Eugene Owens' Slow Learner Collective Embrace Musical Polygamy
Long Beach is a city for musicians who like to spread themselves around. It's nothing new to hear about a guitarist or drummer who happens to play in four or five bands at a time. Sure, we wouldn't call that behavior exclusive to that city. But we'll be damned if musicians in any other city do it as effortlessly or as often. For the perfect example, look no further than the Slow Learner Collective. Sharp-dressed, rail-thin Renaissance man Brandon Eugene Owens (Eugene for short, formerly of Eugene and the 1914) fronts a rotating lineup of players from all over the spectrum—respected practitioners of jazz, rock, folk, blues, pretty much anyone who kicks ass at their instrument.
Though he's had his experiences as a member of a traditional band, this project is definitely reminiscent of Owens' teens and early 20s as a session bass player with jazz musicians and touring demigods such as Lauryn Hill and Stevie Wonder. In those days, he hardly ever played with the same musicians for a long period of time. Now, the collective's members hang out together more than they practice together, and they all seem to have a wealth of music gigs that sound nothing like what they're doing with Slow Learner, which is undoubtedly a good thing. We spoke with Owens to find out what the group are all about.
OC Weekly: Slow Learner is your project, but it's basically a rotating collective of musicians. How did that dynamic start?
Eugene Owens: Basically, I had the band Eugene and the 1914, and when that kind of dissolved and we stopped playing together, everyone kind of went their separate ways. Then I took a couple of months off, but I decided I still wanted to do music and still keep some of that Eugene and the 1914 stuff and also draw upon some things I'd done earlier as a musician. I also do some styles I'd like to do more of in the future. So it could be Slow Learner Collective featuring different artists. It's a little bit more spontaneous with a couple of different styles of music, but you always know it's gonna be good.
You started by playing a residency at the Wine Bar in Long Beach. How'd the first shows pan out?
I was playing electric bass at that time, and Alfred Hernandez was playing the drums. We just showed up, played, drank for free and got paid—it was great. Then it kind of developed into more of a thing where I'd say, "Okay, let's do some Eugene and the 1914 songs. Who is available that night?" Or there were nights when I'd want to play the upright bass and do some jazz stuff. Or Alfred would say he wanted to do some Brazilian music the next month. It's a collective in a sense that after living here in California, there's a group of musicians here that we know, and hopefully, it'll expand to outside California, to wherever we go. We all tour, and we're all constantly touring and meeting people. It's not like they have to get a tattoo that says, "Slow Learner."
How is the relationship between members of the collective different from your experience with previous bands?
When I did [Eugene and the 1914], I was kind of like a Hitler. I recorded this album in New York, and I was like, "Everybody, learn your parts. These are the shows we're doing." I like not having to have that rule over people, where we gotta go on tour. It's more like, "Hey, man, wanna play today?" It's not a jam session; everybody knows we have this pool of songs, and we have this pool of styles. And it all comes together. So the energy is what's there. Slow Learner is an energy. It's not slow, and it's not like we're learning slow; we all have that energy when we're together, no matter what we're playing.
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