Free Moral Agents bandleader and longtime keyboardist of the Mars Volta, Ikey Owens, sits down with Life’s Sweet Breath before the Free Moral Agents’ show at the Drunken Unicorn with local Atlanta bands Odist and Jungol. We got to find out more about his band Free Moral Agents, and his relationship with The Mars Volta.
Life’s Sweet Breath: So the Free Moral Agents as of last month toured in Europe and just recently started touring the states. How has the touring been going so far?
Ikey Owens: Been going really well. Things are moving along nicely. We were in Austin doing SXSW and were hitting a bunch of places we’ve hit a couple times, kind of seeing the fruits of our labor pay off. People showing up and knowing the songs and its been really, really nice.
LSB: Monday you guys are actually going to be performing a free show at the 529 here in Atlanta, which will be a DJ set. What can the fans expect from a DJ set?
IO: To dance a lot, get drunk and have fun and party. Its not like an art set, we want to have everyone dancing. We’ll be playing a lot of stuff. I’m a more straight ahead guy, I’ll play a lot of radio hip-hop and stuff like that. Dennis our bass player is a real DJ. He has a soul club and a roller skate club he does back home. The stuff he’ll play will be stuff you haven’t heard of. I’ll be playing stuff like Jay-Z, Dre, The Descent, and some older stuff too, and thats the stuff I like to play when I spin.
LSB: Recently you had signed with Chocolate Industries, a label with The Cool Kids and Vast Aire. What’s it like working with them and are there any future collaborations with any other label mates?
IO: Actually we are not working with them anymore. That’s a wrap.
LSB: What label are you guys on now?
IO: Ikey Owens Records (laughs), Free Moral Agents Records.
LSB: Chocolate Industries last year released a Free Moral Agents 10″ vinyl “North Is Red” single with a remix done by Tony Allen. How was it when you found out he was doing a remix of one of your songs?
IO: It was a dream come true. We hit him up, I’ve never met Mr. Allen, but we sent him a song to see if he would do it. He was really into it and was really willing to help us out, and it came out great. The live version we play now is the version he remixed. So we stopped playing our version and started playing his version.
LSB: Working with the Mars Volta, Omar has been the man in charge in the direction and formation of the album. With the Free Moral Agents, what is it like to have the roles reversed in a way?
IO: It’s something I’ve been doing for quite awhile in other aspects, and it’s a little different because I don’t write every note. The Mars Volta is just Omar and Cedric, whereas with the Free Moral Agents, it’s everybody you see on stage. We’re all in the picture, we all have a say, and write. We all have music on our own that we’re trying to get out and want other people to know about. Whereas The Mars Volta is a completely different story and that works fine for The Mars Volta. It’s a lot different and more. With Omar, I’ve always admired the responsibility and pressure he can take on his shoulders. I really enjoy having people around me, where I can disperse stuff. You handle this, you write your parts and we’ll come together, and that’s how we roll. The Mars Volta, it’s pretty much all on Omar’s shoulders and Cedric’s as well. I don’t know how they do it, for me it’s a whole different deal. I couldn’t function that way, you know, but he makes it work just fine.
LSB: Last night I went to the Omar Rodriguez-Lopez show last night at the Variety Playhouse where Cedric was the guest vocalist. Rumor has it that a number of the compositions performed are Mars Volta tracks. What can you tell us about the new album?
IO: Absolutely nothing. I haven’t heard one note of it; I haven’t played on it. I don’t know if I am going to play on it; I have no idea. I have a phone at home, it’s shaped like a Puerto Rican flag and then it rings, and that’s Omar. My Puerto Rican flag phone and it hasn’t rung yet, so I don’t know what’s going on. So when that phone rings, I’ll know. But up until now, I don’t know. It’s always that way with every [Mars Volta] record; I never know what’s going on. I don’t even know if I am in the band record-to-record. It’s a complete mystery every time. That’s how he rolls, I’m sure you know that by now.
LSB: At yesterday’s show, word was that Mastodon was there. I know that you and Cedric had contributed to their 2006 record Blood Mountain. What has been the relationship between the members of the Mars Volta and the members of Mastodon, because I know at a couple of festivals, Cedric would dedicate some songs to Mastodon.
