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"Esoteric" is the first word that comes to mind when describing Josh Tillman, the mystic muse behind Father John Misty. Inspiration for the band's 2012 album, Fear Fun, struck via psychedelic lightning bolt, giving Tillman the courage to be (as clichéd as it sounds) himself. That meant embracing both the sarcastic and existentialist feelings at his core, which resulted in an album that feels at once honest and surreal, despairing yet hopeful, all of it complemented by his anti-folk sensibilities and serene warbling.
Tillman's main fascination seems to be the vapidity of modern culture, the flaming Ferris wheel that's repulsive but oddly attractive. It explains his move "on a lark" from Seattle to Los Angeles, during which the acoustic-driven singer-songwriter reinvented himself and wrote a novel, included in the liner notes of his record.
"I think there is going to be some reckoning, some moment of generational disillusionment," Tillman tells me on the phone. "A generation of people working retail in their 60s, lamenting the fact that their blog never took off. That'll be a dark day. I think the generation that comes after this is going to be really interesting because everything that we think is so cool, mainly our mobile gadgets and our online lifestyle, will be ripe for mockery to our children. Hunched over your mobile device checking your Facebook will be, like, it'll be a joke; it'll be something my parents do.
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"I think we're just too easily amused or something," he adds. "But who knows?"
Tillman doesn't just dance and sing sad songs that make you happy (or vice versa) — earlier this year, he released a line of perfume for young ladies called Innocence. Employing help from a perfumer friend, he says the idea was just to create something simple. He never imagined he'd have to answer for it. It did confuse many of his fans, who wondered whether the scent was another extension of Tillman's bizarre sense of humor.
"If you see it, if you hold it, I think it makes sense. It's a very simple thing, and I think that I've got my finger on the pulse, as far as the female zeitgeist is concerned," Tillman says. "It's definitely satirical to some extent, but it's made even more confusing by the fact that it's actually quite a lovely little thing."
It's interesting how his honesty is perceived as questionable — and Tillman is nothing if not honest, even about his entheogenic experimentation. In other interviews, he's candidly chatted about chomping Psilocybin cubensis ("magic" mushrooms) and sipping ayahuasca, both a large contributing factor to the self-realization behind Fear Fun. There is a stigma attached to modern drug use, making others shy to discuss psychedelic dabbling, but Tillman shrugs even that off.
"This is part of that millennial thing, too. There's a certain degree of glibness that everyone has, and I think, with mushrooms, everyone tends to think like that it's this hippie thing exclusively," Tillman says. "And it's really not. It's far older than that. It really depends on the person. It doesn't have a uniform effect. Cocaine has a uniform effect. It turns everyone into an asshole. Mushrooms — it's very, very different for different people, so I can't even discuss mushrooms in general, so I can only really discuss their effect on me."
Every degree of Josh Tillman seems to leave people puzzled, including the band name (it's not an alias), but from what I've gathered reading nearly every interview he's done and from speaking to him, Tillman is confused why people think there's anything to "get." He's merely pushing himself out there in the most straightforward, hilarious, and sensible way he knows how — and that's what makes the frontman and his darkly jocular tunes so extraordinary.