We chatted with the eclectic, folk/rock singer-songwriter (and former Fleet Foxes drummer) Josh Tillman – better known by his stage name Father John Misty – back in June 2013 in the wake of the release of his debut album, Fear Fun. Since then, he’s starred in a mock Japanese whiskey commercial (posted below), made his rounds on the late night TV circuit amidst a relentless tour schedule, recorded a new album (and even produced his own music video) and, earlier this week, launched a fake lo-fi streaming service. Tomorrow, Father John Misty plays a sold-out show at WXPN’s Free at Noon in Philly offering fans a preview of I Love You, Honeybear before its release on February 10. He returns to Philly’s Union Transfer on April 1, but that show‘s already sold out, too.
Labeling Josh Tillman a tad cryptic and a bit mystical doesn’t do justice for a man who has adopted the moniker “Father John Misty.”
Tillman gained notoriety as the drummer of venerated indie folk band Fleet Foxes while quietly releasing his own solo albums on the side for nearly a decade. He was known in musical circles for penning somber, heartfelt tunes that earned him a small, loyal fan base, but failed to reach a mass audience.
Something was missing for the singer-songwriter – some hidden voice looking for a way to break out. Tillman was living in Seattle and struggling through a bout of depression in 2011 when he decided to drive his van south, heading to the Laurel Canyon neighborhood of Los Angeles with a bag of psychedelic mushrooms in tow.
Along the way, Tillman started writing a novel titled Mostly Hypothetical Mountains – an almost stream-of-consciousness meme about bedbugs, an animatronic albino gorilla and frozen pizza. He says he eventually had an “a-ha moment” where he was able to tap into a creative side he never experienced before, and the lyrics for a new album started falling into place.
That’s when Tillman dropped his real name and adopted the moniker of Father John Misty – a vague mash-up of references to religion and Marguerite Henry’s famous children’s novel, Misty of Chincoteague.
Tillman played his final show with Fleet Foxes in January 2012 and released Fear Fun four months later. The album garnered critical praise and won Tillman a legion of new fans drawn to his darkly comedic lyrics and exuberant harmonies. Mostly Hypothetical Mountains is included as an insert in the vinyl version of the album. GQ Magazine chose him as “Rock ‘n Roller of the year” for 2012.
Tillman, 32, carries an enigmatic sense of humor. He has been interviewed for a magazine article while getting a tattoo in Berlin. He has performed in comedy clubs in L.A., and he’s made satirical commercials for Suntory Whisky. He even abducts Parks and Recreation star Aubrey Plaza at the end of the video for his song “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings.”
It’s all a strange mix for a performer who grew up in a strict Christian household in suburban Washington, D.C., and attended a Christian college in New York state before dropping out and moving to Seattle. We caught up with Tillman last month in his hotel room in Houston, TX, as he rested up for a show later in the evening.
Michael Yoder: How’s Houston?
Josh Tillman: You know, it’s a lot like the rest of America. There are a lot of giant pictures of burgers scattered along the side of the road.
MY: I’ve always heard that Houston is the fattest city in America.
JT: Well, I certainly won’t go on the record as saying anything that un-political.
MY: Have you ever feared having fun in your life?
JT: Yeah. For a long time I thought fun was the antithesis of substance or honesty or truth. It was a point of view at the time that made sense to me – it was somewhat valid. But that album title was kind of a little jab at myself – a playful admission. My previous album titles have been rather stoic, and so I thought, “Let’s give them a gimmie – throw the audience a soft ball and include this very monolithic word in there.” I was always very loath to include my sense of humor into my writing. As a younger person, my fucking modus operandi was to convince people of my seriousness and wisdom and integrity – any number of cumbersome, useless traits.
MY: Where does your sense of humor come from?
