Michael Owens has seen more of the world than most. These travels are reflected in his music which, after fifteen years, has culminated in a tender, guitar-led album named ‘Aliens’.
Far from the heavy stompers of previous bands Puget Sound, Terrordactyl and Realistic Train, as a debut ‘Aliens’ not only demonstrates Owensie’s flexibility as a guitarist but also his sincerity: it’s music with a meaning.
“The song ‘Aliens’ is about migration, specifically about the point where humans cross borders and become ‘aliens’. It’s about the sadness of that moment when people have to abandon one life in order to survive in another,” is his response to my question regarding the album title. The entire interview was conducted via email. ”In a broader sense, it is about how migration processes can dehumanise people. I’ve worked in this area in a social care type capacity in the past and I study the topic from a sociological perspective in university, so it’s something that I think about a lot. I started writing it the morning after I woke up on the studio floor after my first recording session with James [Eager, at The Hive Studios in Wicklow]. The melody was just there, sitting on the strings.”
So flows inspiration. As a child Owensie was part of a Latin-polyphonic church choir with a strong repertoire of classical and Gregorian chants and at nine years old, went on tour across Europe which may have laid the foundations for his fascination with the wider world. Guitars and rock bands followed a few years later.
“It wasn’t until I was about thirteen that I started to play guitar after I got into grunge in a big way. Some of my older brother’s classmates were playing in a punk band called Bambi and I got really into punk around that time. I saw them play at a battle of the bands and thought that it looked like the coolest thing ever! They were doing Sex Pistols and Beastie Boys covers. I’m actually cracking up here now just thinking about it…I smashed up my first ever electric guitar at a battle of the bands in Dun Laoghaire when I was about sixteen, just to look cool. The Waltons played at that too, and Fionn Regan as well, I think! That was 1996. I had this awful blue Jackson copy called a ‘Vester’ for about 5 years after that until I bought a De Armond re-issue in 2001 after my 21st birthday. I haven’t bought another electric since. Partly because I’m broke most of the time. I really love the De Armond though, it’s been through the wars and still sounds great. Probably could do with new pick-ups though…. I really love the cheap classical that I bought in the Oxfam shop on Francis Street a few years ago cause that’s the one that I started to write the songs from ‘Aliens’ with. That’s still going, though it has been living in my partner’s living-room for the last couple of years. I use the flamenco that I bought in Spain for recording on. I love that guitar too. It feels and sounds lovely, I play it non-stop. It’s very hard not to pick it up when I’m at home. I love Electro Harmonics effects pedals too. I use them a lot when writing for Realistic Train.
There is an anecdote about finding the flamenco guitar in a Spanish instrument shop on a mountaintop which resulted in the 2009 EP track ‘Ronda’, one of the first indications of Owensie’s change in direction. Unsurprisingly, living in Brazil also had a major impact.
“I actually bought the guitar in Granada but visited Ronda that same week and wrote the piece about it cause I thought it was a really beautiful place. The following year I returned to Ronda and tried to post a copy of the song into the letterbox at the town hall, addressed to the mayor. The security guards made me wait outside for ages until the mayor himself arrived outside en route to his car with his driver. I handed a brown envelope with the CD inside to him, explained what it was and he took it and said thanks. I never heard from him again. I discovered a few months later from some friends on holiday in the same region that he had been indicted as being involved in some form of corrupt activity that had become disclosed in the Spanish media.”
“I lived in Brazil twice, first in 2000/2001 and later in 2003/2004. Puget Sound toured there on both occasions. Brazil is a big country with a lot of different kinds of music. Actually, there’s a really annoying dance music from the North-East called Axe (ash-eh) that drives me up the fucking wall! I got really into old-school Bossa Nova and Samba while living there. There’s another kind of folk style called Forro (foh-ho) from the north that I like too. Most of these genres are rooted in European and African musical traditions more so than indigenous music from South America.”
