GIRLS: REALLY SORDID PEOPLE
Girls tiptoed out of a San Francisco bedroom to find a colossally welcoming worldwide reception that got them covered in the kind of publications that mostly only cover wars and sports. They helped link Dean Bein’s excellent True Panther Sounds label (home of L.A. RECORD alums Glasser and Hunx and His Punx) to Matador and at press time, their band name really did outrank every single porno site in Google. This interview by Chris Ziegler.
What producer would you most want to be handcuffed to for 24 hours—Joe Meek, Lee Perry or Stacy Sutherland when he was doing Bull of the Woods all by himself in the dead of night?
JR White (bass): Lee Perry would be amazing. I’ve never been to jail so Phil Spector would be cool.
Why haven’t you ever been to jail?
JR White: I don’t know. I’ve thought about it too. I think I convey …
JR White: Yeah—even when I’m doing awful things I’m wearing a peacoat and leather shoes.
Are you permanently past the age of jail-ability?
JR White: I kind of had a repressed adolescence. I didn’t start smoking pot till I was out in college. I didn’t start drinking until then either and I didn’t discover anything else till then. There was a point recently where someone was like, ‘Do you want to take acid?’ And I was like, ‘You know, I never took acid and now I feel like I’m too late. I’m 29 years old and I’m not gonna figure anything out right now—I shoulda figured this shit out like five years ago. I should have had that acid trip to figure stuff out back then, but I didn’t.’ But jail-ability—maybe because of my delayed adolescence, I’ve got a good couple more years for jail. I think once you’re 30 and you go to jail, it’s probably for really bad shit. You don’t get that pass anymore. ‘Oh, he’s just a kid.’ That’ll be the reality hit for me—two years for something that when I was 18 would’ve been a month or something.
What do you think you’ve learned in the rock ‘n’ roll world that will translate best to an incarcerative setting?
JR White: Stage presence, which I don’t have really … maybe the ability to bullshit out of a situation.
That’s applicable in all situations.
JR White: Yeah. I’m not gonna go to jail. I’m not gonna go to jail.
Do you and Greg Ashley ever get together and talk about how to mic a toilet tank or anything like that?
JR White: No, I worked with Greg once but I was filling in on drums for this band called the Passionistas from San Francisco. I could play drums by sitting and doing it for six months, but if I don’t I can just barely get by. I did a record with them and it was embarrassing—it took me like six hours to lay three tracks. It was one of those things where it took me a day to do half the album. But funny enough, I did mic our chimney—just hang a [SM] 57 way up in there and just leave it. The only way I could do it was with a mic stand—it was a really small chimney and I could get it three feet up there and I also had the mic going up into it instead of hanging down from it.
You didn’t find a foot in a Santa boot or anything, did you?
JR White: No—that would be amazing. I know it’s like shut off because in San Francisco they close all fireplaces. You’re not allowed to use your fireplace because everything’s so close together. But I think there is a B-side—it’s great because [singer/guitarist] Chris [Owens] trusts me, and I had his head in the fireplace. ‘You gotta sing up, dude—you gotta sing up.’ He was like laying on his stomach singing up into the fireplace and it’s funny because in the end you can’t even tell—to tell the fucking truth.
If you and Chris were in a criminal gang and not a band, what would be your specialty?
JR White: We would be drifters—we’d probably be con artists. In broad terms, I’m good at doing things and then recovering from them. I worked in kitchens and I would always drop things and catch them in fantastic ways. I’m always able to get out of trouble and maybe every once in a while steal a pair of shoes and somehow talk the person out of getting me in trouble and maybe even letting me keep the shoes.
Are you more like, ‘Oh, my life is terrible! Have pity on me!’ or ‘Hey, I’m a cool guy! Let’s handle this in a COOL way!’?
JR White: You just got to be self-assured and make them believe what you’re saying is the truth. If you trick yourself into believing what you’re saying is the truth, then you can get other people to do it. I don’t do that a lot, but seven years in San Francisco of working shit jobs and walking into a thrift store and seeing a cool pair of fucking boots and saying, ‘I am gonna get those! Those are mine!’ and stuff like that—which I think is pretty typical of somebody living in the city and being poor and just trying to scrape by like that. Every once in a while trying to take things that are embellishments in your life—things that will make you feel better. There have been times when I was caught and I was just like, ‘These are my shoes! I don’t know what you’re talking about!’ ‘Well, there’s a security tag on them.’ ‘Don’t you know anything about style? Do you not read Vogue or something? But you look like you do—those shoes are great!’ It’s almost laughable to say something like that and get people to believe you.
