Interview: Father John Misty: “If you’re gonna be creative, you open the door of madness and you let everything in”

Father John Misty: “If you’re gonna be creative, you open the door of madness and you let everything in”

While most of his singer-songwriter peers treat their work as ‘serious business’, Father John Misty wields his warped sense of humour like a weapon through everything from songs to social media.

The caricature of the singer-songwriter often outweighs even the best of intentions. Forlorn, doe-eyed, navel gazing - probably not the type to post memes of paper towel dispensers all over Instagram. Father John Misty, though, is exactly that type.

“I think that I’ve always more extremely cultivated a persona through social media,” he admits, “because I’ve always had a hard time believing that people take it as seriously as they do.” Indeed, while the art of Father John Misty is endless pored over by ever-more intellectual bores, Josh Tillman spends his off days uploading stock photos of men taking selfies to Instagram.

“Stock photos are so stupid,” he states matter-of-factly from his L.A. home. “When you look at a stock photo, nothing in that photo is incidental – every choice that you see in the photo is deliberate and is intended to resonate in some way with injunctions within the super ego. I think that peoples’ approach towards Instagram is the same – I mean in some respect when you see a quote-unquote ‘spontaneous’ photo of one of your friends at a party of something, there are a lot of other photos that have been taken, and that photo has been curated in some way. For some reason – for several different reasons – it meets the criteria that your friend needs in order for it to be postable. In some way there’s that false spontaneity to an Instagram photo that there is in a stock photo. They’re both agents of ideology.”

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“Oh my God, WIFI gives you cancer?!” #worthit

Josh is quick to admit he’s a slave to social media his own, left field way though, laughing off the idea that he’s in any way ‘above it all’. “I get wrapped up into it when I’m on tour or something,” he admits, “I’m just bored. I guess in some respect I do try to do… this is a pretentious word to apply to something so silly… but, there are like a series of posts. I started finding SecondLife photos that represented what I was actually doing. So if I was in London, I’d find a SecondLife photo of London. And then my friends who live there would be like, ‘oh, I saw that you’re in London!’” - he peels off in fits of giggles - “So that was good!”

Snapped this pic of Big Ben from atop the Eye of London! #dontlookdown

This knowing, wry humour won’t come as too much of a surprise to anyone who’s kept half an eye on Father John Misty’s more prominent extracurricular activities. Following up Ryan Adams’ Taylor Swift covers album with his own, Lou Reed-aping “interpretation from the classic Ryan Adams album ‘1989’” may have been leapt on like an act of cultural genius, but for Tillman it was just another way to pass the time. “I’m not sure I even believe in spontaneity any more,” he ponders on the subject. “Spontaneity is this thing that, culturally, from the highest echelons of power or influence, the message is not to serve or to sacrifice or to grow – it’s to enjoy your life and to be spontaneous and to express yourself and to be free and whatever else. So I think that we’ve sort of been, well I mean ‘brainwashed’ is such a dramatic word, but we make these very deliberate decisions and presume that they must be spontaneous if they feel right. But I will say that, with the covers of Ryan Adams, if you can justify spontaneity with an amount of time spent on anything – which with that particular thing was under and hour total, from conception to putting them on Soundcloud – that’s as close to a spontaneous kind of thing as I guess there can be. But, that said, I did kind of know what I was doing in some respects. I did kind of know that it would resonate. But I didn’t expect it to be as resonant as it was… which I found to be kind of disgusting.”

True to his word, the covers lasted a grand total of “a couple of hours” before Josh pulled them offline. When he was approached for comment on why they’d disappeared, he made up a lie about Lou Reed visiting him in a dream.

It wasn’t the first time he’d played a knowing prank on the music press – earlier this year, ahead of the release of his latest album ‘I Love You, Honeybear’, Josh uploaded a MIDI electronic version of the record for advance streaming, stating that it was a new technology titled SAP - “a new signal-to-audio process by which popular albums are ‘sapped’ of their performances, original vocal, atmosphere and other distracting affectations so the consumer can decide quickly and efficiently whether they like a musical composition, based strictly on its formal attributes, enough to spend money on it.” Yet again, it was leapt upon.

Father John Misty - ‘I Love You, Honeybear’ (Live at Spotify)

“Irony is a double-edged sword. It can be a wake-up call, but it can also be anaesthetising.”

Josh Tillman

“Here’s the deal,” he continues. “The entertainment landscape right now, in order for it to be the kind of entertainment that people want, it can’t be timeless. It needs to have this added dimension of time that has to be accounted for, or has to be integrated into the experience. So the fact that that [Ryan Adams] thing came out that day, and was timely in that way, and turned the thing into an event, that’s what made it take off.

“The MIDI version of the album, that’s a far more timeless idea or a timeless expression – and maybe it’s timely in that it’s addressing this far more drawn out conversation, but the Ryan Adams Taylor Swift thing was timely in that this is the white-hot moment that this thing is happening, and that’s what gets people off these days. It’s the same mentality as a tabloid.”

Talk of tabloids, smartphones and consumerism might initially seem at odds with Father John Misty’s grandiose, borderline classical arrangements and heart-rending love songs, but there’s a sense of humour that drips into Tillman’s day job too. ‘Bored In The U.S.A.’ sees an in-built laugh track used to counteract the dark lyrical statements on the age of the ‘millennial’, while his on-stage set-up includes a perfectly Instagrammable neon sign which demands ‘No Photography’. Of course, if you want to see it, you need only search #fatherjohnmisty online.

“Irony is a double-edged sword,” Tillman explains, “It can be a wake-up call, but it can also be anaesthetising.” He laments “the more toxic form of irony,” whereby people become overly wrapped up in just how clever and self-referential they are, and admits he tries to veer away from that chasm.

“In terms of how I employ irony,” he continues, “there’s something useful about admitting that I’m trying not to think about how much oil it takes to make a record [on ‘Now I’m Learning To Love The War’]. The point of that song is me asking this question that I think is useful to everyone, which is ‘what am I going to do with these resources and with my time that is useful and in the end is gonna benefit people?’ Is it just gonna be self gratification and navel-gazing? I think that that’s useful irony. Or in ‘Went To The Store’, I say “Insert here sentiment re: our golden years”. It’s sort of ironic to leave a blank… oh lord… a ‘blank space’, ha ha ha… in one of your songs. But that omission of a romantic sentiment where there should be a romantic sentiment, ends up being the most romantic sentiment that I was capable of.”

Father John Misty - ‘Now I’m Learning To Love The War’

“I have a very attuned bullshit detector with my own work”

Josh Tillman

“So much music, so much culture is almost reverted to propaganda or something, where everything has to be a prescription for decent human living. There’s a lot of ugliness in this album, there’s a lot of indecency and a lot of vulgarity, because if you’re gonna be creative you open the door of madness and you let everything in, and you have to run that risk. Or at least, I do.”

Tillman’s admission of his own personal madness is quintessential Father John Misty – relishing in the harsh and twisted realities of his subjects is what pitches him leagues ahead of his singer-songwriter contemporaries. “I’m not sure I can speak to what other songwriters think or how they experience that process, but I know that I just have a very attuned bullshit detector with my own work,” he admits. “I don’t aim straight for irony when I write this stuff, it just ends up being that way because it’s the way my brain works.”

Taken from the November ”Our Shit, Our Rules’ issue of DIY, out now. Order a copy below:

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