Girls not afraid to bare it all
Chet “JR” White is evidently unconcerned with endearing himself to the ink-stained wretch on the other end of the telephone line. During his conversation with the Straight, the Girls bassist, reached at a tour stop in Washington, D.C., declares “Music press sucks.” White has a point, mind you, and it has less to do with the people asking the questions than it does with those answering them. Musicians nowadays, he contends, are just plain dull.
“I hate reading music journalism, to be honest with you, because it’s all become such a boring, stale thing where you always know what a band’s going to say,” White continues. “It never changes. It’s always the same. And it feeds itself, where the interviewer is bored and you wonder, does this person even care? They must not.”
No one has ever accused the San Francisco–based Girls of being boring, and it doesn’t hurt that frontman Christopher Owens has a back story that journalists haven’t yet tired of mining for material. The singer was born into the Children of God, a religious cult that, among other things, forbade its followers to listen to contemporary pop music. Owens spent his childhood moving around Asia and Europe, with his father long gone and his mother occasionally forced into prostitution at the behest of the cult. When he finally got out and moved back to the United States, he fell in with a punk-rock crowd and was eventually taken under the wing of Texas oil heir and fringe art provocateur Stanley Marsh 3. (There’s more, but it’ll probably be a movie someday, so I’ll spare you the spoilers.)
These days, Owens doesn’t bother to censor himself, whether he’s discussing his unabashed love of Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber or telling Pitchfork about the upside of his ongoing addiction to “heavy opiates”: “It allows you to focus on one thing—I can pinpoint an idea or an emotion while very heavily medicated, which is how I write most of my songs.”
Such an admission is par for the course, and White reveals that he and Owens agreed right from the start that full disclosure would be their modus operandi when dealing with the media, if for no other reason than to keep things from getting predictable. “I remember having conversations with him where we were both like, ‘We should just be honest. We should make press worth reading,’ ” says White. “In the ’70s and the ’60s you used to read interviews—read, like, the old collected Rolling Stone articles and stuff—and it was great. They’re fun to read, and I have no reference to any modern band where they talk and it’s interesting, you know? They’re only interesting because you’ve elevated them to god levels in your own head. No one ever says anything cool, or expresses anything truthful.”
Personal revelations aside, the real story with Girls right now is one of artistic growth. The group released its sophomore full-length, Father, Son, Holy Ghost, in mid September to nearly universal acclaim. Like its predecessor, 2009’s Album, the new LP showcases Owens’s enthrallment with pop music and his seemingly effortless knack for creating hooks. Where that first disc was a sometimes shambolic, lo-fi enterprise, however, Father, Son, Holy Ghost is a widescreen production with the sonic depth of a classic-rock record. Its centrepiece is inarguably “Vomit”, which clocks in at 6:24 and opens with a simple guitar arpeggio before unfolding into a bona fide rock ’n’ roll epic, complete with blistering six-string leads and choral backing vocals.
White, who had the sole production credit on Album and last year’s Broken Dreams Club EP, coproduced the disc with engineer Doug Boehm, working at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Recording Studio. He says that, although much has been made of the new record’s expansive aesthetic, there isn’t quite as much to the songs as there appears to be. In part, the bigger sound comes courtesy of the improved production values and musicianship.
“If you really listen to a lot of pop songs, you’ll realize that the whole chorus is just the drums and the singing, and maybe the bass, but something about a strong hook gives the impression of something fantastic going on, and of a lot of things going on,” White notes. “But if you break down classic pop songs, they’re super minimal. I actually think we sort of restrained ourselves on this record a little bit.”
The bassist-producer says that hiring gospel singers to add backing parts to songs such as the aforementioned “Vomit” and the vintage-soul workout “Love Like a River” was one of the few indulgences he and Owens allowed themselves.
“We have them soloing and riffing, which is a little extravagant, but in the end I tend to be the one pushing this idea of less is more,” White says. “Maybe we don’t need two guitar tracks on this song; maybe there only needs to be one guitar and it can play the rhythm and the solo. There were points when we were recording when we were like, ‘I wish we had strings, and then a horn section for this melody,’ you know? At some point we just felt that we were both trying not to do that. It felt like it didn’t need to go there.”
It seems, then, that the boys in Girls are indeed capable of exercising some restraint—just not while being interviewed.
Girls plays the Biltmore Cabaret on Tuesday (October 4).