The format of this interview with San Francisco buzz band Girls is accidental, but fitting: Girls ‘debut disc, Album, was recorded by singer/guitarist Christopher Owens and bassist/producer Chet “JR” White with humble means, and the similarly-cheap device eMusic’s used to record their conversation with the pair in their Bernal Heights apartment appropriately failed to capture any of White’s responses.
Owens, however, more than compensates. He talks about growing up amongst the infamous Children of God, where his mother prostituted herself in order to subsidize a cult that included River Phoenix and his siblings. He talks about working for Stan Marsh 3, an eccentric art patron and millionaire who in 2001 settled four lawsuits alleging imprisonment, sexual misconduct and harassment of teens. He talks about drugs and bad breakups. And he sheds some light on the creation of an equally intimate, must-hear album.
As you read his confessions, keep in your mind the image of a strikingly thin young man who nervously tugs at the sleeves of a tattoo-revealing t-shirt, fidgets with his painted nails and, in profile, resembles an actual girl whenever he pulls his shoulder-length blond hair off his frail neck. He’s like one of those streetwise-yet-vulnerable characters in a Gus Van Sant movie, or in Larry Clark’s Kids — a film he naturally adores.
Many low-budget indie records are clearly influenced by other low-budget indie records. But I get the sense that yours were inspired by well-produced, big-budget pop like Phil Spector and the Beach Boys.
A lot of bands that we’ve been friends with or influenced by were purposely trying to make their stuff sound messy or lo-fi, and people kind of threw us in that genre. But from the start, we both were like, “Let’s have the vocals sound like Paul Simon.” If we were totally different people and we approached this project with totally different means, we probably would’ve hired musicians, gone into a fancy studio, and made a huge record, but we just couldn’t. This is our DIY approach to making a pop record.
Your lyrics seem unguarded, like you wrote them to communicate directly with one specific person, not a club or store full of people. Now you’re singing them to a growing audience. How is that?
There are plenty of times when I feel nervous or embarrassed about my lyrics now. Say we go to a venue and there’s somebody from a band that I like, and they’ll say, “I like your record.” Then I’ll take a look at the set, and be like, “Don’t wanna do that one tonight.” It’s kind of silly. When I first was writing them, I worked in the morning in a copy shop, and I’d go out to shows or whatever, and it was just kind of known that I’d be up to, like, dawn. And there was this cast of people who would come by, and I’d always play them my songs in my room, and that helped me really quickly. I’ve always said that my songs would be the easiest to make fun of if you felt like it, but I guess it would be crude. They’re just normal, universal feelings.
The most recent song on the album “Summertime” mentions “getting high like I used to,” as if your drug days are over. Is that accurate?
Well, when I lived in Amarillo, Texas for nine years, I did a lot of drugs, but essentially I was a pot head — to the point where I could smoke a bong and not even get high. I’d just feel normal.
I had a college roommate who would literally reach for his bong before he got out of bed.
Yeah, we’d call that Wake ‘n ‘Bake. And if you lived in Amarillo, Texas, it’s an alright way to spend the day. I had a four-year transitional period before I moved here where my whole life just flipped over. I was still being very weird and getting high all the time, but I started cutting friends off. I was working for this guy, Stan Marsh 3. I hadn’t gone to school growing up. I took off at age 16 to join the punk scene and live in a punk house. I was very proud of who I was, but had a very small view of life. It was all angst, and he opened up the whole world up to me. He was like a mentor, and all my views were changing. He got a huge kick out of influencing me. He used to say, “I can play you like a violin.” I’ve been reading [Oscar Wilde's] The Picture of Dorian Gray right now, and that’s a line in there. If you want to know what he was like for me, read the first five pages: It was exactly the same. I knew about him because friends of mine would work on his art projects. He offered me a full-time job, like after the first day. I first worked on his ranch for a year, and after that became promoted to being his personal assistant, and worked with the other people running his estate.
But after working for him, I made this goal of leaving in 2005, and then I just totally reinvented myself. My haircut — I used to dress real sharp when I first moved here. I did not ever buy weed. I came here to become sophisticated and leave my past behind because it was kind of too ugly for me. [Marsh] and I are still in touch through letters, but I quit smoking pot. I got an office job. I would drink modestly. And then I met my girlfriend, who just kinda grabbed me and said, “You’re mine.” I started hanging out with other girls and she put a stop to that. There was a two-year thing when we were going out when I was, again, in some kind of battle about who I was gonna be. I was still not wanting to get high all the time and she was, and I was like, “It’s not good for you,” which is the worst thing to say to anybody. I’m sure I seemed like a total square. We lived together for about two years, but for the last half a year, she wouldn’t come home, there was lots of fighting, and I was like [snaps his fingers] straight back into drugs.
I wanted her to stay. I liked her. I still like her. I haven’t been able to replace her. But when we split, it was in a destructive way — heavier drugs and more of them, and that’s when I started to write those first songs. She and I had a band together where I was writing the songs and she was singing, but it never really happened. Basically, all the songs on this album were written in that time period. So that line [from "Summertime"] comes from that. I was trying to hold onto her and the relationship, and the whole idea of that song is to let go, just let it be, and have a good time.
