The searchers

From Slovenian cults to S.F: classic California rock goes pop — and reaches timelessness — on Girls' debut, Album
Photo by Spencer Hansen

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.

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