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Father John Misty - The Under the Radar Cover Story

The Anguish of the Idealist

Jul 25, 2017 Issue #60 - Father John Misty Photography by Koury Angelo (for Under the Radar) Bookmark and Share

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Josh Tillman is nervous. In five days he’ll perform “Total Entertainment Forever” on Saturday Night Live, but he can already see the headlines from Monday morning from his hotel room in New York City. That song, whose opening lines describe a future where everyday Americans spend their evenings having sex with Taylor Swift inside an Oculus Rift VR headset, lands so squarely at the nexus of celebrity and salaciousness that it’s hard to imagine it will inspire anything resembling a calm, measured response. No, in a clickbait culture where the Internet has basically devolved into what Tillman calls “pornography and outrage,” he understands that the nuance of such a song is almost certainly going to be swept away in the ever-present rush to get the first hot take. “I’m going to sing Taylor Swift’s name, and that will be interpreted as ‘This fucking asshole will say anything for attention,’” he says. “And I don’t want to be that person. I don’t want to be seen that way. I would rather quit than to live my life being seen that way, when the fact of the matter is that I don’t want that to happen to Taylor Swift. I think that’s horrible, and I know it’s coming.”

Five days later, things go off without a hitch. With a backing band of bearded musicians, Tillman steps up to the mic and describes a future of endless self-indulgence, where humans finally achieve the dream of having everything they want and entertainment becomes the substance of life. “No gods to rule us/No drugs to soothe us/No myths to prove stuff/No love to confuse us,” he sings on the bridge, then concludes with images of humans slowly wasting away, skin and bones with smiles on their faces, while plugged into their devices. It is not a song about Taylor Swift.

Tillman had good reason to worry. Two hours before his SNL performance, Pitchfork ran a news item titled “Father John Misty Sings About VR Sex With Taylor Swift in New Song ‘Total Entertainment Forever.’” By Sunday morning the headlines started rolling in. Nearly all of them missed the point of the song entirely. Vancouver culture magazine The Georgia Straight commented that the song “seemingly suggests [Tillman] might enjoy having carnal relations with Taylor Swift.” Teen Vogue called the song “gross” and argued that Tillman should have chosen “less offensive lyrics that could have carried the same message.” Argentinian newspaper La Voz‘s headline proved that the song’s meaning wasn’t lost only on English speakers with an article titled, “Father John Misty tiene una fantasía: tener sexo virtual con Taylor Swift” (translation: Father John Misty has a fantasy: to have virtual sex with Taylor Swift).

By Monday the first think-pieces emerged, with science and technology magazine Inverse‘s “Should We Be Allowed to Have Virtual Sex With Taylor Swift?”an article that at least picked up the larger thread of the song. By the end of the day, most of the news had shifted to endless recitations of Tillman’s explanations of the song’s meaningthat, no, he doesn’t want to have VR sex with Taylor Swift and that he intended the song as a critique of our endless capacity for mindless, self-indulgent entertainmentbut it was too late.

“You’ve got to be a fucking dumbass to listen to that song and think that it’s about Taylor Swift,” Tillman continues, still five days before any reactions have been registered. “I’m sorry. You have to not get words. You have to not get music to have that kind of that kind of radical reductionism. But people will feel smart for that analysis, like, ‘I know what this really is.’ But it’s just a horrible way to think. And they’re going to fucking ruin my day, on top of it. They will. It will fucking bum me the fuck out,” he laughs. “I mean, it’s not like that really matters much in the scope of things.”

The scope of things, roughly speaking, is what the rest of Pure Comedy is about. Recorded at United Studios in Los Angeles in March of 2016, the album is lushly arranged, richly textured, and soulfully performed, with a half dozen songs that could contend for the best single released in 2017. But the actual music is likely to receive a disproportionally small amount of the critical discussion of this release. If 2012’s Fear Fun, his debut as Father John Misty, was asking “Who am I?” and 2015’s I Love You, Honeybear was asking “What is love?” Tillman’s third release is posing an even more difficult question: “What does this all mean?” That’s the question that Pure Comedy puzzles over for 74 minutes, taking in the whole human drama, from our crawling out of the womb with half-formed brains to our eventual devolution into a societal-wide technology-aided stupor.

