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FATHER JOHN MISTY

A CONVERSATION WITH JOSH TILLMAN

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The Montréal Review, September 2012

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Father John Misty, "Fear Fun" (2012). Cover art courtesy of Sub Pop

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The summer has slowly come to an end. I live in New York, so the past few weeks have been a strange mixture of pleasant nights, warm, breezy days, and incomplete plans. All the while, the specter of The Great Gatsby and the melancholy, but biting voice of Nick Carraway seem to hang over each city street and subway commute.

When this summer ends, the one memory I will truly tie to it when I am older and looking backwards is the memory of listening to the album Fear Fun by Father John Misty. I have listened to it on the way to work as I tried to prepare myself for the frustrations of the day. I have listened to it alone at dawn after a long night of drinking. I have listened to it with friends while trying to explain exactly why it's a great album. And I have listened to it while writing-specifically a track called "Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings," which I listened to for three hours on repeat as I wrote a short story in my apartment one Saturday afternoon.

Father John Misty is Josh Tillman. Or maybe Josh Tillman is Father John Misty. In any case, Josh Tillman used to perform under the name J. Tillman. He released his first album, I Will Return, in 2005. He released six subsequent J. Tillman albums (as well as played drums for indie-rock gods the Fleet Foxes) before he released Fear Fun this past April.

Fear Fun sounds like a record that has always been around, but which you have simply never found, which is a quality I always attribute to music I like. Tillman's voice is strong, clear and evocative and the recording as a whole is what my friends and I like to call, "really, really fucking good." Ever since I first listened to the album (on the recommendation on a good friend of mine, whose own best friend had recommended the album to him), I was blown away, especially by the album closer, "Everyman Needs a Companion," which takes on myth and identity in a way I hadn't heard many contemporary bands handle. I wanted to know more about the man who made the record; I wanted to know a little bit more about the songs.

So, one pleasant, breezy August afternoon, I sat on the grass in Madison Square Park, balancing my field recorder on my knee and talking to Josh Tillman on speakerphone. We talked about myth, being true to yourself and understanding your identity, and at one point, I swear that Fifth Avenue became, "so warm and soft, almost pastoral," just as Nick Carraway had described it almost one hundred years ago.

--Matt Domino

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Matt Domino: The first thing I noticed about Fear Fun was that, in my opinion, it was an almost perfectly sequenced album. I was curious how much attention you paid to that aspect during the writing and the recording.

Josh Tillman: Ah, sequencing. Yeah, sequencing is always interesting. The sequencing for the album has remained pretty much the same since when I first pictured it in my mind. There was maybe one little switch here or there. Definitely, "Fun Times in Babylon" and "Everyman Needs a Companion" were meant to be bookends. The whole thing is sort of one song predicates the next.

Matt Domino: And so you had the order in mind the entire time you were writing and recording?

Josh Tillman: Yeah, like "Fun Times in Babylon" [the first song on the album] was the first song I wrote in this "song cycle." And then for example you write that and you're like, "Ah, this is my track one. This song also sets a precedent for much of where I'm going to follow." In a lot of ways, sometimes the album is sort of done or set once you get that first track determined because it really sets it up for what you want to do.

Matt Domino: Skipping ahead then, I think the last track "Everyman Needs a Companion" is the best track on the album-at least it's my favorite.

Josh Tillman: Ah, alright.

Matt Domino: But I was wondering if you had that as an end point to reach the whole time or if it kind of came about organically?

Josh Tillman: I'm trying to think of when exactly I recorded that one. Why that song is such an important closing track is that the last lyric that you hear on the album-and I guess lyrically it's sort of a very dense album-is this plain spoken kind of admission. It's sort of the most elegant gag on the whole record. You can listen to the whole thing for the first time and be like, "What the fuck is up with this guy? What is going on here?" And then at the end you hear me kind of answering this very obvious question, which is, "Why did you change your whole thing?" And then there is the very unsexy, plainspoken answer of "I never liked the name Joshua. I got tired of J."

Matt Domino: See that's the line I would point to as the most interesting because right before it your put the lines, "Joseph Campbell and the Rolling Stones/Couldn't give me a myth, so I had to write my own." That's an interesting line because after listening to the album it struck me as an album that was very much about making your own myth and I was wondering if that even crossed your mind.

