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An interview with Girls’ Christopher Owens

December 4, 2009 - 6:58 am

Christopher Owens and his band Girls are on every critic’s shortlist for debut of the year for his first release, Album. And the single “Lust For Life” (no relation to the classic Iggy Pop tune) may be one of the best slacker anthems of the past ten years with Owens–in a voice that resembles Daniel Johnston one minute, Elvis Costello the next–spouting what may be one of the most universal lines in recent memory:

“Oh, I wish I had a suntan/I wish I had a pizza and a bottle of wine/I wish I had a beach house/And we could make a big fire every night/Instead I’m just crazy/Totally mad/Yeah, I’m just crazy/Fucked in the head.”

Leonard Cohen it’s not. However, what’s so impressive about the song and the album is it’s sheer simplicity. Jumping effortlessly from genre-to-genre, Owens (above, right with the Suede shirt) transcends your typical indie stigmas by crafting beautiful, emotionally complex pop songs that are unapologetic about their derivativeness. Or, as he says in the interview below, he just wants to make pop songs that deal with real issues. That longing for something real. That feeling that we’re never going to be normal. 

For Owens, much of that longing can be traced back to this childhood in the evangelist Christian cult, the Children of God (now called simply The Family). In the past, the sect has been accused of everything from child kidnapping and molestation, and when Owens was 16-years-old, he ran away and discovered secular music while living on the streets of San Francisco. Now 30, Album is the culmination of Owens’ love of music and  his hard knock life. In a lot of ways, he’s been born again and while he’s still understandably shy during interviews, he opened up to CityBeat about everything from his approach to writing songs to his first musical discoveries after leaving Children of God. 

CityBeat: So, you had to be surprised at the amount of attention and accolades you received for Album, right?

Christopher Owens: Um, not really. I was pretty sure about the quality of it the whole time. I was just mainly impressed with the reaction to the good reviews. Youn know, I never really think that good reviews amounted to much, but I think it’s made us have sold-out shows and stuff like that. That’s what I’m mainly surprised about. 

CB: And this is a big tour you’re on. Has the bigger crowds effected your live show at all? 

CO: Well, we’re a four-piece band now and we, uh, play our instruments [long pause]

CB: Let me be more specific, one of the things I love about the album is how musically varied it is. How it almost jumps from genre to genre. 

CO: Yeah, we definitely do that.

CB: I just kind of have a hard time conceptualizing how you translate those songs into a live performance.

CO: We just go for it. We just approach them all with the attitude of what four people can do, but of course it’s not exactly the same as the record. The moods and the ideas are still there and styles still change.

CB: When you guys were making the album was the genre-jumping intentional or did it just turn out that way?

CO: There was no plan. We just approached each song on it’s own and by the time we had 12, we were happy and wanted to release it as an album. I really didn’t look at it like I was recording an album and maybe that’s why it jumps around. We would have a song and we would record it. The only way we approached it as far as the actual album goes was just sequencing it after all the songs were recorded. 

CB: Yeah, it almost moves at a pace of what you were listening to at the time. On the song “Headache,” it sounds like you guys were on a steady diet of Morrissey or something and “Morning Light,” it’s really shoe-gazey. It’s really cool how it flows…

CO: Yeah, we just have a lot of different influences and we’re not interested in playing one kind of music. We want to play everything. 

CB: Another one of things I love is your lyrics and how direct they are, but you sing them in a way that makes them sound real and profound. Do you try and keep your songwriting as direct as possible?

CO: Yeah, I mean, that’s just kind of how it is. How it happens. I don’t think too much about writing them, but I kind of write the whole thing at once. If a song is three minutes long, it probably took me three minutes to write it. It’s not censored or complicated or intellectual or poetic or anything like that. It’s just someone running their mouth. Conversational, stream-conciousness-type music. I don’t really know how t write anything complicated yet. Maybe later. [chuckles]

CB: Yeah, but it’s not a bad thing. Don’t you think that your style makes it more accessible?

