Girls’ ascension to indie pop supremacy hasn’t really taken anyone by surprise. The San Francisco band’s debut album, Album, had already enjoyed critical acclaim back in 2009 and, with its follow-up LP Father, Son, Holy Ghost, the ever-evolving duo of Christopher Owens and Chet “JR” White officially cemented their place amongst the indie world’s shining stars. We caught up with the band’s front man Chris to talk white sneaker fetishes, running a business and singing “Stille nacht” to sailors at Christmas time in Antwerp’s docks.
Yeah, I think so, yeah I like it. Well you know, it’s not a big deal for me. It’s more for the fans.
This interview we’re doing is going to run in our November edition and it’s going to be themed “the white album”. Hum now, I read in an interview of yours that you have some sort of fetish for white sneakers…
…and I noticed that the car, the Corvette, in the video was white as well. I mean, is there a link to be made or is it just me tripping out?
(laughs) No, you’re, no… You’re reading into it too much! The Corvette is silver.
Well I watched it on my shitty laptop.
Yeah. I wear the shoes not because of the fact that they’re white, but just because of the fact that they’re the classic Air Force One’s. You know, because of the fact that they’re not trendy. That’s why I like them.
I don’t want to indoctrinate anybody with any kind of theories, but I do want to communicate my feelings.
Compared to the first one, this new album sounds a lot richer, more accomplished. I mean, it definitely sounds like you have come of age as a songwriter. Other than relentless touring, what would you attribute this maturity gain to?
Yeah, you know, I don’t think there’s any difference. One third of the songs on the new album were written at the same time than the songs from the first album. It’s just that the recordings are better, we’re working in a studio, with a group of musicians that are very good. But in the first album I was playing every instruments and JR was running all the equipment and now on this album we had engineers, producers and musicians and a studio and everything was done right. But there’s no change.
On the album’s first song Honey Bunny, which is also the video you just released, you sing ‘they don’t like my bony body, they don’t like my dirty hair’ and then you go on to sing about a girl who loves you for who you are. This theme of acceptance – are you referring to anyone in particular or is it more of a general statement?
It’s a general statement. The song was written at the time when the person in the song doesn’t know for sure if they’re ever going to find somebody, the right person. It’s about saying: I’m not going to give up, I’m going to keep trying because it might be right around the corner. It’s about optimism.
You’ve been quoted as saying that you think that music is a spiritual way to communicate transcendent things…
Yeah, it’s more about just communicating my feelings. I think it’s important for me because I’m trying to figure these things out myself. It’s just talking about it in the songs in the same way that somebody might go to therapy or write a journal. That’s really the motive. I don’t want to indoctrinate anybody with any kind of theories, but I do want to communicate my feelings. For me it’s really selfish.
If Pitchfork had given us a bad support on this album it wouldn’t have made a difference. The tour was already booked before this. We don’t go and say like: ‘ Hey, look at the score, will you give us a show? ’
How important is the validation of web- sites such as Pitchfork to you? What do you think of this moral authority that one website commands on the indie scene?
I don’t really know. I don’t follow it, I don’t check it, I don’t read it. But I know when they give us a good score, I hear about it. It’s just like anything, when you get an award or you get praise… It’s really not the time where you feel successful. You feel successful the first time you listen to the album after it’s finished. It’s the same for live shows – when you’ve had a good show and when the audience was really great. And after that it’s like when people close to you are telling you they have real respect for what you’re doing or something. And finally after that, of course you want to get some respect from the people in the industry. But it’s really not the first thing. Our booking agents, our record label, our fans, … They were there before our first album, before we got a review. I think it helps, of course, but I know for example if Pitchfork had given us a bad support on this album it wouldn’t have made a difference. The tour was already booked before this. We don’t go and say like: “hey, look at the score, will you give us a show?”
Doing my research, I couldn’t help but feel that you’re definitely moving closer to the mainstream and it’s not a move that you seem to be doing yourself. Rather, it’s the mainstream that seems to be embracing you, I mean you have interviews in GQ, Vogue Italia, showcases on Conan. How do you feel about that? You’re clearly becoming the darling of the airwaves.
