Ciao Sacramento, hello Manhattan
New York, it is said, is the new rock ’n’ roll mecca. So, Low Flying Owls, one of Sacramento’s more interesting bands, will move there next month to see if what they say is true.
Right on schedule, Jared Southard was sitting at a small table inside the Naked Lounge coffeehouse at Q and 15th streets, near a door that opens onto a small courtyard. The late-afternoon light outside was suffused with that deep-reddish quality that makes even the greenest lawn appear golden.
Southard had been thumbing through a trade paperback copy of The Biggest Secret: The Book That Will Change the World, a 1999 book by David Icke that may be one of the finer tinfoil-hat titles on the market. In the book, Icke—a former pro-soccer goalie and English sportscaster turned conspiracy theorist—argues that the world is secretly governed by a race of extraterrestrial reptilians who are able to “shape-shift” into human form at will. Among their ranks, according to Icke, are the British royal family and virtually all the major power players in business and politics.
It isn’t that the big-eyed Southard actually believes that reptilian overlords rule the world—although that particular idea does make a certain weird sense, given the trajectory of current events. It turns out that Southard’s father, who has a taste for the arcane, pushed it in his direction.
And it makes for perfect coffeehouse reading, even if it functions as somewhat of a nut magnet.
Southard is measuring his final days in Sacramento. He and his band, Low Flying Owls, will be leaving town next week for New York—first to tour in support of their just-released album, Elixir Vitae, and again in the fall, after the College Music Journal’s Music Marathon convention in October, to find permanent residence. They—singer and guitarist Southard, guitarist and keyboardist Andy Wagner, bassist Mike Bruce and drummer Sam Coe—will follow on the heels of two connected expatriate Sacramento bands, !!! (pronounced “chik chik chik”) and Out Hud, which relocated to Brooklyn’s arty Williamsburg section two years ago.
“We need a little kick in the ass, and we need a new experience,” Southard explained. “And we really like it here; it’s just a matter of wanting to do something spur-of- the-moment before it’s too late.”
At the ripe old age of 26, Southard acutely feels the clock ticking. It isn’t so much the worry that he and his band soon will be past their sell-by date as much as he feels the ivy growing through his feet and up around his legs, threatening to anchor him to local ground. “If I stayed another year,” he explained, “I would probably just get married and get a house and all that stuff. But I’ve got to push it, and New York—I think—is a good move.”
So, now the band, which shared a house in Alkali Flats, is moving out at the end of this month and will “couch surf” until it heads eastward for good.
As canny moves go, it isn’t a bad one.
Though rock music is presumed by some to be dead, knocked down by too much Internet downloading, an imploding music industry, prefabricated teen idols or any combination of the above, the reality is that the genre is very much alive. Turn on an FM station programmed to play “active rock,” and you’ll hear a host of roughly similar-sounding heavy guitar bands, many of which bear a striking resemblance to Sacramento’s own Deftones.
There are a few other vital subgenres, too. And one of them, centered in New York, is built around bands with a definite guitar architecture; its practitioners include such reasonably familiar names as the Strokes, Interpol, the Walkmen and Longwave, along with lesser-known acts like Calla, Le Tigre, the Rapture and Ted Leo and the Pharmacists.
Couple that with an older sound coming from such bands as Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev, both of which make records of sweeping grandeur in Cassadaga, N.Y., with producer Dave Fridmann, and you pretty much have Low Flying Owls nailed.
The Owls emerged on the downtown scene three years ago, seemingly out of nowhere. Southard grew up in Fair Oaks and went to Bella Vista High School. “Molly Ringwald went there,” he said, laughing. Sam Coe grew up in Carmichael, Andy Walker moved here from Chicago, and Mike Bruce hails from Paradise, near Chico.
After Southard lived in Bergen County, N.J., for six months, in deep Sopranos territory, he relocated to Los Angeles to try to get a band together or to break into acting. That didn’t happen, so he moved back to this area and in with his grandmother in Orangevale. He placed a free musician’s ad in SN&R and hooked up with Wagner. Bruce had been crashing on Southard’s couch, and Coe’s hookup came from an acquaintance with Orisha, the former band of well-known Fair Oaks musician Jacob Golden.
The Owls’ impact was immediate. “It was amazing, the response when we first started,” Southard recalled. “It was just insane. I never, in a million years, thought people were going to react to what we were doing.”
