Father John Misty
Aug 14, 2012
Photography by David Studarus Web Exclusive
Earlier this year, Josh Tillman dropped what—to many Fleet Foxes fans—felt like a bomb: he was leaving the band. On his Tumblr, he bid adieu to his high profile drumming gig, adding a pithy, “Back into the gaping maw of obscurity I go.”
As it turns out, his trip into the gaping maw of obscurity was shorter than anyone could have anticipated. A little more than a week later, Tillman announced his triumphant return to the music world, this time as a solo artist playfully dubbed Father John Misty (not to be confused with the solo albums he released pre-Fleet Foxes as J. Tillman). His debut album as Father John Misty, Fear Fun, was released back in May via Sub Pop.
Under the Radar caught up with Tillman at his Laurel Canyon home to discuss the newest chapter in his musical career. With Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline playing in the background, Tillman pontificated about leaving Fleet Foxes, pop culture, and what’s next for Father John Misty. (Spoiler: It has nothing to do with pig farming.)
Be sure to catch Tillman in conversation with Parks and Recreation’s Aubrey Plaza (also starring in Safety Not Guaranteed) in the Summer Issue of Under the Radar, still on newsstands now. This is a portion of the interview not posted in the print issue article, a section that's a solo conversation with Tillman.
Laura Studarus (Under the Radar): What lead up to your decision to leave Fleet Foxes?
Josh Tillman: It wasn’t like a singular moment. It wasn’t just a singular decision. It was just a sense that I got that I got as the tour [for Helplessness Blues] went on. Even while recording the album was going on, I was recording my record. I started the record thinking I could keep doing this in my spare time. "Oh I’ll just do this thing. Then I’ll do the Foxes thing." Just as the year went on, the more emotionally untenable I realized it was. This isn’t fair to these guys. I’m frustrated back here. I want more creative control over something. My role in Fleet Foxes was the role of a drummer. You’re the drummer. You show up, and play the drums. Then you go to sleep. That’s not true of all drummers, but that was my role in the band. That was all that I did. I didn’t write. I didn’t have my hand in anything other than just playing the drums live for them. Creative things take time. And I don’t have any time. So I said, "Once this tour is done, I’m just going to call it a day and move on to something that’s a little more challenging." Not speaking musically, just personally more challenging. That’s what the decision looked like. Japan was the last tour, so I played my last show in Tokyo. Everyone knew, there wasn’t some event around it.
I loved your blog entry where you put it, "Back to the gaping maw of obscurity."
Yeah yeah! [Laughs] That’s just how I talk. That’s just some shit that I would say. I say "The gaping maw of…" all the time. Back into the gapping maw of blank. For me, I was making a joke about back to the solo thing, which is obscure. My musical career outside of Fleet Foxes was nothing if not obscure. So that’s what I was thinking. Back to the grind. Get in the van and try to convince people to listen. Not in a defeatist way, but I just like to clown on myself. People are so literally [drops his voice dramatically] "Oh God! Real obscure!" Over time through interviews and stuff, when I say shit like that, people will know that I’m just kind of goofing around.
When I first read it I was like, "Wait, is he going to go pig farm or something?"
Ha. Yeah. Pig farm. [Laughs] Well, I quit the band because I used all the money that I got from the band to buy this pig farm! Now I wanna raise pigs! [sings] If I had a pig farm, I’d work till I’m sore!
So why make the album under Father John Misty instead of your own name?
Because I was bored! Done! Bored! Ten years of whatever, just making this music that I didn’t relate to any more. I couldn’t sit down now and write you a J. Tillman song if I tried. I could not do it. I have no inspiration to write that way. I just wanted some name that; the only meaning that it had was the meaning that people attached to it. Something like Father John Misty. To me it just sounds like some weird old pervert. It’s funny, because people are so literal. They get so caught up with this, "Well there must be some significance to choosing the word Father!" No, I chose it because I knew it would make your head spin thinking that way, and that makes me laugh.
I like that you’re a bit of contrarian.
I am nothing but! [Laughs] It’s like the ultimate contrarian statement!
You’re my people.
Totally. I’m a crank. It’s funny. When I’m difficult—I’ll just say it—it’s because I’m a very empathetic person. Sometimes I feel like when people are talking, I’m hearing three or four things happening with them. I’m looking at other people going, "Wow, are you hearing all this depression and pain and boredom?" And they’re like, "Whatever, you’re just being depressing." I’m just like, "I don’t know, that’s what I hear." I’m really fucking fascinated with people. The occupational hazard of that is really hating people some times. If you’re going to spend all your time trafficking the human condition, you’re going to find some shit that just makes you sick.
