Former Girls Producer/Bassist Chet "JR" White Breaks Silence on Band’s Split
In Liz Pelly’s memorable The End Of Girls, And The Future (And Past) Of Christopher Owens, published the day after the breakup of Girls, the word “Owens” is featured 17 times, while the word “White” appears six times. Granted, the title of the article foreshadows such a disparity, but this exemplifies the attitude across the board with regards to the two former members of Girls, Christopher Owens and Chet “J.R.” White. Just this week Drowned in Sound published an interview with Owens that discussed many aspects of Girls’ demise. White’s name does not appear once.
On July 2, 2012, Christopher Owens sent three Tweets from his personal account that added up to him “leaving” the band. Now, nine months later, even saying “the band” sounds weird, considering Owens’ stance that Girls’ inability to be a real band fueled his departure. One of the last things that JR White imparted to me during a series of talks that began in January of this year, was that Girls was more about a relationship to him, about the friendship that these two young men shared and the art that resulted of each compensating for what the other lacked. And, like any breakup, it’s easier to be the one leaving.
Since that day in early summer, Owens has released a solo album that has received a mixed reaction, and while he says “over time it’ll have more importance,” it is hard to imagine a scenario where Lysandre could compare to any of the three Girls releases. More memorable than the album has been Owens’ surprising candor about the breakup as part of a calculated media blitz, eventually speaking to outlets in such great numbers that seeing new comments about Girls’ breakup hardly would turn a head.
Meanwhile, JR White moved on—or at least tried to. He turned down all requests for interviews about Girls, not wanting to add to Owens’ story that was popping up in publications near and far. Chris Owens was the songwriter, the one with whom the listeners identified and few writers were willing to second-guess, with White aknowledging “it could get ugly” if the two were to begin debating the causes and methods of their partnership’s dissolution.
After being connected through a mutual friend, it took a series of conversations, emails, texts, personal references, promises, assurances and hopes before White agreed to be interviewed. And, after our first 60-minute session, he asked if we could do it again.
White didn’t want to talk about Girls’ breakup initially, and he described its details as “pretty boring.” But, as we continued, it became apparent that it wasn’t even that White didn’t want to talk about the breakup, but he literally hadn’t sorted out how he felt about it.
Our first long talk was originally scheduled by White for Super Bowl Sunday, a game that the San Francisco 49ers were playing in. I never heard him mention it and am pretty sure he’s not a sports guy.
1) Dear all, This may come as a surprise to many & has been an issue of much thought for me. My decision was not easy to make
— Christopher Owens (@Chri55yBaby) July 2, 2012
2) I am leaving Girls. My reasons at this time are personal. I need to do this in order to progress
— Christopher Owens (@Chri55yBaby) July 2, 2012
3) I will continue to write & record music. More will be announcedsoon. I thank you all for everything. Sincerely-Christopher
— Christopher Owens (@Chri55yBaby) July 2, 2012
Paste (Philip Cosores): Take us through the next few days of your life after Girls broke-up.
Chet “JR” White: There was an initial shock of it happening. Getting the initial word from Chris through an email and seeing the words—there was a shock, but I didn’t feel too strong of emotions. I wasn’t sad. It was all very official, reading an email that said “I don’t want to do this anymore,” it all settled in a very positive way for me.
I hadn’t realized until then, but I expected it. Of course I expected it. I knew Chris better than anyone and we spent nearly every day together for two years. I knew what his ambitions were. And, when we stopped really talking during the recording of Father, Son, Holy Ghost, I knew it could be coming soon.
In the beginning of Girls, I had these sort of weird conversations with myself about the reality of being 28. I felt like I was supposed to know what to do with the rest of my life. And once we started getting attention, I had to ask if being in a band was what I wanted, particularly one with a friend. We’ve all seen Behind the Music. How often does that work out? There are a lot of cliches within rock and roll that exist because they are real.
I was very rational about the decision to be in Girls. I put a lot of thought into it because I already had a decent job at a restaurant and felt like I was going somewhere in the culinary world. I considered what if the band broke up in five years? I’d be 32, and what would I do then? Would I go back to cooking? I knew Chris was the main writer and the natural thing would be that he’d eventually want to do a solo project.
