Interview: Father John Misty
8 December 2014
I had missed "Fear Fun", the first Father John Misty album, released in 2012, and I had missed even more comprehensively all the albums Joshua Tillman had put out earlier under the banner of "J. Tillman". So when "I Love You, Honeybear" appeared through my letter box, I had no idea what to expect. And when I heard this fabulously unlikely melange of an album - warmly personal and searingly satirical at the same time - I had no idea what the man who had made it would be like to talk to. Luckily, Father John Misty - raised in the suburbs of Washington D.C., nowadays resident in New Orleans - was willing to give a demonstration of his more immediately readable self during his recent stop-over in London.
Your honey bear song – last time I heard that word in music was on a John Grant record. Coincidence or connection?
I never heard John Grant. He's on Bella Union, isn't he? He has a honeybear song? No. There's no relation.
OK, so what is it with you and the word honey bear?
I think to focus on a word itself is to kind of miss the point of the tune. It's kind of a love song about the end of the world. And body fluids. So I just liked the idea of throwing the most banal pet name I could think of in there. But I've certainly never called anybody that. It's a little precious for my taste.
It fits the persona of the album very well, though.
I just like how that word telegraphs against – it's such a benign phrase. But I think the themes on the album are anything but. It's fairly – you know, we're talking about album called "I Love You Honeybear" that deals with, like, chiefly jealousy, despair, sex, kind of the male psyche in all its disastrous glory.
You've given yourself an incredibly wide palette of musical styles and emotional ttroughs and peaks, starting with Rorschach sheets at one end and "Bored in the USA" on the other. And that's such a huge song!
Yeah. That tune is sort of like the odd one out to me. It's the only one that's really not about me, per se. In a broad sense it's about me, but I've kind of taken what I presumed to be great lengths to not personify or to not exhibit that spiritual behaviour in my own life.
Well, there's obviously the twin relation to the Springsteen song as well as the Clash's "Bored in the USA"...
What do you think outside – I mean, music comparisons, they're sort of cutting up things, the formalist approach. Contrasting it against the existent lexicon of pop music does very little for me in terms of understanding the music.
I'd think it would be what most people would be starting off with...
I certainly hope not! Maybe music critics, yeah. I'm not trying to be combative or anything. I understand how a music critic who kind of comes to the music from the perspective of someone who has consumed an almost unhealthy amount of data – I don't think most people are really – I'd like to think that if you hear something that moves you and has some kind of impact, spiritually or otherwise, I would like to think – at least for me, it makes me think I'm hearing music for the first time. I know that's kind of a lofty ambition to attach to my music. I don't think I've re-invented the wheel or anything like that. But I certainly hope that people don't walk away from listening to my music thinking about other music.
I meant that just as a starting point...
Maybe I am being combative! For you listeners at home, I'm now sitting on his lap! We´re touching beards! What does the song make you think of?
As you said yourself, the song really does stick out. The rest of the album´s character is kind of surreal, garish, and at the same time slightly "touched". He might explode at any moment in some weird way...
Yeah, he's sort of combustible.
And then here in "Bored..." we have another character who is really pissed off in his small town, paying off his mortgage, and he hasn´t quite got to the point yet where he has let himself go enough for a Rorschach test on his sheets.
Yeah. I mean, it´s like a condition that I recognise in the culture. It´s essentially like a diagnosis of the failure of a mentality I see in theUnited States to address the human condition. The human experience. Which has been turned into a consumer experience, basically. That´s true of most of the Western world. The antidote to the boredom of the human experiment is to consume and to internalise your consumer choices and even to treat other human beings in your life as a consumer choice. I think a lot of the reason why people pair off in this culture is to alleviate some kind of boredom in the hope of achieving some kind of constant amusement.
