Misty Territory

It’s rare that a mountain top hallucinatory awakening can manifest itself into a career defining album, yet Father John Misty has done just that. Rebekah Rennick sits down with the man himself to uncover the person behind the narrative, his time with Fleet Foxes and the importance of life’s banalities

Interviewing a musician can be tricky business. Between flippancy, impatience and disinterest in the interviewer’s questions, it’s often difficult to assess how a conversation is going to pan out between acclaimed musician and student journalist. Interviewing a musician who performs under a seemingly arbitrary moniker and is notoriously mischievous under questioning, however, is an utterly different, sweaty-palm ball game.

As the telephone clicks into connection, it’s difficult to determine whether the character at the end of the line will be that of Joshua Tillman; the introspective, folk-come-psychedelic-rock musician, or Father John Misty, the same man’s cheeky, flamboyant stage alter-ego whose irrepressible sense of mischief resonates throughout his entire persona. “We’re right on schedule”, he assures, calling from a self-proclaimed beach-front alleyway in Los Angeles, following a few minutes delay on Otwo’s part, “I waste the first three minutes of every interview anyway.” the undeniable smirk forming on his lips echoing down the telephone line.

To say Josh Tillman is a musician of many layers would be an understatement. From Fleet Foxes resident drummer, to broody, bearded folk singer/songwriter, he now performs under the guise of Father John Misty; the most interesting man you’ll never meet. Following seven solo albums as J Tillman, he emerged from the shadowy corners of woolly-jumper folk circa 2012 in one swift, colourful movement; jiving across the unsuspecting musical sphere with debut album Fear Fun under the façade of Father John Misty. 

While it’s difficult to compare the Tillman of a few years ago and that of this new confident persona, he admits his character has very much remained the same throughout his musical career. To the unsuspecting eye it may appear to be a total transformation but Tillman confirms that certainly isn’t the case “With Fleet Foxes, you couldn’t get me to shut the fuck up back then. I was riffing constantly because there was very little showmanship happening in that band so, to me, I couldn’t deal with these long, three minute pauses in those songs.”

“A lot of people didn’t see the J Tillman shows I did, like there was a lot of auto-destruction happening in those shows. There was a tour where I basically played the gong the whole time and I was just screaming and rolling around on the floor. It’s always been in me you know.”

“And even the dancing;” he continues “anyone that has known me for a very long time has seen me dance like that at a party, or not at a party. But I think it was kind of a convergence of all this stuff, like it really wasn’t premeditated.”

Premeditated or not, Father John Misty arrived unannounced with a lavish, diverse and utterly delicious repertoire. Fear Fun was a devilish, seductive introductory to the bubbling cauldron of sass that lies behind his musicianship. While his debut oozed with overflowing instrumentalism and powerful, preacher-like proclamations, its follow up I Love You, Honeybear delves deeper into Tillman’s psyche, blurring the lines evermore between the man and the performer.

There was a tour where I basically played the gong the whole time and I was just screaming and rolling around on the floor

Otwo wondered did he approach album number two with a new mind-set or was it simply a continuation of thought? “Well, not initially. I think my initial approach was like “Okay, I know what I’m doing now so I’m just going to do that again”. As loathed as I am to admit that. I did have a kind of big, glorious mountain top hallucinatory experience where I felt like “Okay, I know what the sound of this album is going to be”. But then I guess the realities of going back into the studio sort of overwhelmed me to some respect.” He admits.

“My main concern was not being sentimental and I think that really became a kind of hang up, to where I couldn’t let the songs breath and do what they were supposed to do for a few months.”

“This became a major hindrance but it wasn’t until, Emma at one point said to me, like after I spent months banging my head against the wall with this thing, she just said “You can’t be afraid to let these songs be beautiful”. The irony being, last time around there was this huge transformation, there was this whole rigmarole about self-realisation and identity and blah blah blah, and then, you know, I just wanted to stay planted in some sort of revolution-themed malaise. That’s the thing, no matter how big of a realisation or whatever you have, you can’t stay there.”

I Love You, Honeybear sees Tillman divert from the honky-tonk, cynical inclinations of Fear Fun and, instead, explore more complex, pressing themes of love and affection, undoubtedly influenced by his recent marriage to filmmaker Emma Elizabeth Tillman. The entire album is a stark yet sensual love letter, the recipient of which flickers from a past to present lover. “This music, I went way deeper and I went into intimate, vulnerable territory. Why half-ass the job, you’ve got to see it all the way through.” He says.

