You can have an opinion or even a preconceived idea of the man. What you can’t do is point your finger without listening to what the man has to say. Father John Misty, or Josh Tillman, went deep on his new album, Pure Comedy, and at the end of the journey there’s an important piece for these troubled times – hopefully we’ll take advantage from our ability to breathe in 2017 to appreciate what is looking, from up close, a brutally and gutting masterpiece. We talked about how important is to point the finger at yourself, how love can truly save the world, and how the man you probably view as a “troll, meme, sarcastic asshole, etc.” has feelings too.
You have summarized your work as Josh Tillman by saying, “there was one theme that ran throughout all of it. Mom doesn’t love me and God isn’t real after all. I had like an agenda, this weird vendetta that wasn’t nourishing my life in any way.” How were you able to puzzle everything together and come out on the other side?
That’s a very… I mean, I think you hear the attempt to do that in my music, and I’m not sure you really ever come on the other side. I had a pretty formative psychedelic experience five or six years ago, when I had a very simple thought: I should just be myself. I think that was kind of the…
The light at the end of the tunnel?
Yeah, something like that.
Last year someone asked you what had changed from the music you were doing before, to the music you were doing around the time of I Love You, Honeybear. You said that it was “humour, spontaneity, and more value placed on the seemingly mundane.” Do you think that has changed a little bit with Pure Comedy?
Yeah, well… This album, a lot of it has to do with absurdity. I think of this album has being sort of a love letter to humanity, in that when you fall in love with someone you fall in love with the parts of them that are broken, or bored, or scared, or absurd. If you look at it from the right angle, I do think it’s a very funny album. Even though is dealing with seemingly kind of heavy topics. My sense of humour is definitely still there. I think that a lot of the topics on this record are things that I’ve tried to address countless times through my work but I think the difference with this one is that it just really sounds like it’s coming from my kind of conversational voice.
You were talking about this record having a sense of humour. It seems to me, and correct me if I’m wrong, that the way you apply it is different. Before it felt a bit like a defense mechanism and now it doesn’t feel like you are using it in that particular way, if you know what I mean?
Yeah. No, it’s very open and I think the fact that I really do include myself in kind of the whole mess… if I was defensive about it, it would be all about pointing my finger to other people. I’m really writing… In a strange way it is a very personal album. It’s about people but you can’t talk about people without talking about yourself.
Yeah, more often than not you are pointing the finger at yourself. How did that start? I mean, it can be scary to say, “I’m to blame too.”
The things that scary you are usually the things that are the most worth writing about.
Would you say your goal, or at least the thing you look for as a creative mind and someone that expresses himself constantly, has changed since the inception of Father John Misty?
Yeah, it is just way more vulnerable. It doesn’t cloak kind of abstract poetry and it’s a lot more easy to understand. You don’t have to sit around interpreting poetry. I think my music now is very direct and… there is a bit of a risk in that, you know? I mean, if you sing just kind of beautiful flowery lyrics than you can’t quite make sense of what they mean then you can interpret them to mean anything you want. This album has really… it definitely has pissed some people off and any time you are direct, and you speak clearly, you run the risk of kind of inviting people to just understand what you mean. Because they’re not always going to agree with what you have to say.
Correct me if I’m wrong, before you started writing Pure Comedy from what I understand you did quit drugs, drinking, and even smoking. Were you looking for some kind of clarity of mind? Perhaps to be as sharp as possible when analysing what was around you? Was that a conscious effort from your part?
Yeah, it was. It’s not easy, you know? There’s a lot on this album, semantically about the ways in which we numb our experience and numb our consciousness. I think we do that in a million different ways. You can do it with entertainment, you can do it with drugs, you can basically do it with anything. I don’t know, I think that’s kind of an important theme that runs through the album. Why do we hate being humans so much? We’re constantly looking for ways to dull the experience of being alive.
I was reading your explanation of the new album where you talk about that escapism and you were also talking about the food chain. It made me think about a great Louis C.K. bit where he notes that the human race are no longer in the food chain. While every other animal needs to worry if it will be killed in the next hour or not, humans have, for the most part, no longer that concern. We have great expectations of dying old. That’s maybe why we are so into escapism. We no longer need to be concerned about surviving. That’s no longer our main concern. You know what I mean?
Yeah, because we’re free to sit around and contemplate the meaning of life and that… [laughs] makes people pretty miserable. There’s this dichotomy where there’s basically art, culture, poetry, romance, beauty… all of that comes from this state where we are free to sit around and contemplate our own existence, but at the same time that’s where all the depression, boredom, violence, and evil comes from too.
You start off the record reminding us that when we are born we are pretty defenseless and we need the kindness from others to be able to survive. It’s so interesting because it seems that we forget, as we get older, that the same kindness that saved us when we were defenseless as babies is the same kindness that we need to have to the able to survive as a species. Was that a big realization of yours that kind of helped shape the rest of the album? Because it seems kind of the perfect key note for an album like Pure Comedy.
I think the biggest realization that I had was that love really is survival. That love is the essence of survival and if we don’t love each other we die. It’s so easy to think about in these really kind of abstract, divine terms when in fact it is fundamental to our survival. Actually, I think it is way more pragmatic than we think.
