Last month I met Girls before the band's Electric Ballroom show.
Christopher Owens is the nucleus of Girls, subject to his own chaotic quantum laws on the quest to write the perfect bittersweet pop song. Two albums and one EP into his late-blooming music career, he’s getting close to nailing it as well, but not without the assistance of various capable electrons, orbiting at a distance yet integral to Girls’ atomic substance. Chet 'JR' White is credited by Owens as someone who “helps record” the songs, but listening to their facetiously titled debut, Album, as well as this year’s acclaimed follow-up Father, Son, Holy Ghost, it’s obvious that his input has alchemical results on the deceptive simplicity of songs like ‘Hellhole Ratrace’ and ‘Vomit’. After recording the first album themselves, the gaps have been filled for a full touring band, right up to that second album pop cliché, a shimmy of backing singers.
I meet Owens on a dark evening when the clocks have gone back, just as the band finish sound-checking for their sold-out show at Camden’s Electric Ballroom. He slopes into the dressing room holding a vile-looking cup of greyish milky tea, his bleached hair hanging half up, half down and flopping round two very pale blue eyes. He adopts that slightly sniffy, louche air that Californian bands carry with ease, but now and then he’ll become more engaged and set those blue eyes right on you. Wearing the indie uniform, unchanged since Cobain, of blue jeans and flannel shirt, he’s curated his grubbiness right down to the fingernails, baby blue varnished and chipped, though not dirty. His teeth are surprisingly un-American, like an old picket fence out of joint, but somehow this gives him a real edge that orthodontically conventional indie bands miss out on. I think about whether he was maybe banned from having a dentist as a kid.
Because Chris Owens, as everybody knows by now, grew up in a Christian cult. His baby brother died because of the cult's anti-medicine beliefs, and aged 16 he ran away for good. But now his relationship with his mother is on the mend, as you can hear in the handful of songs he's written about her – ‘Forgiveness’ and 'My Ma', an especially lovely track on the new record that’s somewhere between the Flaming Lips, George Harrison, Cat Power and the finest AM radio fare of ‘70s interstate journeys.
That morning, Chris had met with one of his musical heroes, Lawrence (of Felt, Denim and Go Kart Mozart), a star who never was but is now enjoying a little resurgence with the release of the documentary Lawrence of Belgravia. Turns out Owens had written him a letter and Lawrence decided to wander down to the venue and hand-deliver a reply. This strikes me as something life-affirmingly awesome – receiving a letter from your idol – but Owens plays it down a little (“He just came to say hi”), maybe because he's tired of soundchecks and press engagements, or maybe because he sees himself more as an equal to Lawrence these days. After all, Owens is the proud owner of a 9.1 and a 9.3 from Pitchfork, no doubt more than Lawrence can boast. Not to mention that Girls have actually sold a few records, steamrollering indie expectations with the sheer universalising force of catchy pop songs.
Now, songs by Girls are generally about girls. Sometimes girls Owens loves, or maybe girls he has a crush on, or girls he left behind. Sometimes the girl is his mother, of course. The backdrop to this is a hazy atmosphere of drop-out delinquency, the feeling of being lost in a vagrant’s eternal summer. The cosy California bubble that Girls emerged from and that so often informs their writing must seem a million miles away from the noodle-stained and piss-soaked Camden streets outside, so I start by asking him about touring. It’s horrible, right?
“I don’t know,” he begins, a stock answer that he tends to use as a habitual gap-filler before offering something meatier. “There’s good points, but on the whole there’s a lot of long drawn-out...” He pauses. “In the van, with the same people all the time... it’s nothing too horrible but it’s not the best time ever. I’m not somebody that’s just, like, living the dream or something.” Echoes of that itinerant childhood with the Children of God perhaps, who travelled constantly to spread their mission. Maybe when you’ve seen the world already it’s more fun to just stay home. “I think London’s good,” he adds, “but everywhere else can be a little bit hit or miss, maybe not so many people. It’s a bit difficult to tour here to be honest. It’s kinda like... very depressing. You can end up a lot of times in places with shows that you feel were really unnecessary. Nobody’s that excited to be there, there's not that many people there, y’know.”
