Father John Misty’s ‘Fear Fun’ has been no doubt one of last year’s highlights. A turning point in Josh Tillman’s career, after a long series of solo records and a parenthesis behind Fleet Foxes’ drums. We meet him in Bologna, a few hours before the second of the two Italian legs of his European tour, to take stock of this experience and try to understand what’s behind it.
You’ve been touring in a band, with Fleet Foxes; then solo, on your own, just you and your guitar; and now you’re on the road with a backing band. What’s the difference for you among these 3 situations?
I think the difference is fairly obvious, I’m more engaged doing this tour. With Fleet Foxes I was going to sleep on the bus at like 8 in the morning, then waking up at 4,30pm and soundchecking, and then playing the same show that I’ve been playing for two years or something, and go back to sleep. This touring doesn’t look that much different, but philosophically, in principles, is different, ‘cause they’re my own songs that I play, I’m doing something very different on stage. People just want to know what’s the difference between the two things, I think the significant difference is more creatively, but touring is touring is touring is touring, you know, Radiohead tours the same way. You’re on a bus, you’re not eating, you’re not sleeping, you’re playing.
So, for you, playing your songs on stage on your own or with a band is just the same?
Yeah. It’s just the difference between me playing with a band or not playing with a band.
If what Wikipedia states is true, we more or less share the same age...
So you’re a 135 too?
[Laughs]Yeah! ...Growing up in the '90s, my coming-of-age genres were the late grunge and Brit Pop. Which was the music you grew up with?
You probably listened to a lot cooler music than I did, but the cultural background was the same. Well, I loved grunge, I loved the angst, it was good for me. You know, I still really wonder, actually, why other people liked grunge, or music that is desolate and depressed and fatalistic and whatever... because I went to highschool with people who were all smiling and well adjusted and they listened to Alice in Chains, I was “What is these people getting out of this type of music?”, but, for me, I definitely felt solitary without it, so...
In high school I was listening to Bob Dylan, I became totally fixated on the idea of communicating with just a lyric, I mean at some point I realized that the angst was a fad and so, with my type of personality, I thought “Let’s cut this music thing down further and further and further until it gets to its true element”, and that to me –you know, that’s not true for everybody, but to me– that was someone with an unamplified piece of wood singing word that they had written, and that was the truest, that was the diamond of the whole thing, I thought “If you can communicate with this, than you’re actually communicating”.
Let's take about 'Fear Fun': I have been massively listening to it, and came up with a couple of different questions that I would love to discuss with you. The first is about religion. I know you come from a Christian family, you grew up in a religious environment, and I can see a lot of this breeding in the record: from the mention of Babylon at the very beginning, to the story featuring John the Baptist, Jesus Christ and Mary in 'Everyman Needs a Companion'. Also, songs like ‘O, I Long to feel...’ have a strong gospel influence. Was that a conscious choice, or did it just come up unintentionally?
Well, both, because my instincts are to write about it or to use that language, but then I have to make a choice, to actually follow it, to not impede that instinct. The fact that is not devotional music paired with that imagery is interesting to me, maybe that’s what I have to offer to the songwriter canon, like “He’s that guy who likes occasionally to interject biblical imagery into his otherwise completely non biblical songs”. I had this conversation with others, even like people in the band, who’ve asked me about that, because they recognise that I’m not worshipping God, obviously, but that I think for a lot people who grew up with religion the impulse is to dangerously omit it completely and to protest it by never talking about it, never allowing it into the creative thing, but what else would I gonna write? That’s my life, whether I like it or not. In a very deep way I would prefer that that had not been my experience, in my vanity or something, but it just is it, so, I just think it’s funny.
Because at the same time, together with this Christian imagery you talk about Shamans, Ayahuasca and Teepees, which is quite the opposite…
No, no, it’s not, it’s the same thing! It’s all the same thing, it’s just different. In the book that’s in the album it’s one of the main things that I address; at the end, this energy healer and the protagonist, that is me, end up in the same afterlife, and they fight, they’re like “I called it this” “I called it that” and the other person says “I never wanted this to be true but here I am” so it’s all just like human mysticism, you know. I don’t know what to do with that.
So you do have some sort of spirituality?
I create meaning from myself
It’s not just rebelling to something you’ve been, then...
No, religious things are very tender. If I was full of hatred, I would write and be like a musical Richard Dawkins. If something is so obviously not true to you, you can play with it, you don’t have to tear it down because it’s just so obviously not important, so you have the liberty of playing with it. That’s what I’m doing, that’s just my language. I flow around biblical stories and references all the time, just because that’s what I grew up in, it’s the same thing as if I grew up in like in an African village, that would be your language you couldn’t only have so much money.
Another way I can read ‘Fear Fun’ is that of a Bildungsroman, a 'coming-of-age' album, in strict connection with all the literature focusing on tripping as a metaphor of radical inner change. How could that suit with your experience?
Yeah, that’s not very far off. I think one of the things that makes the album interesting is that while I’m doing that, I’m also satirizing that, and I’m kind of satirizing that impulse; because it’s so cliché at this point to do that, that you can’t resist. It’s like at this point in time there is an element of hyper-consciousness that’s expected out of a writer he’s gonna do that, it’s not novel anymore, it’s not new, like everyone sees there’s so much information, everyone has heard every story, heard every song, heard everything, and so, to be critiquing myself while I’m doing it and critiquing the whole enterprise doing it while I’m doing it I think it’s what make people feel safe, like they can enjoy it, because they know that I’m not like a child, or full of vanity thinking that I’m the first person who’s ever done this. Which is where that line “I’m writing a novel/ because it’s never been done before” comes from, it’s like letting the listener know that it’s ok to accept that I’m doing this thing because I barely accepted it myself.
I think at this point I can’t but ask you how much autobiographical and how much fiction is what you write...
Well... any time you commit something to the page it becomes fiction.
Yes, that’s why I’m asking...
You know, to really write an autobiography is curating autobiographical events, and curating events into a sequence becomes fiction. And it is also fiction in that small part because the listener, the reader doesn’t know the facts so they are filling in the blank with fantastical or fictitious white matter. [The album] it’s not about some character named Father John Misty, and that was the point, because I wanted to force the listener to admit that it doesn’t matter what is called, that the name is totally arbitrary, if you listen to it. I’ve made interesting writings about fictional persons, I’ve made interesting writing about fictional events, that’s a waste of time to me, but I like making fictions.
I've heard – and read – many times you being asked about releasing your most 'sincere' record so far under a moniker instead of your real name, and a quote from Oscar Wilde came to my mind: "A man is least himself when he talks in his own person: give him a mask, and he'll tell you the truth". Is that your case?
I didn’t need a mask... that’s a beautiful quote, but it’s been more pragmatic than that. I had made all these albums under my own name, but if you took all of them and the content therein, and think “Oh, these were albums made by Josh Tillman” you would get zero, you’d only get a very accurate emotional picture of what was the time being. With music and songwriting and singing, it’s not so much the lyrics, as the way that they’re being sung; whether the events on this album are fictional or not isn’t this important as that’s way that I talk, the lyrics in that album it’s how I talk, they resemble me in that way, and that’s the most honest thing that I think you can do, as a writer, to write like you talk.
But if I hadn’t made those other albums, this would’ve been the Josh Tillman album, but I made all these others, so. I wasn’t afraid of revealing any of that stuff.
In everything you do there’s a lot of irony. Christy Wampole of the New York Times published in November a controversial feature entitled 'How to Live without Irony', in which she stated that for 'Millennials' or 'Generation Y', i.e. people born in the '80s, "particularly middle-class Caucasian, irony is the primary mode with which daily life is dealt… The ironic frame functions as a shield against criticism… Irony is the most self-defensive mode, as it allows a person to dodge responsibility for his or her choice, aesthetics and otherwise. TO LIVE IRONICALLY IS TO HIDE IN PUBLIC". How would you comment?
You know, every night, in every city that I play, people come up to me and they say “I don’t want to be annoying” or “I don’t want to interrupt you” or “I don’t want to be that person” or I don’t want to be whatever but can I have a picture, can I have ten minutes of your time, can you sign this thing, can you answer my questions... which is to me like functional irony or ideology, words like “I want this thing, and I want it enough to come up to you and ask but I’m going to protect myself from the consequence of asking that by preambling with an “I don’t want to do that” and an “I don’t want to be this thing”” and this is like “I want what I want but I don’t want to be judged for wanting that thing”.
