A shameless plug for Christopher Owens
Kannad I’m just gonna use this space to promote Christopher Owens, lead singer and writer of the band Girls. Owens’ new album Father, Son, Holy Ghost is gold. The Guardian has recently posted an exclusive album stream which can be listened to HERE. Owens was born into the Children of God and tells quite a story, but since nobody could possibly elucidate better than he, below is his interview with Emily Easley from FAQ magazine:
Christopher sings and writes songs for Girls, whose album, Album, comes out September 22nd on True Panther.
I saw Girls play at Monster Island in June. The basement venue was packed beyond capacity, with the cops on the corner all night, threatening to break up the show. Seeing Girls live is like something out of a David Lynch movie: their songs are nostalgic for the “Earth Angel” days of Doo-Wop, but the sound is heavy, a little gritty, and awash in the seductive blue glow of pharmaceutical downers. Christopher has that whole Kurt Cobain/young Macaulay Culkin thing going on. In a really, really good way.
The day after the show, I interviewed Christopher at Max Fish, before Girls played at the Cake Shop. I was hungover and under-researched, but it didn’t matter – minutes after I first met Christopher, he told me one of the most fascinating life stories I’ve ever heard.
EE: So did you grow up in San Francisco? Is that where you’re from originally?
Where are you from?
Um, that’s a difficult question to answer. I was born in Miami, Florida, but I didn’t spend any time there. My mom moved a lot.
What did she do?
Well, before she ever met my dad or had any kids, she joined a religious cult called the Children of God. And they were just not very normal people.
Did you grow up in that community?
What was that like for you?
I didn’t know anything else, and we weren’t exposed to people that – I didn’t know any kids who weren’t also growing up the same way. To me it was totally normal until I started to become a teenager, and I just started to know that I was growing up in some very weird, different way. But it wasn’t until I left when I was sixteen years old and moved to the United States –
Where were you outside of the United States?
Like, everywhere. I moved by myself from Slovenia to Texas when I was sixteen. My older sister was living in Amarillo so I moved in with her.
How did you decide to leave, or have the courage to go out on your own?
Um – it was a very extreme situation. It’s not like being a Mormon or a Seventh-Day Adventist. Like, you read about Michael Jackson’s upbringing and he talks about how weird it was to be a Jehovah’s Witness. And it’s like that times sixty percent.
What were some of the beliefs of the group?
Just that everybody else besides us were all completely confused and bad. It was an extremely separatist group. And all literature and music and everything that we as the children that were born and raised in the group were exposed to was all stuff that was produced within the group. So the whole idea was to try to raise a generation of kids that were not spoiled at all by the world.
They had some ideal that they could raise us and we’d be these perfect little Children of God. But it’s like horrible – it’s also beautiful, like – they meant well, I guess, even though a lot of things that they did were completely crazy. You can research and find out the details. It’s just a crazy, crazy group, maybe one of the craziest groups that came out of sixties’ American cults. Super extreme.
But the great thing – the great lesson, the great story for me, is there was only one generation – there were hippies that joined as teenagers, and then their kids. And as soon as we became adults, they were destroyed, because you can’t really tell people how to live their life, no matter how ideal, or even if you’re right, you can’t say to somebody, “You will not listen to this, you will not act like this.” And so, as soon as everybody my age, or even starting before, like my oldest sister, became teenagers, the first thing we did is say, “I wanna be my own person.”
And now it’s just – it went from being something like thirteen thousand people at one time, to being – it’s not even the same group anymore. They’ve changed their name, they’ve changed their beliefs, and there’s only a few thousand of them now, living in a completely different way. It’s basically been totally destroyed.
Were you reading any literature or listening to music made by people outside of the group when you were growing up?
No, I wasn’t. I was in like, performing group with other kids.
Did you sing?
Yeah. Cos they didn’t believe in working, so as soon as there were kids they realized the goldmine of children performing in public. So we did that growing up, my sisters and I both, all of us.
What would you sing?
Songs that were written within the group. Like, nice little Christian songs.
Had you been exposed to other music outside?
No – well, here’s the thing – when I became like, say, thirteen or fourteen years old, and was starting to get into trouble myself and become curious about the outside world, there was already a group of kids that were like my sister’s age, like the first wave of kids. They would have been like, seventeen. And there were guys that would like, record on cassette tapes from the radio, or try to grow their hair out.
Do you remember what songs they recorded?
Yeah, I remember all of them. It was like, Guns N Roses, Michael Jackson’s Dangerous album, Bon Jovi, Lionel Ritchie – like, horribly crappy, but to us that was like amazing, foreign, just crazy, weird shit that we loved. And I learned how to play guitar from these guys. We’d like, learn how to play the songs. And right away, there was a split between everybody our age, like if you were rebellious or not. And everybody cool was obviously rebellious.
