Stencil of Ikey Owens outside the Prospector by I/O singer/bassist Tatiana Velazquez. Courtesy of Tatiana Velazquez.
In October of 2014, Grammy-winning keyboardist/producer Isaiah “Ikey" Owens unexpectedly succumbed to a heart attack in his hotel room in Mexico while on tour with Jack White. The loss of Ikey reverberated like an earthquake back in Long Beach, where the 38-year-old was a beloved staple and mentor in the music scene.
With death comes new life; it’s a steady cycle that moves with or without one's acknowledgement. In this particular case, Ikey’s passing has breathed life into a new musical project — called I/O, in his memory — involving four Long Beach musicians who each treaded their own journeys with him.
“We were all individually friends with him and individually mentored by him,” I/O lead singer and bassist Tatiana Velazquez explained. “But we didn’t really spend much time together until that happened.”
For Velazquez, Ikey was one of her first friends when she moved to Long Beach in 2006, a time of massive transition for the artist. He encouraged her to organize her first art show at Que Sera; at the show, he claimed a mixed media piece she made of her “blind stoner cat.” Knowing she also had an interest in music, he accompanied her to the local music store to buy her first bass and gave her opportunities to sing backup on a few songs with his group, Free Moral Agents.
When she found out about her friend’s death, Velazquez spent the entire day painting and making stencils of Ikey’s iconic smile. It adorns the back wall on the stage at Que Sera to this day.
“He was just this heavy mentor and this conduit … he had a magic to him from the get-go,” she said. “He saw things in people and brought the bigger out of it. He was a good channel for that and made me realize this is what I want to be doing."
Last February, about four months after Ikey's passing, keyboardist Jacob Connelly had heard Velazquez was writing songs and reached out about jamming. Connelly, who met Ikey in front of a bookstore in 2006, never really considered himself as a musician. Through mutual friends, they ended up “talking life over a blunt” and listening to Connelly’s recordings.
“He’d sit there and listen to these mixes,” Connelly recalled, "and he’d say, 'I know the sound of your room.'"
A few months in, drummer Ryan Reiff heard some recordings by Velazquez and Connelly and wanted in. Reiff met Ikey in 2005 when he was playing in a psychedelic instrumental band with Jesse Carzello (Bobby Blunders). Ikey heard the group and occasionally sat in with them. Eventually when Ikey decided to transition his bedroom project Free Moral Agents into a full live band, he recruited Reiff to join the team. The group was active for some seven years and released two full-length albums.
Velazquez, Connelly and Reiff briefly played as a trio under the name TAJAR but not for long. Guitarist Miguel Vazquez entered the picture as the last piece of the puzzle. His first encounter with Ikey came when he produced Vazquez’s band Wild Pack of Canaries. They started working on other projects together, engineering in Vazquez’s studio and making bass fuzz and oscillator pedals for Free Moral Agents.
Image by Casey Lewis.
This lineup has been playing together since last April under the name I/O, a tribute to Ikey Owens.
“We wanted something that felt true to our relationship with each other,” Velazquez said. “We were toiling over different names for a while.”
Over the last six months, the band has been building up steam in Long Beach, hitting almost every venue in town including Que Sera, Alex’s Bar and Prospector.
For every Monday this month, I/O will take over 4th Street Vine, with each night featuring a different project of friends. That includes Step Bison on February 1; Mendee Ichikawa (Free Moral Agents) on February 8; Secret Garden on February 15; Toy Pony on February 22, and King Kang (acoustic set) on February 29.
The group says after this month’s residency, it will be taking some time off to go into writing mode and start working on an album.
“We’re looking forward to the residency,” Velazquez said. “Each night will be a little different. We’ll approach it a little differently."
Disclaimer: The author of this article is a member of King Kang, to peform at the 4th Street Vine residency.