By Adam Lovinus
By Lilledeshan Bose
By Gabriel San Roman
By Rachel Mattice
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Daniel Kohn
By Nate Jackson
By Mike Seeley
On the right side of this little sidewalk deli table is rapper 2MEX—the longtime Visionaries member and current $martyr with a discography of songs pushing into the high hundreds—and on the left is Ikey Owens, the Long Beach keyboardist best known for his membership in the Mars Volta, and in between the two of them is some wild kind of renaissance potential. People on the street notice this, pretty girls turning on their heels for double takes once they think they're a safe distance past. They sense great things. So does the deli guy who brings out some sandwiches: "You have some crazy hair," he says respectfully, looking at 2MEX's unraveling ex-mohawk and Ikey's spiky tufts.
"Thanks," says 2MEX. "We're brothers."
And maybe: separated at birth, but reunited by temperament. Owens and 2MEX are musicians' musicians, humble and disciplined locals who built themselves careers the old-fashioned way, guys who already have "homes" in other projects, says 2MEX. But for the past year, they've been working together outside the house on a new band called the Look Daggers, a hip-hop/psych/pop project that consolidates a who's who of formidable local talent into an upcoming album that could do anything. It's already lighting up résumés across two counties. Owens, who served as executive producer—says he could have gone with session sharks from LA, but . . . what would be the point?
"I know people around here are as good as any people I can hire," he says.
"We're those kind of people," says 2MEX. "We're two work-for-hire-ass motherfuckers!"
"It ranges from people like Stephen Hodges who have played on legendary records to Alicia Westerman, who works for the police department—on the same album," says Owens. "Pretty cool."
Pretty elaborate too: as census alone, Look Daggers set records. Besides Hodges—who's drummed for Tom Waits, Mike Watt and more—and Alicia, the Look Daggers full-length bear hugs musicians from Highland Park to Anaheim. In the credits already: guitarist/skater Ray Barbee, rappers Busdriver and Existereo (of the Shapeshifters), bassist Jonathan Hischke (from noisy garage-prog band Hella), Mastodon guitarist Brent Hinds and Breakestra guitarist Pat Bailey, Dusty Rhodes violinist/singer (and Weekly cover alumna) Drea Babinski, Thelonious Monster singer Bob Forrest, 400 Blows singer Skot—whose famously serrated vocals add a nasty P.I.L. feel, says Owens—and singer Mendee Ichikawa from Owens' Free Moral Agents project, plus more before official release this fall.
Long Beach band Sexy Time Explosion even graduated up to the Look Daggers house band, writing the live backing tracks for about half of the total sessions. The goal was to have "all human beings on everything," says Owens—even the digitized synth drums were played in tandem with live tracks by Reel Big Fish's Ryland Steen. And electronic musician Daedelus plays bass clarinet in there somewhere too, which should blow off any fumes from the rap-rock goofball factory. Owens laughs at a mention of Linkin Park and winces a little at the Roots—who defined a lot of live-band hip-hop so tightly it's hard for anyone else to get in later—because Look Daggers is less about crossover than overlap, a band started by two lifers who listen to everything and are open to anything.
"The problem is when rappers go find rock bands, they ignore a whole side of rock," says Owens. "They make it sound like Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Sabbath—if you look at hip-hop, that also came from Can, Neu, the krautrock stuff, the no wave stuff. It evolved around that scene, not big rock. People forget ESG is rock too."
"I'm still rapping how I rap," says 2MEX. "I've been rapping the same way since I was 17, for real. But I'm just bringing out that little inner Morrissey—I can't really sing, but I could at least transfer that emotion a little more. No disrespect to my hip-hop producers, but I'll bring them a My Bloody Valentine record and they'll look at me like . . . 'I'm not even gonna listen to this!' I like working with people that are into other stuff. Hip-hop gets stagnant—modern-day hip-hop, a lot of it's really stagnant. But doing this?"
He pssssssssssssssshes, appreciatively. A year into a band that has yet to put out a real release or play a show—the live debut is this Sunday—and Owens and 2MEX still haven't run out of things to appreciate. In some ways, Look Daggers is so brand-new it barely exists—besides promo single "Before You Say No" (put on Up Above), the rest of the recorded tracks come on CDRs in Owens' pockets; songs play out with long, empty verses still waiting for this or that guest to make it down to the studio. But around Up Above Records—the Long Beach independent hip-hop label that's signed on to put the album out—the Look Daggers rough mix sounds gigantic, blocky synth drums and deep dubby bass pushing against the back of the room. Air, Dr. Dre and post-Barrett Pink Floyd, says Owens—that's what he wanted. At the other end of the table, Visionary/Up Above label head Key Kool is bouncing his head to that cavernous beat. 2MEX's vocals scramble for purchase, mixed to bring out a certain desperate breathlessness. Pssssssssssssh, appreciatively.