Interview: Christopher Owens of Girls

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A month or so ago, Girls frontman Christopher Owens announced their new EP, Broken Dreams Club, with a handwritten letter. He called the record a “snapshot of the horizon” and “a taste of things to come,” and he did so in large, messy penmanship on an upside down piece of stationary from Stanley Marsh III. Marsh, a rich, eccentric Texan, was once Owens’ employer and mentor, and pulled him from a rugged, punk lifestyle into the slightly more mainstream one he leads today. The nod to Marsh was tongue-in-cheek, but a detail nonetheless, which, as a songwriter, Owens lives and dies by. He’s a simple composer, not prone to elaborate metaphor or complex simile when specifics, directness and passion will do. Broken Dreams Club, the followup to Girls’ debut Album (available Tuesday on True Panther Sounds), is steps backwards and forwards, maybe more of a parallel slide into the sun. Girls have spent the last year since their album’s release touring and solidifying their lineup as a true band, not just the project of Owens and his collaborator JR White. Broken Dreams Club is the first recording they’ve made as a unified team, though with songs Owens wrote, in some cases, more than three years ago. A little more than a year ago, we talked to Owens as part of our cover story on Girls and we checked in again earlier this week while he was home from endless tour in his beloved San Francisco.


Have you been writing since you’ve been home?
Yeah, I’ve been writing a lot.

Do you ever stop writing?
Ummm…I will, but I don’t think about it. I just recently made this chart of all my song titles with all the dates and there are obvious spikes in creativity. Because I have all the songs in order, I also noticed several depressing songs in a row and then a couple happy songs in a row. It’s cool to watch—you can make some sort of stock market chart out of it… I reckon someone probably has, like, “Stocks are flying through the roof now—Chris is going through cold turkey or something.”

I feel like this might be better for someone who reads your tarot or a therapist.
Yeah, if I had one. I need one. I especially need one right now.

Why?
I’ve been experiencing a lot of bad vibes over the internet. I don’t even wanna talk about it, but it has been something that’s been keeping me down.

I’m sorry.
Yeah, it’s weird. Think I’m gonna get crucified pretty soon. One year I’m riding into town on a donkey and people have the palm leaves and they’re saying “Hossana to the son of David!” and then next year you’re getting crucified. It’s all right I don’t even…umm…there’s something that a lot of people aren’t doing which is looking at the big picture and um if I do that, everything’s cool.

Why are you feeling persecuted?
It’s not really that bad, it’s just…people get really excited, you know? They make a blog and they get their illegal download of Broken Dreams Club and then they get on there and start. But it’s just funny to me because they’re never informed properly. You have people that hear something like “Substance” on Broken Dreams Club and they say, “Oh it looks like they’re becoming darker and more about hopelessness and escaping into drug use.” But you know I’m sitting around going, If only I could tell that person that “Substance” is the second song I ever wrote and right after “Headache.” That was before “Lust For Life” or anything. People like to think they know what’s going on but sometimes they’re pretty off and you just kinda have to sit there and watch it. It’s not their fault. You get a new album and you think, “These are the new songs.” But in reality that record is to us songs that we felt we neglected as recordings because they were written so long ago and then we’ve been playing them live.

Album feels very true. I think that’s from your direct translation of these songs. Has recording as a band and having less control changed your songwriting?
I don’t think it has. Because at the end of the day it’s still me and JR sitting there listening to the tracks and doing the quality control. And if somebody’s playing something that we don’t like, which happened on this project, then we just didn’t use it and just went and did something else. I think there’s all different kind of ways to make music. I think there is something great about maybe just sitting at a piano and that’s it. Just singing a song. But you know, sometimes it’s also awesome to hear Judy Garland just singing “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” with an orchestra of people she’s never even shaken hands with.

With some of these songs being a few years old and performed so many times, did the sting of the lyrics fade when you finally recorded?
No…because I’ve never been able to articulate this kind of thing. I’m not really good at explaining a lot of things. I kind of just go with my gut feeling. But I was reading a book the other day, it was written by Gore Vidal. It’s called A Search for the King and it’s about Richard the Lionheart’s troubadour. And, you know, Richard gets captured in the end, it’s a classic story. And there’s Blondel the troubadour trying to find him again and trying to relay messages to get him ransom and back and all this stuff. And it’s about their love affair with each other, which is essentially a strong friendship. But there are these really, really great paragraphs which happen twice in the book about Blondel. He’s a troubadour who writes ballads to entertain the court and the king and there are these songs which are ballads which are all about love, all about a broken heart or the unattainable woman. There’s this inner dialogue that Blondel is having where he is like, “Why do I write these songs about this unattainable woman? She doesn’t even exist!” And you know the person he loves the most is Richard the Lionheart, or maybe the knights he’s fought alongside in the crusades. And all these strong relationships are with these men around him. But he sings these ballads and they make people cry, they make himself cry, but they’re not even… He doesn’t write, “Today we fought alongside each other and that’s why I love you and that’s why we’re happy around the fire right now.” He just writes, “Beautiful girl somewhere with the emerald gown that’s blowing in the wind and she cries every night because I’m at the crusade.” And at the end of the day you have a song about the longing, the passion, the loneliness, all these things that you’re experiencing. And the actual characters become fictional and everybody in the world ends up and goes and relates to it because they all have this feeling inside of them. Oh, you know, “The time I spent 3000 dollars of my bartending money to buy a Coupe De Ville and then someone just went and slashed all the tires and I couldn’t afford to buy new tires.” It’s about things that everybody feels throughout their lives and it doesn’t have to be about the specific thing that the song is talking about. My manager, Alan, loves and worships “Substance,” it’s his favorite song. And I know he’s not a junkie. The song is about being a junkie. And the guy’s a father with kids—he’s never been strung out. It’s a good song, it shouldn’t matter what its about, it shouldn’t matter when it’s written, and time will tell. Twenty years from now some pimple-faced kid who is drawing Black Flag bars on his notebook is gonna hear “Substance” and he’s gonna like it. And it doesn’t matter when it was written.

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POSTED November 19, 2010 10:30AM IN MUSIC INTERVIEWS TAGS: ,

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