So being in Los Angeles must be pretty interesting for you, since you get such a cross-section of humanity.
Totally. It’s fucking, so interesting. Something that people have asked me a lot on this record is "Doesn’t the shallowness bother you?" I’m like, "Dude, I’ve been all over the world. People are banal, and boring, and shallow anywhere you go. At least here it’s interesting to look at. At least here it’s so hilarious and crazy and grotesque and overblown." It doesn’t get me down at all because I don’t take it very seriously.
Is there an element of L.A. to this record?
I really had no concept of the geography of this place. I didn’t move from Seattle to Los Angeles. I moved from Seattle, dot dot dot. I made this decision to throw away everything that I had built up over the decade of my 20s. I didn’t realize this, but I had been collecting this whole series of assumptions about myself that I started to suspect were not true. I had to move. Everything in Seattle reminded me of something. You create this sense of self, and I wasn’t sure that the one that I had was very honest to myself. Creatively, certainly not.
To make those J.Tillman records, to write a song or make an album, it was like, "Okay! Time to go to the dark place! Time to sit in the temple of fear!" And I’d quake and mourn and contemplate and alienate people to make myself feel better. Whatever. I didn’t even realize that I was doing that until around 29 or something. I was like, "Who is this J. Tillman person? This isn’t me. This doesn’t sound like me." I got to a point where I realized that I didn’t hear much of myself in my music. I’m a songwriter. I’m a musician. So that’s everything to me. That’s the only thing I do in this life. Whether I’m successful or not, I write songs. That’s all. I’ve tried to do other things, but ultimately I always come back to writing songs. Because I’m obsessed and love that discipline. So I had this "Oh no! I’m nowhere to be found in this! I’ve failed, I must get away from here!" So I did that.
A friend of mine in California drew my attention to the fact that I needed somewhere to live. He was like, "Yeah, my friend in Laurel Canyon has a little room open." I was like, "OK, I’ll do that." Driving here I realized, "Oh, OK, I live in Hollywood now." Ha! This is hilarious!
That was a real spark of, "OK, I can write about this place in a way that’s really exclusive to me. I can subvert the clichés and tropes about writing about this place." I’m not romanticizing it classically. That’s what you hear in a Joni Mitchell song, is a classical romanticization. That is beautiful, and I love it, but that’s not what I’m doing. I’m going, "Look at this hilarious mess!" when I’m singing about it. That’s an important distinction. I’m sure it’s something that will fly past people if they only listen to it causally. It is an inspirational place to me. But only because I moved here under the personal circumstances that I did. That was the real influence. The place was just a backdrop. I don’t walk around going [dramatically drops his voice] "Look at this place, I’m going to go home and write a song!" I’m not inspired by it like that.
So can you say that you fully see yourself in your new album? Or is that an ongoing process?
It is nothing but me! Seriously. And that’s why I feel—if I am permitted to say—that I feel really fucking great about this album, because it was a creative success. All these parts of you that you left out of your music because you thought they were dumb, you thought they were embarrassing, or you thought people would think that you’re a goof, or not to be taken seriously—that risk that you took to be the goof you are in your music? It paid off. Other things came out too, just like, better writing. I really feel like I don’t have to go to the dark place to write this shit.
This voice I found in part through some psychedelic experimentation, and the process of writing my novel. I don’t want to marginalize the psychedelic thing. Mushrooms for example, they really amplify fear in a way that’s really useful, or the fear just vanishes, and you’re left to examine yourself unencumbered by your self doubt and the pressing material concerns around you. I had an aha moment. That’s really what it was, an aha moment where I was like, "Now I really know how to write. I write like I talk. Why have I never realized this before?" Sometimes it takes a really long time to come to a realization like that.
Since then, I like writing more, I like performing more, I like doing photo shoots more, I enjoy doing interviews more. Previously I had to speak for this J. Tillman version of myself that I had created. It was incongruent to be myself in an interview and they’re like, "Your music is this other thing!" There’s no dissidence anymore. That just takes this huge weight off me. Honestly, Fleet Foxes was a little dissident for me because I am not a benign, happy person who loves nature. That’s the contrarian in me speaking. Obviously. That music has so much depth and beauty. I have so much admiration for [Robin Pecknold’s] melodic sensibilities and musical prowess and insight. But, it’s not mine.
You call it freeing. Is there any fear left that now you have nothing to hide behind?