There is a piano-pop lament mocking yuppie revolutionaries who overthrow the government and end up missing their modern conveniences (“Things It Would Have Been Helpful to Know Before the Revolution”). There is a gorgeously sighing character sketch of a self-important social critic who sees himself as the glue holding together human progress, using his last breath to check his newsfeed (“Ballad of the Dying Man”). There’s an epic autobiographical ballad that encompasses all of Tillman’s life, from a child choking on a piece of watermelon candy to an aspiring artist washing dishes to a critical darling who blows his career by alienating his fans with one too many pretentious songs (“Leaving LA”). At the conceptual center is the title track, one that serves as a thesis for the entire album: human beings are the actors in an insane and increasingly tragic comedy of our making. Religion, politics, celebrityall of humanity is laid bare, and it’s mostly found to be terrible.

“‘Pure Comedy’ was, in terms of evolution, picking up where ‘Bored in the USA’ and ‘Holy Shit’ left off,” he explains, mentioning the two most philosophical tracks from I Love You, Honeybear. “I think that there’s something really useful about stepping outside yourself, and that song obviously takes a step outside of humanity as a whole. It’s this impassive observer narrating that song, and it really started like, ‘What if an alien had to do a rush job of taking notes on what humans are all about?’ and it made me laugh. But it was really bizarre to see the song be interpreted, [because] the song kind of proved itself. The song is about all of us. When I say ‘A prison of beliefs that you never ever have to leave,’ I’m not talking about fucking Republicans. It was interpreted as a liberal snowflake temper tantrum. But I think that song says a lot more about the listener’s worldview. It’s kind of a Rorschach.”

To be fair, the video for “Pure Comedy” could have helped push listeners toward a political interpretation. Amid images of religious ceremonies, mass consumption, and raging forest fires is video footage from Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration. Just as the Tillman sings “Where did they find these goons they elected to rule them?/What makes these clowns they idolize so remarkable?” images of Trump flash on the screen. As he sings “These mammals are hell-bent on fashioning new gods,” we see images of celebratory Trump supporters. “So they can go on being godless animals,” finishes the couplet. Even though the track was written long before Trump won the election, convincing people it wasn’t written about his rise to power is looking like a futile cause.

“The choice to put Trump footage in the ‘Pure Comedy’ video was one that I did holding my nose, like, ‘Here we go!’” Tillman says. “And people only call songs or videos ‘anti-Trump’ on the Internet, because if you call something ‘anti-Trump’ people will click on it. But you’d have to be a pretty shitty music journalist to listen to that song and come away from it thinking that it’s about Donald Trump. You’d have to be willfully ignorant. I have always thought the world was an insane place and that politicians are goons and entertainment is, by and large, a total farce. And then all of a sudden this huge event occurs and people are like, ‘Maybe the world is insane, and politicians aren’t good and entertainment is by and large a farce.’ A couple weeks after the election my friends were saying, ‘Dude, your album just became very literal,’ which disappointed me. Obviously, there were things about Donald Trump getting elected that were more disappointing to me than the reception of my album, but there was some part of me that was like, ‘Oh, fuck. It’s ruined now.’ I don’t want to write literally. I’m not like Tom Morello,” he laughs. “I’m not The Nightwatchman.”

Tillman disavows any explicit political interpretations of his music, claiming that he doesn’t have a “political worldview” before admitting that he can’t rightly make that claim. But the truth is, though he doesn’t seem to be partisan in his analysis, Pure Comedy articulates a specific and consistent worldview. As much as Tillman has been painted as equal parts media prankster and art provocateur, he’s actually a good ol’ fashioned intellectual, more armchair critical theorist than Internet troll. He might get a contrarian kick out of publicly proclaiming his love for Nickelback, but listen to him talk for five minutes and it’s impossible to mistake him as anything but sincere, even if he offers generous helpings of sarcasm and self-effacing humor in the process. All of that humor serves as a mask, a layer of protection against being called out for being an artist who takes himself a bit too seriously. But once the mask drops, as it often does, you see a man who has spent his adult life pondering the big questions.

Now 35, Tillman is making albums with a scope unseen since John Lennon was working through the despair that accompanied the death of his ‘60s idealism, when it finally became clear that sex, drugs, and rock and roll weren’t going to lead to the next step in human evolution. And just like Lennon ended up concluding that our only hope as a species was located in simply showing love to each other, Tillman ends “Pure Comedy” by concluding that “each other’s all we got.” But unlike Lennon, Tillman appears to have zero interest in being seen as the man with the answers. He’s not really even comfortable starting the conversation.

“I ask really pretentious questions at the center of my records, and I think you can hear my groan or my cringe at asking those questions in my music,” he says. “But what else is there to write about? That’s kind of the defining struggle of my lifedealing with the despair and depression. And I’m starting to rethink that maybe depression and despair is a sane reaction to this world,” he says, his tone turning self-effacing. “Maybe I’ve been right all along.”

Despair and depressionthat would seem to be the worldview that emerges from a surface reading of Pure Comedy. There is a temptation to see Pure Comedy as one long, bitter indictment of human nature, one whose main message is “There is no hope.” But that is not the conclusion that Tillman has reached, and only a songwriter of his caliber could thread the needle the way he does. To his credit, he uses his sharpest barbs against systems and saves his sympathy for his characters, most of who are portrayed as being more deluded and sad than evil. Song after song, he piles on evidence that we live in an indifferent, impersonal, and meaningless universe, one where violence and stupidity rule our short, brutal lives. And in the end, with the album-closer “In Twenty Years or So,” he concludes over drinks with a friend that “it’s a miracle to be alive” and “there’s nothing to fear.” But if listenerssome of whom are paid to write about music for a livingcan’t tell that a song about cultural decay isn’t actually about Taylor Swift, what chance is there that they’ll be able to decipher the rest?

“There are a lot of other words in the song,” he says, still fuming over the coming reaction to “Total Entertainment Forever.” “You have to make a decision to just read two lines. That’s why I say the interpretive art is dying, because we really want to get angry. So we will be willfully ignorant of whatever it takes. Whatever we have to ignore to get that sweet dopamine rush of outrage, we will do. And I don’t want to be at the center of any of that. I don’t want to become afraid that I can’t say anything. And it has changed me. The last five years of this cultureI’m nervous. When I’m writing, I have to go, ‘Is this going to be…’ Of course, I do it anyway, because I’m lazy and I don’t want to rewrite anything. It’s like, ‘Well, it’s worth it to me to not find another name or another way to say this,’” he says, trailing off with a half-serious dramatic pause. “And, also, who else’s name rhymes with Oculus Rift?”

From Rented Heavens

In 1952 Flannery O’Connor published Wise Blood, arguably her greatest novel. In it, a World War II veteran named Hazel Motes returns to his home in Tennessee, mentally scarred and angry at God. He decides to abandon the Christian faith he was raised with and start an antireligious movement to rival the devotion of believers, bringing nothing but sorrow on himself in the process. Reading that story, Tillman said, was a formative experience for him, something that cautioned himself against becoming so obsessed with his rejection of his parents’ Christian faith that he would end up resembling no one so much as the religious zealots he resented. Even so, or perhaps as a result, the idea of a lost God haunts Pure Comedy.

“This is my Christian album,” Tillman says flatly. “I’m not even kidding. There is a case to be made that this record is in some way a secular gospel. Because if you’re going to ask a question‘What does it all mean?’God, or that concept, is going to have to be a part of it, because that is the catchall that we use. It’s like the question is so big and unanswerable, which is why in Jewish mysticism and these early ideas of God were that he is unknowable. He’s unknowable and you can’t say his name. That was symbolic of that. The question of ‘What does it all mean?’ is infinite, but the concept of God is about six inches in from there.”

