On the eve of his performance at San Miguel Primavera Sound 2012 - and with his second album, “Father, Son, Holy Ghost” already stuck in our heads - we spoke with Christopher Owens, the vocalist of Girls, about his music, his relationship with Chet White, the football team Barça, flowers, and much more.
Part of the bumper crop of 2009 newcomers and established artists was Girls, a San Francisco band led by Christopher Owens and Chet “J.R.” White. Since then they have been on the road to an unparalleled success that has made them one of the essential bands on the alternative scene with only two albums and an EP (the superb “Broken Dreams Club”). The key to their success can be found in two fundamental factors. Owens, as frontman, fascinates people with his grungy look and longish blond hair, leading him to be compared to Kurt Cobain (also because of his mannerisms and slight build), as well as his childhood in the cult Children of God. So he fits in with the figure of the tormented singer-songwriter. He is also liked by his followers for strictly musical reasons, as his songs cover the good and the best of the second half of the twentieth century. His songs display a variety of influences ranging from surf, to classic rock, shoegaze, gospel and even heavy metal. It all comes together with great mastery and a touch of sensitivity and emotion that is surprising for a group with such a short career.
Last November, two months after the release of their second full-length album, “ Father, Son, Holy Ghost”, they presented their new songs in Barcelona and Madrid, within the framework of San Miguel Primavera Club 2011. They are such a drawing card that the organisation soon announced them for the summer festival, where they will perform on Friday, 1st June, on the festival’s second-largest stage. For the occasion we contacted Christopher Owens, who answered our questions. These are his words about his relationship with Chet, his devotion to roses, how he follows the Barça football team and his favourite guitar solos.
There are some really sad and devastating moments in this record. In a good sense, it almost seems hard to listen to it before you’re totally immersed in this music experience. Was that your intention?
Yes, everything you hear is very intentional; there are no accidents on that record. Each song was with me for awhile and I knew exactly how I wanted them to sound and feel by the time we recorded them. Sadness is just something that I find to be everywhere in life at the moment.
The media has always praised your music. How do you deal with this?
I think that is very nice, it's very easy to deal with, it's not everything I've done in my life that has been recognised, so I don't take it for granted, it makes me very happy that other people are understanding the music as well.
You tend to talk about the importance of spirituality in music. What do you intend listeners to feel when they play a record aptly titled “Father, Son, Holy Ghost”?
Someone who is communicating some genuine emotions and thoughts through music. I think it's like art, it should have soul.
Your records are a really nice collection of at least five decades of great music. Do you find it hard to pick amongst the best that music has offered or does this huge legacy makes things easier?
It's a pleasure. It's easy to become fixated on one thing, like shoegaze or Brit-pop, and I try not to show bias, at the end of the day it's just a huge pleasure, not only that these genres exist and have been explored and that we have the opportunity to explore them as well – but also that it's so easy to look up and listen to those things, with the Internet we all have every song and album ever, and it's a huge luxury to be able to listen to and reference that and be influenced by that artistically.
"Playing fewer tracks allows everything that has been played to be heard at once and makes the song sound twice as big. Less is more"
Doug Bouhem produced this album, whereas in previous releases you self-produced your music. How was working with him?
Great, he helped us and did not try to overpower us or undermine our ideas or plans; he just helped us to do what we wanted – faster, and clearer.
The sound is now bigger, more focused. How did you achieve this? Was this Doug’s work? Did the new line-up have anything to do with it?
The main process to having a bigger sound for us was to play less music, on the first and second records ( “Album”, “Broken Dreams Club”) we played a lot more tracks of music on each song because we wanted this big sound... but through our experience and from Doug's advice – Playing fewer tracks allows everything that has been played to be heard at once and makes the song sound twice as big. Less is more. Also yes, the other musicians brought a whole lot of talent to the table which wasn't there before, and for that I'm eternally grateful. It's how I wish we had worked all along, but in the beginning we couldn't wait... we had to do it ourselves to get this attention and meet the people we work with now, and to afford them.
How is your day-to-day relationship with Chet?
On tour it's very professional; at home we have been friends for so long that now we actually just give each other space, because you find that it's best to have space after seeing someone every day and every night for months – for years! We don't really spend time together when we're not working.
Was it strange once you had the final version of “Father, Son, Holy Ghost” to hear your delicate voice next to big gospel voices?
It was wonderful, I wouldn't say strange. It was rewarding and very emotional for me.
Why did you decide to include a heavy metal song like “Die”?
Because we do whatever we want, we like to break the rules and play what interests us.
Where does that song come from?
That song is influenced by a Fleetwood Mac song called “Oh Well”.
You seem to love guitar solos. Which ones are your all-time favourites?
I love any solo by Slash. I think he has a melodic and harmonic sensibility. He is the biggest influence for me on the guitar solo. “November Rain”, “Sweet Child Of Mine”, “Welcome To The Jungle”. He played a great solo on a song for Michael Jackson called “Give In To Me”. Also Brian May from Queen.
Both you and your girlfriend, Hannah Hunt (Dominant Legs), are playing at Primavera Sound festival. Is there any collaboration in mind? If not, do you plan on any type of collaboration, like Ryan was a member of Girls?
We don't have anything planned yet, but that is a great idea!
The “Honey Bunny” video, featuring her, was pretty nice. But I haven’t been able to find any Hannah references here. Are there?
I write about Hannah in “Magic”.
Is your mother proud of the songs you’ve written about her?
You are very honest in your song-writing. Is it hard not to write about some of your more profound secrets?
I know you’ve been asked a lot about your upbringing in the Children of God cult. After all these years, have you been able to find any positive sides to that experience other than the fact of defining you as who you are right now?
Yes, a lot of that was positive for me, I miss a lot of things from my youth.
You released a limited-edition single titled “ Lawrence”. What does Lawrence Hayward mean to you?
He is one of my favourite songwriters, one of my role models, someone who I want to be like, or, as good as, with my work.
You usually have good words for strictly pop icons such as Roxette or Selena Gomez. Do they inspire you? In what form?
Roxette was one of my first favourite bands and has inspired me for many, many years, I still love them. It's because they are good, their music is beautiful. They were a great band.
There are flowers in the cover art of your first two releases and you also place lots of roses on stage. What do you like most about them?
Only because they are romantic and beautiful, like we give them to our lover or someone who is sick, or to celebrate, or in a funeral. They are beautiful and make you feel like it's a special time... not just another band. We are a romantic band and flowers are very romantic because they are simple and natural and beautiful and will die, like us.
You are a quite active Twitter user. What are the advantages and disadvantages of social networks?
I don't like to talk about Twitter in interviews, I'm sorry. If people want Twitter they can go there, we don't need to talk about it here also.
According to your tweets, you seem to be a huge FC Barcelona fan. How do you follow soccer living in the States?
We have it on TV here also, and on the Internet, but I'm in Europe a lot, remember. And I grew up in Europe. I only moved to America when I was 16.