That’s what the t-shirt says and maybe I agree. Truth is, Lasers Lasers Birmingham feels pretty right. In the 1960s, West Coast country music echoed out of Bakersfield to reverberate through the psychedelic clubs in San Francisco and Los Angeles. It rode the desert winds up into Laurel Canyon and added a subtle twang to pop and underground rock n’ roll that felt natural. Warning, the new album from Lasers Lasers Birmingham, recollects all that and more. Alex Owen grew up in Springfield, Missouri with a steady diet of the Dead and ‘70s outlaw country. A decade ago, he migrated to Los Angeles where over time, he’s distilled his love of country music into an easy mash of vintage, street-level honky tonk and modern, hillbilly poetry. So, yeah, I guess it’s a little weird. But in an era where mainstream country music manipulates chart metrics as shamelessly as it employs electronic beats, maybe weird is just what the doctor ordered.
AI- You’re just kind of moving into the age where a country songwriter sorta hits his stride, right?
AO- Exactly. Yes. The more gray hairs I have more, the more they take me serious, right?
(Laughs) When did you get into playing music? Is that something you’ve been doing since you were a kid?
Probably in my early twenties? I kind of just did it as a hobby and just kind of goofing around with friends. But then when I got kind of in my early thirties, I started taking it a little bit more serious and started thinking about it, tried to really make art and tried making something that people like but also has a voice and has something to say. It’s kinda like Willie says, man, “If you ain’t got nothing to say, you don’t have a song.”
Have you always had that country angle to it or has that evolved since you started getting serious?
I’ve played in rock bands and stuff like that, but I’ve always had a country or Americana, bluegrass kind of vibe about it. Growing up in Missouri, I listened to the Grateful Dead and bluegrass– and that was it. And then my parents were Jerry Jeff Walker super fans. So I grew up always listening to Jerry Jeff Walker…
And I hear that for sure in this new record. To be specific, I definitely hear the Jerry Jeff Walker element.
Yeah, it’s always there. In a good way. He’s one of my favorites.
The question that everybody I’m sure asks you all the time, and even though you’ve had this name for a while– Lasers Lasers Birmingham. Would you consider that the band or would you consider that your alter ego?
I think it might actually be my alter ego. I didn’t realize that until recently, but I think so. I think it is. (Laughs)
Where did that come from?
I’m trying to do some kind of pseudo-traditional country music– and that’s not something that I think people usually associate with Los Angeles. And so I kind of have a foot in both worlds of living in Los Angeles but also trying to make something that feels to me very personal and down-home a little bit. Like something that I brought with me to Los Angeles. I think that just kind of represented something really flashy. ’Cause L.A. is known for being flashy. Lasers Lasers. And then Birmingham was the last name of a baseball coach I had that really inspired me to always keep truckin’. He said, “Life is really simple. You just learn the fundamentals and then you just execute them.” And so you don’t need anything flashy. But then at the same time, I’m in Los Angeles where everything has to be flashy (laughs)!
Going back to the idea of that persona, I read that when you started writing this new album, Warning, it was under the guise of a persona, but that at some point you realized that there was more to it than that. You had a bit of a life-changing or life-altering moment, right?
Absolutely. When you’re doing something in character or a persona you have a little bit more courage and a little more freedom to take chances and do things that you normally wouldn’t do. And I was taking these chances and doing these things when I was putting together the songs and creating this world that is Lasers Lasers Birmingham, weird country music. I was making those decisions in a vacuum creatively. I realized somewhere along the line that I was bringing that same kind of risk-taking behavior to my real life… Trying to burn the candle at both ends, you know? Playing shows and writing songs and trying to get this album recorded. I was on tour out in Ojai, California. It’s a couple hours north of Los Angeles, and I was driving back home from a gig and some critter or deer or something ran out in front of me– and I swerved. I crashed my car and. And so that was the point where I realized, “Oh wow, where does the line end?”
So after this moment, when you took stock of the whole situation, you realized how much of it was about control– whether relinquishing that control of your own free will or having it taken away. Is that what comes from seeing your life flash before your eyes and crawling through the windshield?
Well, I mean, I think that was probably in the back of my mind somewhere and the car crash kind of brought it forward. And I kinda had that realization where I was like, “Oh wow, all these songs kind of are…” It’s not like a concept album or anything, but there is a thread running through them all where each of these characters I’m trying to develop in the songs, they’re kind of losing control. And I didn’t consciously write it like that. But I had that realization about halfway through making the album. I was like, “Well, wow! This actually has a common thread with all these tunes and these characters I was creating.”
You brought up “weird country” earlier. What makes it weird country?