“A lot of these songs did come very quickly. Like one I ended up struggling a little bit with was ‘I Went To The Store One Day’. There’s this little bridge at the end where the lyric is “Insert here a sentiment/ re: our golden years”. That’s really my place holder lyric. I spent all this time kind of racking my creative faculties like “What’s supposed to go here?” like “I hope we die at the same time…” or something like that is what’s traditionally supposed to go there!” But it all just ended up feeling so contrived and that song, it’s really the opposite of that lofty, idealistic thing; it’s a tune about these bizarre common place, random scenarios”

And it’s from these common, somewhat banal everyday experiences that Tillman draws inspiration. Leading single ‘Bored In The USA’ is a disillusioned outlook on the make up of our everyday lives, the cyclical series of events and negotiations we’ve made with others that define our being. A laughing track acts as an acerbic mirthless partner alongside the swelling orchestral background. And as Father John Misty stands reticent, the song highlights not only the strange, formulaic way in which we exist but showcases Tillman’s unique and incredible ability to arrange sound.

“It’s a funny thing even to put the words ‘inspiring’ and ‘banal’ into the same sentence” he says “But there’s one part of my brain that enjoys it because nobody writes about it because you’re not supposed to include this kind of thing because it doesn’t fit into the archetype of a moving song, you have to be clever with word play”

“But I don’t even think of myself as a clever lyricist, I don’t really like ‘cleverness’. Those sort of things, they have to be staringly obvious or you’re going to fuck up the cake. I do enjoy it though, but how are you supposed to write about modern life without including the banalities that make it?”

I did have a kind of big, glorious mountain top hallucinatory experience where I felt like “Okay, I know what the sound of this album is going to be

This experimentation with sound continues on the track ‘True Affection’ which is an unexpected synth-pop divergence from the otherwise orchestral backdrop of the record. A sweltering electronic furnace of yearning, it’s appearance on the album simply acts as further evidence that Father John Misty is a man of both mystery and unrestrained emotion “I wrote that on tour” he explains “like I was just being isolated and trying to romance someone via text message or email or whatever and just being frustrated. So, the song had to be synthetic, it had to be a pop song, it had to be really accessible because the song was about literal inaccessibility.”

While Father John Misty firmly stands as his own powerful entity today, back in 2008 a young, unknown Joshua Tillman had only just joined Seattle indie-folk band Fleet Foxes as their drummer. While many artists often use past experiences to shape their future, Tillman admits his transgression from the multi-layered harmonies and instrumental sparsity of Fleet Foxes has had little impact on his journey thus far  “I don’t really know how to connect the dots there.” He admits.

“I think, you know, every experience that I’ve had has played into what I’m doing and it would be false to diminish that experience’s effect on me. I think in a lot of ways I was very fortunate to become disillusioned in the way that I was, because there was definitely some kind of magical thinking going on, especially at the time when I joined because I was kind of like; “I’m saved! I don’t have to work at the fibre glass plant anymore!”” he jokingly exclaims “And I think that without that experience I would have been stuck in some paradigm where I just thought like “Oh, if I could only have gotten some gig with some band, I would have been saved.” or whatever.”

“I had to come to realise that creativity for me is the saving and unfortunately that was a very uncreative experience for me, a very unconscious experience. I was basically just playing somebody else’s drum parts, it just wasn’t right for me.”

During those intermittent years, Tillman has grown and transformed into a vivacious vessel of organised madness; allowing his creativity to divulge into territories otherwise unexplored. Although Tillman jokingly admits he did “get a great lawyer” out of his time with Fleet Foxes, the success that followed his departure from the group was unexpected; “I’ve just got to say that I didn’t really expect to survive professionally, much less thrive in the way that I’ve been able to. Conventionally, you don’t just quit some band of that size and get any kind of agency outside of that”

My main concern was not being sentimental and I think that really became a kind of hang up, to where I couldn’t let the songs breath and do what they were supposed to do for a few months

The labyrinth of creativity circulating the very essence of Father John Misty is not only seen in his musical endeavours. The accompanying artwork to his records is a psychedelic reflection of his own mind, while his lyricism is an effusive appreciation of the entire concept of song-writing. While his earlier music videos attempt to associate and strengthen the meaning of the accompanying songs, Tillman confesses his disinterest with the concept of music videography;

“I have zero interest in making videos this time around.” He says  “The songs are so specific, there’s very little that’s impressionistic about them and I’m just really loathed to transforming them into internet content. It’s a simple way in which people consume content, I don’t know the criteria for that content to be successful. I don’t think it does much service to the songs.”

I Love You, Honeybear is an undeniable modern classic from an old, romantic soul. A voyeuristic journey through one man’s personal journey of love; a rich narrative permeates throughout it’s coiling instrumentation alongside Tillman’s aching vocals. From the bouncing rhythms following the exciting beginnings of a passionate relationship seen in ‘Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins)’ to the succulent orientation of the big band accompaniment in ‘Ideal Husband’, Father John Misty’s second instalment is a powerful euphoric drug that will have you hooked upon the first listen.

While melody and storytelling undoubtedly course through the veins of Father John Misty, another creative outlet could have easily replaced his musical inclinations; “Cartooning was my big love affair” he laughs reminiscently “I hit the ceiling because, if I had had a little more spark or something, I could have realised that there was a lot that I could do with the ability that I had. But I wanted to draw the big muscle, super hero comics and I just wasn’t good enough.”

Instead, he created Father John Misty and the music sphere has never been so grateful.