Ikey Owens on The Mars Volta, Defacto, Sublime, Jeremy Ward, gear, influences and much more
Ikey Owens is a Long Beach musician who has been involved in the music business for a long time. From Grammy awards with The Mars Volta to rhythm heavy dub work with Defacto, Ikey has formed a tight bond with musicians in the scene who are really putting in work. Completing sessions for groups as diverse as Sublime and Mastodon, Ikey Owens has set a level of excellence with modern contemporary music worth putting in the same category as Aphex Twin, Bjork, Devandra Banhart and other new age pioneers of unique styles and sound. He has toured the world numerous times over and has been working very hard for the last 20 years at expanding his musical possibilities with all the various types of projects he as been involved with. With his group Free Moral Agents as a backing band for Sage Francis’ state wide tour and keyboard work on Free The Robots latest record CLT ALT DLT, Ikey is showing the world he is going to be around for a long time. He was kind enough to give Sound Colour Vibration an interview, the first of a monthly feature at our site. If you haven’t seen it yet, Ikey has been releasing live material on bancamp thru his group Free Moral Agents, check it out and he released a full length record with The Mars Volta last year titled Octahedron, an incredible record. Check out the newest live release from Free Moral Agents below.
How did your group Free Moral Agents start and where do you see it going in the future?
It started as a solo project and evolved into a full fledged band. Mendee and i have been writing together for ten plus years now. The whole thing has unfolded very nicely. In the future i want to tour as much as possible and have every member release their own solo records.
Whose some of your favorite keyboard and piano players?
Herbie Hancock, Money Mark, Gregg Rollie (Santana), Thelonius Monk, Chris Dowd (Fishbone), Rick Wright, Chuck Lavell, Joe Zawinul, Jackie Mitoo, Steve Knies, Shirley Scott, Madlib, J Dilla, R Scott, James Poysner, Jon Brion.
There are a few recordings from your various musical explorations with you on piano, how different is that to approach than having the usual keyboard set up with effects you’ve been used to playing with over the years?
It’s very different since i don’t really play piano. I started playing synth in rock bands and i never really took piano lessons. It takes a lot more hand strength to play piano. I definetly feel a little intimidated when i have to do a piano gig but i always make it work. The only piano sessions i’ve done was on Saul William’s “Black Stacy”, and Sublime’s “Summertime (Rocksteady remix)… i think they both turned out well.
Look Daggers is another interesting project you have created with 2mex, how did that connection form?
2Mex and i had met a couple of times and really hit it off. We both see the world the same way and have a very similar work ethic and creative process. We decided to go in and do a 12″ and it just evolved from there. At the time i was really into the concept of writing a hip hop record with a set group of musicians, this concept appealed to Alex as well.
The experiemental dub group Defacto with founding mars volta members Cedric Bixler, Jeremey Ward and Omar Rodriguez started in the late 90’s, can you explain how that came to be?
I met omar, jeremey, and cedric at a hip hop show in orange county thru a mutual friend. We figured out they were playing a 4th of july party down the street from where all of us lived at the time. They invited me to jam, i showed up and it went well. After that i’d just hangout at their pad everyday after work…that was a great time in my life. The next thing i knew we were in europe and making records. By the time i joined they had been up and running for a couple of years.
Is there any plans for more material to be released from the Defacto period?
I think people ask me this question more than anything else. I haven’t heard any concrete plans.
Not a lot is said about Jeremy Ward outside of Omar and Cedric, can you talk a little about your time with him and what you learned from him.
I really can’t put into words how Jeremy changed my life and influenced our band. I often think of all the things that would’ve been different if he were alive. Mars volta is a family even down to our techs, but since Jeremy grew up with o/c he could speak a lot more candidly about things. His aesthetic, sense of humor, and high artistic standards are still apart of what make us who we are. I miss him everyday.
What kind of gear do you use when recording albums for various projects?
I use all kinds of instruments. These days people are hiring me for a lot of organ gigs which i love doing (i use my korg cx3 for those). I have a lot of late 70’s Roland synths that i love. I also use a lot of sounds from the Yamaha PSR series (early to mid 80’s) which i collect, i have 7 different keyboards from that series. I also use a lot of wurlitzer. My workhorse is the studio is my Korg M50 and my korg micro xl. I’ll bust out my vintage keys if the session calls for it (i.e. clav, wurlitzer, juno, casios, etc.)
What kind of gear do you use live if different from the studio set up?
Live I use my korg m50 and my korg cx3. If it’s a mellow gig i’ll bring out my clav or wurly.
The Mars Volta is a group in which you are given full access to write your own material on top of what Omar is recording at any given time. There are many stories about all of the musicians being left in the dark, recording on tour, recording outside of what some call natural recording order. Can you explain the different recording styles for each full length album and what album or albums you felt most comfortable/natural recording to.