IO: They’re one of the bands that we get along with really well. Right away we hit it off. The first person I can remember who was into them was Juan, our bassist, who’s a big metal-head and Jon Theodore when he was in the band. I’ve never bought a metal record, I’m not interested, but that band, I love. And when you seem them play, it’s so musical that all of us could relate to and identify, so we hung out. I think that the first time we hung out was at a festival in Belgium. And it’s cool, they’re the homes. I think that Brent and Brann are going to roll through tonight. We just get along, which is so weird. You got these dudes from Atlanta, Georgia that got these super accents and then you have The Mars Volta who are all people of color and speaking Spanish most of the time. We just get along, we see things the same way when it comes to music, and they’re definitely kindred spirits. It’s been really cool to have a band that you feel really comfortable hanging around with. Plus when you do festivals like that: Mastodon, Katy Perry, Social Distortion, all these bands lumped together, it’s kind of weird. But when we see Mastodon, we’re going to have a good time. So we get along very, very well.
LSB: I don’t know if you have heard, but in a recent interview Lil B gave a shout out to The Mars Volta.
IO: What are you serious?! Really? Nice, man. I would love to work with Lil B. Is he from Atlanta?
LSB: No he’s from Berkley, California.
IO: Really? That’s where I used to live.
LSB: Lil B was at South By Southwest and was being interviewed by Nardwuar the Human Serviette, who asked him about punk rock and the Gilman Street Project, and Lil B said he’s trying to expand his punk roots and mentioned The Mars Volta.
IO: Someone should tell him, where not very punk. (Laughs) Four-star hotels and a tour bus isn’t that punk. (Laughs)
LSB: When he mentioned punk and the Mars Volta, I was like alright.
IO: Close enough for jazz; I’m not mad at it.
Ikey had to get up for a minute and get some hot sauce for his food. When he got back he noticed my Bonnaroo wristband and talked about his experiences at the festival.
IO: [In 2005], to me it was one of the highlights of the band. I think that was one of our best shows. It was crazy. We got there at two in the morning and went on at three. I forget where we were coming from, but we got to the hotel, checked in and it was super late which I love. I love playing that late. We walked into that tent and people have been there all day and you could just feel the psychedelics. It’s like a hot sweaty tent, and people are sweating. Walking on the stage and feeling like consciousness is not the same right now, you know what I mean? You could feel the drugs, and I mean that in a good way, you could feel the drugs. You could feel the difference in people. Its 3 in the morning and the people who have stuck around are die-hard. It’s not the people who came to see Coldplay. It was just a perfect circumstance for us to play. One of my most memorable shows for sure, one of our best. Jon Theodore was at the top of his game, to me especially.
LSB: What was the difference in playing a late-night show in 2005 to playing during the day at the Which Stage in 2009?
IO: I think it’s exactly that. I like a late-night set better. I really like playing big festivals, it’s awesome. But when you are in the smaller tent and its later at night, you get the real heads out, you can really feel it when you got that many real music fans in one place that are like-minded, you could really feel it. Bonnaroo 2009 was great and I had a ball. I always have fun when I play those big festivals, but 2005 was definitely some shit.
LSB: I know that you mentioned before that you don’t know what is going on with the new album, but you did perform with Deantoni Parks in 2006 for some shows and the Vegoose Festival run by the same people for Bonnaroo. Back then, what was it like working with Deantoni?
IO: I mean, Deantoni is amazing. In my years in playing, he’s one of the most professional. A true professional in every sense of the word. He’s great to get along with, not just music, but to kick it with. He’s a pretty easy going dude, he’s fun to hang out with and be with. When you are in a band that’s what you want. He fits in so well. As far as drummers, what was great about Theodore, is that he was a musician first and a drummer second, and I feel that’s the same way with Deantoni. Deantoni is always listening to everybody in the band. And the music he listens to, he turned me onto the Presets and he was in the CSS and all that kind of stuff.
