DiS meets Girls
If 2009 was an eye-opener of a year for San Francisco's Girls, 2010 promises to be something of a non-stop exercise in avoiding travel sickness. Since the release of debut album, er Album last September, which picked up a more than satisfactory 8/10 on these very pages, it's been something of a never ending journey around all four corners of the globe.
Initially a duo based around the core songwriting partnership of singer/guitarist Christopher Owens and bass player Chet "JR" White, they've recently upped their membership to a five-piece, with keyboard player Matt Kallman joining guitarist Ryan Lynch and drummer Garett Godard on their current visit to British shores.
On the night of their final UK show, DiS is sat in the backroom of the cosy Hare & Hounds enjoying a quiet pre-gig pint with Christopher Owens...
Video:Girls 'Lust For Life'
DiS: How are things going for you and your band at this moment in time?
Christopher Owens: Very well, thanks...
DiS: Did you expect to be returning to the UK so soon after your initial headline tour of the country last October, not to mention playing to larger audiences?
CO: If you'd asked me that question before we were in the band I'd have said "No". When me and JR were deciding whether to do this it was with the knowledge that it was going to be full-time. We actually put out four or five songs on the internet before we even became a band or anything, and it was pretty obvious from the reaction online that if we committed to what we were doing we could make something really worthwhile out of it so that influenced our decision to start Girls in the first place.
DiS: There were several other bands name-checking you around this time last year - The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart being one that spring to mind. Do you think this kind of patronage helped gain attention as well as the songs you'd posted on the internet?
CO: There were a couple of bands who helped us along the way for sure. I remember when The Pains... were breaking out on Pitchfork and they were asked in an interview who their favourite new bands were and they mentioned us. I'm still a firm believer that ultimately it comes down to what happens when you press PLAY. In the end it all comes down to the quality of the songs.
DiS: One of the other aspects of your life that keeps getting brought up is your upbringing as a member of the Children Of God cult. Do you find that starting to get a little tiresome now, particularly as the band has established itself in its own right?
CO: It has gone over the top for sure, but we knew that would happen. We've had our album out for a good five months, and looking at the even bigger picture...say three years from now, nobody's going to be talking about that anymore. It's almost like when you introduce yourself to somebody from the first time..."Hey, I'm Christopher Owens from the Children Of God, pleased to meet you!", you know what I mean? I think people focus more on that for now because they don't know anything else about us, but it will go away.
DiS: It obviously has a significant bearing on your songwriting though...
CO: The only way it does is that obviously when you're writing songs it's going to matter where you come from. When you're talking about your life or personal feelings, past experiences such as your upbringing will always play a part in it. It's important for me in terms of what I'm thinking about but I don't think it has any significance in terms of what you hear within the music.
DiS: I'd go along with that, certainly in a musical sense. Your album is actually very eclectic, from the folky 'Lauren Marie' through to the feedback-drenched 'Morning Light', which reminds of English bands from the early nineties like the Boo Radleys.
CO: Well we like the Boo Radleys a lot. The specific band that I wanted the sound of 'Morning Light' to reproduce was undoubtedly My Bloody Valentine. There's all kinds of good music around though, and we did have a conscious conversation that we didn't want this album to be pigeonholed against one individual scene. I write the songs on a little six-string guitar so they all sound the same at the beginning - it's a bit like country music - but the cool thing about producing your own recordings is that you can take that and pretty much add whatever you want to the mix afterwards. With 'Morning Light', we could have put drum and bass beats over the top. You can literally just go anywhere with it, and that's what we tried to do with the album, ensure that there was as much variation between the songs as possible. We wanted to take each song individually rather than just have a single sound running through the entire record. It was so much more fun to do, and I guess the fact that at that time we were still a duo rather than a band played a part as well. It wasn't even meant to be an album. Each song is like a separate piece on its own and we had twelve at the time which we thought were good enough to record and release so in the end that became the album.
Video:Girls 'Morning Light'
DiS: I guess that has paid off for you in a critical sense too, as I don't recall seeing any negative reviews for the album.
CO: There were no bad reviews for the record, but we've had a few for the live show. Every once in a while I'll read a piece on us that says "I expected something else" you know? I read a review that said we weren't fast enough - well what if we don't feel like playing fast?!? There was another that said I don't talk enough during the set - what if I don't feel like making jokes? There have been times where I've read stuff about me or the band on the internet and they've had a place where you can leave a comment and I'll just go and write a response on the page. I remember another instance where someone wrote something about a show we did in San Francisco about "the singer didn't show one feeling or emotion", which is so not true. They could have said I'm not the best singer or no Stevie Ray Vaughan on the guitar, or my hair looks messy or I look like an idiot because my eyes are closed in live photos, but that was just uncalled for. I just wrote them a simple message that said "You were not at the show". Other than that, people do seem to like the album. I remember when we were putting each song out one at a time we were getting solid reviews individually.
DiS: The past twelve months must have been pretty exciting for you though. With the benefit of hindsight, is there anything about this time you would like to change if you could?
CO: The only thing I'd like to happen would be for us as a band to record more songs and play less live. I've written over seventy songs this past year and I wish I was recording them. At the same time it's important for us to play live if we want to do this full-time and not have to return to our previous day jobs.
DiS: Seventy new songs? Really?
CO: Yeah. I started writing songs three years ago and that's been my life ever since.
DiS: Are there any timescales from the label or otherwise regarding the recording and subsequent release of these songs?
CO: No, the label pressures us to go on tour! When we get home from these European dates we then start another US tour, and then we play at the Coachella Festival which takes us up to the end of April. Afterwards we're planning to record an EP. I want to call the a-side "Fucking A" and the b-side "Fucking B", and I want it to be the best EP of all time!
