Interview: Girls

The buzzy San Francisco duo puts a new spin on nostalgia.


Girls Photograph: Sandy Kim

Album, the 2009 debut LP by Bay Area outfit Girls, was a throwback in every sense: not only musically intricate in an old-fashioned way, but reliant upon a pastiche of weathered appropriations that spanned decades of classic rock. Critics compared the duo to Elvis Costello, who in turn compared them to Spiritualized. On the strength of past-era-hearkening songs like the joyous "Lust for Life," the pleading "Hellhole Ratrace" and the cheeky "Laura," Album attracted rave reviews across the board, making Girls among indie rock's most luminous rising stars. That first act would prove extremely difficult to follow, but on Girls' new LP, Father, Son, Holy Ghost (True Panther Sounds), they surpass even the loftiest of expectations, reaching a higher plane of intelligent, musical and densely referential rock.

The band's members, singer and principal songwriter Christopher Owens and bassist Chet "J.R." White, have enjoyed a long friendship as Frisbee-playing, Mission Street--roaming bohemians and seemingly telepathic musical collaborators. Their working process has become conditioned behavior, sharpened over many long hours together. Speaking about the songs on the new disc en route to a taping for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, White says that "none were written, but they were around." After Album came an extremely strong EP, Broken Dreams Club, which found the duo nosing into darker places and experimenting with vintage song forms and recording techniques.

Owens and White maintained that headspace while choosing the 11 tracks on Father, Son, Holy Ghost from a pile of 25. "Some people censor themselves a lot," White says. "We consider it all valuable." The benefits of that approach are immediately discernible. Some songs, like "Die" and "Vomit," momentarily devolve into Pink Floyd--esque guitar freak-outs and jarring changes of pace; others, like "Honey Bunny" and "Saying I Love You," resemble knockout '50s period pieces.

Though much has been made of Owens's fucked-up childhood—his mother, a member of the Children of God sect, was continually victimized by the men in that organization—and his drug-addled narrative. But his songs are tender odes to longing and sadness, confessionals lined with an astonishing sense of innocence and a desire that's not particularly sexual in nature. His songs function as love letters to girls he's disappointed, and, more indirectly, to the pop icons he worships: Elvis Presley, Randy Newman, Fleetwood Mac.

As White talks about recording, he bats around words like gloomy, dark and lush. He's a tireless tinkerer: "I'm the guy running mike cables all over the place," he says. "I had a microphone under the toilet that had an amazing reverb." (That toilet mike can be heard in the drums on the epic "Vomit.") "People weren't accustomed to that kind of reverb," he continues. "Now, a dry vocal sounds like an effect; it sounds like a voice in your head."

In an era seemingly defined by its affection for nostalgia, Father, Son, Holy Ghost showcases a swatch of achingly familiar styles that somehow still sound fresh. "I wanted something to be in there that was going to make it unavoidably strange," White says. "I was trying to intentionally do the opposite of what we did [on Album] in some way."

White brings up his fascination with Les Paul's famous garage-based guitar exercises, which influenced how he instructed Father, Son, Holy Ghost's session guitarists. Certain parts, he explains, are a direct homage to vintage sounds, something Girls is keen to assert. "It's a purposeful rip," White says. "People notice that."

Follow Corban Goble on Twitter: @corbangoble

Buy Father, Son, Holy Ghost on iTunes

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