OCTOBER 3, 2016
WHEN I SHOOK legendary Long Beach musician and producer Isaiah “Ikey” Owens’s hand after a De Facto show in 2001, I looked down and saw my own disappear. Ikey’s thick, conditioned hands had generated more dynamic sonic textures that summer than my 16-year-old straight-edge ass had in all my years of playing keyboards.
When you hear, let alone see, Owens’s full palms strike the keys, you sense that the sound travels from the bottom of his spine on up, through the body, before releasing itself into the sky, as his neck cranes in physicalized Goddamns! Owens looks like a man struck by bolts of aural electricity, his fingers stuck to the black-and-white source of the charge. When both hands smash against the faux ivory of his many keyboards, organs, and melodicas — connected to a variety of pedals at his feet — the keys scream triumphant wails, a sound louder and stronger than any mohawked band could ever dream of producing.
In these moments, Owens’s presence on stage is as tall a middle finger as Sly Stone’s pronunciation of the term whitey.
Maybe this is why the black shirt–clad audience stood through two punk bands — Your Enemies Friends and the newly formed Pretty Girls Make Graves — at Chain Reaction in Anaheim to hear De Facto, formed from the remnants of the recently defunct and insanely popular At the Drive-In. Cedric Bixler-Zivala and Omar Rodriguez-López — known for their massive afros, tight women’s jeans, and James Brown–dancing-into-a-mosh-pit performance styles — comprised the rhythm section of De Facto: Omar on bass, Cedric on drums. The quartet was rounded out by Owens and Jeremy Michael Ward, the onstage sound manipulator, melodica player, vocal murmurer, and De Facto’s de facto bandleader. The quartet’s backs-to-the-audience intervention in punk’s predominantly white paradigm exemplified the genre’s best side.
Seldom do you walk into a punk or hardcore show and see a Puerto Rican flag proudly displayed on the headliner’s amp — let alone an actual Puerto Rican dropping two trays’ worth of pedals in front of their monitor. I watched Omar do this at The Glass House in Pomona, California, on the opening date of ATD-I’s last American tour; he seemed to have more pedals than the number of Latinos on alternative rock charts, then or now. White kids have their Plant and Page, their Jagger and Richards. I have Omar and Cedric: their afros, their brown skin, their proud representation of my Mexican and Puerto Rican ancestry.
Although De Facto already existed as a jam-session sidelight as early as 1999, it immediately became the primary creative outlet for Omar and Cedric after ATD-I announced its hiatus in February 2001. Originally a trio (with Jeremy Michael Ward), the group soon recruited Isaiah “Ikey” Owens, who lived six blocks away from Omar and Cedric’s apartment in Long Beach. In 2001, De Facto released a 3-song EP, 456132015, and two full-length albums, ¡Megaton Shotblast! and Légende du Scorpion à Quatre Queues. But by the end of the year, the frenetic creativity of a newly emancipated Omar and an increasingly abstract Cedric culminated in the formation of The Mars Volta, the as-close-to-a-rock-band phoenix to rise from At the Drive-In’s sacred ashes, which quickly overshadowed De Facto and folded it into its wings. The Volta’s ceaseless, soaring sonic exploration would define the next phase of Omar, Cedric, and, briefly, Jeremy’s and Owen’s lives.
Months before Volta’s liftoff, I met Ikey after that De Facto show in Anaheim. In his denim jacket and gorgeous glasses, Owens seemed the very image of cool. I complimented and thanked him for his set. And he thanked me back, shaking my hand with a smile and dap-intended nod. I skulked away, reflecting on the fact that that handshake, to say nothing of De Facto’s amazing punker-than-punk dub set, would never have happened had ATD-I — the United States’s hope for modern rock — stayed together.
The arrival of The Mars Volta was a proud brown-and-black moment in modern rock. Rage Against the Machine, the North Star of brown kid rock fandom, were early supporters of At the Drive-In, lower-billing them on their 1999 tour. After Rage’s demise, the band’s lead singer and commander of information Zach de la Rocha passed the torch by introducing the band at the 2003 MTV VMAs. “It is rare within music that a band recognizes the past and refuses to ignore it […] a band that is more interested in creating moments than creating hits,” de la Rocha declared, before Bixler-Zivala and crew jumped atop amps and into the award show crowd during a somewhat neutered but still spastic performance.
The Volta wouldn’t exist without De Facto: an experimental dub quartet that injected melodicas and improvisation into punk shows throughout Southern California. De Facto solidified the more successful band’s core. But unlike At the Drive-In and De Facto, the Volta was no democracy; one thing was clear — this was Omar and Cedric’s band. The original lineup found Cedric back at vocals and writing all the lyrics, and Omar writing all the music, before assigning it to a group of musicians classically trained but driven by intuition. Los Angeles native Eva Gardner served as the bassist, with Owens at stage left, Ward directing sonic landscapes from somewhere offstage, and the insanely epic Jon Theodore, previously of the band Golden, on drums. After making a covert debut at Chain Reaction in October 2001 under De Facto’s name, they began touring with The Anniversary.
