SPIN encounters white stags, magic mushrooms, R-rated leitmotifs, and some very big ideas during a psychedelic evening with Josh Tillman, the man behind indie's most surprising – and surprisingly sexy – success story.
Because I figured he'd be into it — on account of his generally mystical mien and lyrical references to ayahuasca — I'd made special arrangements for Father John Misty and myself to have a midnight meeting with an "urban shaman" named Mama Donna. After Father John, whose real name is Josh Tillman, played his solo acoustic set in Hoboken, New Jersey, we'd skip across the Hudson, trip over the East River, knock on Mama Donna's door in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and follow her into the infinite. For $125, it seemed like a steal.
I broach this plan shortly after introducing myself to the tall, lanky Tillman, standing outside the venerable club Maxwell's at 6:30 p.m. with his arms wrapped around the waist of his fiancée, a coltish fine art photographer named Emma wearing a sheer gray dress and tan trench coat.
Tillman, 32, blue-eyed and bearded, casually ragged in a white button-down shirt and blue slacks with big holes at both knees, considers my offer. "It's a vanity to think that a legitimate shamanistic experience can be purchased," he says, politely enough. "Like, I went and did ayahuasca with a shaman in upstate Washington two years ago. He was this French-Canadian guy who I thought was a blowhard and he was fucking all these chicks, which is very commonplace for shamans, and I started having hallucinations. I saw the shaman holding baguettes and wearing a beret and dancing around and I was losing my shit. I can't explain why that was so funny to me, but in that moment I had a choice, which was to see something more spiritually sanctioned like a wolf or a cosmic serpent or I could go with my vision. And I had a realization: My humor is my creativity, and my skepticism is a gift. So I followed myself. Anyway," he says, "that was my experience with shamanism."
That's a no-go on Mama Donna then. Instead, on this sunny day in the middle of May, we slip into Maxwell's for alcohol. A beer for me, a dry martini for Tillman, and nothing for Emma, who sits smiling by her man's side for the duration of the interview. Indeed, the two, who met at a general store near their respective homes in L.A.'s mystical Laurel Canyon (they now live together in the city's Echo Park neighborhood), are unabashedly a hands-on couple, and I sense like there's a good chance that if I look away, when I look back they'll be entwined in a position from way down deep in the Kama Sutra. It's actually kinda sweet.
His encounters with powertripping horndog shamans firmly in the past, Josh Tillman is doing quite well for himself these days. He's got an exceptionally friendly lady and a thriving career – Fear Fun, the 2012 debut album of sarcastic shaggy dog folk-rock under the moniker Father John Misty, which he takes pains to explain is simply a band name and not a persona, has sold 53,000 copies. His entrancingly fey and looks-ironic-but-isn't onstage dancing has even turned him into something of an indie sex symbol – a status helped along by the preponderance of shirtless photos, taken by Emma, posted on the Father John Misty website. ("I'm her muse," says Tillman matter-of-factly as Emma gently strokes his thigh.)
All of which means that life is mostly milk and honey for a guy whose previous claim to fame was a stint as a drummer for Fleet Foxes, a band not exactly known for its rhythmic thunder. And until fairly recently, he was shrugging along as a self-admitted sadsack phony: Under the name J. Tillman, he released seven albums worth of grimly serious dirges with titles like Cancer and Delirium. Now, he makes his nut by swiveling his hips and singing skewering songs about overripe roués and the narcissism of well-meaning, privileged honky liberals like, say, me and him. (The songs are sometimes autobiographical.)
"The narrative at work here is very uncommon," says Tillman, raised religious in suburban Maryland and estranged from his still-religious parents, who is prone to parsing "narratives." In my mind's eye, he carries a well-thumbed copy of Trout Fishing In America in his back pocket.
"Here's the narrative that would've made sense," he goes on, his delivery, as always (and as with his songs), placing his words on the thin line between self-mockery and pseudo-profundity, "the drummer from a renowned band puts out a solo album and no one cares – the end. Instead, I had this moment where I was sitting in a tree, utilizing mushrooms, and had this crazy notion that there's a more honest way I can communicate, and that if I do that, if I can just let myself do that, then everything was going to be fine, and it turned out more than fine. That's a far more bizarre narrative than failure. Everyone fails."
All right, all right, all right, what's this about being in a tree and having a stoned epiphany? Well, wind him up and let the brujo go: "It was maybe two years ago," recalls Tillman about his life-changing trip. (FYI, around the time of the Shaman letdown.) "I can absolutely remember the moment. It was an, 'Oh there I am,' moment. I was sitting in a tree scratching my head like an ape – that's why, in my novel (the unpublished Mostly Hypothetical Mountains, included in full in the liner notes to Fear Fun), a gorilla is one of the recurring icons, one of the major arcana, if you will — and I was sitting naked and I just started to laugh my ass off. I couldn’t take my pain seriously. Everything turned into innocence. I thought, 'My version of honesty is valid.' I know that 'being yourself' sounds like such a tired trope, but that's what happened. I admitted to myself that I was good at being funny and writing songs, and that's what I did. I saw that honesty looks a lot different than I thought it did. It took ten years of creative wheel-spinning to see that it was allowed to be fun."