A relationship - I don´t really think that´s the function of it. It´s intended at best – intended is not really the right word - but for me a relationship is to undertake a transformation with someone. A lot of the things that intimacy brings to the forefront are not particularly amusing. And especially since amusement is so closely related to oblivion and to anaesthetising yourself. If anything, being in a relationship makes you experience a whole plethora of emotions that most of us would rather let go unroused. There´s a lot of unpleasantness in it, as I see it, but it´s heading somewhere. And the function of addressing those topics is not to be unpleasant per se. The repulsive aspects of the album are not just for the sake of being repulsive. It´s to air out those ideas. It´s to demistify them. But I don´t think there´s an end game. It´s really not universal. It may happen to be universal, but the intent is just that I´m writing about myself.
It's intriguing to me what you´re saying about "Bored in the USA" –you are saying it´s a very different song to the rest, but it is the one song you ended up on Letterman with, and I´m sure it´s the one song a lot of other people will also pick up on. Again, risking to rile your combative side, there IS a music history, and it is well nigh impossible to hear your song without an echo of "Born in the USA".
Yeah. Right. Right, right. Absolutely. Well, America does stand for something to the rest of the world. And it´s more and more to characterise a kind of failed experiment. And I think what it has to offer is unsatisfying. And I think that´s compounded by the fact that most people feel guilty for acknowledging that it feels unsatisfying because they´re imbued throughout their whole life with the rhetoric of how lucky they are to beAmerican and how lucky they are to have been born there and how there are other people – this faceless other, we´re obsessed with this otherness, these other people who have it so much worse than we do. Which is just another way of not experiencing your own pain. And if you´re unwilling to experience your pain you´re very unlikely to change your circumstances. Which is I think what – I say this sort of tongue in cheek – what people offer to us as our corporate masters. What? They want us remain in apathy. So, yeah, music is a dialectic, obviously, and I´m proud that you´d name it ("Bored...") among those other songs.
I think as that cultural liberal fundamentalism takes more and more root in America it´s becoming increasingly impolite to grouse. And so I think the song is definitely a rarety. In terms of Letterman, everybody wanted me to do a different song. That was my battle. I had to do it on that show because the show represents amusement television. It´s what your supposed to do, go up there and entertain, do your (sarcastic) single, as if I had singles. And I knew it was something that would work. I had to fight to get that laugh track on there, too! It was a pure passion project that I was alone in, to get that song played in that context. I´m honestlysurprised that it seems to be resonant with folks.
As a performer, can you describe the feeling when you were curled upon that grand piano? (it's on youtube, folks!)
(laughs uproariously) Pure bliss. Pure ironic bliss! I wish I had been in a sequined gown.
Going back to all the stuff you did before you became Father John Misty, what was the impulse that turned you from being a strumming guitar troubadour to someone who was delighting in being playful with all the elements that music has to offer?
Well, I did have a singular epiphany. Sometimes I talk about this with great clarity and other times I don´t have very much clarity on it. But it was a real singular moment that had very little to do with music for me. If anything, it was like an epiphany that I didn´t have to play music. It was a moment where I think a lot of my narcissism evaporated. Narcissism, for me meaning a real lack of self-awareness, a real dearth of consciousness. I was very out of touch – I did not have much empathy with myself at all, just an ocean of self-pity. And I was –what the narcissist does, as they don´t know themselves they rely on the world to tell them, to give them information about themselves. Like in the Narciss story, he´s never seen himself before, he only knows he´s beautiful based on the reactions of other people. And i think that I had this moment that I can´t really articulate. I was naked in a tree, I can tell you that. And I just kind of had this – maybe what it was was that I could see myself for what it was and I recognised myself in it.
You felt slightly silly sitting up on that tree.
Yes, absolutely. Absolutely. Like, there was a clarity about that. I don´t know what it was, but it really undid some of my distortions – they dissolved, like all these layers of distortion that I had cultivated around myself. Maybe just for a brief second I got the full brunt of the cosmic joke. And that absolves you of a lot of responsibility. At that moment I felt absolved of the responsibility to be great. To be a great person. And that my work – again, the concept of work or of me making anything, just went out the window. I´m a man, goddam. I have value. To really understand that in an instant! It wasn´t long after that I started writing this book which was just me unpacking my subconscious and creating a self-mythology.
Is that the novel you mention in various interviews?
Yes. "Fear Fun", if you have the LP there are two massive posters inside and there´s a 180page novel condensed on to those two posters. It´s called "Mostly Hypothetical Mountains". That's just a sort of surrealist personal mythology, you know. And in the course of writing that I realised I was making something that I recognised myself in.
I was really young when I was making those first records. I was 21 when I made my first J Tillman album, none of your listeners will have ever heard of any of these albums, but that's how I spent my twenties, touring, making these albums that sold like maybe a thousand copies, toiling away, trying to find myself, I guess, in that process. Hoping that the world would recognise this version of me, quote unquote, in these weird albums that bore very little resemblance to my real life. They were a fantasy. They were this weird fantasy world. Now, with the novel, I was making something that I was really seeing myself in and I could let myself be proud of that. And then very shortly thereafter this new and different music started coming out of me.
What a great irony - here you are, the clichée of the self-analysing troubadour, and the moment you start actually seeing yourself in the mirror is the moment when you shed that skin and start throwing words in all different directions and playing with the image of yourself.
Yeah! Playing with the concept of identity, that was a big thing for me on the last album. What does it matter what you call yourself? Because your own name can become a very loaded symbol very easily very quickly. How many songwriters, they get on stage and its an act? It's bullshit. It's a persona.They just happen to use their real name. But how much reality is in that? In this one-dimensional heart-sick persona? I wanted to kill that archetype in my mind. The irony also being that by calling myself something ridiculous and playing around with words is what I would do. That's just something I would DO.
So did you acquire your priestly appearance to go with the name?
No, I had way more of a priestly look before! In a very vain-glorious way I was very into looking horrible! I wanted to obscure myself. I didn't want the responsibility of creating a soul.
Perhaps making yourself looking horrible, as you say, was a reaction against a society obsessed with superficiality?
I'm not sure. I mean, yeah, I didn't like the world as I saw it. I wanted to create my own fantasy. My upbringing unloaded a whole notion of authenticity and realness on me, you know, Christianity, salvation, sin...
Was your upbringing as heavy as Wikipedia makes it out to be?
Haha! Probably not heavy enough! It's just not something I really feel comfortable going into in interviews. I try to be somewhat coherent about it - but I really felt damned. Unloved by God and by my family. I was very very unhappy. And probably borderline manic, very nervous. Depressed. I was like a –whatever. So, erm, that J Tillman music was a simultaneous catharsis of all that, it was all rooted in this religious imagery. Trying to reclaim – some carthasis. Trying to turn myself into the aggressor as opposed to the aggressee. And simultaneously a fantasy world that – yeah, I don't know, I could sit here and try to psycho-analyse myself.
I appreciate that you don't want to do that. Changing the subject completely, how much did Damien Jurado and the Fleet Foxes help you on your path?
Well, I don't know. I think Damien Jurado, if anything, probably hurt – it was hero worship at the time. I was 19, 20. He was like an archetype I wanted to aspire to. You wanna be like this guy or like that guy, what are they doing? Trying to figure it out. Like Neil Young. On "Fear Fun" I'm talking a lot about killing your idols. Quite literally in me writing the novel, there's me strangling Neil Young on the beach.
Fleet Foxes, I don't know. It was like a job. It did help in terms of "this is like a dream I had to wake up from". I had to come to the realisation I wasn't going to – I was using it as a shortcut or something to bliss, to the happiness. Just thinking that, oh God, if I could just – I was 27, I'd been working in construction, making little-heard mope-folk albums for almost a decade at that point, I just want to escape into this world of just playing music for a living and give up and that will make everything OK, I can just be successful. And I had to wake up from that dream the same I had to wake up from all the dreams previous to that.
And at least you got to practice your funky chops as a drummer.
Ha! Yeah, I got to play the drums.
So now that you've killed off all your old idols, what's your new ones?
