Chris Owens was in with Producer Doug Boehm working on his 2nd solo album. Here is an excerpt of his interview with Pitchfork.
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.