Coming clean with Girls of San Francisco

Cult of personality
By BARRY THOMPSON  |  September 20, 2011

NO DOPES “It’s not like the band is making a point to write drug music,” says Girls’ Christopher Owens (left). “We’re not Lords of Acid.” 

"Talking about drugs is very boring. It's more interesting to take them," says Christopher Owens over the phone.

Some of the interviews the San Franciscan has given since 2009's Album established him as one of this era's significant singer-songwriters give the impression that he's hung up on his more decadent recreational habits and his upbringing in the anti-medicine/pro-prostitution Children of God cult. Strangely enough, almost none of his songs are about drugs or religion. One exception would be "Substance" off 2010's Broken Dreams Club EP. "Substance" evokes a lazy summer afternoon, and is definitely about drugs. Maybe also, "Die," off the justifiably critically adulated follow-up, Father, Son, Holy Ghost (True Panther Sounds). "Die" sounds like Deep Purple and might be about drugs.

"It's not really something I mentally dwell on," clarifies the breezy, yet contemplative, front-man of Girls (who play the Paramount Center on Saturday) from his homestead out west. "The things I dwell on are very clear, y'know? Who am I? What's going to happen later? What happened before? Who cares about me? It's not like the band is making a point to write drug music. We're not Lords of Acid."

The half-hour discussion only turns to biblical or chemical matters twice, during brief detours from the subject of Girls' retro-pop expertise. The title of "Vomit" — the chilling, anguished single off Father — Owens explains, was inspired by the Proverbs verse: as a dog returns to his vomit, so a fool repeats his folly. And he evidently penned wistful tearjerker "Forgiveness" during a post-acid trip reflective phase.

"If you're saying, 'Oh, I'll forgive so-and-so because he's done this or that to make me, that's not real forgiveness," he says. "Forgiveness comes for no reason, because you chose to say, 'I'm going to forget the past and move forward.' It was a sweet song to write in that state."

So let's forget the "dude escaped from a cult, loves drugs" element of the story. Drugs are glamorous. Owens's childhood was weird and tragic. Glamour, weirdness, and tragedy make sexy copy. Rock and roll traditionalism that is so affecting and accessible it requires stronger adjectives than "affecting" and "accessible" might not convey the same epic overtones on paper.

Meanwhile, Girls' multi-genre balladeering is loaded with epictude. Consider "Vomit" and Album's "Hellhole Ratrace," wherein the pathos of universal themes like love, hope, sorrow, and obsession snowball through repetitive verbal simplicity and slow-burning sonic splendor. But "Hellhole Ratrace" lacks the grandiosity of "Vomit." Owens says he had similarly grandiose designs for "Hellhole Ratrace" that couldn't be realized until he could afford to pay more people to help him create it.

Owens and Girls' co-founding bassist, Chet "JR" White, tracked Album on a "crappy home computer," and Owens gets stoked recalling recording Father, Son, Holy Ghost with a "real" producer, engineer, and stable of backing musicians. It kind of undermines the notion that Girls, or anybody, ever used low-fi recording techniques to be trendy.

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