States of Independence
Dazed's ultimate guide to US creativity

States Pop Quiz #31: Christopher Owens

The San Francisco solo artist on his first love, hitchhiking from Texas to New York and stealing his slang from Salinger

Music Pop Quiz
_Christopher Owens

As part of our States of Independence summer takeover, 50 American indie icons have volunteered to take the Dazed Pop Quiz; a quick-fire Q&A about what they love and loathe about life in the USA. Check back here every day for more from the series. 

Christopher Owens’ backstory reads like fiction. Born into the controversial religious cult the Children of God, Owens spent his youth travelling the globe with the group before renouncing them as a teenager and moving to Amarillo, Texas. Whilst there, he was taken under the wing of the artist-cum-oil baron Stanley Marsh 3, a figure best known for his patronage of The Cadillac Ranch, a graveyard of half buried Cadillacs that are, in the words of the late Marsh, “A monument to the American Dream.” After nine years in Texas, Owens travelled to San Francisco, where, after playing in Holy Shit with Ariel Pink, he formed Girls with Chet “JR” White. The band rose to success in 2009 on the heels of their acclaimed debut LP Album before disbanding in 2012. September 29th will see the release of Owens’ second solo effort A New Testament, following 2013's Lysandre, which detailed the highs and lows of Girls' first tour and Owens’ own transatlantic romance. His honesty and willingness to draw upon the experiences of his remarkable life secure his status as a gifted and emotive lyricist and an enigmatic performer.

Which living American do you most admire and why?

Christopher Owens: Woody Allen. I think he’s the greatest American filmmaker of all time. I think he’s a fantastic person and writes from an incredibly honest place. I think he’s somebody whose work has changed a lot over the years but there’s still a strong current that runs through all of it. He’s a national treasure.

Is that something that you want to have in your own work, that it changes a lot but there’s a current that runs through?

Christopher Owens: Yeah. He makes a movie every year, and I want to make an album every year.

Which living American do you most despise and why?

Christopher Owens: I’ve thought of one, but it’s too easy. I was gunna say George W. Bush but I don’t think that’s really fair. I think it’s a big mistake when people put that on one person. I think Dick Cheney is probably worse. I think I hate Dick Cheney more.

What’s your favourite quote about America?

Christopher Owens: “America, America, God shed its grace on thee, and crown thy good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea.” Maybe that’s a good one.

What three words define the states today?

Christopher Owens: Big fucking mess!

When and where were you the happiest?

Christopher Owens: San Francisco. Now. It’s just my favourite city. There’s no other city like it in America. It’s maybe the least American. It’s kind of European. I like it aesthetically and I like the size of it. That you can walk around. It’s more leisurely. And the weather is always cool. You can always wear a jacket and sweater. You can wear layers.

Where’s your least favourite place in America?

Christopher Owens: Say, Arizona.

Can’t wear layers?

Christopher Owens: It’s hot, it kind of represents to me something that doesn’t make much sense. Maybe Las Vegas as well. People going into deserts and developing them like crazy. Diverting water from elsewhere. It just represents everything I think is wrong with America.

What would make you leave America forever? 

Christopher Owens: I would leave pretty much any time to go live in several places that seem cool for a little while. But I think, to leave forever, there would have to be like another revival of one of these legendary expat scenes, like the American novelists in Paris or Morocco.

Allen Ginsberg William Burroughs Morocco Christopher Owens
William Burroughs on the beach in Tangier, Morocco May 1957 Photography by Allen Ginsberg

I know you didn’t go to high schoolbut if you had, what do you think your experience would’ve been like?

Christopher Owens: This is something I’ve thought about a hundred times. I really don’t know, you know? If I had to imagine...I was strangely kind of athletic when I was young. I think I would’ve been one of those athletic kids that was also on the debate team. And that hung around with mostly boys but put girls on a pedestal.

Do you regret not having had that experience?

Christopher Owens: Of course. I don’t like to regret things, but I wish I did.

What food reminds you of home?

Christopher Owens: Eggs, fried eggs.

