Josh Tillman surprises when, at the beginning of our interview, he laughs and says it is the best he's ever had. I instantly have to wonder just how agonizing his previous interviews must have been to make what has turned into a heavy-handed therapy session stand out.
Released earlier this year, Pure Comedy, his third record as Father John Misty, finds Tillman floating in a sea of orchestral depravity as he challenges both his own narrative and our collective conscious. Conversational, confrontational, and satirically epigrammatic, Tillman calls out our cultural obsession with social media (even on our respective deathbeds), global warming, misguided faith, and — most predominantly — himself.
Which is why I had to share my confusion over the fact that I have had more sex to Pure Comedy — which is so clearly about the plight of existence and the eventual death of Earth — than any other record in my sexually active adulthood.
"I had a realization toward the end of making Pure Comedy," he says. "I did make another record about love."
Tillman says it wasn't what he set out to create. "I think when you start a record, you always begin with some conceit or premise that rarely survives the process. And that kind of, I guess, keeps me coming back," he says. "If you made what you thought you were going to make every time, it would get incredibly rote."
Yet, as he recorded Pure Comedy, Tillman says a theme emerged. "There's nothing about our human state that's engineered particularly well for survival," he says. "I mean, even down to the fact that we have to come out with our brains half-formed. 'Pure Comedy' was the first song I wrote, so I just kept pulling that thread. The song just goes on to describe what life looks like when human beings forget that we don't survive without love, and what happens when we start replacing love with these grotesque counterfeit concepts like politics and religion, you know?"
He says, "Love forces you to test the limits of the rational."
This is admittedly an esoteric turn for an interview to take. But it seemed unnecessary to ask Tillman about the birth of his now famous fake name, his heavily documented retelling of a psilocybin binge alone in a tree along the California coast, and his four-year long gig as the drummer for Fleet Foxes. He has claimed that the only difference between "Josh Tillman" and "Father John Misty" are a few syllables, and that the name was selected for no other reason than it made him laugh. Other tired topics include his daily micro-dosing of LSD, especially during (but not limited to) Rolling Stone interviews, Saturday Night Live performances, and Taylor Swift concerts; his evangelical upbringing; or the eight dismal pre-Misty solo records released under the name J. Tillman.
It's not to say that these details are not essential to understanding the man, the mask, the moniker, and the musician. It's just that Tillman's idea of an exchange is much like the chasing of his own tail. He knows damn well it belongs to him. He just doesn't much care.
Though he has publicly dismissed having any interest in trying to understand what people think of him or why, he is aware that his Father John Misty persona elicits an occasional eye roll from those who perhaps feel the "joke" is on "them." Yet to others, he is a self-deprecating messiah — a SnapChat filter through which they see the world.
"I think it's important to remember that there's no such thing as humor," he says, ironically, with a hint of laughter. "There are only things that make you sad, there are only things that make you angry, and there are only things that bring you joy; and even the sad things are kind of happy, and the happy things are kind of sad, and those are the primary colors, you know?"
During our conversation, Tillman frequently starts and finishes sentences with "you know?" in lieu of discernible punctuation amid a labyrinth of unpacked and unsorted possible conversational trajectories. He breathes deeply and audibly, each intake and release suggesting either meditative composure or a disruptive prelude to a panic attack — possibly a subtle example of his intrinsic duality (or perhaps just the sound of smoking a cigarette). When you talk to Tillman, you are reminded that he, like us, probably doesn't have it all figured out anyway.
Tillman’s idea of an exchange is much like the chasing of his own tail. He knows damn well it belongs to him. He just doesn’t much care.
"Being self-aware can be isolating. Not because you're so smart but because you're choosing to obsess over your own minutiae," he explains. "Part of songwriting at this phase of my life is about excavating myself. You do have to be sort of monomaniacal and you run the risk of isolating yourself."
He points to Pure Comedy centerpiece "Leaving L.A." as "sort of the ultimate example [that] you just have some kind of faith that a song like that is going to be useful to other people even though it seems so indulgently self-centered," he says. "It's sort of a deep dive into millions of specific things that make up my personhood."
Tillman delivers "Leaving L.A." smack-dab in the middle of the record, an epic 13-minute internal aside where he portrays himself as just another "white guy in 2017 who takes himself so goddamn seriously." Tillman says he conceived the song — which spans 10 verses (at one time, he says, 30) — in Los Angeles traffic, and it took nearly three years to perfect.
