Valet’s founder and central figure Honey Owens is one of those people who really should be more famous than they are, but the world is cruel sometimes.
The great thing, though, is that there’s plenty of evidence to show why things should be different. There’s her time in the art scuzz of Jackie O Motherfucker, the later collaborative wooze of Nudge and her more recent house-inspired work in the Miracles Club, also including her partner Rafael Fauria – and that just scratches the surface of her efforts, almost always based out of her home in Portland.
Valet was previously an Owens solo project, resulting in two fantastic albums on Kranky in the previous decade, Blood is Clean and Naked Acid. For the just-about-released Nature, also on Kranky, it’s become a trio, with Fauria as well as drummer Mark Burden (of Litanic Mask, and many others) joining the circle. Thanks to some happy timing on my part due to a vacation trip to the area, I was able to catch up with all three of them at Portland’s Lan Su Chinese Garden for a relaxed post-lunch chat about how Nature came together, an album that at once celebrates shoegazing’s roots in feedback pop without trying to strictly replicate it.
Given how you do music and work in various contexts, is there anything that begins, “okay, this is a Valet project”? Or is that something hits you and then maybe turns into Valet down the line?
Honey Owens: I think it was the second thing. We had just had a baby in August 2013, and a friend of ours who had just moved to San Francisco was jumped by this gang and she was badly hospitalized, and these friends of ours up here in Portland were wanting to rally around and to help make a benefit show to pay for her hospital bills. They had asked the Miracles Club to play the benefit so that we could help bring people in. Raf and I hadn’t played as a band since January of 2013 because I was focusing on being pregnant, just nesting and figuring out, “oh my god, I’m having a baby,” working and stuff. So we all of a sudden had this show to come up with in a four-month period, and I was kind of in this breastfeeding-mom mode. When you don’t have children and all of a sudden you have a child, it’s like everything just blows wide open, and it’s this whole other reality.
Anyway, Raf and I talked about maybe making all-new Miracles Club songs that came from this other realm, because we were wanting to just take a break from the straightforward dance stuff and maybe do some experimental dance things. I’m not sure why, but the songs that came through were clearly Valet songs. Raf just decided to give me the mic fully when he realized that I was writing everything with guitar and voice. Something like, “Let’s keep this simple, and essential, like guitar. If we’re going to have guitar, let’s really record guitar like guitars are recorded.” And so he started looking up how guitars are recorded, because even though he was a fan of all sorts of genres of music his whole life, he only had produced drum machines and house music and dance music. We just went down this path where we had to have a set by a certain time, so we just had a few songs and then we played under the Miracles Club name, but this Valet set, basically. And that’s how it all started coming up.
Also, right before I got pregnant, this friend of ours, Alexis Penney, had come to play the Time-Based Art Festival in Portland in 2012, and Raf and I were part of his backup band. They had asked me to play guitar. And I hadn’t played guitar in years — a few years.
Rafael Fauria: You didn’t own a guitar.
Owens: I had a broken one [laughs]. Well, I had Adam Forkner’s [White Rainbow, Yume Bitsu, a whole range of projects] guitar. I was like, “I don’t know how to play guitar anymore. That was just a fluke,” you know? And so all of a sudden we were at TBA as Alexis’s band, and we really like his music, and he decided he wanted to do an OMD cover for part of his set, that song ‘Messages’. It’s a great song. We’re at soundcheck, and because there’s a sound complication or something that’s happening there at the festival, we ended up playing ‘Messages’ over and over for like an hour and a half. After a while, I started to get into this altered state, where I was often blissed out. Even though I love the Miracles Club — it’s so fun to play in that band — I was just having this thing. And then when I played guitar for the hour, just over and over and the same riff, it spoke to my own bones. My body responded in this way of, “this is all I want to do. I don’t care about anything else.” But then you have a tour plan, and you just go back and you forget about that “a-ha” moment, and you just go back — but then I got pregnant. It seemed like everything was not even my decision. It was all this universal force. Everyone has their own universal force. Mine’s just this little tiny force. So that’s how it came about.
“I wanted it to be this simple, vulnerable set of songs, and it’s completely natural, and not influenced by modern music that we all listen to.”
Honey Owens, Valet.
For the songs themselves, did they emerge in final form fairly quickly? Were they honed down? Was it something that grew out of jams, improvs, a combination?
