The emo­tion­al­ly ten­der sto­ry behind Girls’ debut album

10 years ago, the San Francisco band released one of the last great indie records of the ‘00s – an album influenced by heartache, hard drugs and hope.

Around the mid-late 00s, a cer­tain style had become a dom­i­nat­ing force in US indie” cul­ture – black skin­ny jeans, the Amer­i­can Appar­el aes­thet­ic and craft­ed can­did pho­tog­ra­phy fea­tur­ing plen­ty of cig­a­rettes had become the per­va­sive look of MySpace pages, blogs, and edi­to­r­i­al spreads in NYLON and Bul­let (and every inde­pen­dent pub­li­ca­tion in between).

A sense of iron­ic humour per­me­at­ed mid-late 00s alter­na­tive music, from the brash state­ments and self-aware par­ty­ing of the nu-rave / blog house acts (often indie kids at heart) and lat­er the lo-fi rock bands with slack­er” looks and names like Times New Viking, Wavves and Psy­che­del­ic Horse­shit. Girls – with their heart-on-sleeve roman­ti­cism, rock n’ roll excess and air of sin­cere tragedy – felt different. 

It was via MySpace that Girls, a Cal­i­for­nia band based around the core duo of Christo­pher Owens and Chet JR” White, came to be. They quick­ly found an audi­ence online that relat­ed to their trag­ic songs with a sun­ny sound – songs which talked about feel­ing invis­i­ble and about want­i­ng the seem­ing hap­pi­ness that oth­ers were showing.

But Girls and their first LP, Album, were pro­vid­ing more than just com­fort to a dig­i­tal sea of lost chil­dren, it was also an audi­to­ry work of grandeur, acclaimed upon its arrival. Pitch­fork gave it a 9.1 rat­ing and The Guardian, in their five star review, her­ald­ed it as poten­tial­ly a mod­ern clas­sic”. But the pre­car­i­ous­ness depict­ed in these songs was authen­tic. With­in three years of the record’s release, Girls had disbanded. 

Christo­pher Owens’ sto­ry is com­pli­cat­ed, and there is no way to explain Girls with­out explain­ing him. He was born into the reli­gious cult The Chil­dren of God (now known as The Fam­i­ly Inter­na­tion­al) where, dur­ing his time there, his broth­er died of pneu­mo­nia due to strict anti-med­i­cine rules, and his moth­er, along­side the oth­er women of the cult, were con­vinced through the word of God to engage in sex work to gain means for the rest of the mem­bers. Jere­my Spencer – a found­ing mem­ber of Fleet­wood Mac who left the band and joined the Chil­dren of God in 1971 – gave Chris his first guitar. 

There’s a great Mar­i­lyn Man­son quote, When all of your wish­es are grant­ed, then your dreams will be destroyed.’ All of my dreams came true… but I also had to lose friends.” – Christo­pher Owens

After spend­ing some time liv­ing in Slove­nia with the Chil­dren of God, Chris escaped the cult, mov­ing to Amar­il­lo, Texas where his sis­ter lived. After spells of rough sleep­ing, Chris became the per­son­al assis­tant and mentee to Amer­i­can mil­lion­aire, artist and phil­an­thropist, Stan­ley Marsh 3, a con­tro­ver­sial grand­son of an oil mag­nate who became a patron of the arts, most notably the Cadil­lac Ranch. Even­tu­al­ly mov­ing out West, Chris looked to make his dreams of being a musi­cian come true.

It was a cul­ture shock,” Chris tells me over the phone. Six months into mov­ing to San Fran­cis­co from Texas, Christo­pher Owens was about to call it quits and move back home. I didn’t like any­thing I went to go check out… I missed my friends at home; I missed [Stan­ley Marsh 3] who was a big fig­ure in my life.” 

But then Liza came into his life. “[She] cracked every­thing wide open,” Chris says. Liza was a local girl and a musi­cian her­self (in the noise band So, So Many White White Tigers), who became Chris’ girl­friend while he was play­ing gui­tar for anoth­er band, Holy Shit, which includ­ed Ariel Pink. For what­ev­er rea­son she thought it was fun­ny to date me for a while. Maybe because I was always so qui­et, I don’t know what it was.”

While liv­ing togeth­er on Mis­sion Street, Chris and Liza decid­ed to cre­ate their own band. They called it Curls, and, nat­u­ral­ly, they start­ed a MySpace page for it. But, as Chris recounts, after about a year of him show­ing Liza songs he had writ­ten so they could record, she let him know she didn’t real­ly like the music. It didn’t work, and I guess the rela­tion­ship didn’t work either. When she broke up with me, I felt real­ly alone.” Chris was sud­den­ly shut out from a pock­et of the music scene of San Fran­cis­co, and he’d devel­oped a hero­in habit since mov­ing there. But by then he had his own group of friends, includ­ing his for­mer Holy Shit band­mate, Matt Fish­beck, who intro­duced him to his future house­mate, Chet JR” White.

