On a warm sunny afternoon, when fortuitous winds have blown the noxious smoke of the North Bay fires far from the city limits, Christopher Owens ambles into Golden Gate Park, looking downbeat and dejected.
Clad in an outfit of black shit-kicker boots, green shorts, a brightly colored flannel shirt, and a beige fly-fishing cap, Owens has spent the past hour wandering aimlessly through the Sunset District, asking strangers for help charging his dead phone. Bewildered people reacted to his pleas with ridicule. It was only after he broke down and cried that someone finally offered to help.
It is a sad, disheartening tale — a kind that has become unfortunately familiar for the guy who might just be the most accomplished musician living in San Francisco.
As the frontman and creative force behind Girls, Owens presided over one of the most beloved and critically revered bands of the past decade. The group’s debut, Album, landed on Pitchfork and Spin’s year-end Top 10 lists, and Stereogum named its follow-up LP, Father, Son, Holy Ghost 2011’s album of the year. An EP, Broken Dreams Club, released between the two full-length albums, received similarly rapturous responses. Harnessing the sounds of shoegaze, doo-wop, post-punk, folk, and other genres, Owens displayed a preternatural gift for imbuing depth and complexity to seemingly simple pretenses. Using his frail, whispering voice and pleading lyricism as a portal into his broken heart, Owens could transform seemingly basic reinterpretations of classic sounds into powerful, connective statements.
Following the demise of Girls, Owens released three solo albums. While those records did not match the soaring creative heights of their predecessors, they still garnered plenty of kudos and kept Owens in the national spotlight. And for San Francisco music fans, Owens amounted to something of a local icon, as the 38-year-old remained a proud city resident, laying down roots while scores of his contemporaries departed for other locales.
Yet Owens has endured an absolutely harrowing year. In the past 12 months, he has been kicked out his apartment, hit by a car while riding his motorcycle, suffered the loss of close friends, had record deals pulled away, and lost his part-time job at a coffee shop. At times, he was homeless, busking on the street for cash. On one occasion, he was kicked out of Cole Hardware for eating part of a spinach plant in the gardening section. Initially, he took a chomp out of the plant for a joke, but he kept going because it tasted so good — and he was that hungry.
It is difficult to reconcile those heartbreaking scenes with the same person who once played before thousands of adoring fans at huge festivals like Coachella and Primavera Sound.
“It has been hell on earth — the worst year of my life,” Owens says. “All of my greatest fears were realized.”
Making matters worse, no one from his once close-knit group of San Francisco friends reached out to see how he was doing during those tumultuous times.
“You just think like, ‘If I’m not doing well amongst the status quo, are my friends going to go away?’ ” Owens says. “Well guess what? They will.”
Fortunately, that grueling string of hellish events finally appear to be behind him. Owens has a new apartment, a new motorcycle, a new part-time coffee shop gig, and, most significantly, a new musical project — Curls — that has created the same kind of euphoric excitement that Girls once generated.
For his latest endeavor, Owens is backed by a pair of ace musicians in drummer Cody Rhodes and bassist Luke Baće. Both are veteran members of the Bay Area music scene, with Rhodes having played with Geographer, Wicked Man, and the jazz composer Mason Razavi, and Baće contributing to groups like Bows and Big Tree.
The trio will release its debut EP, Vante, on Nov. 7, via the small San Francisco label Urban Scandal Records. The group has already issued two of the four tracks from that album, and the results so far are thrilling. The first single, “Emotion,” is a muscular power-pop number, featuring a “Sweet Jane” riff and an assured vocal delivery from Owens (contrasting the earnest fragility that has been his trademark). The second release, “Gentle and Kind,” is a warm, layered number that evokes Imagine-era John Lennon.
“Chris says what people are afraid to say,” Rhodes says. “Most people have this filter in their head, and they think it’s dumb to express these simple, straightforward thoughts. But Chris doesn’t care about that. He sings about what he is feeling, no matter what. It is always completely authentic.”