It’s just because those people are just slower than the public. You know, it’s the same in politics for example. Finally yesterday, there’s no discrimination about homosexuality in the army anymore. It’s just the government always needs an extra 10 years just to catch up. It’s the same with people like GQ. They would never say “Oh, I saw a band last night in a bar, let’s do a story!” They wait until you’re becoming rel- evant. The only reason that the mainstream is catching on is because they’re the slowest ones. Probably the final person to catch on would be like hum… Obama or something!
That’d be nice…
Yeah, that’s the goal! They’ll give me a call and say: “I’ve listened to your album and it’s really good!”
You recently stated in an interview that “The album should go down in history as an important album. I hope people realise that. Whether they do or not, they should at least not write it off as music that is trying to sound a certain way.”
Yeah, you know, I believe that this is a great album, I believe that the music is great and that we did a good job making it. We took huge steps up from the first album to the EP to this record. It would have been really easy for us to spend three or four thousand dollars and make another one of those and just put it out and stick to what we know, but we invested much more money into this new record. That’s the whole thing, even right now, on our tour, everybody got engaged to go on the road and they get paid a lot of money. And you know, the easy thing to do would have been: keep the same plan up from the beginning, keep the money just low, keep going on cheap tours, and rack up some money for ourselves. You know, when you look at it, it looks like a small business or something: every time we get extra money we put it straight back into our business and we make a better thing for the people involved. I have a lot of pride about what we’re doing because for me it’s the first time in my life where I’m doing something and I’m basically a part of a company. I’m making decisions. I’d like for people to understand that this is a very serious effort and that there is a lot of work going on. People like to label you as a certain thing and to me it’s frustrating because here I am 32 years old trying to run a company, make a career out of this and make the best albums possible.
You’ve spent some time in Belgium. Can you tell me how you ended up here, where you lived, any memories you kept, things you remember about the place?
Yeah I spent like six months there! I was living in France at the time and my mom had a new boyfriend and I wasn’t getting along with him and that was becoming… you know young teen (I was like 13 years old, or maybe 12) and I was being rebellious. So there was this place where they wanted to send me away so I could maybe be mature or something and to be totally honest with you I don’t really know what city it was, I don’t remember anything about where I was. I remember that it was a very nice place and I liked it a lot. We had goats roaming around freely.
Do you remember if you were in the French speaking part or in the Flemish speaking part?
I was speaking French, for sure.
So you went with your mom to Belgium?
No, I was by myself. I do know one detail, which is that they used to take all the children together and there were a lot of children and we’d go sing in the docks of Antwerp – where there are all the big ferry boats from every- where around the world – and we’d go on the boat and sing “Stille naaacht, tralala naaacht”.
To the sailors?!
Yeah! And then we would sell some cassette tapes of us singing. And that’s how we would make some money. But it was like a program for kids who were kind of having a hard time growing up. You’d go there and learn how to sing Christmas carols and take care of goats and play outside. I don’t know if that helped me or not. But I remember I liked Belgium a lot.
You’ll be playing in Brussels in November. Do you still know some people here?
Oh, I don’t know anybody there. Even one year later I never spoke to any of those people again. That’s the story of my whole life, you know. Be somewhere, experience it, leave and forget about it.
What about the time you spent in Texas?
Well you know there is a huge amount of time there. When I moved to Texas I was 16 years old, in 1996. And a lot of things happened. I spent about nine years there.
So nine years after you moved to San Francisco?
Yeah. When I moved to SF I was 25.
I feel like in my youth I had religious music, and then in my teenage years I had punk music and it was only when I became an adult that I wrote my own music.
But you were always into music, like back in Texas, you were already playing in bands?
No, when I first moved there all I did was just buy albums. It was the first time for me to buy albums. I spent about four years just buying as many albums as I could. I was just a fan, a very honest fan of bands that were on MTV. That’s all I knew. And then I got into punk and that’s a very different thing. A part of the thing that came with my punk lifestyle is that I moved into a house where a lot of us played music together. There’s something about getting into punk very seriously where you do start playing music, and I did, but it wasn’t like this. I never wrote any songs, I didn’t care about music. It was just like in the same way that religious people sing in a church, and they have a huge musical history, well it’s the same for punks I think. Every punk will tell you “Oh yes, I’ve been in a band.” I feel like in my youth I had religious music, and then in my teenage years I had punk music and it was only when I became an adult that I wrote my own music.