Made by you or someone else?

Christopher Owens: Eggs are something I’m really good at making. I can make like, really good omelettes, or scrambled eggs, or boiled eggs or fried eggs. And the funny thing is, cooks always say, you can tell how good a cook is by how well they make eggs. But uh, I can only make eggs. So maybe it means I would be a really good cook.

eggs ri0Oa

What smell reminds you of San Francisco?

Christopher Owens: There’s a lot of trees and I live by Golden Gate Park which has these grass lawns that are mowed in the morning, so the smell of cut grass. It’s cool weather, the fog and wind, blowing that around. You smell the pine trees and the redwoods and the grass.

What’s the best road trip that you’ve ever been on?

Christopher Owens: When I lived in Amarillo, Texas, I had a little gang that defected from the punk scene because we decided they were all idiots. My best friend at the time was a guy named Skippy. It’s not his real name. He bought a school bus on eBay in New York, so ten of us split into groups of two and we had a race to hitchhike to New York to pick up this bus and drive home. The first group to make it there, not only won, which was of course the real reward, but also didn’t have to pay for the gas going back. Me and Skippy won.

Congratulations!

Christopher Owens: Skippy was actually wearing a skirt. I think I was wearing very short jean cut offs and we had our hair in pigtails. And cars would, like, *screech* to a stop. We made it there in like, two days, and it’s really far.

So was the best part about that was hitchhiking there or driving the bus home?

Christopher Owens: The best part was winning!

Where did you first fall in love?

Christopher Owens: The first real serious one was in Japan. The girl’s name was Tirzah, I don’t know what nationality that was but she was probably European. And I think I was nine years old. I stole my sister’s earrings to give to her as a present. I used to write her notes.

Did your sister mind about the earrings?

Christopher Owens: I don’t think she ever knew. Ha.

What’s your favourite American building?

Christopher Owens: The Rothko chapel. I like Rothko a lot. It’s a useless, pointless building and I think useless, pointless things are great.

rothko032709
muziekgebouw.wordpress.com

What noise reminds you of the States?

Christopher Owens: The way Americans talk. 

There are so many accents, though.

Christopher Owens: Very true, but pretty much any one of them. They’re all on TV. You have the Real Housewives of Atlanta and Beverly Hills, New York. If I’m abroad and I hear Americans talk, it’s an immediate throwback as far as noises go.

Do you have a favourite accent?

Christopher Owens: I guess I can be kind of sentimental towards a lot of them. I love California Valley girl, which you’ll find most boys have too, I love the southern accents. I love New Yorkers – Woody Allen’s voice, you could turn your monitor off and just listen to a Woody Allen film and it’d be just as good. They’re all good.

Ultimate American film?

Christopher Owens: Ah. That’s hard. Singing in the Rain.

Ultimate American album?

Christopher Owens: Also hard...I just have to pick one. It won’t be true, it won’t be perfect, but it’ll be fine for the occasion. There Goes Rhymin' Simon, the one with “Kodachrome” on it. Paul Simon.

Most overrated US tourist attraction?

Christopher Owens: Ha. The Empire State building? I don’t know, but there are some bad ones. The Empire State building.

Most underrated US tourist attraction?

Christopher Owens: The Cadillac Ranch.

Which leads into, who gave you your first break?

Christopher Owens: Stanley Marsh.

cfiles9148
artificialowl.net

Favourite slang phrase?

Christopher Owens: The term, ‘and all’. 

As in The Catcher in the Rye? Do you use it personally?

Christopher Owens: Yeah. It’s one of those funny things where you know it’s really old and you’re making an effort to say it. But then you start really saying it.

How about ‘crumby’ and ‘phony’?

Christopher Owens: I love those too. All the Catcher in the Rye slang is really the best.

Which fictional American do you most identify with?

Christopher Owens: Plenty of opportunities here. I was gunna say one but I don’t think he’s actually an American...yeah he’s a foreigner. But he becomes an American – I think I can get away with this, all Americans are immigrants. I’m an immigrant. Let’s just say Humbert Humbert. 

