J. Tillman Shakes Sad-Folkie Tag with Fear Fun
So, the drummer of a massively successful, NPR-adored indie-folk band quits said band, buys a van, loads it with psychedelic drugs, and drives down the West Coast to Los Angeles, where he cranks out a record that's equal parts Waylon Jennings honky-tonk and Richard Brautigan "mayonnaise," with songs about driving dune buggies with Neil Young on the beach and John the Baptist and Jesus Christ talking about girls down by the river. (He writes a novel, too, and packages it with the album's liner notes.)
It's a familiar story if you've read the loads of press about Josh Tillman's debut record under the name Father John Misty — a story that borders on rock 'n' roll myth. The band was, of course, Fleet Foxes, whose second collection of mystical, naturalistic psych-folk was greatly enhanced by Tillman's booming percussion. Regarding his transformation from sad folkie to hip-shaking showman? One has to wonder if he's getting tired of talking about it.
"Go for it," Tillman says of my questions, walking down a street in San Francisco to get a cup of coffee. "I won't scream or cry or anything."
He laughs when I point out to him that he's put up more than a few promotional videos featuring him both screaming and crying, certainly more than the average Sub Pop-signed singer/songwriter uploads to the Internet. Tillman's emergence as Father John Misty has been marked by a penchant for theatrical comedy.
His Twitter feed (@fatherjohnmisty) has found him attacking critics (most notably Pitchfork after a ho-hum review of his record) and tweeting things like "This hooker isn't dead, she's in heaven" and allegiances to Satan at evangelists like Joel Osteen and Mark Driscoll. His videos have served as mini-movies illuminating the world of "Misty Worldview": "Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings" features Parks and Recreation star Aubrey Plaza losing her shit at a funeral, her eyes smeared with mascara as she stumbles with a busted nose, smokes from an apple bong, and chews flower petals; "Nancy From Now On" finds Tillman whipped and given a hotel room haircut by a leather-clad dominatrix; "This Is Sally Hatchet" is a blood-soaked mess — a grindhouse clip featuring Tillman slicing a pentagram into a pizza, severing his own finger, and shooting shotguns with a pack of scantily clad women. All three videos are perversely joyful — Tillman seems like a born star.
"I love getting in front of the camera and making an ass of myself," he says. "For some reason, I enjoy that so much. [I think] the conventional wisdom [regarding] making music videos is that you just want to look cool. It's kind of dorky for someone to be in their own video, because everyone thinks it's going to be this cheesy, hyper-romanticized portrayal of the artist. [I'm in my videos because I want people to say], 'There's something he's trying to say, more subtext he's trying to convey.'"
His stage show has taken turns in the same bizarre direction. In concert, he performs sans guitar, hands on his hips and fingers wagging at the audience. "I want to do what a stripper does, and in another way do what a carnival barker does, or a shaman, some kind of Pentecostal preacher," he says. "Those are all more interesting archetypes than a guitarist to me."
Tillman made a string of excellent "guy with a guitar" records starting in 2005 with his debut I Will Return. Some of them — like 2007's Cancer and Delirium (title borrowed from Henry Miller), 2009's two efforts, Vacilando Territory Blues and Year in the Kingdom, and 2010's Steve Albini-produced Singing Ax — were near-classics in the genre, with songs like "When I Light Your Darkened Door," "Though I Have Wronged You," and "Age of Man" showcasing Tillman's aching voice.
But they aren't Father John Misty records — they don't share the melodic playfulness or blackened wit. There are no twinkling barroom pianos, shaking violins, or bubbling electric pianos. The records do not possess the swagger of Fear Fun.
"It really is just a maturation," Tillman says. "Those records were as honest to me as I was capable of at that time. [With] songwriting, the whole thing really is something that develops over time and changes over time. You're not instilled with one quality of song. The song changes over time. It refines, etc. The 'J. Tillman music' was honest to the angry, confused, depressed youth that I was. But there were other aspects of myself I just didn't know how to implement. Like, how do you implement one's sense of humor into the songwriting? That is easier said than done. That can really blow up in your face, you know? Humor in a song is a very volatile ingredient, and as a younger person, you want to be taken seriously."
Tillman continues: "A lot of the time, humor can be a very marginalizing element. I use my humor in a conversational way to convey very humane ideas. Or insights or whatever — all of my darkest, most uncomfortable songs are coated in chocolate humor. "I got the point where I didn't want to talk with an affectation anymore, or sing about some magical Dungeons & Dragons land. I wanted to fucking talk about myself, in a way that actually resembles myself. That takes time and a willingness to dissect oneself."
Which isn't to say Fear Fun is full of belly laughs. It's funny the way a Coen Brothers film is funny, centered around desperate characters doing strange things. Tillman plays the lead role, but the album doesn't sound like the rants of a self-important songwriter.
Fear Fun embraces its creator's eccentricities head-on. "I'm writing a novel, because it's never been done before," he sings glibly on "I'm Writing a Novel," while the majestic closer, "Everyman Needs a Companion," shrugs off his new moniker over swelling background vocals. "I never liked the name Joshua. I got tired of J." Tapping into the unrestrained personal glory of records by Harry Nilsson, Loudon Wainwright III, Warren Zevon, or more modern probationers like Bonnie "Prince" Billy and Tillman's dear friend Har Mar Superstar.
Tillman's in on the joke but is willing to be the joke, too. Like his videos and stage presence, it stands in sharp contrast to the polite indie rock climate.
"I don't know what's in the water right now that makes the music thing so . . .," he says, trailing off. "Maybe it's all the estrogen in the water or something? It's very escapist, a kind of fantasy. A lot of the music you hear is, 'Oh, whiskey river,' or just these real antiquated images. Listening to a lot of the music that's out there right now is like being antique furniture — or not even antique furniture, like, furniture that's new but it looks old. It sounds like [artists] want to draw all the attention away from themselves as a person. The songwriter is supposed to be a conduit for this pre-existing aesthetic or musical ideal. It's just so generic."
Fear Fun may risk shaking off unadventurous listeners with its lines about Canadian shamans and dead Angeleno ladies' men, but it never risks being generic — something Tillman is proud of.
"Maybe I'm such a maniac, but I think my relation to the songs is very important," he says. "It's more or less the price of admission."
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