“One of the worst gigs ever was probably during our first tour of Brazil one night with a legendary 80s punk band from Sao Paulo called Hino Mortal. The gig was in a small football club-house in the suburbs. During our set, a woman living in the house next door to the venue died. Her husband came to the door of the venue to ask the organisers to stop the music while we were playing. They refused and so we were left playing on stage to only a handful of people at full volume, oblivious to what was going on outside. After we played, an argument broke out between some Kaos punks and some Anarcho punks at the door. At one point the Anarcho punks started to give us shit for not wanting to buy their pamphlets. The issue of the death of the woman next door seemed to have been forgotten about completely. Later that night our friends who were organising the gig decided to take the subway home while we stayed at a house near the venue. The following morning we were woken by a phone call telling us that they had been attacked on the subway by a gang of skinheads that night. One of our friends had his head kicked through the window of the train, though he only ended up with a bit of concussion and some stitches. The next night we played a gig in Sao Paulo city and ended up being escorted home from the venue by a gang called the Devastation Punks because there was another gang outside that wanted to knife. Why? Because we didn’t give them a free patch from our merch stall. The only way home was by subway, carrying our guitars and drum stuff with us, which took several gruelling hours of running through turnstiles and switching carriages while keeping a constant lookout for skinheads. We made it back in the end though. Not that Sao Paulo or even Brazil is all gangs and violence. We stayed in favelas and were never bothered once. People put us up, fed us and we would never have managed to get around without all of that help. We just had a bit of bad luck first time round, I think. The second tour ran a lot smoother.”
While the experiences of a travelling musician may not have much in common with those of asylum seekers or refugees, they do present a broader perspective. Now a final-year student of Sociology and Social Policy in Trinity College, Owensie has put his worldly view to good use.
“‘Cat and Mouse’ is about an asylum-seeker family that fell from the balcony of their flat in an old housing-estate in Glasgow,” continues his explanation of the album’s song titles. “An apparent multiple suicide under mysterious circumstances. ‘Subtle Connections’ is about exploring the meaning of identity within globalised or ‘multicultural’ cities and communities. ‘The Search’ is kind of spiritual but in a way that is trying to deal with a world that at times seems loaded with religions and religious conflicts or ideological struggles under the mask of religion.
‘Aliens’ as an album title seemed to cover most of those issues in the most concise way. And it’s definitely the most memorable title among those songs.”
While the album flows as a seamless collection, led by Owensie’s sympathetic vocals along with the strike and strum of guitar, underpinned by minimal percussion and the gentler tones of piano and strings, ‘Aliens’ was not completed in a short burst of productivity. Setting out to record in James Eager’s Hive Studios instead seemed to herald a new journey in musical exploration, complete with highs and lows.
“I know James since he started playing in Kidd Blunt. He had said it to me a couple of years back that he’d be interested in recording some of the songs. He’d heard a demo that I had done with Dec Hynes in an old factory in Crumlin. James and I clicked in the studio from the start, our first session together was really productive. We spent very long days together recording, we both have a pretty good work ethic so there wasn’t much scope for acting the arse.
The songs were recorded over a very long period of time due to other stuff going on in life. In a way that was hard because you need to recapture the momentum and excitement each time you go back in to the studio. That can be difficult if you’re re-doing vocals on a track that you recorded the guitar for six months earlier. But that was the situation at the time…I’m hoping to do the next album within a smaller time-frame. I remember lamenting to Steve Ryan from Windings that I was losing perspective on the whole thing. He’d been through the same problems with the last Windings album so that kind of reassured me a bit. I talked to Ciaran Crayonsmith about it a good bit too. We’re always having discussions about songwriting when we bump into each other. It’s great. It really helps to talk about this stuff with your musical peers. As musicians and writers, I don’t think that we talk to each other about what we do enough. It’s nearly always… “Any gigs comin’ up, man?”… “Sound.”… “Did you watch Fade St. last night…?” etc.”
“I think that the idea for strings came up when James and I were in the studio working on the songs. It just seemed like it would be worth trying out. A while later I approached Julia Mahon at a gig and asked her if she’d be willing to give it a go. She played in Swing Youth and had also written music for some Boris Belony stuff too that was quite wacky. I didn’t know her at all so it was strange in a way at first. I just had a feeling that she would write something that would not be generic in a way that a lot of singer-songwriter types seem to fall foul of. I sent her the songs with guide notes for what I was looking for and she totally nailed it. The strings were recorded in my living room kind of incrementally over a few months when people were available. That was nice though because I’d generally cook up a big meal and we’d sit around, drink some wine and take it at our leisure.
A friend of James let us use the very well-tuned piano in his house to record Julia’s piano parts which also turned out great. Percussion and drums were done last. We were originally going to use more percussion throughout the album but decided to keep it to a minimum in the end. Andy Mooney is an old friend so that was just a case of driving out to The Hive and putting them down. Mick came out another evening close to the end of recording, half-jarred on a bottle of wine, to put down the drums on Dark Place. We definitely lost a lot of focus once Mick arrived. It all went a bit silly for a few hours. In a good way, of course.”
