During a recent Free Moral Agents practice session, the thunder of hypnotic dub and prog-funk mixed with saw-toothed synths and howling vocals sound more like a revival than a rehearsal. For the bandmates of the late keyboardist and producer Ikey Owens, there are times when it definitely feels that way.
Though primarily known as the keyboardist for Grammy-winning rock acts Jack White and The Mars Volta, Owens was always proud of the band he started with friends and fellow local musicians within his weird little slice of the Long Beach scene in 2003. Vocalist Mendee Ichikawa still draws energy from the chemistry of Owens, guitarist Jesse Carzello, bassist Dennis Owens and drummer Ryan Reiff during practice with the help of producer and longtime friend J.P. Bendzinski handling Owens’ keyboard parts. It’s been several years since the band’s last reunion gig in Owens’ memory in the wake of his passing in 2014, but they’ve never strayed far from each other or their roots.
“I feel like it’s still us even when he’s not there,” she says. “When J.P. is playing a solo and tearing it up if I close my eyes and for a second it and Ryan’s going off and Jesse’s going off almost feels like he’s there. We know he’s not but the spirit is that high and that strong, I don’t think that’s changed for us at all as far as the degree to which we’re passionate about the songs.”
For one hour during this year’s Music Tastes Good festival, the spirit of one of Long Beach music’s humble icons returns to make his presence heard.
But the band’s upcoming memorial gigs for Owens at Alex’s Bar and MTG are more than a retrospective of Owens’ life. Under the moniker Radiolistener, the band also celebrates his path forward, etched on Owens’ final, unreleased solo album. With the help of Gregg Ziemba, drummer for Denver band Rubedo, Owens’ final solo album will come out this winter. Surrounding the band on stage, a cast of musicians who knew Owens the best will also perform songs from his catalog with previous bands. Fellow members of Radiolistener include rappers 2Mex (who performed with Owens in Look Daggers) and Nocando as well as Rudy De Anda, Rubedo, Bobby Blunders, Mendee Ichikawa and bassist Brandon “Eugene” Owens, Ikey’s brother.
For those familiar with Owens’ work and the legacy he left behind, seeing him honored at one of Long Beach’s marquee music events with the help of his friends is more than fitting. In the wake of his death after a sudden heart attack while on tour with Jack White in Mexico, it was questionable whether Long Beach would ever be the same in his absence. Though local musicians went through a period of grief, the music scene has definitely become a lot more active in recent years, driven primarily by those influenced by Owens.
“It kinda lit a fire under everybody’s ass because Ikey was always the one who kinda held the weight of all of us as one of those who made it,” says bassist Dennis Owens, who in addition to playing in Free Moral Agents and starting legendary DJ night The Goodfoot has been playing in the local music scene since 1989. “So now that he’s no longer around it pushed a lot of people to go for it creatively and put that much extra effort to realize what they were trying to realize.”
It’s a sentiment that’s become even more apparent with the rise of MTG, a festival now in its third year of presenting a buffet of international, underground and musical and culinary talent. In addition to headliners New Order, James Blake, Janelle Monaé, The Black Angels and an array of world-class chefs from Long Beach and port cities around the country, LBC’s music scene is also getting its due. Local acts on the bill include Free Moral Agents drummer Reiff’s current band Asi Fui as well as The Black Noise, Forest of Tongue, Manuel the Band, Koibito, and a reunion set from The Fling.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the return of Free Moral Agents will be the reception of it in a time that’s finally caught up to Ikey’s eclectic production and the band’s genre-bending ethos. For years, Owens and company prided themselves on performing with acts from across the musical spectrum–exuding the same explosive energy at a rock show as they did in front of hip-hop crowds at Low End Theory.
“The way the scene is now is more conducive to what we do,” Dennis Owens says. “Back when we were playing I felt like we were almost on an island stylistically. We played with all sorts of bands and that was cool but there were very few bands like us.”
This was also indicative of Owens’ ability to produce and jam with just about anyone from the chord crushing metal of Mastodon to the slap-happy ska of Reel Big Fish. His taste in music was vast, which was part of how the name Radiolistener came about, due to his shameless love of all types of popular bands and artists he heard on the radio ranging from Weezer to Lauryn Hill and Tom Petty. In many ways, even though he never quite got the credit he deserved, he would go on to become the glue that holds many of today’s music fans’ favorite records together.
“In the jazz era I feel like he would’ve been a household name because more people paid attention to the players in the bands,” says Gregg Ziemba, the drummer of Denver band Rubedo and a longtime collaborator with Owens. “But in this era of music, it’s so much more based on the front person. So people in their 30s probably don’t realize that Ikey was on almost every single record that they liked.”
Right before he passed away, one of Owens’ last projects was his solo album that he planned to release on a label he’d started with Ziemba called Love Brothers Records. The album itself was a labor of love, showcasing everything from Owens’ jazzy, dub-inspired production, signature keyboard tones, and even sees him stepping out as a vocalist on one of the tracks–something he’d never done before.
Owens and Ziemba hired label manager Ryan Rockford to help solidify Love Brothers a few days before Owens’ untimely death. Sorting through the wreckage of his loss, Ziemba and Rockford coordinated the final cut of his solo album in conjunction with Thirdman Records. When it came time to figure out how to promote it, Ziemba thought of all the people Owens’ helped over his career and figured this was the best way for everyone to give back.
“All he was ever trying to do is use his ability to help his community and his friends bands which is really fucking rare,” Ziemba says. “Especially in this day and age where we see this extreme abuse of power he used his power to uplift people who didn’t have the resources.”
Ziemba connected with Jon Halperin, the talent buyer from Music Tastes Good, who also had a long friendship with Owens (he even released some of Owens’ earliest bands material on his former label Vegas Records). Halperin suggested giving the musician friends of Owens an hour set to put together a tribute.
Friday night, before their big MTG set, Radiolistener’s warm-up show at Alex’s Bar will be the supergroup’s first attempt at performing together with all of its members, though Free Moral Agents have been working together on the show as the band’s core unit. Several of the songs they’ll be playing are unreleased and part of an album they plan to put out soon. Much of what they did in their later years as a band was constructed without Owens who was frequently away on tour with Jack White. As a result, the rest of the band–who each have their own projects–were able to take a greater role in guiding their sound.
“It’s interesting getting back to it with this dynamic now where everyone is a bandleader or a producer in their own right and going at it in a way where we’re all peers and doing this together and separately,” says guitarist Jesse Carzello, who also plays in Bobby Blunders. “So we feel his absence but there’s still chemistry there and it still feels good to play with these guys.”
Though he’s no doubt left his mark on Long Beach music and still has many loyal fans, Owens’ bandmates seem even more excited to present his music to people who’ve migrated to the city in recent years and may not know much about Owens or his storied career. To them, that would be an ideal setting for the low-key musician who frequently played bars and small clubs around town and always made himself available to those coming up in the scene. Despite being a bonafide rock star, he always treated every show with the same excitement. Even in spirit, that’s something that will never change.
“It was always very admirable considering he was onstage in front of tens of thousands of people and then he’d play a bar with 35 people or less,” says the band’s drummer Ryan Reiff. “He was about the moment, no matter what that moment was.”
Radiolistener performs at Alex’s Bar for Ikey Fest! on Friday, Sep. 28 at 6 p.m. and at Music Tastes Good, Saturday, Sep. 29 at 1:55 p.m. (Gold Stage).