Music News

The Mars Volta's Ikey Owens stretches his wings in Free Moral Agents

Free Moral Agents is an experimental pop band led by Isaiah "Ikey" Owens, who's better known these days for being the live keyboard player in the Mars Volta. A veteran musician, Owens has been a member of Sublime and the Long Beach Dub Allstars, and his diverse talents have led to guest appearances on albums by artists as disparate as Mastodon, Saul Williams and the Hippos. With songs that sound like the next evolutionary step for trip-hop infused with Afro-Cuban rhythms and an edgy psychedelia, Free Moral Agents reveals Ikey's far-ranging musical creativity. During a break from an album mixing session, we had a chance to chat with Owens about his role in both bands and his route to becoming a keyboard player.

Westword: How did you end up being the keyboardist in the Mars Volta, and what do you see as your role in Free Moral Agents as compared with your role in Mars Volta?

Isaiah "Ikey" Owens: I ended up in the Mars Volta because Omar and Cedric moved six blocks away from me. We had a mutual friend, and they had a band called De Facto while At the Drive-In was still going, and I joined De Facto. When At the Drive-In broke up, I moved over to the Mars Volta. Basically, in the Mars Volta, my role is as a live keyboard player. I have little to nothing to do with the records at all.

In this band, I produce, I write, I drive the van, I load the gear — it's pretty much a night-and-day difference. I go there, and I can relax and not do much except go play keyboards. In this project, I really enjoy the process of putting everything together and working with the people in the band. In the Mars Volta, there's not a lot of creative interaction, but it's good to have both outlets as a musician.

What attracted you to playing keyboards, and what would you recommend to someone who wants to learn to play them?

Keyboards were the easiest things to translate from my classical-music background. I played horns — low brass, tuba and trombone. When I wanted to play rock music, it was the easiest to translate the theory I knew onto a keyboard and have it make sense. Once I started doing that, there were so few keyboardists, I never really learned to play anything else. Once I got good enough to be in a band, I just stayed super busy.

As far as people wanting to learn to play, I'd just say learn to play your favorite records. I just tried to play as many different kinds of music as possible. Just listen to all the music you can and play along — that's all I did.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Tom Murphy is a writer, visual artist and musician from Aurora, Colorado. He was a prolific music writer for Westword and a documenter of the Denver music scene.