Owens: They pretty much became songs almost instantly, but it kind of reminded me of a four-track, an early Sebadoh tape, or PJ Harvey four-track songs. They were just these little songs. That’s how we knew they weren’t this experimental band, and we knew it wasn’t Miracles Club — it was just this post-baby Valet record, you know? And we were going to just fly with it, but then we almost instantly really needed Mark. He had jokingly been like, “if you want a drummer”, and we thought he was just joking around because he was really busy going to school.
Mark Burden: I was kind of half-joking, but half-serious. I didn’t know what you guys were going to do with that stuff, but I was at all of these shows that you’ve been talking about.
Owens: But we had already wanted him to play, because we had played together before, and I was like, “he doesn’t have time to be in our band.” But as soon as I realized that some things had opened up in his schedule, I was all, “dude, we’ve gotta get Mark.” Because he plays piano, guitar, bass drums. We had recorded all these songs and then after the fact, Mark came in and laid down drums and bass and extra stuff.
Burden: We’ve all been doing that type of DIY recording, though, for a long time, in a lot of different ways, so it was pretty easy, all said and done. I would just get the stuff and then I would just hang out in my house all day and do it over and over and over and over. It already sounded amazing, and then after I would do that stuff, we would go back over and Raf would do it again.
Owens: The process was really easy. It was really natural, because we were together for a long time. We worked together for a long time. They get along well, magically. They’re both Geminis, so they have a similar mind — not that all Geminis have a similar mind, a way of working. But I feel like it’s kind of like that, though [laughs].
Stepping over to you, Raf, because of what Honey brought up about production and learning how to produce guitar. The album makes me think of certain things that are shoegazey, but it not quite, and I like that. It isn’t just that era over again, because I can name all the rip-off bands. So on a technical level, when it comes to you learning how to produce guitars maybe for the first time, do you find a freedom to try whatever, or do you unconsciously go about your way?
Fauria: Well, you have your own way that you learn how to deal with electronics, so you can’t escape that. And I’m working in a box, doing it all — mixing in Ableton and stuff, so that’s going to be a whole different world than your classic guitar treatments. But most of the stuff that I look at and I read about [is] this stuff from the ’90s, where I’m trying to emulate certain things to a point, and then integrate them to what I already do. I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel completely about the way a guitar should sound, or live drums should sound. But there’s electronic elements that you want them to integrate with.
One thing that struck me about the album is that it’s focused — eight songs, all fairly short. It’s done in just over a half an hour. Were those the eight songs? Did you have more?
Owens: There were two more songs that didn’t make it through, they never became fully realized. But I am a huge Guided By Voices fan, and also a huge Grateful Dead fan, and I was struggling between, “I really just want to go ahead and let it be these pop songs,” and this jammy part of me that wants to be like, “Let’s just let it jam out.” But the pop won over, and I wanted to just put it out soon and let it go instead of making the album longer, because I could tell that we were starting to move in another direction. I wanted it to be this simple, not trying too hard, from the heart, vulnerable set of songs, and it’s completely natural, and not influenced by modern music that we all listen to. We all listen to a lot of modern music, and we were just letting this be in its natural state, whatever that was.
A question for you, Mark. You were just mentioning how you would record your parts after the fact. ‘Sunday’ seemed to me a very good introductory song for the album, precisely because how it builds up when you add to it. Did you find it was pretty easy to think, “I should put myself in here, or hold myself back,” or did it just simply emerge?
Burden: I think the core of the songs was already there, and it’s about the feeling. And I think that part of why it was easy is that we all kind of already speak the same language, and are on the same page about letting it be. So what I would do is go and do whatever without really thinking about it, and then just cut back, back, back, back. It was a fun process for me, because you’d get down to just getting pretty minimal with the playing, but it was mostly a matter of me having the time to listen to the songs enough, because by the time I got to them we hadn’t been performing as a band. We had played one show but hadn’t had a lot of time to sit with the songs.
Owens: It’s challenging for someone like Mark. He is a really sick drummer, he can play all over the place, so with this thing, our project together, he was like, “I need to simplify and pull back like I never do.” So there was a lot of speaking of Velvet Underground, and a lot of listening to our favorite bands, like The Jesus and Mary Chain, and just going ahead and being cool with simple. That was the goal.
Burden: That was part of why it was really fun, because I was handed something, like, “help with this.” And it was the type of record that I would have loved at any point in my life, but the first things that I loved as a teenager were any sort of late-80s to early-90s shoegaze, and stuff like Spacemen 3 and The Jesus and Mary Chain. I was into whatever American underground music at the time, so I loved simple music. I had never had the opportunity to work on a record that I really liked that was like that. So it was chill.
You mentioned you’re using Ableton to put it all together? Anything else particularly interesting in terms of instruments used or things done?
