Father Strangelove: An Interview with Father John Misty

Josh Tillman's (Father John Misty/ J. Tillman / Fleet Foxes) new album, Fear Fun begs many questions and alternatives. To open the door or burn it down? Is there a battle between Good and Evil for which humanity is the fulcrum, or is it all a grey comedy on the stage of Life? Just as importantly, how does one make the most of their situation with such questions looming over their head? In the Book of Revelation, 'Babylon' represents a city containing every evil in the world. In his song Fun Times in Babylon, Josh refers to his newly-adopted home as a strange land to be conquered with revelry: "I would like to abuse my lungs/Smoke everything in sight with every girl I've ever loved/Ride around the wreckage on a horse knee-deep in blood/Look out Hollywood, here I come." I met with Josh in Los Angeles to talk about his album and how to survive as an artist in the pre-apocalocyptic world. Read interview by Marielle Stobie for Pas Un Autre. 

MARIELLE STOBIE: What would you say are the benefits of playing solo?

JOSH TILLMAN: The creative process in general isn't closely related to 'benefit'. I was pretty sure that when I made the decision to stop what I was doing before [Fleet Foxes], one of the chief understandings that I had was it may not be a beneficial decision. Those are usually the most liberating decisions creatively. I really kind of felt like the end of [the Stanley Kubrick film] Dr. Strangelove, like the cowboy on the nuclear bomb. It felt more like a reckless decision than a rational one. I will say that what I was looking for out of the decision I think I've achieved.

MARIELLE: So it was worth the risk…

JOSH: It still would have been what I had to do. And it still may go down… Even my first decision when I was 20 or something, to disconnect from the world of 'benefit' or rational decision-making or anything was all this one big decision that happened a long time ago and now benefit, or worth, or whatever, was disestablished a long time ago. I didn't really have any doubt as to whether or not it would be of more benefit to me. Whether it's successful or not is still to be determined. It was something that I had to do.

MARIELLE: You went on a road trip to write this new album, right?

JOSH: Well, no. I went on a road trip to stop playing music entirely. It barely even classified as a 'road trip'. It was closer to me like 'running and screaming' out of town. I did not foresee any of this [Father John Misty] at that time. At that time, I just needed to get as far from the distortions I had created around myself creatively. At that point it's like, the sound of an acoustic guitar made me nauseous. I just had to disassociate with myself. One of the by-products of that, for one reason or another, was writing this novel and under the process of writing that, I accessed my conversational voice creatively and was actually having fun writing the novel… Which begged a certain question: why had you never had fun in the creative pursuit before and what relationship does 'fun' have to the creative process? The music [I was playing] was so romantic at the time. I wasn't me, really. Whatever romantic singer-songwriter alter-ego I cultivated just didn't work. It was powerless to address my actual concerns or interests.

MARIELLE: Could you briefly address what the novel is about?

JOSH: The book itself is literally in the album. There are two posters with the {album}. It is in type six font.

MARIELLE: So you need a magnifying glass to read it.

JOSH: Just post-magnifying glass. The book is more or less a surrealistic trans memoir attempt at looking at the trajectory of humanity as a thing.There are two end points: One is a transcendence into whatever next plane of human consciousness we're in store for and the other is just apocalypse, self-destruction and how more or less every human life…collectively, is on a speed trial towards one of those options.This really ridiculous book about bed bugs, jet packs, sea otters, and shit…

MARIELLE: In a past interview, you mentioned that you were not a strong student growing up. Today, however, you come across as not only charismatic, but eloquently spoken. When did this transition develop?

JOSH: I think I wrote my first poem in fourth grade. I don't know if what I'd call what I have 'intelligence' so much as 'rigorous thoughtfulness'. Intelligence, as a metric, is determined by a culture. Being able to operate and flourish within the cultures' paradigm is (a lot of the time) determined as 'intelligence'… The reason I didn't do well in school was that I hated it. I hated everything about it. I didn't perform well.

MARIELLE: Before you became a musician, your career path was painted as one of a pastor. That has obviously changed…

JOSH: Has it, though? To describe what a performer does, or an artist, and to describe what a pastor does, but leave out all of the signifying language, it is very difficult to discern one from the other. The way I grew up, you don't decide what you're going to become as an adult or at the age of accountability. You are "called" to do something. For certain kids like me who are very loud and talkative and charismatic, whatever, these kids, they're 'called' to be a pastor or a used car salesman… I wasn't good at music as a kid, so that was the demand proposed onto me by weird adults in my life.

MARIELLE: So this is the "Father John Misty traveling road show of 'reality as you know it'"… Correct me if I'm wrong.

JOSH: I think that quantifying reality is the work of other people. I am really interested in truth. But truth, a lot of the time, doesn't always look like reality. Humans' ability to perceive is not determined by their idea of 'truth'. That's the trap door of any ideology and we live in a very ideologic culture. There's an innate trap door for exceptions to make it pragmatic for living. My version of reality is way bleaker than the music I'm playing.

Fear Fun by Father John Misty is available in stores and online. Text by Marielle Stobie for Pas Un Autre.