Father John Misty - The Under the Radar Cover Story

The Sorrows of the Saboteur

Mar 31, 2016 Issue # 56 - Best of 2015 - Father John Misty and Wolf Alice Photography by Pal Hansen Bookmark and Share


On November 3, 2014, Josh Tillman performed "Bored in the USA" on The Late Show with David Letterman, thereby officially kick-starting his promotional cycle for I Love You, Honeybear, an album that wouldn't be released for another three months. The performance started conventionally enough. The camera opened on Tillman solemnly sitting behind a piano in front of a string section. He delivered one pathos-dripping line after another about empty consumerism and the pointless routines of life, then shifted in his seat as the camera panned around to capture the piano playing on without him. After moving out from behind the piano, he awkwardly climbed atop it, then hopped down. Then, frowning as he delivered lines about subprime loans and prescription pills, howls of laughter filled the room. Tillman shrugged and continued on, shifting his weight back and forth like a disinterestedly preening Jim Morrison. As the laughter continued, he finished the song to polite applause and stood alone for an uncomfortably long moment before Letterman came for the show-closing handshake. Letterman looked confused; Tillman looked like he could either slit his wrists or burn down the theater. What had just happened?

It wasn't until days later that it was revealed that the laughter had been canned, triggered on stage and shot back at the unsuspecting audience. Needless to say, this was not the traditional promotional rollout for an eagerly-anticipated album, and willfully confusing your audience is a dangerous approach for a songwriter who seemed positioned to either move on to the next level of New York Times/NPR/Pitchfork-endorsed ubiquity or fade back into the margins. Indie famous, but presumably unknown to the majority of people who watch CBS at 11:35 on weeknights, Tillman had an opportunity to introduce himself, this time as an artist who should be taken seriously. But in what was arguably the most high-profile, eagerly-anticipated performance of his career to that point, Tillman had chosen to make a joke.

"I think my perspective has always sort of been informed by the fact that what most people take really seriously is kind of comic to me, and what's comic to people is then sort of tragic to me," he says of The Late Show performance. "And I think there is something really funny about how seriously I was taking the whole thing. It's part of the performance. I actually take the song seriously, and I take the sentiment seriously. You can add 'laughs bitterly' next to that in brackets," he says, laughing bitterly. "So to undermine myself, I can't stop sabotaging myself, whether it's giving myself a stupid name or whatever else. Sometimes it works well creatively, and I think this was one of those times when this thing, on a lot of different levels, articulated something that couldn't be articulated musically or lyrically."

What the song and its performance articulated was Tillman's deeply conflicted feelings about the ongoing endeavor of being Father John Misty. Though he has been kicking around the indie rock world for over 10 years­first as dour singer/songwriter J. Tillman, then as the drummer of Fleet FoxesTillman never experienced any real commercial success in his own right until reinventing himself as a cynically plainspoken troubadour on 2012's Fear Fun. Since that album, he had gotten married to photographer Emma Garr, moved to New Orleans, and written a deeply vulnerable, meticulously layered song cycle about love in all its messy and terrifying glory. But by the fall of 2014, he had gone back to being Josh Tillman. Though he doesn't see much of a distinction between his onstage and offstage personas, he wasn't sure he was ready to be in the business of being Father John Misty again.

"To put it plainly, I hadn't been that guy for a year and a half," he recalls. "I have pretty serious dissonance about the whole enterprise, and having had a year off, jumping into it again those conflicts reasserted themselves anew. Even at the first couple shows, I was like, 'Do I want to do this?' And I'm not totally sure where that comes from, but I think it informs a lot of what I do. It's always in the background."

Tillman says he was aware of two trajectories in the moment he took the stage of the Ed Sullivan Theater that evening in November. He realized that as the follow-up to his first album that anyone cared about, I Love You, Honeybear was expected to be his breakthrough, the release that would consolidate the gains he made with Fear Fun, push him into new conceptual territory, and solidify his status as indie rock's cynical, smart-mouthed bard. This was his moment, and he had a lot to lose. At least if he sabotaged himself he would still be in control, if only of his own failure.

The other trajectory wouldn't preclude the first one. I Love You, Honeybear could become his breakthrough, but did Tillman really want that? His queasiness about mainstream acceptance aside, he wasn't sure he was ready to use his moment in the spotlight to share what he considers a "very ugly, vulnerable album," one where Tillman presents himself as a needy, self-obsessed neurotic stumbling through love for the first time. Even his conclusion is an uncomfortable one, suggesting that love's affirming power can't change the fact that life is ultimately meaningless. The most we can hope for is to have someone at our side to be doomed with us.

"I think that my hesitance comes from the saboteur, because [music] is my obsession," Tillman continues. "It's what I should be doing. It's the only thing I've ever wanted. Maybe it's the fact that it has such significance to me that some weird, angry part of me makes it all that more delicious to undermine. It's definitely a volatile ingredient in what I do."