I don't know. They're in control as we speak. They're not identified yet. But I have a partner, you know, like I have someone in my life who understands me and who refuses to live with a bullshit artist. And refuses to let me bullshit myself. That's what I was trying to talk about earlier, this transformational aspect of love and of companionship. Like I think that that's the apex of what love is capable of. It's the same as in religion – in religion it's all about transformation, but the love isn't real. There is no God that loves you. But I appreciate the sentiment that we must transform. We're not beasts. We're these very comically ironic creatures who are given these massive brains, these brains that are too big even to get through our mothers' hips. So evolution had to find a way for us to come out half formed. All other creatures come out with a set of instructions, some innate genetic understanding of what their function is. We come out completely hairless, utterly incapable of taking care of ourselves. We'd literally die without love. We're transformed from a comical tragic beast into – Nietzsche talks about man being this rope that stretches a chasm and on one side is beast, and on the other is the supernatural. And I really believe that there's a mandate for us to create meaning out of the meaninglessness. And for me in my life, love is the only viable option to get there. If I was a monk, if I decided to go off and be by myself, I would probably just nurture my illusions and cultivate my vanity. And not have someone who really sees me. It's a very serious thing to agree to view yourself the way someone else views you, and to accept that someone loves you for your flaws and your vulnerabilities. It's the antithesis of narcissism. It destroys narcissism, self-loathing and self-pity. It also destroys the impossibility of changing your life. Of taking control. I think I've spent a lot of my life living very passively – which is also "Bored in the USA" - ha! - I'm attributing every idea ever to that song now, haha, this passivity that's so systemic, you know, that we're stuck. And that there is no horizon, or there's no vista spread out in front of you.
The record company is waving at us to finish. I'm keen to get a couple of quick questions in. The move to New Orleans, why, and has it changed your perspective in any way?
I don't know why I moved down there. Emma and I just wanted to get away from everything. And I just kind of wanted to untether myself from any social engagement. This year doesn't really play into this album very much. I don't know – the emphasis for me this year really has been de-polluting my body and consequently my mind.
No more mushrooms, then?
No – I haven't this year. If you really want to freak out eat brown rice for a week! I've really been thinking about it – I know we have to wrap things up, but – it's really – I've been really thinking about clarity. And I think with someone like me who's cultivated such a wide array of low-grade addictions, it took something like DMT or mushrooms or whatever else to give me any degree of vital energy or clarity and to break the morass of depression, anxiety and all that shit. When you can see – to be able to see the world for what it really is, is crazy. Really crazy. To be able to unburden yourself of your abstractions. Even as simple as being able to look at something that'sun healthy and recognise it as unhealthy as opposed to viewing it as some kind of romantic abstraction. It's pretty wild. I don't know that I'll be there forever. But it's just another layer of experimentation. Your mind is physical. Your brain is a part of your body. You're asking me what's next? I think psychedelics is just another sacred cow that has to fucking go down!
Your literary tastes, finally? What are they like, apart from Nietzsche?
I like Norman Mailer a lot. Kurt Vonnegut. Paul Bowles. I've been reading everything by Alejandro Jodorowski. There's this book, "Spiritual Journey of Alejandro Jodorowski". It came out as an accompanying piece to"Dance of the Reality". He has cultivated this whole therapeutical discipline called psycho-magic and he's written extensively about that. He's an incredible writer, a real economy of language, really hilarious. I'm trying to think what else is by the old nightstand. Oh, Philip Roth.
Funny, the last time I talked to anyone about Jodorowski was with Marilyn Manson!
He took a lot from him.
I really am too, he really – just leaving a wake of blood on the spiritual path. I think Jodoroswki is really good at that, de-mystifying the mystified. Which is something that I was trying to do on "Fear Fun". Writing a novel is basically like me talking – on account of how ridiculous it is for me trying to have a spiritual journey or something, haha. But I like Philip Roth a lot. "Portnoy's Complaint". I feel this album is very akin to "Portnoy's Complaint". Just this kind of tense, uncomfortable excavation of the male psyche. Of my psyche. Yeah. That's all I can think of right now. I don't respond well to that question!
Fabulous photo by Robert Redfield atredfieldpictures.com