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Escape Velocity

"I'm A Fan Of Justin Bieber": An Interview with Girls
John Freeman , September 13th, 2011 11:07

John Freeman tries to chill out with Girls frontman Chris Owens to discuss Bieber fever, Twitter therapy and finally being able to bask in the luxury of self-obsession.

I hate spa hotels. On the few occasions I have frequented a spa, while some soft-focussed attendant sticks candles in my ears or lays stones on my back, I spent the ensuing time reflecting on just how much money I'm wasting in the process. Maybe I'm too much of a tightwad.

My interview with Chris Owens from San Franciscan duo Girls is to take place in a particular stupid spa hotel. Rammed up against a major West London gyratory system, any potential de-stressing will surely be obliterated within nanoseconds of leaving the joint.

It also seems a slightly incongruous place to meet Owens. Set against a backdrop of fluffy-towelled clients, his stripy jumper, Doc Martins and tattoos are not exactly de rigueur. But then Chris Owens has never been anything if not unusual. Raised in the Children of God cult, he 'escaped' from his family while in Slovenia and headed back to Amarillo, Texas. He spent the next few years making up for lost time.

Having moved to California, Owens formed Girls with Chet 'JR' White in 2007. A wonderfully adventurous debut album (2009's Album) was followed by last year's ostentatious Broken Dreams Club EP. However, the recently-released second long-player, Father, Son, Holy Ghost is a breathtaking leap forward, Owens cherry-picking his way through many facets of popular Stateside music – rock, soul, folk, country, R&B and even Everly Brothers proto-pop.

In the flesh, Chris Owens is smaller and slighter then I imagined him, and I'm reminded of Kurt Cobain's dishevelled beauty when I met the Nirvana singer in 1989. Owens is huge fun and talks knowledgeably about his beloved football team, Barcelona, while I stare at the word 'Hermione' which has been ornately biro-ed onto the side of his hand. As a fellow soccer fan, I regrettably seek a change in subject, telling him that 'the guys at the Quietus don't like football'. In fact, our esteemed editor recently described the game to me as "an edifice of transcendental stupidity." Owens thinks he can win the Quietus over by referencing the Barça manager's "Zen-like wisdom" but I'm not so sure.

Later that day, Owens posts the following Tweet: 'As an experiment I've told 20 journalists today that my motivation for writing songs is 'my cup runneth over', to see if it makes it to print once.'

Not a chance, my friend. Not a chance.

You have described Father, Son, Holy Ghost as a 'band record'. What do you mean by that?

Chris Owens: When we made the first record - which I like a lot - it was just me and JR. When we made the EP, we played with about a dozen people. It was our first time in a studio and maybe we went overboard. Maybe. We had a horn section, a trombone solo. It was all great fun. But we knew not to do that again for the second album. We knew we wanted to focus it a little more.

So, when I say the second album is a band record it is because it is the same people playing an instrument for the entire time - same drummer on every song - which is a first for us. What those guys brought is that when I say to the guitar player 'your solo is gonna come in now,' they are going to think of something brilliant. I'd be out of ideas at that point and I don't have the skill-set. It's awesome; they bring the whole thing up a huge amount.

I get that, but many people – myself included - loved the experimental feel to Album. Is there a danger that Girls could become more self-limiting with the 'band' approach?

CO: I understand that sentiment, but, for me, I won't be limited. At some point I'd like to make a record with an entire orchestra and work with an arranger. I don't want control of everything. To me it is all about servicing the song. There have been times when I have not wanted to even sing the song, which is kinda crossing the line. In order for it to be Girls, I still have to sing the song.

Why would you not want to sing one of your songs?

CO: Well, there is a song called 'Love Like A River' on this new record. It's an R&B song. Just, in your mind, imagine Justin Bieber singing it.

Sorry, did you say Justin Bieber?

CO: I'm a fan. I've followed him since he was just on YouTube singing in his mom's trailer. I like him. Don't think of the stereotype – think of the true talent that his voice has. No one would come in and rip up the song, it would be the same song but just with that great voice [sings falsetto]. I can't even fake it. It doesn't need to carry the ego of the writer. But for the band, right now, I need to be a figurehead.

I also believe that much of Father, Son, Holy Ghost pre-dates the debut album. It must take a certain mentality to sit on songs like 'Vomit' for a number of years?

CO: But I'm doing it now. There are songs that I have still from that era that are not recorded. They are monumental. With the first album, we were having such a good time that we got carried away. 'Vomit' may have been on the list of songs to get on, but I'd write a song like 'Hellhole Ratrace' and something about it would arm-wrestle its way to the top - 'Drop everything, I've just written my best song'.

Do you not fall out of love with songs after a while? I know a number of musicians who claim to be bored with new material after a couple of weeks.

CO: No, I love them all still. This band started when I was 27, so I have done other things. If you showed me one of my paintings from when I wanted to be a painter, I'd be like 'it's terrible' and I felt like that the whole time I was painting. That's why I dropped it. But this is something entirely different. I love them the second I find them and they don't fade away [sings Buddy Holly's 'Not Fade Away'].

The lyrical content of the average Girls song seems very autobiographical.

CO: The content of the songs is all about myself and my feelings; it's a very disgusting indulgence.

Have you ever backed off from divulging an aspect of your psyche?