I know it sounds in line with the kinds of stuff that reasonably intelligent, dutifully skeptical, creatively inclined lumps of stardust like ol' Josh and I, Uncle Dave Marchese, scoff at as being either eye-rollingly hokey or preciously, desperately worth seeking out in fungible countercultural novels or some shit, but this business of being fully yourself, of achieving your potential…it's a hard one, and from my current overly negative vantage point, just about impossible outside of one-on-one hangtime with my own friendly lady and certain evenings back home in my boyhood bedroom at my parents' house in Toronto, a town where the mayor (allegedly—pfft) smokes crack! So given that Tillman seems to have, yowzah, become himself and found an admirable degree of success as a result, I'm basically sympathetic to everything he says. Maybe he even has some answers.
Talk, Father John, talk!
"I'm loathe to discuss these things because they'll get boiled down to sound bites," he says. "But bearing that in mind, I'll say that not long ago I was committed to the idea of nothingness, and that meaning does not exist unless you create it. And I'm getting married in September, and there's something curatorial about love in the sense that you're creating community between you and another person. But in another respect, you're falling into a set of innate human behaviors, which really challenges the idea that nothing means anything, and that you are God and that you create the meaning. What I'm trying to say is that maybe something exists that isn't purely made up of nothingness."
I decide to puzzle that one out later, but since I'm into JT's flow, I ask what he thinks of dance music, not because I'm dying to know, particularly, but because Guru Josh (a different Josh) once told me that the mind is like a puppy and it must have a master and we need more focus.
"Dance music is so fucking fascist," Tillman spits. "I'm talking about the aesthetics. Show me a fucking dance person who's saying something. The artifice of dance music may not reek of sanctimony, but none of those artists are doing anything that's going to put what their audience expects them to do in jeopardy. Also, if there are lyrics, they're pure nihilism."
He starts to sing. "'Tonight! Is the last night! Tonight forever tonight!' Check back with me in ten years when EDM is fucking disco."
Actually, here's something about nothing: I remember that a friend of mine who'd also dallied with nihilism said he could score us some chocolate-covered magic mushrooms for Father John Misty's set the following day at GoogaMooga. I make a mental note to text him later as Tillman is now palavering about the "veil of irony" that surrounds his musical project and then, strangely, he pauses.
He runs his hand through his hair.
He looks at Emma.
"I'm sorry for rambling," he says quietly. "My blood sugar must be low."
A concerned Emma chimes in. "Who," she asks tenderly, "wants to go for sushi?"
"Driving around America like we've been doing for the last year, all you see are billboards for burgers and Jesus. If you were an alien and came down to earth, you'd think humans worshipped those things equally," says Tillman, smoking a mellow American Spirit cigarette as he and Emma, her hand deep in his right butt pocket, saunter down bustling Washington Street in the direction of Hoboken's second-best sushi spot.
Father John Misty/Josh Tillman will be on the road till October, when he'll take some time off to work on some new songs, mostly about love, and fully a cause for concern. "Love songs are a white stag of songwriting for me," he says gravely. "Can I address [the subject] without resorting to clichés?"
This impending songwriting shift is part of a larger, more necessary change. Though the Father John Misty project is relatively new, Tillman already senses its limits.
"Especially with the dancing," he says. "It's gotten to the point where it's turning into a fucking cabaret act, you know? The dancing around is fun and expressive in principle, but in practice, at show 200, it is becoming a little untenable. There's probably some percentage of my audience that thinks I'm a pure entertainer in the Barry Manilow mold. Before the day is done, I will disappoint fans. And I will disappoint them so many times that at some point they will get used to it and start to enjoy it. That's how it's always been. The J. Tillman music was expressly designed to alienate people. So believe me I have no problem doing that again. I can't keep dancing forever. In the white heat of the first eight months of this Father John Misty thing, it was fun. Now it's turning into a defeat. But I'm good at finding romance in defeat."
Groovy, brother, because, and this is something I remember reading in a book by recently deceased "interfaith humanitarian" and Ram Dass bud Bo Lozoff: We only learn from things if they present us with challenges; or, we don't get shit if we get shit easy.
Intuiting the need to backburner the heavy stuff before we feast on hamachi and whatnot, Josh, Emma, and I allow the conversation to drift to the ethical problem of drone strikes. Sadly, it sure seems like there's nothing we can do about 'em. Next, we debate the merits of bad Neil Young ("When he's bad, he's really, really bad"), bad Bob Dylan ("I'm perfectly willing to admit that he understands his art better than I do"), and certain Norman Mailer books — I like The Executioner's Song; Tillman likes Ancient Evenings. I offer that assholes, and sodomy specifically, form a motif in the latter text and then promptly apologize for being pretentious.
"That's okay," says Tillman. "I tend to bring that out in people."
