"Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings"
Josh, formerly J Tillman, formerly Josh Tillman of the Fleet Foxes, released his new record, Fear Fun, on Bella Union earlier this year. A heady, rich album, pure yet dirty, sonically harking back in time, but neither archaic, nor fetishizing the past. It's also an exceptionally well-executed musical rendering of the freedom found during Josh’s pursuit of creative renewal.
Fear Fun makes for pretty amusing listening too. It’s a mischievous record that pokes fun at artistic aspirations and the seeking of truth, at us and the artist himself. The stories within are of lost souls that don’t want saving and debauched antics gone awry. The fear part is less obvious, but also pervades the album. The underlying blackness beneath our daily toils towards living correctly as deigned so by some embedded personal or societal sense of right and wrong. Fear of being alone. Fear of where we as a society are headed.
Upon meeting Josh, you know straight away that he’s a sharp fellow. From his music, it’s obvious he—like most of us—can’t help but try to analyize the current predicament that Westerners of an inquisitive mind and conscientious nature find themselves in. But in person, it’s apparent that he delves a little deeper into his theories than the rest of us.
I spoke with Josh a few weeks ago as he passed through Europe on his first tour as Father John Misty. Naturally, one of the first things I was curious about was the name, assuming that it might well have a character attached, but it’s actually an arbitrary assignation created out of the need to distance himself from his musical past.
FJM: If I had picked up a guitar at age 29 and started writing these songs, it would have been called Josh Tillman, but I had already rendered my own name totally meaningless at that point. I had this very sobering realization that I had essentially created an alter ego. I created this "J Tillman," who was a very specific fragment of my personalty—of my world view.
Were you conscious of that while you were doing it?
I don’t think so. I was doing my best. It’s always been really important to me that if I was going to make something, that it be brutally honest—that it be confrontationally honest—and I think that’s where the relentless severity in tone came from. It was just a very immature idea of what honesty was.
Josh had to venture into absurd, nonsensical territory to find a way back to his own creative voice. This new freedom was discovered during the writing of a novel that’s hidden in the CD’s liner notes.
The process of writing that book was really informative to the album in that when I started writing, I just thought, "You’re having so much fun doing this." While in some way I had recognized myself in some of my past work, I was never really that proud of myself. When I was writing this, it was like, "Wow, this is really you, this is really your voice, this is really your personality," and once I finished writing it, I kind of realized that I just needed to direct that attitude to the music thing. Then everything started coming very quickly, even down to the way that I sang.
Look, if you know that you can sing, you’re obligated to sing, and I can sing like a motherfucker. It’s like, "Get over yourself, just do it," and that was very liberating and fun. It’s fun to use your abilities.
It’s not fun to sit around thinking that you’re not good enough and to try to emulate what you think is cool or what you think is valid. That is brutal. That is self loathing. There’s no self-loathing in this stuff, because self-loathing ultimately is narcissism. Thinking that you are so worthless that you are somehow special.
The book itself is relentlessly amusing, threaded with dystopianism and not a little absurd. It’s a really entertaining read, especially as you can’t help but try to make sense of it whilst also realizing how ridiculous it is to try rationalize something that is written specifically to call bullshit on the ways that we try to make sense of our own existence.
Do you think writing stories is as valid a way to find meaning as through any other art form? As you focus on in the book, there are some fairly arbitrary societal constructs that we all acquiesce, or are conditioned to live by. Can you find truer meaning of the state of things through creativity than rationalism?
It’s important for me to understand that meaning is creative. The knee jerk reaction people have to the realization that everything is meaningless is that that is the end of the sentiment, but the completion or totality of the sentiment is that when there is meaninglessness, one has a mandate to create meaning. So yes, very much so.
One part of me wants to dissect the culture and talk about the woes of modernity, and the other part of me just wants to have my own experience and not telegraph it against the culture at large that I’m not entirely responsible for. I didn’t make it this way. Certainly, I engage with it but...In some way, that book is a fun gag. Like, the asterisk next to the word "novel" in the liner notes. Maybe, subconsciously, it's some way of retaining invulnerability, you know, now this book can’t really be judged on its literary merit, as it’s a joke.
I really liked your vision of hell as like a music festival/Ikea/ hotel lobby.
Yeah, it’s just full of mindless bureaucracy; that is my idea of hell. “You have to go to the wristband pavilion.” It’s like, "WHY?!"
People are referred to as "cameraphones" at certain points in the novel. Not too far off from being something that could realistically come to fruition. We spend so much time staring at the damn things, they are inevitably ingraining themselves into our sense of ourselves. This also brings the work sharply back into present reality from the deeply fictional world it abides in.