In discussing the history of previous band Terrordactyl with Mick Roe and Lar Kaye of Adebisi Shank, Owensie reveals that the trio may be working on new music in the coming year. The connection between Owensie, Mick and James [Kidd Blunt] goes back to the punk scene. The striking impression that ‘Aliens’ makes on the listener however is that his new music is a world away from Dublin hardcore…to the extent that Owensie could reasonably be classed as a musical emigrant. What brought on the big change?
“Once your child goes to bed you can’t go outside and if you’re inside that also means that you can’t make a lot of noise. Therefore, you can very easily end up playing quiet stuff for a few hours. Not having digital TV and the Internet also encourages this. The change in direction came a few years after becoming a parent so I couldn’t attribute it specifically to that.
Overall, I think that the change came about for several reasons. On the one hand, I had been meaning to start to learn some Bossa Nova songs that I liked in order to push my guitar skills a little. That was why I went for a nylon string guitar. On the other hand, I was going through some very difficult times in my life and for a while I lost the desire to listen to loud or heavy music. I ended up listening to lots of Boards of Canada, Sufjan Stevens, Cornelius and a lot of trad and folky stuff. I have an album by Barry Moore (Luka Bloom) from the 70s called ‘Treaty Stone’. I was listening to that a good bit too. Anything soft and soothing. Bossa Nova introduced me to lots of new chords that I had never used before which gave me something different to start writing with. A while after, my partner Sinead put me onto Jose Gonzales’ first album and I really identified with what he was doing. There was a Latin American influence there being fused with a more Western sound and that was kind of the direction that I was trying to move in, though from a different Latin American origin obviously. I get compared with him a lot by Irish music writers and that makes me feel a little uncomfortable. At the same time, Brazilian music blogs haven’t been making the same comparisons, which is relieving.
Geraldo Vandre is my biggest influence in terms of vocal style. I won’t bother trying to describe his sound. There’s a passion and power in his voice that I am always trying to attain on some level with my own voice. I just think that the music he was doing back then in the 1960s and 70s is amazing. His album ‘Hora de Lutar’ (time to fight) is one of my favourites of all time. There’s a video here with one of his songs set to photographs by Sebastiao Salgado which kind of act as a loose visual guide to the lyrical content of the song:
“A lot of what I wrote at the beginning was just riffs or little pieces that I’d play at home in order to relax. The songs came later. The change in direction was kind of incidental to what was going on in my life at the time. After a while I had some things written and I started to put songs together from there. It was like starting to play the guitar again for the first time. Starting from scratch. I was able to break away completely from everything that I’d done in bands up to that point. I think that I’ve definitely become more of a ‘song-writer’ over the past few years as opposed to someone who puts different riffs together on guitar and then tries to come up with lyrics afterwards. I can start writing a song from a melody in my head or a lyric now which is something that I would never have done before. Reading the Paulo Zollo book ‘Songwriters on Songwriting’ definitely helped in that regard (thanks Vinny!). I’d recommend it to anyone who feels unsure about how they approach the writing of their songs. As the book reveals, even the best aren’t entirely sure how they do it.
‘Cat and Mouse’ is, for me at least, my personal best on the album. I like ‘Dark Place’ a lot too. To be honest, after working on the album for so long it’s hard to think about the songs too much. I’m just really delighted with what James Eager did with them in the studio and with the arrangements that Julia Mahon put to them. At the moment it’s easier for me to enjoy the album from that perspective.”
As a musician, Owensie has been around long enough to see the independent scene transformed by the advances of technology and the Internet. While self-sustaining artists have it better than ever thanks to free networking and promotional tools, Owensie is in a good position to reflect on how the new ethics of digital era DIY bands compare to their practical counterparts. Another big change in his musical career has been signing to Limerick’s indie label Out On A Limb, home to Crayonsmith, Hooray For Humans and Windings along with newer signings Guilty Optics and C!ties.
