Isaiah "Ikey" Owens had already played with Sublime and the Long Beach Dub Allstars by the time Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Omar Rodríguez-López invited him to join the Mars Volta on its Grammy-winning journey into hard-rock, prog-rock, math-rock and anything else you can stick in front of a rock. But recent turns of events suggest he may be at another crossroads.
It's not that the keyboardist hasn't been involved with other projects over the past decade; he's played with Mastodon, features on the new debut album from TV on the Radio spinoff Maximum Balloon, and collaborates with Long Beach hip-hop heavyweight 2Mex in the Look Daggers.
But his new band, Free Moral Agents, is turning out to be a real commitment. Not that it's entirely new: Owens first used the name in 2004 for a solo album that featured current frontwoman Mendee Ichikawa on one track (the best one, he maintains). Since then, FMA has evolved into a proper band; its Control This album comes across as a more stripped-down Brand New Heavies, a less electronically charged Gang Gang Dance. To promote the collectively inclined group, Owens ended up turning down recent Mars Volta dates in South America.
"It definitely wasn't a decision anyone was happy with, but I think they all understand," Owens says. "The Mars Volta is a band that operates so much on passion that they understand that this is where my heart is right now — 'I can't really get onstage with you guys right now without it being a lie,' you know?
"I'm definitely a lot broker for not going," admits Owens. "But we all put so much energy into this record that to not do it would be a disservice to my friends and to the music we made."
The Mars Volta, meanwhile, appears to be going through its own changes. Rodríguez-López went off to do his own solo tour this summer, and the follow-up to last year's Octahedron was recently shelved. How would Owens' life change if he left the group, or if it disbanded entirely?
"The Mars Volta's future has nothing to do with me," says Owens. "You know, there's only two people that have anything to do with whether or not I'm in that band or whether the band breaks up or not. I'm just glad that, no matter what happens, I'll always be associated with them. I'll be 85, playing classic Greek music or whatever, and part of who I am will always be tied to them."
The same goes for Owens' relationship with his hometown, which he much prefers over its neighbor to the north.
"Growing up here, L.A. was always kind of like where the hair bands came from. Long Beach is a whole different musical universe. And there's so many different kinds of musicians here, that you don't have to go anywhere. Like if I need a shredder guitar player, I can find a shredder guitar player. If I need a reggae drummer, I know who to call. Same thing if I need a funk bass player."
But what if Owens needed Bret Michaels?
"I don't think I'll ever need Bret Michaels. But if I did need to find a guy to sing like Bret Michaels, I probably would have to go to L.A. for that."