During our lengthy conversation, Tillman spoke about Father John Misty as well as a variety of other topics — including his thoughts on the current musical zeitgeist, Twitter, his once-certain destruction, and his plans for another record.
Father John Misty. $13-$15. 9 p.m. Thurs., October 18, Terminal West.
Do you keep up with a lot of what people write about you and your music?
This is kind of like a new experience. I haven’t really had much written about me in the past, you know ... My attitude about music writing, in general, is like consumer reports are useful is you’re buying a car. If you’re buying a car, you want to read a consumer report about the performance of the car, there’s empirical data, there’s shit that’s demonstrably true. If you want a safe mind, that’s a very useful medium.
The critique of music — I think the pretense that most people know is not true at the core of it, which is that music needs to be explained to the public to prevent them from spending their hard-earned money on some defective music. I think to get people to keep coming back to read your thing, you have to sort of engender that attitude, even if just a little bit. I think that the main response from music criticism when that assessment of music criticism is brought up is that people kind of defer to the altruistic side of it, which is like, “well how are people supposed to find new music?”
All of this is an interesting conversation, but one I have only really entered because I get fiery about what I do. I’m very passionate about what I do musically. I also don’t like to be misrepresented. It’s all very irrational and not worth [it] ... I don’t think it should be any mystery that I get a little bent out of shape about my own press. I think why it’s of note is because I will say funny shit on the Internet about it. I’d rather just leave it at that.
I’m not surprised, I find it interesting in the almost-absurd way you approach it sometimes, especially Twitter.
Twitter is something that elicits the mischievous part of me — I think of anyone. I think that’s ultimately the proper usage of it. In my mind, it’s just like this medium that’s engineered to lack subtext. While my sentiment may be far bigger than something I’m just firing off to make myself laugh, it’s engineered to prevent there being any context, so it’s innately kind of volatile or inflammatory just by virtue of being read in that context. To be honest, that’s sort of funny to me and sort of sexy about it. I think that there’s a little too much fear and trembling on behalf of artists when they consider that they have to be demure and respectful and rational in discussing the ways in which their music gets critiqued.
I think it benefits my listeners to know that I kind of don’t give a fuck. I think ultimately there’s something more worthwhile for that and I think that it creates more context. Why are you baiting the bear? Why are you making fun of Pitchfork? Why are you making fun of music critics? That makes no sense. Your album is just coming out, why are you shooting yourself in the foot like that? And it’s like, well... because I’m fucking crazy. Do you know what I mean? I think it’s a more interesting factoid than anything you’re going to read about me from anyone else ... If you want context for what it is that I do musically, creatively, in some way that’s a more useful subtext than me rehashing a bio intro.
I think it’s interesting. I see musicians hold back what they really want to say because they’re talking to a music critic. I don’t have a final absolute opinion on it — it’s just interesting to watch your case as both a Twitter user and a journalist.
When it’s going down over the Internet, it’s really just like a game of cops and robbers for other people’s enjoyment. That attitude breaks down really quickly anytime there’s a sort of real dialogue that happens. When you’re just kind of firing mission statements back and forth, then they do have to be didactic and one-dimensional in nature to be entertaining. If those transmissions aren’t entertaining, what’s the fucking use of them? It’s not really a social media tool for me, you know. It’s this other weird realm... anything I say in that medium is a slim aspect of my personality. Twitter doesn’t elicit my empathy or understanding or grace or patience or anything like that. It’s not really engineered for those aspects of one’s humanity. It’s this other thing that’s just kind of impish fun...
I put a lot of my humanity into these albums, and then there’s a certain level of glibness that’s kind of innate to the world of music criticism. It’s kind of unwarranted so I think it’s easy to be irrational — let’s all be glib — and see who is funnier about it and who can make more of a lasting, more indelible impression.
What do you think people have misinterpreted the most about Father John Misty?
Oh, man [laughs]. I hope not too much. I mean, really, honestly the conversation around this has been a lot more about clarity. I think for people who know me for a while, when they heard the record it was way more like, “Oh wow, this actually sounds like you.” That’s kind of been the overarching reaction. As far as misinterpretations, I’m not entirely privy to those. I actually think a lot of the reaction has been ... I’ve really been pleased on the whole with the reaction. I feel like I communicated, have been communicating more effectively. What do you think some of the misconceptions are?
As a critic and someone who reads other publications, it seems like you can’t shake your Fleet Foxes background, even though you've seemed to consider your role to be more of a hired gun. On occasion, I think people see Father John Misty almost without understanding fully that you’ve put out many albums as J. Tillman before.
Yeah, and if I did my job well ... it hasn’t been that big of a conversation. When you come to the shows it doesn’t feel that way. This is really just like if you’ve got to write six inches of text about Josh Tillman’s new album, it’s going to include any factoids available. One of those looms very large and that’s fine with me. With any engaging piece of art, ideally those things become very immaterial once you engage with the music itself or with the piece of work itself. If the album is affecting people, then the bio becomes immaterial or the background information becomes immaterial. I should hope that the music is more interesting than that.
