It’s no shocker that Chris Owens’ background would take the spotlight when his band Girls hit the scene in 2009. With a story like his — a childhood spent in the controversial Children of God (now known as the Family International), surviving on the streets of Texas as an adolescent and having a mentor in Amarillo, Texas, artist/philanthropist Stanley Marsh III — it would’ve been surprising if his bio hadn’t been at the forefront of the push for the band’s debut LP, “Album.” But for 32-year-old Owens, who for nine years told no one about his former life, the openness was personal.
“It was such a dark thing; I pretended it didn’t exist,” he says. When he finally opened up to Marsh, Owens says his mentor’s counsel drove him to tell all. “He would tell me, ‘It’s OK what happened to you.’ The key has been pure honesty. If the band died tomorrow, I would still gain a lot just from getting it off my chest.”
Video: “Vomit,” Girls
Nevertheless, Owens’ team is well aware that after a while, the story can start sounding like a gimmick, which can be a career-killer for a growing band.
“He’s got this incredible life story, but unless he rejoins the cult, that story isn’t going to change anymore,” Girls’ manager Alun Llwyd says. “It’s been said and documented. Ultimately what [we’re] trying to do with this record [is] let the music start talking as well.”
Girls’ new album — “Father, Son, Holy Ghost,” due Sept. 13 on True Panther Sounds — certainly talks. With a home-recorded, critically acclaimed debut and an EP under its belt, the San Francisco-based two-man band — collectively Owens and Chet “JR” White — has found a balance between the bare bones of its beginnings and the at times overindulgent tendencies of the EP to produce a sophomore full-length that reflects the group’s maturity.
Owens cites the EP “Broken Dreams Club” (2010, True Panther Sounds) as a springboard for the new LP’s adventurousness. Where “Album” was recorded in Owens’ home studio, “Broken Dreams Club” featured nearly a dozen studio musicians.
“The EP was different,” Owens says. “It was, ‘Here’s a budget, pick a studio, hire pros, don’t try to do everything yourself.’ It was experimental [in that we] were able to [ask ourselves] as a band, ‘Do we want to make the next album in the studio like this, or do we want to go back to what we were doing originally?'”
Produced by Doug Boehm (the Vines, Booker T. Jones, Dr. Dog), “Father, Son, Holy Ghost” falls somewhere between the simplicity of Album and the grandiosity of “Broken Dreams Club.” The studio sessions found the band cutting the number of outside collaborators by half.
As Girls have evolved, so has their marketing. When the band released “Album,” it was virtually invisible online, save for a Myspace page. Today, Girls have nearly 400,000 Facebook fans and 13,000 Twitter followers (@girlssf), and Owens’ personal Twitter account (@chri55ybaby) boasts 2,000 followers. Leveraging the band’s now-formidable online presence has been the centerpiece of the “Father, Son, Holy Ghost” rollout. The act announced the album with a line-by-line tease of the cover art — comprising the lyrics from the 11-song set-unveiled on Facebook during the course of two days in July.
“You’d be amazed at [the fans’] reaction,” says Adam Farrell, VP of marketing at Beggars Group, the marketing arm for 4AD, Matador, Rough Trade and XL. “The band had been radio silent for so long. Everyone was like, ‘What is this?'”
The album announcement coincided with the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago, and Beggars Group snagged ad spots for the album on the fest’s Jumbotron and on Pitchfork’s live webcast online, making Girls the first act to place ads there.
Still, Farrell says he’s determined not to get too far ahead of the buzz, and to remain focused on reconnecting with Girls’ established fans before working to attract new ones.
“We always talk about not jumping the base, and even though we sold over 40,000 copies of the first album, we want to make sure we get to those 40,000 people first on this campaign and not do anything too huge,” Farrell says.