Beat Construction: Girls’ Sophomore LP, Father, Son, Holy Ghost

Photographer Ariel Zambelich
September 12, 2011

There’s a song on Girls’ sophomore album Father, Son, Holy Ghost, that opens with a surpassingly pretty and gentle classical guitar melody. “Just a Song” was written by frontman Christopher Owens and appears just past the album’s halfway mark, its flutelike Mellotron moments and refrain that Love is just a song recalling filmy ’70s-era Beatles ruminations. Casual listeners would have no way of knowing that this seemingly guileless piece of music divides the house of Girls, whose nucleus consists of songwriter/guitarist Owens and bassist/producer JR White. “Right now it’s my favorite,” says Owens. “It’s the most experimental musically and very minimal, it talks about things that are current. The intro I play on the classical guitar, that’s us, that’s me, completely.” White has his own opinion. “I think Chris’ favorite song on the record is my least favorite,” he says. “It’s the one song that didn’t go through ‘the filter’—I refer to it as a filter when we both work on something. I don’t think it’s my least favorite because I didn’t work on it, and I don’t think that means much to Chris, either. It’s just the reality of what I think.”

This discord does not herald a creative fissure or a beginning-of-the-end story. It’s just part of the healthy collaborative engine behind Girls, in which two people with distinct roles can sometimes disagree (see also: mom and dad). “The balance can be really hard because [as a producer] I have to remain within a relationship with someone where they’re not mad at me so we can finish the project,” says White. “If I have a problem with a vocal take and Chris thinks it’s fine and I say it’s not fine, is it worth it to have him be mad and not talk to me for the rest of the day?” Not really, no, so for the new record they hired engineer Doug Boehm to keep things moving, act as third party mediator if necessary and push all the performances to new heights.

The album, a follow-up to last fall’s Broken Dreams Club EP, was recorded in a cavernous San Francisco basement studio that came with a strong vibe but crummy traditional studio facilities. “After the EP, we wanted to work in a space that wasn’t a flat canvas in terms of sound,” says White, and boy did they get what they asked for. When the daycare overhead and the sounds of flushing toilets in the building became too much, the band rigged a vocal booth out of the stacks of Marshall amps that the studio’s owner, a gnarly obsessive gear collector, had lying around. Girls also worked with a steady cast for the first time, with John Anderson on lead guitar, Dan Eisenberg on keyboards and Darren Weiss on drums, and added back-up vocals from a trio of gospel pros who had worked with Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey. “If Girls was The Rolling Stones and had five members that never changed, if you want to pretend that Girls is a real band, then this is our band record,” says Owens.

Most of the songs were written between 2007 and 2009, so there’s plenty of thematic overlap with the bloody valentines from their breakout debut, Album, but among the songs named after exes are two distortion-heavy tracks titled “Vomit” and “Die.” The latter abandons sunny Wall of Sound layers for Sabbath territory, which Girls had tried and failed to pull off with other drummers who couldn’t drill it. Fans of the song will be happy to hear that it looks like Weiss will be sticking around for awhile, although any dreams of a permanent five-piece have passed. “We wanted to tour all together but already the guitarist had an existential breakdown and quit, the keyboard player wants something like $2000 a week, which we cannot afford, and the drummer we’re hoping for, but he has his own band,” says Owens, doing a killer impression of my grandmother complaining about the help. “It’s amazing, I thought once we got signed we’d have all kinds of cool musicians sucking our dicks and wanting to be in our band, but that is not the case. You really have to beg them.”

Posted: September 12, 2011
Beat Construction: Girls’ Sophomore LP, Father, Son, Holy Ghost