I’m trying to use devices of traditional country music like slow waltz time or pedal steel and fiddle. But at the same time, the subject matter is a little bit more… Heady, you know? “Sugar Momma” is a great example. I’m trying to imagine how George Jones would interpret something that I see in L.A. a lot. L.A. is a very expensive city to live in. It’s a very expensive city just to exist. There’s lots of folks out here that have someone helping them pay the bills. And that’s something that I noticed. I’ve seen the good parts of that through friends. I’ve seen the bad parts. I’m using uncommon themes that you don’t usually hear in the country music canon. I’ll go play at honky tonks or I’ll go play at these dive bars and people’ll be like, “Man, that’s a weird country song!” They’re used to trains or Mama or red Solo cups or pickup trucks or something like that. But that’s just kind of like going back to that idea of Lasers Lasers Birmingham– just having one foot in each world, you know? I love country music. I love everything that is out there. But I want to have something to add to the genre, I suppose.
Tell me about the scene out there. Where are some of the rooms that you frequently like to play? And who other folks out there runnin’ around doing things with you?
Oh, man, we have a great scene out here! I think that L.A. probably doesn’t get its due. There’s not too many country bars– but every bar has a country night (laughs)! One place that is really the cornerstone, I think, of the Los Angeles country scene is called the Grand Ole Echo. That’s in Echo Park. The venue’s named The Echo, and they have all different genres of music. They have rap and hip hop and rock, and it’s a good room. It’s a good venue. But on Sunday afternoons, it’s The Grand Ole Echo– and that’s just country bands that will be on tour or the local bands. It’s a great place that’s really kind of built the community around here. And there’s a lot of great artists toiling in the same field. Elijah Ocean is one of my favorites. He just put out a single called “Bring Back That Bakersfield Sound“. That’s great. And then Sie Sie Benhoff, who sang a duet with me on the album, she’s a little more Americana, but she really marries Americana and punk in a really interesting way. She’s kinda like a Lucinda Williams. But her voice could knock over a building (laughs)! Rob Leines, he’s a shredder on the telecaster and he plays like a power trio country rock and he’s excellent. He’s actually from Georgia. I think he’s from outside of Atlanta. L.A. may not always get its due for country music, but it has a rich history. Buck Owens and the Palomino Club and Dwight Yoakam…
Yeah. When I think of West Coast country music, Buck [Owens] and Don Rich come to mind immediately, Billy Mize… The things that Don Rich and the Buckaroos were doing there in the late sixties, that psychedelic hillbilly stuff, I love. You’ve got some elements of that in there. And of course, when you talk about the West Coast and country music, you gotta bring up another Georgia boy, Gram Parsons, who had his fingers and big toe in all the little different incarnations going on out there. Tell me about some of the guys that are on your record. ‘Cause one name jumped out at me– Eleanor Masterson who we know here in Macon from being out here with her husband in The Mastersons. And of course, being out with Steve Earle. So it was cool to see that name. But you’ve got a lot of folks on there that are excellent players.
I feel so lucky to be in a city that has so many excellent players– and they’re my friends! I had Dan Wistrom on pedal steel. We’d been playing together for a number of years and anything with a string, he can make sound good. He played mandolin, he played pedal steel. He’s great. And then I had Aaron Stern on the bass. He doesn’t do too much country stuff, but you know, he can kind of do anything. I was really lucky to get him because he’s always on tour with someone internationally. I think he came in and we did the bass sessions and he brought a suitcase with him to the last one because he had to go straight to LAX to go to Europe for six months or something. So I was very lucky to get him on the record. Then Jason Soda, who produced the record also, played all the electric guitar and some acoustic guitar stuff. He’s just a wizard! His production and his taste… People ask me what a producer does really. They’re part engineer, part player, and part psychologist. He talked me down from some creative ledges! But yeah, it was a real pleasure to work with him. We had Travis Popichak on drums. He’s been around L.A. for a very long time. He’s played with a million country bands. Great drummer, has a great feel. I mentioned Sie Sie Benhoff earlier. You should check her out, she’s excellent. She has a huge voice.
Yeah, you said Americana Punk. Ima check that out when we get done doing this.
Yeah, she blends it in a really cool way. It’s has a real Lucinda vibe, and she’s a lot of fun to work with. Then Eleanor came in– yet another just working, touring musician. She came in, and she had just gotten off the plane. She came in and just crushed the session.
Warning, to me, it feels very L.A. to me. It’s what I call truck drivin’, orangutan country music– you know, “Right Turn, Clyde!” Tell me what your plans are now that the album has been released. Are you going to try to get out of California? See how the show travels?
I am, yeah. That’s my number one priority right now. And I’m so glad that you feel that it sounds like L.A. ’cause I wanted it to have a sense of place, you know? Like a real sense of the town and the location kind of being another character in the story. But I’m doing a small run of shows in northern California in August, and then I’ll be out in Nashville and New Orleans in September. I’m still trying to pick up some gigs in Mississippi and do a shorter run there. I’m back in California for some of the fall and then I’m gonna try to hit the road again in early 2020.
Well, if you’re going to go anywhere near here, man, we got a room for you.
Oh man, that makes me so happy to hear that people are liking it and listening to it. And thank you for spinning it and supporting me. I appreciate it.