And then they did something really stupid when they saw what was happening – like, my older sister left, and a lot of the first, the oldest kids were leaving by the time they were like eighteen years old, and they freaked out. They were like, “Obviously this is what everybody’s gonna do.” So they set up these programs, for the teenagers – they’d send like a hundred of us to these camps, where they’d really focus on trying to make us wanna stay for the rest of our lives.
But it was a huge mistake, because it was like when you send a criminal to prison, and they all just trade secrets and things. Everybody there was interested in being rebellious. So we’d go and it was just like, the coolest place you could be.
Were you guys, like, getting high yet?
No, no, no. Could never even imagine what that was like. There were a couple times when I had drunken wine or something. Even the adults didn’t drink very much. But it turns out that the founder was this like, serious alcoholic. But nobody knew him. He communicated only through like, writing documents.
Did you have a sense of what it was about your mom that drew her to this world?
I can understand it a lot better now, but I knew a lot of things about her growing up, too. The first like, alarm about my mom, is apparently, before I was born, while she was still pregnant with me, there was an older brother. Maybe he was like four years old. And he got pneumonia, which is not that big of a deal. Normally you’d just go to the doctor. But they didn’t believe in going to the hospital – you know, this is how crazy they were. And so he died.
So my dad split – my dad was like, “You guys are fucking crazy.” My mom would not leave. My dad was made out to be a villain. And she would tell me about that in this way, like, “Now Steven’s with Jesus.” And I would just be like, “That is weird.”
And I would watch her behavior in general. She would just do like, things that were obviously not good to be doing. Having breakdowns and crying. Follow these various men around on wild adventures, traveling around the world. And she’d wanna split sometimes – like I can remember us being in a place and her and the guy fighting, and we’d pack our bags and we’d go down the street and then we’d turn around and go straight back, because she didn’t have anywhere to go.
That’s really sad.
Yeah. But at the same time, I think my mom’s great. I don’t wanna pretend like I don’t like my mom. But she just – I don’t think she was thinking very much about what was happening with me and my sisters, you know?
It sounds like she couldn’t afford to, if she didn’t have anywhere else to go.
Yeah. My mom was so nice, and a lot of people take advantage of her. I think most people – there was a hierarchy in the Children of God, all coming down from one guy, and I think it’s just the smartest and most controlling people were just manipulating well-meaning, nice people into doing horrible things. It’s like, the way the world works. And that alone made me sort of a problem child. I think I started being focused on being considered a problem child by the time I was eight or nine years old.
How were you a problem child?
I don’t know. They would just try to talk to me and I wouldn’t talk. I wouldn’t do anything that bad, but they just were like, “You’re a problem child.” I was uncomfortable with things like praying. I just didn’t believe anything they said really. I don’t know, they wanted you to open up all the time and I wouldn’t.
You were trying to protect yourself.
Yeah, yeah. And then of course by the time I was twelve and thirteen years old there were these cool guys that were teenage guys that I could see. They were like idols for me. They were like, rebelling hard-core and just leaving. And by that time I was like, “That’s what I’m gonna do.” I knew I was gonna leave as soon as possible.
Was it scary when you left?
It was crazy – I left the United States when I was one so I had no memory – I had no idea what the United States was like.
How many places had you been other than Slovenia?
At least more than a dozen. Maybe twenty.
Mostly in Europe?
No, all over Asia, til I was ten. At ten I moved to Europe. And then all over Europe. Slovenia and all that was the farthest east, really. Everywhere in Western Europe.
Had you been in schools?
No, no, no. Never.
Have you ever been to school?
No. Not at all. But they taught us to read and write and all that. But the weird thing was like – I thought it was gonna be cooler than it was.
No – just like, America. I was like, “It’s gonna be awesome.” And it really – I mean probably because I went to Amarillo, Texas, it wasn’t that awesome. Like, maybe if I came here to New York it would have been awesome.
So you worked?
Yeah, the only job I could manage to get – I was the night-stocker in Albertson’s grocery store. And I did that for like two years. And then I worked in restaurants. I remember knowing I didn’t want to work in the grocery store, cos I would be up all night – I’d get off work at like six in the morning, and I’d have to go to work at like ten. And I was starting to make friends that were these punk kids in bands, and I couldn’t go to shows and stuff like that.
How did you meet them?
They would come in the grocery store in the middle of the night and steal ramen noodles and stuff like that, and I was like, “Who are these guys?” And then when we talked it was like – they were the only people who I really connected with. They were also like, angry at the world, and very independent – you know, cut off from their families. So right away I was like, “Yeah, these are my friends.” And then I was looking for another job, and I went into a restaurant. I told the guy, “I’m not a regular person, but I’ll work well.”
