The World According to Father John Misty

With Pure Comedy, Josh Tillman Tackles the Absurdity of Human Existence—His Own Included

Music Features Father John Misty
Share Tweet Submit Pin
The World According to Father John Misty

Note: This piece is the cover story in Paste Quarterly #1, which you can purchase here, along with its accompanying vinyl Paste sampler.

Josh Tillman is in his living room—in a cozy, green house at the bottom of a long, winding stairway in the Hollywood Hills—flicking cigarette butts into the fireplace and listening to Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas in mid-January. (“I don’t really think of this as a Christmas record,” he says, shrugging. “It’s probably one of my all-time favorite albums.”). But he’s also in another room on the other side of the house, in a box, wrapped in cellophane.

“I’ve got a bunch of my records in the other room, and I can take one of those and pick it up and say like—because I don’t really know who I am, you know? And I can pick up this thing at any time and show it to you, or show it to myself more importantly, and say, ‘This thing is more me than I can ever be,’” he says, gripping an invisible album. “It’s narcissism. But it’s not necessarily bad. But I can say, like I can point to this object and go, ‘That’s me.’ And that’s an amazing thing. To like, open this box and pull it out and be like ‘It’s me! This is me.’ And it’s here forever.”

That’s true of all the records he’s made—the eight he put out as J. Tillman and the two he’s released so far as Father John Misty, 2012’s Fear Fun and 2015’s I Love You,
Honeybear
—regardless of what names he’s gone by or characters he’s inhabited. But the one he’s sitting on now, the upcoming Pure Comedy (out April 7 via Sub Pop) is somehow both the most Josh Tillman and his most outwardly-looking work to date. It’s him, but it’s also all of us.

section_break.gif

FJM_Portrait_BW.jpg

“What the fuck is going on?”

It’s July 22, less than 24 hours after Donald Trump’s speech at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland accepting his party’s nomination for president. The Democrats will hold their own convention in Philadelphia just a few days later, but Josh Tillman is here today—just across the water in Camden, N.J., onstage at the XPoNential Music Festival—and in a moment of clarity, he’s realized he can’t be Father John Misty right now. Or at least not in the way we expect him to.

He waves off the guitar tech who tries to hand him his instrument, grabs a mic and takes a seat at the front of the stage. “Where do you think entertainment comes from?” he asks the crowd. “So, when we’re born, this is where we start. This is the fuckin’ joke: Our brains are too big to make it through the birth canal. So evolution makes us half-formed when we come out, and culture fills the gap. And we just do our best and hope that someone’s gonna tell us what’s right or wrong or whatever not. But when you can find a way to make one way of being more attractive, that’s when you get entertainment.”

He’s speaking from the heart, but ironically, whether he realizes he’s doing it or not, he is paraphrasing the lyrics to his forthcoming record’s title track. (The comedy of man starts like this/Our brains are way too big for our mother’s hips/So nature she devised this alternative:/We emerge half-formed and hope whoever greets us on the other end/Is kind enough /To fill us in)

“Do we think our hilarious tyrant is going to be met with a hilarious revolution led by hilarious revolutionaries and the whole thing is gonna be like, entertaining as fuck the whole time?” he continues, ignoring a cry of “Play a song!” from somewhere in the crowd. “I always thought that it was going to look way more sophisticated than this when evil happened. When the collective consciousness was so numb and so fucking sated and so gorged on entertainment … how fucking fun should this be? How fucking fun can it be? Can it be real in any sense? Like, I cannot play ‘Bored in the USA’ for you right now. No no no, because guess what? I soft-shoed that shit into existence by going, ‘No no no, look over here, it’ll never actually be that bad because we’re too smart.’ And while we were looking in that direction, stupidity just fucking runs the world because entertainment is stupid! Do you guys realize that?”

