Having released seven albums under the established name of "J. Tillman," Josh Tillman threw his hands up to the flailing project in 2010. Last year he subsequently made the daring (and what looked then to be dumb) choice to quit drumming for an itty bitty band from Seattle called Fleet Foxes. He went on a now-legendary trek in his beloved van, filled his body with drugs, wrote a novel as bearded traveling men tend to do, and finally came out of the midst of a debilitating depression with a newfound realization that he had never really said anything honest about himself in all seven of those albums.
So he did what few people in this world are able to do: He changed. He took his fear, turned it on its' head, and had some fun with it. These losses and events seem to have served as fuel to the fire in the resulting masterpiece Fear Fun. Given his penchant for playing with words (courtesy his appetite for multiple and conflicting lyric meanings) and toying with people (his drunken middle-of-the-night Twitter rants to Pitchfork are not to be missed), Father John Misty could be the next Bob Dylan or Jack White, no question. We hit Josh up and talked about his girlfriend turned dominatrix actress, why fear is not so important after all, and why everything that he says in this interview may one day be the foolish vanity of his past - and why he's not afraid of that, or really anything at all, anymore.
Father John Misty. With Har Mar Superstar, Damon Moon and the Whispering Drifters. $12. 8p.m. Tues., May 22. Masquerade, 695 North Avenue NE. 404-577-8178. http://www.masqueradeatlanta.com/
Nancy From Now On is a video in which you deal with a dominatrix in a hotel room, with her eventually cutting your hair and ending up together. How was the filming?
Father John Misty: That was a really intense one for me because I've recently kind of found this real love and companionship and empathy and mutual respect with this woman, Emma, who's in the video. The video is essentially her and I trying to explore issues of intimacy through the lens of what you might call a radical honesty, or something. It's actually a very innocent video. For me, if I want to make something about love, I don't want to fall back on the tropes or cliches of discussing love and intimacy in an artistic context because it's fucking just not me. That first scene, that really was just me and Emma getting a room at the chateau and saying "let's just fucking get weird". We're both into getting weird, and I wanted a hair cut, and I wanted her to do it. What you see on screen is shockingly this meta whirl wind.
And it really was paradoxically an innocent video. Considering the concept it could've been way less tasteful.
The music press is so goliath and shit. As far as press is concerned, you really don't get the benefit of the doubt that you're actually trying to do something meaningful, so what I ended up seeing was a bunch of "parties with a bunch of dominatraxes and then goes home with a different girl" and I'm like dude, it's the same girl the whole time you fucking dummie! Like, think about this for a fucking second! I like confronting people with shit like love but with all kinds of symbols that are not particularly precious. Is it possible to portray real understanding and intimacy between two people with mutilating images like domination?
How long have you and Emma been together?
Oh, I'm not going to divulge the intimacies of my life here! [Laughs]
[Laughs] What is she like?
She's like an artist with a capital A. She's the coolest, she's like my partner or something. We work on stuff together quite a bit. She's just like an intellectual powerhouse and she fucking inspires my brain. And we sit around and do drugs and laugh our asses off and make weird ass videos.
So you're about to turn 31 [his birthday, May 3rd, has since passed]. How did the big three oh treat you?
I liked thirty. I've always sort of suspected that I was born to be a mean old coop, a cantankerous old man. So thirty feels more like where I belong. I like age, subversion, subversion ofÂ vanity.
After four years with Fleet Foxes, do you miss being apart of it?
No, I wouldn't say that I particularly miss the wholeÂ scenario. There are definitely some friendships there that are still active so I don't particularly have occasion to miss them.
You were quoted by the New Parish recently as stating: "I had this realization that all I had really done with [songwriting] was lick my wounds for years and years, and become more and more isolated from people and experiences. I don't even like wound-licking music, I want to listen to someone rip their arm off and beat themselves with it. I don't believe that until now I've ever put anything at risk in my music. I was hell-bent on putting my preciousness at stake in order to find something worth singing about [on this new record]". What propelled you to put that riskiness in your album?
For a long time, and this was something that I wasn't really conscious of, I was just really determined to present a version of myself that was invulnerable and impenetrableÂ to criticism-which is impossible. It's unsustainable. For a long time I thought that I was being honest and I thought I was being vulnerable but my ideas about how to do that have refined more. I really think that I'm less vain, or something, at this point in my life. I'm just kind of finally being honest that I've always kind of enjoyed scaring people and making people uncomfortable or making people consider realities that are messy. At this point I'm not really concerned with defending the republic of my vanity, and that liberated me to create in a way that I hadn't really been mature enough to doÂ previously. With the J. Tillman records there was always this elegant gag to the whole thing, which is that you can make records under your own name for ten years and never really say anything honest about yourself, yet make a new record, under this ridiculously goofy name I just invented while I was stoned one day, that's explicitiy honest about Josh Tillman. There's no person at the core of that record other than Josh Tillman.