Why did you leave J. Tillman behind to start this new persona and project, Father John Misty?
I started making these J. Tillman albums when I was 21, I think any young man at that stage — it is a “fuck the world,” very primal stage — you just want to prove to yourself and to whatever father archetype that’s in your head that you are worth being taken seriously. You kind of operate from that standpoint. At some point, there are bigger fish to fry than that, than proving to yourself that you are serious and deep and whatever.
The sentimentality of [J. Tillman] just started to wear thin. I’ve never really been interested in sentimentality, but I think it was interesting. I had a very strange relationship with it for a little while, and I wasn’t fulfilled by it at all ... I think for a long time, there was a lot of dissonance between the mode of expression that comes naturally and the mode of expression that I assumed was honest and worthwhile. It was really untenable. It’s interesting with shaman or something — the more you read about them, the more you realize or understand historically that that figure plays ... they’re not serious. They’re imps, they’re jesters. Demon clowns. I identify with that and I think that the relationship with wisdom and mischief are way more [connected] than I think our culture has an appreciation for.
I think at some point I got over myself and was proud of where my sensibilities lie. My sensibilities lie way more in satirization and the cosmic joke than they do with the stoicism that I think you find in my earlier music.
You've spoken about how mushrooms are useful in your creative process. How do they help you as an artist?
I think it was constructive — mushrooms are very useful. For longer than we’ve been around, they’ve been used to gain a more heightened access to one’s subconscious. I think that for me, in the ways that I was using them, they were really instructive in helping me observe and localize a lot of dissonance in me that I wasn’t able to make sense of without [mushrooms]. You become very childlike and I think ... I’ll say that they are very useful in bringing down distortions about oneself ... You kind of see these visual manifestations of what’s really there. For me, they were really informative. Yeah, I’m an advocate.
Why mushrooms, as opposed to more conventional practices like a psychologist or something else? Why that method?
Before I left Seattle, I did have three sessions with a therapist. I just think like ... I don’t really trust the culture of self-idealization. The goal for me has never been to be a more well-adjusted human being. That’s never been my life pursuits, to be as well-adjusted and as functional of a human being as I can. There’s something more interesting out there to experience. I think the effects of mushrooms, that was sort of an unexpected byproduct. There’s something about it that was an unexpected side effect ... Why mushrooms? I don’t know it just went that way.
Can you look at your album and point out certain points where your work was inspired by these experiences?
I think there’s somewhat of a cartoonish understanding of how something like that effects the creative process. Bear in mind that it wasn’t like I was drinking a bunch of mushroom tea then sitting down with an acoustic guitar. The language around this is kind of problematic — it’s a very case-by-case thing.
The place in my life where I was, my worldview had become very narrow and I had become hung up on some of my own feedback cycles of self-perception. This culture invalidates or has a soft bigotry against any experience that’s been augmented by a psychedelic. Somehow, that’s invalid, but that doesn’t account for all the ways in which the culture [does the same thing]. You’re constantly being bombarded with manufactured need. The culture has all of these constant messages about satisfaction and well-being and health. I don’t know, it’s like you see people jogging around so they can live forever. Everywhere you turn you can see the culture. You can view these messages that are potent, those affect the way you think.
I think that lot of people are walking around under the influence of the messages of the culture. I don’t consider that a sober mind state...When people talk about drugs in this culture, you just lump them all together and the assumption is that they’re all about oblivion. Alcohol and weed don’t heighten your consciousness, they don’t heighten your observational faculties — your creative faculties — they’re there to kill brain cells and to forget. Mushrooms are a very different experience. It’s not heroin, it’s no cocaine, it’s not a party drug. It is a substance there to help — it’s an ally.
It’s like entering a lucid dream. The ways in which when you dream, your subconscious is putting together visual manifestations of stuff you maybe don’t want to face head on. That’s very much the case with mushrooms, it brings very much to the forefront of your mind very vivid manifestations of subconscious aspects of you that in your sober mind — which is running around drinking coffee and sitting in traffic, things that you can conveniently keep in a place where you never really have to confront them. I think that’s useful. It’s very useful for me for sure.
I love satirizing myself and I think something that I realized through the process of making this record, and honestly through like ... for example I went and did this Ayahuascan ceremony, I don’t know if you’re familiar with it.
I’m not. What is it?
It’s like a really intense, psychedelic hallucinogenic, and it’s this Peruvian ritual. I went up into the woods in upstate Washington with 12 other people and had this French-Canadian shaman administer Ayahuascan. To me, I was really interested in seeing what this stuff was all about. For all of my interest in the topic, I’m still a cynic. I’m too much of a satirist to really jump on board with the whole culture. I’m in an interesting position when I go into these kind of experiences. I go into this experience, and they tell you beforehand that you have to have an intention, that there’s something that you want to accomplish when you enter into this altered state.
