web of musical scene connections lead to the project she’s latest associated with. She met Evan Hashi, former drummer for Calvin Johnson’s The Hive Dwellers, in Olympia, and keyboardist Preston Bryant, utility player for AJJ, through connections in the Phoenix scene. Fast forward almost a decade, and they are now all located in the Bay Area and exist in the world as Flying Circles.

Johnson and Hashi collaborated musically for some time before she met Bryant, but their debut as Flying Circles, In Loving Grace, just came out June 15 on Antiquated Future Records. Their sound gracefully meshes morass sonic textures and skittering percussion with Johnson’s intriguing vocal melodies and clever lyrics. Now that the record has reached the milestone of being out for a couple weeks, we give them an opportunity to reflect on the evolution of the band up until now, from beginnings to record-writing, and all the music scenes that have played a part in between.

The Bay Bridged: You all are currently or were part of other bands before joining Flying Circles — how did you meet and start playing music together?

Evan Hashi: Colleen and I first met in Olympia, Washington about a decade ago through KAOS 89.3 FM, the community radio station there — we both were volunteers. After co-hosting on each

[other’s] shows and hanging out for a few years, we started playing music together. I first met Preston through our friend and fellow musician Stephen Steinbrink, whom he was playing bass for at the time.

Colleen Johnson: Like Evan said, we’ve been collaborating for many years now. I met Preston through my connections to the Phoenix music scene that revolved around a place that is sadly now defunct (RIP!), The Trunk Space. After he moved to the Bay a couple of years ago, we have become a lot closer and I invited him to play synth with me and Evan. Preston’s other-worldly flavors have really changed the shape of this project from the older atmospheres Evan and I had been exploring.

TBB: Your first album Of Loving Grace came out around two weeks ago — what was the process like coming up with the concept of and writing the record?

CJ: I have been writing some of the songs on this album for years. I also write songs in another project, Silver Shadows. Flying Circles became a home for the songs that I was writing that didn’t fit into the world of Silver Shadows. My songs on this album draw from my feelings about capitalism, magic, and all the wonder and darkness that comes with living in big city as it is changing. I wrote many of the songs while I was biking across the high deserts of Nevada, or loitering in New Mexico, or reading Samuel Delaney’s Dahlgren. I think the themes that arose from this album came out of the starkness and loneliness of the Southwest and struggling to live in the Bay. In my writing, I gravitate towards a kind of aspirational-dystopian-magical-realism, that is both despairing and vaguely hopeful — I guess that is reflective of how I feel about the state of the world in general.

Usually, I write a song on guitar and bring it to the group to have them embellish it or completely change the arrangement. Both Evan and Preston have incredible ears and are excellent at finding beautiful ways to support what I have come up with. Evan writes songs too, and sometimes we play his songs as well.

EH: I didn’t write most of the songs on the album, but the recording and arranging process felt pretty natural and non-conceptual to me. We’ve been playing these songs for a year and a half now, some of which have been worked over by me and Colleen for even longer. If you live with songs long enough, they just start to do their own thing.

Preston Bryant: The process was straightforward: Colleen brought the songs and Evan and I would hash out our ideas in and around her material, and Evan held the technical reigns throughout the making of the album. Working on the album as a three piece, with just guitar and drums, meant that there was a lot of space to create rich tones and textures, to flesh out a sense of depth and space with the synthesizers and later with overdubs.

TBB: Your single “Dayglo Queen” definitely has a distinct mood achieved from the mix of angular guitars, percussion, and keyboards. Similar to the last question, I know a big conversation some bands have is how they all want guitars (or other instruments) to sound. Did you have a conversation like that, and if not, how did you negotiate the sound of the record?

CJ: We each have a realm of influence on whatever instrument we are playing. I think that allows us to be expansive and expressive without stepping on each other’s toes.

TBB: A few of you were part of a band called Twig Palace before Flying Circles — how is that project related to the current incarnation of Flying Circles?

EH: Twig Palace was Colleen and I’s first band in Olympia. It started as a recording project and eventually turned into our first collaboration and band. I’ve played with Colleen longer than anyone, and I think there’s a lot of trust, communication, and creative interests that we’ve developed over the near-decade we’ve worked together.

TBB: A couple you were also active in the Pacific Northwest DIY scene in prior musical projects. What’s it like working in the Bay Area scene compared to the PNW?

EH: I would say a lot of what defines each place is the landscape and weather. In the PNW, people stay indoors amongst the cloud-covered, intensely green trees, and the music and scene reflects that — it’s a bit introspective and brooding, but also heavy and mystical and wild. The Bay’s incredible in its diversity and intersections, its cultural and geographic microclimates; I love that I can see free jazz, a gong orchestra, punk bands, and Chinese classical music within a 20-mile radius. I’m still trying to wrap my head around it all.

CJ: It was very hard for me to leave the Pacific Northwest. The Olympia music community is super tight-knit and supportive. I feel so lucky to have grown up musically in that world that is so rich with talent and wonderful people. The Bay and the PNW share a lot of people; there is an [I-5] pipeline that shuttles folks around from Seattle, Portland, Olympia, LA, SF, Oakland. That is what brought me here in the first place. Similarly to the PNW, the music communities down here are also a kind of friend-family — we support each other because we like each other’s music but also because we love each other as people. I think that kind of caring and acceptance allows people to branch out further in their music and make creative leaps of faith, knowing that their friends will support them and hopefully we all push each other to be better.

TBB: Do you have any favorite venues or spaces to play in the Bay Area?

EH: I spent some time interning at the Rickshaw Stop, and I think it’s the best-sounding, friendliest place around. I also love the Makeout Room, [The] Knockout, and all the house shows in the East Bay. Basically anywhere there’s appreciative folks is great by me. Also a shout-out to Winter’s Tavern in Pacifica!

CJ: I love to play the Rickshaw Stop. Kelly from Women’s Audio Mission threw an amazing show there recently with Mane, Sirena Victima, and Silver Shadows. The community around the Make-Out Room is heartening, still a solid crew of weirdos making beautiful things happen. Most of my favorite house venues are disappearing for obvious reasons, getting pushed out or shut down.

TBB: You’re just about wrapping up a tour with AJJ! How has it felt to play and have people hear these new songs?

CJ: I played with AJJ almost 10 years ago in Phoenix with my old band, Polka Dot Dot Dot. I have always admired Sean’s songwriting and been friends with the band. It has been awesome to tour with them, to hear how their music has deepened and expanded over the last decade. For Flying Circles, it was the first time we have shared these songs outside of Oakland. People had a strong response, I think. For me, performing is the richest part of this whole band thing, and playing for young people in out-of-the-way towns was especially rewarding. There’s an enthusiasm and a hunger in those towns that you can’t get in a jaded-ass place like the Bay.

EH: It’s been incredible; people have been really supportive and genuinely excited after seeing us, which is pretty special since this is our first tour. Sean, Ben, and Mark are fantastic people, and we feel privileged to tour with such a great band. We’ve mostly been playing smaller cities, which I think is more fun than bigger ones in a certain way — people come out and aren’t afraid to have a good time.

PB: It was a lot of fun, albeit a little tiring, to play two sets back-to-back every night. On a personal level it was exciting to incorporate a brand new band into the long-standing world of AJJ. Musically, AJJ and FC couldn’t sound more different but I knew that it would be a good match as the AJJ fans listen to a huge variety of music/sounds/genres/moods. They were very warm and receptive to what we were doing.

In Loving Grace is out now on Antiquated Future Records.