I also felt like a change was welcome. I hadn’t had a major change in my life since the band had started. It was a great opportunity and it was fun, but there are some very stagnant things about being in a band. It felt like a fairly positive thing initially when Girls broke up.
Paste: In recent interviews, Christopher has stated that at the time of the breakup, you had already expressed interest in work on the new Spectrals album.
White: Ehhhhhh. I don’t know if that is true. There was talk…
Paste: Well, where I was going with that was if you were already working on that album in early July?
White: I didn’t have any plans post-Primavera, which was the last festival we played. The interest was there, but I had such a difficult time balancing being in a band with having a regular life and a girlfriend, and that made it hard for me to say “OK” to an offer.
Paste: It’s a big commitment of time and energy for you to take a job like that.
White: Exactly, and I already had a huge commitment of time going into Girls. But, there were always bands, every couple of months since Girls became known, that would seek me out. Chris and I had talked about it, but it had definitely not been confirmed at that point. When you get to meet a lot of people who make music, it comes down to if you really like them and want to work closely with them.
Spectrals were in the situation where the two brothers are the main band members, making the dynamic similar to Girls. Like, the main creative output comes from Louis [Oliver Jones] and he works with his brother Will. I got to know them pretty well when they opened for Girls, and it was helpful for them to feel comfortable with me, knowing that I understood the band and knew how to represent them. They weren’t afraid of me changing something in their sound.
Paste: And, in quick hindsight, are you glad you chose this project first and happy with how it came out?
White: Yeah, it was actually a lot of hard work. It was a lot like the first LP, with the two of them playing nearly everything. It’s weird how something like that can free you up. Because of the constraints of not having a full band, you create other ways to make up for it.
For me, albums in duress are the most interesting. Like, either bad circumstances, or limitations with equipment or with people. And this was sort of that situation. It wasn’t on the budget of a big record, it was done fairly inexpensively, and they had to fly over from the U.K. and stay here. So, to compensate for the shoestring budget, we had to use a lot of creativity and in the end, it sounds really cohesive and big. It’s not a lo-fi record.
Paste: So, you had mentioned to me previously that you had three albums in the works?
White: Yeah, I don’t know exactly what I can say at this point, but there will probably be three others as of now. Plus, I did some production for a band called Glitz—that’s out now.
One of my projects is with a new artist, Tobias Jesso Jr. I was put in the position that because I was portrayed as a producer by the media and by us, bands would send me demos while I was still in Girls to see if I’d work with them. And, I generally try to listen to them, and this next project came out of something like that, where it was one of the demos that I received, and I got it, like, two days after the band broke up. It’s something that I’m really excited about, and it feels like it could be the next step, and there may be a possibility that I might even play in the band.
He just signed the final draft of his contract five days ago with Dean at True Panther, and the idea was for him to come here and we would work together like with Girls. The original idea was gonna come live on my couch and we were going to do it with no label support, but because he’s Canadian and getting a visa was problem, now I’m supposed to go to Vancouver and do it.
And I’m also mixing for Cass McCombs.
Paste: How long have you been working on that?
White: Well, there was a point with Girls where it always made sense to me to record our own stuff because I had the capability, thought the first record was done with such a lack of equipment. But, as Chris and I began to meet more and more people, I got into a studio space around the time of the EP, but for whatever reason, it never worked out that Girls actually used it.
I met Cass and had this space, and he’d come over from time to time and record stuff. It wasn’t neccesarily for release, but I was helping him catalog the songs that he had written, though we were recording them as if they were being released. And, we sort of developed a good working relationship together. So, recently, he was talking about his next record and having me mix it or help him mix it. He went to New York and recorded it and now we’ve set up a makeshift mixing studio in his basement in the Bay Area and I’ve been up there every day pretty much to help him finish it.
Paste: Cass McCombs is a pretty enigmatic figure. He hardly talks to the press, he doesn’t really like to speak about his work, it’s unique to be able to get that experience with him.
White: Yeah. That’s him. Cass isn’t trying to cultivate a personality; he just does what he wants to do. He doesn’t want to talk to people, and that’s great. You realize you are working with a real artistic mind and at times, I have to alter the way I do things to communicate with him and make it work. There’s a lot of give with Cass. I think that’s why he chose me, because he can’t find a lot of people that he can get along with on a daily basis, and that he trusts to share his music and process with. So, yeah, I feel lucky in that respect.
