Christopher Owens’ Interview with Pitchfork
by Ryan Dombal
Sitting on a couch in bright pink pants and a green blazer, Christopher Owens is talking about the end of Girls. The 33-year-old San Francisco songwriter– one of the most open and honest (and best) of his generation– goes on about the dissolution of his beloved former band, basically uninterrupted, for 15 minutes straight. As he describes his relationship with Girls co-founder JR White as well as the band’s varied cast of supporting players, his face contorts, relaxes, wells-up. It’s heartbreaking to watch; he approaches his tale with the same sort of unvarnished vulnerability found in his songs. I don’t dare stop him.
His entire story– transcribed in full below– isn’t terribly dramatic, to be honest. No fistfights, no lawsuits. Instead, it’s about growing apart and the sometimes-heavy weight of unmet expectations. It makes me think back to Girls’ remarkable 2009 video for “Hellhole Ratrace”, which showed a group of friends– some of them one-time Girls members, some not– falling in love with life and each other in haunting slow motion. It’s a moment, perfectly crystallized. But just as that snapshot couldn’t last, neither could Girls.
For Owens, though, Girls was the beginning. He sees himself as a lifer, a guy who’ll one day have 20 different albums stacked next to each other inside record-store bins. His official solo debut, the forthcoming Lysandre, is a thematic album about his wide-eyed experiences during Girls’ first tour. It flashes some of the same genre-flipping tendencies as his old band– there are upbeat rockers, acoustic weepers, and even a slinky, sax-laden tune calle “Riviera Rock”– but everything’s presented on a smaller, more intimate scale. Flutes flutter, backup vocals sigh, and the same classical guitar riff shows up again and again throughout. It was partially inspired by the storybooks Owens grew up with in the Children of God cult, but the record also marks a clean break with the singer’s storied, tragic past. The closer, “Part of Me (Lysandra’s Epilogue)”, is about the end of a long-distance love affair, but its chorus sounds endless, universal: “Oh, you were a part of me, but that part of me is gone.”
We spoke in the lobby of the Bowery Hotel around lunchtime, the day after his first ever New York City solo show last month.
“The easiest thing in the world for me to do would have been to make another Girls album. It’s just not what I wanted. I wanted a real band. I wanted the Rolling Stones, the Beatles.”
Pitchfork: Like a lot of people, I was surprised when you announced that you were leaving Girls over the summer. Maybe it was because of the nature of the music, or how strong the band started out, but Girls seemed like something that could last a long time.
Christopher Owens: From the very beginning, I felt that I was going to write songs for the rest of my life. I still feel that way. And the band is something I wanted very badly. I get the feeling people don’t really realize that. They’re like: “You broke up the band.” But I wanted it more than anybody else. The whole thing was my idea. I wanted Girls to last for a very long time.
But right away, there were a lot of disappointments. You try to buckle down and carry on and hope the thing will resolve itself. But then more disappointments come, and they just kept coming. After a little while, I started to realize that the band wasn’t going to last forever. I knew that by the time I was recording [Father, Son, Holy Ghost]. Because I wanted a real band– a group of people that became like a family that wrote and recorded and went on tour together, and evolved through those experiences. Nothing else would have done it for me. But we were replacing members for every other tour; I didn’t feel like I had other people who were maturing along side me. I counted out the amount of people that were in the band over the years. It was 21– a giant amount of people. That’s feeling disappointed 21 times over.
The easiest thing in the world for me to do would have been to make another Girls album. It’s just not what I wanted. I wanted a real band. I wanted the Rolling Stones, the Beatles. But people just kept leaving, for whatever reason. I never fired anybody. Then there was this larger-than-life outside world that came into play.
With the first Girls record, you had two guys, good friends, making an album together at home. I played almost everything on that record. JR played bass, engineered everything, and produced everything. And by the next album, we wanted to record as a four- or five-piece, but that didn’t happen because, before the first album was even released, we had this giant outcry to put a band together quickly. We couldn’t say, “Let’s wait until we find the guy that’s going to stay forever.” We didn’t have that luxury. So what you’d get were people that were in other bands who would play with us and then go back to what they used to do, or quit or whatever, after the shows were done. That’s nobody’s fault. If I would have known then what I know now, I would have said, “Let’s not do all this right away.” Jumping in like that and seizing the opportunity never allowed for us to build a foundation that could survive the test of time.