Josh Tillman: Oh, absolutely. That's like the point of that whole verse. Mythmaking. I think I created some kind of untenable myth with my J. Tillman persona. It felt like I had created all these distortions around my perception of myself and what I am really getting at with the "Everyman Needs a Companion" thing is that in some ways every man needs this version of himself, this version that exists in his head that he identifies with, that he can live with. And, usually, that version is kind of false or dishonest because we're afraid to live with ourselves and are afraid of what we expect is our true reality so we kind of cultivate this "super" version of ourselves that we can live with. Its kind of tropey, but a lot of the album is about just being yourself. Being yourself is really something easy to say and people throw the phrase around all the time as if it were just a matter of doing it or not doing it but I know that for me it was quite a long process in my creative capacity to get to a point where I could actually be myself in my music as opposed to advertising a version of myself that I thought was interesting.

Matt Domino: So I guess what you can kind of get out of the album is that if you speak in your own voice and are true to yourself then the "myth" will come from that.

Josh Tillman: It's a very fine line, you know. It's just such an interesting thing and there are so many ways to go about it. It just evolves. Some of the mythmaking I've done in the past really informs the mythmaking I'm doing now. But even with that line "Couldn't give me a myth, so I had to write my own"-in many ways, I don't even want to live in myth anymore. I don't want to justify my existence by the virtue of it looking good on paper. That verse is sort of about shedding that idea and a good way of doing that is being plain spoken and saying what you mean and writing like you actually think. And I acknowledge that doing what you can actually feel and think can look mysterious to other people. I realize that I might have created more myths around myself by being honest, but not from my end.

Matt Domino: You've been on the record as saying that you're more of a words guy than a music guy. Anytime a writer is working on something, there's always at least a small moment where you say to yourself, "This is good. I know this true." So, was there a time like that while you were writing lyrics or recording this album when you knew you were doing something good?

Josh Tillman: I think the chorus of "Fun Times in Babylon" was a big one. You just kind of hit that perfect economy. It's not to say that the line itself is great because when discussing songs, I don't like to divorce the lyrics from the melody. The melody you sing lyrics in is a huge factor in the way that the lyric is interpreted by the listener. You can sing that line, "I would like to abuse my lungs/Smoke everything in sight with every girl I've ever loved" in a very different melody and it could be either aggressive or hokey. There is a lilting quality to that lyric that, combined with the melody, was just perfect. And it sort of poured out of me. I don't write my lyrics down for the most part. I (laughs) don't like seeing them on the page. You can think of somebody like Neil Young who, to be frank, has some pretty terrible lyrics occasionally, but the way that they're sung and emoted changes everything. And that's why a song can only really do what a song does. It's almost like pure alchemy. A very simple sentiment sung a certain way can be profoundly empathetic.

Matt Domino: One of the examples of what you're talking about that I always point to is the Abbey Road medley. A lot of the lyrics are kind of nonsense, but with the melodies it makes you nostalgic for something you've never even known before. The two together just make you feel nostalgia or melancholy so strongly.

Josh Tillman: It's good to recontextualize everyday sentiment and music does a better job of it than most things. When I was writing "I'm Writing a Novel," I was laughing my ass off the whole time and thinking like, "Oh, this is great." I wrote that song in ten minutes. It just poured out of me. I was enjoying writing the lyrics as opposed to dreading writing a second verse or coming up with another verse after that. I have ten or fifteen extra verses for that song. That was kind of the sensation I had while I was working on the novel that is referenced in that song. It was unlike any other creative experience I had had up to that point and I was enjoying myself, so when it came to make the album, I wanted to figure out a way to stay in that place-where things are fun. The humor for me is just like catnip and I keep writing and writing. Its because it's a true voice for me and its something I love. And now because I'm older and a little less terrified of not being respected, I'm not really afraid to put my real sense of humor and my actual worldview into my own experience.

Matt Domino: This might be redundant, but I'm sure that feels like a pretty huge accomplishment. For regular writers they say that the hardest thing to do is to be funny and put your sense of humor into what you're doing, but that usually ends up being what readers or listeners appreciate the most.

Josh Tillman: It was a very unexpected creative success. The whole thing was basically predicated on me feeling like, "I'm done. I'm done with this bullshit music [J. Tillman records]. Done with all of this bullshit. I'm so sick of thinking of myself as a songwriter. I'm sick of going to get coffee and thinking about how I'm a failed songwriter." You know it was just a stupid reality I was stuck in. So I said I'm getting the hell out of Seattle and I'm never playing guitar again. There was a period where even the sound of an acoustic guitar made me feel nauseous. I was just so sick of it and sick of hating myself for not being good at it. That's why I started writing that book. I didn't care if it was good or not. I didn't have anything wrapped up in whether or not I was a great writer or anything. Once I got outside of myself and my distortions-I mean, mushrooms were a good conduit for having those sort of "a-ha" moments too.