I saw this lineup on November 9, 2001, at the House of Blues in Anaheim, in what was only their 16th live performance. Gone were the black T-shirts, Dickies, and chucks associated with their previous band. In came collared pearl-button shirts, boot jeans, and ankle-high boots, tighter afros, and leather vests. Dancing and sauntering frenetically like a modern-day version of my Puerto Rican uncle from East Harlem in the 1960s and ’70s, Omar, his guitar swung behind his back, clapped his hands as if possessed by any number of holy spirits. Early fan favorite “Roulette Dares” shook the crowd, spotlighting Owens’s organ playing amid pounding percussion and accelerated riffs, with chord progressions arranged like cinematic jump cuts.
I saw the Volta five times between 2001 and 2007. This 2007 performance on The Henry Rollins Show on IFC is a perfect example of Owens’s controlled chaos. As their lineups shifted, the consistent virtuosity of Owens’s performances from 2001 to 2011 centered the band and drew a devoted following. It was the original Volta lineup that Omar praised earlier this year in Rolling Stone, contemplating a reunion of “the four surviving members of the real Mars Volta”: “[A]ny true fan of the band knows that’s the real chemistry right there.”
Jeremy Michael Ward died of a drug overdose on May 25, 2003. He was 27 years old. Ward had just returned to Los Angeles after opening for the Red Hot Chili Peppers and was preparing to tour with the Volta on their own headlining US tour in support of their debut album, De-Loused in the Comatorium.
On July 1, a week after the album’s release, a friend and I drove to the Henry Fonda Theater in my mom’s Buick, to bear witness to the Volta’s first show in support of the album, and the first without Ward. The band unleashed a sermon in the middle of Hollywood. Owen’s very demeanor and dress — seated, in collared shirts and shining watches — was a reproach to the requisite rock uniform. My eyes focused on him during the bridge of “Concertina,” as I anticipated the low-to-high progression that would reintroduce Bixler-Zivala into the song. His playing catapulted the crowd into a frenzy.
Still, a shadow hung over the performance. As the band declared in a statement following Ward’s death, “[Jeremy] was the driving force of Defacto [sic] and an integral part of the Mars Volta, who often went unnoticed because he chose to perform offstage.” Though many media outlets mistakenly referred to him as the band’s keyboardist, he will long be remembered for his role as “sound manipulator.”
Unlike the Volta, De Facto provided Ward with a platform from which to steer traffic and contribute vocals. At the end of the popular De Facto track “Cordova,” it is his voice that asks, “Are we all dying?” Their live shows were public explorations of the many ways the four friends could communicate and collaborate through various descargas and loosely arranged structures centered around their heavy dub bass and punctuated by Owens’s multiple keyboard and melodica setups. During a free outdoor show in Long Beach in 2002 — now a touchstone for any De Facto fan — John Frusciante of the Red Hot Chili Peppers sat in on a live performance of “Cordova.”
De Facto’s sensibility, along with the culture of Long Beach, inspired and informed Ikey’s own Free Moral Agents project. FMA’s 2004 debut album, Everybody’s Favorite Weapon, took full advantage of Owens’s playfully funked-up but melodically grounded approach to keys, layered with delay pedals and nonsensically mumbled hooks — all of it appearing to rise like hazy steam from the concrete streets of Long Beach. Initially describing Free Moral Agents as an Afro-beat driven “combination of Portishead and elements of Sonic Youth and Flaming Lips,” Owens created a trippy constellation of clouds, tapestries of dead-dub drums, a house party–like carousel of guest artists dipping in and out. The beautiful keys solo that ends “Underwater Reverb” flows perfectly into “Omar on a Swing,” where a light slow-mo melody gives way to distorted soul riffs, a cacophony of delayed effects culminating in an explosive outro, before murmurs of a recorded conversation about a bar fight transition us into the next track.
Owens continued to record and tour with The Mars Volta and earned a Grammy for Best Hard Rock Performance in 2009 for their song “Wax Simulacra.” Though he’s credited on Octahedron, he didn’t actually play on the 2009 recording, but he did tour with the band until summer 2011. Free Moral Agents had evolved into a full-touring band, whose own schedule at times conflicted with the Volta’s, which was always arranged in secrecy by Rodriguez-López and Bixler-Zivala. In one of the best and hardest to find interviews with Ikey, he characterizes his relationship with Omar as honest, spontaneous, and carefree. But like a musician’s version of Gotham’s Police Chief, Owens describes himself always waiting for the call to join the Volta on their next effort:
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 […] 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.
Ikey allowed me — a misanthropic Puerto Rican–Mexican hybrid who worshipped Fugazi’s dub explorations in End Hits — to embrace the punk spirit of truly doing you: without a mohawk, without a septum piercing, with keys and not a guitar.
