Girls’ lead singer Christopher Owens opens up

by Joseph Erbentraut

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Thursday July 15, 2010

Given that Christopher Owens, lead singer (and one-half with J.R. White) of the gay-friendly, San Francisco indie "buzz" band Girls, might just have one of the most intriguing histories of anyone in the music industry today, it comes as no surprise that some have latched onto the band's back story than their music. Raised inside the Children of God cult, Owens lead a musically and sheltered life before breaking free at the age of 16, traveling the world and reportedly enjoying a fair share of substances of varying degrees of legality.

But one listen to Girls' debut album - titled, simply, Album - renders Owens' story suddenly secondary to a unique sound that conjures images of summer, beach parties and sun. The music lends itself to a sexually free aesthetic, one Girls employed for a very not-safe-for-work video for its single "Lust for Life" - which features two nude men writhing in a bed. And the band also recently its music to a documentary-styled gay porn film titled "I Want Your Love."

Just days before his band is to play a set at Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago's Union Park this Sunday, Owens spoke with EDGE via phone from France about the difficulties of touring, gay porn and why Girls is not a one trick, PR-driven pony.

Chicago bound

EDGE: How are you doing? I read you’re in France and playing a venue named Bikini tonight. Is that just the name or is it also the dress code? How is Europe treating you?

Christopher Owens: It’s the name of the venue, but they have a pool there. The tour has been going well. We’ve only had one show so far, but it was really nice. It was our first time playing Lisbon and it was a great show.

EDGE: Have you noticed a lot of differences between playing shows in the U.S. and abroad?

CO: There are, but it’s difficult to say what. I feel like South America really stood out as a completely different vibe for the live show. People were more festive. And Japan stood out too. The organization was very conservative but the people were extremely romantic in their response. We’ve also always had incredible shows in Paris where we see the same people, real die-hard fans.

It’s better than anything we’ve experienced anywhere other than San Francisco, where we live. On the U.S. tours, you’ll go play the random place that turns out to be a wonderful show, like at Oberlin. So I don’t think it’s like the U.S. is more boring though people see a lot more shows, they’re not freaking out as much. People have to click, the audience and the band, and it just happens every once and a while.

EDGE: I know a lot of people are looking forward to "clicking" with you at Pitchfork this weekend in Chicago. Do you play the Windy City often? Any bands you’re looking forward to seeing?

CO: We’ve been to Chicago quite a bit. We’re kind of best friends with the Smith Westerns and the guys that make our music videos came from Chicago. One of them still lives there. We’re also good friends with Cass McCombs who was living there for quite a while. It’s a bit of a hectic schedule. We’re getting in too late to see anybody on Friday and I can’t even remember what day it is we get in. So we may just get there for the day we play and miss a lot of the other bands. That’s the way it goes with festivals.

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Watch this video of Girls singing "Lust for Life.":


New music

EDGE: You’ve said before you haven’t been too surprised by the critical adoration of your debut album - Album - but having people love the live show took some getting used to. How has the live show evolved for you since you first starred touring as Girls?

CO: The live show is a lot of hard work with lots of finagling sensitive and delicate things. It’s something I’m not used to because I didn’t grow up playing in bands. I had a little experience but not on this scale. It’s easy to record and get a nice finished product, but it’s difficult to do the whole thing all at once and have it sound the way you want it to sound.

We haven’t spent much time as a band just sitting around, jamming and rehearsing, so that’s also been hard but none of us are really scared. But the finished product is good and it’s rewarding. I used to work for an artist who is kind of my mentor, Stanley Marsh III, who’d say things and I’d roll my eyes, but I’ve come to realize he was saying a lot of smart stuff. He used to say, "Good art is about 75 percent hard work." I’ve come to realize that’s true and I agree.

EDGE: I read you’ve started recording some new music to followup on your debut album. What sorts of sounds are emerging from that and how are you feeling about it?

CO: We knew we had about a month off before going to South America and said, "Let’s do an EP." It’d been about a year and a half since we’d recorded material because we were touring a lot. I was in London at the time just having fun telling them we’d record the best EP of all time. We recorded six songs, 35 minutes, in two weeks, really far-our good songs that are catchy, deep and great stuff all around. But in the end, we felt we don’t have just this little EP we recorded in our free time. It almost feels like another album.