I knew someone who stole a lamp from a Christian thrift store and the next morning woke up with a brutal foot fungus. Have you ever been divinely punished for stealing?
JR White: I’ve thought about it—it’s not like you don’t think about that kind of thing.
In an interview, you said that the way Girls came together was almost like divine intervention. So is Girls the opposite of getting a foot fungus from ripping off a Christian thrift store?
JR White: I don’t know if it was done by divine intervention. I think it’s the opposite. It’s always been really hard to get a band together for us—that’s probably the suffering that we’re receiving for all the—
So it’s divine prevention? The universe does not want you to have this band.
JR White: Yeah—it’s been hard. Our guitar player quit last tour in the middle of it. He’d never been in a band. I don’t think he knows that what was going on was actually pretty nice compared to what most bands have to go through. So he quit and we tried to restart the band on tour and it’s been a total nightmare. We thought maybe we should just start all over and become a different band and we tried to do it with a week to go. ‘Let’s just throw ourselves into this shit!’ And like two days into it we were like, ‘This is not gonna work.’ That was the first time we’d succumbed to pressure. Normally we’re like, ‘No, if people don’t like it, people will just have to wait a year and then they’ll like it! We’re just taking advantage of a situation!’ And this was the first time—getting ready for this tour—where we were like, ‘Let’s just go with what we know and go back to square one.’ I think we were trying to keep ourselves interested because we’ve gone through a few bands now and it was always serious, but there wasn’t expectations before. Our own expectations are the highest ones actually. So we got done touring—how can we shake this up? The four-piece straight-ahead rock band is really cool but it was getting a bit tedious and we wanted to do more stuff—we didn’t want to get into laptop sampling, but we wanted to have another person and keyboards and get a little bit weirder and less straightforward. I think it was mostly to try to entertain ourselves and not get bored. Not to say that we’re bored but …
But there’s a threat of boredom.
JR White: Yeah, and we always wanted to have a stable band—like we want to have a band of people that are part of it and are writing stuff with us. We started seeing how things would work with Cass [McCombs] because we’re really good friends with Cass. And how he is able to exist and find people to play with him and every album is a little bit different—he’s able to just grow and evolve and do whatever he wants and we kind of want to do something like that. That was enticing to me.
What has been your most productive instance of negative inspiration? Something where you saw something and thought, ‘I can’t believe that exists—I can do better.’
JR White: That’s a good question because I don’t like a lot of stuff.
We’re the same way.
JR White: There’s a lot of opportunity for shit-talking but the first thing that comes to my mind I can’t really say. There was a time when Chris and I started becoming better friends … the tail end of the Oakland noise scene. The whole noise scene in Oakland before it spun out and deteriorated, it got really ugly and that to me was an instance. I grew up in punk, I like punk as an emotional outlet, like seeing people and having the crowd freak out and it was an offshoot of that. But at some point it just seemed like there was a lot of people who weren’t playing anything important. It was supposed to be for emotion but they were doing it to be cool and there’s a lot of cool people playing and there was this one instance where Christopher and I went to a place and just found it to be awful. We were wasted and turned on a hose in a hallway for like three seconds and kind of laughed like, ‘Whoa, that’s getting everywhere!’ and turned it off. Just this very drunken behavior and stupidness. We didn’t know that the whole place houses hundreds of people and some guy came up—some kind of jock-y guy came up and started pushing us around and instead of going for me he went for Chris, who’s like 5’4” and like 100 pounds. And he started punching him and we got into a tussle and finally his friends came and they just escorted us out, and we ended up throwing a rock through their window. This is just bad—I’m not condoning what we did but that was a moment where it was like, ‘Fuck everything! Let’s try to do something that’s not brash and simple chord structures and do something that has melody instead of avoiding that because it’s easier to make noise.’
