Interview by Keaton McSweeney
To most people under the age of thirty, the name “Charlie Owen” doesn’t ring a lot of bells. A casual Google search doesn’t turn up much either: a skimpy Wikipedia page, a couple of decade-old interviews, two or three dodgy snapshots…that’s about the extent of it. The lack of information is perplexing, particularly given the fact that any discerning Aussie rock fan over the age of thirty knows exactly who he is. In their own words: “He’s the best guitarist in Australia, mate!”
While that assertion is debateable, upon further investigation, it’s certainly a possibility. Owen has played with a veritable who’s-who of 90’s Australian rock acts, including (but not limited to) just about every musical project that iconic sleaze machine and front-man extraordinaire Tex Perkins has ever been attached to. We’re talking The Cruel Sea, The Beasts of Bourbon, Tex, Don and Charlie, Kim Salmon, Jimmy Barnes, Divinyls…hell, he even played with Renee Geyer for a while. But still, despite this impressive roll call of high profile gigs, he’s remained mostly in the shadows, hidden behind a mop of dirty blonde hair and a busted up black Telecaster.
“I come from a time where part of the fun of music was discovering it, rather than having it shoved in your face,” drawls Owen, calling in from his hometown of Sydney. “My philosophy is, you kind of have to be there.” Owen has recently been putting that philosophy into practice, having just returned from a string of dates supporting a new record from the Tex Perkins-fronted Dark Horses. Titled ‘Everyone’s Alone’, the album has been receiving positive reviews across the board, and Owen says it’s great to be back on the road with some new material. “Well, the album’s only just come out, so we’ve gotta sell it.” he laughs. “But yeah, the tour’s been going really well actually. We’ve been playing really well, and it’s always good to have some new music to play”. Still, new material or not, Owen explains that not much else has changed when it comes to getting out on the road with Tex and the band. “I think everyone grows up at age seventeen and doesn’t change much from then on,” he says. “So yeah, it’s much the same as it always was. The only real difference is that we tended to drink and take more drugs when we were younger.”
Having played with Tex in various projects for nigh-on thirty years, and having played professionally for several years before that, Owen is quick to confirm that he has never had a “real job”. “Yeah, I started playing gigs when I was at school and since then I’ve just never really needed to find a real job. Music was always what I was going to do.” However, Owen says his lifelong affinity with music was not kindled by the rock stars on the radio, but rather by his artistic family. “My mum was a painter and my sisters were all artists. I didn’t start playing because I liked Jimi Hendrix or anything like that. I just understood music, and it was my own way to express myself. I didn’t really come into music through songs or anything; it was more of a drive to create. I think that’s why I’ve never stayed in one particular band. It’s just been a journey of exploring different music.” However, while Hendrix may not be a hero of Owens, legendary jazz saxophonist John Coltrane certainly was. “When I was young, Coltrane’s whole way of thought about music, during the expressionist era, was a great inspiration to me. I read a lot about how those guys got around music, and learnt how to paint pictures with it
Owen feels that this method of musical development was one of the main contributors to his distinctive playing style. Another key to his playing are his two primary instruments; the aforementioned black telecaster, and an antique dobro guitar. Fans of Owen will remember how these guitars made headlines back in 2005 when they were stolen from his house, though when I query Owen over the theft, it turns out that the lost guitars have been recovered. “A couple of days after the break in, I was playing a gig just down the road from my house. The singer in the band I was in had stepped outside for a cigarette, and this guy walked past and tried to bludge one. After smoking for a bit, the guy asked my mate if he’d like to buy a guitar, and it turned out that it was a black one. Meanwhile, my singer is thinking, “this is too weird to be true”, laughs Owen. “Anyway, we got a description of this guy, so me and my girlfriend hunted around St Kilda until we found him selling stuff out of a bag at the needle exchange. We called the cops up, they got him, and it turns out it was the guy that broke into my place. He’d already moved the guitars, but a few days later, I got a call from this woman who said she loved the Beasts of Bourbon and offered to sell me the guitars back for $100 each. I wasn’t about to argue, so I met them in a back street somewhere and St Kilda and paid $200 to get my own guitars back”.
Reunited with his beloved instruments, Owen has since been slowly working on a solo album, which is now finished and set for release in the near future. Recorded in brief stints between touring, recording, running a successful art gallery and looking after his young family, Owen explains that the record stems from his experimentation with electronic music in the early 2000s. “It’s a free, beat-less kind of expression. Once I learned how to operate within the world of electronic music, I started combining it with the softer, country side of my playing and put this album together, combining my electronic soundscapes with the sound of my dobro. It’s kind of like the chaos theory…in doof.”