By Sarah Bennett
By Adam Lovinus
By Jena Ardell
By Nate Jackson
By Gustavo Arellano
By Nick Keppler
By Nate Jackson
By Alex Distefano
Lust for Life
Girls front man Christopher Owens refuses to let his drug intake overshadow the music
Given his exotic back story—he was raised in the creepy Children of God cult—his taste for drugs and his penchant for doing interviews under the influence, it’s no wonder that rock scribes far and wide beat a path to Christopher Owens’ door. How delicious it must be that the new tortured genius of indie rock just might be the next Pete Doherty.
Well, it looks as though San Francisco buzz band Girls’ front man has fooled ’em all. During a 40-minute phone interview, the singer/songwriter wears his latest persona: relatively normal dude. He seems, if not embarrassed by his early media excesses, at least somewhat chastened. And apparently, he wants people to know that he’s not about to become the latest rock & roll tragedy. “I talked to a lot of different people in a lot of different states,” he says of past interviews, chuckling. “I may have ranted and raved at different points. I may have been honestly feeling frazzled that day and didn’t know where I was coming from. So it may have come off as, ‘Wow, this guy’s really screwed up.’ But we just came off our last tour and spent the holidays at home. I feel with it. I have a lot of friends, I know what I’m doing, and I don’t feel screwed up at all. Maybe during the time when we did the first songs I was feeling a bit freaked out. Maybe that comes across, but I’ve changed a lot.”
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It’s as if it dawned on Owens that being floored by OxyContin, tweaked on coke or rolling his balls off on Ecstasy during an interview just might make the music secondary. And that would be a shame because Girls’ music very much stands on its own merit. It’s heart-on-sleeve stuff, a canny distillation of classic pop from the 1950s and ’60s, fleshed out in a kind of home-studio wall of sound courtesy of Owens’ partner, Chet “JR” White, who produced the band’s debut, Album, and plays bass, guitars and other sundry instruments. The disc also emits whiffs of British dream pop and noisy guitar squalls that call to mind Spiritualized. All told, Album offers an impressive stylistic breadth. “Hellhole Ratrace,” the centerpiece ballad, is driven by Owens’ yearning vocal and equally yearning lyrics: “And I don’t wanna cry, my whole life through/I wanna do some laughing, too/So c’mon and laugh with me.” Halfway through the six-minute epic, the guitars switch from a gentle acoustic strum to distorted electrics that surge into cacophonous swells. As a counterpoint, the two-minutes-plus “Big Bad Mean Motherfucker” scruffs up a standard surf melody into spastic punk rock.
Album sounds like the product of a band deeply schooled in early rock & roll, Spector-esque pop and other benchmarks. But that certainly wasn’t the case with Owens. Living in Asia, then Europe with his mother and under the tight control of the Children of God leaders, he wasn’t allowed regular access to pop culture. “I had some of that music in my subconscious,” posits Owens. “A little of it was played while I was growing up, but I wouldn’t have been allowed to idolize anyone. I wasn’t allowed to become a fan of Elvis Presley, but it crept into my subconscious.”
Owens broke from the church at age 16 and moved in with his sister in Amarillo, Texas, where he became immersed in punk. But he also soaked up the decades-old music he was only allowed glimpses of in his youth. “When I first really listened to that stuff, it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever heard,” he says rapturously. “It was so produced. The religious music I was around growing up was not very vain, just strumming guitars and singing about God.”
Owens admits that during the year-and-a-half it took to write and record Album, he was often, to pull a phrase from his song “Lust for Life,” “fucked in the head.” So when he and White decided to fully commit to Girls as a band and add a drummer and second guitarist, the next logical step was touring. Now, a dispassionate observer might question if that was the best course of action for a vulnerable new artist with a fondness for illegal substances. Owens considers the notion and laughs. “It really did me good,” he explains. “Just to give me something to do every day that I like, and not be sitting around at home or being around, like, certain elements. This band is a steady job. It does you a lot of good to feel life, to have a goal for living.”
Girls at Detroit Bar, 843 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 642-0600; detroitbar.com. Mon., 8 p.m. $12. 21+.