Need To Know: Girls
By Tim Murphy
Have you heard about this newish band out of San Francisco called Girls and their newish album called, well, Album, which has been at the top of the emusic.com charts the past several weeks? They're the new darlings of indie-blog titans like Pitchfork and Brooklyn Vegan. They have a reverb-y, emotional, retro sound that calls up the Ramones and the Beach Boys, and the lead singer, Christopher Owens, who was brought up in the Children of God cult before running away to Texas at 16, sings lyrics that are lovelorn and tortured but also kind of slyly self-mocking in a voice that ranges from deep and broody to yelp-y and nasal and funny. In fact, frankly, we have been listening to this album constantly for the past few weeks, and also constantly watching the video for the excellent song "Lust for Life," which features all of Owens and bandmate JR White's friends, including two gay boyfriends in their underwear. OK, fine, we've basically been falling in love with the long-haired, sort of androgynous Owens...and we finally got a chance to talk to him, the day before Girls plays New York's Bowery Ballroom.
Out: Hi Chris, welcome to New York. How are you?
Chris Owens: I'm good, I just had some brunch.
You can have brunch on a weekday?
I guess it turns out you can do whatever you want.
Where are you staying?
I'm in Williamsburg, staying with a friend that came here from San Francisco. We had brunch at Egg.'
When did you get up?
I think 11. I've gotten in this terrible habit in which I get up and stay in bed with the laptop doing e-mails for an hour, where what I should have done is eaten and relaxed first.
How did you feel about the big recent story on you guys in Fader?
I'm pretty happy with it. But it painted me as this junkie runaway freak. I don't know. I felt like, "Oh, OK, thanks, I spent three days with you and told you all these things that really mattered to me," and it dwelled on some boring things. The photographer would be like, "Hey, you know where you can get any coke?" and we would get him some, and he'd be like, "Go ahead, just have some," and [then] he'd be like, "Oh no, no thanks."
You guys do do a lot of drugs in the story -- MDMA, coke, pot...
Well, I don't care, I think it's fine. But JR is a bit more normal. He talks to his family on the holidays and all that. So he asked [the writer] not to talk about [the drugs] and then they did, so he sort of had to have all these phone calls with his family letting them know he was OK, basically.'
You actually sound more normal to me than I thought you might.
Well, to myself, I'm totally normal. It's always other people that will make me feel abnormal. I'm 30 now, and something I figured out since my teenage years to get me past things like bitterness or feeling weird, is that everybody has the same kind of story in life and there's nobody that I can't sit down with and relate to and understand, you know? I think people expect me to be a weirdo but I don't feel like a weirdo.
Well, and with the whole Children of God upbringing. What are your feelings about that now that you're 30?
I'm in touch with my mom. After I left, she just sort of let me be whoever I wanted to be, and about a year later, she left. All the kids [in the cult] one by one have sort of left and that has caused parents to leave. It's just fallen apart. When the kids became teenagers, they sent this revolutionary shock through the whole group. It was a really exciting time for me because I was, like, 10, 12 years old and already there were these kids doing what 14- and 16-year-olds do, rebelling against your parents. I automatically had these guys in my life that were my heroes, just doing simple things like piercing each other's ears, killing themselves, leaving, standing up in the middle of [cult] class and poking holes in all these theories.
Would the cult smack them down?
They'd have to walk around with a sign around their neck saying, "Please don't talk to me, I'm learning to control my tongue." They'd have to fast and pray for three days. But there's no punishment you can give a teenager that can make them say, "OK, you're right." So when I was 16 and I left on my own and got a job and had absolute freedom, it was sort of a gift. It's like it forced me to grow up right away, out of my nest.'
And you landed in Amarillo, Texas, and this rich oilman Stanley Marsh kind of took you under his wing. What was that, did you become his lover?
It was very loving, but he's married [to a woman]. I never had a father. He was just fascinated with me as a person. He's a totally eccentric crazy genius. He proceeded to call me everyday. He'd find out which house I was sleeping on the couch at and the phone would ring and it would be him. So I went and worked on his ranch for four years.
Do you think he was in love with you?
We became best friends, and anybody you're best friends with, I'd hope you'd love. He'd say, "Let's take all the Tennessee Williams plays ever adapted into movies," and we'd go watch them with his wife. It was a bit like being in a Tennessee Williams play ourselves. Or he would say, "How about you find all the Cole Porter records you can find online and put them on my credit card and then we'll have a listening party for you and your friends?" He wanted to put me through college but I told him I had to move to San Francisco to try to become an artist.'
Are you still in touch?
I've been to see him several times since then. We write each other really neat letters. I've never had a better friend in my life. Well, there was my other best friend in Texas, Skippy. I lost a girlfriend because of Skippy. At some point he told Beloved Girlfriend all about my escapades with him and the other guys. Skippy and I, at some point we were sort of lovers, and there were other guys, too. We had a little circle of us that we were best friends and we'd say we were going to hunt wild boars. We'd have these trips and go out and live in nature. So it was like, "Chris is a phony, he's been having sex with all these other friends of his." She was like, "I don't even know you." She broke up with me.
So it sounds like you're bi, right?
I feel just as strongly toward men as I do women. Maybe even stronger. I'm single right now.
OK. Why is the band called Girls?
It was called Curls. It was me and my ex-girlfriend, but when we broke up, me and JR, we wanted to change the name but have it reference [the original]. Someone said, "What about Girls?" I thought it was cute for boys in a band to be called Girls. Right away it had this aesthetic that I could work with, take pictures of my friends that are girls that I think are cute.
Fair enough. What sound did you want for this album?
To not be afraid to make each song sound absolutely different from the next. I wanted "Hellhole Ratrace" to sound like a Spiritualized song, '"Summertime" to sound like a Spacemen 3 song, and "Lauren Marie" like a Beach Boys song.
Your lyrics are really broody and self-pitying but in a sort of winking way.
They're earnest the way Charlie Chaplin was earnest. If you add a sense of humor to it, a funny voice or you mock yourself. You feel silly, so why not act silly? But at the same time, say what it is you're trying to say.