“Puget Sound existed for the most part before the Internet, Myspace and music blogs had started to factor in music in a big way. We were very young when we started playing gigs and were full of attitude. Gigs were discovered by going to record shops and picking up zines and flyers. There were always lots of posters around town for punk gigs once you knew where to look. I’m not sure that we were too concerned with reaching an audience as such. We just loved to play gigs and would accept anything that was offered to us. Dublin in the mid-Nineties was kind of divided between the Old Chinaman crew (an old biker bar) and the Hope Collective, and we were very much participants in the stirring of pointless bullshit in this regard. It was all quite sad and pointless and probably held Dublin back a few years in terms of the development of a larger DIY scene as a result. In a nutshell, it’s great to see so much collaboration and co-operation among bands and across genres these days. I’m slightly concerned about ‘DIY’ getting completely absorbed by the corporate, commercially driven end of the music industry as its new modus operandi. With so much in flux right now its hard to see where people stand. If artists are able to maintain the control over their own work and survive financially outside of the increasingly converging entertainment industry then that is definitely a good thing. There’s a term that I remember from around the 1990s that was used quite often in discussions of DIY in the punk scene which is ‘mutual aid’. I think that maybe we need to be thinking about things, as artists and musicians, from that standpoint. How are we helping each other out? How can we organise to create networks of mutual support to enable people to record, practice, tour etc more easily and affordably. Punk has a lot to teach the new wave of DIY in that regard.”
Having already contacted the label prior to the release to no avail, it comes as a surprise to learn that the record deal was made just two weeks before Christmas when Owensie announced he would release ‘Aliens’ as a free download album and Ciaran Ryan of Out On A Limb got in touch asking to hear the tracks. Although firmly rooted in the indie scene, releasing through a label will certainly bring the new material to a fresh audience. But what if everything took off with gusto? Having lived the threadbare, DIY lifestyle for so long now, is a career as a full-time musician something he would have any interest in?
“That’s a tough one. Things are happening so fast at the moment that it’s hard to say. The music industry is as cut-throat as it gets. By the middle of this year I should be finished college so that’s when I’ll really have to take stock of things. The album is getting lots of coverage at the moment but that could all dry up within the next month or so. I’ve been around long enough to not take any of that too seriously. I’m happy to be writing and playing music and having people like it. It’s a compulsion… an obsession. I can’t not be doing it. If it was to become my main job that could be cool, but I won’t be anywhere near betting all my chips on that ever happening. I’ve watched this whole process play out a million times. In December the album went from being an under-the-radar free download to something a bit bigger. The fact that Out On A Limb are putting it out has meant that way more people are willing to listen to it than before and I am incredibly grateful to them for that. What I know is that I will continue writing, playing and recording as much as I can.”
And so finally, having gone through a full spectrum of sights and sounds the world has to offer, absorbing the influences and experiences of a short but eventful life and constantly adapting, musically and emotionally, to everything that contributed to his bands and solo work in ‘Aliens’, can it be said that there is a different kind of fulfillment in this gentler, classical guitar music, something missing from the more youthful thrash of abrasive rock?
“I go through bouts, like most people I guess, of hating all the songs and thinking that it’s all a pile of shit. But you have to keep soldiering on through that until it all becomes tolerable again. There’s even the odd day when you can think to yourself, “These songs are… okay”. It’s like the only way to keep your ego in check is by maintaining an almost paranoic level of criticism towards your own work. That sounds awful, there’s probably a better way of going about it. In the studio there were definitely some “eureka!” moments, some jumping around after a certain harmony worked well…the recording process was very emotional at times, in a good way. Being responsible for a whole song as opposed to being in a band that writes songs collectively means that if people don’t like what they hear then the blame falls entirely at your own door. That is quite scary. Not that I’m afraid of bad reviews from the press or anything like that. But when you pour a lot of personal feeling into something that you subsequently perform publicly, it’s a very strange feeling and it took me a while to get used to that.
When you make someone cry, or when people tell you that a certain song made them feel sad, or that they listened to your music during a difficult time in their life…that for me is as good as it gets. When the stream of the album went up on Nialler9’s blog before Christmas a lot of people said that it was the perfect soundtrack to the snowy weather at that time. That made me very happy. I just wanted it to be out there during that strange period between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day. Despite all the family get-togethers and Christmas drinks, it’s still a sad time in a lot of ways.
What’s really great though is that my parents find this music accessible and actually like it, whereas in the past they could only vaguely express an appreciation of what Puget Sound or Terrordactyl were doing, probably only out of sympathy too. I don’t think that they’ve heard the Train yet… But its nice after all these years to be able to show them something that they might be more inclined to feel a bit more excited about.”
‘Aliens’ is launched this Friday 21 January in LaCatedral Studios with Edinburgh’s Amber Wilson and a solo set by Eoin Whitfield of Enemies. Admission is €10, includes a copy of the album and the venue is BYOB.