Perhaps the most fragile moment on the record, the track frames a real-life tale of a near-death experience involving a young Tillman choking on a piece of candy while in a J.C. Penney with his mother. Described in true meta-Misty fashion in the eighth verse as a "chorus-less diatribe," "Leaving L.A." contains some of Tillman's most humanizing moments — mixed, of course, with his signature air of existential masturbation.
It's meant, he says, to contrast with album opener "Pure Comedy." "'Pure Comedy' is so set in a macro perspective of human beings that it makes it easy to dismiss the entire human experience in such broad strokes," he says. "But I wanted to bring levity to the album, you know — like, let's not forget that each one of us is having our own hero's journey or whatever. For all the billions of humans that are being referenced in a song like 'Pure Comedy,' they're all having as specific as an experience as detailed in 'Leaving L.A.' you know?"
Tillman hints that his forthcoming record will be both a few shades darker and a bit more upbeat. He says it's nearing completion, with an anticipated 2018 release.
"A lot of the new songs are about depression. It's funny. I've been playing it for people and a lot of people are telling me it's their favorite stuff. It's very catchy, ironically, but it isn't bound by a single theme quite as explicitly as the last two [records] are. It's more like a collection of songs," he says. "You know, they're just sort of tunes."
We both laugh at the idea that a record detailing his view from rock bottom could be categorized as simply "tunes."
Tillman describes it as an intensely personal record, and says he doesn't think he'll even want to do much to promote it in the press. "The events around the new record are so personal and involve me dragging other people into the story. I'm pretty reticent to do that," he says. "It's a good indicator of what 2016 looked like for me, which was pretty much my Philadelphia melt-down."
Tillman is referring to the improvised speech he gave in place of a scheduled 50-minute performance to an audience at Philly's XPoNential Music Festival last summer. (Instead of any Father John Misty songs, Tillman performed a spontaneous guitar-backed stream of consciousness followed by Leonard Cohen's "Bird on a Wire.") In his showstopping breakdown, he ranted about a battleship docked nearby, the "fucked-up entertainment complex that we have constructed for ourselves," and asked his audience if they thought they deserved to be entertained. Shaky phone video circulated on a dissatisfied Twitter shortly after, alongside photos of Dumpster fires captioned, "Got some great footage of @FatherJohnMisty's set."
"Maybe just take a moment to be really, fucking, profoundly sad. It's a lot less sexy of a festival look," he said onstage. "You may be bummed that homeless Chris Isaak is up here in a half-unbuttoned shirt telling you that entertainment is stupid, but I guarantee you it may be the only thing that sticks out about this fucking hickory-smoked fucking abortion that this fucking culture is. ... Maybe you'll remember that."
Tillman's passionately unhinged commentary on the state of the world, as it turns out, was a direct result of the the nomination of Donald Trump as the Republican nominee for president just a few days before — who he called an "entertaining tyrant" in the making.
Fortunately for Tillman, time has both healed and redirected his distress.
At one point during our interview, he interrupts himself. "Wait, can I just say something?" he says. "Like, when you've said that you've had more sex to this album, that really is kind of how the album ends."
Pure Comedy, he says, "really is about how there is no point in going on, but we go on anyway, and when you think of reproduction and the propagation of the species it's just what we do. We do it on faith and we do it in a way that defies the rational, you know?
"You can look at this world and say, 'What a shit show, I'm not going to bring human beings into this world, I'm just going to be a monk and watch the world die.' But we don't do that. We keep going. That's the comedy," he says excitedly, as if discovering a hidden message in his own cipher. "And it's really beautiful in that way."
We pause here and settle into this newfound perspective of a record we both thought we had a pretty good understanding of before I went and dragged my manic sex life into this whole mess. At this point, it's hard to imagine what might come next in the Misty universe. In many ways, his existing trilogy of records feels fully gestated — like an entire life dismantled, sorted, and reassembled, each combination more fractured and prismatic than the last.
Father John Misty performs with special guest Weyes Blood on Tuesday, Sept. 19 at Royal Oak Music Theatre; 318 W. Fourth St., Royal Oak; 248-399-2980; royaloakmusictheatre.com; Tickets are $35-$75 in advance, $45-$75 day of show.