On this topic, Tillman is a partisan. On “Pure Comedy” he pokes fun at Christians for being obsessed with “risen zombies, celestial virgins, magic tricks,” and refers to the Bible as being written by “woman-hating epileptics.” Even more pointed is “When the God of Love Returns There’ll Be Hell to Pay,” his soulful indictment of the Divine. In it Tillman describes God bringing on the apocalypse as punishment for the mess humans have made of the world. However, before such a judgment can be delivered, Tillman confronts God with the suggestion that human beings are essentially pawns in a fixed game, just animals following the instincts underlying their programming. “Try something less ambitious the next time you get bored,” is Tillman’s parting shot.

Much has been written about Tillman’s youth spent as the eldest son in an evangelical Christian household in Rockville, Maryland, but it’s probably impossible to make too much of the influence it has had on shaping his intellectual and creative life. This was the late 1980s, when churches handed out videos to their congregants showing evidence that just about every MTV video was an advertisement for devil worship. The apocalypse was coming, he was told, and you better be ready to meet God. If you were a devout parent in the ‘80s, the only safe place for a young, impressionable kid was in a Christian school.

“In my life it just created so much anxiety, because I internalized it all so intensely and took it all so personally and really believed people when they told me I was possessed by demons,” Tillman recalls. “I thought that was what explained my problematic behavior. Every Friday at this school [in Maryland] that I went to, the leader of this weird Pentecostal Messianic Jewish movement’s wife would come in when I was in the eighth grade to try and get the demons out of me. And it never worked. It was like, ‘Well, you must have some demons.’ I was so innocent and devoid of cynicism about it all that I really took everyone at their word, that they were really having these experiences and that if I wasn’t so dead inside that I would be having them, too. But eighth grade is around the time that I realized that everyone around me was insane, and it made me pretty fucking cynical. I turned some corner where I was like, ‘You guys are making this shit up. You’re making this up as we go along! This is insane.’ Obviously my perspective on it all now is way more nuanced than it was when I was in eighth grade, but that’s how I felt about it then.” After eighth grade, Tillman was asked not to return.

If Bono is to be believed, every great artist is either running to God or running from God. Since Tillman had a nervous breakdown and dropped out of Nyack College, a Christian college in southern New York, he has been firmly in the latter category. You know the storyhis eight sober solo albums as J. Tillman, his four years as the drummer for Fleet Foxes, his rebirth as a cosmic hippie storytellerbut most of his trajectory can probably be traced back to that Christian school in Maryland. As sophisticated as Tillman can be in his analysis and deconstruction of the various strains of history, economics, and culture that have brought the Western world to where it currently sits, there still seems to be a wounded, angry child at the center of his work. Like it or not, the world of Christianity is the backdrop against which Tillman’s life is cast.

“I can’t imagine any other way,” he admits. “It’s basically like Michael Douglas in The Game. You’ve been given this insane, fully immersive, philosophical, emotional meta-steeple chase that resembles life exactly, and then you come out on the other side at some point. There was a lot going on [growing up], and it was a very unhappy scene at home, and there were a lot of other factors as to why I was depressed and so anxious, but when something makes you who you are, obviously it’s impossible to imagine life without it. That’s just the way it is. There are no hypotheticals. Nothing exists without how it got there,” he says, cracking himself up at the apparent banality of his comment. “How profound! Nothing exists without how it got there.”

Chaos Attends To Creation

July 22, 2016, represented a breaking point. Taking the stage at WXPN’s XPoNential Music Festival, across the river from Philadelphia in Camden, New Jersey, Tillman was in no condition to perform. The themes that would come to dominate Pure Comedy were weighing heavily on his mind, made all the more unbearable by Donald Trump’s official nomination as the Republican candidate for president the night before. Taking the stage, he immediately began a rambling commentary on the day’s events, decrying the numbing effects of entertainment, then instructing the increasingly restless and confused audience to “take a moment to be really fucking profoundly sad.” He’d play a 10-minute improvised song where he referenced the current moment, then perform a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on a Wire,” before leaving the stage to boos. Though he hadn’t yet articulated itthat would come later in a sprawling essay he published about Pure Comedy in early 2017he was coming to some ugly conclusions. The world is a broken, angry, hopeless place not because we are being controlled by nefarious forces that make us act against our deepest desires. It’s that way because that’s how we want it.