What do you qualify your music of now? How would you describe it?
I really don’t know. I think it’s just pop music or you know, rock and roll music. Like I’ve seen our CD on iTunes and it’s says “alternative music”. You know I think that’s really nice but I think that’s also very big. Like “alternative to what?”
A lot has been said regarding your upbringing and how important religion was, so I don’t want to go into detail about it. But, your album’s name evidently conjures feelings of some sort of religious reference. Now I’ve also read that it was not your attempt at all. But I guess what I’m trying to get to here is that seen from our eyes, the current political climate in the US is really highly charged on religion. So I just wanted to know: where do you stand on that?
I don’t really agree actually. I think that’s a mess. It’s kind of like the idea that America is free or something like that. These are lies. I think that the “in God we trust” and the American Republican sort of Christian thing is a lie that is presented to the rest of the world so you guys think we’re very religious. It’s propagated by the American government and by the culture here. I spent a lot of time in my life travelling around the world, living in countries for years and years. I still travel now and I follow the world news and I’ll go so far as to say that a lot of European countries are more strongly Catholic and traditionally religious than America! For example if you go to Belgium, it’s the same kind of feeling in America: some people are religious, some people aren’t. Nobody really cares. You know, Bachmann, Rick Perry those people are not religious people. They’re hypocrites. They do that to receive votes. The population here is just stupid. You know I guarantee you that those people all have really disgusting demons in their closets.
Do you have religion overload? Given your upbringing, is there a point where you’re like “Gosh these guys are making so much out of this!”
Hum I don’t know, I kind of understand the whole reason why people are saying that. I think it’s because of the 60s American “hippie cult”, you know, it’s something that happened here, and half of the country (maybe 75 percent) subscribe to this. They all said: “Yes we should drop out, we should take drugs, we should have free sex…” I mean there was a time when the Children of God were very normal – I mean not specifically our cult but – these were the very normal feelings that America was turning to. And then everybody knows that these things came and failed. I mean people killed them- selves, the Government went in and killed the branch deviant. Everybody knows that free sex lead to AIDS. America has literally shifted. So there are two elements. One, it’s interesting to see the child of this very specific American culture come and say ‘this is my take on what actually happened’. But then for other people this cult is just so bizarre. This crazy sexual cult. All these things they don’t know about. You know: yes there is a religious aspect but I don’t think it’s so much religion, I think there is a political and historical element to it taken by the adults. You know, I feel like I got fucked over by the older generation, by the hippies. I realise that. But then for the people of my age it’s like ‘he was born in a cult’. This is very dark. I think nobody has ever asked me any questions about religion, it’s always like ‘So then, what happened?’ They want to hear juicy things ‘Oh your brother died’, ‘Oh your mom did this, your mom did that.’ I never had anybody ask me about the religious beliefs of the John Booka.
Do you still, to a certain extent, live the way you where brought up? Do you still believe in certain of the things of The Children of God?
No I can’t you know, it’s not possible. In order for me to do that, I’d have to separate myself from the world again and live in a community with hundreds of people, I’d have to stop earning money, I’d have to… We used to live in a very complicated way and I think I would never live like that again. I would have to go back to them. I’m 100 percent free right now. I had no freedom before.
Is it a part of your childhood that you look back at negatively?
No. Because I don’t want to do that. I did that for a long time but it’s very unhealthy. You know I would not just be upset; I’d get so angry. It’s not even an option for me to be upset about that. If you research anything about this group, you’d know what I’m talking about. You’d know that the children try to kill the parents that brought them up and kill themselves. This is not a fucking joke! I’ve been out of the Children of God since 1996. It’s a long time ago. And I’ve learned how to appreciate what happened to me and like myself. If I don’t do that, it’s all over. I’d be finished, other people would be finished. You know, there is just no option. The only option that I have is to say “everything is fine”.
One of the things in your childhood is that you couldn’t discover music directly. Apart from going to record stores, how would you discover new music now?
On YouTube. (laughs)
Personally, SF is a city I love. I’ll always remember the record store “Amoeba Records”? Does that still exist? Does it hold a lot of meaning to the city’s musicians? Did it help in anyway for you? Did you play there?