So after making the first album between the two of us, JR wanted to work with another producer [for the Broken Dreams Club EP], somebody that he could learn from and who could take the songs to the next level. I was totally on board with that. But looking back, maybe we shouldn’t have done that. Maybe we should have made another record between just us because, by [Father, Son, Holy Ghost], JR’s totally giving up the plan, which was for him to build a studio and to produce again after the EP. That was what we both wanted. But because of the touring, he never had the time– it is very hard in San Francisco to find a space that’s cheap, build a studio, buy used equipment. We didn’t have a giant budget to just say: “Give me the finest and set it up.” So we’d get back from tour, and I’d say, “So JR, what’s up with the next record?” “Sorry I haven’t done anything.” I understood. I was right there with him. We were in over our heads.
“There were a lot of people who talked me into touring Father,
Son, Holy Ghost, but I didn’t even want to do that.
That could have been the end right there.”
So, [for Father, Son, Holy Ghost], he’s saying, “Let’s just totally go for it. Let’s get a great producer. Let’s work in a great studio.” And I’m like, “Yeah, I have songs here that I think could win Grammys.” That was a real conversation. And we did that, and it was great. I wouldn’t change that for anything. But over time, something got very carried away by the force of everything. So at this point, JR hasn’t produced a record since the first one. And 21 people came in and out of the band.
The final straw for me came when my very good friend [guitarist John Anderson], who joined the band just after we recorded the first album, quit for a second time right when we finished recording [Father, Son, Holy Ghost]. He and I were very, very close. There is no one in the world I would rather play with than this guy. It was such a heartbreak. It was a bit too much for me. I wanted to quit then. There were a lot of people around me who talked me into touring Father, Son, Holy Ghost, but I didn’t even want to do that. That could have been the end right there, but we kept it together to tour. I told JR again: “I don’t know how much longer this is going to last.”
For that whole year of touring, I was just laying things out: What should I do? How do I feel about this? There were a lot of things to think about. And then this year, JR told me, “You know, I haven’t produced a record since the first one. I want to get back into doing that, and there’s this [other] band that I want to produce.” I thought for another month and then I said, “OK, when you go to do that, I think I would like to end the project.” We talked it over for a few days and we agreed. It wasn’t a big blow-out or a nasty thing. It was very calm and collected. Then we informed all the band members, and they were supportive. They understood. Nobody in the band was surprised like other people were. Part of your job is to not present to the audience that things are not OK.
When I finally made the decision, I was right there alongside everyone being sad about it. But at the same time, in my mind I was thinking, “What do I do? Make five Girls records and then quit?” There’s just never a good time to quit a band like Girls, because everybody loved Girls, and so did I. I say all these things in retrospect about how we should’ve done this or that, but fuck that: We did what we thought we should do, and it’s all been great. JR’s producing again, I’m continuing to write. This is what I wanted to do from the very beginning: write songs and make records and tour them with a good live band. I can call all the shots, which is what I like to do.
And I can also be crazy. In the past, when I presented to do [Lysandre], it was a little much for everybody. Like, “Oh, a conceptual record– that’s your little story.” But now I can do that. And I want to jump around like this. I mean, everybody’s heads are going to spin on the next record. I know that already. I know I’ll have to get new people, because each record is going to call for different types of musicians. And it’s easier to do that when you’ve given up the idea of keeping a band that’s going to stay together forever.
Pitchfork: Is that why you didn’t just make this solo album and then do the next Girls album afterward?
CO: Well, what I want to do next is not going to be like anything that was in Girls’ realm. I want to go pretty crazy places.
Pitchfork: Like where?
CO: I don’t want to say yet, but I want to have the freedom to jump around. To me, it’s not any business for a band to do that– you don’t fire half your members, get all new people who play different things, and say “Hey man, it’s still the same thing!” My vision of a band was something different, and I pushed for it really, really hard. And I was as heartbroken as everybody else, because I didn’t get it. But once I became OK with that, it was very liberating.
Pitchfork: When we last spoke, you talked about how some songs on Father, Son, Holy Ghost were lamenting the end of the circle of friends you had in San Francisco. And now it sounds like you’re coming to peace with that idea.
CO: Yeah. It was a letting-go thing. And the fact that Girls was a big part of the San Francisco scene, and then that was gone, was a huge deciding factor, too. It’s much easier for me to pull the plug on it knowing that it was about this time and place, and that it wasn’t going to go back there, ever. There wasn’t going to be another “Lust for Life”. I’m moving on. And JR’s already producing, which is what he wanted to do. I would not be surprised if I do a record with him sometime soon. If he gets his space together, and gets his feet on the ground, which he’s doing. The first record we made together was a blast, and I can very much see going back and making another one of those kinds of records with him.
