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 exclusively LB behavior. But we'll be damned if musicians in any other city do it as effortlessly and as often. For the perfect example, look no further than the Slow Learner Collective. Fronted by sharp-dressed, rail-thin Renaissance man Brandon Eugene Owens (Eugene for short, formerly of Eugene and the 1914), a rotating line-up features player's from all over the spectrum–respected practitioners of jazz, rock, folk, blues and pretty much anyone who kicks ass at their instrument.
Though he's had his experiences as a card-carrying member of a traditional band, this new project is definitely reminiscent of Owens' days as a session bass player working with jazz musicians and touring demigods like Lauryn Hill and Stevie Wonder in his teens and early 20s. In those the days where he'd hardly never play with the same musicians for a long period of time. The only difference is that all the 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. But before you hear their stirring mix of apt eclecticism at this month's Plugged Into Local at Harvelle's in Long Beach on Dec. 19, we chatted Owens' up for a few minutes to find out what the group is all about.
OC Weekly (Nate Jackson): 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 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 the collective featuring different artists. For instance, we have Tiffany Davvy and Casey Filby singing in the jazz part of the band. So it always rotates. I never know exactly what I'm gonna do, I just know what I want to do and it just depends on people's availability and making that happen. Now it's a little bit more spontaneous and a couple different styles of music, but you always know it's gonna be good.
You started by playing a little 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 was playing the drums. We just showed up played, drank for free and got paid, so 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 where 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. So we're not a jack of all trades, we just have a lot of different things that we love and different things that inspire us and that's kind of the beauty of it. So 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.
Do you feel like this band is sort of emblematic of the Long Beach scene?
I love Long Beach, but to be honest with you, I moved away from Long Beach when I was 18 to go to music school in New York. That's what I called my formative years. Then I came back to Long Beach. My brother [Ikey Owens] lives here and I kind of matriculated back into the scene of what's going on here because my brother knew a lot of people. That's when I J.P. [Bendinsky] and started the 1914 and met all these great musicians like four or five years ago. And everyone that I met has grown so much since then. [Alfred Heranandez and J.P.] are in Wild Pack of Canaries now. J.P. has become this great engineer. Everybody's gone and done their own things and now we're coming back and meeting up again, but without the obligations. We're polygamists.
How is this different than your relationships with previous bandmates?
When I did the band thing before, I was kind of like a Hitler. I recorded this record 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, 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 or who we're playing with because we're all great friends. We hang more than we play to be honest.