Sitting on an unmade bed on a sunny California afternoon, Christopher Owens and JR White are an odd couple. Owens is lounging propped against the wall beside a Smiths poster with White balled up in the middle of the mattress, knee to his chest. Owens’ hair is long and stringy, but matted in tiny clumps, as though he’s washed but not thoroughly rinsed. He routinely flips it over in front of his forehead, sculpting its golden tones into little waves. He has a tendency for mixing tight and baggy clothing—a petite pink and white striped spaghetti-strap tank top covered up by a billowing Easter egg blue button-down, golden brown corduroys and Nikes so boxy it looks like he’s got two club feet. A thick bracelet and a stack of simple bangles cover a full color Bad Brains tattoo on his wrist. One night he wears a yin-yang earring, black Nirvana T-shirt, plain red baseball cap and an army jacket, looking like he probably did in middle school, had he ever attended one. White, on the other hand, looks like the kind of guy you’d call a big lug, but without the pudge. He’s tall and solid, broad-shouldered, wears simple, large-patterned dress shirts, an occasional fedora, crisp black jeans and boots. One chilly night, he brings along a sockhop-ish green letterman’s jacket. He also has the beginnings of a solidly salt-and-pepper head of hair, the whites collecting in streams at his sideburns. It makes him look much older than Owens, though they are both 29. Even with the velocity of their band Girls encouraging close union, it’s almost baffling how two men so different have bonded together so tight.
Just before Owens was born in Florida, his older brother died of pneumonia because their mother, as a member of the Children of God cult, held to its tenet against hospitalization and medical attention. Unable to handle this tragedy, Owens’ dad bailed. Fatherless before he was born, Owens and his two sisters were taken by their mother first to Puerto Rico, then hopped across Asia, before finally settling in Europe, where Owens had his first experiences playing music, as part of a Children of God kids choir singing carols on the street to raise money. He didn’t go to school, didn’t play sports, didn’t do any of the things regular kids do. It was like this until Owens was old enough to question his upbringing, the crumbling of the cult’s initial free love mission into a manipulation of women for men’s pleasure and money, and broke away with some older kids who showed him his first glimpses of pop culture, which he’d been denied by another of the cult’s rules. Fascinated by what he saw and wanting to find more of it, he played guitar on the streets until earning enough to buy a plane ticket to America.
One of his sisters had gotten married and was living in Amarillo, Texas with her in-laws, and, lacking any other anchor, Owens moved there. “I had seen glimpses of America on TV, and I was like, Oh boy, I’m going to America, Axl Rose is going to be on every street corner, all the teenagers drive sports cars, and it’s going to be like 90210,” he says. “And there I was in Amarillo.” That cowboy reality meant that, at 16, having no work or school history to his name, the only job he could get was stocking shelves overnight at a grocery store. A group of punk kids routinely stole from the store, challenging Owens to do something about it, which he never did because, he says, “I thought they were cool—the coolest guys in the world.” Owens soon joined their extreme punk click, got a mohawk and joined a band called Hubris. A local eccentric millionaire, Stanley Marsh 3 (he eschews the more traditional Roman numeral of “III,” believing it to be pretentious), heard of these cool drifters and summoned Owens and a friend to his skyscraper office for lunch. Marsh took an immediate shine to the feisty, naïve Owens and began mentoring him, giving him work. “Over the next four years I met the first person who actually cared about me in my whole life,” he says of Marsh. “He gave me the concept of saying, ‘You know what? You can live your life like that and be pissed, and kind of get nowhere, and die mean and mad, or you can say, there’s good things going on in the world.’”
With Marsh’s support, Owens decided he wanted to be a painter and needed to move on to big city life. A friend of a friend recommended San Francisco as “sophisticated, worldly, but relaxed,” and Owens picked up and moved to the cheapest apartment he could find, the empty upstairs bedroom of a Chinese family in the Glen Park neighborhood, aka Nowheresville for a 25-year-old with no friends or connections. He spent six months completely isolated, until one day, he says, “I met Liza.”
Walking alone in the park, Owens heard Liza Thorn call to him, “Hey Crazy, come over here!” So he did. “In six months of going to a lot of shows, going to a lot of bars and not liking anybody, it was the first time I was like, Yeah, I do want to go over there.” Owens and Thorn quickly began dating, she moved in and they started a short-lived band, Curls. Through her and her friends, he met Matt Fishbeck, who recruited him for another band, Holy Shit, and later through them, he met JR White. Eventually, Owens and Thorn broke up, prompting him to write his first song, “Lust For Life,” an envious ode to Thorn’s list of possessions (a boyfriend, a father, a suntan, a pizza, a bottle of wine). White helped him record that song and the three songs a week he continues to churn out, playing bass and any other instruments necessary to fill out the spare melodies and give them the electric sheen and poppy echo to match Owens’ spirit. That kind shepherding makes White only the second loving man in Owens’ life thus far.