J. Tillman on Becoming Father John Misty: "My Music Was a Bigger Deal to Me Than Being in Fleet Foxes Was"
Back in January, Fleet Foxes drummer Josh Tillman tweeted an announcement: "@fleetfoxes, the best and last band that would ever have me. Tokyo is my last show. Fleet Fans, sorry if I was ever distant/obtuse to you. X."
This week, Tillman released his first solo album under the new moniker Father John Misty. Out on Sub Pop and Bella Union, Fear Fun is neither distant nor obtuse. Rather, it is a sincere and strikingly honest album. As J. Tillman, he released seven albums over the years, but Fear Fun marks a palpable shift in style and voice.
Co-produced by Jonathan Wilson, the content and delivery of Tillman's new album are less precious and studied than previous attempts; still dark, but more humorous and experimental. Though Tillman dips his toes in several genres throughout the album, including both psychedelic folk rock and straight honky-tonk, a common thread can be found in his clever and nihilistic lyrics. And with guttural lows and smooth falsetto, Tillman's voice has never sounded better.
The entertaining video for the first single off Fear Fun, "Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings," features actress Aubrey Plaza from NBC's Parks and Recreation wreaking havoc on a funeral ceremony.
Father John Misty plays this Saturday at Bottom of the Hill. We caught up with Tillman to discuss his departure from Fleet Foxes, how the new album will make you "stare deep into the ugliest parts of the human experiment," and what it was like to work with Aubrey Plaza.
Why did you leave Fleet Foxes?
The conventional verbiage for talking about a situation like this is "Guy leaves band to focus on solo work." That's how people phrase it and think about it. That's generally because people have very wrong ideas about what the band experience is actually like. They have this idea that it's like the Monkees and you all live in a house together and write songs together and that it's a completely immersive experience. With me and Fleet Foxes, sometimes consciously and sometimes not, I always had a foot out the door because I was so obsessed with writing my own songs. I had a really good experience with that band, but I was always fairly distant and kind of resistant to a lot of the aspects that are important to being a good member of a band. I just sucked at being in a band.
On a scale of overwhelming sense of freedom to paralyzing fear, how do you feel about striking out on your own?
I've always been on my own. It's not a big change of pace for me at all. There's a thread of continuity through the last 10 years of doing this. I know it's hard for people to get their head around the fact that my music was a bigger deal to me than being in Fleet Foxes was. They can't get their head around it because Fleet Foxes is this big thing and they assume that once you graduate into that echelon all of your personal ambitions just dissolve. That didn't happen for me. There is this dreamer in me that is a total ingrate. The pragmatic answer is I just recognized that what I really wanted to do was at odds with what I was doing, and I decided to reconcile that.
How would you describe the sonic and aesthetic shift from "J. Tillman" to "Father John Misty?"
I'm not really much of a music person. I'm much more of a words person, and words are abstract properties. I hear a certain sound when I hear certain words. When I started writing in this simultaneously very old way and very new way, there were aesthetic properties in those words that became obvious to me very quickly. All of a sudden I was referencing music that I actually like. The kind of music I was playing is generally not what I relate to on some primal joy gland level.
This is a good example of the way that I communicate musically. There's a song on the record called "Nancy From Now On" and my way of communicating what I wanted was, "I want you to play like you're playing Liberace's piano or like this is a diamond-studded piano." If I can say something funny about what I want, that just makes more sense to me. Believe me, not everyone is good at it. I've been in musical scenarios where people have tried to do that and it's just awful and you're like, "What on Earth? You want me to play drums like I'm skiing?"
I saw you play a couple years ago at the New Parish with Will Oldham back when you were performing as J. Tillman.
That was an interesting show for me. I was just getting to the end of my rope, and I remember that show distinctly because I just didn't care at all. I was so sick of this J. Tillman person and I remember between every song I was kind of on fire with the banter thing. And I was like, 'God, this part is so much more fun and I'm so much better at it than I am at writing these fucking Dungeons and Dragons songs.' This isn't the part of me that's useful to the world. I excel at this banter thing and then I'm okay at these song things. Is there a way to have the thrill of what's happening with the banter happen just using that voice, which is my actual speaking voice? Is there a way to make that musical?