Sometimes when you interview someone, you wonder how you’re going to drag enough words out of them to make the whole process worthwhile. The ultimate nightmare for a writer is coming back from an interview with not much more than a pile of disconnected mumbles and some flat yes/no answers, and having to figure out some way to turn these scrapings into a functional article. This is not a problem with Josh Tillman. Ten minutes and one question into our interview and he’s still going, an answer that’s taken in human history, free will and the birth process. Tillman has a way with words.
After his second album, the male-ego-in-love digested via classic rock success that was I Love You, Honeybear, Tillman, or Father John Misty as he’s more usually known, has a new record on the way, the sprawling 75 minute-long Pure Comedy, an album that tries to make some sort of sense of the human condition and the idea of love: “Thinking about it […] and condensing a million years of evolution into like two verses”, he says, “it really struck me that love, as opposed to being this fruity, ethereal celestial concept, it really is the substance of survival. Human connection is not the beginning, it’s the entirely”.
What I took from listening through the record, made me come back to that line in your essay ‘Pure Comedy is the story of a species born with a half-formed brain’. I think we always try and understand the world in terms of grand schemes, but most of human history can be explained by the fact that we’re not especially bright creatures, we just live in a chaos of impulses, and that’s built the world. There’s no evil masterplan that explains how we are.
“No, there’s not, and that’s the thing that’s much more terrifying than an evil masterplan. There being any kind of plan is comforting. And why it’s comforting, is because we are terrified of our responsibility, to one another, to ourselves and the planet. It seems like too much for one person. And as a matter of fact, it is, and that’s why there’s more than one of us. The whole matter of free will was all over my childhood. The question of predestination. Even in the denomination I grew up in, they were like five-point Calvinists, and one of the tenants of that is that there is no such thing as free will, and even if you become a Christian it’s because God [decides it]. This stupid logic door shit. Now [some] people want to believe that we’re in a computer simulation, and that it’s glitching. And that’s not too far from believing in a god with a masterplan”.
Pure Comedy is such a long album, it’s more than half an hour longer than both of your others. And it covers such a huge range of topics, themes, incidents. Is that an attempt to depict that chaos, to capture it?
“There was a lot I was trying to get my arms around. What is shocking is how many of those minutes are jam-packed with words. A long ambient record is one thing, a long lyrical album, that is relentlessly lyrical, is another. I think that there’s something kind of charming about how anxious the record is. It’s definitely one of its potential flaws, how eager it is to figure it all out. But that’s very human”.
Since he started writing and performing as Father John Misty, Tillman’s music has been what’s drawn in the plaudits. But his quoteability and fluid relationship with sincerity has made sure that whether positive or negative, his interviews are always headline news. An internet media consumption factory has built up around him, where everything he says is sliced up and analysed through the Father John Misty prism. He says himself that “[losing your humanity] means buying into some distorted reflection of myself. Father John Misty or something. Identifying with that”.
Is the public image of Father John Misty something you think about a lot?
“It didn’t really have any meaningful effect on my life [for a long time], and now it’s reached a bizarre critical mass. And now it’s like that line: At some point you just can’t control what people use your fake name for. Now I’m like a meme, and people can do whatever they want with it. They can make me say whatever they want. And they can make me symbolic of whatever they want me to be symbolic of”.
Is that thinkpiece factory culture a real drag on you, because you know that every interview you do someone is going to pull a quote and make the case for Father John Misty, against FJM, FJM is this, it spawns response pieces…
“It is if you read it. Which I have varying degrees of success in avoiding. There are periods of time in which it’s the first thing I do in the morning, it’s sick. I’ll wake up and think: ‘I’m not going to allow myself a single good thought today. I’m just going to get on the fucking hamster wheel and read about myself’. And then there are months when I don’t”.
Does that make you wary of writing lines like ‘Bedding Taylor Swift, every night inside the Oculus Rift’ [from ‘Total Entertainment Forever’], because that can overshadow the entire album?
“Yeah, in the media it can. It does. Provocation, I really enjoy on some kind of petulant level. It’s like spitting off a bridge, it’s like a moment of exhilaration, followed by days, hours, weeks, months, of soul searching and regret. I’m not being glib when I say that no-one else rhymes with Rift. And on the other end of the spectrum, it would have bugged me not to put her name in there. For the last year I’ve been asked about this person every day of my life [since FJM mocked Ryan Adams for covering Swift’s 1989], every day that I do interviews. This person became a fixture in my subconscious. So of course she was going to come out in one of my songs. And as soon as I wrote it I was like ‘Oh god…’. The horrible rancid future of clickbait spread out in front of me. But what am I going to do? Say I’m not going to do that [because of the response]? No one can fuck with my songwriting, that’s my space. That’s the one area where I am going to do what I’m going to do”.
The album ends on ‘In Twenty Years Or So’, a beautiful, soaring song, but one that lacks a tidy emotional resolution, and therefore a suitable ending for Pure Comedy as a whole. Tillman says: “The album ends on the most hackneyed solutions for all this, which is the love of another person. If there’s a better answer, I haven’t found it. The fucking simulation answer doesn’t hold a candle. My favourite Vonnegut book is Bluebeard. There’s an expert in the book where he’s talking about epiphanies, and he goes ‘I’ve never had an epiphany’. Because an epiphany is when God speaks to you. Then he says ‘God won’t shut up. He won’t stop talking to me. I have anti-epiphanies, these moments where God is quiet, for even a moment’. I think that there’s something in that, in that scene at the end of the album. You can almost hear the song it was supposed to be get disrupted, where I’m taking these really big swings at the beginning of that song. Talking about our absurdities and our perspectives…”
And then there’s that big musical build-up too
Yeah! this grand thing.
Where you’re supposed to yell out the solution.
“Yeah! ‘How’s he gonna bring this home?’ Well, I’m sitting with Emma [his wife], and our second drinks have just showed up, and the piano player is playing a song I really like, and my god, I’m not thinking about this shit. For one second! And that’s the epiphany. And when I say that I read somewhere that in 20 years this human experiment’s going to reach its violent end, it’s not about being right about that. It’s that every day you’re going to read something like that. And tomorrow some new horror awaits us, who knows? But in those moments, when you really feel like there’s nothing to fear. You have to be mindful of those moments. And that’s as much of the answer as I can find. Knowing your life. For as flawed, and goofy and comedic or horrible as it all is, it’s a hell of a thing to lose”.
Pure Comedy is out now.
Word: Austin Maloney