You said you felt like people weren’t doing anything important—what do you think is important about music? What was lacking?
JR White: I kinda said that without thinking. I’m not very self-important—I don’t think everything I do is that great, honestly. When I read good reviews it’s so surprising to me.
What happens when you read bad reviews? You’re like, ‘Yeah! Pour it on!’?
JR White: A little bit. Actually a little bit. They don’t really bother me—they bother me when they’re at a personal level or if they call you a poser. I’m like, ‘You don’t even know me, and first of all you have a blog—I don’t.’ But the question was?
You said bands weren’t doing anything important.
JR White: It wasn’t important to me. I don’t think music necessarily has to have any meaning, it can be very—to me it’s the highest form of art.
Sartre actually said that too.
JR White: I don’t think that it has to be important—it just has to be important to the listener. It’s important to the artist as someone making it and whatever their attention to it is, but it really only exists in the ears of people listening to it. So I can’t say if my music is important or not—only someone else can say it.
What three chords together are most likely to melt someone’s heart?
JR White: The prerequisite is that I never had any music training at all—that’s why I play bass. It was all patterns for me, and when Chris yells out chord structures I seriously start fucking drowning. E and A together is always my favorite just because I have a love of drone and Spacemen 3 and things like that. E, A and G are always good ones. I guess they say minor chords always bring out the sorrow feeling.
Is it true that every time somebody sings the word ‘love’ in a pop song they actually mean the word ‘fuck’?
JR White: Chris would argue with that I’m sure. I don’t know—do they mean ‘fuck’? I think when people say ‘love,’ they usually don’t even mean love. I think when people write a song about love, it’s not really as important as they think it is. The process of writing a song is fairly instantaneous—something that happens instantly. A song that is written about a person is usually written—from my experience—out of lust and yearning before any real rationalization comes into it. And I think you need rationalization for love—true love anyway. The artist’s interpretation of what they’re writing is probably never about love so yeah, it could be about fucking. I would agree with that.
Brian Wilson’s favorite song ever heard—as far as production, arrangement, songwriting, everything—was ‘Be My Baby.’ What’s the most perfect song you’ve ever heard? What’s your ‘Be My Baby’?
JR White: I like the Band—‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.’ I just like the timing on the chorus before it comes in and the roll and how it’s late every time, but it’s not late because he does it every time—I still can’t sing along to it right. It’s challenging and ever since I was a kid it was my favorite song because it’s so grandiose but still very ramshackle.
What is the most unhappy you’ve ever been to see the sun come up?
JR White: Oh, on bad Ecstasy actually. The kind of Ecstasy that you never had the euphoria and all you had was the speed. I’ve had the speed instances where it’s actually kind of fun—you feel like a million bucks and you’re like, ‘Why don’t I do this all the fucking time?’ But when you’re laying in bed and it’s coming through your window and it’s hot and you just can’t sleep through it—I’d say that. Or just being in an airport waiting for a plane. I can’t think of a worse situation than that.
What’s the worst place you ever woke up?
JR White: I’m good at blocking things out. Last year I woke up in McCarren Park in New York with my pockets inside out and my cell phone missing and I had no idea where I was because I haven’t spent that much time in New York. That was pretty shitty.It’s funny because I’d found this photo in a thrift store of a close-up homemade anal sex shot and I had been carrying it with me to slip into the opening band’s stuff when we were on tour. For the first few shows it was just constantly passed around and hidden in places. It was a really shocking image.
Was it shot by a third party or the one guy with like a Polaroid?
JR White: I think it was third party. It was that famous shot of ass and penetration and the taker on top and giver on bottom sort of thing. Full-on shocking image. But they took that from me and I was more embarrassed that somebody went through my pockets and found that. I think they went through my pockets because my receipts and stuff were next to me and my phone was gone and I’m not the kind of drunk that throws his things around—I sort of just curl up into a ball and fall asleep. So someone stole my phone and charged $700 calling Thailand on it and—who knows?—had a lot of fun with that photo.
Dean from your label True Panther was talking about how amazing it is that if you type ‘Girls’ into Google it outranks every porno site. How do you feel about that as your legacy?