CO: Yeah, sure. 

CB: You refer to Laura in one song (“Laura”) and Lauren in another (“Lauren Marie”).  Same person? Sounds like you really love her. 

CO: No, it’s two different people. Two different girls. They’re [pauses] just friends of mine now, I guess. 

CB: You refer to death and dying a lot in your songs as well which sounds particularly morbid in the context of some of these great pop songs. Do you have a fear of death?

CO: No. I’m more afraid of living than I am of dying. [laughs]

CB: With your rather strict religious ubbringing in the Children of God were you allowed to listen to music?

CO: No, no way. I was only allowed to listen to the religious music. 

CB: When was your big musical awakening then?

CO: When I left I was 16. That’s when I really [pauses] There was this underground teenage scene within the Children of God where we’d talk about secular music and exchange the information that we had about secular music. But it was pretty limited and secretive and all that. So I really was only allowed to listen to what I wanted to by the time I was 16-years-old. When I left.

CB: What were some of the bands and albums that you were discovering for the first time when you left?

CO: The first album I bought was The Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. And The Cranberries. I liked them a lot. And I got the Romeo & Juliet soundtrack cause I went to see that movie. I liked the weirder stuff too. I liked Enya. 

CB: Really? 

CO: Yeah, I thought it was nice. 

CB: That’s kinda cool man. When you said weirder stuff I thought you were gonna say Suicide or Brian Eno or something.

CO: Oh, and Sophie B. Hawkins. [laughs]

CB: “Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover.” That’s a blast from the past.

CO: [laughs] Yeah, I kind of just listened to whatever was on the radio and MTV back then.

CB: I was reading that Spin article and I loved that part about the girl coming up to you in L.A. with her diary and she had the lyrics for “Lust For Life” in there with all the pictures of her friends. I would imagine that you’ve had some interesting fan experiences. Do you find that a lot of people come up to you and tell you how much your music has touched them?

CO: Oh yeah, there’s at least 20 people at every show that wait around to tell me that.

CB: Does that make you feel weird?

CO: It makes me feel great. Because there’s been a lot of negativity. People who get jealous and go online and say, ‘Oh well, you know, it didn’t really do anything for me when I saw them live,” and that makes me frustrated. If it wasn’t for the people coming up at the shows and telling me the complete opposite, then I probably would have quit it already. I think there’s some people that listen with their heads and people who listen with their hearts. I’m just not interested in any kind of critic’s point of view about the live show. I know we’re not perfect live, but we do our best. I give it 110 percent and I pour my heart out onstage. I know that and the fans know that and that’s really all there is to it. 

CB: Well, I’m a critic who often approaches music cognitively and I love the record.

CO: Well, they all love the record. Maybe it’s that they build us up so much that they expect something else live. But we’re basically just a punk band in a lot of ways. 

CB: With the good stuff and the bad stuff, do you find that you take things too personally?

CO: Yeah, I do. I get way too caught up in it. But this is my life now. [long pause] I don’t know.

CB: Well, does it make you feel like you’re in some kind of surreal environment? Does it make you feel strange at all when fans connect like that? 

CO: No, to me it’s just what I set out to do. I wanted to make pop music that talked about real issues. The things that are important in my life. When people connect to it, it makes sense to me. That’s what I was hoping for. It’s nice. I really like it.

CB: On the song “Hellhole Ratface” you say, “I don’t want to die without shaking up a leg or two.” Do you feel now that you’re on your way towards that goal?

CO: Oh, yeah. I was mainly just saying that I want to have as much fun as possible. I mean everyone says that in everyday life, but it was just what I was feeling at the time. I definitely do my best to have a fun time.

Girls play tonight at The Loft @ UCSD. The show is sold out. 

Photo above by Sandy Kim.

One Comment leave one →
  1. December 11, 2009 - 8:30 am 8:30 am

    Cool interview. Girls are great on record and live too if you get lost in the songs, which isn’t hard.

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