“At face value, this record is very clearly the band’s second album,” Christopher Owens of Girls says of the group’s latest, Father, Son, Holy Ghost—though listeners would be forgiven for being a little confused over this, since the album’s cover deems it “RECORD 3.” The buzz surrounding the duo, comprised of Owens and Chet “JR” White, is a phenomenon, beginning in 2009, when Spin magazine called Girls the “best new band of the year” before they had even released a record, based on the strength of a fan-flooded MySpace profile. With Owens’s raw voice and the music’s effortless toggling between doo-wop styles that recall 1950s school dances, surf music, and grunge-era lo-fi, Girls compiles yesteryear’s sounds sublimely. And Owens’ personal history is something of a surreal fairy tale, too—starting with his childhood in a cult. We spoke with the musician on one of his last days at home in San Francisco before embarking on tour.
Owens was brought up with his sister in the Children of God cult and traveled around the world, from Japan to Slovenia, with his mother until fleeing as a teenager. At that time, his sister was living in Amarillo, Texas—the only place he could escape to. As Owens explains, Amarillo is a “cattle-raising and drilling town, where the residents are predominantly made up of old-school pioneers and old money, with young people around the outskirts.” Owens got a job at a grocery store, making $5 an hour, until a friend told him about the multimillionaire resident Stanley Marsh (best known as the proprietor of Cadillac Ranch, a land-art project consisting of a strip of Cadillacs installed nose into the ground). Marsh would advertise in the local paper when he was hiring assistants for his various art projects, and when the friend introduced the two, he took Owens under his wing and employed him for the next five years. “We’re close; he’s one of the best friends I’ve ever had, and that’s not something that just goes away,” Owens says of Marsh. “He’s someone I look up to, and I want him to look up to me.”Owens traveled to New York and Los Angeles in search for a new home, but in the end, he found San Francisco to be the city where he made his closest friends and “reveled in the nightlife, the best drag shows in the world, and the youth.” He played with Holy Shit until their breakup, but found himself wanting to focus on his own work. “Writing my own songs was really the key,” Owens says. “Matt Fishbeck was someone I learned from and followed. The transition was just a part of growing up. But I’m still very attached to Matt, and I’m still a huge fan of Ariel [Pink]’s.” Owens began Girls with JR White, who helped record and produce the songs, in San Francisco. In concert, though, things are configured a little differently: “The live band is something that unfolds in front of me on a tour-by-tour basis,” Owens explains.
Initially, Christopher and JR dabbled in a variety instruments and manipulating vocals to sound like a backup group—or even a choir. Father, Son, Holy Ghost embraces and utilizes the most sophisticated recording devices, but also fondly looks back at the spontaneity and naïveté they have outgrown (in “Just a Song,” Owens sings of the early days of Girls’ recordings). The songs on this album ranging from a quick two and a half minutes to nearly eight, range in theme as much as in length—even after the pressure of a highly successful first album, the second one proves Girls aren’t afraid to keep having fun.
FATHER, SON, HOLY GHOST IS OUT NOW. GIRLS WILL PLAY BOWERY BALLROOM ON SEPTEMBER 22 AND 23.