JR White: I don’t know, man—someone at Matador must have paid someone somewhere. I don’t believe it. I don’t even understand how that happens.
Do you think they routinely pay off porno sites to get higher search ratings?
JR White: It’s possible. I’m actually here right now. They’re really sordid people. I’m looking at them through the window right now and one guy’s pulling pieces of his hair out right now.
A bunch of shirtless people all grunting and sweaty?
JR White: Thurston Moore is here and he’s just taking his pants off and no one looks surprised.
What famous person would you most like to take off your pants?
JR White: I’m so bad at questions like this. I’d like to really emasculate someone by having them take my pants off so lemme think of someone who’s really tough … I’d like Arnold Schwarzenegger to have to take my pants off.
Imagine looking down there and seeing those eyes looking back.
JR White: Totally frightening. It’d probably be a little bit scary for him. I hope so.
So an exchange of terror?
JR White: I’d like to really just terrorize someone with the option of having them take my pants off, rather than me try to get something out of it. I’m sure if Angelina Jolie was taking my pants off, it would be just as terrifying for her as it would be for Arnold Schwarzenegger.
That’s interesting that you went past selfish sexual gratification to this intense power dynamic.
JR White: Yeah. I’m a fairly selfless person.
What’s the most fucked-up food you ever ate?
JR White: Oh, I used to be a chef so I eat everything. Most people are grossed out by my diet but I’ll eat anything. I won’t eat bugs—that’s where I won’t cross the line, even though they’re probably not the worst-tasting thing. I just think it’s wrong. I’ll eat anything—hearts, livers. I’ve had lamb testicle tureen.
A cobra’s beating heart?
JR White: No, but I was in Vietnam though and I would’ve. I’ve had cobra wine.
Does it make you virile and potent like it’s supposed to?
JR White: I wouldn’t know—no babies yet. Not that I know of … But we tried to find monkey wine once, which is the whole monkey soaking in the wine. That shit’s crazy. They’re actually known to randomly explode because it’s so volatile—the alcohol in there. Like a couple times a year one of those bars just randomly explodes. I was having a conversation with someone in France and they’ve made a kind of sausage where they stuff the lower intestines with the kidneys and liver—they stuff it but they don’t wash out the intestines, so you’re eating shit.
Isn’t that fantastically dangerous?
JR White: I would think so. The cooking process probably kills a lot of the bacteria but still … it tastes like shit. Cass actually ate it and he said it was the worst thing he’d ever eaten. I can’t imagine actually going for it.
What in your professional opinion does shit taste like? I’ve never actually eaten shit.
JR White: I don’t know—especially cooked shit, it probably changes taste. I don’t even want to know, to be honest. I can’t even think about it.
What’s the first thing you think when you look in a mirror?
JR White: ‘Um, seriously?’ That’s what I say when I look in a mirror. ‘Really? Seriously?’ When I look in a mirror, I’m not quite sure what I’m seeing. I’m not sure if I look older or I look younger. I think every day I look different. I had this conversation before about whether or not you would recognize yourself if you saw you walking down the street.
Because you’re used to the mirror and it would look different.
JR White: Yeah, and the basic idea being that when you look in the mirror is that actually you? Totally stoner conversation, probably. But I’m convinced I would not recognize myself. I would feel akin to the person—like, ‘That guy looks like me!’ But I don’t know. I really do avoid mirrors at all costs. I actually wait for the mirrors to fog up before I get in the shower. And I don’t have weird body issues—I don’t hate myself that much. Not more than most people, I think.
If you saw the female version of yourself on the street, would you be attracted to her?
JR White: Would I want to have sex with her?
Sure—let’s put it out there.
JR White: No, probably not. But when you said that, I started to wonder if [drummer] Garett [Godard] would want to have sex with me because I’m slightly bigger and Garett has an affinity for the bigger girls. He’s openly expressed this. And if I found out that he did want to fuck me, would I then be mad at him? Yeah, I would. I think I would be mad and think Garett would want to fuck me if I was a female.
Are you excited that I’ve introduced this troubling idea into the band dynamic?
JR White: I’m going to bring this up to him as soon as I walk into the other room. I know he’d say he wouldn’t fuck me—that’s 100 percent sure—but I don’t think he’s being truthful.
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