Girls had me at hello. Or at least at, “I don’t wanna cry my whole life through…” the refrain of their 2009 ode to bucking up and finding something in life to laugh about, “Hellhole Ratrace”. It was the debut single from a band that over a short span of two albums and one EP touched listeners in ways that far more prolific artists never will. Credit for the near-religious devotion of Girls fans overwhelmingly went to the deeply felt songs of Christopher Owens, the scrawny troubadour with the doc-worthy backstory (religious sect expat/Amarillo art patron Stanley Marsh/drugs, lots of drugs) and a talent for both upbeat pop (“Honey Bunny,” “Laura”) in which the heart nearly bursts from the chest, and heartbreaking tunes of lonely obsession (“Just a Song,” “Vomit”) rendered as utter rapture.
If this all sounds like a eulogy, Owens wants you to know that he’s not going anywhere. He may have walked away from Girls last summer, a decision born of his frustration with the project with Chet “JR” White never gelling into a cohesive “band”, but the singer has many and varied musical chapters still to come. The first one arrives this week. Lysandre may be a slight record by Father, Son, Holy Ghost standards, but it’s also a charmer, a personal and specific musical journal borne around Girls’ first world tour in 2008, some of its more memorable stops (“New York City”, “Riviera Rock”), the treadmill life of the road (“Here We go Again”), and the French girl with whom Owens fell in love (“Lysandre”). Since November, Owens has played the album at a series of shows in intimate, rather posh churches and boîtes on both sides of the Atlantic, and Hive spoke to him last week, just before another run of those shows was set to begin, in Chicago.
So Chris, you’ve now had a couple of months’ perspective on the reaction to the Lysandre shows, and the reaction of media-types who have had it for a while. What do you make of what people are saying?
Yeah, and also it has leaked, which is just the way things go now, so there is a huge fan response too. And I don’t really get too hung up over the leaking thing, it’s just how it goes now. I think the people that download it are the same people that will end up buying it later. But yeah, I have had the chance to hear a lot of response from fans, and that’s been really nice because I had prepared myself for people to kind of say that the record wasn’t for them. I expected the reaction to be, “This is great, but it’s not my favorite thing.” And I’ve been really surprised to hear that people get it and like it. And also that people seem to appreciate the work done to really craft a full album that has this concept, and has had a little bit more work done. I think people have paid attention to that, and appreciated that.
Has anything surprised you about the reaction? It seems to me that people were struck initially by how intimate the songs are, and not fussy in a way. And I also think that some people assumed that this is the template for what Christopher solo is going to sound like, and I know you have said that is not necessarily the case. That you want to try a lot of things.
Yeah it definitely not is any kind of sound that, over time, will reflect much on my music overall. I think it’s one chapter, one of many that I will do. But I do think that it reflects on the attention paid to focus. There is a strong theme, and it’s very stylized. And I think that’s something that will reoccur in different forms.
When I last talked to you and JR it was September of 2011, right around when Father Son came out. Did you already, in your mind, see an end point in sight for Girls? And was Lysandre the record that you envisioned doing afterwards?
Well, I wasn’t 100% sure. I knew that it would either be this record, or a couple of others that I wanted to do. But this was the oldest thing, and I felt the most personal. So it made the most sense to do it as a solo album first. But when I talked to you at that point, I had already thought about quitting the band. I had basically pulled back from thinking about quitting, so I had re-committed at that point. And it was a difficult time for me.
A re-commitment just for the purpose of that tour?
Well it was definitely just, “Let’s get through this album and then see what happens.” And in my mind there was a very big chance that nothing was gonna happen again. But I was open to giving it another shot. Going on the tour was also giving the band another chance as well. Because I was pretty happy with the new people that had joined, and I thought that if that worked then we could move forward as a band. But just a couple months after that time that I talked to you there were already signs of things falling apart again.
I was as surprised and saddened initially when the news came in July as anyone. And yet a couple of people who knew you way better than me told me that it was certainly not a sudden thing, and that it had been a possibility for a while.
Yeah well, nobody in the band was surprised at all. Because I spoke with the band before ever making the announcement. And the day I did that each of them all wrote to me and said, “We totally understand, thank you just for having this along, this has been a great experience, and good luck with whatever you do next.” But that kind of information spreads pretty quickly so there was talk of it going on, and really the reason for making that Twitter announcement was after writing to the band and putting at the end “Please don’t tell anybody this,” I just started to get all these kinds of messages from friends, it was already getting out. And that’s why I felt like I had to make an announcement, because I just knew within a week that all kinds of speculation would be made and then I wouldn’t have a chance anymore to say it in a calm, collected way to be the one. To say that it was my choice.
If I’m not mistaken the correct pronunciation is “Lee-SAHND-re” right?
Are you correcting people on that, or are you just letting them go “Lie-SAND-er”?
[Laughs.] Well I don’t always correct them, for the most part there’s not really much point. But anybody that I talk to in depth about it, I will tell them.
