Respect Yourself: Interview with Christopher Owens of Girls

June 06, 2011

Duncan Cooper spends a lot of time on the internet. Every other Monday, he pays tribute to the hours spent with original video and audio (or in this case an interview). This week he celebrates Christopher Owens, frontman of the band Girls, and his great Twitter essays.

Christopher Owens says the next Girls album will be their best yet, but until it's out I'm more interested in his Twitter account. Following in the tradition of the great Girls tour diaries he filmed last year on his iPod Nano, Owens' Twitter account (@Chri55yBaby) is an intimate, not-really-about-the-music look at what it's like being Christopher Owens (or a person who is in a band, reads a lot of books, likes pop music or Spanish soccer or Harry Potter movies). The best moments may be his Twitter essays, of which there have been three so far: "Stamps," where he showed off his international stamp collection; "The Blues," dedicated to his curtains and friends in San Francisco; and "All That Jazz," about Friday night jam sessions at Glen Park's Bird & Beckett Books and Records. Composed and posted in real time, the image-based essays are unlike anything else on the internet and totally addictive, like stolen-password trips through Owens' iPhoto. We talked to him to get his take on the project.

Are you the type of person who likes to archive everything you do? Not everything. It's kind of just photos. I have a book where I rewrite poems, and all the Girls song lyrics are in a notebook, but that's kind of it. I also doodle in the books I read on the blank pages. There are not very many things like Twitter.

When you set out to compose an essay, you just happen to have the pictures? In the jazz one, there were pictures of all those musicians. Do you remember taking them and being like, I need to remember these people? I've not ever photographed thinking this will be for Twitter or these will be printed in the New York Times because I'm so neat or, yes, one day I'll publish my own book of my photos. I just like to take them. I do think they're very good, and I kind of like them more than anybody else's pictures. I've had to use my photos for things like our album artwork and stuff like that. All the Girls art—besides the band photos, which are Sandy Kim's—are the same photos in my iPhoto. I love to take pictures. I'll only take a couple a day, but after a year you've got 1500 photos.

With the Twitter essays, you're sort of doing journalism about yourself. These essays are very personal and have nothing to do with the band, and I've never tweeted anything on my account like, You should come to our live show at this place. That's one of the things about the Twitter essays—they're live performances in a way. I want them to be genuine, like not perfectly plotted-out wording and all that, and with random mistakes. If I find a celebrity and I like them and follow them, and all they're doing is promoting themselves and talking about where you can buy t-shirts online, I get really upset. I'm looking for the real person, the humanity of the thing. I love Miley Cyrus because she'll make mistakes. She'll tweet something she's not really supposed to, like a photo of her life. She gives you flaws and all, she'll spout off like a loose cannon. I'm sure she has her parents and her management telling her daily, "Don't tweet anything stupid today." Whereas someone like Emma Watson hardly tweets at all, and when she does it's like, "I will be signing Harry Potter books at such-and-such a store." She's not giving you anything, so you have to unfollow her. It's unfortunate. Ideally everybody would have a Twitter where they're really pouring their guts out all over the place.

It's like the way you can be lame on Twitter is by not really being on Twitter. I know I've deleted a lot of things. It's not always that I think something's bad, just that maybe it doesn't need to be permanently logged. It's just a fleeting feeling. But then a lot of them, I look back at the timeline and think it's very valuable. It would be interesting if I ever have grandchildren or something like that, in a sort of anthropologist’s way. Imagine if the world ended and some martian found an iPhone floating in orbit, and they were like, "This is what these people would do. They eat cream of wheat."

Some of the pictures you've posted are very personal. Do they feel personal to you? Yeah, sometimes I get scared and take them off, or I feel embarrassed that I've gone that far. But I think that's the good stuff. If I manage to get embarrassed, it means I've probably put something of value out there. Value is very subjective, but, you know, valuable for somebody that is maybe a Girls fan or a guy that has a crush on me or an ex-girlfriend. For those people, it's great. I remember reading an article about this big fuss that was made over Truman Capote's photo that was on his first novel where he's laying back on a sofa or something. The general feeling of New York at the time was like, this is not the way a man should present himself, as an object of desire. We all know through art history and stuff that women are the objects of desire and images of men are supposed to be powerful and reserved. But the world is changing and the roles of the sexes are changing, and this is just a small part of it. I like to be an object of desire just as much as the little girls that pucker up their lips and take pictures from above. I think it's fun as a man to present myself in this very physical and feminine way.