Owens began writing new music more than a year ago, with the intention of using the tunes for a Girls comeback. He said he met with bassist JR White, the sole other member of the band, and even received funding commitments for the album, which would have been Girls’ third full-length.
“I asked JR to do another Girls record and he said, ‘Yes,’ but then just disappeared,” Owens says. “He just stopped answering calls and stopped showing up. I had to find out from other people that he just wasn’t interested in doing it. He just vanished without any real explanation.”
The abandonment recalled painful memories from the final days of Girls. Owens refused to get into details about the breakup, but he has been open and candid about past drug use, and rumors circulated at the time that addiction played a role in the ending of the band. Owens did say that he had to leave because he “didn’t want to be in that scene anymore.”
“Everyone thinks I didn’t want Girls to happen,” Owens says. “Not only did I not want it to end in the first place, but I tried to bring it back. I just couldn’t get any traction.”
Picking up the pieces from his aborted reunion with White, Owens went back to the recording studio to work on material for a solo album, reaching out to Rhodes, who was a session drummer for Owens’ third release, Chrissybaby Forever. Rhodes was a huge Girls fan, and was serendipitously connected with Owens through a local San Francisco producer. When Owens inquired about a bassist, Rhodes recommended Baće. The drummer and bassist played together in the San Francisco band City Tribe, where they formed a tight professional and personal bond.
Impressed with their professionalism and talents, Owens asked them to form a band with him.
“I think Chris always wanted to be in another band,” Rhodes says. “When he found out that we lived in town, and we were not planning on moving, he was all about it.”
Both Baće and Rhodes praised Owens for his openness to their ideas and his collaborative approach to the music. The trio has fleshed out numerous songs, and has enough material for a full-length album, which the three plan to release after Vante.
“It’s pretty sweet to have the creative freedom we have,” Baće says. “I have worked with principal songwriters who exercise their veto power on a 10-minute basis. There isn’t any of that negative shit here. It’s a really supportive environment.”
The band will play three headlining dates at Cafe du Nord and another supporting slot at the Chapel in the coming months, and hopes to hit the road for a more extensive, nationwide jaunt next year. Owens’ pedigree — nearly every one of his major decisions makes news on Pitchfork — offers the group opportunities not available to other local bands, such as the ability to play larger venues and alongside established groups like Cults (whom they’ll open for at the Chapel on Nov. 3).
“With Chris, we have this huge advantage,” Baće says. “It’s like we’re trying to build a building, but we’re already on the 10th floor.”
Despite all the good vibes, a conversation with Owens reveals someone struggling to find his place, to adapt to a life without many of his longtime associates and friends. That is reflected in the EP’s title: Vante is a Norse word denoting longing, or of being without certain things. Owens understands many people care for him, but he isn’t asking for sympathy, and he scoffs when hearing about concerns for his well-being, often an allusion to his past drug use.
“If there is someone who is saying, ‘I’m worried about Chris,’ I would say, ‘Do your homework,’ ” Owens says. “Anybody who has ever worked with me knows I’m 100-percent on top of everything. I have never missed a show or cancelled a tour. It’s nice to know that people are rooting for me, but at the same time it’s kind of obnoxious. If you care, why don’t you call, or fund my record deal?”
Those grievances notwithstanding, Owens feels reinvigorated working alongside Baće and Rhodes.
“To be honest, I’m having the time of my life,” he says. “This is all I ever wanted with a band — to be playing with solid dudes. They’re good guys and that’s important to me now. I’m 38 years old. I don’t want to be surrounded by phonies or deal with other people’s bullshit.”
That is the way it goes with Owens, who has made a career of laying his heart on his sleeve. He has been tormented enough and deserves every amount of love and adulation. So if you see him on the street, let the dude borrow your fucking phone charger.
Curls, Oct. 28, Nov. 18, and Dec. 2 at Café Du Nord, 2174 Market St., cafedunord.com.