Matt Owen is not buying that stereotype. The 26-year-old JSU student is making waves by turning his instrument from the stalwart of the brass section into one of electronica’s newest hits. By mixing sounds with the help of his iPad, a healthy dose of percussion and a synthesizer, Owen has turned his sound into something for the 21st century.
“I want to, first of all, prove that the tuba isn’t just an ‘oom-pah’ instrument,” he said. “Sort of mainstreaming the smart music.”
Owen just released an EP on iTunes, “Under the Influence,” and will perform in Jacksonville on Saturday.
Born in Rockmart, Ga., Owen began playing tuba at the age of 12 — ironically, as a way to get away from playing music.
“Everybody had to take their horns home to practice, and I rode the bus,” he remembered of his middle-school band days. “I chose the tuba so that I wouldn’t have to take the horn home and practice.”
Try as he might, he stuck with it. He played in drum and bugle corps and a few professional ensembles all through high school and into college at Jacksonville State University, where he is currently pursuing a music education degree.
He had his sights focused on possibly playing in an orchestra — until last winter, when his eclectic tuba project came into play.
Owen attended a Flaming Lips concert in January and was intrigued by how exuberant the crowd was during the rock band’s performance.
“You don’t get that on the orchestral side of things,” he said. “I wanted to figure out a way to take what I did and what I loved and what I knew and put it with this crowd and kind of see if those two things could mesh.”
He began experimenting with his sound by using a loop pedal and iPad apps such as Animoog, Polyphony and GarageBand to mix his sounds. He was pleased with the results, but it took a lot of time for Owen, who also plays piano, to incorporate the other instruments into the re-recordings. So he enlisted the help of two additional drummers, Andrew Harper and Reuben Rodriguez.
So, what kind of music is it?
“It’s like a jam band, but there are some electronics incorporated, with the synthesizers and the iPad and the sound effects that we do — and then there’s tuba in it. So, what we’ve decided to call it is ‘tubatronica,’” said Owen.
Owen and the band have been building up their repertoire by uploading their work on YouTube and by performing across the country. Owen placed third in an online competition that would have given him the opportunity to perform at famed music festival Bonnaroo. He received an invitation to be a featured solo artist at the Great Plains Regional Tuba-Euphonium Conference next May.
His talent has even caught the attention of famed performer Amanda Palmer, whom he now considers a pal. Owen heard from a friend that Palmer was looking for horn players for shows with her group The Grand Theft Orchestra. Owen played with the band in North Carolina, Atlanta and New Orleans.
“She just treated me like I was part of the band,” he remembered fondly of being able to sit and absorb her thoughts. “She has even tweeted about my music a few times.”
Next, Owen is pairing with Florida-based artists Hannah and Katie Snider and experimental music band/performance artists Opposite Box to help present the as-it-happens art exhibit and live concert “Six Hours On Mars” at Wake and Bake Pizza in Jacksonville on Saturday.
No matter where he lands next, Owen is confident his presence will garner some sort of response when he takes the stage with an oversized instrument on his shoulder.
“You wouldn’t believe it,” he said of the reaction, which he claims has people chanting for more. “This music is just enjoyable, the atmosphere it’s played in is enjoyable.
“Something about the tuba — it’s lovable, I guess.”
Erin Williams is a multimedia journalist currently based in St. Louis.
Matt Owen live
When: 7 p.m. Saturday at Wake and Bake Pizza in Jacksonville, along with Hannah and Katie Snider and Opposite Box. Free.