Josh Tillman is a folk musician to his core, immersing himself in the genre since the early part of the aughts. He hit the pinnacle of the folk scene when he joined Fleet Foxes as their drummer in 2008, and went on to play and record with the band until he left to pursue a solo project early this year. That solo project is Father John Misty, a new look for Tillman, whose first release under the pseudonym, Fear Fun, marks a detour for the normally somber troubadour (he’s admitted to bouts of depression). On Fun, Tillman is more at ease, looser, and one might even say happy. Here, cult talk show host and author Richard Metzger catches up with a road-bound Tillman to discuss fronting his own project, his new name, and life on the road
How are you doing? I’m calling you from Los Angeles. Where are you?
Uh, I’m in North Carolina. Like Chapel Hill sort of area.
So it’s about 7 o’clock where you are?
Yeah, right. Yea. You nailed it.
Is that sound check time for you guys?
Yeah, I’m listening to the ambient sounds of audio flotsom and jetsom occurring up on stage.
So is this the first time you’ve actually toured fronting a band?
Um, well I did a bunch of J. Tillman tours with a band, so I have a little bit of experience in the benevolent dictator role. But yeah, I think I’m doing what any great leader does, I’m more just like following them around more or less, but they have no idea.
So you’ve just been touring nonstop since the album was released?
Pretty much. Some time off here and there, but yeah, it’s been fairly relentless.
Where have you been?
We’ve mostly been doing the US. We did a brief Australian thing. I went to Europe for a few weeks. But this is about a month of US and then I’m home for five days and then go to Europe for a month and then I come back and do this inevitably ill-fated rock cruise.
Yeah, I decided to forgo the entire dignified part of having a music career and go straight for the cruise ship and casino circuit. It’s like this Coachella prototype event.
You’re one of those guys who is kind of either very extroverted or else really introverted, right?
How does that translate to life on the road where you would be obliged to be, you know, the life of the party perhaps?
Right. In some way, extroversion is a little easier to maintain than introversion. Extroversion needs a whole lot less explaining and a lot of the time my instinct is not to stand around like Mickey Mouse having my photo taken with like everyone within a three-mile radius, but to get into the conversation about like, “Hey, you know I’d really just rather stand here and talk or something cumulatively demoralizing about having thousands and thousands of pictures of me with a listless frozen smile on my face.” That just takes too much time. Just in some kind of survival desire to maintain some level of frictionless thing, you kind of have to do the extroverted thing. I more than make up for any exhaustion on account of that by turning into a ‘hermit of hate’ in my brief stints at home.
I have a friend who’s been touring for about the last decade with pretty much the top-grossing rock act in the world. I won’t say who, but it’s a very first-class traveling accommodation situation for him and he says it’s the most boring thing in the world, even at that level of touring. Is that true for you?
What brief encounter I’ve had with that sort of luxurious form of touring, it does become unbelievably boring because if you’re given an option to lay on a hotel bed with your hand down your pants doing nothing, you will always opt for that, even if it’s to your spiritual detriment. Fortunately, I don’t have quite that level of luxury. Everybody’s rooming together. This type of touring, I think it just bears more of a resemblance to the romance I had with it originally, which was like a sunburned left arm out the van window and getting scurvy from a beef-jerky diet. When you’re playing arenas, you’re so isolated.
I would imagine that, coming off stage at midnight or one o’clock in the morning, it would probably take a long time to fall asleep. How do you blow off steam?
Well, I don’t sleep a whole lot on tour. I typically will get some sleep in the van but it’s true, there really is something about performing, the adrenaline, the headfuck of getting worshiped for an hour or something that takes a little time to dismantle. I don’t have any particularly original or exotic methods for doing that other than just copious amounts of drinking and small-talking until I’m hoarse.
Right. I’m curious, do your new fans, who only know you from the new album, refer to you as ‘Father John’ when they meet you?
Oh, everybody. Especially in the more bro markets you know, like in Houston or Dallas, there’s a lot of that. Dudes coming up and going, ‘Father John!’ That’s the one I keep hearing all the time. ‘Father John!’
Are you regretting taking on a pseudonym for the project?
No, I stand by the gag. I still really believe in the gag of the ridiculous name. There’s no way of outsmarting it. But ultimately, I don’t mind that so much. I do, at some point in tour, develop some kind of mild PTSD, knowing at any moment somebody’s going to grab my arm or say my name. I start to get a little squirrely. That doesn’t have so much to do with what people are saying to me so much as the frequency with which things are being said at me.
Now what about your next project? Is it possible to write music on the road? I mean, you’re touring with a band in a van, I guess, but is it possible to write new music and be creative in that way?
Yeah, it is and mostly due to the fact that inspiration is so wily and unpredictable. I don’t have a safe place where I know I’ll find inspiration. And a good song or something only takes about 10 minutes of your time. I’ve been writing new material for the last year and a half so I have so much. My main thing right now is that I have so much material built up and some of it, the further away I get from it, the less I worry that by the time I get around to recording it, it won’t be quite relevant. It won’t be something that I’ll be able to really answer for. Most of the next record is all written and ready to go. Now I’m just kind of in that daydreaming part of the writing phase, which is about 90% of it, and has nothing to do with having an acoustic guitar or a piano, it’s just conceptualizing.
What about your literary pursuits? Have you written any more novels?
Um, no. Right now I’m just indulging in that stock and trade laziness and self-loathing that predicates any great piece of fiction.
Here’s my last question for you. This is the hard one so I’ve saved this one for last. Maybe it’s not a hard one, we’ll see. So you’ve been touring around the United States a lot during an election year. What’s the difference between what you’ve noticed north of the Mason-Dixon line and south of the Mason-Dixon line?
Urban areas and rural areas vote very differently, just based on socio-economic factors as opposed to like, pure geography. More or less everybody I see is an Obama person. Maybe I’m just projecting my own apathy on to other people but I do sense a very glib, morbid fascination around the pageantry of the debates and especially this time around there’s no rhetoric that’s really capturing anybody’s imagination. I feel like people seem kind of disengaged. I think most people hope that Obama wins, but I don’t really feel any interesting polarization.
Me, I just wish it was over.
Yeah, they’re all goons. The office of the presidency, I don’t know, these presidential elections they’re more of a resemblance to Kate and William’s wedding than anything else.
Photography by Emma Garr