DiS: Have you decided which songs will go on the EP?
CO: Yeah, I've picked out six that I want on that record. I want it to be half the length of the album. The thing is though, JR also has the right to say whether we should record specific songs or not. One of the very first songs I wrote is going to be on the EP. We played it at our first couple of shows, and then stopped playing it live. It's called 'Carolina' - there's a version of it on the internet - and it hasn't really been done justice yet. The recording is what will make it what it is in my head, which is this great, epic song. It's written about this girl who was "Miss Teen South Carolina" and she was in a pageant to become "Miss Teen USA", and they asked her a question and she said something really silly about wanting to teach people in Iraq how to read, and I thought to myself "Did she really just say that?" I remember being in the hotel lobby at work watching it online because no one was checking in, and I called JR at home to tell him but he was watching it already. At the time, the whole of the country's media jumped on it, and it was a stupid comment to make, but here's the thing, just because she's not that smart isn't necessarily her fault. She was probably raised in a certain way and pushed into the whole pageant lifestyle.
DiS: Will you be playing any of them live this evening?
CO: Yeah, we'll be playing most of them, but I guess we will learn more about those songs when we get around to recording them. They're kind of just rock'n'roll songs right now, but I think once we sit down and start to record them they might change.
DiS: We've briefly touched on not recording as much as you'd have liked being your least favourite aspect of the last year, but at the same time, what stands out as your proudest moment of the last year?
CO: That would definitely have to be when we had our album release show in San Francisco, and aside from that there was a nostalgic meeting as we got to hang out with Lawrence from the band Felt around the same time as well. He came to one of our shows in London and we spent a couple of hours together before the show. He's been an idol of mine for a long time.
DiS: After Felt disbanded he went on to form the band Denim. Which are you a fan of most?
CO: That's a really good question. I prefer the Denim albums as complete bodies of work, but with Felt they're just so different, ahead of their time almost. Maurice Deebank's guitar playing was so original you know. Lawrence asked me a similar question in London about what my favourite Felt album was, and I had to tell him that I didn't have one. The reason being that I downloaded all of their songs at once, so individual pieces from different records stand out rather than just listening to an album as a whole.
DiS: You've recently expanded the band to a five-piece. Will the other three members become involved in the songwriting process at some point?
CO: They don't write anything. We've fired people and had others quit - there's been all kinds of switching around and only one of the band has played with us for the past year now. For the other two this is their first ever tour so at this moment in time they're just learning the songs.
DiS: Why do you think the band gets through so many members in such a short period of time?
CO: When me and JR started playing in San Francisco, all of our other friends were in bands, whereas we had nine-to-five jobs. We were seen as the weirdos of the group because everyone else was cool because of what they did, whereas we worked as a couple of hotel porters! All we did was work and get high, and one day I remember having a conversation with JR about how we'd achieve something worthwhile too. When we first started to play live the other musicians on stage were all just friends of ours from other bands, but when it came to us going on tour they had other commitments and priorities. At the same time, because we're on the road so much it's hard to find somebody that can fit into that whole lifestyle. We're lucky at present because the people we have now are good and enjoy what they're doing.
DiS: Do you think they'll still be in the band this time next year?
CO: Yeah, I hope so. The only one whose solo project is starting to pick up is Ryan Lynch. His work as Dominant Legs is starting to get a lot of attention, so if things really move forward for him then he may have to go and do his own thing eventually.
DiS: There's been a lot of focus on you talking about drugs being a major source of creativity in the past. Do you still share that view or was it just a phase at the time?
CO: No, I know we don't have to take drugs to be creative. I don't see it as a phase either. It's just something that happens. I moved out on my own when I was sixteen, and the first thing I did was hang out with groups of people, like-minded groups I could relate to. A lot of the time we would just sit around and smoke pot and that went on for about four years, which is really common in the US - most teenagers smoke weed all day. After that I had an urge to try everything I was told not to do, which was pretty much any drug that was put in front of me. When I reached my twenties and quit hanging out with those kids I was trying harder stuff, and then when I moved to San Francisco I made a conscious effort to clean up my act. My whole plan was to become a responsible and serious adult.
DiS: And did you?
CO: No! Nothing changed. The first person I met was the girl that I ended up going out with and she was a wild crazy animal who got me back on cocaine. She had this huge personality and I couldn't say no; I just wanted to be with her all the time. When we broke up I started taking cocaine again to get over it...I guess maybe I have an addictive side to my personality too? At the start of each tour I make the effort to clean up and it's no big deal. I write all the time, mostly when I'm not high.
DiS: Do you write much while you're on tour?
CO: A little bit. Maybe a couple of songs on each tour. I'll get little ideas which I write down or say on my phone, and then I'll work on them as soon as I get home. Being on tour isn't really a creative environment for me. It's easier to work on songs when it's quiet and I'm alone.
DiS: Finally, you've mentioned that you're playing Coachella in April. Will you be doing any other festivals throughout the summer?
CO: We're planning which festivals we're gonna play right now. There's several in the UK and the rest of Europe that we're all but confirmed to do, Japan too, and of course back home in the US as well. I think we'll be busy for most of this year actually, so the last couple of months of 2010 we might just take as a vacation.
DiS: Your next album then, definitely not before 2011 at the earliest?
CO: No. We'll do the EP in the spring, and then I would imagine the label will hold on to it for a while until we've played over the summer. I don't think we'll start recording for the second album until the very back end of this year, maybe even later.
Video:Girls 'Hellhole Ratrace'