He did so much, and rarely alone. In 2010, Owens was pulled from the crowd of Spaceland in Los Angeles by Money Mark — “Is that Ikey? Oh Damn!” he screams excitedly — and the two solo over each other in perfect synchronicity, before Owens departs back into the dark crowd and the rest of his night. In 2012, Owens sat in with the country/rock outfit The Kenneth Brian Band, whose album Blackbird featured him heavily, at Que Sera in Long Beach. A frequent face at Low End Theory, Ikey also curated SELFISH, a monthly residence at Que Sera, throughout May 2013, along with his brother Eugene Owens and Matty Silva. Hip-hop heads would find Owens’s appearing on El-P’s solo albums and his and Killer Mike’s extremely popular Run the Jewels releases. His solo at a live performance with 2Mex in their group Look Daggers makes it clear why so many wanted to work with him:
And concert footage such as this 2012 performance at Long Beach’s Fingerprint Records, where Owens himself worked for several years, indicates how powerful Free Moral Agents were live — much more so than on their sometimes strained recordings. 2010 brought the release of the project’s final album, Control This, which shines with jewels like “When I Smile” and a full-band reprise of “Gem From a Broken Rock,” previously recorded as a duet between Owens and FMA vocalist Mendee Ichikawa. That same year, Owens rereleased Looking for Lauryn Hill in Lakewood under his own name. Friends like pro skateboarder and musician Ray Barbee sit in for reprises of previous FMA tracks (“Everybody’s Favorite Weapon”), previews of future FMA tracks (“Black Orchid Clam”), and a guitar cover of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” by FMA guitarist Jesse Carzello, a.k.a. bobby blunders. Those cuts, and the joyous, jumping sound of the track “Hips,” make this brief album one of Ikey’s most impressive studio efforts.
The Mars Volta disbanded in 2013 after a very public spat between Rodriguez-López and Bixler-Zivala, and Owens began working with Jack White on the album Lazaretto. The album sold over 138,000 copies in its first week in 2014, arriving on the US Billboard album charts strongly at number one. Owens began touring with White’s all-male band The Buzzards, appearing on Saturday Night Live and receiving what many longtime fans felt was a long overdue moment in the public spotlight.
Owens’s last few years were dedicated to supporting many new groups, including Los Angeles’s Chicano Batman, Long Beach’s Crystal Antlers, and Denver’s Rubedo. He was a true mentor to Crystal Antlers, even producing a short film about the band and sitting in on live sets at The Prospector. He produced all of Rubedo’s recorded work and frequently joined them onstage for some raucous jam parties in Colorado. You can sense the thrill of Owens’s stage presence in this performance of Rubedo’s “Love Is The Answer” in Long Beach. Just days before his death in Mexico, he played a set with Rubedo at Que Sera.
Isaiah Randolph “Ikey” Owens died on October 14, 2014, while on tour with Jack White in Mexico. He was 39 years old. It would later be determined that the cause of death was a fatal heart attack, related to a previously undiagnosed condition.
Longtime fans grappled with the news. White canceled the remaining dates of the band’s Mexico tour, and offered a heartfelt tribute, as did Eddie Vedder, Questlove, and El-P. The many bands in Denver whose music Owens helped produce, including Rubedo and Wheelchair Sports Camp, held a memorial at La Raza Park. Rubedo drummer Gregg Ziemba recalled how Owens’s voice “just screamed through the keyboard.” An LA Weekly headline declared what his fans have always known: Ikey was “more than a hired gun.” A tribute show in Long Beach was organized at Alex’s Bar, a frequent haunt for Owens and friends; the flyer delivered a simple message in present tense: “We Love You Ikey.”
Months after Ikey’s death, his brother Aaron Owens died from congestive heart failure at the age of 38. Aaron was formerly a guitar player in Hepcat, and had worked with Ikey in Kelis’s backing band. A benefit concert in the name of both brothers was held at the El Rey Theater, with proceeds dedicated to a future boutique studio honoring the Owens brother’s legacies.
I am writing this in an era when the death of a superstar musician can usher in weeks of public grief and testimonies from fellow celebrities, as well as the release of anthologies, b-sides, rare performances, and so forth. But that is the treatment accorded to the select few that pop culture deems worthy of recognition. It is for this reason that I am thankful to the many online videos uploaded by Ikey’s fans, who had the foresight to capture his spirit, his talent, and his kindness.
This October marks two years since Owens’s death. His hometown Long Beach has not forgotten him. Earlier this year, the band I/O was formed by a quartet of Long Beach artists who had all been individually mentored by Owens, but who had never met or formally collaborated before, including Tatiana Velazquez, guitarist Miguel Vazquez of the Seattle band Wild Pack of Canaries, keyboardist Jacob Connelly, and drummer Ryan Reiff. A residency in February at 4th Street Vine included appearances by FMA vocalist and frequent Owens collaborator Mendee Ichikawa. This September, David Van Patten created a drawing for Long Beach’s The Edge magazine, which presents a tiled history of locals-only scenes; it includes Ikey Owens digging through aisles of records at Fingerprints. The city still honors its native son, who toured the world but was always a handshake away.