Chet JR White of San Francisco indie-darlings Girls, gave us an interview you won't find anywhere else. JR talks about the bands' innter ego struggles, triumphs, discomforts, fame and the inner workings of the band's dynamics on their new album Father, Son and Holy Ghost and debut Album. We began our conversation battling a bad phone signal before JR dived into a behind the scenes look at the reality-show-soap opera that is Girls beyond the garrulous media waxing and branding.
Let me ask you a question, Father, Son and Holy Ghost is a musical departure from the first album and it seems like the songs of heartbreak have found a new cohesion…
…without the scattered catharsis of Album and I wanted to know what was different about recording Father, Son and Holy Ghost from the recent Broken Hearts Club EP to the debut of Album t?
The difference was while we were making the EP it was just as valuable and important and it still is, but now that I’m looking back on it we didn’t notice it at the time but it was us figuring out what to do next and that was a big part of that EP which was us trying to get comfortable with having like, horn players and having like, being able to work with our musicians and communicate with them on some kind of musical level, you know, which was something we had always wanted to do but we were unsure how it would work you know, eventually so. But at the time you know those were some of my favorite songs that Chris had written and they’re just as important now. But I think the working process was not recording it ourselves and recording it in a studio and being pretty involved with the recording process myself with [Father, Son and Holy Ghost] we kind of did it in a sense what was the best of Album and the EP which really worked in a studio but it was a studio that was makeshift and kind of a fucked up basement. It was kind of thrown together as well so it had this thing you get from do it yourself recordings with that unavoidable kind of sonic signature of how the room sounds, having a very strange sound that is not really suited for recording. But everybody like wanted to use the studio we used and I wanted to work in a studio with good equipment and good people but I didn’t want to work in a place that was a total barrel environment or a blank slate like a huge room in an expensive recording studio. This space was a big concrete room where no matter what we did I felt like there was going to be this presence of like this sonic sound. The room has this sound and that was going to be avoidable on this record and I thought that no matter what we did to make it big, clearer and clean there would be this weird filter and I wanted to use that same sort of idea with the space we were using [for the new album], you know? So I think after working on the EP in a much standard studio, I liked parts and I didn’t like parts of that working process and the new record is sort of like…it was like all the experiences we had, all the knowledge we gained from doing it ourselves and working on the EP in a real studio is what we came up with as a good way to work. Does that make sense?
Absolutely. And for you, I mean the sound has evolved so much and it seems like you have had a whole renovation of the band. How do you sum up all of your experiences since the release of Album?
Um, I don’t know. [Father, Son] is kind of a reassessment in a way of the whole thing, the whole relationship. Chris and I weren’t living together; I mean we were, we always shared a house you know? At the time weren’t spending as much time together, we used to spend every day with each other, used to go out every day, which was happening less. The relationship between us was changing because of the band, I think this record was a big influence on us because we had to find a new way because at times we were uncomfortable working with each other in a sense you know, because after two years of touring there are stresses that build up. There wasn’t a painful experience at all but we have kind of come around full circle. Now the working process is similar but I think the communication process is a lot different now, you know? And like on the new record there are so many new variables that are affecting the sound, I’m talking about things that aren’t like guitars and chord progressions. I think I’m much more in tuned to attitudes and like the way people communicate is a huge part of it, it’s kind of the real boring part of it but I think maybe that’s what people and yourself are hearing on the record, you know?
And another thing, going from the San Francisco Bay Guardian’s cover page…
Buzz stories? Yeah…
Going from local-god celebrities to international…
”World wide stars?” Ha ha ha, that’s a little joke there!
Well, yeah, international sensations. How has that affected you?
Ha ha ha, well, like, I have a hot tub in my living room now and there’s always like ten girls around usually topless!
Ha, no, actually my life it seemed like after all that got worse in a way. I felt less comfortable with myself, felt less comfortable with my relationships and stuff like that, you know? I don’t know, it felt easier to be my own critic, I actually felt like an asshole if that explains my motives and my reasons and my histories and any issues I have, but I think [Chris and I] both kind of pulled away and went to our rooms and just sort of hid for a while and it wasn’t because we were getting too much attention necessarily. I mean we’re not like Britney Spears or some shit you know, we just have Pitchfork calling or something, it’s not that big of a deal. But I definitely felt like pretty uncomfortable with myself, which was how I felt before the band which I can’t figure out to be honest with you, I try not to think about either. Heh.
That’s strange, because when I heard the new record one of the things I remember writing down was that you all sound more confident than ever before.
You feel more confident.