What did you mean you weren’t a regular person?
I don’t know – but I can remember it was a weird conversation we had when I applied for the job. And he just kind of laughed at me and was like, “I like you, I’ll give you a job.” I just washed dishes for him. He was a bit of a weirdo too, he couldn’t run a successful restaurant. He had like, three, that kept closing. So I worked for him in different restaurants, and then – that was about the time when I wanted to – I knew I was in the wrong city. I came here and slept in the park in Union Square for like three weeks.
How’d you get here?
Hitch-hiked. With my friend Moody.
Do you have any good stories?
Kind of. Weirdos and stuff. One woman tried to convert me to Christianity, which was a real sore subject. So we got out. Another guy was a pervert. We got out. And then this very like, docile couple, whose car was filled with trash and they were really overweight – they had to have their seats leaned back – were just like, “Oh, yeah, we’ll take you all the way to New Jersey.” We got to New Jersey and we got to their house and they were like, “You guys can stay here tonight, and you can get started in New York tomorrow. But we only have one extra bed and you guys can’t sleep together in the bed.”
So they gave us all these blankets and I was on the floor and Moody was on the bed, and then when they left I got in the bed too. And they came in the room like half an hour later and they were like, “We said the two of you guys can’t be in the bed.” It was really, really funny.
But then we got here and we had a good time. I thought about moving here. I had been in Amarillo for like four years. Then I got back, and I met this really neat guy named Stanley Marsh 3. And he he hired me – wanted me to work for him.
What did he do?
I started out working in his ranch, called Toad Hall, like The Wind in the Willows. I was like, mowing lawns. We’d go swimming together in the afternoons. And from there I became his personal assistant. He was like, a very successful artist in the seventies. But he’s a businessman now. But not anymore, he’s retired now.
What was it like to have gotten away from the religious cult?
It was awesome.
Was it hard for you though?
I lived in Amarillo for like, nine years, and I didn’t tell anybody. Never told anybody about what happened – about how I was raised – until I moved to California. Because I was embarrassed. But when I moved to California I just started telling everybody, and it’s way better because everybody just kind of understands me better.
How did you first have the idea that you wanted to make music?
Well, when I was like fourteen years old or something, we were living in Denmark and I learned how to play the guitar and I could play pretty well. I got really into it. And I was allowed to busk – play on the streets basically, for money, and that money would go to the house.
So was that like the one way you could get out?
Yeah, it really was. I remember getting my first little glimpses of the world like that. I don’t know, it’s not really that important. But that’s how I started to play music. And I was really good, like I would make a lot of money. So that was a running theme in the Children of God.
What songs were you playing? Songs that you wrote?
There’s – okay, so they didn’t listen to secular music, but there was a microcassette tape called “My Old Favorites” which the leader released, and those were like, oldies that were wholesome and nice, that were songs he liked as a kid. And those were okay.
Was it like doo-wop stuff?
It was like the Everly Brothers, and like…
Yeah, I was thinking of them last night, seeing you guys play.
And like “Earth Angel,” and those kind of arpeggio….
Okay, it’s all starting to make sense now!
Yeah. And I would play those, and I would make a lot of money so they were like, “Okay.”
Which songs did you play?
I could play tons of Everly Brothers – “Let It Be Me,” “Dreams.” I could play “Bye-Bye Love,” “Wake Up Little Suzie.” I could play a lot of the Fleetwoods, like, “Come Softly,” “Mr. Blue.” Some country songs, like Skeeter Davis, “End of the World.” Stuff like that. Like oldies-classics.
And within the Children of God there were people that made music, a lot of them. There was this one couple named Zach and Shelley. They were like the only people that wrote love songs. They were married and they would sing together, and I had all their tapes. I played lots of Zach and Shelley songs, which were very close to secular songs. I don’t know what’s become of Zach and Shelley.
Would you like to know?
I would. I’d like to know a lot of things. Like, I left, and I’ve never looked back. I hear about thing in the news sometimes.
Do you stay in touch with your mother?
Yeah, my mom left after I left. She was so freaked out, she left a year later. And she’s very well adjusted now.
Wow. How did she do that?
Well, we were doing volunteer work in Bosnia, when we lived in Slovenia. We’d drive into Bosnia and Croatia during the war, and that’s what she wanted to do. Then both of my sisters and I left, and she was freaking out. She came, and got a job with Catholic Family Service doing placement for refugees from the Bosnian war, because she had been there. It was kind of perfect. So now she’s moved to San Antonio where they have the Texas headquarters – she’s in charge of all refugees. She’s a very serious refugee worker – you know, like non-profit kind of worker.
So you had been playing those songs – busking and stuff when you were in Europe.
Yeah. But I never thought of myself as a musician. I thought I was just like – it was very natural thing that happened. When I moved to the U.S. I didn’t even – it was like, a couple years before I started playing. I started playing in punk bands, just from friends I’d made. And then I kind of was like, “Yeah, music. Yeah…” But it was still kind of like, my friends’ music. I just would play guitar. And then when I worked for Stanley I started painting and I wanted to be a painter. Or actually – when I moved to California I thought I was going to become a famous painter.
Yeah. And then I met these guys, Matt Fishbeck and Ariel Pink, and they had a band called Holy Shit. And they were so cool. They were essentially like the older guys that I used to look up to when I was a kid, but in a different setting. I saw them and right away I was like – I’ve gotta be around these guys, I’ve gotta hang out with them. And they were like, “Join the band.” And I was like, “Okay.” They lived in LA and I lived in San Francisco, which is like – not very close. But I still would go on tour with them. I would go to LA every time they would play a show.
What was it like, the first time you went to a show after leaving the group?
I remember the first shows. They were like, punk shows. It was awesome. Like, it was incredible. I right away just like, knew I had to insert myself into that group. I like, tattooed myself like crazy. I just became a punk. Like, it was like a natural reaction.
Well you had been such a part of a group before.
Yeah. I didn’t even think about it, I just did it. And now I feel kind of weird, like I wish I didn’t have tattoos and stuff, I really do. But I dunno, it just happened. I felt like I wanted to fit in so bad with these guys, so I just like, looked like them and bought the same records they did.
You realized it wasn’t that hard.
No, after a while – it’s just not everything. Like, you can’t do that your whole life. It’s just one side of life.
Did you find other sides?
Yeah. Until I worked for Stanley, I was solely into punk-rock music and stuff. Working for Stanley was the huge turning point in my life.
Was he kind of like a father figure?
Yeah. Yeah. Like eventually, when I became his assistant, I would sit in his office with him and just talk about everything that had happened that day. And he would talk to me about my personal life. We would just talk all day long. It was awesome.
What was happening in your personal life? Had you started having romantic relationships?
I didn’t really have any substantial ones for a while.
But he helped you.
I don’t really know how old you were at this point, or how old you are now.
I’m twenty-nine now. I started working for him when I was twenty-one. And then I moved to California when I was twenty-five.
What was your first band?
Girls. Well, I joined Holy Shit when I moved to California, but I didn’t write anything, I was just like – literally their biggest fan, and I played guitar well, so they really embraced me right away. The first thing we did was go on the European tour. And I was SO excited. I came back, and I started a band called Curls, with my girlfriend.
Are you still with her?
No. She broke up with me and told me the songs were bullshit, and they sucked.
The songs you were writing?
Yeah. She was writing the lyrics and I was just writing the music. And when she took off was when I was like, “What if I was the singer and what if I wrote the songs?” And that’s how this started. Like, she left and I just had no other choice but to try on my own.
JR was one of my best friends, and he was like, “I know how to produce music, I know how to record music.” So we just started hanging out all the time and recording songs. It was just me and him making all the music, we would layer all the tracks. And we bought the equipment together.
I still wanted to be in Holy Shit. I thought I was making this album on the side. And then Holy Shit just imploded, fell apart. Ariel Pink started to tour as a solo artist again. And – well, it’s not really fair to talk about other people’s problems, but there were other problems within the rest of the members.
And then the reaction to Girls was huge, right away. “Lust for Life” was the first thing we put up.
Did you write it?
Yeah, I wrote it. I write everything.
But how did that all come to you after – you’d never written before, right?
Yeah, I never did. I was like, “I’m just gonna give it a shot.” I was still playing in Holy Shit, and right away, I showed my songs to Ariel and Matt. And they were just like, “These are amazing songs, these are great.” They were my musical idols, so that was like, huge for me.
Then when we recorded them and put them on MySpace, it was just a huge reaction online, and I felt great and just started writing all the time. At some point I realized I had to do this as a full time thing and quit Holy Shit. Me and Ariel both dropped out at the same time, and that’s how this band came about. We found some really good people to play with for the live show. We played with a lot of people.
So what do you think of as your influences? I mean, you talked about the Everly Brothers…
Yeah. I love Elvis. Like, I worship Elvis. But I also love like, modern pop. My favorite album right now is Beyoncé’s first half – her new album is split into two discs, Beyoncé and Sasha Fierce. And I love the Beyoncé one.
What do you love about it?
I was on a whole lot of ketamine in London, and I was – I pretty much fell into some kind of melted – I had no perception of what I was –
Yeah. I was totally gone. And that song came on the TV, and I don’t know what it was. It’s like something I can’t explain in words.
That’s what pop music is.