Christopher Owens, singer/songwriter for the San Francisco band Girls, which performs Monday at Detroit Bar, has captured the fancy of rock critics looking to tout the Next Big Thing. Despite my general leeriness of buzz bands, I found
Christopher Owens (right) and Chet "JR" White
Given Owens' reputation as having a mercurial personality--and penchant for drugs, I anticipated a phone interview with a subject who was either stoned, arrogant, a head case, or all those combined. What I got instead was an extended conversation with a bright and thoughtful 30ish man who came off as, if not exactly humble, at least what we would commonly understand as normal.
OC Weekly (Eric Snider): Listening to Album, it sounds like it was made by someone who had studied '50s and '60s pop music, but you were prohibited from that. How did it happen? Osmosis?
It was a mixture of things. It's like I had a little of that music in my subconscious. Some of it would be played while I was growing up, and not a lot of music was. 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. When I first really listened to ['50s and '60s pop] it was the most beautiful thing I'd ever heard, the most produced. The religious music I heard growing up was not very vane, just strumming guitars and singing about God. When I started writing songs, those [pop] influences came out subconsciously. The other part of what made that music so prevalent in Girls was that JR produced the record and ['50s and '60s pop] was a big influence on him. And he studied the stuff.
You made the album on the fly, with limited equipment, yet I don't hear it as lo-fi. Was it a struggle to get the sound you were after?
Yeah it was. We started off pretty spontaneously, not like, "Let's make an album and we'll buy all the things we need and do everything step by step." It was more like, "What are you doing tomorrow? You wanna record this song?" I had an amp and a guitar basically, and a keyboard. [JR had some basic recording equipment.] As we went along we got stuff we needed to make the album. We put a couple of songs up on the Internet and there was a buzz even then, people wanting to hear more. So it was like, "We need to go all the way with this," and at that point we still didn't have a lot of equipment. It felt important, though, like we had to do a good job. But we were still in our bedrooms with used gear.
Before you posted the songs, did you feel that you had hit on something?
Definitely, we felt we were on to something. I was playing in another band called Holy Shit, and then I started to write songs. My first thought was I wanted to record something so that I could go and say to those guys, "Look what I did," and they would think I was cool. That was the main goal. After we did the first couple of songs, the goal surpassed that and I focused on the bigger picture.
Given your backstory and a couple of interviews you did about your drug use, a gaggle of critics started to psychoanalyze you. Are you as fucked up as they're making you out to be?
I talked to a lot of different people in a lot of different states [chuckles]. 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.
Let's say you were, to whatever degree, damaged, or at least vulnerable. Looming rock stardom and going on tour doesn't seem like a good environment to get your life together.
[Laughs] It really did some good for me, just to give me something to do every single day that I Iiked. To not be sitting at home or, like, around certain elements that I was before. This band is a steady job. Before this, I had a lot of free time and, although I didn't get into only bad stuff, I wasn't focused, that's for sure. It does a lot for you to feel life, to have a goal for living.
Is JR cool with you being the tortured genius who gets most of the attention?
I think he understands everything pretty well. What he wants to do is produce music. He wants to be in this band, too, but -- let's say for some reason we couldn't have a band anymore -- I would carry on writing songs and I know he would carry on producing albums. I know at least five bands have asked him to produce their records, but he doesn't have the time now. So, yeah, it works out -- we have our designated roles.
I have no idea what a Girls show might be like. What direction have you taken for your on-stage approach?
One thing we had to figure out right away: Do we try to carefully redo the record live, with every sound perfect, or do we play it like an early Beatles album: two guitars, drums and bass and hammer it out. We did some shows early on with eight people in the band where we did all the little sounds. But it's hard to tour with a big band, especially when you're new. And when we hammered it out as a four-piece it was more fun. So we turned them all into rock & roll songs. We still care about how they sound, but the live thing--I don't want to say we dumbed it down, that's not right, but we adapted the music to a four-piece hammer-it-out kind of set.
As for me, I pretty much present myself live as the singer. How I got used to it, before we had the band, I would have friends come over and sing them songs with just me on an acoustic guitar, with nothing else going on, with the person right in front of me. It was terrifying at times. It was so bare. It was like, "Do I play it cool? Do I let go and really get into the feelings of the song?" From there it wasn't too much of a leap to performing live on stage. And I ended up doing pretty much the same thing: Closing my eyes and thinking about and feeling what I was singing, being in the moment totally, getting lost in the song and how I felt when I wrote it. I do get silly sometimes and move around a little. Like I might pretend to be Chuck Berry and do the duckwalk thing for a second, or wiggle around, but mostly I like to get really into the lyrics.
Of course, a new singer on the scene like yourself is going to get comparisons. I hear a little Elvis Costello, read some people who heard Buddy Holly. Did you establish your singing style based on influences, or are you more of a guy who opens his mouth to sing and what comes out comes out?
Definitely the latter. The Elvis Costello comparison is in almost every album review, but the truth is I never listened to him. In the past couple of months I've listened to a couple of his songs--"Alison," right?--but I really don't know his work and he's definitely not an influence. As far as Buddy Holly, I think I'm more drawn to the simplicity and directness of his lyrics than his actual singing voice.
You're in a situation now with Girls where lots of things could happen, but one of them probably isn't that you can stay where you are. You can go to the next level, or there's a chance you could fade away--such is the nature of buzz bands. Do you feel like there is anything you can do to steer your fate as a band?
I don't really know. I don't know how the business works at all. My assumption is that the second album will be better. I wrote songs for it after learning how to write songs, not while I was learning to write songs, like I did for the first album. I'm crazy about the new songs. Me and JR sit around and talk and it's like, "If I knew then what I know now, we could've made the first album so much better." All I think right now is the second album is going to be really good, but I don't know what people are going to be looking for from us. I just hope people take it at face value and like it or don't like for how it sounds--without the drama and backlash and that sort of stuff.
Click to read Eric Snider's Girls feature running in the OCW on newsstands today.
Girls at Detroit Bar, 843 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 642-0600; detroitbar.com. Mon., 8 p.m. $12. 21+.