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Father John Misty - The Under the Radar Cover Story Bonus Q&A

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Jul 26, 2017 Issue #60 - Father John Misty Photography by Koury Angelo (for Under the Radar) Bookmark and Share

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There’s a moment toward the end of Pure Comedy, Josh Tillman’s sprawling third album as Father John Misty, that feels just a little different from all of those that come before it. As all of the swirling strings and pianos drop out near the end of “The Memo,” digital voices arise and tangle around his. “You’re enjoying the chill winter playlist,” one says. “This is totally my song of the summer,” says another, as Tillman apes music streaming site jargon by crooning “Do you usually listen to music like this? Can we recommend some similar artists?” Following his references to starting a boy band who “sing like angels with whiter teeth” earlier in the song, it’s the only track that aims squarely at the vapidity of the music industry and the mind-numbing pop culture spectacle that surrounds it. It’s a world that he now knows intimately.

Since 2015’s critical and commercial smash I Love You, Honeybear, Tillman has caused a temporary sensation by half-seriously covering a couple of Taylor Swift songs and made contributions to Beyoncé and Lady Gaga albums. He has engaged in Twitter fights and appeared as trending news more than a couple times. And he has no trouble admitting that he’s a part of the culture that repulses him, a theme that turns up at multiple points on Pure Comedy.

Today, a few days before he’ll take the stage as the musical guest on Saturday Night Live, Tillman is in good spirits, jumping from a deep dive into the themes on his album to his lack of faith in political institutions to his now-infamous meltdown at Philadelphia’s 2016 XPoNential Music Festival. As usual, he’s unguarded and engaging, quick with a self-effacing quip as he is with a cutting critique of contemporary American life. But, perhaps more than anyone, he knows how strange this all isfor a 35-year-old failed folkie to have remade himself as arguably the most important singer/songwriter in contemporary music. Here, Tillman explores his songwriting process, the election of Donald Trump, and how psychedelics might be our only hope. [Note: These are extra portions of our interview with Josh Tillman, quotes that didn’t make it into our main print cover story article on Father John Misty.]

Matt Fink (Under the Radar): How are you today?

Josh Tillman: Pretty good. A little worse for the wear today. I went a little too hard last night. But I’m great.

So you have SNL this weekend. What has that been like?

It’s pretty bonkers. It’s not something I envisioned myself doing. It’s kind of surreal.

Is all of this attention something you wanted? Playing SNL and writing songs with Lady Gaga…

I always imagined myself being way more famous. [Laughs] I’ve just been taking it as it comes, and there’s certain things that I have a morbid curiosity for, and there’s some things I’ve tried where I’m like, “Well, I’m never going to do this again, because this sucks,” and I presumed it would, but I had to try it. I think my sense of the absurd serves me pretty well with that kind of stuff.

Are you ever in danger of taking it all too seriously?

I’m sure that it has fucked with my personality in ways that I’m not aware of. [Laughs] But nobody has pulled me aside yet. We haven’t had an intervention yet for anything.

I know from talking to you before that you started writing this one not too long after the last one.

Honeybear was finished so long before it came out. The chronology I can never quite remember, but typically I’m writing an album. If you tour for two years, then you’re bound to be working on a record while you’re doing that. I’m sorry. That was the worst answer ever. But 2015 was when I started writing the record in New Orleans.

What was the first song you wrote for this record?

“Pure Comedy.”

So you had the thesis from the start?

The first song is generally the bleakest song on the record. But it’s always a process, because that’s part of who I amthat despair and desperation and whatever. But when the other songs start to come along, I always want to course correct and be like, “It’s not just this!” And I think that this record had the most extreme catharsis, if you look at where the record starts and where it ends. The worldview is not radically different between those songs, but it’s about perspective, like, “What perspective are you going to choose in this life?”

Is it important to you as an artist to have some optimism in the album?

It’s important to me as a human being. That’s kind of the defining struggle of my life, is dealing with the despair and depression.

Did the songs come quickly?

These songs underwent more rewrites than I’ve ever done. Rewriting has not been part of my process, thus far, because if you’re going to be delusional enough to address the question of “What does it all mean?”a question that I’m categorically unqualified to answerI just had a real sense that this needed to be right. This could not be indulgently bleak, because that’s always the temptation for me, as a human and as a writer. But I don’t know, because these records change me, too.

Externalizing those questions and seeing the answers, does that change your perspective on them?

It’s hard to know what’s going on when you’re writing a record. I’m not sure if I know what it is that’s going on. I could venture a guess. Writing music is so cellular to who I am and to my experience. If you were to remove that aspect of my life, you’d have a moustache and a bad attitude. That would be about all that would be left. [Laughs]

Without Honeybear would this one have happened?