This really killer record is in this gray area we’re going to put out before the next album. I really feel like people will press play on this record and, if they had a preconceived idea we were a one-trick pony, that they’ve got these guys all figured out, they’re going to realize they’re wrong. People are going to like it. As for album two, I can’t even get into that. Every time we do anything we’ll try and do, it’s not anything fun unless it’s the best thing you can do. That’ll be the approach.

EDGE: Your music was recently used in a gay porn film by Travis Mathews, titled "I Want Your Love," How did that come about?

CO: Travis is a friend of a friend whom I’ve become friends with after the fact. He got my email address and asked if I was OK with that and I don’t remember there being much thought about it. I thought it sounded cool. He’s trying to take a different approach to his films and I think it’s cool what he’s doing. I have a band in San Francisco and for anybody who lives in San Francisco, gay culture is just as normal and relevant as heterosexual culture. It was a big blow in San Francisco when people were told they weren’t allowed to be married. It was a big blow everywhere. It seemed really silly that in 2008 it was still decided people couldn’t have same-sex marriage. So we’re happy to do stuff like that, even featuring our friends in our videos. I think it’s a good thing to put things like that in peoples’ faces and say what’s the problem? That’s how change slowly comes around.

EDGE: You mentioned your videos, so of course I need to ask about the not-safe-for-work male-on-male action in one cut of the "Lust for Life" video. Tell me about that. Was that intended as the official video or were you just playing around?

CO: That was the official video, and our idea was to get our good friends from around town do whatever they wanted to do for three minutes filming on these Super 8 cameras with Aaron Brown, our friend who used to be from Chicago. We wanted to get this time capsule of our scene and the things that we like about it. Seth [Bogart, from Hunx and His Punx] and Alexis [Penney] did what they wanted to do, and we were not about to cut it out of the video. We were stoked they had the guts to get naked on camera and show their affection for each other. If it was a guy and girl couple doing it, nobody would think twice. For two girls, it would have been five thumbs way up.

EDGE: You said you feel some people might have Girls - and you - all figured out, and I’m sure a big part of that is your grandiose back story: The cult, the drugs, the world travel. Some have even accused you of making it all up. Do you think your back story overshadows your music and does that frustrate you?

CO: I knew the story would blow up because people like drama and explaining the music they’re listening to. It’s more fun to talk about the band if there’s a story. We went into this knowing people are really going to talk a lot about this, but it turns out like Chinese telephone. The general idea is right, but I have read things where people, with good intentions of course, ended up with the wrong story. There are a few things I don’t like but I don’t want to focus too much on it. I think it’s all stuff that will go away with time, a big deal as an introduction, but three albums in the back story will just be the back story.

But nobody likes to feel like they’re pegged as something they’re not. I cut my hair off now. People called me some kind of hippy freak from California and I don’t even identify with that. I think I’m a man of the world. I have had a few freak-outs where people were taking a story and running with it and it feels a little bit unfair. But whatever, now we’re opening for Julian Casablancas, which is an honor, and I quit my desk job in South Market in San Francisco.

EDGE: Does how quickly the band gained popularity and a following feel surreal to you at all, still, or have you gotten used to it by now?

CO: It’s a mixed feeling. It’s never bizarre to me that people like the songs but I guess in terms of the professional career that has come about, it’s a bit of a whirlwind. It all makes sense, you can see step by step how it happened, but from one day to the next, it’s pretty mindblowing. It’s hard to keep up sometimes. But I think it came about mainly because of the Internet and music blogs like Pitchfork. It’s a free-for-all for the people, everybody gets to talk for free, make their own decisions and the Ayes had it. The people demanded a rock band and we went on the road.

Girls play Pitchfork Music Festival at Union Park, 1501 W. Randolph, Sunday, July 18, at 2:30 p.m. Other bands in the festival’s lineup include Pavement, Broken Social Scene, LCD Soundsystem, Modest Mouse, Robyn and St. Vincent. Visit www.pitchforkmusicfestival.com or www.myspace.com/girls for more information.

Story continues on following page.

Watch this video of Girls singing "Laura.":




Watch this video of Girls singing "Morning Light.":


Joseph covers news, arts and entertainment and lives in Chicago. He is the assistant Chicago editor for The Huffington Post. Log on to www.joe-erbentraut.com to read more of his work.