That’s not true at all. The last time I had any input on a Mars Volta record was Deloused and even then it was just on a few of songs. I wouldn’t say i wrote anything accept for a few keyboard parts we worked on together in practice. I just did my job as a keyboard player: I interpreted the sound the band director was looking for and helped shape the keyboard parts. That’s pretty much the last time i had anything to do with the recordings. For the other records I just showed up and played the part that was written (except for the solos which I improvise). I stopped asking questions during TMV recording sessions a long time ago. I don’t think i’ve ever felt comfortable in the studio during a TMV recording session, it’s just not something that happens. I’ll probably never know much about how any of the TMV records were made. I just treat it like any other recording session. Show up, knock it out, and bounce. Omar’s process works for us, he makes amazing records and that’s really all that matters to me. With TMV the ends justify the means.
Amputecthure, the 3rd full length studio album from your group The Mars Volta saw a huge shift in the the sound of the band and is a personal favorite of mine. Can you describe some of the stand out moments from the amputecthure sessions?
Not really all the recording sessions went by really quick, I don’t even remember what I played until I got the record back. I remember tracking Viscera and Vermicide, Vermicide is one of my favorites. Everything else was kind of a blur from that record.
Volta is a band that has been constantly touring for the last 9 years and you are one of the few members to see it all unfold from beginning to now. What are some memorable moments being on tour with the band?
Our first european tour with Les Savy Fav and The Apes, playing Mexico city for the first time, pretty much every time we play Mexico City it’s amazing, seeing Jimmy Page at some of our shows, playing Puerto Rico, all the times i threw up on the tour bus due to allergies and or alcohol, our first Bonnaroo playing at 3am, all the amazing meals i’ve had with my friends.
As a musician, what have you learned from Mars Volta band leader Omar Rodriguez?
Sheer will is a powerful force if you can focus it. He has an amazing work ethic. He works harder than anyone i know. More than anything he isn’t afraid to take chances and then stand behind them…not a lot of people do that anymore. Omar is the best example i know of someone who is self taught and self made. I’m always inspired by what he and cedric can accomplish just by sticking to their guns.
What type of music influenced you in your younger days when you were in the beginning learning phases of playing piano/keyboards?
All my parents played for me was Motown, The Isley Brothers, Sly and The Family Stone, and Luther Vandross. I got into traditional ska, rocksteady, and reggae music pretty early on. I used to practice to Tom Petty records back in the day as well. I was really into a lot of late 80’s l.a. shit like Drama Rama, Fishbone, and early Chili Peppers.
Was piano/keyboards the first instrument you picked up?
No i played the tuba, baritone, and bass trombone for 5 yrs prior to picking up the keys. I’ve never taken piano lessons.
It is known that you contributed material to the second hand smoke album from sublime, can you speak a little bit about your time with sublime and your connection to recording for that album?
I got to jam with Sublime a couple of times at their practice space when I was a kid. After Brad died they asked me to be in Long Beach Dub Allstars. When I joined Long Beach Dub Allstars I was definetly very green and very innocent. I was this really nerdy kid who barely drank and did no drugs. Marshall and Miguel took me under their wings and mentored me as an artist, producer, and business man. I was thrown in the middle of a bunch of really rough dudes. I learned a lot about life. They taught me the virtues of vice. Second Hand Smoke was recorded after Brad’s death. The track I played on was started while Brad was still alive. I went in and knocked out the piano and organ solos in one take. When we played the track back and checked out the guitar and vocal tracks Brad laid down a year earlier we discovered he played and sang in the exact spots I had layed out on…it was really weird. I could definitely feel his energy in the studio.
You are now producing records for yourself and for others, what are some projects coming forth?
I’m gonna start working on the new Crystal Antlers soon. I’m also working with a soul singer named Mainey Wilson. I’m im the middle of writing a record with Free The Robots, and i also have a couple of solo records coming out.
What have you learned from producing that you feel you would have missed out on if you had never taken that route?
I’ve learned a lot about the psychology involved in making records. Most people’s ego stops them from living up to there full potential.
Turn The Radio Off from Reel Big Fish is another album you play keyboards on and a very influential album, can you describe how that oppurtunity took shape?
My old ska band Pocket Lent played a lot of shows with Reel Big Fish and a couple of the horn players from Reel Big Fish were in Pocket Lent. When they needed keys they called me. It was my first recording session for another group i was super nervous.
Ikey has been playing a lot of live shows with his group Free Moral Agents, if you get a chance, check them out live. If you are interested to hear how they sound, check out a live set from March 31st HERE