Irony is different in different hands, different people use it differently, I think you can take a body of work, like an album, that includes irony and have it not be an ironic [one], you can utilize irony. There is some real irony about being like this album, it is all about me and it’s sounding my voice, and this thing that it’s all about me but it’s called this thing it’s totally stupid, and has like a stupid looking man on the cover, that is not me: that’s a case to be made that maybe that is like, you know, real irony. Noone’s fooling anybody, I guess this is the point, whether you use irony or not, your intentions still come through, but I think that I know how to deal with irony without losing myself, which it’s like a hurdle for trying to be a writer.
I think that, for many people, this has a lot to do with being cool, being afraid of not being cool...
Yes, absolutely. Being afraid of passion. Passion is very uncool. There’s a lot of irony in music now in terms of like “Ok, I’ve made this album, I went out and find a label to put it out, I booked a tour, I agreed to play on TV, I agreed to do all these interviews, but then once I get up there I act like ‘that’s the last place in the world I want to be’”, you know, that’s another way of protecting yourself. It is everywhere, but in the U.S, we are entertained all the time, we are surrounded by creature comfort and told that that’s the reason to be happy, we all feel like very guilty about it, about our feelings, because we are told constantly the way we have it is the best way that there is to have it.
Well, that’s Christian!
It is, it's Catholic! Having to suffer not to feel guilty for being happy...
Yes, that’s Catholicism – Christianity at his core, historically, in a cartesian sense, it was this thing that you’re not part of the universe, you’re a separate entity, you’re not part of this world. That was a collective way of thought that preempted classical Christianity, and was like a huge break in the human collective subconscious, words like “oh, I’m not part of this thing, I’m a free agent wandering around, and I’m no part of any of it”. That way of thinking has been compounded more and more and more for a thousand year or something, a totally non-olistic way of vision of the world, like veganism is a symptom of that, like thinking that you’re going to save the world recycling is a symptom of that; basically, not taking your place in the cycle.
You’ve been working with Jonathan Wilson on Fear Fun. When I met him back in June he told me about the first time the two of you met, with you picking his iPhone and ‘stealing’ from his contact list.
Oh really?? Yeah, ok [laugh] No that never happened [laughs]. He and I have talked about it, when I moved to town he was like “Who’s this guy??”, all of a sudden I knew everybody, and he was like “Alright, this is the guy...”
Jokes aside, how did your collaboration start?
It really just started with a mutual friend, I had just moved to Los Angeles and people kept telling me “Oh, you have to meet Jonathan, he’s got a studio, he’s so cool, he knows a lot of musicians” and I was like “Fuck that guy, it sounds like a nightmare!”; then we met up and just became friends, we were just hanging out for about a year or something before we even really started working on the album. That was just the case, I was working on these demos, and I played them at his house one night, and then he asked for a copy of them, I just sent them, and was like “we should definitely make a record”. Just as simple as that.
Did you expect the big reception that Fear Fun has had?
I don’t know, has it had a big reception? I don’t know, I mean, I don’t have any perspective on it really; for me, the reaction will always be suspect, I’ll always be suspicious of it. I don’t know. I mean, it’s not cool music, it’s not cool like “Breaking the wave, the dark side of indie” [the name of a club night written on a poster on the wall], it’s not like Beach House or like Grizzly Bear, you know, one of these zeitgeisty bands, that’s what’s cool, and I’m like “[mimicking the guitar intro of “Tee-pees 1-12” with his voice]”, and singing about ridiculous shit, so, no, I think the reaction that it’s got makes sense to me. If I told you that I was expecting a bigger response to it I’d be like a monster. [shouting and laughing] “I was expecting a bigger reaction!”
The last question: how’s your pizza blog/podcast doing after this Italian experience?
I’m still in the words with Food Network getting the production specs and all other stuff...
I heard your ‘Food Is the New Rock’ podcast, man, that really was funny...
Yeah, that was a good one. I tried, I was gonna do this podcast called ‘Pizza Revelry with Josh Tillman” and recorded the first four episodes of it; the premise was basically that me and a comedian would improvise that the night before we had gone out to a pizza place and we’re talking about our experience but, you know, that was totally fictitious, we had to do it totally straight-faced and discuss the types of pizzas we had and riff off each other. But I ended up being better than everyone that I brought in, so it ended up being totally pathetic. I’ll make a really handsome coffee-table book one day, a scratch and sniff coffee-table book.
Thank you, Josh!
Yeah, thank you.