This thing, it’s hard to say what is going to be on his next record because we are mixing, like, 40 songs. And also, he says so little and I really don’t know what his plan is.
There’s some stuff that we’ve recorded that is really basic with just a few mics, that I think was just for him to catalog songs so he could hear them back. So, we have those older songs from those session, which we’re calling The Mission Bells Sessions, and a lot of it is from his recent sessions in New York.
Paste: And, then there is DIIV?
White: Well, we walked away with Cole saying he wants to do the record with me at any time, and we finished recording three songs. It’s been going really well. I don’t know if there will be time to do that, though, and they want to wait until after Coachella.
Cole is really going through a stressful time, and he didn’t take any time off to do his recording. I’m not comfortable saying I have the job. I’d love to say I’m doing that record and I think that will end up happening, I hope so. As of now, we’ve recorded three songs that might be for their next LP, but they might even release an EP instead.
Photo courtesy of DIIV
Paste: So as you get more opportunities to do other projects, how are you going to go about choosing? There are two general schools of thought, one with how you were talking about Spectrals, where you mesh with the people or the music, and the other, the Steve Albini way, where he’ll work with anyone that pays his fee.
White: Well, I think I came off wrong when talking about the Spectrals. Originally you asked what drew me to Spectrals. So, I found myself in sort of a quandary when the band ended, which was, with Girls, we were so aware of what we put out there as far as our image, and, everything you do in a band is sort of pre-meditated, and hype was definitely a big part of how our band got where it was. Plus, Chris has sort of an unavoidable and interesting story. It wasn’t like we were these gross dudes who were like “we’re going to use this to our benefit.” But, we knew that his story was there and it would probably come out. We were being called “honest” from day one because we were open about our drug use and somehow the word “honest” was attached and we were like “well, I guess that makes sense, we will talk about anything.”
So, coming out of Girls, I felt like I wanted my next project to be more obtuse, and I think it was based on that thinking and wanting control. And, I’d also say that based on knowing bands and knowing that if I produced a record, it would be a big part of the PR, and I don’t necessarily mind that, but it’s a weird position to be in. At the time that Spectrals was being discussed, I was being approached by bands that had already been through the Pitchfork mill, so I was kind of choosy about what my first project would be post-Girls.
But as far as the future, I’m still trying to decide what my place is as a producer, if I will start taking everything, because there are lots of offers that I haven’t taken, and I don’t know if I’ll shoot myself for that because I kind of just need money, but I have to always consider if this is my art or my profession, and professionalism kind of ruins it for me sometimes. I have friends who’ve had to deal with the same dilemma. I used to talk to Sandy Kim, who’s a photographer, and she thought about ceasing to live off the money from her photos because she thought it was ruining it for her. I think that might be a normal thing an artist goes through.
Paste: I think as you work with more and more bands, you’ll figure out what you can do and what you can’t do, what bothers you and what doesn’t bother you.
White: Yeah, that’s really true. And, not having your own studio is a thing. Like, Steve Albini has his own studio, so he has no overhead, and people can look at him and say ‘his rate is fairly affordable.’ So, he gets a lot of work through that. Not having my own studio, the cost goes up and a lot of bands wouldn’t be able to pay my fee and the studio fee, like, $500 a day on top of whatever my fee is.
Paste: Is this a temporary setback? Are you still thinking of getting your own studio? Or is that not really a consideration right now?
White: It’s not so much a consideration right now. That’s something I would work towards. I’m very much still in the process of figuring out my career and exactly what I want to do. I’m still having the same conversations with myself as when I decided I wanted to do Girls. Girls didn’t break up that long ago for me. It took me a couple months to feel grounded and then get into the Spectrals record. And, it’s the kind of thing, where I’m happy with how it came out, but it raises more questions.
I was in the very lucky position to be able to work at something that was just mine, you know, it was just Chris’ and mine. And, now, that it’s not that, I’m excited about the possibilities, whether that is taking every offer, or just working with the people I want to work with.
Paste: You mentioned the possibility of playing in Tobias Jessu Jr.’s band. Is that something you would want?
