Girls not afraid to bare it all

The ever-quotable cult faves are happy to let fans know what they think of drugs, pop, and the press
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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.

In + out

Girls’ Chet “JR” White sounds off on the things enquiring minds want to know.

On Roger Pruett, eccentric owner of the little-known Golden Gate Recording Studio: “He was clearly just addicted to buying equipment. He has a huge, vast amount of guitar amps that just fill this room. It’s crazy. It’s almost ridiculous. At some point we’d be recording and we’d all just kind of laugh, and just say ‘Wow, this is really overboard.’ The big attraction for me was that it wasn’t a standard studio.”

On the advantage of working with Doug Boehm: “I think if you hire someone who’s been working nonstop for 10 years engineering, they’re going to be a lot faster than I am. And sometimes the thing that makes a studio very easy on musicians is to have someone move very efficiently and fast, and not have those moments of, like, ‘Oh shit, this is not working.’ So it seemed like the easiest way to free up time and to make things work more smoothly.”

On recording with on-again, off-again guitarist John Anderson (who, for the record, is off again): “There was a past with him, where he had quit before, so even working with him at times, there needed to be a third party that could monitor attitudes and things like that. And Doug helped us keep him in the studio and not walking out.”

On similarities between Girls’ “Die” and Deep Purple’s “Highway Star”: “I’ve definitely heard that song a thousand times, and so has Chris, but that kind of E riff we’re doing in that song has also been done quite a bit. We heard a Wolfmother song the other day and we were all like, ‘Holy shit, that sounds like “Die”.’ It always ends up happening.”

“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).

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Bad Girls
Being way over the hill and broke too, I'm not in on the new upcoming bands, so I troll the Straight music and other such music columns for new bands and new sounds. I liked the guy's patter about the music press and also I've always had a soft spot for the music of drug addled bohemians, so I quickly went to You Tube to see what I've been missing. It turns out not much. The timid picking on Vomit and whiney vocals reminds me of 'Dust in the Wind' and I kept waiting for it break into some sort of punk-metal crushing release, but that didn't happen either. Meanwhile the so-called soul tune, Love LIke a River, sounds like old John Lennon (who was not bad, but why do it again). A real disappointment.
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Rating: -3
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