For the wistfully tormented Josh Tillman, it's less a question of identity crisis than interview crisis. The singer-songwriter has been up all morning doing back-to-back phoners in which he's inevitably called upon to pontificate about (a) leaving the acclaimed Fleet Foxes, (b) reinventing himself as the mysterious Father John Misty, and (c) figuring out exactly what it all means. Articulate though he is, the musician is fast approaching the point where he can no longer stand talking about himself.
"This is like interview number five, and I don't even know who this person I'm talking about IS anymore," laments the 31-year-old Baltimore native. "Whoever this person is that we're talking about — who had a creative rebirth and whatever — I have no idea. I don't know him. He sounds like an asshole. He sounds like a fucking blowhard. I HATE him."
But the born-again indie pop meme won't go away, and with good reason.
Just two weeks after announcing his departure from Fleet Foxes — "back into the gaping maw of obscurity I go," he declared in a January blog post — Tillman unleashed Father John Misty's debut single, "Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings," with a striking video in which Parks & Recreation star Aubrey Plaza plays a seductively psychotic funeral-wrecker. (More on that later.) By May, Sub Pop had released Father John Misty's Fear Fun, an immaculately composed and perfectly polished pop-rock album that took a lot of critics by surprise.
Sure, Tillman had made noteworthy contributions to Fleet Foxes as a singer and songwriter, but his most identifiable role in the Seattle-based indie-folk outfit was as its drummer. And while he'd previously released seven albums under his own name, their arrangements and production values were the kind you'd expect from singer-songwriters on the coffeehouse circuit.
Combine all that with a brand new name — as well as a full touring band — and it's no surprise that Father John Misty is being viewed as a musical rebirth. And even Tillman has to admit, however elliptically, that there's been a change.
"Some days," he reckons, "I feel like my sense of humor is so morbid and so Brechtian that I committed to a 10-year installation art piece wherein I dismantled the singer-songwriter archetype. And because of my religious upbringing, I had to prepare the sacrificial lamb of my own music, and make sure that it ate nothing but seeds and had the silkiest flaxen curly wool, before I could put it up on the altar and read its entrails and drink its blood."
More specifically, Tillman figures the stoicism of past records failed to acknowledge the perverse humor inherent in his worldview.
"I'm still bringing some of that alienation into the music, but the aspect of myself that I was ignoring is that I usually laugh — or take some sort of morbid joy — in what I perceive to be that reality. And so yeah, when you break it down that way, it's really just like getting better at taking apart my gun and cleaning it and putting it back together, you know?"
Give the drummer some
According to legend, Tillman was raised in a devoutly Christian household, dropped out of college and, in 2004, relocated to Seattle, where he was working in a bakery when a demo he'd recorded — on cassette, no less — found its way into the hands of Damien Jurado.
The indie folk legend subsequently took the fledgling singer-songwriter out on the road as his opening act, but it was Tillman's four-year run with Fleet Foxes that ultimately made him the indie equivalent of a household name.
"Since Fleet Foxes was so much more quantifiably successful than what I did, it's easy to assume that I came out of the womb with drumsticks or whatever," he says. "But by the time those guys asked me to join, I hadn't really played drums in years. I was a songwriter who was touring and putting out records. But you know, they were friends of mine, they knew that I could play drums, and they needed a drummer. And I could sing and whatever, so they asked me to do it.
"And yeah, from that moment onward I sealed my fate as far as people comparing me to Phil Collins, Don Henley and Dave Grohl. You know, it was a great day."
While Tillman's first post-Fleet Foxes effort includes the stark acoustic guitars and dark lyrical sentiments of his earlier solo works, they're now embedded in full-on pop production, complete with big-beat drums, droney electric-guitar riffs, and in the case of "Sally Hatchet," an orchestrated coda deserving of George Martin. Meanwhile Tillman's songwriting is as impeccably melodic and hauntingly melancholic as the early recordings of Neil Young and Harry Nilsson.
Songs like "Fun Times in Babylon" reflect a two-year period in which Tillman was living in Laurel Canyon, surrounded by the ghosts of a long-lost music scene: "Before they put me to work in a government camp / Before they do my face up like a corpse and say 'Get up and dance' / Look out Hollywood here I come."
"The Laurel Canyon of yore is nonexistent now," says the artist. "But yeah, I got some morbid satisfaction out of being in Hollywood, which was just so strange. It was a very solitary period. I was more or less just hanging out by myself up there, but I enjoyed it."
Especially at night, when the eerie cries of coyotes echo across the canyon.
"Yeah, the coyotes were my favorite part," agrees Tillman. "I loved them. After a day of listening to your neighbors' small genetic tragedy of a dog barking, there's nothing better than listening to a pack of coyotes just go apeshit."
Jesus Christ, Josh
Another iconic L.A. location is reflected in "Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings," its title an homage to the final resting place of celebrities ranging from Rudolph Valentino to Johnny and Dee Dee Ramone. It's an incurably hooky song, with Tillman hitting four notes in a single syllable. ("Je-e-e-e-sus Christ, girl / I laid up for hours in a daze / Retracing the expanse of your American back / With Adderall and weed in my veins.") The accompanying video is no less attention-getting, with aforementioned actress Plaza going off on a violent rampage that ends with Tillman locking her up in his van.
So which is more autobiographical, the song or the video?
"Every character in that video is me," says Tillman, laughing. "Like Aubrey is me. And I'm me. And the van is me. But yeah, what I like about the medium of video is that you can add one more layer of context. You know, the song is kind of glib and funny, and I just thought that would telegraph really nicely around some violence and sex."
Tillman also figured the video would benefit from its unlikely casting of a well-known comedic actress. "I knew that if I had someone who was identified as a funny person in the lead, then that gave me the capital to go dark with it and not be too heavy-handed."
All of which begs the question: When Tillman's not doing interviews or writing songs or making videos — assuming that's ever the case — does he have that same deadpan sense of humor? And if so, do people recognize it as such?
"Oh man, there are certain people who just ..." Tillman trails off, before taking a different tack: "Yeah, I mean, I'm definitely an acquired taste, for sure. And that's part of why I'm kind of resistant to a lot of new relationships or whatever, because it takes a lot of time and energy to build up that rapport."
And that'll only get worse.
"I can imagine, yeah. [Laughs.] But I think I was kind of born to be a mean old man, you know? I'm just biding my time."