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.
When they first met, White was a cook. He’d grown up in Santa Cruz to liberal, loving parents, both teachers. He’d played in hardcore bands and studied studio recording, but hadn’t played music for six years. San Francisco, with cheap group houses and plenty of people sitting around smoking pot and drinking beers in Dolores Park on any given afternoon, is conducive to a nebulous life, and White had been swept up by the easy nothing. He was happy, sort of, but when Owens approached him about Girls, he knew he’d found a guide, or at least a fellow wanderer, in his blinding fog. “A lot of people, my friends in San Francisco, were in bands and I was never envious of them, but I was always like, You have no idea what I can do,” he says. “We were like, Let’s make something that really is cool, to show people that we’re not just a couple of losers.”
Girls is clearly the cherry on top of both of their lives. Owens calls the band “the most important thing in my life so far.” And then wonders rhetorically how much the buildup of his sprawling life history has meant to the release. “It’s relevant if it’s relevant. If not, it’s not,” he says. “The important thing is the music. For me, it all seems a bit silly. ‘When did you guys start playing?’ Who cares? ‘Why do you play together?’ Who cares? Listen to the music.” But clearly some of the insane irregularity of Owens’ life has had a direct cause and effect on his songwriting. Who knows how much of any given thing is relevant, though. Owens’ room is filled with stacks of Vogue that he says he keeps for the pictures. He has a paperback of Huckleberry Finn in his coat pocket, and his own paintings and drawings up around the room, tacked alongside a weird lumpy green and yellow painting Marsh gave to him. He says he has a thing for Beyoncé, Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus and a desire for the big spotlight. And the father who left before he knew him? Owens tracked him down in Kentucky—he’s an amateur country singer.
“I want to be in the Super Bowl halftime show,” Owens said to White when first explaining his Girls vision. This actually isn’t that difficult to imagine—Girls has to be less weird than Prince. Owens references The Everly Brothers, an obvious relative: duo of literal brothers, tight knit and crushingly romantic, jaunty without being cocky, curious but confident, and never ever ashamed of their desires. Girls songs are tiny and literal, pent-up pop bottle rockets with blasts of shoegaze, honkytonk and early rock & roll. Owens wears a tiny green bracelet that reads “Presley,” and Elvis’ thick white sunshine is clearly a touchstone—sullen guitar twang, songs of endless love and bottomless sorrow. Until recently, Owens’ life had been so bereft of feedback, positive or negative, filial or otherwise, that Girls’ songs serve as a very clean mirror, a crisp echo chamber. In “Darling,” their debut record Album’s final song, Owens pays a very literal thank you to his musical savior: I was feeling so sad and alone til I found a friend in the song that I’m singing/ I was feeling so empty inside then I found it all in a song. Loneliness is not a complicated emotion, but a difficult one to surmount. When the answer comes from a source so readily tangible and hopefully infinite, there is a pure and sugary satisfaction. It’s like finding a fountain of youth in your bathtub. Or it’s like drugs.
Not long after I arrive in San Francisco to spend a few days with Girls, we sneak into an abandoned greenhouse outside of town, tucked beside a reservoir off the highway. It’s overgrown with grass and covered in ancient graffiti, but scattered roses still grow somehow. Crouching on broken glass and dirt, White pulls out a bag of white powder—MDMA, pure ecstasy. Owens snorts some through a dollar bill, White parachutes it, pouring a sprinkle into a piece of receipt paper and swallowing his makeshift pill. Very quickly a nervous Owens loosens up, while the effect on White is imperceptible. They make jokes and laugh at each other, talk about music, movies and technology, regular guy shit. It feels very normal, comfortable. Recording a short song at their practice space later, still under the blissful effects, they insist I sing backups. Then John Anderson—who joined Girls as a second guitarist after harassing Owens and White incessantly via MySpace, pleading to join the band because he would be a perfect addition (he was right, and they knew it)—arrives to record his part for the song, a bopping little number about “life in San Francisco.” Clearly nervous, Anderson repeatedly flubs his fingerpicking. White is slightly annoyed, rolling tape and counting down over and over again. Eventually Anderson nails it, Owens cheers, climbs over his listening perch at the drum kit and hugs him. It’s a big mess of hair and goofy smiles, another song finished, just like yesterday and just like tomorrow.
