This article was written by special contributor Rob Duffy
When Josh Tillman abruptly quit Fleet Foxes after spending the better part of three years behind the drum kit for one of the world’s most critically-acclaimed biggest bands, most people assumed he would soldier on with his career as a bearded, folkie solo artist. And, possibly, so did he: a brief blog post written by Tillman about the departure contained the memorable phrase,”Back into the gaping maw of obscurity I go.”
But that blog didn’t appear under the familiar name of J. Tillman. It marked the conception of the singer’s curious, possibly religious, eerily cult leader-esque new moniker Father John Misty, and it would take a few months before we would all be privy to his gospel.
To the viewing public, the evening of May 1, 2012 might well have been Father John’s immaculate conception. For Father John Misty’s mesmerizing rendition of “Only Son of a Ladiesman” on David Letterman, Tillman arrived clad in a stylishly minimalistic white button-down, clean-shaven, with his trademark lengthy locks shorn into a sleek, wavy look. More surprising, the breezy, vamping moves Tillman showed off were a revelation. It revealed a cleverly re-tooled frontman, one who’s able to reimagine the current golden-voiced woodsy, indie-folk trend with a touch of good old-fashioned Southern California glamour.
If the Letterman performance was Tillman’s rebirth, his live show is now a celebration of a life that’s never seemed better than it is inside this new skin. From his unhinged dance moves to his dry-witted stage banter, Tillman suddenly appears at home onstage in a way we’ve never seen during his decade of touring. And it’s no surprise that “Only Son of a Ladiesman” marks each evening’s highlight. The song is not just Tillman’s finest new creation, it’s a staggeringly evocative folk-rock anthem.
Tillman’s new persona isn’t the most dramatic alter ego the music world has gotten to know in the last year or two (that belongs to Lana Del Rey), but the undeniable success of his new finds him doing the exact opposite of what Del Rey did—instead of packaging himself up for mass consumption, he’s instead peeling away layers, revealing the humanity, the fallibility, even the humour, of the man once buried within.
J.Tillman is most definitely born again, but he doesn’t seem to have discovered religion. In this interview, Tillman reveals that as Father John Misty, what he’s found is arguably even more valuable: a true sense of himself.
As of 2011, you were touring as the drummer of Fleet Foxes. You were a functioning cog in one of the best bands in the world. What made you decide to leave the band and work as a solo artist once again?
It was really just the end of that album cycle, and I just [couldn’t] wait around however long for the Bat Phone to ring. I just wanted to be doing this stuff. I believe in my shit, and I want to do it with dignity. Some of the language around this thing kind of makes my skin crawl. The, like, “side project, solo project” whatever. I didn’t want that to be the context for this thing.
Does that language happen as a result of you being in Fleet Foxes?
It’s just groupthink. That shit is just plug and play. I don’t want to get too hung up on the language around it, that was just an example. Being in a band of Fleet Foxes’ calibre takes a lot of time, and anybody who’s creative can relate to that. Time spent on something is, in our minds, indicative of belief in it. And if you’re just leaving your own thing on the margins, it’s kind of indicative of a lack of belief in it. At least to me, it’s very simple to me.
So the album cycle ends, and you decide to go back to doing your own thing. Why the new name?
That was a choice I had to make a year ago when I started sending it around. Prior to that, when I’m writing songs, I’m not thinking, “What’s this called?” That is the last item to address. I had all these demos, it might have just been something as civilian as I had them all in my iTunes, and I was like, “This isn’t really the J. Tillman thing.” I had kind of emotionally disconnected from that particular form of expression. If I had just picked up the guitar at age 29 and made this album, I probably would have just called it Josh Tillman. But I had defamed my name. I had attached my name to this alter ego that I couldn’t relate to anymore.
And also it was kind of exciting: I had never gotten to choose a name before, and so I just kind of went with my instincts, which are just kind of absurdist. I was really excited, because I’d always left that aspect of my personality out of my music, because I was young and vain and wanted to be taken seriously, and I didn’t consider that aspect of my personality to be creatively valid, which is just garden-variety self-loathing.
But at some point within the last few years, I realized: There’s this thing you do, a way of thinking, a way of expressing myself, a form of communication. The J. Tillman thing became this really big installation performance piece in my life, that I had built my whole life around, and my identity, and how I regarded myself, and everything. And I wanted to eliminate that filter. I didn’t want there to be any filter. So the name thing, it’s just a bit of a red herring. I like it phonetically, I like it aesthetically, it’s kind of confusing.
Yeah it is.