And that is her actual name?
Did you stay in touch with her? And what does she make of this whole conceptual record from that time?
Well I mean, this happened in 2008. And by 2009 it was already kind of wrapped up, or very clear that it wasn’t gonna turn into any kind of relationship. So we just had a friendship from then until now. She was at the show in Paris, and she was the first person that I sent the album to when it was done. She has been a friend. That’s generally how I like to keep my relationships with girls.
“To me it’s a completely different experience to fall in love with another guy. It’s not the same for me as falling in love with a girl. And it’s something that I very much value.”
You seem to be somebody who falls pretty hard for people. And from what I can tell, generally not given to random hookups. You seem to go from one pretty significant relationship to another.
That’s pretty much true. I have had periods where I was a little more fancy free. But in general, I am a romantic and that’s kind of the appeal for me, is falling kind of head over heels. And that’s what makes it fun. And in general it doesn’t work out, but it’s always something that I’m happy that happened anyway. It’s never like a great tragedy when it doesn’t turn into anything. But I do enjoy falling in love with people and it’s happened lots of times. I don’t know if it’s because I have some kind of need for that.
On the other hand, the song “A Broken Heart” is not about Lysandre. In the notes about it when the press release originally came out, you alluded to that song being about running into an ex-boyfriend in New York. But then I read the lyrics and it almost seems as though it’s written from his point of view rather than yours. Is that the case?
No it’s from my point of view. He got married. This is probably one of the first friends I made in Amarillo, Texas. I moved there from Europe as a 16-year-old, and I did a lot of soul searching. I went through a lot of kind of crazy phases, and kind of through it all there was this little group of friends that I had, and they were very important to me. And within this group was actually the first time I ever experimented with having relationships with men. And then I moved to San Francisco, and we were gonna stay in touch and all, but he went and got married, and he stopped talking to me at that point. And then I saw him a couple of years later in New York on this tour, and that’s where the song comes from.
But you’re not in touch with him today?
No, the whole point of, the reason why it’s a big deal is when he got married he felt like he couldn’t talk to me anymore. I wouldn’t have really cared so much if we would’ve remained friends. But it was this whole sort of, “I’m not gonna talk to you anymore”.
The “I have to make a clean break with that part of my life,” kind of thing?
But I love the matter-of-fact way you referred to it in those album notes. Because to be honest, I sort of knew you had relationships with guys in the past. But it’s not like something that people sort of ask you about, so I liked the casualness with which you referred to it.
Well, it’s come up a few times in the past in the press, with the “Lust for Life” lyrics [opening line: "Oh I wish I had a boyfriend"] and a few things like that. And it’s something that was very real and a big part of my life, and I can’t imagine that it’s at all “over,” even though I’m in a relationship now and I’m very happy, it’s still something that means a lot to me. This ability to have a relationship that’s absolutely unique. To me it’s a completely different experience to fall in love with another guy. It’s not the same for me as falling in love with a girl. And it’s something that I very much value. So I like to talk about it.
In what way is it different? Is it less of sexual thing for you, and more of a bonding thing?
Well I guess in the beginning the sex was sort of, I mean I was raised my whole life by people who said you would go to hell for that, so it was a rebellious-slash-curious-slash-am-I-the-kind-of-person-who-can-do-this?
There’s lots of easier places to do that than Amarillo, Texas I would think.
[Laughs.] Yeah that’s right.
Well to segue a little away from this, a number of artists in your life circle like Ryan McGinley and Gus Van Sant, even Stanley Marsh, are among those in our culture who engage in a perpetual celebration of youth. Whether it’s in photography or film or art.
And I would say specifically “wayward youth.” I think we often fetishize young punks and junkies and hustlers—a world with which you are not unfamiliar. But then we’ll turn around and wring our hands over what happens to talented, edgy young guys like River Phoenix or Brad Renfro. Do you have any thoughts on that dichotomy?
Well to me, there’s a very natural attraction to that kind of character. To me it represents a very free, independent, young man who has a lot of strength and is the object of desire. To me there is a very big appeal of the kind of inner strength that that persona carries, has to carry. But then, of course, there’s a very tragic side to it, where a lot of times these people don’t feel like they can open up on a larger scale, or ever find something lasting, or maybe even die young. I think it’s sort of a young male version of a femme fatale.
And I think at least for a while, people saw you as part of a similar narrative. But I get the impression from some of the things you’ve said recently that now, post-Girls, you’d like to move away from this idea that some people have because that you are damaged or a “survivor.” Are you now actively trying to move away from that and saying “there’s more to me than that?”
In a way I feel like I have to, because I know I’ve made a commitment to myself to achieve a lot of things, to just stick around a while and achieve my goals. So I can’t be that person. I have to be a stronger person. There is an element of that in me that is very true, but I feel like it is something I need to fight against in a way. I don’t wanna just survive, I want to achieve. I don’t want to be another statistic or another cliché.