Friday, July 17, 2009

Cults + Whores = Girls (Not Women)

"The music of Girls is too beautiful to ignore. The melodies are pure California pop, the lyrics as simple and affecting as those of Spiritualized's Jason Pierce (of whom White and Owens are big fans). Full of tales of heartbreak and friendship, Girls' debut album, Album, comes across like a lo-fi Pet Sounds. It has an innocence that countless bands try to capture, a sense of childlike otherwordliness.

As Owens talks about his experiences growing up, it becomes clear where that has come from. He was born into the Children of God cult, the religious group formed in California in 1968, which gifted him with a childhood and adolescence he calls 'pretty hellish'.

'Some of the things the cult did were so fucked up,' he says. 'There was this thing called "flirty fishing", where the women met men for money. The cult basically convinced them it was fine to be hookers. It was like mind control - the women believed it was a good thing to do because they were physically showing these men they met the love of God. My mum had a lot of terrible experiences from that. I was there. We'd be hitchhiking our way around Japan or somewhere crazy and I'd have to wait in hotel lobbies for her. Sometimes we'd have to run away from violent people and she'd be crying, saying she didn't like her life.'

As you'd expect from a cult that emerged in the hippy era, the days were at least filled with music, albeit religious music. Owens says certain acts would become popular within the cult, such as a young couple called Zac and Shelley: 'They wrote love songs to each other and recorded them on tape. I was a big Zac and Shelley fan. They did great harmonies.'

According to Owens, the cult's founder, David Brandt Berg, only allowed members to listen to the pop music he liked. 'He had these tapes called My Old Favourites, full of Elvis and the Beatles. We learned to play all those songs because us kids were desperate for any kind of secular culture. A lot of us made mixtapes off the radio, too, and passed them around. There was sort of an underground scene with kids passing around tapes, although if you got caught it was a big deal.'

One famous member of the cult was the former Fleetwood Mac guitarist Jeremy Spencer, who gave Owens his first guitar, which he now plays when recording demos for Girls. It was also the guitar Owens played when he was sent out to busk to earn money for the cult. But the musical legacy of Children of God is not what sticks in mind about it.

'My friends there have been dropping like flies,' he says. 'I've known several commit suicide over growing up there. I was a huge fan of this one musician called Jeremiah Singer, and he has since hung himself. There was another guy who wrote country music - he called himself Micah Teddy Bear. He's died as well.'

Is he angry about all of that? 'Oh yeah. I was angry for a long time.'
-- Tim Jonze, interviewing another group of music artists with cult experiences - the Brian Jonestown Massacre and I are others - in The Guardian.