Never in my life have I stalked a musician or a band for an interview. As a professional editor and journalist, I always follow protocol. I either set things up with a publicist, manager or the band themselves ahead of time. The night I first saw and met Free Moral Agents, I was at the show for Zechs Marquise, who we were scheduled to interview for our other publication, Austin Vida.
After learning that Ikey Owens of The Mars Volta was the force behind Free Moral Agents, I immediately switched from editor to “fan boy.” My curiosity about his new band—new to me, rather—kept me front and center during their set. Lead singer Mendee Ichikawa had a voice like Bjork and the sultriness of Poe. Their sound was a fusion of psychedelic, soul and progressive rock. I absolutely loved it.
With a mp3 recorder in hand, as I have at every show I attend, I made it my mission to talk to Ikey Owens in person that night. I went to the merch booth and bought a vinyl to get signed so I’d have a good reason to approach the band. Truth be told, I collect vinyl records and loved the music so much I would have bought one anyway.
With record and Sharpie in hand, I approached Ichikawa and Owens to sign the record. As they were signing, I told them who I was and what I do. Owens politely agreed to an interview a short while later, once he did whatever he had to do post-performance. About 15 minutes later, Owens, Ichikawa, guitarist Jesse Carzello and I talked on the corner of 11th and Red River, outside Mohawk, for about 15 minutes. With no idea what I was going to say, I just decided to ask whatever came to mind, and this is how it turned out. I had to go for it right? It’s freakin’ Ikey Owens!
How did this band come together?
Ikey: There was a point before De-Loused when I wasn’t playing in Mars Volta for about a year. I made a record on my own that was on GSL, Omar’s label. In an attempt to play that record live, over a long period of time, I started a new band. I’ve known Mendee for a long time and we wanted to just do this, a new band. I didn’t want to try and interpret a previous project.
I assume they were friends or people you’ve known from Long Beach?
Mendee: I’ve known Ikey since I was 15, at least.
Ikey: Dennis (bass) I’ve known for bit. The first live underground band or punk band I ever saw was Suburban Rhythm. That was almost 20 years ago now. I saw Sublime open for them and No Doubt. They were the shit in that realm as far as anyone was concerned, especially out in the Orange County area. Jesse, Reid and Ryan moved to Long beach about 10 years ago.
Jesse: The three of us knew each other from back east in Virginia. We had known each other for about 10 years.
So Free Moral Agents is Ikey’s personal collective of musical all-stars?
Ikey: I don’t know about “all-stars.” Aside from myself, I don’t think anyone has been in a band anyone had actually heard of. As people, I had been planning a way to build a band for a long time. I knew exactly what I was looking for in terms of talent and creativity most of all.
Is there a story or particular meaning behind the band’s name?
Ikey: It’s just a philosophy. You have your freewill to do what you want to do and decide what is best for you. That’s how I feel about it. I’m sure it has different meanings for the other members of the band. I can’t speak for everybody on that.
So who came up with the name?
Ikey: I came up with it. What it is though, I don’t totally define.
So before we tell everyone about your return to Austin, tell me about your first time playing as Free Moral Agents in Austin.
Mendee: We played South By Southwest as part of the Transgressive/Chocolate showcase. It was a day show. Then we played with our buddy 2Mex at the Scoot Inn.
Ikey: We love 2Mex. We have a recording project with him called Look Daggers. At that show, we backed him up.
Tell me a little about the development of this band, musically. This doesn’t sound too “Volta-ish.” A lot of side projects sound a lot like the bands they stem from. In this case, you have a very different sound from Mars Volta. I think takes a bit of courage because once Volta fans make the connection, many will want a Volta-like band.
Ikey: The difference here is that I have so little to do with anything in the Mars Volta as far as the record that it doesn’t really matter to me. I definitely want to make records the general public and Volta fans enjoy, but for me I just did what I could do and did it. It was that simple. I don’t do prog-rock or complicated music, or whatever people think The Mars Volta is. I can’t even imagine how to do a Mars Volta record in my wildest of dreams.
So what is the creation process for you guys like?
Jesse: As far as the creative process, it starts with everyone playing together in a room. Everyone’s individual character gets into the song or groove, and we go from there. It’s a very collaborative process musically.
Who’s the main writer in terms of the lyrics?
Ikey: That’s Mendee.
So let me ask this, Mendee, then: Where does all that angst and emotion stem from that I heard in some of those songs?