I do enjoy manipulating the sense of identity, and that's really what you do with this whole singer songwriter thing is. It's easy to present a deeply romanticized version of one's self. And rather I like it or not, I think that's what I was doing for a long time. I was carefully picking and choosing which parts of me I wanted to expose to the world. I was very self-conscious about my ability to make people laugh for a long time because I thought that it equated to not being respected, or not being taken seriously. So I would very carefully curate these aspects of myself that I wanted to expose and that's just where the vanity thing comes in. What's the sexiest, deepest, most profound, intelligent, depressed, wounded angel savant version of myself that I could give to the world [I used to think]? With this album, there is very little of that. I'm not a particularly precious person, but I had a lot of fear for a long time. And fear equals preciousness. Fear tells you that things are so good damn important.
You've talked in the past about experiencing depression. Why do you experience depression?
Oh God. Well I don't know. It's always been apart of my life. Obviously I'm not interested in addressing all of the gory details here, in this stadium, but I do think there is a certain amount of depression that is a commonality in the culture right now. To quote [Pierre Joseph] Proudhon, a French anarchist, I think that a lot of us get the sense that the play of our free instincts is impeded by the culture, and I think that a lot of people are walking around pretty depressed because everywhere that you turn there are these cheap, commidified platitudes and empty, ineffectual methods. I wish to address the real and true needs of human experience and that is experimentation, sexuality, science, all of these impulses that we know are innate to us and that we suspect are true and real. The culture kind of does its best to anesthetize very real human needs and I just think that if you do that long enough, people forget that they even have those needs in a real way. You get a cultural depression.
Part of my depression in my adult life was trying to reconcile with this culture that I'm apart of, and that everywhere I look, I see things that are garish and binal. But the depression that is relevant to this conversation was really just that I was deeply and profoundly creatively lost. I didn't suspect that I was really doing what I needed to be doing in order to celebrate my own creative instincts. I was kind of trapped. Really really trapped. And that made me depressed in ways that I wasn't even conscious of. Individual depression only makes sense to the person whose yielding it. Depression destroys. It doesn't give you an objective view of reality- my depression's not going to make sense to you. It's not going to make sense to anyone but myself because I'm the only one intimate with the distortions, the prospective that that depression created-or that I created by virtue of the depression.
I know Kirsten Dunst won't talk about her depression in interviews for that exact reason.
Yeah, like If I say I'm depressed people are going to be like "Well what you depressed about boy? Blah blah blah!" And they'll compare their lives to mine, and you know, I'm just not interested in entering any conversation where people are just comparing foregone conclusions about another person.
I'm really fascinated by predominate, intellectual commonalities. There are these bed rock ideas that all of us kind of walk around thinking of ourselves- like that we're all individuals with individual experiences, and we never consider that there may be common intellectual bedrock ideas that we're all coming under the influence of without really being conscious of it. A good example would be to look at the world of advertising. Advertising is like the sun coming up and the sun going down. As such, if it is inevitable, it should be funny and high quality and beautiful and sentimental. We're all constantly being told that we have needs that are not being met properly, and that creates fear, but a fear that I don't think a lot of people are really conscious of.
When I walk around this world and listen to people talk, there's so much anxiety. There's so much fucking anxiety and fear and depression. But the world of desire creation-advertising-is so embedded within us that we look for reasons within ourselves as to why we're depressed without considering that maybe we're far more susceptible to these kind of false nexuses that are kind of everywhere than we can give ourselves credit for.
And that quote, in particular, all you have to do is create fear, just create fear, fill the world with cancer ads and fill the world with HIV ads and tell people if they don't drink enough energy drinks they're going to fall asleep in the middle of their job and oh no, they're going to lose their job and then they'll be out in the street and it's just this constant dynamo of fear that's the background of our entire culture, but simultaneously we're afraid of admitting that, because what does that say about us? About our culture, about our way of life? To me, a quote like that is just like "let's just call this thing what it is"-let's just call it "fear". It's not too scary. I don't mind saying it. I don't mind admitting that maybe I live in a grotesque time. That's liberating to me. It's not a pleasant thought, but it's liberating.
What's your novel ultimately about?