Naturally, I went into it thinking, I just need to turn my brain off and turn off my cynicism and turn off the humor and really experience something real. What I realized in that experience was that my sense of humor and my analytical mind and my pension for satire — that’s me down to my very core. “[I’m] Writing a Novel” — it’s origin was in that experience. Just realizing that the outcomes of psychedelic experiences don’t have to look so classically spiritual and serious. For me, the most important realization was that those aspects of myself are good and should be explored. They shouldn’t be marginalized. I shouldn’t sit around wishing that I could take those things more seriously. I think a big realization by virtue of psychedelics is that I’m not so spiritual or something, and that ultimately is my spirituality — coming to grips or accepting myself as I am. That looks a lot different that I think people actually try to gleam from those experiences.
Fear Fun is a very subtle record. I remember the record staying in my car's CD player for months before it finally hit me in the complete sense — especially the sarcasm and humor.
I think it takes a few passes. You know, music is more than an aesthetic exercise. I think what I’m doing, I think that the aesthetic is a little provincial for people at first. They definitely associate certain sentiments and certain ideologies with certain music sentiments. When people hear acoustic guitar, they think sentimentality, confessionalism, a provincial down-home whiskey-river sentimentality — the last thing they expect to hear is dry wit. I think maybe it takes people a few listens to think, “Wait this guy’s being funny.” I think that then allows people a little bit of room to not take this so goddamn seriously. That’s an important key to understanding the record. That really informed the way I made the record, it was a moment of relief where I was like, “Oh right, I don’t have to take myself so goddamned seriously.”
I think a lot of people mistakenly include you alongside Fleet Foxes or other folk rock acts.
Yeah, and I think there’s a ton of music. [In] the musical zeitgeist currently, I don’t think being a lyricist is particularly sexy. That’s what I am — I’m like a second-rate lyricist and I’m also deeply disconnected from whatever’s happening in the musical zeitgeist. What I’m doing is kind of provincial, easy to dismiss on first listen I think. It’s fairly traditional. I think the traditions though are pretty fuckin’ out there.
The Ottoman Empire was a long time ago, the blues was not a long time ago, country music was not a long time ago. John Lennon was not a long time ago. These are musical traditions that we’re still responding to in the same way that people still respond to other traditions like Ayahuasca or mushrooms or anything. There’s these deeply ingrained traditions that still resonate with us for some reason. This idea that every 10 years, the musical landscape changes completely is just ridiculous, it’s so arbitrary it’s ridiculous.
I’m realizing that I’m interested in the human experience and there are these common languages that are best suited to express the human experience. I think that country music is one of them. I think rock 'n’ roll music is one of them. I’m interested in that old, real shit. I want to explore those, what I perceive to be traditions of substance — not like doing something differently than someone was doing six months ago. I would rather just forget about all that shit.
So your next record has less of a Lana Del Rey influence and more of an Ottoman empire-based one?
Yeah [laughs], absolutely, absolutely. It's really heartening for me to hear people say they got the record after repeated listens. I like that. I think that’s the only kind of music I’m capable of making is slowburn music. This may be my closest thing to an accessible record, but it’s still a slow burn. It takes a little bit of work to get I think.
This record, could be called a coming out party for this new persona. What happens next? You held nothing back here — what’s in store for your second record?
I have the next record written and everything, it’s ready to go. I’m just busy, right now I’m really enjoying being on tour and I’m really enjoying playing these songs live. Playing live — that’s been a whole other revelation with how to do that. When I wrote the novel that’s in the liner notes, and more so than the mushrooms, more so than moving Los Angeles — those things definitely informed, they were the backdrop of what was going on. When [the novel] clicked...the songs just started pouring out of me. It just became so much easier. What I’m really excited about for the record is just to continue. I’m just continuing to employ that voice and sharpening my tool. I think the next record is going to be way better because I’m actually getting better at the things that I’m good at as opposed to getting better, getting closer to something I’d like to be — if that makes any sense.
You're cultivating yourself, creatively speaking.
I wish everyone had the freedom to pursue the cultivation of themselves. I’ve engineered my life in such a way that I could’ve very easily been laying in a ditch right now. I was headed for certain destruction — that’s what “Fun Times in Babylon” is about. It’s like all or nothing — I’m going to go out with a big glorious flame of glory. That really is the main premise of the book is that humanity is on a trajectory for either total destruction or transitioning into the next metamorphosis and it’s a race against time. Are we going to destroy ourselves before we evolve to wherever we’re headed? That is the tone of the music: which is it going to be first? It’s either going to be total destruction or a complete metamorphosis. One of them is going to happen first. Then, also exploring the relationship between total destruction and complete metamorphosis. Often times, the two are actually intimately linked.
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