“And you then realize that this is the absurdity, the comedy,” he says. “Why do we want such a violent, obscene, selfish world? Why do I want it that way? And I think that that Philadelphia meltdown was me asking that. I know it came off that I was screaming incoherently at listener-sponsored radio people, and I was. But when [Trump] got nominated, that fucked with me. Because all of a sudden I had this horrible realization that these currentsthese economic, philosophical, political currentshave all been leading here all alongfrom the dissolution of unions to the fucking Internet and everything in between. Or deindustrialization, start there, and end at the Internet and celebrity culture. Of course, you’re going to get Donald Trump. What were we thinking? Of course, Donald Trump is our president! Look at everything that led up to it. The equation is perfect.”

But if that’s what was buzzing around inside his head that day, it was mostly lost on everyone in attendance and certainly missed in the ensuing discussion of Tillman’s actions. Consequence of Sound christened him “indie music’s No. 1 troll” and published the account of a fan who reported seeing Tillman laughing maniacally after leaving the stage, as if he’d just pulled off a great piece of performance art. Then Tillman got in a Twitter spat with Strand of Oaks’ Timothy Showalter, who accused Tillman of using the event to draw attention to himself at the expense of his fans and the festival organizers. Tillman hit back at Showalter for his “mid/high profile tweetgasm,” then took a few shots at the radio station for running a list of their favorite Father John Misty-bashing tweets. The whole thing got silly. All these months later, Tillman still hasn’t put it behind him.

“When I got to that festival, and I’m looking out at this sea of people in lawn chairs, I just lost my mind,” he admits. “And it was not great. I didn’t really even say anything that great, but I was trying to make sense of it, because to me, I was like, ‘Fuck entertainment. Entertainment is a state of mind now. It’s not a commodity; it’s a state of mind.’ And I should have just said that and gotten on with it. But I felt such loathing for myself and for being on a stage and entertaining people. There was no way that I was going to be able to get up there and play some delightfully arch folk-rock for people. I just couldn’t do it. And I got a lot of shit. I got made fun of a lot,” he says, and it’s clear from his hurt tone that, for once, he’s not making fun of himself with self-pity. “So be it.”

After Trump’s election Tillman says he went on a six-day bender. When he emerged from it he had the sort of paralysis that accompanies knowing that things are irreparably broken but that you invite deserved ridicule if you deem yourself important enough to join the list of famous “American white males” who line up to offer their commentary on it. Trump’s election represents a transition point, Tillman says, one that was unavoidable given the trajectory of American culture.

“Fuck, man, it wasn’t the fucking Russians,” he says, reflecting on the inability of some Americans to accept that Trump actually won the election. “Is it really so unbelievable to people that this really disappointing presidential candidate lost to a celebrity? A celebrity plays by a completely different set of rules than a politician, because celebrities have a perverse incentive to say anything that makes waves, and they feel no shame or remorse. That’s why he was invincible. I don’t know…it’s dark. But it might be interesting to see in the next 10 years how popular famous people are. You’ll only have infamous people. You won’t have famous people. Jennifer Lawrence will be liked, and everyone else will be a famous asshole.”

Given that Tillman has co-written songs with both Beyoncé and Lady Gaga in the past couple years, he has a complicated relationship with celebrity himself. When asked, he jokes that he always imagined himself “being way more famous,” then suggests that no one in his social circle has yet accused him of allowing his fame to go to his head. He says he tries to avoid public commentary on him and his work but ends up “wasted and it’s 3:00 in the morning, and I’m like, ‘I’m going to look at Twitter, because I hate myself and I know it will hurt!’” And despite the fact that he has just made an album that spends over an hour diagnosing the depravity at the center of the human condition, he has no illusions that art will offer any solution. In fact, he doesn’t believe there’s any solution at all.

