march 2011 city beat cover

March 1, 2011

MAN OF MANY TALENTS

Originally printed in the March 2011 issue of City Beat Long Beach.

Behind the keys or in the studio, Isaiah “Ikey” Owens is a musical celebrity everywhere he goes

It’s 10 a.m. on Super Bowl Sunday, and Isaiah “Ikey” Owens is occupying a booth in the darkest corner of the V Room sipping on a glass of Jim Beam, neat. The barstools are already filled with anxious football fans, but Owens is early into day two of a three-day layover in his hometown of Long Beach and has no interest in watching the upcoming game—even if his old friends are playing the halftime show.

“I remember going up to Los Angeles to see the Black Eyed Peas play with Ozomatli and Macy Gray back in the day. We still hang out backstage whenever we play shows together,” Owens says. “They’ve always been great live, but I don’t think of them as that band on TV.”

Owens is so nonchalant about his relationship to the “Boom Boom Pow”-singing megastars that it’s easy to forget that he is, himself, a musical celebrity.

A Unique Force

Though the 36-year-old is more pop-culturally known as the Grammy-winning keyboard player for the Mars Volta—a band he has performed with almost continually since its inception and the only one that has ever shared a stage with the Black Eyed Peas—Owens’ ubiquitous career as a musician and producer spans over two decades of Long Beach sounds.

As one of the most racially diverse cities in the region, Long Beach has been home to thriving scenes from every corner of the sonicsphere. And growing up as one of Long Beach’s few keyboard players at the time (his parents lived in Lakewood, but he attended Poly for their music program), Owens has been a unique force whose navigation between these communities comes as second nature.

His work across genres is so prolific within Long Beach that if Kevin Bacon got six degrees for Hollywood, Owens only needs two to connect himself to anyone involved in the music world here.

“I was the kind of kid who knew everyone,” Owens says. “And I still like to hang out with all different kinds of people. To me, music is all the same thing.”

From the early days of ska to the latest folk revival and every dub and hip-hop resurgence in between, Owens has dipped his fingers in seemingly disparate genres, bringing life to projects on all ends of the spectrum.

The result is a cross-cultural CV that includes bands such as Long Beach Dub All Stars (with members of Sublime), De Facto (with Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez) and Look Daggers (with rapper 2Mex) as well as guest appearances on tracks by Mastodon, Teen Heroes, Nocando and Flying Lotus.

No Bands Sound Alike

“The coolest thing about Long Beach is that no bands sound alike,” Owens says. “You’re not going to see four bands that sound alike at a Long Beach show, which is really rare to say. Across the country, it’s rare.”

These days, however, Owens has been spending less and less time in Long Beach. In addition to a stint living in Berkeley that ended this past holiday season, he has been flying around the country lending his expertise to the next generation of underground acts as a producer-for-hire. Owens’ history with the diverse Long Beach scene has made him an ideal facilitator—able to connect with a myriad of bands with different backgrounds and sounds.

His first credit, for example, was on Bay Area-based Gravy Train!!!!’s 2003 electro-raunch EP Hello Doctor, an album he admits is vastly different from his world.

“They were one of the first bands that were openly gay and their shows were ridiculous and nasty as shit,” Owens says. “But it was super punk rock at the same time and their expression of it was so pure that it interested me.”

From there, he—with early help from engineer/friend/mentor Anthony Arvizu at The Compound Studio in Signal Hill—began producing local groups Dusty Rhodes and the River Band (2007), Crystal Antlers (2008) and Greater California (2009). Eventually, he generated enough cred to garner work with established bands across the country.

But Owens’ is more than some glorified consultant who merely hits “record” on a computer and lends his recognizable name to the album’s liner notes. In fact, he doesn’t even know how to use Pro Tools.

“We’re like Voltron”

From Chicago to Austin to Weed, Calif., bands more than 10 years his junior call upon Owens as a member of the old guard—a pre-Auto-Tune musician who’s approach to recording reflects that he is hyper-aware of how the digital age affects the way music is both produced and consumed.

“I go in with the band and break apart every aspect of what they do,” Owens says. “‘What instruments are you playing? How are you playing? Are you listening to everybody?’ First, you apply fundamentals of music and stuff that doesn’t have to do with a computer—then you can use all that technology to help you.”

This emphasis on sound and self-image as opposed to the appearance of waves on a screen has found him, most recently, in San Francisco with “Chicago-Jazz-meets-Built-To-Spill” band Rubedo and in Portland with stoner-rock band Ape Machine.

On top of his nearly full-time production gigs, there is also Owens’ personal music—Free Moral Agents, a Long Beach-based artist collective spearheaded by Owens whose first studio album since 2004, Control This, was released on iTunes last September. While time between The Mars Volta tours are natural (“We’re like Voltron—we do our thing then go back to our respective caves,” Owens says), the last few years without them has been particularly productive for Owens’ own creative expression.

“I started developing Free Moral Agents as a band right after the first record came out,” Owens says of his one-time solo project. “We got signed in 2008, started touring in 2009 and now we’re pretty much a full-time touring operation.”

One Records at a Time

The gradual shift away from performing for other people’s projects in order to focus on his own is a defining turn in Owens’ story.

Whether being the badass keyboard player on stage with The Mars Volta or the producer behind The Commotions’ new EP, Owens has spent the majority of his career as a hired-gun with his own musical output few and far between. Now, however, instead of merely selling his various services to endeavors already in progress, he is finally exploring his own artistic vision and hoping the same economic model that has kept him in business thus far holds true.

“I am the least punk rock DIY [person] out there,” Owens says. “I do what I do because it’s smart. It’s good for business and it’s got a bottom line that makes sense. Art and money don’t have to fight each other. Money in exchange for personal expression and art is natural.”

Control This is Owens’ latest exercise in personal expression. And this time he’s hired his own guns to help him. Released digitally last year and in physical form as soon as he picks up the first 500 rubber-stamped copies from his friend/duplicator’s garage on 4th Street, the album is a nearly hour-long sprawl of genre-bouncing serenades, key-heavy body movers and lazy Sunday lullabies performed by some of Long Beach’s most recognized underground faces.

Though Free Moral Agents has been together in its current lineup for over five years, it is embarking on its first European tour this month and will return for its second full U.S. tour in April.

Owens is excited that demand for Free Moral Agents is enough to take the band on the road, but these milestones don’t seem to phase him, and he is as nonchalant about his own success as he is about his friends in the Black Eyed Peas.

“At this point in my life, I’ve done way more than I thought I would ever do,” Owens says. “Ten years ago I could never have predicted where I’d have gone. So I just take it one day at a time—one record at a time.”

http://www.freemoralagents.com, http://www.myspace.com/freemoralagents, http://www.themarsvolta.com.

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