What does your girlfriend think about your Twitter? She likes it. She'll do the things that any friend will do: she'll encourage me to be optimistic and not wallow. Don't get on Twitter, for example, when you're depressed, which is a good idea.

There was one picture you posted where she was in the background, reading in bed. There’s a big difference between that and you just chilling in front of Photobooth. Did she realize she was in the picture? Neither of us really realized it. I was so focused on myself. I'm so self absorbed. I was all concerned about making sure you could read the title of that book. Of course, the second or third time I looked at it, I was like, There you are! I thought it was kind of sweet, in a way. It's an interesting photo. I noticed too that it got a lot more views on Twitpic than other pictures. I'm not sure if it was because of that book, which was a big deal for me.

What book? It's by Emma Forrest and it's called Your Voice in My Head. It's just totally crazy, but it's really fun to read and good. It's a true story too. I read a small article she wrote about getting into Kate Bush as a teenager, and her wording made me want to find out more. She's one of these kids, upper-middle class with parents not divorced and proper education, and next thing you know she's wearing extra amounts of goth makeup and cutting herself everyday and she likes to cover the bathroom in lipstick to where her parents are just terrified that she's going to kill herself. She does try to kill herself, then somehow accidentally becomes a really great screenwriter. Mainly it's about her relationship with her doctor. It's kind of sweet. Just by listening, which is I guess what therapists do, he saves her life and pulls her around. He ends up dying of cancer‚ and of course she had no idea. He never told her anything. One day he's just dead, and that's the day she becomes absolutely cured. She notes it as a real turning point. People talk about these relationships that are catch-and-release, where you're with someone for a time and then forced to never see them again and stand on your own two feet. She's grows to love him without noticing it, and then he dies and she realizes it's time to be whole and happy and sane. She describes insanity very well. My stomach would turn at certain points—describing trying to commit suicide and cutting yourself and having destructive relationships with random guys. It was fascinating.

I think the internet is less scary when you're asserting yourself in it. Do you feel that way? I don't know if I have a subscribed philosophy about why I'm doing what I'm doing. I haven't had much direction. I've followed my gut pretty much, and talking about my feelings and writing songs and letting people look at my picture gives me a good feeling. I know that I didn't do that for a very long time. For example, I lived in this city in Texas before living in San Francisco, and I lived there nine years. I had punk scene friends when I was living there, and my whole thing—I don't know why—was that I never told any of them that I grew up in the Children of God. I said to them that I was home-schooled and traveled, but I never felt brave enough to say look, I was raised in this bizarre way. I was scared to talk about it. I wanted to pretend that didn't happen and pretend to be one of them for a while. Then I worked for a guy named Stanley Marsh, who was maybe in a way my therapist, sort of like the therapist in Emma's book, and at some point I did leave and do the catch-and-release thing and become an adult. I remember in my last couple years of living there when I became friends with him, I withdrew from the punk scene a lot and gravitated towards being best friends with him. Mainly because he was the first person that asked, I started to talk about myself. I would get so excited, my heart rate would go up and I'd go on and on and on. I'm afraid I'm doing that right now, but I had such a good time. I read an article in the Paris Review yesterday, which is my new thing. I finally feel smart enough to read the Paris Review, it's like a big achievement for me. There was an article in the last one about a girl who goes to interview a famous writer, and one of the things she says is, "I was shocked that she didn't have the very normal tendency that writers have to love to go on and talk about themselves." When I read that line, I immediately felt like, Yes, I love to talk about myself. That's all that Twitter is.

From The Collection:

Respect Yourself
Respect Yourself: Interview with Christopher Owens of Girls