Late last year, I visited Christopher Owens, the songwriter for Girls (a duo consisting of Owens and bassist Chet “JR” White) at his home in San Francisco. I’d played a show in town the previous night, and in the morning, I woke, walked to Owens’ apartment near Golden Gate Park’s panhandle, and met him in his garage, where he was washing the dirty laundry he’d accreted on Girls’ recent U.S. tour. Upstairs, he brewed us coffee and we spoke for several hours amid his home library, stamp collection, and indoor plant garden, which, despite the neighborhood’s foggy microclimate, seemed to be in full flourish.
ROSS SIMONINI: As an artist, you have an outward persona. You make press appearances and have an active Twitter account. Do you feel as if you’ve represented yourself accurately?
Christopher Owens: The idea is to have my outward persona be as true as it can be to real life, so it’s frustrating when, every once in a while, I can see that someone has the completely wrong perception of me. Maybe it wouldn’t be such a big deal for somebody with a fabricated personality, but it’s difficult when your goal is to present your actual self. I figure it’s just best to ignore those things. People have short memory spans. Within five years, I’ll manage to present a proper image and the wrong stuff will float away.
Do you read much press about yourself?
It’s sent to me. I’m always getting links. I’ve wondered if I should stop reading them, but I think I need to know what’s going on at this point. Besides, the computer’s right there. How could you not look? Some big stars are all, “I don’t read reviews.” Well, great. That’s because you don’t have to—you have 100 people working for you. You’re above the common man’s view of you, I guess.
But didn’t you just say that ignoring the press is the best approach?
Yeah, but I don’t want to be in the dark.
It’s a hard balance.
This way of gauging your success from the computer—it used to be an entirely different thing: print press, radio play, and fan clubs. In the ’70s, Freddie Mercury didn’t sit in front of his computer and judge the entire pulse of his fandom.
The Internet as an archive is considerably different from previous press archives.
It’s easy to watch a YouTube clip of a show and think, That was fine. But back then, there was no way of knowing unless you were there.
How does Twitter connect with all of this?
We’re all losing our privacy. I choose to use Twitter because I want to talk to specific friends. Most singers use their band’s names on Twitter. I don’t. I seldom discuss anything about my band on Twitter.Why are you so set on keeping the band and yourself separate?
I don’t want it to be about the band. It’s more about talking to my friends, and it’s obnoxious for the people who do know me if my feed is boasting or setting records straight or talking about details of songs. I have friends in bands and all they ever do is retweet praise. I don’t want to toot my own horn. Interviewers ask me questions and I answer them, but on Twitter it would be me, on my own accord, saying, Look how smart I was to write that. It’s obnoxious.
II. Mental Illness
Do you write poetry?
I do. I don’t think I’m very good at it, but I do it anyway—because it’s fun. My poems are very simple—they rhyme. I wouldn’t want them to be reviewed. But it’s like everything we’ve been discussing: At what point do you become afraid and start listening to criticism? Critics are often right, but it’s like, Great, you’re so smart. It’s like making fun of a handicapped person. We all know that most artists share some form of mental illness. I used to have an artist friend who would say, “Painting is the last legal form of insanity that’s allowed in society.” I know what he’s saying. You can’t hack somebody into pieces because you want to know how it feels, but you can paint a picture about it. Ultimately, it’s about wanting to discover feelings. If you read Kurt Cobain’s diaries—the guy was crazy. He had mental problems and so do I.
Would you describe most artists you know in this way?
I would. People make art because they have a hard time. Some people can be fulfilled by modern life, but other people have to say, “Me, over here—I’m dissatisfied,” or, “I don’t understand why my parents are divorced,” or, “I’m not fine being a part of this machine.”
I often think that all of the art I love is really just a way of saying, “It’s okay to think this way.”
One of the biggest problems in life is that we have to deal with the difficult fact that we’re all a part of the herd, but we don’t want to just feel like we’re part of the herd. At that same time, being an individual can feel lonely, too. The fact that people only shoot up high schools every once in a while is amazing to me. It says a lot about evolution that people’s chemical balances are okay.
Supposedly, we’re the least violent we’ve been in the history of civilization.
When I was 15, my parents took me to volunteer in Slovenia. It was nothing short of horrifying. The reality of war is horrifying. We’d receive goods from people who shipped them to us from Western Europe, and we’d drive into Croatia and Bosnia and go into refugee homes, hospitals, and refugee camps where 80-year-olds and 2-year-olds were living together in these little tents. There were homes for teenage girls who had been raped and become pregnant from soldiers. There were soldiers who’d had their limbs blown off and were paralyzed. It was really traumatizing. But a thousand years ago, every country had its own little wars. And farther back, the Chinese and the Mongols were just riding across the plains massacring people. So, yeah, things are getting better.
Have you ever protested against the war in Iraq?
I went to a lot of protests at the beginning. When the war started, the first thing America did was protest, and it did nothing. I lived in Texas at the time and even there, thousands of people were protesting. The people at ’60s protests were just radicals, but these protests included everyone, and still, it didn’t matter. Bombings happened as scheduled: Here goes Shock and Awe! Disgusting names like that. It was so disheartening.
What don’t you put in your songs?
I have tons of secrets. People like to think they know me but there are lots of things I will never disclose. I’ll never air other people’s dirty laundry.
Is gossip bad?
No, I love gossip. I read gossip magazines. I visit Perez Hilton every day. It’s only a problem when gossip becomes gospel.
Talking about the outward self in this way seems shallow on one level, but many artists have made their lives works of art.
In a way, that’s about sacrificing yourself to become the person you wish you were, and I think that’s beautiful. The people who end up doing that are often the most vulnerable—Michael Jackson, for instance, even down to the way he looked. He was an art project his whole life. He tried so badly to be a beautiful person. Regardless of what he was like, he was trying to present a person who cared about the world. Those types of people are so vulnerable because everyone wants to find the chink in their armor.
You’ve been pretty honest about your drug use.
It’s like with closeted homosexuals: If you’re behaving as if what you’re doing is a bad thing, then it will always be viewed that way. That’s what perpetuates the taboo—and the appeal. You might as well come out and be happy. Maybe if everyone did that there wouldn’t be so many stigmas about drugs. I think there’s a way of using drugs for a long time, and it can be okay and constructive. But I don’t think most people can handle that.
Do you think it’s possible for drugs not to be a problem?
At some point it almost always becomes a problem. From my experience, the people who use drugs in a non-dramatic way only do so after they’ve learned the hard way.
Are drugs addictive or do people have addictive personalities?
It’s the people. Drugs are just one way that addiction manifests itself. Some people have it with soft drinks or having to watch television for an hour after work. It’s silly how many things there are. Addiction is just a part of being a human being. People pick the things they want and when they don’t get them, they get upset. Life is a big buffet.
Are you an addictive person?
To be honest, I try to stay ahead of it. When I see something becoming addictive, I change things up, because otherwise you grow older faster. Keep it fresh. If you’re depressed, try walking home a different way. It really works.
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Photography by Sandy Kim