The next day we chase the sunset, running in the trees passing a bottle of bourbon, on what turns out to be the sweeping slope of a golf course. We come over its crest to discover we’re near the ocean, a steep hike down to the water. Owens and White walk over the rocks into the waves and climb onto a boulder, slippery and frighteningly high. But they don’t fall. They barely get wet.
White later says he learned to love his city again running in the hills by the sea and literally smelling the roses, but it has the ring of empty promise. They need to get out of San Francisco, they say, back to the comfortable confines of White’s parents’ house in Santa Cruz, where they recorded much of Album. They talk about moving an hour outside of the city to a spacious place with no distractions and plenty of time to make music. Maybe that will happen.
My last night in California, after a huge meal of dim sum curated by White, we head back to his and Owens’ house along with Anderson and Sandy Kim, their constant companion and documentarian. They buy coke, get high, drink beers. Everyone gets lethargic but antsy and we listen to Beyoncé. Are we going out or are we staying in? We’re going out, but no one goes anywhere. Anderson is concerned that he’s spending too much time at the house and will arrive late to Girls’ sometime drummer Garett Goddard’s DJ night. He is trying not to freak out but he is freaking out. Kim is excited, making Owens pose standing on his bed, framed by pastel curtains. Around midnight, we finally head to Beauty Bar for Smith’s night, which is apparently where all the pretty girls in San Francisco go. They are all immaculate or sloppy, wearing good makeup or none at all, have huge tattoos or big glasses. They wear floral or African prints or bowler caps, and everything was bought at the thrift store, ragamuffin chic. And they are all, of course, friends with White and Owens, who are greeted like war heroes. Owens comes alive while White reclines with his whiskey. He is still high. He points out the window to a girl he doesn’t know, maybe the only one in her posse. She is cute, just as cute as all of them. He seems to ponder flirting, but just leans. Owens sneaks on to the dancefloor while I’m dancing to Morrissey and making eyes at a girl maybe born in the ’90s, and bearhugs me. He’s wearing an oversized wooly flannel and it itches. Until then, I wasn’t sure if he liked me at all. White’s approval is easy enough to gauge—his nurture makes Girls possible. Owens’ wild and wily energy makes Girls so impossibly tantalizing. Everyone wants someone they can save and Owens has heaps of helplessness, but the difference between him and a hustler is that he knows how to be grateful.
After last call everyone moves to the apartment of Hayden Shiebler, whom Owens has been seeing for about a year, though with some gaps and dalliances. He says she doesn’t mind. She’s beautiful, with auburn hair and big eyes, squeaky voice and tempered demeanor, the kind of girl so cool her aura emits waves that rot insecure guts. But because he was basically brought up on another planet, Owens doesn’t have the receptors for that kind of thing. Girls can tell. Shiebler’s loft has bright green walls, a huge fat cat and a small
fire escape overlooking Mission Street. No one is out, not even the crazies. Someone finds some pot and someone puts on Mariah Carey. A 20-year-old girl with a lot of tattoos worries out loud about finding a fake ID. Hayden’s roommate comes to her door, which has no doorknob, seeming like she wants to tell us to be quiet but doesn’t say anything. She’s not wearing pants. Anderson is passed out on the couch. Kim and her boyfriend are lying on the bed. Somebody gets a nosebleed. It’s almost four before anyone goes home, though for the last two hours White has been saying he wished he hadn’t gone out. This is their San Francisco—cheap drugs, young girls, pop music—the kind of gnarly place always filled with brutal lows and insane highs. There’s all the time in the world and no one’s got anything better to do than stoke your dreams. It’s a fast and loose way to live, but to be honest, if you’ve got the stomach, it’s kind of glorious.