Joshua Tillman is not afraid of starting over. Tillman, once a drummer for Fleet Foxes and a solo musician who has released his own records since 2006, is a deeply reflective individual who has a passion for words, from song writing to penning his own novel.
In his most recent triumph, Tillamn has released the album Fear Fun under the moniker of Father John Misty. Touring Australia at the end of July for Spledour in the Grass (and awaited side shows) Tillman seems to be in his element. I recently had a chance to travel through Tillman's phone line and experience the humour, depth and intelligence of the man who holds the strings of Father John Misty.
Hi John, how are you going?
Jazz, I got to tell you that I am really talked out, but I am in good spirits, I feel strong.
Where are you at the moment?
I am in bed
Which country are you in?
I am in the United States of Tillman. It is a small bed-sized annex. A colony.
I was just going to ask you about your new release under Father John Misty. It seems to be a move away from your previous work with bands like Fleet Foxes, or even your solo ambitions under J. Tillman. Could you describe that transition and how it came about for you?
It's a big one. The transition was a ten year process that I will now distill into the three most well-crafted sentences you have ever heard in your whole life. I got bored. I got unbored. And then I made this album. [Laughs] It was in part getting to a place where I couldn't remember why I had decided to make these particular kinds of albums, the J. Tillman albums, which was something that an aesthetic precedence that I set when I was around 20 years old. At some point I became frustrated, I think with the parameters around music. For some reason I had decided on this really contrary and almost didactic style of music, where I was kind of limited in what I could say, what I could do, how I could act. At some point I couldn't answer for this person any more. I realised that there was a pretty huge gap between the music that I was making and the person that I am, in my own conversational voice and the way that I think and talk. Once I decided to leave Seattle, which was a place which represented a certain time in my life, I felt pretty anonymous. I was creating a different voice which was more true to myself. A big part of that was writing the novel. I didn't go into that with any expectations or desires for success, I didn't need to be a great writer or something, it just sounded fun. It became increasingly more fun as I did it, and I realised that I was having more fun doing this thing than I had had making those J. Tillman records. The content and the narrative voice were very very different from anything that I had done before. It actually kind of sounded like me. And once I had that clarity on that it was really just a matter of directing that narrative voice into the song writing process. And that is when it all became very effortless.
Did you find song writing and writing the narrative for your novel very different? Or did you find that they had similarities.
Yes both. Different experience but similarities. I mean obviously there are big structual differences between both. In a song you have 30 words or something, and you rely heavily on imagery and conceptual thinking and metaphor. In a novel you can go all over the place. But for me the only point of the anecdote is that there is a narrative voice that I access in writing that book where I realised, okay that is what I sound like. And now I am obligated to use that, because that is what is honest.
Why the name Father John Misty, that does not seem like a persona necessarily?
It just kind of doubled up from my subconsious and wouldn't leave me alone. I like the way it sounded and I liked that it was confusing. The music is so explicitly about me but the name is totally ridiculous. That is the whole concept, more or less.
How would say that this album reflects you, not as a musician but you as a person?
I don't like quantifying things, is it more personal or less personal, it is more you or less you. Anything that I have made in the past has been as close to me as I was capable of doing at the time. It wasn't really a matter of not having figured something out yet. Part of the rigorousness of the creative pursuit is that incremental reevaluation and self-destruction when need be. That is essentially just what you are hearing in this album, but it is not exclusive to me, as there are kind of generalities within the creative pursuit.
What has been one of the favourite moments performing live?
Just bringing the light of love to the citizens of the world with my thunderous hips.
And so you always have a little boogie up there?
Pretty much. It is like gesturing with your hands when you talk. It's useful.
On that same note, has there ever been any negative onstage experience for you before?
I think it has been deeply uncomfortable before but I was just pragmatically playing a style of music that is a lot harder to engage an audience with. It is probably far more suited for listening alone.
I was watching some of the film clips for your new songs and I noticed that they were quite dark and raw. How involved are you in that process of creating videos?
Pretty involved, the concepts are mine. In a lot of them, the town and the aesthetic and the actors approaches to their performances, are all things that I am very involved in. They are all as personal as the songs are.
In the film clip for 'Nancy From Now On' the dominatrix character cuts off your hair. Looking at your face it was quite an interesting moment, what was that like?
I think I expected it to be more cathartic than it was. It was cathartic, but not in a sad way. It was just really fun and bizarre. I have had long hair for a long time, and I just thought it was funny and just one of those wreckless, feeling fun moments.
Do you go for those wreckless moments in every day life? Would you say that you are a spontaneous person?
I am not a big risk taker, but some of that spontaneouty is was what informed me to leave Seattle, destroying my whole back catelogue and blowing up all of my secruity, to do something different. Those are more the kind of creative risks that I am interested in. I don't give a fuck about flipping biclyes through flaming hops or anything.
You have some quirky film-clips on your Tumblr. Were you always a little off-centre with your humour growing up?
Yeah absolutely. That is not a newly aquired appetite. The things that have been funny to me are generally pretty polarising to other people, is probably the best way to put it.
Has being a 'polarising' character affected you as a musician?
For a long time I was very reticent to do that in my music. I know the way that people generally think that people who are funny are one dimensional, and do not take themselves seriously. That was the last thing that I wanted to subject myself to. But at this stage of my life there is more power in it than I think there would have been earlier.
Are you thinking about the next phase or are you still really engrossed in what you are doing now?
I am doing both simultaneously . I have a bunch of new songs written and it is really just finding time at the moment. I am really just enjoying making these videos, touring and playing live.
Just wrapping things up, what was your hope when creating this album?
My hope was selling more records than Thriller. That was my only goal, to beat Michael Jackson.
Father John Misty will be playing at Splendour in the Grass in July, as well as solo shows in Sydney and Melbourne.