It is confusing! Because it smacks of an alter-ego. But I came to this realization, this J Tillman thing, that’s the alter-ego! [I] don’t really relate to this guy. But as time went by, I had a harder and harder time answering for him. I got really exhausted from sitting down to write songs and wanting to say certain things, and having to ask myself, like, is this a J Tillman song? Does this fit?
And a couple times, on my records like “James Blues,” there was this song on this album Bansalanda Territory Blues that I made, which was the first glimmer of my sense of humour and my real sensibilities fighting their way to the surface. That was really gratifying. But it was a few more years before I could really go whole hog with it.
How did you settle on Father John Misty? There seems to be a lot tied up in there. There’s a religious element. Some people have called it a “faux cult leader” thing…
I could break it down for you, but the words would die in the air in front of me. But the only part I will explain is I thought it was really funny how similar John is to my own name. And also how standard it sounds. Like, John. It’s such a, like, name-y name. That’s kind of what I liked about it. That’s something I’m addressing on the album: What’s the nature of identity? Juxtaposing these songs that are pretty explicitly, obviously about me. You can’t listen to this album and not hear Josh Tillman, or what you have to presume is Josh Tillman. And then you’re left with this very confusing prospect of like, well why is it called [Father John Misty] then? Hopefully, that line of thinking goes out to, “Well, does it matter?” As long as you get to that place, the magic trick is performed.
So yeah, I could have called it a prepositional phrase or something, but is interesting, like, people don’t go around asking St. Vincent if she’s a saint, or if she’s religious. It really is just the branding thing. You used to go by your name, and now you go by this. Why did that happen?
But people seem to freak out a bit when that happens. The idea of reinventing yourself. Look at Lana Del Rey, for example…
I don’t think that my thing smacks of….I stand by my back catalogue and I know why I made it. I understand me. The creative pursuit, it’s always predicated on destruction. Like, even in the physical world, nothing new gets made without something dying first. I think very symbolically, and very mythologically, and there was something really thrilling about taking this fucking thing that was my whole life, like, 10 years of my life, this thing was I was banging my head against the wall, going on tour, subjecting myself to criticism and ridicule, and apathy, and was just fighting for this thing. There was something really exciting about taking it and putting it on the altar and plunging a knife into its chest and, just like, drinking its blood! You know? It was more exciting than like, “Weekend With Bernie,” this corpse, carrying it around with me, like, “This thing’s still alive, right?!” That’s thrilling. It is really thrilling.
How liberated did you feel when you did that?
I felt liberated! I had some really formative experiences within the last couple years, one of which was quitting Fleet Foxes. That whole thing was me staring in the face the addiction to this one escapist fantasy I had in my 20s, which was that if I was a working musician, I would be happy. I got to stare that in the face and realize, it’s not circumstance that makes you happy. It’s what you fucking do.
I was really ashamed and embarrassed for a long time about how unhappy I was in a situation that in my mind, any of my contemporaries would have loved to have been there. But my contemporaries are not me. They’re not Josh Tillman. Actually admitting that was really liberating. And just being like, “Well, now it’s simple.”
And even the “happy” thing. The language around this whole thing is pretty problematic and inadequate. There is satisfaction that is self-perpetuating in this line of work for me. Doing this gives me more motivation to do more. Whereas, with Fleet Foxes, I was constantly trying to catch up with the satisfaction. It took energy away from me, as opposed to giving me more energy to do more things.
Was is it the songwriting that you missed? The simple idea of not having the time and energy to make your own music?
I was still making albums. Any time I wasn’t on tour with those guys, I was on tour by myself. But it really was this thing that was in me, like, “You made a decision to put your own writing on the sidelines.” And that’s not really me. All of my decisions that I’ve made in my life, I’ve made really extreme decisions in my life to facilitate a creative set of circumstances. But just because you’re playing in a band doesn’t mean you’re being creative. I wasn’t being creative. I was very passive. I was just watching this thing happen to me. I didn’t start that band. I didn’t write those songs. I was a hired gun. I really was. In the studio on that second album, I barely did anything. I did a week of drum tracking, I didn’t know any of the songs, we hadn’t really rehearsed or practiced anything. I just came in more or less blindfolded and played along, and was more or less done. That’s just not very satisfying for me.
I feel like there’s kind of this misconception, and it’s actually kind of a good one, because the mythology of the rock band persists. People think, whether they’re really conscious of it or not, what they like about bands is that they’re the Monkees or something. They, like, live together, and hang out, and they all write the songs, and when they’re making the albums, they’re all standing around in a circle recording them together, and writing their own parts, and whatever. It’s just not the case. That is why people are confused. “How could you leave this thing?” There was barely a thing for me to leave!