You don’t see too many quote-unquote prog drummers. He’s not a prog drummer. He plays on all types of different stuff and does some mainstream stuff and art stuff, but he has this wealth of knowledge to draw from beyond technical music or heavy music which adds so much to what the Mars Volta does. The fact he’s not just about metal or prog or jazz or fusion. It’s kind of more of the spirit that we had at the beginning with Theodore; that was the way Jon was. That’s what made the band good. Jon listened to all kinds of music and he had this huge wealth of knowledge to draw on. And that’s the one thing him and Deantoni have in common which really helps out the band a lot. That is what is so great, playing with Deantoni because he’s looking at the bigger picture. When you are playing technical music, musicians start to focus on their own proficiency and even the fans focus on the proficiency of the musician rather than the overall sound. And D[eantoni] is about the overall sound and making everybody in the band sound good, which is amazing. What was great about Theodore, is that you could hear the struggle in us playing, and with Deantoni it’s a struggle, but not so much so, but he still gets the big picture. So he’s a great drummer to have or play with no matter what. Even if you’re playing with a country band, he’d be a great drummer to have. He’s just dope.
LSB: Little bit of some sad news and I’m not sure if you have heard, but during the tragedy of the Japanese earthquakes, Tsutomo Katoh the founder of Korg passed away from cancer. And since you use Korg, what kind of influence has Korg had on your sound and on your playing?
IO: Wow, I did not know that. I’m endorsed by Korg, or I’m pretty sure I’m still am. They were the first company to give me free keyboards and to have access to their technology. At the time they were coming out with the Triton, and the micro Korg in the mid 2000s when I was heavily endorsed by them, I was getting a lot of that stuff for free. I was able to expand my palette and work with new sounds and develop. Even with Free Moral Agents record, there are a lot of Korg keyboards that I’ve tweaked, especially my micro Korg, my first one I had. In the Mars Volta I use the Korg CX-3 organ. So it has had a large effect on my sound, and I’ve been really grateful for the stuff they’ve given me and opportunities I’ve had with them. So I’m really sad that happened.
LSB: I had just recently listened to your new album Control This, and there’s a big change in the sound. More elements in rock and funk, and on the first track, “North Is Red” there’s a horn section. What has been the major catalyst in the evolution from 2004’s Everybody’s Favorite Weapon to 2010’s Control This?
IO: In 2004 that was me making the record by myself. I had like a sampler and an 8-track and that was just it. So that automatically limits you, and I kind of wanted those limitations because I hadn’t made a record that was just me and I wanted to get that done. In the process of playing it live, I called a lot of my old friends that you’re going to see tonight, and when you get a lot of talented people it’s a waste of time to be like, okay we have to play this old record that you had nothing to do with, especially when we are making stuff up as a group that’s better than that record. So for me it was time to capture that. We spent a couple of years rehearsing, and we had one summer where we rehearsed 4-5 times a week. Ryan, our drummer had a pool at the time, so we would go swimming, get stoned and drink wine, and go rehearse, go swimming and go rehearse some more. So more or less what you’re hearing is that time period captured, so it’s a big difference for sure.
LSB: Just recently [The Mars Volta] announced some shows in Europe in July and a festival in Japan in August. Knowing your role in the band, how do you prepare to go on tour with the Mars Volta?
IO: I pack a suitcase and I have my passport, that’s about the extent of it. Like I said, that Puerto Rican phone that hasn’t rung yet, so I have no idea. The Comatorium has been my best source of information about the band, so that’s probably true. I mean I just go and play; that’s about it. Omar’s really not big on giving people information as you’re already well aware. So I might be there, I might not, I have no idea. I can’t be really worried about it. That’s how I’ve survived in this band all this time. Those dudes are going to do what they’re going to do, they’re going to call me or not call me. My life goes on anyway, my art goes on anyway. I’m going to do what I’m going to do. Hopefully I’m there in August and July, but if I’m not it’s not the end of the world. I have to be my own person and go on do my own thing, and in this situation that’s all you can do. And then when things happen, you deal with it as they happen. My hands have been tied in this band when I first started, so I’m good with functioning with my hands tied, so it’s no big deal to me, like whatever happens, happens.
-Jordan Leman, March 27, 2011