I’m sure it wouldn’t have. I don’t want to devolve into platitudes here about how, but I do think there’s some internal logic at play. With the last record, “Holy Shit” was the last song that I wrote for that album, and this album really kind of picks up where that song [ends] in my evolution as a writer. If I were to take all of my songs and line them up chronologically in terms of when they were written, as opposed to a tracklist, then I think you’d definitely see the way that one thing leads to another. In the same way that the stuff that I’m writing now has a lot in common with the last song on this record, the last song I wrote for it. Which does not bode well for my fans. [Laughs]

Were these themes starting to pop up at the end of the last one?

They must have been. It didn’t come out of nowhere. I’m fairly contentious about the fact that I don’t write political music and that there’s nothing explicitly political about my music. I would have to have a political worldview to make political music, and I just don’t… I mean, I do. I’m saying that, kind of being willfully ignorant of my many political ideas and worldview. So “Bored in the USA” was really about empathy and feeling your own pain even when you believe that your pain is in some way culturally invalid, and that’s where the laugh track and stuff [came in]. That’s just how we respond. But when you don’t feel your own pain, it becomes impossible to feel empathy for other people. It just becomes a yuppie gesture to be like, “Well, I know that other people have it way worse than I do…” It’s just this pearl-clutching. Not for everyone, obviously, but I think that’s the risk that you take by not feeling your pain. Even the religion thing. “Making fun” is not the term for it. There are these core ironies to things like religion. For example, one of the three monotheistic religions since the Axial Age is founded on an anti-religious figure. Jesus Christ, within the context of what Jesus was about or what I understand about Jesus, when he said that he was going to found his church on Paul, he did not mean Catholicism. Jesus and all those figures were like “Religion is not working out.” It fails to address this emerging complexity in the human mind and in human life. As people started to move into these city states and all of a sudden you were living around strangers instead of families, that raised some really sticky questions, throwing a bunch of strangers together. And I think those new religions were a response to that and it was a personal thing. I am not condescending to Catholics. I’ve been around religious people my whole life, and I’ll tell you that there’s nothing about a religion that makes a good person a bad person or a bad person a good person. You have to be so willfully ignorant of the real factors that inform who we are to believe that religion changes people. When I was a kid, I wanted to experience the redeeming power of the gospel that everyone was talking about. I got baptized four times in my childhood, like, “Maybe it will work this time.” And people being like, “Well, you must be doing it wrong.” And that really fucks with you.

Would you say that this is a God-haunted album?

Wise Blood, the Flannery O’Connor book, was such a big deal for me. Because it is really a cautionary tale, like, “If you don’t get over this you are going to resemble in your absence of faith the fanaticism of believers.” Atheists are insufferable because to be an atheist you have to have been a Christian first. I’m sorryif your parents told you that there was no God and you believed them and called yourself an atheist, then you are in the family religion. You are a religious person. I do understand that there are people who feel very strongly that religion has a toxic influence on culture and that it’s important to take a stand. In some ways, I guess…I’m not sure I agree. I think that religion most of the time is a scapegoat for larger social and political things that people don’t want to address, because they are so untangleable, so they blame it. My parentsI think the ‘80s had more of an influence on who they are than religion.

What were you feeling after Trump’s election?

I wasn’t feeling much, because I was pretty much on a six-day bender after that. It’s tough, because on the one hand I don’t want to be this…white men, we just think that it’s our job to have the right perspective on shit. We’re so insufferable. We’re like, “Okay, time for me to formulate my airtight opinion about this. These hysterics…how pathetic. Why?” But I do that, too, like any other American white male in the year 2017. But I do at least attempt to combat that impulse. So I was sort of like, “I can’t go around telling people how it is, because I just don’t know.” But it’s just tragic. It’s a tragedy for human dignity in a lot of different ways. I just feel like we’re watching these deportations and shit, and it’s horrible. There’s nothing else to say.

Is there a sense that with Trump’s election we’ve crossed a line and can’t come back from it?

Fuck, no, we can’t come back from this. Obama was really nice for trying to chill people out, but at the same time I also deeply resent that technocrat-style of bipartisan governance. I’m not going to go into why the Democrats lost. No one is here to hear that. I’m not a political commentator, and I don’t know what I’m talking about. But I’m just so sick of it. I don’t know how useful it is for me to say what I think about why Hillary lost, for example. But I do think that looking at data while the Midwest turns into a wasteland of poisoned water and empty factories might have had something to do with it. “My data says that these trade deals are really good for the American worker!” It’s the same thing they did in the ‘90s with Greenspan. As jobs are being siphoned out of the country, these algorithms were saying that the economy was exploding. [Laughs] “Works for me!” “Sure, it does, motherfucker. Works for you and no one else!”

How much of Trump’s rise do you think is due to Twitter culture and the tendency to reduce everything to the smallest amount of information, with all nuance lost? That’s the same tendency that ensures that your songs are often misinterpreted.

