American singer-songwriter Father John Misty showcases new album
Josh Tillman aka Father John Misty
Embrace your depression and your fears. Accept the chaos in your life. The American singer-songwriter and master of irony Father John Misty hates people who try to normalize him. “Music makes me crazier.”
"No gods to rule us / no drugs to soothe us / no myths to prove us / no love to confuse us,” Josh Tillman sings in “Total Entertainment Forever”, one of the standout tracks on Pure Comedy, the third album that he recorded under his alias Father John Misty, which was released earlier this year. Not bad for a breed of demented monkeys, he pushes the irony to its limits: “from a cave to a city to a permanent party.”
The singer-songwriter, who used to be a drummer with Fleet Foxes, has always made a mockery of human progress. “Right,” he says curtly when we tell him that a world in which everything was entertainment would be very boring. “That’s exactly what I mean.” Fortunately, his own life provides enough of an antidote to the apocalyptic scenario he sketches.
Let’s begin with the gods. Tillman grew up in an ultraconservative family in Rockville, Maryland, and was forbidden from listening to pop music for many years. His parents, who were devout Pentecostalists, were convinced that the end of the world was nigh. The only exceptions were the album on which Bob Dylan outed himself as a Christian, and, for some reason, The Joshua Tree by U2 and So by Peter Gabriel were considered Messianic enough to pass the censure.
We ask whether he actually had nightmares about the Democratic politician Michael Dukakis when he was a child. When he challenged Ronald Reagan in the 1988 presidential elections – Tillman was seven years old at the time – he championed more liberal abortion laws. “Yes, it’s true. I had no idea what abortion was, but my parents told me that he wanted to murder the babies, and I imagined it being much more gruesome than it is.” But he doesn’t want to say too much more about his repressed youth. “Can’t we just talk about the new album?”
Nice try, but isn’t that exactly what the album is about, dealing with the traumatic experiences of his youth? Just before Pure Comedy was released, he told a New York Times journalist that three therapists had diagnosed him with posttraumatic stress disorder and that instead of taking antidepressants, he was self-medicating his depression with micro-doses of LSD.
“I just like acid,” he tells us honestly. “I take it the way other people smoke weed. There are probably better ways to treat depression, but I think depression and fear are just part of life. Actually, they fit us Americans like a glove. We’re the bad guys in the world anyway, thanks to our despicable lifestyles. So I suppose we deserve to go through life with a certain degree of unhappiness, fear, and depression.”
Music may well be a way of processing these feelings, but Tillman does not consider it to be a form of therapy. “Music just makes me crazier,” he says. “I don’t like this mentality that everything in life has to be normalized. That is a very Western perspective. Fuck that. My music is not a tool that I use to become a better citizen or a more multifaceted person. No, I prefer to embrace the chaos. Just let life be both beautiful and fucked-up at the same time. I don’t want to be a well-adjusted person. Who defines what that means anyway, well-adjusted?”
Only love is left
When we ask about his favourite myth, he reflects for a moment and then says: “My own life, because I understand it the best, but because it is difficult to survey something from the inside out, I also understand it least.” That is why, after releasing seven dark folk albums as J. Tillman, he adopted a pseudonym in 2012. Father John Misty is an enlargement of his own personality but also a way of being able to talk about himself more sincerely from a distance.
Like in “Leaving LA”, the pivotal, almost 15-minute autobiographical song on the new album. “I worked on it for three years. Between all my abstractions, this track actually sketches a human being with whom you can actually identify. The contribution of Gavin Bryars, who wrote the string arrangements, is crucial. The track is about repetitions and memories, themes upon which his work is based. In one of the verses, I sing about choking on a sweet in a supermarket. Everybody asks me if that really happened."
"But that is not the point. The point is that remembering something is a creative act. Fundamentally, memories are the ultimate distortion of reality. The more often you repeat something, the more it changes. First in archetypes, and then in memories. All things considered, reality is not so important to us. All this information that we constantly get fed nowadays, supposedly reproduces reality. But obviously it doesn’t. It’s just a language, a code to talk about something.”
What’s left? Love. Tillman once said that his emotional development stopped when he was fourteen and everything he did afterwards was due to a lack of motherly love. “I was abused. So I’m kind of trapped in that theme. It is still just my best attempt to understand myself and why, despite myself, I desperately keep seeking other people’s approval.”
> Father John Misty. 12/11, 20.00, Ancienne Belgique, Brussels