Girls’ J.R. White talks about his formative years in Santa Cruz
s with any artistically inclined town, the music venues in Santa Cruz are of a cyclical nature, spaces opening and closing, scenes and genres moving from one locale to another. But aside from its annual New Year’s Eve galas, the Cocoanut Grove—a local institution of 105 years—has stood outside it all, reveling in the quiet dignity of its big band and swing roots of the ’30s and ’40s.
That’s all about to change—and there couldn’t be a more appropriate act to usher in a new era for the venue than Girls, an indie rock band clearly harkening back to an older one. The duo, made up of singer/guitarist Christopher Owens and bassist Chet “J.R.” White, leans toward Buddy Holly sensibilities (if Buddy Holly used opiates as a creative catalyst), and will bring the time warp with it when it visits the venue on March 1.
White has a better understanding of the Cocoanut Grove’s place in the Santa Cruz music scene than international artists stopping through town. That’s because he spent his formative years growing up in Santa Cruz’s punk scene, hitting up record stores like Steven’s Music World, and playing shows as a 13-year-old in a band called The Willies at places like the Red Room and the basement of the Veterans Hall.
“Punk allowed me, as a 17-year-old, to get a number of labels and then realize that you could scrape together some money and put on shows,” says White. “We didn’t even know what punk rock was back then. We probably thought it was wallet chains and tattoos.”
White retains a retrospective view of Santa Cruz.
“I’ve actually avoided going back and playing there—it’s like a whole other world,” laments the 32-year old. “It’s almost this untouchable thing, that place in time. I loved it, but I don’t necessarily have a desire to go back [to live].”
As a young man, White spent a little time at Cabrillo College before dropping out.
“Cabrillo was like seeing everyone from high school all over again,” he recalls. “I was getting more and more interested in recording bands and things like that, and one day in class I just thought: ‘Why am I not going to school for recording?’”
So, he enrolled at the now-defunct California Recording Institute, and earned a degree in recording engineering—today, White produces all of Girls’ albums. Despite having “supportive, liberal parents,” a traditional career route was never in the cards for White, who even worked for a stint as a catering chef at the well-known Zuni Café in San Francisco.
White describes himself as the guy in the band who was the least likely to play music full-time. However, he’s all in now, handling the band’s contractual negotiations and the various business aspects. In addition to being the primary songwriter, White bounces off song ideas and arrangements.
Even though the band’s first album, 2009’s Album (the band’s second effort, Father, Son, Holy Ghost, was released in September), was admittedly fueled by a great deal of drug use, White has longevity on his mind.
“I don’t like to say I’m paranoid, but I’m definitely cautious,” White says of the band’s success. “It’s a fleeting thing, and most people don’t understand what’s really going on. I’m 30 years old, and originally it was a question of, ‘Do I really want to do this when I’m 35? What is the lifespan of a band?’”Photo: Sandy Kim
Girls performs at 8 p.m. Thursday, March 1, at the Cocoanut Grove, 400 Beach St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $21. For more information, call 423-2053, or visit folkyeah.com.