CO: No, I've only backed off if I get that first line and don't get the second, and think it would be too much effort. If the song is three minutes long, it should take me three minutes to write it. It is a very particular thing that I've finally found out I am good at. Well, it is a particular thing [staring at my bottle of beer]; if you asked me to write a song about Becks beer in three minutes, I could never, ever do it. But, if we were out for drinks later and I was walking back to the hotel and thinking about how I'd like to be home, I could write a song about San Francisco in three minutes.

What if Becks offered you a million dollars to write a jingle?

CO: Well, it might bring in some money for me. I'm not really sure, as we've turned down everything that has been offered, so far. When we first signed, they asked me how I felt about licensing and all I said was that it had to make sense. When I watch Midnight Cowboy and 'Everybody's Talkin'' comes on 20 times, I don't feel the song is violated in any way. They are working together; it's art. There is a time and place for all this stuff, even commercials.

Have you seen the Iggy Pop car insurance commercials?

I have seen them and one time I brought this up with an idol of mine – Lawrence [Hayward] from Felt. I asked him what he thought about the commercials and he said 'Good for him'. I was charmed by that. This was coming from a guy who had never gotten a break, in a sense, and also has been very pure with his work. I was expecting a completely different answer like 'Oh, what a clown'. But he made it all very human. For one, I admired him for not being spiteful at all when I basically set him up to do so, but then, secondly, people have got to make money – they have families – and who am I to judge? I learned a lot within that two-second answer of 'Good for him'.

Without wanting to rehash a discussion about your upbringing, I assume you had very little exposure to popular culture before you 'escaped'. What was it like to suddenly have access to all forms of music?

CO: It was amazing. But it wasn't only music. I arrived in the United States from Slovenia when I was 16, and for the first time in my life I was away from anyone telling me what to do. I'd never held cash in my hand, I'd never used a telephone. You have to understand the huge scope of the change. So, buying records was fun and I would buy about one per week. When I was growing up, in my fragmented way, I was a Michael Jackson fan. The first record I bought myself was Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness [Smashing Pumpkins], I was a huge Cranberries fan and I loved Enya. When I got my freedom, I absorbed every CD and video – I just ate it up. If it had been 2000, I could have just spent the whole day on YouTube. But maybe it was a good thing, and I was able to take all this is in in bite sizes.

How do you think the way you discovered music has affected the Girls sound?

CO: You can hear it in Girls by the jumping around of genres. It's kind of like saying that I like all of it. It's true – earlier I was defending Justin Bieber. I like everything. I did have a time period where I emotionally bought into a punk scene, where I could then instantly have several close friends and a lifestyle that was similar to my youth, where we hated everyone else except for us and were very self-righteous. In the first week I got Bad Brains tattoo, it was like my birthright.

You also began to experiment with drugs; you seem to have been typically honest about this facet of your life.

CO: There is a holier-than-thou attitude for some, when, for American colleague students at least, it is very common to be prescribed a Xanax to go to sleep and Adderall to wake up. So, I feel this want to just say 'Look, I'm not ashamed to talk about any of this'. Don't you think talking about this would be better than stigmatising the whole thing? When I was Amarillo it was introduced to pot as the 'gateway drug' and I just started smoking pot like everyone else. And it quite literally was the 'gateway drug' as now I don't think there is a drug I haven't done.

How has your relationship with drugs influenced your songwriting?

CO: Well, what people do with drugs is that if they do settle on a drug it tends to be the one that helps their personality. But then the awful thing is that you become dependent. So, while it is realistic to say that I can take some downers – which is what I have settled on – and become euphoric and focussed on one idea, maybe grab a song and go with it, the dependency is an awful thing. It is nothing to be laughed at, or for me to promote to other people. So, yes, it has affected the writing and it has been helpful, but I also know it has affected it in a bad way, in being able to get work done and have good friendships and make responsible decisions. I've learned the hard way that I should be in charge of those things.

Like many musicians, you regularly post on Twitter. Your tweets seem to be particularly personal and revealing - are you conscious of giving too much of yourself?

CO: I have a love for Twitter. I've heard it presented as 'giving'. I've recently begun to look at it in an entirely different way, which is I am desperately trying to learn about myself. It is a selfish thing I'm doing, in a sense.

Explain a little more about how Twitter could help you learn about yourself.

CO: In the same way you could learn about yourself through therapy and talking about stuff in an unguarded way. It's therapy; to me that is what the songwriting has become, and what social networking is. Sure, it is giving, but I don't think I do it because I am such a giver. I've had to block out huge portions of my life and have had huge obstacles to overcome. I've had no opportunity to indulge myself in a way. Now I have the luxury, I am a bit too self-obsessed in a sense.

Earlier, you said you were sat on some as yet unrecorded 'monumental' songs. What is the next Girls album going to sound like?

CO: That is a very good question, because it could sound like about six different things. For example, I have a very strong love of show tunes and jazz music. I may want to cut back on the rock approach. It could be anything, but it also could not be the next album. It could be an experimental EP and the next album could be a more traditional Girls album.

So do you now see Girls as a career?

CO: Well, I do feel successful and I feel confident, and I know JR does too. We just played our first show in LA and it was amazing. People loved the new songs and it is crazy how fast things work these days. People knew all the new songs. I know we are all going into this feeling very confident.

Father, Son, Holy Ghost is out now via Turnstile.