Yeah we played there for our first album release. I go there all the time, I live in that neighbourhood, so that’s where I buy my albums.
Like I said, this interview is going to run in our white album, which will evoke themes of purity, transparency and honesty. Which are themes that could really describe a big chunk of your latest album. There is a fresh naivety, it’s simple, self-spoken. You talk about ‘starting anew, that’s why I’m sticking with you, nobody makes me feel better and magic.’ It’s very honest and transparent. Is that kind of who you are? Do you say things the way…
Yeah yeah. This is how I am. I’m very open. Of course it’s great for the song writing and it’s great for interviews and it’s great for any kind of public personality. When I see people, I can talk with them and it’s just much easier to be just very honest but then at the same time I have a lot of stress…distressfulness. I feel stupid or I feel like people know too much about me. You know I read interviews and I feel like they made mis- takes at the wrong things. I have to talk to my family all the time because they think I have a drug problem…The reality is that I’m OK, you know. The reality is just that I’m running a big business here. People work for me, and there’s been a recession in the United States for the past five years while I had to develop a brand new company! And I’m doing well, so.
I can’t help but notice that any artist refering to his band or his art as a business is pretty rare! I’ve never met an artist who takes it so seriously and really talks about it like you’re the General Manager for the company “and I have employees and all”. You know, this shit is serious!
Ha ha! I don’t know. Maybe it’s the wrong thing to say.
Just to give me an idea, I don’t need a specific figure here but you know this second album, it’s getting so much praise. Is this it for you? Are you guys kind of like comfortable for the next five years of your life and can you now buy yourself a studio and invest in gear and buy yourself a house, or…?
No! I mean, nobody makes money selling records anymore.
But you’re touring.
Yeah but this is our first tour for the new album. And sure, if we tour for the next two years, a lot, we can earn enough money. Anyway, without getting into money details, reality is yes, we have a opportunity right now: we could stop recording, play tons of festivals and outdoor…because the licenses are admitted…Coca-Cola…Just today I turned down a option from Tommy Hilfiger!
Because that’s what we do. We would not accept Tommy Hilfiger’s option for a commercial and we would not play festivals for two years on one album and keep the money apart: we’re going to the studio by next year.
I feel really similar to Biggie or 2 Pac’s personalities; they both were raised by a single mother who was very dynamic with a lot of personality
If I had to choose a musical genre that was the furthest away from what you guys are doing now, I’d say rap is definitely it. Do you listen to any hip-hop, who’s is your favourite gangsta rapper?
Oh I love hip-hop. My favourite rapper right now is Tylor the Creator. I’ve always liked rap. I feel really similar to Biggie or 2Pac’s personalities; they both were raised by a single mother who was very dynamic with a lot of personality. 2Pac’s mother was a political activist, Biggie’s mother was a single mother and they both didn’t finish college and they, at some point, started to write songs and they became very open and honest and tried to write everything and they did it until they died. And Biggie’s real name is actually Christopher Wallace. But, realistically I feel exactly the same as those two guys. I used to be a very big Wu-Tang fan but I think that’s kind of over now.
We asked a couple of our readers to send us questions on Twitter and one reader had a particularly funny one. He’s like ‘What does it feel like to be idolised by Pitchfork media but not to be able to be found on Google?’
I read somewhere that you’re working on a reggae album. Is that a project that’s still going on?
Yeah, I mean not really. When I talked about working on it, that was the time when I was writing the songs but I had to put them away. That’s really how all of our work is done: I write them, put them away and the next day of work is just in the studio, there’s nothing in between so yeah, the first job has been done for the reggae album (the songs are written) but really I don’t know when we’ll work on it, I don’t know if this is going to happen.
It will be a Girls project, then?
I’d like it to be. I’ve received a lot of oppositions from the others involved, specifically on this one! It’d have to be done differently. I think that people have done co-records like that. It’d have to be done in a studio with a Jamaican pro- ducer, vocal musicians and all that.
All right. Last question: if I’m not mistaken, you like Oasis, the band?
Oh God, I wish I knew, ah. I’d really love to tell you an answer but I haven’t listened to either of them. My intuition is to stick with Noel on this one.
Watch the video Honey Bunny:Girls’ latest album Father, Son, Holy Ghost is out now on True Panthers.