The Gospel of Father John Misty

How Josh Tillman quit Fleet Foxes, gobbled magic mushrooms and reinvented himself as a highly gifted folk-rock smartass

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Josh Tillman
Josh Tillman says his songs tend to be meta: "When I'm writing, I can't avoid the fact that I'm writing." We are the Rhoads

Father John Misty pulls up to the Chateau Marmont in a rented Hyundai. It's two in the afternoon in Hollywood, and he's hankering for some $18 cocktails. As the valet commandeers the budget sedan, Misty — the wry 33-year-old troubadour born Josh Tillman — steps out in an undersize velvet blazer with an embroidered banana pin on the lapel. He's got on a henley shirt unbuttoned rakishly low, and his ample beard canopies his clavicles. "It's funny how you can see their faces glaze over when you pull up at this place in a regular car," Tillman says. "I used to come here and valet-park my old Econoline van, which was a trip." The Chateau is among L.A.'s fancier establishments to valet-park anything, and the place holds a certain qualified magic for Tillman. In 2012, he quit his job as the Fleet Foxes' drummer to focus on his own music, driving the Econoline from Seattle, where he'd been living, down through Big Sur, where he had a mushroom-fueled epiphany about songwriting while sitting naked in a tree (more on that later), and finally setting up shop in a buddy-of-a-buddy's Laurel Canyon rental shack.

Tillman has hung out at the Chateau a bunch of times, he says, with, for instance, Lana Del Rey, who invited him to open several concerts; during one visit, he met Marilyn Manson. "I had this full grown-out beard, and Marilyn Manson said, 'How long have you been a lumberjack?' " Tillman recalls. "He was wearing sideswept bangs and this pea-coat thing. I said, 'How long have you been in the gay Navy?' "

A hostess in a black dress escorts Tillman to a patio table; a waiter named Kevin arrives, recognizing Tillman: "What's up, Josh?" Tillman orders a greyhound and scans the patio. "I have a morbid fascination with this place," he says. "I don't take it too literally. I mean, I like being here and seeing Joseph Gordon-Levitt having a Cobb salad with the RZA. That's cool." He pauses. "I think coming here is kind of the most honest thing you can do in L.A., because the whole city orbits around celebrity, and anyone who tells you there's anything else going on is deluding himself." Also: "I like the spaghetti Bolognese." 

Joshua Tillman
Joshua Tillman playing with Fleet Foxes in 2008. Olivia Hemingway/Getty

The second song on Father John Misty's new album, I Love You, Honeybear, is called "Chateau Lobby #4 (In C for Two Virgins)," and, as you can likely surmise, it's hardly a straight-up ode to the hotel. Crucial to Misty's warped appeal is that nothing about the project is straight-up: Every syllable Tillman sings, and every note he writes, has been run through an elaborate machinery of irony and self-criticism. On the lead single, "Bored in the USA," Tillman sings about his underemployed generation, beset by consumerism and predatory loans — but he weaves a laugh track into the song to mock his lines. "There's a lot of meta in my songs — when I'm writing, I can't avoid the fact that I'm writing," he says. With stylistic nods to Harry Nilsson, John Lennon and Neil Young, and featuring somber acoustic arrangements, sweeping orchestral suites and one synth jam, the album is, ostensibly, an account of Tillman meeting, falling in love with and marrying the filmmaker-photographer Emma Tillman. "We had our wedding in Big Sur, and I took her up in that tree," he says. But the lyrics feature sentiments not found in Valentine's Day cards, like, for instance, "Maybe love is just an economy based on resource scarcity."

Tillman is the album's antihero, casting himself, at times, in a jarringly unsympathetic light, and often deploying women as set dressing for a saga of masculine missteps and redemption: Here he is in one song, hooking up with a girl he deems idiotic, pretentious and nonetheless irresistible; here he is in another, likening his wife, in a moment of abject jealousy, to "a blow-up doll." Tillman says that at the project's outset, "I was talking big talk, like, 'I'm gonna write songs about love that aren't banal,' but when I finished the album and started playing it for people, I wanted to melt into the floor because I realized I hadn't made an album about love — I'd made an album about myself, in this unbelievably vulnerable way, at the risk of assassinating my own character." The cover art features a rendition of the Madonna and child, with Tillman's likeness gracing the latter's face. "I'm a baby, I'm petty and needy and jealous and greedy," he says, "and I'm turning this woman into a sacred object and a deity. This is what love and intimacy are manifesting as in my life!"

It's pretty intense conversation for midafternoon, but Tillman has always been, by his own account, an intense guy. He grew up in Maryland the eldest son of devout evangelical Christians. "It was the most suburban, bleached-flour kind of scenario you can imagine — aside from the Messianic-Judaism, Pentecostal, speaking-in-tongues, getting-slain-in-the-spirit, having-demons-cast-out-of-you stuff," he says. "For my parents, heaven and hell were real. It's bizarre to contemplate eternal damnation as an eight-year-old." A born skeptic, he never fully bought into his parents' religion. Instead, he got heavily into comics with skewed perspectives, like The Far Side and Calvin and Hobbes, and for a time he wanted to be a cartoonist. That dream gave way, when he got wind of Bob Dylan, to a musical fantasy, and at 19 he dropped out of New York's Nyack College — a Christian school he'd enrolled in mostly to appease his parents — and moved upstate, where a buddy was building a recording studio in a farmhouse. (Tillman's relationship with his parents, long turbulent, has lately improved — "They've recently begun acknowledging that I'm an artist" — but it's not a subject he enjoys discussing.) 

Joshua Tillman
Joshua Tillman performs onstage after the screening of 'Life After Beth' in Los Angeles, California on August 8th, 2014. Albert E. Rodriguez/Getty

The upstate plan didn't pan out, so Tillman road-tripped to Seattle with another friend, where he fell in with the local indie-folk scene and, under the name J. Tillman, recorded morose acoustic music he now mostly disavows as dull and sexless. In 2008, Fleet Foxes brought him on as their drummer. "I was making more money than I ever had," he says, but the life of a hired gun, "robotically playing these parts, night after night," started to chafe, and before long he quit the band and headed for California. It was on this trip that he ate the mushrooms, sat in the tree, and realized amid the branches that irony needn't be mutually exclusive with candor, and that he could add humor and sarcasm to his songs without compromising their power. Installed in L.A., he adopted the moniker Father John Misty as a goof and released 2012's Fear Fun, an album that tackles subjects from boning at Hollywood Forever Cemetery to suffering comically bad ayahuasca experiences.

We're on round three or four when Tillman stands up from the table: "I gotta have a smoke, man." In a few days, he will launch a minitour, and he's in California to rehearse — ever the peripatetic, he moved with Emma last year to New Orleans. "She's working on a movie, and I'm more or less hibernating and trying to write," he says. Tillman's habits are healthier these days than they've ever been: He quit drugs, he says, went raw-vegan for a time, and receives acupuncture and wellness advice from a guy he calls "my Qigong master." But the prospect of promoting the new LP has been unsettling him. "The ramp-up to any album makes me very anxious," he says. "Last night I told Emma, 'I need to go out, get drunk and cry.' And that's what I did." Above the patio's tiny smoking section, the sun starts to set, and I've got a plane to catch. Tillman plants himself on a bench with a cigarette in hand. "You go on," he says. "I'm gonna sit here and have another drink."

From The Archives Issue 1229: February 26, 2015
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