White: Maybe. It has to be an extraordinary situation. Girls was an extraordinary situation. I had come to terms with not being interested in playing music before that, but with Chris, playing music and then us working on his songs and recording them, it was different. And, it seemed like my input in our recording had now become part of the overall picture, and I wanted to see what this baby we created could do. And, that’s a possibility I guess, with Tobias, because that is an extraordinary situation, at least for me. It hit me when I heard it, and I thought maybe I was just swimming too much in my own head, but when I played it to other people, they reinforced what I thought, and I was surprised that I was able to find something so quickly, right after the breakup, and that it was sent to me.
Photo by Philip Cosores
Paste: What do you think has drawn you more to the production aspect than the writing and performance aspect of music?
White: What drew me to it was the amount of freedom that you can have with it. I grew up recording bands in the garage in high school, and at the time, it was about getting in the room with people that I respected, these musicians, and have them need something from me. I found something that was great because it allowed me to be around people I admired. And, at some point in that, I realized that I had something that most didn’t have, and that I could actually help people. At the time, there was a lot of gratification that could come from that, by inserting yourself into this performance situation to help someone, and they really like what you did. And, also, it’s so specialized, and it’s nice to know how to do something that most people don’t know, particularly such a pivotal part of making music. And, I do like making music, but at some point I realized that I like producing better. I really do like to help people realize their music as they imagine it, or being another set of ears to help them realize something that they haven’t thought about. It’s a really interesting way to be a part of music and art, almost the sneaky, backdoor way of being in a band. The teen me who was in bands that never did very well, I think that was how I got into it, thinking ‘I still want to make music, but I don’t think I’m ever going to be in a big band. How can I still do this?’ From there, it developed into something that felt natural.
Paste: You came from a band where you did all or most of the production work yourself. But, a lot of other bands, when they try to self-produce, they run into trouble. What do you think about that dynamic? Did you find it natural to self-produce, or do you have insight as to what some might struggle with it?
White: I think it tends to get hung up on the word “producer.” For us, it was just two guys making music, and my role was more of the recording side of things. It was a very natural process, just like “Here’s what I think would sound good and here’s why,” “Alright let’s do it.” Sometimes I’d work by myself and sometimes he’d play more instruments than me and there just wasn’t a set way to do things. We both had our interests and were both somewhat available to do other things, and like for percussion we’d just figure out what sounded best from song to song. I did all the engineering and all the technical stuff, and that was just my defined role, as the one to handle the production aspects of Girls. But, it was sort of this ambiguous role, too, where I was helping Chris develop songs and it was suddenly like I was producing a record, and I had wanted to produce bands, so it felt very natural.
Paste:So, looking back at Girls, it’s been nine months or so, have you started to think in terms of a legacy or your proprietorship of the music created?
White: It’s hard not to think about that. I have weird moments where it comes up. Like, the other day I was listening to The Velvet Underground, the song “I’m Set Free,” and I had forgotten that when we recorded “Hellhole Ratrace” I was thinking that song was what it sounded like, and that’s why we added the tom roll and the reverb. And, if you listen to that song, it doesn’t have the final, explosive chorus, and the form of the song is different.
That album, The Velvet Underground, was a big record for me that influenced the Girls record, and I don’t know if anyone has ever made that connection, but I was thinking when I heard that song and then I was thinking in terms of what a cool band The Velvet Underground were, and how they were much bigger after they were gone, and I’d forgotten that when we first started Girls, I had wanted to be a band like that. I would rather have been a band that didn’t fit in at the time. It’s kind of that Searching for Sugar Man thing, where you kind of feign your fame when your not ready for it. I mean, everyone’s had that Rodriguez fantasy that someone, somewhere will one day realize that you are a genius.
So, yeah, that song just brought out all those memories, how when we first started I didn’t care if we were big, I just wanted a band that big brothers and big sisters in the future would play for their little brothers and little sisters and be like “check this out, this is a band that no one really knows and they should.”
Paste: Isn’t that how you introduced Chris to a lot of music? I read somewhere that you showed him bands like Spaceman 3 and such.
White: I mean, he was fairly up-to-date when I met him. He had been hanging out with his party crew who were fairly hip, but yeah, I introduced him to some music like that. Spaceman 3 I would always push on him because I was like “they did an album with no drummer, we can do an album with no drummer.”
Chris is an interesting person. That’s what attracted me to him in the first place, and what has now attracted a lot of people to him. I think I have a good eye and ear and ability to see things that have a lot of potential. He looked like no one else and acted like no one else.