He then plays “Leaving LA”—a 13-minute, 10-verse, deeply personal Pure Comedy track that he first started writing in 2013—which is inexplicably misinterpreted by everyone in the crowd and in every music blog’s subsequent “Father John Misty Rants Onstage” post as being an ad-libbed screed about music festivals. After that, he covers Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on the Wire” and calls it a day, cutting his set about half an hour short. He leaves the check for the gig sitting on a table backstage.

Six months later, we’re three days away from Trump’s inauguration, and Philly feels like years ago. The beard and the long hair are gone, save for a mustache; the record is in the can. Tillman’s still “not sure what to make of” the whole thing, but he knows he doesn’t regret it.

“I had been up all night,” he explains. “I got there, and I was fully in the mindset of ‘I’ve just gotta get through this. I’ve just gotta do this thing.’ But I was really disturbed. And it was like I got there and there was this battleship, and this blues band was playing, and like this sea of white people on lawnchairs and stuff, and it was kind of like a—I really don’t want to insult anyone that was there, but I want to insult us all out of complacency. And that’s what drove me to the thing. I was like, ‘I am part of this.’ Because I was envisioning me getting up onstage, playing ‘Bored in the USA’ and like, telling some jokes about Donald Trump and getting some laughs and doing this thing, and I was like ‘I need to blow this thing to hell, for all of our sakes.’

“Because the way that I was viewing the world in that moment, there’s more dignity in them getting angry at me than in them enjoying one of my sets. There was more dignity in that, in some kind of show of a pulse…. To me, getting up there on stage and putt-putting through 10 of my tunes and telling jokes would have been an act of total submission. Or would have been done in a total fog.”

He admits there were a few other factors at play that day that had him feeling at the end of his rope—exhaustion, a personal tragedy, a “bunch of drugs.” But ultimately, there was a character he just couldn’t inhabit anymore.

“I mean, I think it’s interesting to look at that album cycle, which started with me on Letterman with a player piano in a suit and an orchestra soft-shoeing around and ends with me bedraggled in a total state, in a really messy, compromised state of despair without a guitar, rambling about that very same song,” he says. “Upset about that very same song. I mean, that shows you. That’s how I dealt with it. That’s how I dealt with my complacency, it was to take a risk…. But you do have to remember that like, all the time I’ve been doing this touring, this [new] album is where my head has been. I’ve been working on this thing since 2014, and I think at the time of Philadelphia I was like halfway through recording the record. That was my headspace.

“So I’m seeing this stuff going down, this is the space that I’m living, and I’m watching this music of mine, these songs like kind of coming to life, living them in this freaky way … and it was disturbing because I was so immersed in the concepts of this record and then I was watching them materialize in front of me. It was overwhelming and scary. I was like ‘I don’t want it to actually be like this!’ And that was like, when I started the songs, they kind of had nothing to lose, or there was a safety. There was some distance. It was purely philosophical. And then I was watching it slowly become increasingly more literal, and that really freaked me out. Especially when you consider the exhaustion and the drugs and the personal stuff and just being at my wit’s end, it was like, ‘I don’t want to be on this ride anymore.’” He laughs.

It can be hard to tell, sometimes, where Father John Misty ends and Josh Tillman starts—particularly because, in so many ways, they’re one and the same. But Tillman says he’s had a full body of work—a career arc—in mind from day one, and the plan was never to stick with Honeybear-era Misty forever.

“It feels like way too soon to go back onstage and play that character,” he says. “Because there was this—the first album the character was the weird American, and then the second album I was playing the role of the ideal husband. And no matter what I say about it, it’s obvious that these characters emerge. You know? No matter how much I try to fight that idea. It’s just obvious that these characters emerge. And it feels like I can’t get back into that character. It’s like I lost—like I haven’t done that. It’s like if you have an accent, if you don’t use it, you lose it or something. And I really lost the connection with that character. I had lost connection with that character by the time I was doing those solo shows—I was lost! Like that Philly show, I just completely lost—you know. And it takes time to cultivate.”

