I spoke with Father John Misty aka Joshua Tillman on a breezy November day not long after I'd seen him perform at Austin City Limits. It was the second time I'd seen the rail-thin singer-songwriter. He's a sort of sardonic folk Gumby, who, unfolded from behind the drumset, seems about eight feet tall. Out on front of the stage he contorts his rubbery limbs, shakes his hips, twists his arms around the microphone and -- often -- reaches for his bottle of whiskey.
The so-called reverend gained recognition as the drummer for Fleet Foxes during their breakout self-titled album and followup Helplessness Blues. He left the group early this year to focus on his solo career; after recording as J. Tillman since 2005, he made the switch to Father John Misty for the release of his 2012 full-length Fear Fun.
The album began with a book -- a rollicking psychedelic narrative about bedbugs on the moon written by Tillman after a "heroic dose" (his words) of mushrooms. And that book is hidden inside the album, inscribed in incredibly tiny print inside the liner notes of Fear Fun.
Tillman's release exploded -- possibly tangentially related to the solid success of Fleet Foxes, but more directly to the cynical religious storytelling and reverb-soaked hooks of the album's 12 tracks. Fear Fun explores anarchy and religion, drugs (of course) and loneliness; the result is something not altogether precise, but completely beautiful. Since, Tillman's played the festival circuit and back-to-back regional tours. He'll perform in Bloomington next Thursday at the Bluebird.
NUVO: How are you?
Tillman: I'm pretty good. Sitting around, half-naked, talking about Fear Fun.
NUVO: Well, that's the only way to do an interview. I wanted to ask you -- honestly -- how tired are you of talking to press people right now? You've had a long year.
Tillman: Well, that's a problematic question. If I say I'm very tired, I sound like a princess. But if I say I'm not tired, I sound like a mouth-breathing sycophant. I try to just let the brilliance of my interview questions speak for myself.
NUVO: I was wondering --
Tillman: You would know. You would know if I was very tired. I would be screaming and crying and ranting.
NUVO: I really, really loved the episode of the Duncan Trussell Family Hour [podcast hosted by comedian Duncan Trussel] when you were a guest. I think the interesting thing about a lot of comedy podcasts happening right now is that they're so much deeper than, for example, the ten minutes we're going to have right now -- and not just about comedy. Tell me about recording that.
Tillman: I think that was in September. It was on some short time in between tours. I loved that there are a couple dudes in the comedy world -- and I think it's literally a couple of dudes, like Joe Rogan and Duncan -- who are doing these hybrid esoteric knowledge combined with humor [podcasts].
The reason I like it is because, especially living around here in L.A., there are people here who just have this completely humorless take on esotericism and gnostic faiths and energy and hermetic law, and all that shit. It's totally humorless. But my perspective has always been that the deeper you get into that stuff, the closer you get to the cosmic joke. There's a real line of continuity to me.
Shamen are typically really funny, irreverent, hedonist weirdos. I have a lot of interest in that stuff; I've been asked to do an interview with Daniel Pinchback and stuff like that, but I'm very reticent to talk about that stuff in a medium where there isn't some undercurrent of humor or flippancy to it.
NUVO: I've read that during the writing process of Fear Fun that you took a "heroic dose" of mushrooms, drove down the California coast and immersed yourself in the wild. Tell me about the difference between writing those songs in such an organic environment -- just yourself and the trees and the shrooms -- and performing on Conan, and in other very controlled, sterile environments.
Tillman: I see what you're saying. This is also a problem. Well, not a problem, but I'll call it a problem. The aesthetics and affectation around the psychedelic thing are so unmaleable to a lot of people. That's kind of part of the problem I had with the ayahuasca [a brew of various psychoactive natural ingredients said to provoke spiritual revelations] experience I had. The language was so didactic and the imagery was so didactic. You were almost being coaxed into thinking purely in this one set of imagery.
I do like the disparity between the role that psychedelics have played in accessing my personal truth and how different the end product looks. And yeah, a white suit and a string section and this creepy Steely Dan musical perfectionism doesn't really smack of a psychedelic thing, per se. But what's the point of psychedelics if they can't be personally curated? ... It's very religious to me. I think if those experiences and the psychedelic influence doesn't give you the liberty to pursue whatever you want to pursue, then what's the point?
NUVO: I've seen you perform live twice -- both at festivals in Texas, as a matter of fact. One was when you were at South by Southwest. You played at a showcase and had problems with the sound. You climbed on top of --
Tillman: Oh, at Peckerheads!
NUVO: Yes, at Peckerheads.
Tillman: I loved that show. I actually really enjoyed that whole SXSW experience.
NUVO: How many times did you play there this year?
Tillman: I played 13 times. It was ridiculous. I've played SXSW quite a few times before. This was just a very different experience. It's kind of an antagonistic experience to try and play music there, especially with just an acoustic guitar. I felt like I was slaying Goliath or something. I felt armed with this set of songs. I had recently emerged into this comfort with my humor and my ability to orate and whatever. It was kind of like running a steeplechase or something. I felt very frictionless.
NUVO: The second time was just a few weeks ago at Austin City Limits. I guess I had it stuck in my head that you would be playing alone, but you were with a full band.Tillman: To me, it just makes sense to play this material with a full band. I enjoy the solo thing when I get an opportunity to do it... Whether it's with a band or just solo -- there's a show that needs to be put on. Whether it's with a band or solo, I enjoy adapting.
NUVO: Last question: I would love to know if you're considering writing another novel.
Tillman: I probably have another year of immobilizing self-loathing and doubt to percolate before I can start doing that. But I would really like to do that. I was just this morning reading a short story that I hadn't read in a few years. I was just saying, it's no wonder that I don't write more often. It's so intense. The writing is very dense and relentless. It requires a real Herculean amount of concentration and absorption.