Pitchfork: But it wouldn’t be as Girls?
CO: You can put whatever name on it, if that makes everybody happy. But why? [Going solo] is also great for me as a writer, and as a person, to just say, “This is my work.” Every one of those Girls songs was so, so personal, like a tiny piece of myself, like a pound of my flesh, each one! There was a bit of me that wanted to call the first record a solo album.
“I’ve gone around presenting myself for the past four years as a pill-popping fuddy-duddy… but I’m trying to get away from all that.”
Pitchfork: You’re talking about how your songs are very personal, and seeing your solo show yesterday really highlighted how much your audience connects with that. There aren’t too many songwriters who can really establish that bond nowadays– people are invested in you as a person, as well as a singer.
CO: I appreciate that. It’s nice to feel cared about and it makes me want to continue. At the same time, I know that I’ve just begun. My audience and I are still strangers. People have general ideas about me, but I have a lot more to tell. If I’m trying to be understood– I don’t know if that’s even the goal– there’s more work to be done.
Pitchfork: Part of your story so far involves this self-destructive streak…
CO: I’m not really aware of that– I’m doing more than I’ve ever done in my life. What do you mean, specifically?
Pitchfork: Drugs, depression…
CO: Well, yeah, I’ve dealt with that my whole life, but it’s not half as dark for me as it used to be. I’ve gone around presenting myself for the past four years as a pill-popping fuddy-duddy… I don’t know what I’ve presented, I really don’t, it gets away from you. But then again, I can’t think of a mainstream artist that didn’t behave exactly like I did, from Elvis to Michael Jackson. I just listen to iTunes on shuffle and think, “drug addict, drug addict, drug addict, drug addict.” Then again, I’m trying to get away from all that. I’m pulling myself together because I feel like I have a meaning in my life. Now, in my mind, I view myself as someone who’s overcome those things, even though they always come back. I feel like some kind of winner.
Pitchfork: Because it’s so confessional and vulnerable, your music hits the same part of me that Elliott Smith did. And watching you onstage last night– composed, smart, put-together– I couldn’t help but think: “This is what Elliott could have done.”
CO: That’s basically how I view myself– that I’m getting over those self-destructive things. Sometimes I think, “Maybe Kurt should’ve quit Nirvana and taken a step back and played the acoustic guitar.” But I don’t feel like I’m half as important as Elliott Smith or Kurt Cobain. And I’m not going to be somebody that became so unhappy that he succumbed.
“I’m building a legacy and making my dreams come true.
What else is there? I don’t want a new car.”
Pitchfork: As far as success goes, you’re not hugely popular but you’ve got a seven-piece band for this current tour. How do you afford it?
CO: I’m not making any money, but I view it as some sort of investment, or like buying myself a great present. When people tell me, “You could take a smaller band and make a few thousand dollars,” I say, “Fuck the few thousand dollars.” That’s a conscious decision. I’m building a legacy and making my dreams come true. What else is there? I don’t want a new car.
Pitchfork: At the same time, I feel like you could be the guy who catches that break and ends up being that outlier singing at the Oscars, or something.
CO: That would be nice, but I also am definitely prepared to never catch the break. I mean, if Gus Van Sant put a song of mine in his film and I had a chance to put on a white suit and sing at the Oscars, of course I would. But it’s not a requirement. If it never happens, I’m still going to make 20 albums.
Pitchfork: This new album is about a specific time period that took place a few years ago. Does part of you want to get what you’re feeling right now out there?
CO: One of the great things about this record is that when I sing the songs now, I still feel exactly the same way. I’m fortunate for that. Last night’s show was incredible, because when I’m singing “look at us in New York City,” it was like I could’ve written that song that very minute. Part of the reason I recorded it now was just so it wouldn’t wait any longer, because there is an expiration date on all this stuff, and luckily it hadn’t reached that. But, I mean, I would love to be able to say, “Let me play you guys a little song I wrote last night.” That would be really zippy and cool, and maybe I’ll get to that point sometime.
Pitchfork: You played a few covers during the encore last night– including Cat Stevens’ “Wild World”, Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Boxer”, Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”– how did you pick those?
CO: Well, because the record is half an hour long and the show was going to be a performance of the record, I was like, “You don’t ask people to pay $20 to see half an hour of music.” So I thought we would play another 20 minutes as the encore. But I didn’t want to play Girls stuff– it would be almost disrespectful, maybe depressing. It’s just not the right time. So that was out. And I didn’t want to play another five songs that I’ve just written, that may take two or three years to put out. So then I thought: “I’ll play the music that aesthetically inspired this album.” And literally, “Wild World” was the very first song I ever learned to play on the guitar. And all those songs I played in the encore are the songs I used to busk as a kid. It’s to show people where I come from as a musician.