He’s been cultivating this new role since he was a kid, and it’s time keep the arc going and move forward.

So he’s planning a ritual killing.

section_break.gif

FJM_reclining.jpg

“What was once before you—an exciting, mysterious future—is now behind you. Lived; understood; disappointing. You realize you are not special. You have struggled into existence, and are now slipping silently out of it. This is everyone’s experience. Every single one. The specifics hardly matter. Everyone’s everyone. So you are Adele, Hazel, Claire, Olive. You are Ellen. All her meager sadnesses are yours; all her loneliness; the gray, straw-like hair; her red raw hands. It’s yours. It is time for you to understand this.”—Millicent Weems, Synecdoche, New York

We’ve been talking for over an hour and a half when Tillman casually mentions he’s working on a musical centered around Pure Comedy. He’s headed to New York next week to audition dancers and meet with a choreographer; rather than simply tour these songs in the traditional sense, he’s working on a full-blown production that’ll open in May: Dialogue. A cast. Chiffon banana-peel costumes.

“I guess with the way that I think, even if it’s a massive failure, there’s something appealing … I mean, I love massive failures,” he says. “But they just have to be massive, you know?” He laughs. “Failures are great as long as they’re huge.”

He mentions his favorite movie, Charlie Kaufman’s underrated Synecdoche, New York, as an example. “It didn’t occur to me that that was a huge—that Kaufman thinks of that as like a huge failure. Like his career never recovered from that movie when you hear him tell it. Like no one will give him money to make a movie now. And you just think like, ‘That’s like my favorite movie! Like, what the fuck?? Did no one else see this movie? Did I not see the same movie as people?’ So it’s something like if that’s my favorite movie and those are my instincts, then it stands to reason that my instincts are gonna take me to a similar place eventually, you know? Where there’s some lunatic sitting around going, ‘Pure Comedy, I mean that stage show is my favorite thing ever. No one liked it, but it’s my favorite thing ever.’” He laughs again. The Vince Guaraldi record’s still on, and the Peanuts are singing “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.”

“And I’m happy with that,” he continues. “I won’t be. It’ll be heartbreaking I’m sure on some level to like see the—you know, I could write the bad reviews for this thing myself. I could tell you exactly what people will hate about it.”

Still, he takes a second to think about it before answering that question. “A certain grandiosity combined with an obvious dilettantism,” he decides, laughing. “Usually not a winning combination. But also like, maybe people don’t want to see Josh Tillman. Maybe they want to see Josh Tillman being Father John Misty. And I play the role of Josh Tillman in this thing. You know, it’s a role, so maybe they’ll view it as Father John Misty playing Josh Tillman.”

He still hasn’t told me yet that he plans to kill Father John Misty in this thing. He laughs when I point out the idea of characters playing characters is kind of like Synecdoche, New York. (“I hadn’t even thought about it like that. See, that’s why it’s good for me to talk about this stuff this way because that hadn’t really occurred to me until now. I could bill it as like ‘Father John Misty starring in the role of Josh Tillman.’”) He goes to the piano to show me the chord in “Pure Comedy” that convinced him the album needed to be a musical. (“This chord is the sound of a musical to me. So there’s a musical in this song, in this one chord.”) He talks a little more about the character he’s ready to leave behind.

“I can’t go back to what I was doing last year,” he says. “I don’t want that to be like a thing, you know? I just want to keep changing. And some of that—it’s not binary, like you can totally be yourself by playing a character. Because if I was totally myself, I wouldn’t get onstage half of the nights. I would just be like, ‘No, I just wanna sit around the fire.’ So you have to develop a character that you can play. Cause it’s unnatural to go perform like 250 shows in a year. You’re not up for it every night. But your character knows what to do, so you just let him drive.

“But I think that ironically I’ll probably be able to be myself with the way that we—even with all this production, and this choreography and premeditation, it’s all set up so that I can like really be myself in a way that I haven’t been able to be. I haven’t been constricted by playing characters, but, on this one, it’s really important to me to be able to play the character of myself and to externalize the Father John Misty thing.” He pauses. “And to let him be, you know? And some of these dancers are gonna have to learn how to be that character. I mean, the show starts with um … here.”

He stands up, picks up a shimmery-looking thing not unlike something you might find in a Spencer’s Gifts, and plugs it in. Suddenly, the living room is bathed in red disco light. “This is the best houseware thing I’ve ever spent money on,” he says, before walking over to his laptop and cueing up a track of sound effects and background music intended to play behind the scene he’s about to set.

“There’s gonna be like a big projection mapping, so there’s this big screen, and there’s like this black water rippling onscreen, and then a spotlight slowly comes up and you see this rowboat—like two-dimensional, kind of facing you—and Father John Misty is inside this boat with an oar, and he’s like, you know, doing his Father John Misty thing.” He mimes putting an oar behind his shoulders and moves his hips in a way that’s instantly recognizable to anyone who has ever been to a Father John Misty show.

“And I come out stage right with a boom mic and a tape recorder. And I’m like ‘I’m here for the interview.’ And it’s an opportunity for me to ask this guy like, ‘Who are you?’ and he’s like ‘I’m the Sleeping Hand.’ And I say ‘What are you here to do?’ Like ‘What are you trying to accomplish?’ And he’s like ‘I’m trying to rescue as many people from the ship as I can.’ You know, in a one-man rowboat. And I say, ‘Have you been successful?’ Like ‘How do you define success?’ And he’s like ‘Well, honestly, getting the opportunity to play Father John Misty over all the other dancers who auditioned for the part is more success than I could have ever imagined.’ And I ask him how many people he’s saved, and he says like, ‘Well it’s not that simple. If I stop rowing, the boat’ll sink because I drilled holes into it to illustrate the innate falseness of boats.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, now it’s fucked! You drilled holes into it!’ And he’s like, ‘I know, it’s ironic!’ And I’m just like”—he puts his face in his hands and groans—“‘UGHH, SHUT. UP.’” He laughs. “‘I HATE YOU.’ And I ask him like ‘What’s irony?’ And Father John Misty’s like ‘Irony is masturbating with the sleeping hand.’”

He keeps going, and for a minute or two I genuinely can’t decide if this is a real play or if he’s making the whole thing up as he goes along, and—in a beautiful contradiction, the kind you encounter a lot when you spend a day with Josh Tillman—it’s completely batshit, but he tells it in a way that makes perfect sense.

“And then I’m like, ‘Is that what I’m doing right now, with this whole show, with this crazy thing that I’ve made, this orgy of vanity?’” he continues. “And then a sexy bear comes—like a woman with a huge knife and a bear mask—comes across the stage and like stabs the tape recorder and kisses me. And then end of scene. And then we go into ‘Pure Comedy’ and there’s like a bonfire and like six Father John Mistys come on stage, doing this primal dance around the bonfire for the primal scene. I mean, the whole show is about moving from this place of narcissism—which is obviously evidenced by having like six of my alter-ego dancing around the bonfire, but—and then they all kind of reenact the action of that first song. You know, they’re like killing each other, and they’re fighting with the sexy bear, and one of them gives birth to a baby Father John Misty and like, opens the shirt and feeds it, you know, it’s this crazy narcissism of like ‘Everyone is me, everyone is just as lost as me, we’re all lost, we’re all the same, we’re doomed into a place of consciousness.’ Which I view as being able to say like ‘Yeah, we’re doomed, but my life is a miracle.’ You know? Which is more or less how the album ends. Like a narcissist is terrified by the doom and the monotony, and a conscious person is able to admit like, ‘Yeah, it’s the end.’ Like, whether it’s the end of the world or not, my world is going to end, and when my world ends, it’s going to feel like the world is ending. A conscious person can acknowledge that. A narcissist cannot see the ways in which they feel like their death is the death of everything. They really just think that it is. A conscious person can have empathy, sympathy for themselves and say, ‘Yeah, that’s the way it works, that’s the way it’s going to feel, and my life is a miracle, and there’s something comical and miraculous about the fact that I feel that way.’ So the show ends basically with child Josh Tillman and Father John Misty getting into that boat, that same boat from the beginning of the show and me watching as it drowns, as the water like consumes these useless dualities. The ego and the fearful child. But you know, giving the ego the opportunity to interact with my child self instead of—you know, because their backs are always turned. Like they’re protecting each other, but they have no idea that the other one exists. So introducing those two”—he pauses and laughs for a second. “I mean, this sounds totally insane. But introducing these two people and then letting them go. Because once they meet each other, they disappear.