That was the reasoning behind making the J. Tillman records in the first place. What is the person I want to present to the world? I don’t want them to know about any of the stupid shit that I’ve done, said, been, etc. I want them to think that I sprang out of the ground as this wizened songwriter. Someone who had his line in the river. I don’t want them to think about me with all my goofy, silly flaws. Whatever. So I put out this thing. That’s the innate joke, the huge gag. I was making records under my own name for so long. But I’ve kind of come to the conclusion that, while well intentioned, and I did make some good music, I had basically created an alter ego. One that I couldn’t really live with happily. I created this version of me that’s so close to me, that was believable, but I’m not really that guy. I love that music. Every songwriter has to spend 10 years in Will Oldham land, where you want to fucking be as cool as Will Oldham. He’s an archetype. You think, "Well, how did he do that?" That’s not where good art comes from. Listenable stuff comes from it, but not art. A musical product that is quite good can come from it. But according to my definition, you can’t make art that way.
A guy told me once that true art and music should be accessible to all people because it should speak to the universal experience. Do you believe that’s true?
No! Technically not. But some art appeals to what may as well be everyone. That’s not just purely The Beatles, that’s societal factors that were at play at the time. But I do believe, for the most part, given the time that we are on this planet, we do have major commonalities. We do all kind of like the same thing. This idea that we’re all so individual, even the idea of someone not liking your music being based on their individuality is very wrong. A lot of times people don’t like things because they’re consulting with the GroupThink at the time. Which is the opposite of individuality.
It’s an interesting question. Can art appeal to everyone? It’s an interesting question. I think the idea that you can’t is based on an overblown sense of people’s individuality. We are all individuals for sure, but we all experience the same effects of mass social, intellectual, cultural, movements that are way beyond our control and affect us in ways that we aren’t even conscience of.
In recognizing that, are you able, on some small level, to step outside of it?
Well, that’s dangerous territory. I don’t think so. What happens when an individual attempts to be hyper-vigilant about the ways that they are influenced by the culture that they inhabit. Does that person, in some way, step outside of the zeitgeist? Or is there a shift in zeitgeist—wherein some way you’re being influenced to think that you need to step outside of cultural influences?
I personally believe that we’re living in fucking, McCarthy 2. The culture is so benign and so banal. Dancing With the Stars. Celebrity culture. We all take that so for granted. But that is the stupidest shit. We just live with it like it’s an inevitability. Well, there’s gotta be stupid shit on TV. Then you think, "In order to get the good stuff, you have to go way out here to the perimeter of the culture. But we all know that the stuff in the center has got to be stupid. All you do is ignore it." You can’t ignore it! It is everywhere. Listening to obscure music doesn’t make you immune to the effects of the mainstream culture, because it is affecting you in ways that you’re not even conscience of. That’s why it’s successful.
I try to avoid that shit by just sitting up here in my crazy old house and writing songs and hating things. Honestly, hating things really clarifies what I really love. The hatred of those things keeps me sharp. It is just evidence of the culture that is so benign that when you do that, people are most likely to ask you one of three questions. Why are you so depressed? Why can’t you just enjoy The Muppets Movie? Canned shit like that. They don’t want to live in a world where the culture they inhabit is poisonous and stupid. That’s a fate worse than death, for some reason. Just hate it! Fucking hate it! Then you’ll know better what you love.
I don’t think I’ve spoken with a musician before who outright said their craft is built on hate.
Hate is so passionate! You know? [Laughs] I really believe that it takes profound empathy to hate things with passion. You don’t hate things unless they actually drive you crazy. Why do they drive you crazy? Because you care. Like a motherfuck! I fucking really care. I also respect whatever audience I might have. I’m going to give them love bites. Just give them little love taps. They don’t have to love me. Nobody has to love me. I don’t care if people think that I’m nice. I want them to be like, "That guy fucking said something weird." It’s a single serving interaction. I’m up on stage; they’re watching me play. Do they have to think that I’m a great guy? Or is the interaction one where I have an opportunity to fuck with them, and ask them questions like, "Do you think it’s normal for a there to be a giant Doritos monolith in the middle of town at what claims to be a music festival like SXSW? Do you think that that’s normal? Are you really complicit with that? Or is that grotesque and disgusting and bare no resemblance to what you know music is?" Which is a communal experience that sells itself. It doesn’t have to sell other shit.
If I have to look like an asshole to ask what I view to be a vital question, then I’m cool with that. I’ll make it funny. But if we’re going to call everything that is crucial an analytical hate, then sure, let’s call it hate. It works. People know what you’re talking about when you say hate. That’s what interviews are for, to clarify yourself. [Laughs]