Josh Tillman’s somewhere in Lawrence, Kansas, explaining to me over the phone how Jesus, God and Satan are just symbols. “But they’re not symbols for me,” he says, emphasizing for me. “They’re symbols for mankind, and as such, I can make them do and say whatever I want. I can take these huge, heavy, cumbersome concepts and throw them around just for fun. It’s like juggling elephants–it’s such a morbid thrill!”
That’s great, I think to myself, distracted for a second by trying to imagine a man juggling elephants. But all I really wanna know is…who the fuck is Father John Misty?
He’s the product of Tillman’s identity crisis. After making seven albums of gently plucked acoustic guitar music with hushed, depressed, tortured vocals, Tillman got sick of his own creative persona. But he still liked his other self–this other Tillman had a dark, twisted, fantastic sense of humor, and a playful confidence. These qualities, for some reason, never made their way into the music. That had to change.
After touring his last album, Singing Ax (2010), Tillman set a new goal: to align these two disparate creatures, his real self and his creative self. So, like any person stuck in a similar crux might do, Tillman hopped in his van with a bunch of mushrooms, hit the road, wrote a novel and ended up in Los Angeles. Once the dust settled, he made an album. Out last April on Sub Pop, Fear Fun is the first record released under the name Father John Misty.
Unlike J. Tillman (the depressive folk singer), Father John Misty’s a badass. The world’s ending and all Misty can think about is abusing his lungs by smoking everything in sight with every girl he’s ever loved, and riding around the wreckage on a horse knee deep in mud. When he drinks way too much, he expects to be punched in the face. He tries to wake up corpses just so they’ll party with him. Aubrey Plaza tries to make out with him. He takes ayahuasca and convinces himself he’s the first person to ever write a novel. He meets Neil Young and forgets his name. He drinks poppy tea with Heidegger and Sartre. Many women want to hold his gun–he lets them.
When I recount these Father John Misty anecdotes, Tillman quickly interrupts: “No, man! That’s Josh Tillman doing that shit! I’m not inventing a fake person, and then writing songs about him! It’s not a cartoon; I’m not a cartoon! That’s me! It’s a red herring! Maybe I should’ve called it a J. Tillman album, but I’m more religious than that. A sacrifice had to be made; I had to plunge a knife into something. Names aren’t liberating, they’re really confusing. There’s more clarity in losing the narrative of naming all together.”
Stop and think about it: There’s more clarity in losing the narrative of naming all together. I don’t know what this means, but it sounds very postmodern. Rather than open up such a can of worms, I ask Tillman if he’ll continue using the name Father John Misty.
“I just hope people stop thinking about the name soon,” he says. “But I love seeing it on marquees ’cause it looks so fucking funny, so I guess I’ll keep using it. I’m guilty of doing a lot of things for my own sick enjoyment, and calling it Father John Misty may be just a very precious joke that only I understand. There’s something really poetic about killing your own name and then having some weird level of success through an arbitrary, goofy one.”
I suggest to him that perhaps the name “J. Tillman” is jinxed.
“Totally,” he says. “J. Tillman never got to be on a marquee. My real name is cursed.”
Father John Misty plays Webster Hall Monday tonight (8 p.m., $20).