It is more or less a subconscious excavation of the last thirty years or so of my life, and it's an attempt at simple creation for myself in terms of creating some useful symbols. It's creating a personal sense of myth as opposed to aligning my life with pre-existing narratives. I just had fun myhologixing my own experiences and ideologies as they exist right now. It's a giant absurdist satire of myself of my attempt of even doing what I just said. It's one big collapsing joke.
Do you have any plans on publishing it?
Well, my dear, you just wait. It's been absorbed into the album. You know that line "I'm writing a novel" in the album?
I do sir.
Well there's a lyrics sheet in the album and next to the word "novel" there's an asterisk, and there are two foot by two foot posters folded into the album and when you turn that sheet over there's a tiny asterisk in the top left hand corner and there the entire novel starts. So basically the entire novel is a footnote to the lyrics sheet.
Talk about incentive motivation.
[Laughs] It's a sight to behold.
On the last song of the album, "Every Man Needs a Companion", you say those exact words. Considering your personality, I think it's interesting that your final word seemingly is that ultimately people need people. How correct am I in interpreting it like that?
Well, what I like about that lyric is that on one hand it's this universal statement but that lyric is a tough one for me to even get out of my mouth, and that's why I wanted to say it. I'm not particularly needy when it comes to friendships. I have historically been a pretty isolated person. And with that song, there's a bit of a wink and a nudge because the idea is sort of like you treat your perception of yourself as a companion, like you cultivate this sense of self. And this idea of a companion, it really is like a double entendre. We're social creatures, but we're also obsessed with our individuality, and just kind of exploring the relationship between those two things.
I like songs that can be-and must be-considered in a few different ways. Like you can't walk away from that song-if I did it right, which I hope I did-you can't walk away from that song thinking "Oh, it's a nice simple song about friendship", because there are all these signifiers in there saying perhaps that is not exactly what's going on. It's something I want to believe is true. It's more me saying "is this true? It's something I've been told". This is an idea that gets affiminated throughout the culture all the time, let me try it on for size.
I really like some of the ending lines where you say "I never really liked the name Joshua/I got tired of James". There's just such a sense of identity there. I think when an artist says their own name in a poem or song, it's like, whoff! You're really calling yourself out, you know?
[Laughs] Well, J. Tillman was my companion for a fucking long time, this life as art thing that I had developed. At some point I just didn't know why I was doing it anymore. By really isolating myself I just kind of obsessively cultivated this image of myself. It got really kind of boring and it grew into this idea of "maybe I do need someone other than myself and my own projects and my own artistic pursuits, et cetera".
What do you believe about yourself?
Well. I don't really have to believe the things I know about myself. I do know that I'm a person who likes to decompound myself. I like to occasionally dedinate everything that I know about myself. And so with the book, and subsequently the record, with leaving Seattle, leaving this band that I was in, and leaving everything was kind of this acknowledgement of like, maybe I don't know shit about making myself fulfilled, and maybe all of these methods that I've attempted to do that with are obsolete now, maybe they were wrong. I don't mind being a foil for myself, so something I know about myself is that any and everything that I'm telling you right now, six months from now, five years from now, whatever, it may just be the foolish vanity of my past, and I'm really not afraid of that. I recognize that I don't have a world view, you know what I mean? I have this perspective that is now able and that changes with experience and that refines. I'm kind of done creating some didadtic world view for myself that applies in every scenario that I'm in. So yeah, I don't know shit. I don't believe shit about myself.
Since I know that you fell passionately in love with Doritos this year at SXSW, I must ask, what's your favorite flavor?
[Laughs] What's that?
What's your favorite Doritos flavor?
I can honestly say that I have not consumed a Dorito in-God-it's been a long fucking time. My favorite flavor of Dorito is the flavor that's created when the west coast falls into the sea and all the fucking towers are mixed into the ocean like an un-Godly savory KoolAid we all have to drink until the fucking nuclear reactors melt down.
Oh Josh, you're a trip. I can't imagine touring with you, it would've been crazy. I am done. Is there anything you need to address?
[Laughs] Well, no, not until your album comes out, and then I'll have a slew of questions for you.
Oh, well I'm a drummer, so there you go.
Alright! What does your music sound like?
It sounds really good.
What do you like more, playing drums in a band, or doing your own music? I get that a lot.
Probably playing drums in a band.
Cool. That's cool. I've had some experience with that.
Yeah, yeah you've had just a little bit I would say. So what advice would you give to a girl drummer? Cause if you haven't noticed, I'm a woman.
What advice would I give to a female drummer specifically?
Yes, a female drummer, Josh.
Don't get pregnant, that's the advice I'd give to a girl drummer.
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