It’s important to me to interject, while some of the book is fantastical, it’s always important to me to be like, "No, this is written about now." In all dystopian fiction—part of the reason why I love Ray Bradbury so much—the affectations are futuristic, but he was writing about the time in which he lived, and it’s a very useful tool and it’s just very contemptuous of the culture around these things. It’s just a cameraphone, it’s just a phone with a fucking camera attached. It’s a clever little thing. It’s a way to make our banal experiences more exotic by virtue of having been recorded on to this device. It was none of our idea, but we walk around acting like we’re oh so terribly clever for having bought one.
And as we are all realizing, they’re also somewhat robbing us of the conditions and will to think deeply—Well, if you give into the little interruptions, constant distraction, and quick reward mechanisms...
To me, walking around staring at it, constantly amused by staring at this thing, it’s like fear of boredom. The terror of being bored. If you have nothing going on up here, or if you’ve been conditioned to think like there’s nothing going on, that’s ultimately what’s scary about these things now: people are being told that, like, here is a cure all to the human experience. Here is an antidote to the human experience, which is perpetual boredom. It’s like Schopenhauer’s thing, which is that life is ultimately perpetual boredom and that’s why pain is so important, as it’s really the only thing that wretches you out of perpetual boredom, and why pain is the only thing that’s real.
There’s this great Kierkegaard quote that I’ll paraphrase. It’s from Fear and Trembling. “The chief characteristic of despair is that it never looks like despair.” For some people a person sitting along in an empty room looks like despair but for me, it’s like I’m off to the races.
"This Is Sally Hatchet"
One of the tracks on the record called "Now I’m Learning To Love The War" confronts the physical waste that is created as the result of a music career. The oil that makes the vinyl, the tape machines and other things that are manufactured. It’s quite rare to hear anyone speak about the environmental repercussions of their art so frankly without turning it into a call to action.
The song is about "Let’s just be complicit." Let’s recognize that it’s complex. I think that what inspired me to write that song was just that I was sick of this idea that being the artistic pursuit somehow makes you exempt from the realities of the world. It’s just being complicit with the thought that your actions are predicated on larger, global socio-economic things. Okay, so there wouldn’t be the kind of excess available at my disposal if we weren’t forcefully expropriating these resources from elsewhere, so does that discredit my experience? Does that discredit my art? Or am I just a creature of circumstance as much as anyone else is? It’s not didactic. It’s not a "Save the environment" song at all.
It is really complex, how the darker side of our consumerist society manifests itself in everything we do, even if we err towards the organic, vintage, recycling side of it.
There’s a lot of that in the book too, where the bed bugs are talking like, "Well, if you have to buy something, then buy something green," and that’s like...That’s the idea. Well, do we? The bedbugs really represent this neoliberal ideology that’s so airtight because it’s based on all these assumptions, like, “Well, advertising is inevitable and if it’s inevitable, then it should be beautiful, it should be funny, it should be well-made, it should be entertaining.” It’s like, "Hold on, you just blew right past me with 'Advertising is inevitable.'" Like, that is not inevitable, that is a choice. You get the culture that you ask for; we made some choice, collectively, that we want to live in a world where we buy and sell things to each other.
I have to confess: the way we (or I, at least) live now—part cameraphone, pressured by imaginary temporal constraints, skimming and not engaging consciously at times—almost lead me to dismiss this entire project, as did a healthy dose of music industry "re-invention of image" cynicism. When I scanned the press release, I figured this for a knowing ploy by someone who might be seeking success through the creation of an image exactly the opposite of what he was most recently known for, Josh’s project before this having been Fleet Foxes' faux-pastoral, harmonizing, blissed out, new folk. So take rock and roll, fetishes, nightlife scenes in a big city, poking fun at religion and boom: "cool next move." But I was thrilled to find out just how totally wrong my assumption was. Josh didn’t give a shit about any of that, and this is why we got a really, really good record in Fear Fun. Although, somehow, we didn’t talk about it. You should, however, listen to it, as it comes from the mind of a man who makes more sense than most right now, and one who, as he put it above, “can sing like a motherfucker.”
You can buy the record here:
Most of the book can also be found here:
See Father John Misty live in the UK:
Thursday 22 November – LONDON – XOYO (£12)
Friday 23 November – MANCHESTER – Deaf Institute (£10)
Saturday 24 November – DUBLIN –Workman's Club (€13.65)
Monday 26 November – GLASGOW – King Tuts (£10)
Tuesday 27 November – GATESHEAD – The Sage Gateshead (£10)
Wednesday 28 November – NORWICH – Arts Centre (£10)
Thursday 29 November – BRISTOL – Thekla (£10)
Friday 30 November – BRIGHTON – The Haunt (£10)
and pretty much every where else: