Joshua Tillman, otherwise known as Father John Misty, is a guitar-playing wordsmith and former Fleet Foxes drummer, notorious for his usage of hallucinogenic mushrooms and his departure from a devout Christian upbringing — but he’s sick of talking about it.
My interview with Tillman began poorly, to say the least. When I asked him to name a few of the experiences that inspired his music, he blurted out a series of extravagant lies with corresponding song titles like “Red Gatorade Blues,” “Mommy Help, I’m Coming Out Backwards” and “Baby Stop Punching Me,” which don’t exist on any of his eight studio albums.
When I mentioned his Christian background, Tillman’s hostility sent shockwaves through the telephone cord.
“It’s just funny to hear, like, details of your life kind of reported at you with a tone of dismissive witness,” he said.
So we got real:
How do you feel about interviews generally?
You know, not great, but mostly because I will do my damndest to give someone an interesting answer. It’s a demented style of conversation where one person is put on the spot to be explicitly and uncomfortably honest. It’s like having a conversation with someone wearing a mask, you know?
And I do it to myself because I want to accomplish something in the interview context. I’m not just trying to promote my show in Minnesota….
I have to maintain some type of illusion that the person I’m talking to, namely you, are interested in some way in what I have to say. But what I find frustrating about them is that there’s no real conversation. You know, the question will be like, “So, how do you feel about faith?” and I’ll go, “Blah blah blah blah, definitions, wanna be closer to God,” and the other person will go, “OK. So I read that you drove down the coast and took mushrooms.”
It’s like, did you hear anything I just said? Do you have nothing to say about anything I just said? So in some ways it can be a little disheartening, but, you know, whatever. It’s better than digging a ditch. Or maybe not.
I totally understand that. I mean, from my end, it’s one of the most uncomfortable processes to go through.
I’m sor- I know. It’s also these goddamn readers, you know? I hope they appreciate what we’re putting ourselves through.
And then you’ve got an editor or something who’s like, “So you guys just talked about faith for 15 minutes?” I mean in my mind, it’s like you should just be able to talk about one thing. I really think on the next album, I fully intend to tell the publicist people at Sub Pop, “I’m not gonna talk about the album. I’ll talk about any other topic, but I cannot answer the same 15 questions.” It’s like, whatever I put in the bio, I’m gonna repeat for a year.
That’s what I was thinking. I mean, why would I need that information about you when it’s all online?
Right, exactly. You having a conversation with me about what I think about interviews is a lot more interesting than having an interview where you interview me about my music. And everyone knows, like everyone suspects, that there’s a certain futility in the interview thing and that just sort of bums everyone out because then you have to go through this sort of cabaret act where I pretend I’m telling you things for the first time and you hope I’m not going to come through the phone and strangle you for asking the same question for the 800th time.
But anyway, that’s how I feel about interviews. Sometimes they’re great. Like now, this is going great. I just like breaking down that meta wall, and if I’m doing an interview, I want to talk about doing an interview, or if I’m writing a song, I like writing a song about writing a song.
I was looking through your website and noticed this kind of tongue-and-cheeky way you talk about the music industry and social media sites. You’ve kind of blown up, so how do you deal with that and still have that attitude?
Well, I have to take some issue with — I’m not sure that I’ve blown up, exactly. But I think that if I have become more popular or if I have become popular in some relative sense of the word, then I think it’s just because people like that shit, you know? People like my sense of humor. They like my sensibilities. And they are very polarizing.
Half the time, the things I say in an interview, the way they come off in print, I’m like, “Oh my God.” Because it can be so hard to tell when I’m joking or not. And I’ll say these really kind of arrogant things in a really kind of wry, sarcastic way, but in print it’s just like I’m being arrogant. Which can also be kind of funny, too.
But the truth of the matter is that there isn’t a lot to take very seriously in this line of work. Really, the only thing I take very seriously is the writing, is the music itself. Everything else about it is suspect. If someone says, “You really need a website — you’ve gotta have a website for your thing.” Then it’s like, all right, but a website more than anything else is bound to be subject to my ire. It’s a fucking website, it’s hilarious.
So you’re still able to maintain some sense of autonomy and humility?
Yeah. Well, humility, for the most part, is in the eye of the beholder. There are a lot of people who see, for example, the way I conduct myself on stage — they would see that and be like, “Well, this guy is a pompous dick.” And other people would see it and be like, “Wow, it takes a lot of humility to get up on stage and acknowledge the fact that he’s here to entertain people, and this whole enterprise is kind of absurd.”
But ego is when your perception of yourself is so massive that you think that it actually matters what you do. You have entered into this social contract where you’re going to get on a stage that’s 6 feet off the ground and sing into a microphone that’s hooked up to a huge PA and you’re going to pretend you don’t want to be there? Like, you signed up for this shit. That, to me, is a total lack of humility….
But autonomy, yeah, I have all the autonomy in the world, I think. Unless I wanted to, you know, put my asshole on the cover or my next album, I think I’m pretty much free to do whatever I want creatively.
I bet you could get away with that if you did it subtly.
You’d be a real master if you could subtly put your asshole on the cover. I mean, Picasso subtly put assholes in all of his paintings — that little star symbol that he was obsessed with — and he was a great artist, so there you go.
Anyways, autonomy, that’s good. It seems like that approach could help you keep from going to that place where music becomes drudgery.
I’m not really looking for career happiness out of music. Like, I get happiness out of my wife. Music is this other thing — it’s this rational obsession that I have. Drudgery is impossible to avoid because if I do something three times, I’m bored and I never want to do it again.… But I mean, whatever, you know, life is pain. Get over it.
Okay, I’m just gonna ask you one more question. Don’t make fun of me.
What do you think your spirit animal would be if one were chosen for you?
I’m gonna go with sea otter — with beached sea otter. That’s always been my spirit animal.
What: Father John Misty with Kate Berlant
When: 8 p.m., Friday
Where: First Avenue, 701 N. First Ave., Minneapolis