Mendee: I don’t know what to say except it comes from the heart, I guess. I mean, where else is it going to come from? I just had a really weird life. I have never been a child. I was born an adult. That’s all I really want to say about that.
I understand. We’re not a gossip site by any means, but you know that the more people hear your band’s music, the more they are going to want to know about you.
Mendee: That’s true. It is partially a new experience for me. When something’s being recorded, then there’s the part of me that chooses what I say carefully. That’s why you edit things right? I do the same thing in my head.
Did some publicist grill that into you?
Mendee: [laughs] No, life trained me to do that. Just tell people that I am not some hired person to front a band; this is for real.
Ikey: Everybody here, except for me, is on vacation from their full-time job. Everybody on the tour with Zechs Marquise was spending their own money to tour. That was their vacation.
Mendee: This is actually the easiest interview for me because we are just chatting.
Well, I didn’t get a chance to prepare for this “interview” and had no previous knowledge of this band. I just saw Ikey and begged him to talk to me.
Mendee: That’s probably why then. When people have an agenda or marked questions, I’m not as into it.
Ikey: It’s really kind of cool that you are as into it as you are.
It’s kind of frightening for me too. I’ve done this several times, but never without preparation or prior knowledge of a band.
Ikey: I’m glad that this is still professional. A lot of people who are not into what we are doing are not fans. They are people who are figuring out some weird agenda. People who like our music aren’t thinking about all that. I don’t need to prove anything anymore, but I hope people like the music. It they don’t, that’s fine too. How they think we got here can be weird. We’re from Mars Volta; that’s some shit you can’t even stress. People always want to know about that. Some people are just going to think we are a put-together band and try and dig that out of us.
I’m not into pre-fabricated questions. Everything I’m asking or talking about with you is to feed my curiosity.
Ikey: Plus, no one knows anything about us, really. It’s not like we have a publicist or anything. We’re on a label, but it’s not that serious yet.
I’m surprised at that. I’m shocked that I’m even in front of you now without having to have jumped through 10 hoops to get here.
Ikey: That’s no big deal.
It is a big deal to me so I’m going to take advantage and ask more questions to Mendee here. With a voice like yours, you could choose to sing any genre of music you wanted. I can hear some Joplin, maybe a little Joss Stone-ish. What made you decide to sing in Free Moral Agents other than your personal relationship with Ikey?
Mendee: All I can think of is that I really love rap and hip-hop a lot. I love the power of words. Even if people don’t understand what is being said, they can still understand what is being conveyed. It is something I have always understood from a very young age. As far as style, I don’t know. I just do what I do and hope people like it.
I guess the guys will let you know if they aren’t feeling something or disagreeing with what comes out of you.
Mendee: Oh, yeah; we all work together in that way.
Ikey: That’s one thing: If it were that kind of band then no one would do an interview but me. I want you to talk to Mendee and Jesse or whomever. I want people to know who they are. It’s a part of what the band is. It is a collaboration of my friends.
I agree with that. You’re not even the voice people are hearing when they see you live or listen to your music. Other than your Mars Volta association, the first thing people will notice is Mendee. That’s also because, and let’s just put it out there, she’s a woman.
Ikey: That’s fine and that’s the way it’s supposed to be.
As far as touring, have most of the venues been smaller clubs or bars?
Ikey: For the most part, but then again I haven’t checked on everything as far as size of the venues we are playing. I’d imagine they are smaller clubs. I play small clubs all the time. I don’t have a preference one way or the other. Sometimes an arena can suck, sometimes small shows can suck. Sometimes arena shows are awesome, same with small clubs.
So Mendee, do you mind mind looking your audience right in the eye, up close and personal?
Mendee: Not really. We did a live film score in L.A. and the way the seats were set up, people were literally at our feet. That’s in your face, in your stuff, between your legs practically. They were close.
What is it that you’d like people to know about Free Moral Agents?
Ikey: We have a song people can download at our website. It’s a live recording of song at our favorite bar. That should let people know who we are. That’s what people need to know. We’ll have lots more music coming out soon.
One final thing I want to confirm for everyone reading this, is that Free Moral agents is not a side project but rather a second band?
Ikey: Yes, it is a second band. We are on a pretty reputable label. I don’t really have time to fuck around with a side project. We’re serious about this band.
Free Moral Agents heads out on a 36-city tour with Sage Francis next month. To see when they’ll be near you, check the band’s MySpace page.