Valium. Morphine. OxyContin. Fentanyl. Ketamine. MDMA. Methadone. Pot. Cocaine. This kind of drug name-dropping by members of local indie-rock outfit Girls, and by the writers profiling them in the recent wave of international press dedicated to the band, makes the resulting articles feel like transcriptions of Intervention episodes. It's enough to make one wonder whether the eventual record-release show— for likely the biggest San Francisco act that still hasn't released an album — is going to end up taking place at St. Helena Hospital.
Not everyone is stoked by the debaucherous image being projected to media outlets like the U.K.'s Guardian and The Fader. "It's like, 'Shut your mouth, Chris,'" says lo-fi L.A. pop artist Ariel Pink, who used to play with Girls frontman Christopher Owens in Matt Fishbeck's Holy Shit project. "He doesn't realize that it's going to bite him in the butt. He's just starting out right now, and everybody's going to start writing their stories based on the press that they've read."
Pink is right. That's why a groggy-sounding voicemail greeting and an even groggier Owens calling back a few minutes later the morning of our interview conjures up images of decadently reckless behavior. It's also why it's surprising to be met by a seemingly clear-headed Owens at the door of the Bernal Heights apartment he shares with fellow Girl Chet "JR" White. Instead of waiting upstairs with a few lines of coke to get this party started right, White offers to buy a round of joe at the corner coffeehouse.
"I always thought it was really cool to be an honest band and talk about things like [drugs], but now when it just keeps coming up — there's just too much sensationalism," White says. "It's not really that important anymore. We were doing drugs when we made the record; it was experimentation."
That said, neither White nor Owens — the core members of Girls, who have been fleshed out live with drummer Garret Godard and guitarist John Anderson, who originally sent the band a fan letter — overromanticizes the role that substances have played in their music. They admit that there were points during the recording process where, instead of fostering grand artistic achievements, indulgences led to embarrassing performances and accidentally recording over hours of tracks they'd just completed.
"I have no shame in taking drugs," Owens clarifies. "I think that three-fourths of people try drugs, and talking about it takes some of the stigma away from that. I'm conscious of what is dangerous and what is not, and I don't have a death wish."
Girls' list of narcotic muses isn't the only thing earning the group attention. It has gained the ears of fans, writers, and labels through its music, a beautiful collection of timeless pop songs that draw on old-timey rock (Owens is wearing an Elvis shirt sans irony during the interview), shoegaze, Phil Spector's wall of sound, and the Jesus and Mary Chain's take on that wall of sound.
It's an aesthetic White and Owens have been cultivating since the latter had his heart broken by Liza Thorn (So So Many White White Tigers, Bridez). Thorn helped bring White and Owens together, but she also split up the Curls project she'd been working on with her now-ex, who wrote the music while she penned lyrics and sang.
"When she quit the band and she broke up with me, it was like being thrown out of a nest," Owens says. "It was like, 'Well, I guess I could just try to write some words and sing myself,' and it just instantly worked. I would go back and play shows with Ariel and Matt and they'd be like, 'You're a genius, these are great songs.' I was like, 'Well, they like it, and these are my idols.'"
Pink recalls that the songs were "completely hashed out and they sounded amazingly inspired." "It sounded like an instant hit to me," he adds, "and I knew as long as he continued to believe in himself, it would go somewhere."
Before ending up on True Panther Sounds, which has since become an imprint of indie powerhouse Matador, Girls' full-length debut, Album, took about a year and a half to make. The record, which is out Sept. 15 in San Francisco and a week later in the rest of the country, had Owens writing, White producing, and the duo making the most of its Turk Street practice space and bedrooms in San Francisco and Santa Cruz. Bouncing from spastically playful ("Big Bad Mean Motherfucker") to epic and dreamy ("Hellhole Ratrace"), Album remains cohesive thanks to its gorgeous lo-fi haze. It's a sound that makes all of the morphine talk seem relevant: They really were taking drugs to make music to take drugs to. It also finds Owens painting an honest portrait about being hopeful in a hopeless world, and along the way he isn't afraid to name names. "Even the songs that I write about my ex-girlfriend or these songs which have a girl's name, I think they're all about myself," he explains.
Another reason Girls' music has attracted such an impressive following is that it's all based around sing-along pop. This brings us to the other hook that keeps popping up in articles about Girls: Owens grew up in the Children of God, an international cult formed in 1968 in Huntington Beach. Children of God (now called the Family International) has been known for, among other things, expecting females to prostitute themselves to gain converts and money (known as flirty fishing), promoting adult-child sexual contact (Owens says he was never physically abused but witnessed plenty of stuff no kid should), and shielding members from secular culture. Even so, Owens — who finally ran away at 16 — is able to appreciate the background in music that the cult gave him.
"One of the beautiful things that the Children of God did with music was use it as a way of bringing everyone together and sort of forgetting about everyday life," he says. "They'd sing about, you know, 'Any day Jesus is coming back to save us from this horrible world.' So I think my foundation musically is like an escape, very similar to gospel music."
And now he's spreading Girls' good word around the world, as the band has just wrapped up its first national tour and is getting ready to head overseas. Owens claims he's already written six more albums, and eventually wants to make a reggae record.
True Panther's Dean Bein says the groundwork is paying off in terms of fan support. "I typed 'Girls' into Google a couple days ago, and [the band] came up first," he says. "I mean, Girls — of all the pornography that's out there, the first result is their fucking MySpace page? That's unbelievable."
When all the talk of getting high wears off, Girls will continue to feed those fan cravings with their blissed-out, narcotic pop. It's an impressive style that many have found to be more addictive than drugs.