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By Mike Seeley
Party Like It’s 1914
Eugene Owens lives the life of a bandleader, touring musician and metaphysical time traveler
Sitting across from Eugene Owens, you sense he’s not prone to staying in one place for too long. Even if his calm demeanor and Cheshire grin suggest otherwise.
Reclining cross-legged on a battered leather couch, Owens, 25, hangs with members of his band Eugene & the 1914 inside a Long Beach loft/rehearsal space inhabited by guitarist Michael J. Salter. Relaxing for a couple of hours on a Wednesday, the soft-spoken tales that drip from his consciousness reveal a man who has spent a lifetime on the move. A couple of lifetimes, actually.
Whether you’re talking about his experiences playing bass behind Lauryn Hill or Stevie Wonder, or his more metaphysical past life sometime in 1914 (hence the band name), during which he claims to have met drummer JP Bendzinsky, Owens has plenty to say about being a wandering soul. So does his music. Fraught with folky rhythms and restrained, slow-melting lyricism, Eugene & the 1914 generate grade-A travel tunes that skip along, as stifling city roads bleed into breezy countryside.
“I try to make [songwriting] as natural and innate as possible,” says Owens, who also plays guitar in the band—which is rounded out by bassist Timmy Samorile and keyboardist Alfred Hernandez. Owens grew up in Long Beach, with his talented brothers, Ikey (Mars Volta/Free Moral Agents keyboard player) and Aaron (former guitarist of Hepcat), shaping his musical taste. The sounds of artists such as Tom Petty (a favorite of Ikey’s and, by extension, Eugene’s) continue to find their place between the cracks of Eugene’s songwriting, although his voice, a tuneful, unpretentious whisper, sounds more like Curtis Mayfield tampering with folk instead of funk.
Jazz and R&B paved the way for early travels. Picking up the upright bass at Los Angeles High School for the Arts, Owens honed his talent quickly—quick enough to be sharing the stage at age 16 with Stevie Wonder for a gig at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.
Migrating eastward, Owens studied music, writing and film scoring at New School in New York. He soon dropped out of college to capitalize on a number of life-changing auditions and several years of what he calls his “formal” training: endless cross-continental plane rides spent memorizing songs for someone else’s tour.
His most prolonged encounter came at age 21, when he toured with controversial soul genius Lauryn Hill as bass player/musical director.
“As crazy as she was live, and as hard as she was to work with, [Lauryn] is definitely one of the most talented artists that I’ve ever met in my life,” Owens says.
Before leaving New York to return to Long Beach, Owens recorded as a folk-rock artist. His most notable effort, The Troubles LP, was recorded with two other noteworthy acquaintances, Ryan Adams and Smashing Pumpkins vet James Iha. It was picked up and shelved by New Line Records, owned by Time Warner. Owens has since regained the rights to Troubles, shopping it to different labels; he hopes to release it by November.
But it was his connection with the Long Beach musicians who would become the 1914 that gave his solo effort new life. The band come from a broad spectrum of artistic backgrounds, from formal jazz studies to music engineering and graphic arts. It’s a creative combo that adds colorful strokes to poised and tender songs, seen in the campfire strumming of “Whiskey and Wine” and “Troubles.”
In addition to revamping Owens’ solo work, the band have broken new ground on atmospheric, indie-pop tracks such as “Love War,” with its powerful pop arrangements and quivering guitar lines.
“It’s not just like trying to mimic a song that’s already on record, but trying to also contribute something original to it,” Salter says. The band hit a milestone in September, hooking up with the legendary Westlake Studios (home of Thriller) and CEO/producer Al Machera to record material for an EP, scheduled for March 2010.
Being a perpetual nomad, Owens found time to squeeze in another East Coast escape, gigging (along with Bendzinsky) on bass with New York comrades the Rosewood Thieves in October. But the continued success of the 1914, a forthcoming record and a fall tour back in Long Beach are enough to inspire plenty of homesickness.
Eugene & the 1914 can be found online at www.myspace.com/eugenetheband.