And perhaps less complex.
The complexities of love, that’s something privileged people get to experience. It’s like, “Oh, I gotta find just the right, perfect person to love me in all the right, perfect ways.” [laughs] I mean, the last record I made was all about love but in a very confused, modern, ego-based way. And I think this album is… I continue to explore that idea of love and go deeper and deeper into it, and this is the album that came out of it.
There are a handful of tracks on the album that are not about you, in the sense that you’re not exclusively talking about you, or what you feel, or what you’ve experienced. One can even argue that, as the album progresses, you become even more aware that you’re kind of just one in this endless sea of people. Was that liberating in any sort of way? To get out of the micro to take a deeper look at the macro.
Yeah, I think so. The tracklisting really is kind of presented chronologically. “Pure Comedy” was the first song that I wrote for the album and “In Twenty Years Or So” was the last song that I wrote for the album. You can really see the progression in terms of this kind of peeling away layers.
And even the confusion that goes on on your mind.
Yeah, there are different kinds of clarity because there’s a lot of clarity in “Pure Comedy” but it’s kind of all intellectualclarity, you know? And with “In Twenty Years Or So” is very much the clarity of the heart.
“There’s actually something far more heroic about knowing that you’ll never be able to get to the bottom of something but trying anyway, because to try is to be human. It’s not about cracking the code.”
Would it be fair to assume that on “Leaving LA” you’re confessing, among other things, your will to don’t become what people think of you? To fight for being real and honest, and perhaps destroy “the mask” once it for all?
Yeah! [pause] That song was, and is, a kind of an attempt to kill the singer-songwriter and to kind of kill a certain mythology around myself.
The troll, the meme. I mean, unfortunately that’s the idea that people have about you.
[laughs] Yeah, I know. I… [pause] it’s hard, you know? In a lot of ways it’s been very painful to feel that I’ve sort of lost my humanity and now this perception of me that exists on the internet… I look at it and I don’t recognize myself in that. If you look at the perception on the internet all you really see is the way that I feel about… If you were to look at my social media all you can really see is how I felt about social media. [laughs] I just think social media is bullshit and so I treated it like bullshit. But it’s a place where people really expect to see your humanity in that, and I just think it’s a ridiculous expectation that you’re going to really see someone’s true personality, or true soul. It’s so curated and it’s so based in advertisement. It really is lifestyle branding, you know? I do have kind of a mischievous streak, and enjoy like messing with people’s expectations a little bit but… I don’t know, people just took it so seriously and their take is so literal. Such a literal representation of who you are. And I do think that has kind of hurt me, in the long run, because people just assume that whatever they see on there is the whole picture of who you are. So, for a lot of people their whole picture of who I am is this sarcastic, contrarian… troll.
But you did quit social media, right?
Yeah, but now no matter how multi-dimensional my music is, or how much compassion, or soul is in my music… They still look at it through the filter of this false image of me that is on the internet. That’s very frustrating. But the thing is: my work is going to last. This ridiculous culture is going to pass away. People are going to look at us a hundred years from now and say, “Oh god, what was wrong with these people?” [laughs]
Please correct me if I’m wrong, but somewhere in the middle of Pure Comedy you seem to lose your hope. I mean, the entire record seems that you’re struggling and kind of going back and forth.
Yeah, I think that’s kind of what defines my work. All these records ask these really big questions that I’m not qualified to answer. [laughs] On the last record it was kind, “What is love?” and on this record is kind of, “What does it all mean?” I think you can hear someone who wants to ask these big questions but then at the same time is so kind of self-aware, or self-critical that you can hear them, “Oh my god, did I really just ask that question? What am I thinking?” I think that’s really what makes my music sort of unique. Is being willing to ask those questions but at the same time you can hear the sort of audible groan in the music, like, “Oh my god, am I seriously doing this?” [laughs] I think we can hear you second guessing yourself. You seem to have doubts, sometimes you don’t seem to understand, but you’re always trying to move forward. You know what I mean? Right, and that’s why the music really isn’t cynical. People think as me as a cynic, but when confronted with the idea of addressing these big questions a cynical will go, “No one can answer those questions. So, just shut up and fuck it. I’ll have a drink.” But there’s actually something far more heroic about knowing that you’ll never be able to get to the bottom of something but trying anyway, because to try is to be human. It’s not about cracking the code. It’s not sports.
You end the record singing repeatedly “there’s nothing to fear,” in a way that is extremely hard to describe with words. Would you agree that that moment is probably one of the most cathartic moments you’ve ever had on tape?
Yeah, it’s a very complicated moment because you can look at that sentiment and say like, “Wow, that is so ignorant. It’s so absurd.” Because your intellect tells you, “No, no. Global warming, class warfare, Donald Trump, etc. We have everything to fear.” But, I think… that song in particular, it’s not about some prophecy, or some speculation, that the world is going to end. It’s that life will always provide moments of fear, there will always be those moments. But these strange little moments – they’re not grand epiphanies, they’re not these “ah ah” moments, they’re not glorious – are small where you are with someone that you love and your second drinks are coming out, your favourite song is on, and they’re very humble moments where all of a sudden everything clicks.