“And when I say it’s a ritual, it is. Like in that way, the show is meant to be a ritual, like a way for me to interact with these ideas in as real life as I can, you know?” He pauses again.

“Do you think I should do ‘Leaving LA’ at Coachella?”

section_break.gif

FJM_Portrait_2.jpg

In some ways, it feels like Father John Misty got left to drown a while ago. The hearse he/Tillman drove for years is gone—towed away and never picked up. (“I was like ‘it’s time,’” Tillman says. “It’s time. Someone is gonna buy that hearse for like 400 bucks from the impound and love it. And I liked that idea.”) And the social-media accounts that breathed life into the character and prevented his lungs from filling with water were deleted back in September.

“I was always under the impression that my music was the main way that people were interacting with like the idea of me, you know?” he says. “And that Instagram and Twitter was a peripheral preoccupation, like it didn’t really mean anything and is not the lens through which people viewed me personally. And I realized that in fact, Instagram and Twitter are the primary—it’s like where people … they view it as like the truth of your world. The fullness of your world. And that your music is some kind of extra. And I don’t want my perception to be informed entirely by dumb shit that I do on tour and the way in which I interact with the music blog world or something. Or how I interface with social media itself. Like, that is not how I live, that stuff is just how I interact with social media because I think it’s funny.

“I mean, I remember when like Friendster came out, and I was like 20, 21, and just looking around and going like ‘You guys have gotta be kidding me.’ Like ‘you’ve got to be joking.’ I remember sitting down, like the only time I made a personal profile or something, I got halfway in through filling out my favorite bands and just being like ‘this is ridiculous.’ It just gave me the jeebles or whatever because it’s so dumb. And so I started making like fake—I made like a fake profile, this character named Patches McVirgy. And it was the same thing, people would come up to me at parties like, ‘Oh my god, I love your Friendster.’ And it hasn’t changed one iota. It hasn’t changed over like 10 years. There’s something about the jokey attitude towards that thing that people really love. People come up to me on the street and ask me why I deleted my Instagram! People I don’t know! And it’s so weird. But I think it’s also part of—it’s the vanishing act, I guess. Maybe part of the theater of life.”

Without social media to distract or debunk any false narratives, there will likely be the misconception that Pure Comedy (which Tillman toyed with calling Total Bummer: “I kept oscillating between the two, because they basically mean the same thing to me.”) is somehow a political record.

Listeners who fail to realize this stuff was written in 2014 may view it as some sort of reactionary Trump album, but Pure Comedy is apolitical; all you need to do is listen to “Two Wildly Different Perspectives” to understand that its ideology isn’t red or blue—it’s philosophical.

“The whole point is that I wanted to make a transpolitial album,” Tillman says. “That it’s like, ‘There is no politics to the human race slipping on the same banana peel over and over again through the ages.’ Like there’s nothing political about that. That is apolitical…. I got to that place and realized this album cannot just be Josh Tillman standing on the fucking mountain wagging his finger at people. There’s gotta be some skin in the game. And I really started to realize how much my personhood—I just got perspective on how much my personhood and my frailty and my vulnerability and my weakness and all that really informs my worldview. And all that informs this worldview.”

section_break.gif

FJM_Smoking_BW.jpg

When Tillman was a kid, he had nightmares about Michael Dukakis because his parents told him he wanted to kill babies. He was too young to even know what abortion was, and as he says, “My level of disconnect based on what I was told by insane adults was really pretty out of control.”