Also, people that go to these kinds of “indie” shows– I really don’t want to be in that scene anymore– they never hear any covers anymore. But I feel like “cover” has been such a dirty word for so long that it’s actually kind of cool– not cool cool, but rewarding for the audience. So much of folk music is about playing other people’s songs.
Pitchfork: Those songs you covered were also made in an era where singer-songwriters were putting out an album a year, and they were often chronicles of what was going on inside their head rather than this huge statement that demanded years of consequent touring. And that does seem like the direction you’re going now.
CO: A band has a certain responsibility to work songs for years and stick to rules more. A solo artist can just do whatever they want, and also present themselves as somebody who’s just singing about their life. If I wanted, I could do a tour where I just played the guitar by myself and sang all the Girls songs and all my new songs for an hour. That could make sense for me now, but it couldn’t make sense for Girls. So that’s part of the reason for doing all this, too, to make sense of what I’m doing as a writer.
Pitchfork: You mentioned not wanting to be thought of as an “indie” artist anymore. What do you mean by that, exactly?
CO: If I was just a college-music type, I would embrace that. But I really feel like this music’s for everybody, and that’s the driving thing behind it all. That’s the goal. I would like that to be acknowledged. But people have to catch on for themselves. A lot of times, magazines end up presenting me as some type of weirdo, but I make my music for everyday people.
I get very genuine responses from parents and kids when they come to shows, they truly love it. Parents of people in the band are always like, “Yeah, I actually really liked it.” And I’m like, “Of course you did– I’m playing the songs you listened to in college.” I know they would like it, but they don’t know. How they’re supposed to know? I don’t know.
Pitchfork: Why did you switch labels from Matador subsidiary True Panther to Fat Possum for this album?
CO: Well, I should mention, the timing of ending the band did coincide with our contract being fulfilled. So it was like, “Should we do this for another three albums or no?” That was a big factor that should be explained. The job was done, in a sense. I didn’t want to really commit to doing another three records with another 20 people or whatever, but I told my manager that I wanted Matador/True Panther, to have the first bid [on the solo album], just out of respect for what we’d done, and because I like them. They wanted me to move onto Matador proper, which was great, but they were very keen to do a three-record deal again– nobody wants to give you X amount of money and work on one album and then just say “bye,” because, in a way, what you do in the future has been funded by them.
So, basically, they wanted a longer term commitment, and I wasn’t really ready for it, because I knew what I wanted to do next and it doesn’t really fit with that label. I wanted to just do one album with them. But I think it’s kind of neat because now True Panther will always have the Girls’ stuff, forever. They will work on that and cherish it. I like to work with lots of different people, I’ve always done that.
Pitchfork: So whereas you were bummed about people coming in and out of Girls, now it sounds like you’re really embracing that revolving-door idea.
CO: I’ve had to. I want to keep doing this, so I have to accept what it’s become and carry on.
Pitchfork: Your music is very classic rock-oriented, do you keep up with new bands?
CO: I try! But I don’t connect with a lot of the young-people stuff. The last person I really got crazy about is this Japanese guy called Shintaro Sakamoto. He is awesome. It’s just like when I went around telling everybody that Ariel Pink was the greatest– I feel the same way about this guy.
He was in a Japanese psychedelic rock band [Yura Yura Teikoku] for 10 years, and he just quit– he made a solo record where he played almost everything on it. And then he has saxophones and flutes– I know this sounds very familiar, but it’s not why I like him. It’s so tasteful. I mean, he’s incredible. I’m really trying to meet him, and I want to make a record with him, if he’ll have me.
Pitchfork: In a lot of realms, “tasteful” can be a dirty word– and on Lysandre, there’s really none of the snottiness of some of your older songs.
CO: Yeah, but that will come back– I still write songs like that. As kind as people have been about accepting this album, I expect for a lot of people to say, “This isn’t for me.” I just had to make it, it’s been burning a hole inside me for so long. But this isn’t what I’m going to sound like forever. I still write songs like I used to; I’ve written songs unlike anything people have heard me write before. I’ve got a lot more to show. And everything I used to show is very much there. This is just something very important that I had to do. I just don’t want people to say, “OK, so this is what he’s going to be.” It’s just the first solo album. A chapter.