What do you think is the ultimate American novel?

Christopher Owens: I’ll tell you what I think people would say, and what I kind of agree with – Huckleberry Finn. But to me it’s a bit of a relic. I can’t imagine the idea of being comfortable with slaves. So for me, personally I would say Rabbit, Run, and the Rabbit series by John Updike.

Why?

Christopher Owens: It’s just a story that will never die. It’s like Rebel Without a Cause. Rabbit is the nickname of the guy named Harry Angstrom. He’s a basketball star in high school, he’s tall and good looking and he gets married and has a career. He gets to his adult life and everything is going just fine, and suddenly he gets this urge to screw everything up and he just runs. I think it’s very genuine. It’s this American pipe dream, that there’s freedom there. It’s not true, but it’s something that people like to believe in, and they always have to find out the hard way, that it’s not actually true. It’s like when we say: love, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It’s very specifically not love liberty and happiness, it’s the pursuit of happiness.

run-rabbit-updike-popquiz

Does the American dream still exist?

Christopher Owens: Yes, it does. Because people are still dreaming it.

What is your ultimate American guilty pleasure?

Christopher Owens: Smoking. But is that American? I think you have the Native Americans being very instrumental in the popularity of smoking cigarettes, I really don’t know the history. People are trying to fight it really hard right now in America, especially in San Francisco where everybody likes to pretend they’re perfect. So I love smoking.

When was your last run in with the cops and what happened?

Christopher Owens: I’ve been pretty untouchable for a while now. In Amarillo, run-ins with the cops were a weekly, if not daily thing. So it was a culture shock for me, getting to San Francisco and realising that didn’t happen any more. But I haven’t really had any in a long time. The last one was in Staten Island. I was visiting Manhattan, and you can get to Staten Island on this ferry. It’s where Wu Tang Clan comes from so that’s one reason to go, but also it passes right by Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. I was with my friend and we met a guy there, and we smoked a joint. I was the one holding the roach when the cops showed up. So I went to jail for a night. The judge thought it was ridiculous in the morning and let me go.

If you could change one thing about the US what would it be?

Christopher Owens: I’d change the national anthem to that song “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing in Perfect Harmony”. Ha.

If you could vote for Obama again, would you?

Christopher Owens: No, I didn’t vote for him, I don’t vote. Obama’s part of the American dream, he’s not real, there’s nothing real about him. It is saying something that you can go from having a country with slavery and incredible amounts of racism and segregation to having a black president with the middle name Hussein, I think that’s fantastic. But at the same time, like when I was saying who I hated the most – saying George Bush, it’s not really true. He’s just a guy. Obama was a product sold to us by white, male, old, controlling conservative owners of corporations, who said, “What will make America seem modern and vibrant?” They packaged him up and put him on a stage. He’s basically like a pop star or reality TV star, it’s all the same.

If you lost it all tomorrow, what would you do the day after?

Christopher Owens: I don’t know what I have to lose. I’ve lost it all a lot of times, I just keep going. I’d start over, reinvent myself. It’s a very American pastime.

What will America look like in 2050?

Christopher Owens: The British Empire before it collapsed.

That’s bleak.

Christopher Owens: Yeah, well I mean it’s what they’re doing – under the guise of bringing freedom to everybody. They’re just going around setting up corporations everywhere, taking oil they want, removing leaders when they feel like it, when there’s somebody next door who has just as bad of a dictator they don’t care because there’s nothing there they want. America is the new empire, and it’s all done under this lie of freedom and democracy.

How long do you think it will be until America has a female president? 

Christopher Owens: I think a long time, I think people were more scared of that than electing Obama. I’d like to think Hillary can win, as much as I think the presidency is a farce. I like Hillary...for not divorcing Bill. For keeping a cool head in that situation. And I like the idea of America finally having a female president, you know. You just watch the World Cup and you see, Argentina has one, Brazil has one, Germany has one. In America it’s very telling of the reality of our situation. We like to think we’re such an advanced country, but...you know.

More Music