Interview: Robert Owens
Robert Owens is a house music luminary. A stalwart in the Chicago house scene, Robert Owens is the voice behind many of the era’s most seminal cuts with his work with Ron Wilson and Larry Heard in Fingers Inc, the late great Frankie Knuckles and Satoshi Tomiie on ‘Tears’. Robert Owens plays tomorrow night in Sydney with Larry Heard for Vivid and headlines a solo show in Melbourne on Saturday night, before he jetted down under, we chatted to Robert about a very special time for music in Chicago and his personal musical sensibility.
You’re about to play in Sydney with Larry Heard, can you tell us how you met Larry and how it was working with him in Fingers Inc?
I met Larry through a friend of mine, years ago, he was like a protege, I actually taught him to play records. Tony Harris introduced me to Larry and told me I need to check him out and listen to his tracks or whatever and I guess I listened to some of the tracks first on casette and then we met and spoke some words and there was this instant kind of connection, between what I was writing and his music. From there I started playing things out, and then from there I would play Frankie Knuckles and Ron Hardy some things and then from there it kind of evolved. We just kept working from there and doing some things.
It was that easy to work together?
Yeah it was instant, he would just play the music and I was like oh I have some words that would go with that, I would just instantly match lyrics to tracks that he played.
Did you feel at the time fingers inc was doing something quite innovative in Chicago?
I didn’t look at it from that perspective, I just looked at it natural. I’ve always been kind of a creative guy and there in the heart of the music scene in the urban areas and hanging out with Frankie Knuckles and Ron Hardy and that kind of crew of people, I was DJ’ing myself so I was kind of always there, evolving with what was going on, I was always looking for new innovative things to introduce to the audiences. So I think it’s just natural instinctive energy to want to play, I’ve never looked at what other people are doing or were doing at that particular time. I just focused on whatever individual I was working with, you know and try to pull the best out of each other.
You were at the centre the juggernaut Chicago house era, have you been able to find a similar energy since you’ve been based in Berlin?
Yeah it is with certain cliques, of certain people, but I guess overall you find this certain energy over here, with certain collectives. The good thing about Berlin is, it’s a 24 hour city so there’s constantly something going on here, you can wake up at 6 o’clock in the morning and decide to go to a club here, I think that’s really nice in taking it back to old school kind of days, where the warehouse is open from midnight to 12 the next afternoon. It’s a similar type energy with certain energies here.
Can you tell us why you think Chicago house was so productive and successful for that period?
I think that anyone that came in that environment was that you found a family unit away from your normal family unit, you know and this is something I tell people today if you know you’re in an environment where you have a collective of people where you feel like a family, you have the same thing that we had back then, everybody was there for supporting each other and support of the music it was like escapism from your normal reality of what was going on.
You have a reputation as a pioneer, so is it difficult to find that balance between creating new innovative music and paying respect to the era you’re most known for?
No, I think with me I’ve evolved with that, I keep a big part of me is my past, but I think I've managed to evolve with the younger generations, I think a lot of my audiences is younger. I play all the time, I don’t play specifically what other people play but I play certain genres of music, I might have some things that are in the techno field, I have some deep ambient stuff, but not the typical stuff I select a certain thing that still comfortable with the realm of where I come from and where I'm evolving to musically and people seem to respect that musically. I adapt to the situation where I come in to a new environment then I like to understand what that environment is about, again if you book me to do a disco set, I know how to do that, if you book me into a techno set, I know how to do that, but I know how to do that in a way that is particular to me, not just jumping on board that selection of music. Again it’s starts with the main thing of people, you have to be aware of peoples feelings and thoughts, if you can gain there trust, in any environment, they'll allow you to take them on a music journey and I think that’s what it’s mainly about.
Were your first experiences in music as a singer?
I actually used to DJ before singing, I was doing little block club party where we would clean out basements and hand out fliers and charge people to come to these little basements, I’ve always been there musically doing something, it just came from a more professional angle when I was 18 and stuff, where I could get a job. But beyond that I was always doing little parties in neighbourhood, high school and college.
How old were you when you first started doing those parties?
Gosh, maybe 15 or 16! We’d gather a group of friends and hand out flyers and even younger than that I was always at family gatherings and they'd ask me to pick the music. They used to say you always make a good selection!
Did you grow up in a musical family?
Some of them went to church, but none of them were professional singers or nothing, more just from the church background.
Did it fell quite natural to incorporate singing into your club performances?
I actually used to record my voice onto tape before I actually let a lot of people know it was me, and would play them over some music over sets and stuff and say “what’d you think?” and they be like “oh he has something there, this sounds alright” and eventually they found out it was me. I’ve always tried different angles of introducing myself. And for the longest, the strange thing, I actually always wanted to be a background singer, even in churches and stuff, I always wanted to be in the background and they tried to get me to come and do leads and for the longest I couldn't handle it, I would just be too overwhelmed and nervous and then eventually, you know, I just ended up being a lead singer.
Finally, what kind of performance can we expect to see from you in Australia?
Well the new album is ready to go…So I hope to play a few things and see how they go.
Catch Robert Owens in Melbourne at Yours&Mine with Dance Flaws & House of Friends.