He didn’t know what World War II was until high school. He got days off school, “because the world was going to end.” The only secular albums allowed in his household were Joshua Tree and Peter Gabriel’s So.

But even being born into it, that worldview was never his. He can trace Pure Comedy all the way back to his first day of Sunday school.

“It’s been, I really think, my whole life,” he says. “Like my first day of Sunday school, I was like six—um, this is gonna sound really dramatic—but I asked my Sunday school teacher, she was talking about Genesis. Like, that’s where you start. The first day of Sunday school is Genesis. Like ‘God made the heavens and the earth.’ And I asked her, ‘Who made God?’ And she was like, ‘Well, God’s always been.’ And I was like, ‘You’re lying!’ Like, ‘You don’t know!’ And in a meaningful sense, I really feel like I started writing this album at that moment.”

Pure Comedy is the first look we really get at the child Josh Tillman—the kid with a dark, complicated relationship with his mother who carries all his stress in his jaw—particularly on “Leaving LA,” which briefly touches on an early near-death experience, backed by Gavin Bryars’ gorgeous string arrangements.

“That’s really personal. And personal in a not-sexy way,” Tillman says. “Like songs on Fear Fun are personal, and on Honeybear, but it’s not the child. That’s still like Father John Misty the ego-monster protecting and shaping the perception of me and whatever. That lyric is about the child and is by the child. And it’s really an important line for me. Because with that song and writing it, it was just peeling layers, and then getting impatient and being like, ‘Okay, where the fuck does all this come from? Where does this worldview that’s informing all this stuff come from?’ And the furthest back that I could get was being like five years old and being at JC Penney’s and getting lost and choking on candy and the terror of that moment, and then a stranger picking me up and my mom screaming for someone to help me, and I told you what my relationship with her was like. So this was a very tender moment for me, like hearing the panic in her voice. And all the while, ‘Sweet Little Lies’ by Fleetwood Mac is playing”—he laughs—“and I didn’t grow up on secular music, I didn’t hear pop music, I only heard Christian music, and just hearing this song and being like ‘Ugh.’ It was just this saccharine cacophony of this song and thinking to myself like ‘This is a joke.’ Like, ‘If this is what’s playing while I’m dying, then this is totally a joke that this is how I’m gonna die.’

“And that was where the whole worldview came from. It was this formative moment of like, that’s who I am.”

We’re all still carrying our child selves around with us to some degree (as Tillman points out, “everyone has a ‘lost at the mall’ memory”), but he admits that his still reveals himself in ways he’s not always proud of.

“Any time I take a cultural warrior stance, I always kind of regret it,” he says. “Because you don’t get anything done with those loudmouth kind of opinions, but I have a problem. I’m like a kid. It’s like how I was as a kid. I was that kid who would like make the whole class laugh at a teacher and then get in trouble and be in detention just crying like ‘I’m so sorry!’ And mean it! Like, ‘I’m so sorry. I feel so bad about making people laugh at you.’ And the truth is somewhere in the middle. There’s a Schopenhauer quote where he’s like, ‘A philosopher is someone who never leaves their adolescence,’ and I’m continually aghast at the ways in which my adolescence still seems to be driving the ship. Just even the way I talk, this stupid, wordy way I talk is just this like, ‘Love me! Think I’m smart!’”

Press him as to why that is and he gets a little quiet.