Paste: As the process for his album promotion has gone on, he’s indicated a desire to work with you again in the future. Is that something you’d want, or is it too weird to consider at this point?
White: I don’t know. I don’t know what that means. Saying that in an interview gives him such control. But I haven’t talked to him about it, so I don’t know. It’s such a controlled way to say that. I don’t read that shit. I never read press in Girls because I had a distaste for it and that’s natural. But, someone sent me a text recently asking “have you seen the Pitchfork thing?” and I was like “Why should I see this?” and that’s how I think I found out he said something like that…
Paste: It was in The Guardian, and he even went further than he had before, making it seem like it was something that he almost expected to happen at a later point.
White: It doesn’t mean anything to me unless he talks to me. So, yeah, I don’t really know what to say about that. I think it’s a little too soon to think about, and I don’t know what “eventually” means or whatever. 10 years from now, who knows what will be going on?
Paste: Coachella will offer you millions of dollars in 10 years to bring back Girls.
White: [laughs] Maybe I’ll have started making beats by then. Who knows? His next record could be all hip-hop.
The only thing that upsets me, where I feel like he slighted me, is shit that no one really notices but me. As far as I’m concerned, I produced every record. While we were making the last record, he’s my best friend but we weren’t talking, and I still don’t really know why. To me, I think maybe something happened that he feels uncomfortable talking about, but really, I’ll never know.
But when the record came out and I saw the credit, I was surprised, it was listed as this dude that I hired to be our engineer. And he’s gone on to say I only produced the first record, which is just a crazy thing. People that had been in the band in that era would come up to me “did you see that shit? I thought you produced the record.” I get the feeling that he resented my contribution, or that he wanted to assure he was seen as the mastermind behind it all.
I went through a weird period post-Girls where recently I wasn’t happy. I didn’t feel like Girls left a positive taste in my mouth. And like, once you say it’s done, it’s fucking done. I’ve never liked when bands reunite. Even though some of my favorite bands could reunite, I don’t like it. I don’t. And not because I think it’s selling out, but, I’ve seen reunion shows before and I didn’t like it. Like when old punk bands get back together, I don’t want to see Black Flag. Fuck. For me, it’s just the worst possible idea.
I can say that I never wanted to break up Girls, but when Chris wanted to leave Girls, I just wanted to never talk about Girls again. The idea of Chris leaving Girls is very strange to me, because I would never continue Girls without Chris. He wrote the songs. It was still very clear what our roles were. And him leaving Girls publicly, it was a bit of a shock to me, more of a shock than the band actually ending. And I definitely went through a period of being upset and then a period of of joking about continuing the band without him, but that’s something I would never do.
But yeah, to me, I would have never broken it up like that. I would have just rather Girls to have disappeared, to have people just always wonder. Like, Chris does his solo record, does the tour, does whatever else next, and there is just always the question of “whatever happened to that band? They won’t talk about it.” Like, to me, mystery is so much more interesting. The… this is going to sound so cliche….we’re in this time in music where everything is so available. Coming out of doing so much press and being honest and open and talking about everything and about the drugs and having that in magazine articles and having to talk to my parents whom I’ve never talked to about my drug use, it got worn out, you know. Like, wondering if maybe that wasn’t the coolest idea.
A big part of Girls was everything that Christopher said ended up being a stance, but for me, it was just about me. I’m not living in a world where I want to premeditate what you say about your band. So, I don’t have a stance. Talking to you made me realize I didn’t know what my stance was, and maybe there doesn’t have to be one.
The basic idea was that the band was built around camaraderie and friendship, for me at least. At some point the band felt like, as stupid as it sounds, “a band of brothers.” It felt like more than a band. So, when it became a band, it became less interesting and just a failure of our relationship. That was the whole band, him and I, so the failure of one meant the failure of both.
So, for me, for a while I did have a little distaste. I kind of looked at Girls like it was a negative thing. When people would ask lately, I’d just say it was fine, but there was a time where I wasn’t so sure. I still don’t really know how I feel. He told me he was done with the band via email the day before he said it on Twitter. I had asked him for some time to tell my family, but I knew he would do it like that. He was going out of town and wouldn’t be in San Francisco to run into me or have to actually talk to me about it. There seemed to be some anger behind it, and I do have some animosity over how it ended. I guess I could say that.