You feel one thing. It’s such a particular thing, and then it gets, ehh… there are parts of my discomfort with being marketed you know? Like this thing that’s really important, I don’t dwell on it too much, but there’s a lot of discomfort, it’s so emotional and so special and for Chris it’s ten times more than me, these are lyrics about his life to deal with shit, these are songs about Christopher dealing with issues and when he sings a song I think often times it’s uh, therapy you know. And that becomes a commodity and I don’t think we really over thought or even thought about that side of it and it but if you ignore it becomes a bit much. I mean, having to play the same song every night for 7 months in a row, you know? Just beating yourself to death, especially emotionally.
But musically there was a great like maturity that happened. We have been able to play with really talent musicians and players and we’re just two dudes who play music the way we want to play music and that’s the filter. The way we like our abilities of trying to play what is exactly in our head and sometimes we get exactly what we want sometimes there is even a mis-handoff between the idea and the head and the ability to play, you know what I mean? I think a lot of my favorite bands are like that, all bands that reach for one thing and have a very pure idea and they miss it and create something else with it and I think that’s something we have become comfortable with; I’ve become really comfortable with realizing what our band is and those limitations and not being uncomfortable with them but relishing them. Like there’s little things, Chris has a way of working where he doesn’t want to do something too many times and I want performances to be very personal for each person that’s playing it but I want to be perfect at the same time.
So that’s the balance, it’s me pushing and pushing and Chris saying, I like what’s on the first take. And everyone pays attention to if you get the right vibe or whatever. And definitely after realizing the things that I was fighting him on and a lot of things that he was fighting me on we realized that those instances of involvement are much more important and to balance them more instead of fighting each other. Like when you play music there is such an ego involved, especially us when we have to tell band members to not play it like that and play it like this. You are telling that to the band and they’re like, oh yeah, that’s totally cool, it’s your band, I understand that but there is never anyone who is comfortable with you criticizing them and telling them to play it differently. There is something about real musicians that play with emotion and play from the heart and when you criticize what they are doing you can always see that thing in their eyes that’s like, fuck you man. I think those lines are becoming more clear in just letting people do what they need to do. It’s kind of a convoluted answer, but does that make sense?
I am totally with you.
The thing with our band which is great is that once we realized who we are it just became easier to do. We don’t fight as much, with the realization of what makes us Girls and why maybe I shouldn’t have him play that guitar part until it’s completely perfect and maybe I should get on the case of someone else to get that part to be perfect. It’s easy to forget what it’s all about, even with rehearsals with the live band, I was pretty unhappy with the live band setup. I mean I love everyone we had in the band and they’re all good friends and great musicians in their own right but I was always uncomfortable about what they were doing with it, it didn’t feel as if it was right you know and I wanted to be the best band in the world, I want it to be perfect, you know what I mean? So we started working with this band that is a little more sane, better, great guys, amazing guys. Their professionalism is a little higher this time and there are certain songs where it’s like fuck man, we were supposed to be really loose on this song, the sound is a little overplayed I want the drummer to swing more on the beat and not stay on the tempo and that’s really the only thing I could complain about! So with this set I feel like every time we evolve as people and musicians we become closer and closer to who we really are and it’s just neat to be a part of that.
Sounds like you guys are playing with some good, seasoned session musicians.
I would be hesitant to say session musicians because that sparks ideas of staleness in a sense but it’s two brothers that have been playing together since they were 12 years old. One of them is a drummer named Darren Weiss and the brother is Evan Weiss and when you play with someone for that long you have an energy, a thing, and Darren’s ideal situation is to be a drummer for T-Bone Burnett you know, that’s his dream, someone who makes polished big time recordings that have a lot of feeling and heart and it’s just awesome. It’s great for us, it pushes us, rehearsals are happy and Chris does not like to rehearse. He doesn’t like hashing out the songs, he doesn’t like to sing in rehearsal so when we play with new people he’s always like, Don’t worry, when we play I’ll really get it but Chris is someone who doesn’t like rehearsals in general is happy and the whole band is pretty happy.
You guys got a lot of support from the local community of artists to the national, international scale. There was a significant shift in your sound that I pinpointed after MagicRPM got Lawrence to interview you guys.
Yeah, we were like, shaking. That was fucking insane, for Chris more so, we were both huge fans of Felt, we never knew anyone that loved Felt and it’s crazy now that every band you meet loves Felt and I feel great about that and I felt like we helped get them back out there and that Creation Records documentary mentioned Felt every so often. But you never meet anyone you can talk Felt with and then you meet the guy…they exist as a mystery as a band, it’s almost like meeting a Simpson character! Something you never would have fathomed possible. But Felt has had a big influence on our band and that was a big turning point for us was finding our guitarist John Anderson where Felt was a big influence on him and then wanting that in the band you know
It seemed like Chris found a vehicle for song writing catharsis like that “Heartbreaker” single from the EP where there seemed to be a new song craft element that happened after that interview.