“I mean, it’s really hyperpersonal, but my relationship with my mom—my mom was probably, if she had been diagnosed, would be like manic bipolar, and it was a really just ugly scene,” he says. “And combined with the religion, you can imagine. And I remember being 14 and disconnecting…. And I think that I probably stopped developing emotionally at 14, like the same issues. They’re unresolved. But those are also the things that I think make me a good artist. Like, it’s the source for me. That trauma and the suppression. I think what I did was I started to identify more with the observer-self than myself. I became the observer-self. Like my conscious mind and my inner dialogue is the person watching me instead of the person that’s me.

“I mean, it still fucks up my life…. But I’m a person in process, and, yeah. It doesn’t sound quite right, but I guess I have a sense of humor about it?”

section_break.gif

FJM_Portrait_1.jpg

It’s getting late. Coffee has turned into red wine, which has turned into tequila. Tillman has burned through most of a pack of American Spirits. The front door’s open, letting in the night air, and naturally, the conversation turns to the end, to what the downward-sloping portion of the arc he plotted for himself years ago might look like.

He brings up Bryars again as the gold standard. “Gavin is 80, and he came into the studio with these long-haired idiots and did something that he had never done before. Oh my god.” He pauses for a second. “Like, um …” His eyes are welling up, and he stops again briefly to wipe them, laughing sheepishly. “It’s a stupid thing to cry about.”

“But the first night he was there, we made him this like ridiculous drink—it was like tequila, LaCroix and orange. Because we were there and he wanted something to drink, so we made him this like, gigantic drink.” He laughs. “So the next night, we were there having a drink and he was like ‘So what was that drink you guys made for me last night?’ We were like, “Aw, yeah!” and made him another one of these like—and I was just thinking like, ‘This guy is 80, and he’s never done something like this before.’ He was so fascinated by the way that we were making this record and just couldn’t—he wasn’t embarrassing himself or anything, he was just like, into it. And I just kept thinking like, ‘I should be so lucky.’ To be 80 and to be doing something I’ve never done before. And to have people loving the fact that I’m there. That’s how you know you’ve done it right. If you’re 80 and you’re doing something that you’ve never done before.”

It’s easier said than done, particularly when you’ve reached a certain level where people expect you to keep doing the things that first drew them to you.

“That’s the trouble with being Bob Dylan or being Neil Young or whoever,” Tillman says. “Like you exist—well, it’s not the trouble, it’s just the price of admission. You just have to accept that you’re gonna be combating some golden-era version of yourself. But that’s a good thing! Like someone like Neil does it perfectly, where they’re like ‘That’”—he gestures behind him— “is my enemy, and now I have an adversary, a foil, and I can react against it and surprise people.”

section_break.gif

FJM_Portrait_3.jpg

There are, by my count, at least six interviews other than this one in which Tillman says something and then sort of half-jokingly tells a reporter “You can put ‘laughs bitterly’ in brackets.”

So when he says it to me after referring to “Leaving LA” as “my 15-minute masterpiece,” it’s jarring—because it’s rehearsed, because it stands in seemingly violent contradiction to how much he cares about this incredibly personal piece of music, because it feels a little like when Verbal Kint loses his limp and turns into Keyser Soze at the end of The Usual Suspects.

But sometimes you need to keep that foil around. That’s how you surprise people.

“I clown on myself out of such self-hatred all the time, like so much of my humor is informed by how uncomfortable I am with being in the position that I’m in and just being spiteful to myself,” he says later. “And that kind of has created a sort of narrow persona. Where people think of me as just like—that I don’t take anything seriously, that my music doesn’t mean anything to me, that I’m just like fucking around, and that there’s no artistry or something, you know? When I’m probably the most insufferably monomaniacal about my … art—we’ll just call it that. Like, it totally consumes me. You can’t divorce me from what I do. It is the substance of who I am. Like if you removed this from the picture, you’d have nothing left. You’d have like a guy who just watches YouTube and eats pizza. And does drugs.” This time he actually does laugh kind of bitterly. “That’s all that would be left. And so I just wanted to make something that was more … that was reflective of that.”

ShareTweetSubmitPinMore