The Grateful Dead sang, "What a long, strange trip it's been" a mere five years into their psychedelic journey. That was 10 years before Christopher Owens, songwriter-guitarist of the San Francisco-based band Girls, came into the world. That puts his trip at 30-plus years, and it has been strange indeed.
Born and raised within the Children of God cult, Owens roamed the world with his mother. He observed as she and her fellow members preached and trolled for new recruits through the devious techniques of the cult (Google "flirty fishing"). All cultural content — music, books, videos, pictures — was controlled by cult leaders, with most of it originating within the cult itself.
At least some of the musicians in the cult were competent. The guitar Owens uses to write virtually all his songs was a gift to the Owens family from Jeremy Spencer, a guitarist in the original roster of Fleetwood Mac. Spencer famously disappeared on tour in Los Angeles, eventually surfacing with a head shaved as cult member: a huge celebrity catch for them.
Girls perform Friday, March 9, at Granada Theater. Unknown Mortal Orchestra open.
"There was this one center where like 500 members lived called The Jumbo, where all of our music, audio and video cassettes and books were made," explains Owens. "At one point, we got to live there, and Jeremy Spencer lived there too, and was kind of the musical director." Before joining the cult, Owens' mother had been a Fleetwood Mac fan, a point she made when the opportunity presented itself.
"He gave the guitar to my mom, for me and my sisters to learn to play," he continues, "and a couple years later, after we moved to France, I just became obsessed with it."
As soon as he could break away at age 16, he went to live in Amarillo with a sister who'd opted out of the cult. He was free to soak up all forms of popular culture he'd missed in his first 15 years, and was taken under the wing of Stanley Marsh 3, Amarillo's wealthy, eccentric art prankster famous for, among other things, creating the Cadillac Ranch.
The friendship remains strong, with Owens listing himself as a "former member of Stanley Marsh 3's Dynamite Museum"on his Twitter bio. "We are very much in touch, and he is still very big in my life," Owens confesses.
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He eventually settled in San Francisco, and drifted through acknowledged bouts with drug addiction. He met and became fast friends with Chet "J.R." White, a fellow musician and producer, and they formed Girls in 2007. They've released two albums, the latest being 2011's Father, Son, Holy Ghost. Owens says the songs often emerge fully formed, captured by singing the lyrics and beat into his phone before they're lost.
He's wandering the world again, now as a touring musician. Owens creates video tour diaries he posts on YouTube under the name "chrissybaby4ever." They're fascinating, often tranquil and obviously personal.
"There's an element where I make them for myself, because I watch them too," explains Owens. "But for others, I also include things like sights that touch me, what books I am reading, or videos I'm watching, as a way of sharing something about myself."
Owens agrees when it's suggested his life reflects a kind of Newtonian social order. "Yeah, my mom, like a lot of people, kind of dropped out, joined this group and had kids, and now the kids have grown up and dropped out of that," he laughs.