Even more, Tillman says he craves that volatility and has since his childhood. Today, when he gets into a squabble with Emma, he is prone to "adopting a scorched earth perspective" that makes him want to blow up the relationship. He says he quits the music business every other week, putting in calls to his manager to figure out a way for him to make a living by writing songs for other artists. Like many artists, he is, on some fundamental level, an erratic and unstable person. And, like many artists, it's that erratic person who provides the perspective for his best work. It's that person we meetand who Tillman hesitated to revealon I Love You, Honeybear.

Patiently Explaining The Cosmos

He has been on the road for nine weeks, and now, one day before the tour's end, Tillman has finally caught the mystery illness that has made its way through the rest of his crew. Sitting on a bed in his hotel in Copenhagen, he has spent the day dropping down the rabbit hole of YouTube videos, ending with a debate between the late Christopher Hitchens and a 9/11 truther. "A grim little corner of the Internet," he says.

If Tillman is surprised by the success of I Love You, Honeybear, he doesn't show it. Nowa year after the Late Show performancehe's every bit as conflicted as he was then. In conversation, he is thoughtful and unguarded, as charming as he is caustic in the way that he often reveals more than he intends. He is a man of many laughssarcastic ones, self-effacing ones, bitter onesand those are the moments when you can most clearly hear the emotion guiding his statements. Most of his laughs are at his own expense.

Though he isn't one to openly boast, he can be coaxed into acknowledging that his album represents a fairly original rumination on the topic of loveself-effacing but not cynical, sincere but not quite sentimental. It's an album about love as people actually experience it, with the nagging self-doubt and insecurity that color even the dizzying highs with a sense of fear that you will be rejected once you are seen for who you really are. But while the album seems destined to go down in history as a cynic's cockeyed celebration of true romance, it didn't start that way.

"I started the albumand even the relationshipfrom a very anti-idealistic viewpoint, sort of congratulating myself for how progressive I am," Tillman says. "And I think a lot of us do that. The beginning of a relationship is where all the big talk happens, like 'I'm the kind of person who thinks these sort of things, and I believe this and I believe that.' And, actually, '[When You're] Smiling and Astride Me' really exemplifies what I'm talking about. The first three verses for that were written very early in the relationship, like a couple months in. Like 'I would never try to change you/you have nothing to fear.' It's very idealistic in its anti-idealism. It's like 'You are who you are. I get it. I'm not that kind of guy. I'm not possessive. I'm an enlightened, evolved, modern, anemic man.'"

But the song didn't really open up, Tillman says, until he wrote its second half many months later. It was then that he started to realize that he was being recognized for who he really isthe "aimless fake drifter, and the horny man-child momma's boy" of the lyricsand that he could let down his defenses and drop the good guy routine. If Emma could accept the ugliest parts of him, so could he. Maybe his audience could, too.

"It wasn't until about a year in when that initial façade of evolved modern man, the mask comes off and starts to give way to the truth and to your fear and your realityyour emotional reality," he explains. "Then it becomes a lot harder to just go around spouting good-sounding platitudes, and I think it wasn't until I wrote that, I was thinking 'What are the things about myself that I'm most ashamed of?' or things that are complex in an unsexy way. I can't think of anything much that is less sexy than admitting to kissing your brother in your dreams."

As much as the album's narrative content is about taking the personal risk of trusting someone to see you as you are, the story of its creation is a parallel tale of trusting yourself enough to abandon the familiar and push through to something new. He knew how to make Fear Fun 2, and he pretty much did that, he says, recording a whole album of bloodless, boring songs that he ended up throwing away. He needed to dig deeper into those unpleasant truths lurking inside of him so his listeners could examine them, too. It wouldn't be pretty, but it would be true. Like John Lennon before him, Tillman wasn't demystifying love as much as fetishizing vulnerability.

"The danger with this record and the ensuing conversation around it from my end is that most people don't find love," he admits. "And that's okay. It's not the fucking be-all end-all. I have this horrible nearsightedness about all of this shit, where I'm like, 'Now I'm on mushrooms! Mushrooms are the answer, everybody! Gather 'round. Let me tell you all about it.' Now I'm in love. 'Love is the answer! Let me explain it to you.' In a lot of ways it's bullshit. There is no silver bullet for the human condition, and most peopleor a lot of peopledon't require a silver bullet, and I'd love to be them. I think that's a fucking incredible way to live. Emma is that kind of person. She just is a natural when it comes to life, when it comes to living," he says with a sigh. "And I'm this fucking alien who is wandering around, trying to do their best impression."

This is one instance where Tillman is clearly wrong. There are far more people like himwracked with uncertainty and restlessnessthan there are like his wife. In setting out to create a deeply personal, idiosyncratic album, he ended up with something unexpectedly universal. But Tillman, the man, is a paradox, a supremely self-assured performer and songwriter who has enough confidence to tell you just how little confidence he actually has. Though he has an uneasy relationship with critical acclaim, he has started to get a sense of why people like the album.

"There are a few different ways to like it. You can like it because it's exploitative. It's like listening to a guy exploit himself, which is fun," he says with a self-effacing laugh. "And there's some cruelty on it, and it can be enjoyed for that reason, in a sort of mean-spirited, horrible kind of enjoyment. But I made a decision four years ago that I wanted to communicate with people, that I didn't want to make

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