2 Nov 2010

Member of San Francisco pop duo, Girls, is a survivor of notorious Children of God cult, a.k.a. The Family International

The Guardian - UK July 17, 2009

Girls who are boys who like girls

Raised by a cult, rescued by a millionaire and addicted to pills - Girls talk to Tim Jonze

by Tim Jonze

It's rare to encounter a band who don't have "media training" written all over them. Feuds, gossip and wanton acts of debauchery are all to be skirted over in interviews, in favour of tedious talk of the mixing process behind that uneventful second album. Then you get to a London hotel to meet Girls, two stoned boys from San Francisco, who spend their first 20 minutes mumbling distractedly about this and that before suddenly hitting on the subjects of cult membership, suicides - and one topic they're particularly enthusiastic about. "Imagine how good you'd feel taking a handful of Valium," says Christopher Owens, the singer-songwriter with painted fingernails. "Well, you feel that good off one morphine."

"It's like Oxycontin. Maybe a bit sleepier, a bit dreamier," adds Chet "JR" White, the recording whiz who makes up the other half of Girls. He grins. "I guess we were pretty obsessed with taking pills for a couple of years."

"Yeah," agrees Owens, hazily. "Although I liked Fentanyl patches, too."

Their MySpace site lists www.drugs.com/imprints.php as their band website. "Oh that," says Owens. "We just didn't have a band website. And it's cleaner that way. You know exactly what you're getting."

So they've actually used the website? "Soo many times," Owens says.

"There's this intersection called Pill Hill in San Francisco, an L-shaped block of pill dealers," White says. "That's pretty much what we were on through the whole recording process for our record."

They could record their album without difficulty on prescription pills?

"Oh yeah, it felt fine. It felt great," White says. "But when you're making plans to come to London and stuff ... We had to stop. Relationships were suffering. All we could think about was getting more pills."

At this point, a waiter arrives to see if the pair are ready to order. "Can I get you a drink?" he asks. "Tea? Coffee?"

White spins round, and with a straight face asks: "Do you have any morphine?" There is a moment of uncomfortable silence before he continues: "Relax. I'm just joking."

The reason bands try to avoid spending an interview talking about prescription drugs is because it distracts from the music. But the music of Girls is too beautiful to ignore. The melodies are pure California pop, the lyrics as simple and affecting as those of Spiritualized's Jason Pierce (of whom White and Owens are big fans). Full of tales of heartbreak and friendship, Girls' debut album, Album, comes across like a lo-fi Pet Sounds. It has an innocence that countless bands try to capture, a sense of childlike otherwordliness.

As Owens talks about his experiences growing up, it becomes clear where that has come from. He was born into the Children of God cult, the religious group formed in California in 1968, which gifted him with a childhood and adolescence he calls "pretty hellish".

"Some of the things the cult did were so fucked up," he says. "There was this thing called 'flirty fishing', where the women met men for money. The cult basically convinced them it was fine to be hookers. It was like mind control - the women believed it was a good thing to do because they were physically showing these men they met the love of God. My mum had a lot of terrible experiences from that. I was there. We'd be hitchhiking our way around Japan or somewhere crazy and I'd have to wait in hotel lobbies for her. Sometimes we'd have to run away from violent people and she'd be crying, saying she didn't like her life."

As you'd expect from a cult that emerged in the hippy era, the days were at least filled with music, albeit religious music. Owens says certain acts would become popular within the cult, such as a young couple called Zac and Shelley: "They wrote love songs to each other and recorded them on tape. I was a big Zac and Shelley fan. They did great harmonies."

According to Owens, the cult's founder, David Brandt Berg, only allowed members to listen to the pop music he liked. "He had these tapes called My Old Favourites, full of Elvis and the Beatles. We learned to play all those songs because us kids were desperate for any kind of secular culture. A lot of us made mixtapes off the radio, too, and passed them around. There was sort of an underground scene with kids passing around tapes, although if you got caught it was a big deal."

One famous member of the cult was the former Fleetwood Mac guitarist Jeremy Spencer, who gave Owens his first guitar, which he now plays when recording demos for Girls. It was also the guitar Owens played when he was sent out to busk to earn money for the cult. But the musical legacy of Children of God is not what sticks in mind about it.

"My friends there have been dropping like flies," he says. "I've known several commit suicide over growing up there. I was a huge fan of this one musician called Jeremiah Singer, and he has since hung himself. There was another guy who wrote country music - he called himself Micah Teddy Bear. He's died as well."

Is he angry about all of that? "Oh yeah. I was angry for a long time."

When he was 16, Owens escaped to Amarillo, Texas, where he fell in with the punk scene and spent several years doing everything he'd been told not to. Drugs were on the verge of destroying him when he met the millionaire philanthropist and provocateur Stanley Marsh 3, who gave Owens a home and a job and turned his life around.

"He was like my first father figure ... I feel like he saved my life. He said it was great to be mad at the world, but there was this other side, a positive side, too. That guy has a lot to do with the type of music I'm playing, the kind of person I am today. It was like a 180-degree switch for me."

After Amarillo, Owens moved to San Francisco, where he and his girlfriend started writing songs in a project they called Curls. Their painful breakup produced many of the tracks on Album, from Lust for Life's resentment towards his ex's new life ("I wish I had a boyfriend, I wish I had a loving man in my life") to Lauren Marie's tale of longing ("I might never get my arms around you, but that doesn't mean that I won't try"). It was only when Owens met White, however, that he found someone who could record them properly.

At the time, the pair were both slackers, getting by on crap jobs and partying away their nights ("In San Francisco you're either a gay clubber, a garage rocker or a hippy. Every-one just wants a good time"). Writing songs together finally gave them a focus. Before they knew it, they were creating a buzz and associating with the local art crowd, who still help out with photos and shoot their brilliant videos (check out the gorgeous DIY shorts on YouTube). They never planned to be a proper band, and their music - loose, lo-fi and littered with mistakes - is all the more charming for it.

"If we could have recorded with session musicians and a studio, I think it would have been like Pet Sounds, because the songs are good," Owens says.

"But it was recorded in rehearsal spaces on broken equipment," White adds. "Sometimes the computer, which was really old, would crash and we'd have to start again. Also, we had to do it all late at night, from 1am all the way into the next morning, because the bands in our rehearsal space kept kicking us out. They didn't like us."

Why not?

"They thought we were both strange."

"Yeah, we weirded them out," Owens shrugs. "I guess we're just different to most bands."

But before we can talk more about their lo-fi romantic pop vision, the conversation has moved on. "Since we've come to the UK, all we can get is ketamine," complains White. "Sometimes it's mixed with MDMA, but that's about all you can get." He shrugs, as if maybe this is for the best. "Methadone is so easy to get in San Francisco. It's a slippery slope."
The single Hellhole Ratrace is out now on Fantasy Trashcan

This article was found at:


Hellhole Ratracehttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lcqwfFKagH4&feature=player_embedded

Girls Performing Solitude, Live at The Hemlock Tavern, San Francisco on June, 6th, 2009. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FqfoaG3L_0I&feature=player_embedded

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