JT: Maybe I was convinced that my mother didn’t love me, or something like that [laughs]. I can only speculate, and it’s kind of weird to be like, “Well, as a sunny person,” because it’s so fucking subjective. In retrospect, I think maybe the first joke that I ever told or maybe my first humorous reaction to anything – and this is not a knee-slapper – was in Sunday school. I asked my Sunday school teacher, “Who made God?” It’s not traditionally a joke or anything, but to me it was a humorous thought because it struck to the very core of questioning something that you’re not really supposed to question and realizing that if you have a thought like that, you’re sort of powerless against it. Once a consideration like that enters your mind, you have one of two choices – you can either swallow it and tow the line, or you can express it. And I think that my sense of humor came from the verbalization of those thoughts, which was totally irresistible to me. I think that may be the master gene of my comedic sensibilities.
MY: When you first started writing your novel and then started recording Fear Fun, did it feel like you were channeling some other voice or entity that wasn’t totally yourself?
JT: No, not at all. It was quite the contrary. For a long time, I assumed that I was not good enough or that I really had to curate my lyrics. Part of the interview process for this album has led to a lot of disparaging and going on of my previous work, and I’m not as scornful of it as I sometimes sound. I don’t think it’s half bad – there’s a lot of impressionistic poetry in me. But you can’t do everything all the time, and I had chosen to develop this one aspect of the way that I thought and wrote and expressed, etc. But this period of my life now is very much devoted to my conversational voice and my internal monologue – breaching the membrane between what I previously viewed as this duality, which is that there’s “you the person” and then “you the creative person.” And those things are oftentimes diametrically opposed to one another. Like Townes van Zandt could have written fucking hilarious songs – he was a really funny guy. And part of the charm of him is this perception of like, “Oh, he’s this really funny guy,” but funniness like that comes from a dark outlook or some primal pain or discontent or something – that’s part of the appeal or mystique. But that’s not what I’m trying to do or what I want to do. what I want to do is reduce the dissonance between the “me” – the one in the Venn diagram – the creative “me” and the me “me,” for a lack of a better term, to eclipse one another. And that has made me a much happier person or a much less conflicted person. And I just enjoy it a lot more. Pound-for-pound, I just enjoy it way fucking more.
MY: Were you surprised at the reception Fear Fun has received from critics and fans over the past year?
JT: Very much so. There are many, many bands who do much better than I have, but considering the narrative, it is shocking. It’s not a common narrative. I think the narrative that would have made a lot more sense was like, “Drummer from well-known indie band puts out side project. No one cares. The end.” [laughs] So pretty much anything beyond that is surprising to me.
MY: What has been your parents’ reaction to your success?
JT: That is a topic – among many topics – that I have not discussed with my parents.
MY: How did you end up doing a Suntory Whisky commercial?
JT: [laughs] Well, it’s like a satire. Sammy Davis Jr. did these Suntory ads in the ’70s where he’s kind of scatting and pantomiming, etc., etc. And it’s maybe 30 seconds long or something. My friend Brian [Hughes], who’s a film director, sent me that ad and was like, “Ok, I think we should reprise this – just for kicks because the Internet is just really devoid of much content right now, so it definitely needs another fucking video.” So I was like, “Well, I can get behind that.” I thought it would be funny to do a six minute video complete with an emotional breakdown, etc., etc. [laughs] Forgive me for using the term, but it was more or less an “art piece.”
MY: Have you tried to peddle it to Suntory?
JT: I’m not sure that they’re active anymore. I think that they’re part of a beverage conglomerate, but I’m not sure that Suntory Whisky is around. We had to print the label and everything. We had to get a graphic designer to make the label and all that jazz.
MY: Of the three things that you are known for as a performing musician – singing, playing guitar and drumming – which one do you prefer doing the most?
JT: Well, I mean singing. Singing is the thing that I love, but it took me a really long time to get around to that. For a very long time, I associated singing in kind of a full-bodied, expressive way as being synonymous with insincerity. Part of why I enjoy singing is that the lyrics very much inform the way that I sing right now. It was exciting to write something like these songs that I could actually sing in an expressive way without hating myself.
Tomorrow’s Free at Noon concert may be sold out, but you can stream the performance online at WXPN’s website and live on the radio.