Play Misty For Me: Josh Tillman

As his Father John Misty project bears fruit...

I once interviewed a Fleet Fox. He started every reply by saying “What’s interesting is…” before rattling off an anecdote which, quite frankly, was anything but. Happily, I can report that Josh Tillman (although technically an ex-Fleet Fox – he announced his departure from the Seattle-based beard-troupe in January) is not cut from the same cloth of banality. “I’ve been preparing since the sun came up with a ritualistic interview ceremony,” he says, when I ask him how his day has been. And on whether I am his first interview of the day? “Yes, I’m not that sought after,” is his comparatively hilarious reply.

We decide to deal with his decision to leave the Fleet Foxes first. Tillman had released several albums as a solo artist (including 2009’s excellent ‘Year In The Kingdom’) during the four-year period covering his time in the band, so what fuelled the finality of his recent decision? “You know, you can only put a narcissist behind a drum-kit for so long,” he admits. “Anyone who is a writer wants to write and you want to devote your time to that. Playing drums in Fleet Foxes took up a lot of time. So, it wasn’t something that was emotionally tenable to me, to keep putting my own endeavours in the outer reaches of my life.”

I make the mistake of describing his solo albums as ‘side projects’ and the phrase is firmly, and politely, jumped on. “It is hard for people to get their head’s around, but I have always identified myself as a solo artist. Fleet Foxes were so much more quantifiably successful that what I was doing, but, for me, Fleet Foxes was a new thing on the perimeter of my personal exploration of being a writer. All I did was play drums in that band – pound-for-pound, I wasn’t doing much. I’m hoping that people can see my other endeavours as the main event in my life.”

Tillman’s latest endeavour is a sparkling new album, ‘Fear Fun’ released under the moniker of Father John Misty. The album was born out of a middle-of-the-night flit followed by weeks spent living in a dilapidated tree-house with only spiders for roommates. “It was four o’clock in the morning and I threw all my shit in the van and just left,” Josh explains about the difficult circumstances that kick-started ‘Fear Fun’. “I had this moment of clarity. At some point you reach an impasse in your life which becomes either mobilising or immobilising. I was at the end of one of those long arcs of depression, which became so ingrained I wasn’t aware of how functionally unhappy I was. It had reached critical mass and I released something had gone terribly wrong and I had to get out.”

Tillman needed to ‘reset the dial’ and the results are pretty extraordinary. ‘Fear Fun’ sounds fresh, playful and is packed with a sense of, ahem, fun. I suggest to Josh that the album sounds nakedly honest and wonder out loud about whether ‘Fear Fun’ is a true representation of Tillman’s psyche. “You are absolutely on it, dude” he says (I so love being called ‘dude’.) “In terms of my own music under the name J. Tillman, I asked myself in a very honest way ‘is this J. Tillman person you?’ I suspect he is not. I suspect this J. Tillman thing is a way of cultivating and projecting a version of oneself that is impenetrable or romanticized and which is, ultimately, an alter ego. I realised I’d made records for ten fucking years and not really said anything honest about myself.”

Engineered by long-time friend Jonathan Wilson (“I wanted it to be clean-sounding – just well-played instruments in a good room. The recording was laid back and fun. We laughed a lot through the whole session”) and mixed by Fleet Fox luminary Phil Ek, the genesis of ‘Fear Fun’ ensured the set of songs were free from previous baggage. “When I was writing the songs I was just enjoying it,” Josh reveals, which is unsurprising on listening to the album. “I knew I had majorly jumped into the dark. It was songwriting for the sake of songwriting. It wasn’t going to go on a J. Tillman album and it didn’t have to relate to the J. Tillman catalogue or have any context. But, the songs kept coming and I began to think they were quite nice and something should be done with them. I had those excited, scheming impulses that songwriters have; the hustle. I thought the songs might sound way more fun to people than anything else I’d done.”

Fun: it’s not a word that is normally associated with anything surrounding Fleet Foxes. ‘Fear Fun’ may just be the sound of a man wiping the slate clean. “I would say that the album is a symptomatic of needing a rebirth every seven years, or something. The language is treacherous, I know, but I’m going to get really heavy-handed here – but anything in the universe gets destroyed before anything can get made and I am not so complex that I am exempt from that. It’s just law. That’s what happened, even if it is a cliché. People are so glib about musicians having personal lives that are susceptible to the same laws of nature as they are, because with musicians it is somehow clichéd or put on.”

So, I finally get to speak to an interesting Fleet Fox, even if it did take a monumental life jolt to trigger the riotously humane ‘Fear Fun’. As we say our goodbyes, Tillman signs off with a sound bite that actually should have been preceded with “What’s interesting is…” “You know, ‘Fear Fun’ was about Josh Tillman hitting 30, having some experiences and blowing shit up – and having a lot of fun doing new shit that he couldn’t do before. The record has some fucking soul.”

Words by John Freeman

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‘Fear Fun’ by Father John Misty is out now via Bella Union.

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