Matt Domino: Now that the album has been out for a few months, what is the best thing that someone has said to you about it? What's the worst thing? And you can say that you hated the praise and liked the insults if you want.

Josh Tillman: I don't know. That kind of stuff just tends to fly right past me. I'm very skeptical of comments either way. I think just in general, the most exciting sort of praise has been from my contemporaries. People who are my age who are also-at some point there is just nothing new that is coming out that is really turning you on and certainly not much that your friends are making. I mean you go to see your friends out of social obligations but no one is really turning you on. I think to have made something that people who don't like anything actually like is kind of exciting because I'm kind of in that boat too.

Matt Domino: What boat?

Josh Tillman: Oh, I just mean that I don't really listen to any new music.

Matt Domino: Well, sticking to that note, the song "Tee Pees 1-12" definitely reminds me of a song that Harry Nilsson would have done or covered and I was wondering if you were a big Nilsson guy or not.

Josh Tillman: Oh, yeah I love Nilsson. He was like a shaman or something. He's just so wise. He was pretty great.

Matt Domino: I just noticed a connection between the senses of humor. Like in "Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings" when you have that chorus of "We should let this dead guy sleep," it's a statement that can be taken as pretty profound but also very funny, which is something that Nilsson did a lot.

Josh Tillman: It's a delicate.it's a soufflé. Injecting humor. Knowing exactly when to do it. It's a fucking soufflé. If you don't do it right, you end up with a huge mess. Humor is a very volatile ingredient. It's an ingredient I was terrified of for a long time and for good reason. It's like preparing blowfish or something. It's very exact. OK, well there are two culinary metaphors for you.

Matt Domino: Blowfish and soufflé.

Josh Tillman: It's like making a blowfish soufflé.

Matt Domino: You're on tour right now. Are you enjoying that or are you looking forward to moving on to the next thing?

Josh Tillman: I've been really enjoying touring this album. The band I've got is fucking out of control. I can live in these songs and I can live with these songs and I don't have to adopt any kind of persona in order to perform them. When I was touring with my J. Tillman stuff for years and years, I'd be having a great day on tour-joking around or whatever-and then when it came time to go onstage I'd have to go into this dark place just in order to deal with the songs. And that kind of thing is untenable. Now there is just a greater line of continuity from my impulses and what the songs require out of me to perform them.

Matt Domino: When the tour is over will you go back to the studio right away?

Josh Tillman: The plans for the next album require a greater deal of logistic, pre-production stuff, so I can't get in there right away, but I am working with demos of a bunch of songs now. Hopefully within about a year or so I'll be back in the studio and getting some basic tracks hammered out.

Matt Domino : I saw you tweet that martinis are a big part of your day, can you quantify that for me?

Josh Tillman: (laughs) You mean like exactly how proportional?

Matt Domino: Yeah, just throw some analogies out there.

(Phone cuts out)

Josh Tillman: (Resuming phone call) HOW DARE YOU ASK ME ABOUT MARTINI TIME?!

Matt Domino: I'm sorry.

Josh Tillman: No, that was just kind of something that I tweeted-even though I hate using the past tense of that verb-while I was rehearsing for this comedy show that I was doing in L.A. with Dave Foley and some other people. It was just more to get the jokes flowing while having to react with all the great stuff that he was doing. But I kind of liked the idea of throwing this image out there of me just having my "martini time" each day.

Matt Domino: Yeah, it didn't seem like you. I was surprised.

Josh Tillman: And I like to do that, to change the expectations people have of me. Or like even doing this whole Coachella on a boat thing. When they asked me to do that my first initial reaction was like, "No! Why would I want to play on a boat like that?" But then I stopped for a second and said, "Something about my visceral gut reaction to say no is extremely interesting, so I'm going to go in the opposite direction."

Matt Domino: I can totally relate to that. It's fascinating how quickly you want to say "no" to something.

Josh Tillman: Right, and then you can recognize it and change that and it kind of changes the expectations that people put on you. And I like to stay subversive.

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Matt Domino is a writer living in Brooklyn and editor at The Montreal Review. His work has appeared on SLAM Online, Coolhunting.com, Made Man, and Brooklyn Exposed. His fiction has appeared in The Montreal Review and he has a short story forthcoming the Fall 2012 issue of Slice. He maintains a blog called Puddles of Myself (www.puddlesofmyself.com).

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