Well, we all know that. I mean, duh. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. I think Twitter also didn’t just come out of nowhere. There was some demand within the collective imagination to spout unformed thoughts or blunt thoughts with no context. People wanted that in the collective imagination, and then you got Twitter. But why did people need that? I don’t know. You just keep going further and further back. World War II? World War II was so traumatic to the collective imagination, like, “Oh, my God, everything Freud said was right. We are violent animals that have to be controlled.” And maybe there is a case to be made that that anger and outrage is the slow, simmering response to a 20th century where people became controlled in more and more ways, some subtle and some not so much. And people are just rattling the cage. It’s corny imagery, but…

People debate whether we’ve moved into the future described in 1984 or the one in Brave New World. In a weird way, it seems like we’re living in a combination of both of them.

It’s way more candy-coated than I thought it would be. It’s obscene. It’s sickening. And that’s another thing that I said at that Philadelphia thing: I never thought it would be this cliché. This is bad writing. This is corny evil, which is the worst kind of evil. It isn’t even sophisticated. It’s fucking dumb. But I’ve always thought that evil was about stupidity. Not just IQ or whatever, but a choice to be willfully ignorant. “I can accomplish this by omitting the fact that I know these certain things in my heart of hearts, and I’m just going to ignore them because I know that I can accomplish this thing if I do.” And that’s stupid. That’s fucking dumb. It’s making yourself dumb. And I just don’t know why we do it.

Since Trump has been elected, I’ve been surprised by how many people have been cavalierly throwing around the idea of a violent revolution to take Trump out of power. On “Things It Would Have Been Helpful to Know Before the Revolution” you write about what it might look like if we did have a revolution and why that might not be a good idea.

Well, no, it is a good idea. But the yuppie revolution is probably going to look a lot like that song. And there will never be a yuppie revolution, because yuppies have too much to lose to have an authentic revolution. Revolutions are fought by people with nothing to lose against people who have everything to lose, and we’re in the latter category. So we’re going to have to die. [Laughs] Americans have always had this ignorance about class-that we live in a classless society. We may as well having a fucking caste system, and there are people who are unrepresented who are now getting every reason they could possibly need to rise up and kills us all. They are getting torn away from their families. This shit with not being able to use cash in storesyou have to have a credit card? That’s like the sign of the beast from Revelation. They have every reason to have a revolution, but the way that the bourgeoisand that’s such a pretentious word and it looks horrible in printbut the so-called middle class, however you want to define it, we think that a revolution is fought in the world of ideas. Capitalism, sure, is an idea, but it was a slow motion violent revolution. Lives were getting ruined and destroyed in slow motion and sometimes not in slow motion. Sometimes it was just “You’re fucked now.”

Does that mean violence the only option for real change?

Here’s the thing: here’s why the world looks the way it does now. No one has an idea for what the future is supposed to look like. The only people are these fucking insane people in Silicon Valley who say, “We’re going to live on a lifeboat on Mars.” But doesn’t that mean that we have to destroy the world first? That’s a shitty future. I don’t like it. There is a crisis of imagination. That’s why Occupy Wall Street didn’t do jack shit, because it was all about process. It was just about process. Like, “Let’s invent a new process,” not “Let’s develop a new fucking idea for what the world should look like.” It’s why we’re willing to put up with so much lying and avarice and stupidity, because we have no alternative. If we had an alternative do you really think we’d put up with this fucking garbage? That’s comedy, man. I tied it all back to the album for you.

The answer has been in front of us the whole time.

Which is why psychedelics are so good, because you get to have this experience where these ideas that your cynical yuppie mind has told you are clichés, that the real answers are sophisticated and wordy and make you feel smart. And they’re not. In that state of mind, you can have a thought like that, and it is imbued with the gravity and dignity that it deserves. You can also have a lot of really stupid ideas. [Laughs] But I stand by a lot. I just said that to be dumb, because there’s this sort of collective understanding that when you take psychedelics… like Paul McCartney’s stupid fucking story where he wrote, “There are seven levels, ha ha ha.” But maybe there fucking are! I find a lot of clarity in the psychedelic experience. I realize that I’m now one more idea away from being a Joe Rogan podcast, and it’s killing me inside. But I do. I’m going to be fighting next, where you become a primal man and that’s where all the truth is! But living in this world is the worst kind of psychedelic trip. Nothing is how it seems, and we do and say all these insane things without knowing or understanding why. It’s not an objective experience to be on the planet. You’re bombarded with weird, psychedelic messaging, where you’re like, “Whoa, I know I don’t need that thing, but I want it! This is crazy!”

It’s a strange time to be alive.

Yeah. We are here for a reason. People will say, “Oh, life was so much better when the family all lived together, and there was a family culture where grandpa lived in the house with the family and was a venerated person.” There is all kinds of weird shit that came out of that, and we decided we don’t want to live that way anymore. So we changed it, because we really thought it would be better. We are not monsters. Nobody did that because they said, “You know what would give me a boner? Putting grandpa in a nursing home to spend the rest of his years eating Salisbury steak.” But there are unintended consequences for everything that you do.

[Note: This article originally appeared in the digital version (for smart phones and tablets) of Under the Radar’s Spring 2017 Issue (April/May/June 2017). This is its debut online.]


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