Burden: Lots of tambourine.
Owens: Oh, yeah. We got really obsessed with tambourine. And I was realizing after the fact how important tambourine has been in the history of music. It’s just something that’s there and you’re like, “yeah, the tambourine,” or whatever. But you don’t notice it until you start really focusing on tambourine in your own music, how there’s tambourine in all of your favorite songs — pop songs or rock songs. “How did I miss the tambourine this far?” So that was really fun, done with these guys.
Burden: Did we use anything nice?
Owens: No, they were all found at the Goodwill. Our child, during the process, knocked over his guitar twice and broke it, and we had to go fix it twice — like, knocked the headstock off. But it’s a beautiful guitar and it works great.
“When you’re a mom, the child comes first, and the guitar, you can get new strings, wipe them off later.”
Honey Owens, Valet.
Has your kid heard any of the songs? Any particular favorites?
Owens: While we were recording, he would dance around and listen to them, or I would drive him around to try and put him down for naps and I would be listening to our mixes and he would be in his car seat. He loves to dance, he’s really responsive to music.
Fauria: He’s also at war with music because it takes away attention from him. It’s like this love-hate thing.
Owens: Because our studio’s in our house.
Fauria: He wants to play the guitar.
Owens: Like, I came home one day, and he had my guitar laying down on the ground and he was smearing peanut butter all over the strings. And I just was like [sighs]. I didn’t know what to do. I just washed the peanut butter off of him first. When you’re a mom, the child comes first, and the guitar, you can get new strings, wipe them off later.
Are you planning on touring? What’s in the future, if you’ve planned that far?
Owens: We’re working on our live set for a June 10 release show in town, and while we’re doing that, we have four new tracks that were little sprouts. As much as I love to tour, when I was, say, 26, or even 33, I was like, “yeah, let’s go in the van and sleep wherever, and as long as we have enough gas money and food money and I can pay my rent while I’m gone, we’re cool.” But now that we have a child, and also because in Miracles Club when we would tour, house music in Europe is just so much more — what’s the word? It takes care of you. There’s more financial freedom in that kind of music. We’re just one of many millions of rock bands now, now that we’re a rock band, and I just don’t know if it’ll be viable, but it would be cool to play a couple shows as a band in other places besides Portland. We love to play live together, whereas solo Valet was really hit-and-miss and kind of moody and rarely, in my mind, successful live. And playing with these two just feels — I could jam with them all day long. I’m excited, for once in my life, to play live as Valet.
Burden: The days of getting in a van and having a good time riding around the country — I think it’s just changed. It’s always amazing to play shows, but I just think the world is different now. It requires a different type of accommodation to have it make sense.
Owens: Like sound, for one. Sound’s really important, and then driving, playing house shows — you want to be able to play house shows. But can house shows afford you to keep driving? You have to almost fund your own tour with your job or something? Save up and be like, “this is tour funds.”
Fauria: Or if you want it to be when you really want to present, it has to be on a certain level, sound-wise. When you’re outside of that standard drum, bass, guitar thing, when you’re dealing with a lot of sequencing, electronics mixed with it too, it’s more complex.
Final question: were there any random, hilarious, “I can’t believe that happened” moments?
Owens: We mastered the record twice, but after mastering the wrong thing.
Fauria: Mastering the wrong record.
Owens: You know, when you’re in the middle of recording, every detail becomes so loud to you and so quiet to you, and you’re just up in there. And then when you think you’re done and you haven’t listened to it for a few weeks, you’re just working on new stuff or taking a break, then they’re like, “Oh yeah, I finished the mastered tracks.” And we have a couple different laptops sitting around the house, so I just hurry up and send them the wrong tracks, and they master it. We get it back, and I’m like, “Hold on. This song is the wrong version. I don’t know how this got in there, but can I send you the right version?” So I sent them that, and then they sent us back, and then all of a sudden we realized that they mastered the wrong record. It was all my fault. I just was spaced out and not paying attention. But in my mind they were all fine. At a certain point you’re like, “You know what? I don’t remember what my beef was about this reverb— ”
Fauria: “Let’s give them this record, this record we mixed months ago. Send them the record.”
Owens: But I didn’t care at that point, because I was it was all there. Mark’s there, you’re there, I’m there. It doesn’t matter. It’s still a thing. On a certain level, kids listening to whatever record from the 90s, 50 years from now, they’re not going to care which version it is. It’s either going to speak to them or not. That’s the bottom line, anyway. That’s how I felt about ours. It’s either going to fly or it’s not going to fly. Close enough. [Laughs]