The rolling pitch on the voice like that is a Lawrence thing, a Dylan thing too. But it also comes from Lawrence and I think on the first record too where we didn’t know what we were necessarily doing and also my influence on the first record might have been bigger than it is now in the overall presentation of the songs, like what kind of song is this song? Chris would write these songs and then I would be like this song should be done in this style. The whole intention of the first record was to not to pigeon hole ourselves, we started off doing whatever we want, just make a record that was good and we thought it would be good.
But I am really bad at making decisions in my life in general and I was at the point where I didn’t know what kind of band I wanted to be in, you know. My influences were so wide and array like country music and everything and every week I wanted to start a new kind of band you know and I think Chris felt pretty very similar so when he started writing these songs and we would be talking about making every song different. I went to recording and production school and I remember they would talk about the album being a cohesive statement making sure each song speaks to each other and that’s bullshit. I think if you’re a band and you have a strong personality that’s a whole other thing all together. You can get away with doing things differently on every song.
Like on “Laura” I was like, let’s take it to this 60s kind of Monkees era and we wanted to do country you know too, “Morning Light” wasn’t really much of a shoegaze song quite yet, but there was me really pushing to have songs be of different genres clearly so you know, that made the process fun as well, because it wasn’t a real band yet. We were like let’s make this kind of song and do this and with this we kind of realized where we were again and fucked with all these ideas and touched on classic writing and classic production ideas and I think I would say the songs are pretty positive but they definitely have a down feeling on them which I like. I like the songs that sound like they are from someone struggling, you know what I mean? And I definitely feel that on[Father, Son and Holy Ghost] what we were doing was a response to that happy go lucky California thing that we were tired of hearing about in the press, oh it’s so sunshine-y! Those adjectives get so fucking annoying after a while.
So for [Father, Son] it’s like here‘s the behind the scenes to all that party vibe, all those hell hole videos, our people would know but it definitely felt like we were trying to give a glimpse to the other side of that. We were still struggling with drug addiction and things like that, things never got too dark in the band, no one was shooting heroin or freebasing or anything, we were just popping pills! And like that record it’s Chris and I trying to figure out how to communicate again after time off in our little cells. He was still struggling with addiction and stuff and I was too and we definitely came into that too in figuring out how we were going to talk to each other, how we were going to work together because we weren’t hanging out anymore with the time off we had. Also watching each other and being like, okay, are you high today? You know what I mean, there was some resentment. There definitely was some of that dark side too in that part; I sort of saw that coming. I was doing all the arranging for the band as far as everything but the stage of song writing, so that is why this band is basically split, which is awesome.
If that ever changed, I don’t think I could be a part of it or if the friendship ever changed. The friendship to me is way more important than the band which is kind of crazy because the band is a mode of revenue for me; it’s how I live now. But when things got dark between Chris and I there was times where I was like, I don’t know if I want to do this anymore, I don’t know if he’s my friend, and it was the both of us dealing with trying to stop doing drugs, relapsing constantly, the depression from that, not being able to communicate with people you know and love, you know? And like, there were times where when we weren’t communicating and I would be so self-obsessed I would be like why doesn’t he like me, what’s going on and then it was like, oh, he’s going through the same thing I’m going through and that’s why he’s not talking. But if the friendship is not there I don’t want to be in the band. That was always more important to me than the band itself you know? I don’t want to be in the band just for money, there’s not a lot of money there compared to our respective jobs, we’re just making music for the world. We have our issues, but we’re all friends now!
And so when we set up the record, I was the one who found the studio, Chris has no huge interest into how that is done, he knows that is my role in the band, that’s why we started working together. He trust my tastes 100 percent as far as studio arrangements, like studio work and how to make things sound so I went down to LA to meet with engineer Doug Boehm and I wanted someone who had worked on big records I wanted someone who could take our weird songs and somehow if the songs were there we could get these songs on the radio and maybe that could bring us to a larger audience. We were always so annoyed with our first records that we didn’t get more offers, like we thought maybe there would have been a few things that would have been used in a cool movie or something, we had issues with certain things, we turned down some commercial stuff that we felt wasn’t the right thing. That’s a source of revenue for a band and we’re not making a huge amount of money, we always would like to be making money and it’s always an aspect of what you are doing. I think with making music and realistically people tend to criticize bands for it and it’s totally unfair, especially at our level when we’re entering making minimum wage and Chris was working in a cafe at that point. We would always hear a band on some movie and we would think, why isn’t our band getting more offers?
Everyone is talking about the heaviness of that track “Die,” how was it recording that thrashy number?