What about writing on the road? “It’s difficult because I like to be alone for that, but I’m always around people now. And there’s not much free time really, besides the travel time, and the worst place in the world to try to write a song would be in the van. But it’s not even really an issue ‘cos there’s a lot of songs written. It would just be cool to find a way of recording more to catch up so that stuff doesn’t get too old before you start working on it.”
A lot of Girls songs are very honest about people very close to him, some mentioned by name – ‘Alex’, ‘Jamie Marie’, ‘Laura’. Do they mind being made the subject of a song? “I don’t think it’s bothered anybody. And they’re usually nice songs, it’d never be a bitchy song or anything.” Maybe there are people who want a song written about them though. “I’m sure there are, but it doesn’t work like that.” What about crazy fans? “There’s been a few. I get the impression there are a lot of crazy fans, not necessarily just ours, but like, music fans.” Does he see himself as famous then? “No, not yet really... a little bit,’ he concedes. “Nothing’s changed, which I think is really good. I would hate it if I started writing while thinking about the fact that people are gonna be listening.”
Lawrence doesn’t have that problem, I would guess. Even after a few decades he’s only really known as a fringe figure, adored by the very few and ignored by the rest. Girls have had quite the opposite experience, hailed and hyped from the get-go with support from former Holy Shit bandmates Ariel Pink and Matt Fishbeck and most of the music press.
So what’s the price of that success? “It’s working harder, it’s touring. The price though? I don’t know what the price is – it’s too soon to tell. But Lawrence could have done exactly what we've done. We went on tour, we worked really hard. Lawrence has never toured, he refuses to tour. You know, if you go out on tour all the time like we've been doing, you’re gonna get more attention than people that don’t. And also in his case it’s different because he was doing most of his stuff way before people were using the internet.” A truism of 21st century indie success, for sure.
Owens has previously said that he sometimes writes songs for other voices, imagining Beyonce or Justin Bieber delivering lines like, “My love is like a river, she just keeps on rolling along.” I can see what he means – a universal pop song would obviously sound great booming out of the ‘Yonce. But Owens’ cracked and fragile voice is an elemental part of the Girls sound, something that fans seem to be drawn to just as much as the songs themselves. “Yeah, I think that’s true, I think people do think that...” Doesn’t he agree? “I think that for what we’ve done so far, for the most part, it is. But not as a rule.”
As well as imagining alternative performances of Girls songs, Owens has spoken of using other artists as prompts for his own songwriting, like ‘Jamie Marie’, his attempt at a Randy Newman song. With all this fluidity and striving for some transcendental pop quality, what is the remaining essence of a Girls song? “Well....” A very long pause. “I think the essence is for me to talk about myself, and it’s usually like, uh... some admitting to being unhappy and then, like, talking about some type of alternative to that, like being happy, or wanting to be, or hoping to be.” So it’s actually about the words rather than the music? “Yeah, yeah,” he says firmly, “the music’s just a backdrop. On every record there’s so many different types of songs, so many different genres, but all that stuff is very interchangeable.”
I ask if he really is on a quest to write the perfect pop song. “Yeah, I am. But I don’t know, it could be any kind of song structure, I don’t really care about that. I think it would have to be pretty simple, those songs are usually pretty simple.”
For someone who’s had such a complicated life, the songs are strikingly simple, with lyrics of the “mad/bad/sad” variety that he somehow breathes much more life into than you’d reasonably expect. Perhaps Owens finds it useful to channel the disorder and spontaneity of his life into easily digestible pop mantras. “The simple thing is really just the only thing I know right now, it really is. Everything that has ever been on a Girls song is just the first idea.” I try to drag out something more combative, more declamatory, more preachy, but he doesn’t take the bait when asked why pop music is so important to people. “I don’t know. I just think it would be cool to write a song that everybody knows, that’s all.”
We wrap up the conversation and he unfurls himself from the tiny upholstered chair, dishwater cuppa still sloshing in his grip. The band’s new single (“’Cos people didn’t let me put it on the album and I didn’t want it to be a B-side”) is dedicated to and named after Felt frontman Lawrence, and is available on 28 November, digitally and on limited edition heart-shaped red vinyl.