Christopher Owens on kissing Girls goodbye
After disbanding Girls last year, the first project that singer Christopher Owens chose to tackle under his own name was a concept album called “Lysandre.” The work — full of saxophones and flutes and Owens’ take on classic pop-song architecture — might seem like the furthest thing from his previous band, but the narrative arc is all about Girls’ first tour in 2008.
METRO: Hi Chris. We’ve spoken a number of times over the years, and you even helped get a friend of mine into a Girls show at Great Scott, and you let him be your +1.
CHRISTOPHER OWENS: Oh cool.
Do you remember that?
I don’t remember, actually.
Well, it was very kind of you.
Glad I could help.
Did you fear that when you started playing under your own name, that not enough fans would know your name as the guy from Girls, and maybe you’d lose some fans?
Not so much. I kind of expected people to continue to come. I thought it would be its own thing, but I guess I expected the same sort of crowd and I thought people would carry over well.
I read that you’re not playing any Girls songs on this tour. I recently spoke with Paul Banks from Interpol, and he also felt very strongly that he shouldn’t play any songs from the band that first attracted fans. But are fans at shows shouting out requests for Girls songs?
So far nobody’s done that and I appreciate that. I guess that could happen and I would kind of understand, but at the same time, I will play those songs again in the future. It’s just for now. I feel like this album and this tour is kind of clearly a thing. It’s kind of obvious that it will be a show of this album and I think because of that it’s a little easier because I think people know we’re doing a show of the album. I think that soon I will play my older songs again.
I’ve picked up that “Lysandre” is a concept album, but I whenever I speak with somebody who has released a concept album I have to ask the person to define that concept, just in case I’m missing anything.
It’s just about the first tour that Girls went on. So it just starts out being excited to go on that tour and not really knowing what to expect, because I hadn’t done any tours before that. So it’s just kind of how I felt in the beginning and it just kind of follows the day-to-day of that first tour, and what happens.
That’s interesting, because you seem to have left out the part where you get a friend of mine into your show at Great Scott in Allston, Massachusetts.
[Laughs.] That would have happened a few years after this.
But is this all really autobiographical? There’s a part about you looking down the barrel of a loaded gun.
Yeah, that was all before starting the band. It’s about where I came from as a person. Those things happened in Texas, before even moving to California. And that song is about acknowledging my life in the past and saying, “Look at what I’m doing now.”
I find it interesting that the song cycle is about the first Girls tour, but you’re not playing any of those songs that you’re playing on that tour. Are there at least some lyrical or musical quotes that I missed?
The very first song actually does that. I talk about that song “Carolina.”
There’s a lot of instruments on here that never found homes on Girls records. When did you know you wanted flutes and saxophones on these songs?
I just heard those instruments as I was writing the songs so that’s what I was always wanting to do with the songs. And they were written in early 2009. That was kind of how they were always supposed to sound, if everything went right and I was going to be able to do it the way that I wanted to.
So you were working on these songs when the band was a going concern? I didn’t know that.
I always write all the time. And I just put the songs away, and I never really know when they’re going to get recorded or what’s going to happen next. It wasn’t any different kind of process. I didn’t put them away to not work on them with Girls or anything. They were just seven songs out of the 60 or so that I wrote in those couple of years. And I guess I always kind of thought they would be Girls songs.
Do you have any grander ambitions for this project? Do you see a full-length video? A musical?
I don’t know. I think if that would happen, it would have to be somebody else’s idea and project. I just like to write songs and record them. And I’ve done that. To me it’s something that I’m happy with at this point. I guess if somebody else had some cool ideas like that and it made sense, I would be open to that. But it’s not really the way that I think about them.
I just ask because of that Spiritualized long-form video that came out last year for “Hey Jane.”
Yeah, I know that one. That’s really cool. I mean, [“Lysandre”] is a story and I think there are things that could be done with it. But I think it would have to take a lot of ambition and somebody would have to be really serious about it. I would never imagine that would happen, but that would be cool, I guess.
With this being a narrative thread about going on tour, there’s a lot of heartbreak in the lyrics, but it doesn’t necessarily sound like romantic heartbreak. What are you referring to?
Well it depends what song you’re talking about, really. There’s one song where we arrive in New York and I run into an old friend, somebody I hadn’t seen in a few years and I talk about something that had happened between the two of us. And maybe the last song, thinking back on the whole thing. But it’s not meant to be a heartbreak thing, and I don’t think that’s even true.
But it’s just more of a general thing between people that like my songs and me, who writes them. It’s not really referring to anything specific.
Some of the things do seem to be referring to specifics though, like the notion of everybody watching you rolling their eyes in the song, “Love is in the Ear of the Listener.”
That song is just a “what if” song. It’s about stage fright and nervousness, not having done that before, wondering if people would like the songs and doubting myself, wondering if I’m good enough, as a songwriter.
Tell me about the title. Where does “Lysandre” come from?
That’s just the name of the girl that I meet at the end of the album.
When the band came out and you were called Girls, it seemed like the least Google-able thing in the world. But now with this title, “Lysandre” you’re close to having the most search engine-friendly thing. I’m guessing that wasn’t really part of your thought process though, was it?
The real reason you hung up the Girls moniker was because of the HBO show, “Girls,” right?
I am just joking, but I did read somewhere though that you don’t appreciate that show, right?
I haven’t really watched much of that show. I just didn’t really enjoy the fact that they used the name. When I very first saw that it was a show coming out I didn’t really think about it and then as I heard more about the show, I realized it was being worked on and made by people who definitely knew who our band was and knew that we existed and were definitely aware of us and could have very simply added one word, or used a different word and made it a different thing instead of just straight, taking the name as if it didn’t matter at all. You know, it’s something that I let go of pretty quickly, but at one point I realized that it was definitely a conscious choice that they made, just because of the people involved. They clearly were aware that we were functioning under that name and they kind of just viewed themselves as so big, and so much more of a big project that it didn’t matter. It could have been so simple to make it a different name. It could have been “New York Girls” or whatever. There was a point where I realized that and I got a little bit offended, that’s all. But I let it go pretty quickly. And I guess the whole thing kind of resolved itself when I ended up not wanting to be in a band anymore anyway. But it definitely wasn’t a reason to no longer be in the band.
With this album, what were some of your musical touchstones? I hear a little bit of the Zombies, and even a little bit of Sterolab in there, with the clean strums of “Here We Go Again.”
I haven’t listened to much Stereolab, and I like the Zombies and I think there is kind of a 70s folk reference. I think one of the albums that I find is a similar sound is Nico’s “Chelsea Girls,” or some songs remind me of Donovan. The very last song reminds me of Harry Nilsson or Glen Campbell or Bob Dylan. But it’s all a song by song thing. For me every song has a different reference, but as a whole, there wasn’t really any one album that I could really reference because it’s a very unique idea. I haven’t really heard of anybody doing anything like this before.
Were you referring back to tour diaries or just going from memory?
Just memories. It wasn’t that long after the tour. It was about a half a year.