To be honest, when JR and I started working, it phased out a lot of the sitting around getting high all the time. We’re partners in our label, and are responsible for dozens of e-mails each day. The drugs were a little bit pre-band. They were who we were before we started doing this. The other two guys in the band are scared of drugs.
Some of your songs are about ice cream and dancing and yet there are drug references and blunt language, and so I wonder what your relatives think of this album.
They’re so not in my life. It’s as if they don’t exist to me. My mom and my dad and my two sisters — they’re still somewhat there. As far as my grandparents, I never knew them. I grew up only talking to my mom and my two sisters. I got a hold of my dad when I moved out on my own. He’s a musician and just happy to know me again. He came to one of my shows and gave me a sitar. My mom knows I’m in a band, and that’s about it. We played about an hour away from where she lives and she didn’t come. She’s (long silence) … I don’t know. We don’t really talk. [He stops himself, and pauses.]
[Starting over] She’s really changed since I was a kid. I left the Children of God when I was 16, and I was able to do that because my older sister, who was 20, already had left with a guy who I idolized. They invited me to come live with them and get out. I have another sister, who was 18, and about a year later she came to live with us. And then my mom had this moment of clarity and decided she wanted to move back to the United States, so she also came to live with us. I’m really glad she did, but it’s impossible to describe what she had to go through to do that. I think the easiest way was to take the last 25 years and just forget about ‘em. So when I see her, there’s not much conversation. It’s like, “I’m in a band.” “That’s nice. You always liked music.” “How’s your job going?” “Oh, it’s fine.” It’s some kind of Tennessee Williams novel I go through every time I visit her. But I’m happy for her. It’s much better than her being on edge. There was one time when the police called and said, “There’s a warrant out for your arrest.” And I said, “Mom, don’t bail me out. It’s the government’s way of trying to get money from us. Let me sit out the time.” So I sat in there for three weeks. I think she realizes that I left on my own and have been taking care of myself. My sisters just look at me from afar and go, “Wooh, he never got married.” They left [the cult] and started having kids right away. I’m the funny uncle.
What are your most recent songs like?
I wrote one last night called “You’re Nothing More Than Everything to Me.” It was inspired by a George Jones country album, but I sing it like Elvis Presley:
I’d be in my right my honey to set you right over the phone I knew you were a wild one, but I didn’t want to be alone And I just wish you could see Oh my honeybee You’re nothing more than everything to me. Oh yeah You’re nothing more than everything to me Ma na na na na nahhhhhh
You’ve got a great voice. Did you sing when you were in the cult?
Oh, I sang a lot. They didn’t believe in working, so the kids were sent out to sing and sell cassette tapes of us singing. I was in videos called Kiddie Viddie, where we’d sing songs. We lived in Japan and sold it as a religious teaching video, door-to-door. At Christmastime, we’d go caroling. I learned how to play the guitar when I was 13, and there were these guys my sisters ‘age who were the first wave of kids, these guys that I was just obsessed with. They were starting to grow their hair out long and they’d figured out how to record tapes off the radio. Just something like that would blow your mind. They’d teach me how to play Lionel Richie songs, and I’d be like, “Woah, this is cool.” They’d have these things called Fellowship, where we’d all get around, close our eyes, and sing together. [Sings while patting his hands on thighs:] “We got a lot to be thankful for. We got our brothers, we got our sisters.” It was an escape from daily life. Like when the slaves would sing, “One day I’ll leave this weary world.” It’s like a channel for your hopes, and I think that’s exactly what I do now in music. I really appreciate it when everybody’s getting something out of the music, something inspirational. As much as I’m very much against religion and I don’t think that living in that cult was a good experience, I think there are some nice things about people getting together and singing. Other things gave me a lot of resilience — moving around all the time and not knowing where your next meal would come from.
You were in Japan . . .
Four years. Over a dozen countries growing up. There’s a part in the Bible where Jesus is like, “Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature.” And that’s what they would do. It probably got kick-started by the U.S. government raiding the communes and telling us we couldn’t live that way, so we would take off to the Philippines, where we could do whatever we wanted.
Was there any specific thing musically that set you on a course to where you are today?
For me, it was playing in Holy Shit. They’re from LA and they made me want to write songs. Matt Fishbeck felt like my older brother. He was a bit scary to be around, but I knew he was right all the time. He’s was like, “You’re in the band,” and took control of me. Then, when I got in, there was Ariel Pink, who had already been through what I’d been through. Matt had seen him at a party and was like, “Who is that guy?” Ariel looked more like my older brother, but was a little more like me in that he wouldn’t get too close. Then I secretly started idolizing him more because he had about 20 albums of amazing songs that are nothing like anything you’ve ever heard. Maybe he shot himself in the foot or has not had the means or the exposure or maybe not the right things have happened, but he’s crazy-good. Just the combination of those two guys and being in the same room with them — I remember when I started to write songs for the first time, in my mind, it was solely to be able to one day play a song for them.
Do you have a game plan for this group?
I’ve written six albums of material by now and I wanna make all those albums. I don’t mind if we’re living by the same sort of financial means as we are now. I wanna write a standard. I wanna write a “Love Me Tender” sort of song that everybody knows. I’ve never done anything else that makes me feel so alive.