Josh Tillman didn’t fit the mold of the "Seattle singer-songwriter." He’s the first to admit it. He moved here when he was 21, following a Damien Jurado-fueled dream; rebranded himself J. Tillman; and found some success… but felt that the somber music he made was forced. It wasn’t him. He started playing drums for the Fleet Foxes in 2008. Again, it wasn’t really him. So earlier this year, not content with life in Seattle, he quit Fleet Foxes, hopped in his van, took some mushrooms, drove down to California, and re-emerged as Father John Misty. The dark-humor rock he’s created under the new moniker has all the seedy sunniness of his new home—Los Angeles—and Tillman has taken to strutting around onstage like Jim Morrison reincarnated (but always with a knowing wink). This music was finally him.
Tillman’s debut album as Father John Misty, Fear Fun, came out in May on Sub Pop and things have been coming up roses (or, more likely, cannabis) ever since. Whether he’s appearing on Letterman (see below), selling out Neumos this May, or performing a stirring karaoke version of “I Believe I Can Fly” on acid (warning: language), the man knows how to entertain. Father John Misty opens Capitol Hill Block Party this Friday, and is sure to put on a show for those who can get off work in time to catch his 4pm set.
Before he kicks off CHBP, we chatted with Tillman about being a "dancing dandy" and Seattle’s inability to let go.
What are your thoughts regarding Fear Fun now that you’ve had time with it?
I’ve had experiences in the past where I made an album—like with J. Tillman albums, for example—and then a few months after it was done, when I was trying to play it, there was a lot of dissonance between the head space required to write and make this thing and the head space I’m in generally, which is not quite as narrow and bleak. It made the touring harder. It made interviews really hard. It was really hard to answer for the lyrics and the music, et cetera, because it was kind of engineered to be vague. But with this stuff, I really enjoy playing the songs live. I enjoy the points in the songs where the audience laughs or doesn’t know if they’re supposed to laugh. All and all, I’m really proud of the album. It’s something I can live with.
I’ve noticed that many in the Seattle scene still want to claim you as a local. How does that make you feel?
I have some ambivalence about that. I mean, ultimately, I’m flattered. And when I played at Neumos not too long ago, I loved it. For people in Seattle who have seen me doing this music thing for, like, 10 years, there is this sort of “You did it!” quality to it. And that’s a perspective that only people I know from Seattle can have, because they’ve seen the whole thing intimately. Then there’s this other dimension which is like, pull up a YouTube video of any J. Tillman show in Seattle and you can’t hear what I’m doing over the talking. That was brutal. Nobody really gave a shit. But it’s fun to go back, and it feels good that on some real visceral level people are excited about the album and are in some way proud of me or something.
Your stage demeanor as Father John Misty is nothing like what you did as J. Tillman. Which feels more natural: the introspective songwriter with his guitar or the vamping frontman?
The dancing dandy? (Laughs) It’s interesting because that type of dancing that you see is something I’ve been doing for years, just sort of for fun. It’s really indicative of my sense of humor. That’s something that did come out quite a bit at the J. Tillman shows. I’ve always been pretty chatty on stage, and there was some moment when I realized that I was better at the banter than I was at engaging the audience with my music. And that was kind of devastating on some level. And it was also just confusing. It was like, “Well, I’m not gonna be a stand-up comic or something, that’s not what I do.” … When I talk I kind of gesture wildly. The dancing is really just an extension of that..
Do you have any sort of pre-show or post-show routines?
Well, I drink too much after the show, and then before the show I drink Gatorade and eat rice cakes in order to keep the nausea at bay. I don’t particularly have any sexy rituals.
If you weren’t a musician, what other profession would you have pursued?
I was pretty committed to the idea of never having to have a profession. I don’t have much in the way of motivation or much of an impulse for self-preservation. I definitely see myself just kind of working at the lowest rung of the service industry, like where I just really didn’t have to deal with people or anything. I could be happy washing dishes. When I was a kid it was like, “Well, I’m not really good at anything but bullshitting and making people laugh… So maybe I should be a pastor?” (Laughs)
Capitol Hill Block Party
July 20–22, Capitol Hill, single-day tickets ($30); three-day passes ($85).