My first introduction to Joshua Tillman was through the syrupy, lush music of Fleet Foxes for which he was their drummer from 2008-2012. Sweetly dense and full of endearingly retrospective flavor a la the Beatles or the polyphonic texture of America, the aesthetic of Fleet Foxes found its place among the sentimental folk rock of Iron & Wine and similarly homespun barn-demo projects. However, Fleet Foxes, who became a bonafide indie darling in the US and especially Europe, didn’t suit Tillman’s temperament and the project lacked the dystopian gravitas that Tillman eventually found in his creative voice as Father John Misty.
My gut instinct in listening to Tillman talk is that he embodies the idea of a rockstar of bygone days instead of the way it is currently being shopped and consumed as an aimless, tattered carcass within our contemporary culture. He strikes me as someone who can’t help but turn a critical eye towards the vapid image and aesthetic-obsessed music industry. He is sometimes scathingly condemnatory during interviews and self-effacing in his role as songwriter/performer and you get the sense that rather than a name, “Father John Misty” is his job description: to sing about the end of times with pitch-perfect and unfaltering certainty. It’s definitely not a surprise to learn that Tillman is taking chilling reference from his Evangelical Christian upbringing in his dark, mystical auguring.
This title of modern rockstar is not at all self-proclaimed. In fact, he couldn’t be less interested in such a title and ironically embodies the disillusionment of Jim Morrison or the prophetic wisdom of Bob Dylan in doing so. In a recent interview with NME, he has said he has “a lot of contempt for myself on stage and a tenuous relationship with my status as a performer”, essentially that fame “smells like burning garbage” and “everything that happens on stage is bullshit”.
In his first Father John Misty release, “Fear Fun” (released by Sub Pop in 2012), the struggle against this aesthetic is felt in the contrast of melancholic and nihilistic poetry weighted against instrumentation which at times harkens to the lush textures of Fleet Foxes with a swinging and sometimes almost-coquettish vibe. It’s as if to those who weren’t really listening, ignorance would truly be bliss. The genius in FJM is that he’s keenly aware of how many current listeners don’t listen too hard. This tongue-in-cheek juxtaposition is hair-raisingly felt throughout “Fear Fun” from the knee-tapping ” Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings” to the gospel backdrop of “Now I’m Learning To Love The War”. All you need to do is listen and you get just how tortured Tillman is by the plastic Hollywood veneer as you chuckle about how beautifully, yet shoulder-shruggingly easily it’s executed. It’s reminiscent of the way you’d be in a melancholic stupor thinking about the upcoming work week at a sunny Sunday afternoon family picnic.
On that note, his recent album release (2015) “I Love You, Honeybear” continues this frame of mind yet with a glimmer of brightness – at least the end of the world is better with company. Tillman states in an interview with The Guardian that the album is an attempt to “debunk the sacred objects” of life and love into their disappointingly tangled and imperfect reality.
If you can manage to meet Tillman on the other side of this than you may just find solace together. All you have to do is dig in.
After all, as he’s said himself: “Someone’s got to help me dig”.
Grab a shovel!