Their timing was close to perfect, coming as they did during a lull in the local scene, after the previous wave of bands either had peaked or matured.
The band soon launched its own label, with manager (and occasional SN&R contributor) Eddie Jorgensen, called The Americans Are Coming Recordings, and hit with a now-out-of-print EP titled Incoming Flights, Outgoing Strangers. The packaging was crude, but the music was a surprising update on psychedelic rock, with echoes of Jefferson Airplane, Love and Pink Floyd, among others. A full-length album, Take the Scenic Route, and a self-titled EP followed.
“The label name was mine, and I designed the logo,” Southard said, “but then Eddie just ran with it.” Along with Kevin Seconds’ Poprockit, Jed Brewer’s Lather and Lynn Mayugba’s Blackliner, The Americans Are Coming has turned into one of the better exponents of local music, with such acts as Call Me Ishmael, the Proles, Frank Jordan, the Command Collective, Moth Spy and Dungeons and Drag Queens on the roster.
But Low Flying Owls are moving on. “I think that we’ve come a million years in the three-and-a-half years that we’ve been together,” Southard admitted.
Southard believes the Owls have hit their mark on Elixir Vitae, the band’s second full-length disc and its first for the New York-based independent Stinky Records, a label with national distribution through Rykodisc Records. “It’s a good first step,” he said, but added that he already finds himself looking down the road to the next mission. “I think the next album that we record,” he said, “we really need to get in with a [producer like] Fridmann and hone it, really work at a common goal.”
The basic problem the band faced while recording Elixir Vitae was that it had to cut the record piecemeal, song by song. It’s a quandary faced by many working bands, whose members have to fit recording around day jobs, evening gigs and the occasional tour. And usually, it isn’t noticeable. But when a band goes through an accelerated stage of development during recording, it will end up with a collection of songs whose stylistic differences make them difficult to stitch together into the kind of coherent narrative that makes for a strong album.
Most of the record was cut at an Oakland studio owned by record producer Jeff Saltzman, who formerly co-managed the band Green Day and then co-ran a custom label, 510, through the now-defunct MCA Records. “He’s a strange one,” Southard said, describing Saltzman and alluding to some of the key players in Icke’s books. “Like, he never had any food in his refrigerator.”
The Owls’ writing process entails some collaboration, but Southard writes all the band’s lyrics. “I come in with the majority of the songs, finished,” he explained. “But there’s those late nights where we’re just hanging out, and we’ll write together sometimes.”
An example of the former is the phenomenal third track, “Looks of a Killer,” which hints at a new, more textural direction the Owls may be headed. Instead of the stridently strummed guitars over somewhat martial beats of the band’s earlier stuff, the sound bed on “Killer” is fluid and elegant, allowing Southard’s voice to hang back in the groove rather than ride in front of the instruments. He isn’t a great singer, but his adenoidal voice is memorable, much like Lou Reed’s.
One real stretch on the record is positioned at its midpoint. “Babies Made” sounds very film-soundtrack-like, akin to the orchestral extensions of Hugo Montenegro’s spaghetti-western themes that composer Angelo Badalamenti fashions for director David Lynch’s films.
“We’ve gotten compared to Lynch a lot,” Southard said. “But mainly by people who have seen us live. ‘You guys remind me of a David Lynch film,’ they’ll say.”
The song was essentially a studio jam session, but then Southard had an idea for some creative vocalizing, so he called a friend named London Ly to put down some sensual rapping. “All I could think of was this tasteful sex scene, with all this dark, moody lighting, and you’re just seeing body parts in little shades of light here and there. So, I told my friend, who’s Vietnamese, ‘Why don’t you come over and talk bedroom.’ She comes over and starts spewing all these little sexual scenarios. And it worked. Really well.
“She’s really embarrassed about it now,” Southard added, laughing.
The soundtrack component to Low Flying Owls’ new sonic mix looks to be an avenue worth pursuing, according to Southard. “I think we’re on to something,” he opined, “and I want to do something that’s different. I kind of want to stay away from music and be more influenced by film and just living, in the future. Put music away for a little bit and see what happens. ’Cause I’ve been doing that lately—less listening.
“And,” he concluded, “I think it’s important to have your own sound.”