It was fun, Chris and I used to play that with our old drummer and he couldn’t play it the way we wanted it and even Chris and I would try to play it and I could even try to play the drums and we would jam it at times. Obviously it’s a really fun song to play. There was a time in my life when I was really into Kyuss and early Queen and huge stoner stuff; my idea of a journey would be to take acid when I was 18 and see Kyuss you know. So that was really fun for me to use all my knowledge and ability to play like that for this song finally. There was a few that were uncomfortable with it like Doug [Boehm] was like, I don’t know how you guys are going to make this fit! And we were kind of like well fuck, that’s the point.
So basically, it’s just a basic riff on the E that goes on and on, Chris and John [Anderson] would just sit in a circle and play that riff hypnotically like a drone or something so we would all be locked in and he would start messing with the timing of the other riffs, kind of like what you would do if you were really stoned. You just sort of riff and riff and riff, that song is really natural, a very easy song and we finally had a drummer that understand these kind of fills and understand it because he had played that kind of music before and so that was a great point and it came so fluid for me because I had been wanting to have a band like that for forever. It’s a great song. I have wanted to play a song like that for forever. That song was so instantly gratifying to hear. We used all our amplifiers, 60 amplifiers, more amps than you would ever see in a guitar store, it was almost crazy. I always have an idea of how I want guitars to sound like, I always want to guitars to not always sound clean but rather a guitar tone that sounds like a six year old playing a guitar in a trash can but there is something so amazing about that. So it was refreshing with a lot of the time of letting those guys play and me moving mics and amps around until it sounded right. Playing it live is a fun thing too.
There’s a lot of jamming on the album. Is jamming the best way to cure heartbreak?
I don’t know, it is a way to connect. Chris will openly tell you that he doesn’t like jamming. He really dislikes it but you’re right, there’s a lot of jamming.
Is the track “Forgiveness” connected to any kind of Christ motif like the album title or anything?
That song was written a long time ago, we played it at one of our first shows. It comes from a Bob Dylan quote from, maybe you could do some research on YouTube for it, fuck I can’t remember if it was a VMA or Grammy Awards where he said something like “all you need is love but all you need is forgiveness” or something like that and lyrically it came from that idea.
Almost echoes Jesus Movement-era Dylan attitudes.
Well that stuff had a big impact on Chris because he was raised on it so it was always weird when people would ask him questions about Christ because for him that was his reality until he was 16 years old so it’s not weird so even if he rejects religion completely it’s still a part of him that he expresses. He knows it’s always going to pop its head out and he could quote any fucking verse from the Bible if he wants to. I don’t think it’s premeditative like I’m just going to show this part of my life, it’s just there, it’s what he knows. It’s not a presentation of himself or his past necessarily. Does that makes sense? It’s just him.
There’s even a strange gospel blues tint like the backup girl singers on “Vomit” and “Love Like a River.”
Well, we wanted female backup singers but gospel singers were not in the plan but the women we got were incredible. We went down to LA and did those songs and they were just amazing; they had worked on Tina Turner records, Mariah Carey records, just soulful, talented people. When we got the girl singers we didn’t have any intention of having the gospel sound on the song but then they did it, and we were like, oh, this is it! We don’t second guess that. If something happens in the studio that’s not expected but it works and we like that even if it’s not what we wanted we will go with it. But some bands might be like, that’s not what I wanted to do, but the action of it happening sometimes is a religious thing. Something that wasn’t supposed to happen was good. We are very open to that sort of thought. Like if something changes unexpectedly we sort of give it more credence, like oh, wait, this just happened, we wanted to do this but the fact that it happened like this is more important.
And further more on “Vomit,” the video with the cherry red ’68 Mustang, Chris driving around late at night…
I don’t know, I’ve never made it all the way through it. I always fall asleep.
But you’re in the video! You’re at the end, Chris doesn’t pick up any of the prostitutes, he picks up you!
I’m not criticizing the video it’s just a long song, and there’s only like 4 things happening. I appreciate Hollywood movies and music videos and there’s a reason they ‘re there but you need a lot of things going on for a six minute video. And I really like this video but I have to get away from it but I’m sure this month I will like it more.
It’s a step up from a video with Hunx singing into a cock microphone!
Yeah. That’s another thing, there are only two people in the band and those other videos I had more input in and this one was all Chris and that’s always going to be uncomfortable when you have two people working together. You both have ideas, concept ideas; it’s not always going to be fair. If I don’t like something there‘s always going to be for that reason you know.
Totally. Videos are always the perfect fluff pieces.
Now can you give us any hints or glimmers of what to expect for Girls 4?
I don’t know. Chris is like I want to make a reggae album! And now he’s like, I want to make a classical jazz album! And I’m like oh-kay, he will always be like into that whatever he’s feeling to play but honestly I have never felt so far from knowing what things are new in his life because we don’t live together any more, I don’t hear his demos, I don’t hear what he’s working on, because I would always hear it, inadvertently. I would hear him playing guitar in his room all of his time but now I have no clue what he is working on.