In his first interview in over a year, the former Girls frontman talks about his new EP and pushing forward in the post-Girls era.
The door swings open to a converted auto shop in West Oakland at the Santo Recording Studio. Two walls covered in Southwestern tapestries flank a central facade, with rows of wooden planks, buried into the burnt orange brick, covered with guitars. The interiors are masterfully re-done with spurs and saddles hanging throughout, like an upscale New Mexico barn.
This is where Christopher Owens, the frontman of the hugely popular — but now defunct — San Francisco band Girls, is recording his 4th solo endeavor, an EP to be released later this year on local label Urban Scandal Records. Owens’s first solo album, Lysandre, was released on Fat Possum Records and his two subsequent releases (A New Testament and Chrissybaby Forever) were both on Turnstile Records. But Turnstile recently ceased operating as a record label and Owens found himself looking for another label relationship to release his music on.
“I’d known Stephen [Beebout; Urban Scandal owner] for a while. He worked at a coffee shop I go into all the time. I was trying to do a different recording project that didn’t work out and told him I wanted to do something…I didn’t know that he had a label when he brought it up. I just wanted to record as soon as possible and with Stephen, it was something I could do right away and do whatever I wanted,” Owens says as he fiddles with the blonde locks brushing up against his face. He wears stylish tattered jeans and a 22 cent stamp shirt. “I like this shirt because I collect stamps,” he adds.
Owens and producer/audio engineer Shane Stoneback (who’s worked on albums for Vampire Weekend, Cults as well as Girls in the past) share a smoke on the patio and then get to work. Stoneback toggles from soundboard to laptop in one room, while Owens lays down keys over textural layers of guitar in the other. There’s no vocals yet or the drum track by Geographer’s Cody Rhodes, which’ll be added later. There’s less immediacy to the music coming through the speakers than in Owens’s previous work, but it’s beautiful enough to where even after hearing him working through the same bars again and again, it still sounds engaging. The pair work tirelessly on a very short section of the song, and Owens is having trouble hitting the right notes.
“I only wrote this before we went out to smoke….if I would’ve figured it out then, it wouldnt’ve come out like this,” Owens says.
“Don’t worry about it,” Stoneback assures. “You wrote an impossible part, ten minutes before you played it,” he adds with a chuckle.
“I’m definitely more of a guitar player,” Owens admits.
The track finally comes together and it’s gorgeous. There’s a transition into another track that plays once for a brief moment and it hints into what Owens has up his sleeve, something that’s perhaps more ear-grabbing than his first three solo releases and he flashes a smile. “I love the way the songs are coming out and what we’re doing,” Owens says. “Working with Shane has been great and Cody playing drums…everybody that’s been involved has been awesome.”
Owens is very systematic and playful, despite being hard on himself at times. But there’s a carefree aura in the room when he comes back to listen alongside Stoneback. Owens drinks a carton of coconut water and turns it over for a hard five count then fiddles with the bottle to try and get that last drop that never seems to come out. We share a laugh about how nobody can ever enjoy that last drop. He’s aloof and pleasant, though somehow wears the whole chronology of his career in his baggy eyes.
For a nearly five year stretch up until Girls broke up in 2012, there was hardly a more popular band in San Francisco. The band’s three releases were universally applauded and Pitchfork Editor Mark Richardson said it best in his 9.3 review of Girls’ final album: “The first listen to Father, Son, Holy Ghost brings with it an almost eerie sense of familiarity, like these are songs you’ve been hearing your whole life even when you can’t place them…”
Looking through former SF Weekly Editor Ian S. Port’s countless posts on Girls, reveals a timeline of a band that managed to generate mystique, anticipation and continuous musical triumph, throughout their time together in SF. Yet following the band’s breakup Owens’s solo releases have hardly lived up to the praise of the Girls material.
“You’re not gonna be able to compete with something that people are nostalgic for. It has to be two separate things really. It just has to be,” Owens says. “It’s been long enough and I totally understand why people will hold Girls in a special place and it just isn’t possible right now. It’s not a present state of mind. It’s like, that was great, it’s a nostalgic thing. Nothing that I could ever do currently will be like that. But as long as I get to keep making music, it’ll be fine.”
The local music scene itself has shifted drastically from the one that Girls thrived in at the turn of the decade. Today, artists in San Francisco have to increasingly focus on making rent every month and the bright-eyed, blissful naiveté in Girls’ breakthrough video for “Lust For Life” is hardly associated with the music scene anymore. In the video, footage of the band playing basement shows is spliced in with Owens’s friends lip-synching the song while jumping up and down on a bed or frolicking on Bernal Hill or blowing bubble gum bubbles or lying in a floating rose petal-laden bathtub and in the “hard version” of the video, singing into a penis.
“All those people from that group and that video, that scene and that whole environment has just moved. So it’s weird and it’s been weird for a while to know that” Owens says. “It was a very different city back then. It’s changed a lot.”
Owens is if anything, a bit insular. He lives near Golden Gate Park and walks to the park multiple times a week. He says he speaks to JR White — the only other person who could be considered a fixture in the ever-rotating lineup of Girls — “all the time.” White most notably produced Tobias Jesso Jr.’s lauded debut album, Goon. “We tried to do some stuff earlier but it just didn’t pan out. JR didn’t want to be playing live and to my knowledge he doesn’t want to be playing anymore, he wants to be in a studio, producing,” Owens says of his former bandmate.
The more he speaks, the more it becomes clear that Owens has a desire for authenticity in people. He alludes to things he didn’t like at the end of the Girls-era which has been documented ad nauseum, along with his and White’s drug habits, in his many interviews following the break-up. And for a moment there at that recording studio, it feels like walking into a different era of Bay Area music. But this time, it’s just a bit more lonely and cold, like the air that blows back and forth from Golden Gate Park to the water. And Owens, albeit more hermit-like, still calls San Francisco home.
“I definitely want to be remembered as a San Francisco musician and I hope people think of it that way now…It’s my favorite city in the country for sure,” Owens says. “I like how small it is and being able to walk everywhere. It’s very accessible like that and it’s old enough that it’s interesting and beautiful. I like the weather a lot how it’s always kind of cool and I like riding my motorcycle along Ocean Beach where there’s no traffic lights. I can go really fast.”
Adrian Spinelli is the SF Sounds Editor In Chief and host of the Noise Pop Podcast.