“There is not going to be a revolution in this country from calling your congressman or having more liberal entertainment,” he says. “I enjoy funny jokes as much as the next person, and sometimes funny jokes are political and I laugh. But the idea that yuppies have that if you just point out enough hypocrisies that people have to change their minds and come over to your side is just not the way it works. They started this study a few years ago that I was reading casually. I don’t want to mispresent myself, like, ‘I was reading a study...’” he says with a self-mocking tone. “But the results are coming out that it’s basically impossible to change someone’s mind using discourse and a logic door when it comes to politics. But that’s what liberals think.”

When asked if the lack of political solutions means that violence is the only remaining option, Tillman doesn’t answer directly. Such revolutions only happen when those with nothing to lose rise up against those who stand to lose everything. A revolution by hipsters would look like the scene he describes in “Things It Would Have Been Helpful to Know Before the Revolution,” with the spoiled revolutionaries soon longing to rebuild the system they just dismantled. Only the Silicon Valley geniuses have any sort of vision for what the future could look like, and since plans of colonizing other planets on a mass scale depend on humans making their own planet uninhabitable, it’s not much of a solution at all. The revolution isn’t coming, capitalism cannot be fixed, and no amount of deliberating over the machinations of democracy is going to change a single thing. And yet he has hope.

“The conclusion of the album is this thing that I always come back to: all we have is each other,” he says. “That’s where we create empathy and compassion, which is the substance of our survival. So I don’t think it’s really that shitty of an answer. God, we’re looking for answers in these increasingly absurd sciences and shit. But the answer is not going to be in quasars, guys! The answer is taking care of each other. It’s not a cliché. It’s the substance of human life, the substance of survival. If you take away that from the human experience, all you have left is a moustache and a bad attitude.”

Unfortunately, in a world where whoever comes up with the best 140-character retort often wins the day’s debate, the moustache and bad attitude are likely to be the talking points that float to the surface after discussions of Pure Comedy. Over an hour has passed since we began our conversation, so we need to wrap it up. But there’s time for one more question. If life is utterly meaningless, just “random matter suspended in the dark,” why bother to make such beautiful music about it? If it’s true that all we have is each other, given what Tillman has told us about human nature, how is that comforting? If this is all a cruel joke, a comedy of misery and stupidity, how can he find hope in it? I ask him if he thinks the album is more cynical than he’s letting on.

“No, there’s no such thing as cynical music,” he replies. “You don’t sit down at a piano for hours and hours at a time, berating yourself for not writing a good enough song, because you’re cynical. A cynic goes, ‘This sucks. It’s hard. I’m going to drink.’ I might do that too; it’s part of the whole thing. But cynicism is not looking at a world full of obscene counterfeits and thinking that it sucks. If anything, I’m just way too innocent, and I think that things should be good. I have an idea of how things should be. This is how it has been since I was a kid. It’s like, ‘There’s a way that things should look, and it’s not this. This is fucking weird and gross and it makes people unhappy.’”

“That shit ruined me,” he continues, and it’s not clear what “that” represents, whether his idealism, his religious upbringing, or humankind’s collective rejection of basic decency. “I don’t have a family. I don’t really have parents. I haven’t spoken to my parents in like 10 years. What kind of weird force can tear a family apart like that? It’s crazy. There were so many other more important factors than religion, but those are so painful that if I’m talking about it I just go, ‘It was religion! That was it. That’s what fucked it all up.’ When you look at Jehovah’s Witnesses exiling their children, could you or I ever do that? Could you look your kid in the face and say, ‘You don’t believe in Sky Man, so you have to get out of my life?’ That’s deranged. Something similar did happen to me, but it was less formal.”

And with that we’re out of time, and it would be impolite to press for further details. I tell him that I can only imagine how traumatic it would be to have your parents push you away, how that would inevitably present questions you could never answer, no matter how much you’ve thought about them.

“But they’re going to get old and need me one day, and we’ll figure it out, I’m sure,” he says. “That’s how life brings people together. You get old, you become helpless, and you become a child again,” he says, trailing off. His tone is soft, neither bitter nor regretful. For the first time in the interview, he actually sounds like the idealist he has spent the last 75 minutes telling me he is. “I hope it works out that way.”

[Note: This article originally appeared in Under the Radar’s Spring 2017 Issue (April/May/June 2017). This is its debut online.]


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