It really was a symbolic decision. It was just like, okay, I did this thing, I don’t like it, I’m gonna do something else. It would have been really easy for me to sit back and do a year of touring and just kind of go through the motions, but that’s not me.
This is another symbolic thing, but does the haircut come along with that? The idea of rebirth? Shedding your former self?
See, that has nothing to do with Fleet Foxes. When I first moved to Seattle, I had long hair and a beard. This was the early aughts, and everybody was doing this leather jacket, dyed black hair, everybody wanted to be The Strokes, this sexy rocker thing. I had this totally different… People were freaked out by me. People would call me a hippie with derision.
I’ll get really candid with you: I’m, like, a handsome…person, you know? And for a long time I really didn’t like…I don’t like…the way that good-looking people get treated. And so I masked this thing with this huge beard, and long hair, and dressing like a homeless person. It was all tied up in this self-loathing thing of, “I don’t like what I am. I don’t like my sense of humour. I don’t like my ability to charm people. I don’t like my traditional looks. I don’t like any of it.”
So I set out on this 10-year thing of subverting what I perceived to be the easy assumptions about me. People think I’m a funny person? Cool, I’m gonna go ahead and put out the most miserable fucking music you’ve ever heard. And it was all about me. Ultimately that’s vanity, that’s someone thinking way too hard about themselves. And so, just getting older, getting to a place where it’s like, “Well, fuck man, I’m me. I don’t want to fight it anymore.” I just want to use it to the best of my ability.
And also, with the hair-cutting thing, that girl Emma in the [“Nancy From Now On”] video is my girlfriend. I’m in love with her. I really wanted to explore this idea of the submission of love. Having her take my vanity. Because I was convinced that once that hair came off, I was gonna look like a total dork.
Yeah, a total dork GQ model.
I was just convinced that once that hair came off, I was really gonna have to fight for…something, I don’t know. I wanted to explore the submission of love, just being like, I’m giving you my vanity. Once I realized that my hair, and the beard and all that shit was ultimately about vanity and contrarianism and protecting myself, and all that, I was like, “This person makes me feel so valued, and I want her to do it.”
She cut it off, and it was amazing. It was super-fun. And in the video, I’m laughing. I was expecting for it to be this cathartic, serious…I was expecting to break down. And I was laughing my ass off! Like, “I’m letting this whole thing go!”
But of course, the easy interpretation is, “He’s not in Fleet Foxes anymore! He’s shedding his Fleet Foxy image!” Dude, I was asked to be in that band 80% because I was a long-haired, bearded, you know what I mean?
It sounds like there was some sort of Samson-esque thing in you. Like you were scared you’d lose your powers or something.
Oh yeah! I was convinced for a few days afterwards that I had lost my ability to be funny. I felt like that was the first thing to go. But I’m into that stuff—not in a magical way, but it was really strange, just… Going out, having looked a certain way for 10 years, going out, getting a coffee, and all of sudden people are treating me like if they fuck up my order I’m gonna freak out on them. Like an angry white male. Or women being like, “Aghhhh!!!” as I’m saying the weirdest shit imaginable.
And I was just like, “Fuck, there’s no foil anymore!” I used to really enjoy looking a certain way and then opening my mouth and having people say, “You don’t sound like a hippie! You don’t sound like, ‘Heyyyy maaaaaan…’”
That’s not me at all. But I’m very adaptive. It’s been fun. I had this real negative identity complex for a long time, where it was just like, “I am the aggregation of all the things I’m not.” That was really limiting, and kind of depressing, ultimately.
But now, I’m conducting these shows, and the creative things. It’s really the revenge of the 8 year old me. The me, pre-distortions. I feel really child-like now, I feel really good.
How are you adjusting to life as more of a leading man?
It’s easy! In my 20s, I was addicted to the mythology of “the songwriter.” When I was 21, I went on tour with Damien Jurado and Richard Buckner, guys who I worshipped. And I’m using that word very deliberately: I worshipped them. I wanted to be that. So I kind of put on this pretense. I thought the best I could be was an archetype. And your success was how close to that archetype as you could get. It was all about developing credibility in terms of the parameters of the archetype. I thought, “People can’t see the real me, it will undermine my credibility as this thing, this tortured songwriter. It was all very romantic.
I have no interest in that now, I don’t relate to it anymore. I don’t want to be that thing. Once I pulled my finger out of that dam, that’s where you see the dancing, joking guy. I don’t have to try to do that!