JR and Christopher Owens in LA (2008)

JR was a Cal­i­for­nia native from San­ta Cruz, a tall silent type who worked in restau­rants and who had been in punk bands grow­ing up, and since then had stud­ied audio engi­neer­ing. JR was maybe the one straight guy friend I had, in my real­ly close group of friends,” says Chris. “[He] was sort of our pro­tec­tor. A very qui­et guy, I didn’t know much about him.” (I reached out to JR to inter­view for this arti­cle. He ini­tial­ly expressed inter­est in shar­ing his side of the sto­ry, but even­tu­al­ly stopped responding.)

Chris’ breakup, com­bined with the lin­ger­ing emo­tion­al bag­gage from him child­hood, a vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty per­haps brought on by his pref­er­ence for drugs, and his for­tu­itous rela­tion­ship with JR, became the roadmap to what would become Album.

Girls on tour in Europe (2008)

Dean Bein, founder of True Pan­ther Sounds (the respect­ed label that pub­lished both Girls albums and their EP, and has also worked with the likes of King Krule, Trash Talk, and Ty Segall) reflects on Albums emo­tion­al depth and heav­i­ness. Some­one told me the sec­ond album an artist makes, it takes like a year or two or how­ev­er many. But their first album takes as long as how old they are when they first make it. Because in a lot of ways it’s the sum of their expe­ri­ences and their musi­cal ideas up until that point… For Christo­pher, those were his first songs, and his most kind of direct.”

Album takes influ­ence from the artists Chris and JR grew up lis­ten­ing to (such as Elliot Smith, Spir­i­tu­al­ized, Roy Orbi­son and The Beach Boys). It was described as encap­su­lat­ing the San Fran­cis­co sound – beachy and upbeat with shim­mer­ing gui­tars, but with dark lyrics about drugs and yearn­ing for love.

The inspi­ra­tion for Lust for Life, Girls’ debut sin­gle and the open­ing song on Album, came to him very direct­ly. Liza met with me for din­ner… and I sort of asked, how are things? And she goes off on this rant of all the cool things she’s doing. Her new boyfriend, her friend’s beach house, get­ting drunk, going out with every­body, eat­ing piz­zas. She’s going on and on, and I’m sit­ting there going, god, I wish this were my life.’ And then it just clicked. I lit­er­al­ly took a nap­kin off the table while she was going, and I wrote down all of the things she said that I wish I had.”

'Lust for Life' lyric sheet

As Chris wrote and played, JR realised he could help him achieve his desired sound, and he also became Girls’ bass play­er. I was try­ing to record the first album by myself [when] he popped up and said, I could help you do that, I went to audio engi­neer­ing school,’” says Chris.

Chris and JR uploaded music to the MySpace page that Chris had opened when him and Liza were still try­ing to make Curls hap­pen, only they need­ed to get rid of the name Curls” and rename the page to some­thing that rep­re­sent­ed the work they were mak­ing togeth­er. Girls” was pho­net­i­cal­ly close enough to Curls,” but it also worked because of the project’s visu­al theme, for which pic­tures of girls were paired with each song. Lau­ra, a song about Liza’s friend who sev­ered ties with Chris post-breakup, fea­tured a pho­to of Lau­ra as the art­work (they became friends again after she lis­tened to the song).

In many ways, Album was an encap­su­la­tion of the messi­ness of youth and of San Fran­cis­co. Through a com­bi­na­tion of the videos and visu­als and of course the music, you get a feel­ing that there’s this real­ly kind of deep and sprawl­ing com­mu­ni­ty or group of friends,” says Bein, who befriend­ed Chris and JR in San Fran­cis­co around the time of sign­ing them to True Pan­ther. It’s fucked up, and it’s beau­ti­ful. And it’s like, fun, but also scary, and very depressed.”

Christo­pher Owens at SXSW (2009)

Aaron Brown set out to cre­ate videos to accom­pa­ny the songs, help­ing shape their aes­thet­ic with the visu­als for Lust For Life, Morn­ing Light, and Hell­hole Ratrace. The video for each reflect­ed what Chris’ lyrics depict­ed: a roman­tic bohemi­an scene of flu­id­i­ty, nudi­ty, and excess – both beau­ti­ful and haunt­ed by its honesty.

But as always, when there are drugs involved (sub­stances referred to in past arti­cles about Girls include cocaine, mor­phine, hero­in, Oxy­con­tin, Fen­tanyl, ket­a­mine, and MDMA) there is an inevitable come down. There’s a great Mar­i­lyn Man­son quote,” says Chris, “‘When all of your wish­es are grant­ed, then your dreams will be destroyed.’ All of my dreams came true, but I also… had to lose friends.”

The dark­ness of the dream and the fucked up beau­ty were per­haps most realised for the sin­gle Hell­hole Ratrace, a stand­ing­ly impact­ful song from the entire Girls oeu­vre, the video which was height­ened by a very can­did slow motion win­dow into a night of hedo­nism. We would just hang out in San Fran­cis­co after the bars would close, wan­der around,” recalls Brown of the inspi­ra­tion behind the video. Depend­ing on what we were on… we’d stay up a lit­tle lat­er, and walk to Fisherman’s Wharf, and hang out with the fish­er­men in the morning.”

Hell­hole Ratrace holds a spe­cial place in many hearts. Dean Bein doesn’t skip a beat nam­ing it as his favourite song, still, to this day (“I think eter­nal­ly of the agony and the ecsta­sy of youth or some­thing. It’s not like, oh, it was so fun all the time, we were just all fucked up and every­thing was crazy. It was a mix.”). Mean­while, Chris men­tions it through­out our con­ver­sa­tion both in high praise of what he cre­at­ed, and also in the know that it is a hard song to out­write. It is an anthem to many, myself includ­ed; a light that shines on the dark­est days of liv­ing, an inspi­ra­tion to keep going. You only need to take one glance at the com­ments on YouTube to under­stand this. How many lives has this song saved,” one user writes. This song is so powerful.”

Girls fol­lowed up Album with the excel­lent Bro­ken Dreams Club EP in 2010 and then anoth­er album, Father, Son, Holy Ghost, the fol­low­ing year. But the project had quick­ly become exhaust­ing. I remem­ber at one point, when we were play­ing a lot, telling JR, Sor­ry, Girls can­not become the Hell­hole Ratrace. I have to leave,’” Chris says, I can’t write a song about stuff becom­ing no good, and then hav­ing the band become… I don’t know. For what­ev­er rea­son, it did sort of become that at one point.”

All Tomorrow’s Par­ties, Curat­ed by Jim Jar­musch (2010)

Logis­ti­cal­ly, they nev­er quite nailed fill­ing out the band’s line-up beyond Chris and JR. There was no effort to make a band,” says Chris. Over three years we had 30 peo­ple play live with us. That means three years down the road… I’m teach­ing some new per­son who has joined at the last minute how to play Lust For Life again.”

Chris names this as the one regret he has with the band, and one that con­tin­ues to have a but­ter­fly effect on his music and his rela­tion­ship to JR, which is com­plex and not par­tic­u­lar­ly easy to dis­cern. Brown and Bein remem­ber the duo’s chem­istry well. JR and Christopher’s rela­tion­ship with each oth­er was so almost… roman­tic is not the word, but it was that inten­si­ty,” says Brown.

In 2012, Girls came to an end via a state­ment tweet­ed by Chris, which read:

Dear all, This may come as a sur­prise to many & has been an issue of much thought for me. My deci­sion was not easy to make. I am leav­ing Girls. My rea­sons at this time are per­son­al. I need to do this in order to progress. I will con­tin­ue to write & record music. More will be announced soon. I thank you all for every­thing. Sin­cere­ly – Christopher.”

JR has stat­ed he found out about the breakup of the band through the tweet rather than through Chris. I think JR and I are fine,” says Chris. We’re the kind of peo­ple that we can pick up at any point and it’s the same.” The pair haven’t spo­ken in years.

As a solo artist, Christo­pher Owens went on to release three albums, and in recent years he has rebirthed Curls with a new band, and they have recent­ly com­plet­ed a new album. JR, for his part, has worked play­ing and pro­duc­ing albums for artists such as Cass McCombs, Tobias Jes­so Jr., Spec­trals and DIIV.

There is a cer­tain melan­choly expressed by those involved in Album, as if enough time has passed where they can all see a clear pic­ture of the inno­cence of their tem­po­rary reck­less­ness and excite­ment. But for all its dark­ness, the record still warms the heart. As Chris sings on Lau­ren Marie: It isn’t right to sit around and think about the awful things that get you down / You’ve got­ta try to wear a smile no mat­ter how hard it can be to do.

00:00 / 00:00