The searchers

Pub date September 8, 2009
WriterL.C. Mason
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features

When there is no firm ground, the only sensible thing to do is to keep moving. Lester Bangs wrote that, but countless wandering souls have lived it since the first humans stumbled across the continents. Long after land bridges dissolved and the great cities of the world were mapped, San Francisco — the legendary land’s-end haven for dreamers, kooks, and hedonists — became a butterfly net for the world’s drifters. Prismatic crowds have come and gone through the decades, helping to grow one of the world’s great music scenes.

"There’s just a certain point where you realize that nothing is going to satisfy you all the time," muses Christopher Owens, one of two masterminds behind the SF band Girls. "The solution is to be a person who’s always looking for the next thing. Oscar Wilde said that the meaning of life is the search for meaning of life. But there is no meaning to life — it’s just never laying down and accepting your surroundings, even if they’re comfortable. It’s like the Rolling Stones song, "(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction." I think I’ve always felt like that, and always will be like that."

Girls, “Lust for Life”

Looking up from peeling the label off a kombucha bottle and blinking his big eyes, Chet "JR" White nonchalantly nods: "I’m really never content, hardly ever happy, but every once in a while I’m both. Everything’s about getting somewhere else, I think."

While most bands fade slowly or implode, ever so rarely one explodes into something transcendent because it’s hit a nerve or two and tapped into the human experience in a profound way. Girls is that kind of band. Owens and White have been around for years, playing raucous live shows while quietly perfecting their imminent debut LP, Album (True Panther/Matador). A collection of glam-pop with that genre’s flair for artifice, it also — unlike traditional glam pop — possesses an emotional authenticity absent from so much music being churned out today.

Owens and White first united as roommates in San Francisco, but their lives couldn’t have started out more differently. While White was playing in punk bands in his parents’ Santa Cruz garage and going to recording school, Owens was growing up as part of the Slovenian sect of the Children of God cult, where secular music was forbidden unless one of the cult’s adults decided to indulge the younger members’ desire to learn the occasional Beatles or 1960s folk tune.

Owens broke away from the Children of God at 16 to live with his sister in Amarillo, Texas. Everything the rest of us had heard a thousand times before we were teenagers was a revelation to him. "When I learned to play the guitar, I was still in the cult and I didn’t really know anything but their music," he says. "When I turned 16 and left the group, it was like the whole world was in front of me. I got the Cranberries, the Cure, Black Sabbath, Sinead O’Connor, Michael Jackson, and the Romeo + Juliet movie soundtrack, and I’d play them on my stereo in my room and learn them and play guitar. The next wave was pop music. When I turned 18, I had become an American teen."

Owens was quickly engulfed by the small town’s punk scene: "I threw away seven years of my life there. All I have is tattoos from Amarillo." He played in a few punk bands, the music drawing him in because it was "really angsty." But after a few years, he felt the itch to do something new. "There wasn’t really anything in particular that drew me to San Francisco," he says. "I made a commitment that I was gonna leave Amarillo on New Year’s Day in 2005. All my friends moved to Austin, which I thought was the lamest thing in the world. I wanted absolute change. I wanted to totally reinvent myself and leave all those people behind."

Shortly after he landed in the Bay Area, Owens was asked to join the L.A. band Holy Shit. "I only played in the band because I was totally obsessed with Ariel Pink and Matt Fishbeck," he says, referring to the band’s underground-hero founders. "I started to write these songs to impress them and to vent my feelings, but the main driving force was that I wanted to be like them so much. I kept thinking I’m gonna make something that’s gonna blow their minds. I wanted to make something really classic that everyone could say they liked."

And that’s what he did. Owens wrote dozens of songs inspired by his friends, ex-lovers, and San Francisco itself, and recorded them, guided by White’s keen ear for grandeur. After scrapping song takes recorded on a four-track, the pair spent money on a proper tape machine and used only a few microphones to keep Album crisp and clear.

"I like big, amazing sounding records," says engineering wizard and bassist White, who counts Wrecking Crew bassist Carol Kaye as an influence. "I hate lo-fi music. Early on, people would call us lo-fi and I would take it kind of hard. We were just attempting to make the best-sounding thing we could with what we had — as good as any big record that had a lot of money put into it. I always like records that are made under some sort of duress. I think those records are great, if you can hear it. When I hear ours, I can hear the moments that go along with the music."

With Album, Owens and White edge closer to timelessness than any of their San Francisco contemporaries. While much of the city’s rock scene is embroiled in a hot and noisy love affair with psychedelic garage music, the boys of Girls have come up with something different: classic melodic songs for a restless soul in search of freedom and purpose in this whirlwind world. It doesn’t hurt that behind Owens’ lyrical pearls one discovers lush and unadulterated arrangements and majestic Wall of Sound-esque moments.

Album‘s magnum opus, "Hellhole Ratrace," is a plaintive hymn about the urge to cut loose and live. It starts off with simple guitar strumming, which in turn is soon immersed in a mesmerizing swell of buried organ work, slow hand claps, and trilling guitars that elevates it into an anthem. "I don’t wanna die without shaking up a leg or two /I wanna do some dancin’ too," sings Owens. "I don’t wanna cry /my whole life through /Yeah I wanna do some laughin’ too / So come on, come on, come on, come on and dance with me."

This year has already been one hell of a ride for Girls, which now includes guitarist John Anderson ("He’s the best guitar player I’ve ever played with in my life," says Owens) and drummer Garett Godard. The group has been on tour nearly constantly for several months across America and Europe. For a pair of nomads like Owens and White, it seems like the perfect gig, at least for now. Both harbor dreams of being thrust into the canon with the rest of the greats, and that reality may not be so far off.

"I want to write a song that’s as good as "Let It Be" or "I Will Always Love You." I want to write a song that everybody in the world knows," says Owens, glancing at his bandmate.

"I just want to be one of those bands that becomes culturally ingrained, one of those bands that’s unavoidable," echoes White. "One of those bands that is larger than music itself."

Impassioned youth, existential wisdom, and stories of aching romance weave together to make Album a slice of true Californian pop that never stops hitting home. When you hear Owens’ voice, unshackled by fuzz or distortion, crooning about the fear of dying before ever accomplishing anything, you remember that you’ve felt the same way dozens of times too. And when he starts chirping, "I wish I had a suntan /I wish I had a pizza and a bottle of wine," on the sarcastic, ecstatic opener "Lust for Life," you want to drop everything and run through the streets to join him.


With Papercuts, Cass McCombs

Wed/9, 9 p.m., $14–$16

Great American Music Hall

859 O’Farrell, SF

(888) 233-0449