We arrive at the restaurant. Over seaweed salad and miso soup, Tillman hands me his iPhone so I can see a series of vibrantly colored paintings he's recently completed, and they instantly make me feel better about my bunghole pedantry: Turns out assholes are a recurring (leit) motif in Tillman's paintings!
"Man is the symbol-making animal," muses Tillman. "If we're not making symbols we're really denying our mandate."
I ask how often he gets high. "I smoke weed every day," he replies as a plate of sashimi arrives. "I do mushrooms maybe six times a year. They're more a tool than a recreation. And in the last year, I've definitely had some impulse to indulge in amphetamines like cocaine or Adderall. A lot of that has to do with pushing too hard. When you're touring as much as I'm touring, you're basically living in a state of self-destruction. So within the last year, it's been more. But when I say more — I'm so fucking innocent. I'm not waking up and doing cocaine."
The couple consumes their fish and Emma checks the time. It's nearing nine o'clock. They need to get back to Maxwell's for the show. Tillman will be testing out some of his as-yet-unrecorded material. Before we leave, I ask Tillman if he ever feels like an idea is beyond his understanding.
His answer comes slowly.
"I don't know. I mean, pretty much everything sometimes. It's hard to — I don't want know. I don't want to just blab about existential stuff."
"Oh, geez Louise, yes you do," I say.
Tillman laughs. "I'll call you the next time I'm stumped — not to sound like an asshole."
Onstage at Maxwell's, a tick past 10 p.m., Tillman swigs from a bottle of bourbon and croons his sideways ballads. The best lines come from a new untitled number: "She says, 'Like literally' music is the air she breathes / And the malaprops make me wanna fuckin' scream / I wonder if she even knows what that word means / But it's literally not that."
The crowd laughs and cheers in all the right places.
In the dingy basement-green room after the show Tillman sits on a metal folding chair with Emma on his lap. Indie R&B imp Har Mar Superstar is here, too, talking loudly, and accidentally kicks over a can of beer. Fleet Foxes multi-instrumentalist Skyler Skjelset stands quietly in the corner with a lady friend.
Tillman, after a disquisition on the death of liberalism ("I don't mean this in a loaded way, but liberalism functioned best as a parasitic entity"), addresses tomorrow's gig at the foodie-centric GoogaMooga festival in Brooklyn, not far from where Mama Donna keeps shop.
"The modern-day festival is so consumeristic, where if you don't like the performer, it's like, 'Come on over to the Go-Gurt stage and watch whoever else,'" he says. "There's no generational voice other than, 'I am defined by the things I consume.' Personally, I don't want to try and be cool. Fuck boring, navel-gazing bullshit. A lot of this Father John Misty thing is about reclaiming my pre-adolescent impulses to weird out as many people as I can whenever I can. I'm very contrarian."
I point out that this "weirding out" has made him far more popular than he ever was before. "That paradox can live in harmony in my mind," says Tillman. "My 'weirding out' — to use my term — is planting a seed. It's disruptive to the complacency that currently has a chokehold on the zeitgeist."
Disruptive? Cunt. Cock. Big deal — you're either lining the system's pockets or you're not, and no amount of cognitively curious dancing and slyly finger-pointing folk songs is turning GoogaMooga into Zuccotti Park.
"But isn't it cynical not to try?" asks Tillman.
Guess so. And, heck, even if GoogaMooga is ultimately an abomination of excess, somebody's gotta eat those pork-belly sliders, which I hear are awfully tasty.
"Well," Tillman says, grinning, the clock ticking towards midnight. "If they didn't have those, I wouldn't be fucking playing."
Play is what he does a day later, a little after 3 p.m. under a drizzly sky and in front of a gorging GoogaMooga crowd in Brooklyn's Prospect Park. Tillman, backed by a full band, unleashes his full arsenal of seriously funny, funnily serious songs, complemented by his swivels, twirls, knee-bends, and exaggerated air-quotes. The set is very funny, extremely entertaining, and easily more transporting than the LARP swordfight from which I'd emerged victorious two hours prior. Beside me, my aforementioned ex-nihilist buddy and his girlfriend are dancing. People are laughing and making other happy noises.
From the stage, Father John Misty facetiously demands a lobster roll. Moments later, one appears. A perverse portion of the crowd chants, "Eat it! Eat it!"
Tillman suggests that the sandwich would be better sent to Africa.
"Then we could be like, 'Fixed it!'" he says, in reference to the hunger of a continent, and a nearby stranger lets out a disapproving oooh and, in turn, I yell, "We're all complicit!"
A moment later, my ex-nihilist buddy gets a text from a guy who can deliver us the chocolate-covered mushrooms. He tells the dealer to meet him after the Father John Misty show.
The supplier texts back: "Father John Misty is fucking sexy."
Then Josh Tillman makes a joke about rivers of vomit flooding the streets of brownstone Brooklyn and his song about the truly staggering amount of oil that it takes to release an album echoes out across our good intentions. Figuring I've had enough disruption for one afternoon, I skip off towards the great banks of Port-A-Potties, in search of myself, and eager to try an umami burger.