Josh Tillman is probably already weary of talking about it, but when you pack up your drum kit and quit a band as successful as Fleet Foxes, people are going to ask questions. Tillman did just that, announcing his departure this past January, after a 2011 that had seen the Seattle folk-rock act release its universally acclaimed sophomore album, Helplessness Blues, and garner a Grammy nomination.
When the Straight reaches him on the road in Ohio, Tillman is battling what he calls “a rare bout of intense, earth-shattering nausea”, a consequence of consuming too much alcohol and too little food the night before. Even so, he seems happy to talk, noting that, even though he found being a supporting player in Fleet Foxes unfulfilling, he had a hard time admitting it, even to himself.
“My sense of propriety was telling me that any decent person would be happy in my position, and that since I am unhappy, ergo I’m an ingrate, or some sort of terrible person, for not being able to enjoy that,” Tillman says. “But I had some moment of clarity within the last year, where I just realized that it’s as simple as, ‘The reason you’re not happy is because you’re not doing what you want to do.’ ”
The 31-year-old musician, who had already released seven albums of his own songs under the name J. Tillman, decided to leave the Pacific Northwest altogether. He eventually ended up in Los Angeles, where he currently lives. Along the way, he started writing—not songs, but a novel. That exercise, he says, helped him find his true voice. When he returned to music, he realized he couldn’t just make another J. Tillman record, so he adopted the name Father John Misty, which adorns his latest outing.
The 12-song Fear Fun is, without a doubt, the best work of Tillman’s career to date. Musically, it bounces giddily from the high-in-the-’70s coke-mirror lounge pastiche of “Nancy From Now On” to the rollicking cosmic country-rock of “Tee Pees 1-12” and the dark but tuneful dirge-grunge of “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings”. Tillman’s voice is a revelation, sometimes cracking like a shroom-addled street preacher’s, sometimes calling up the ghost of Roy Orbison. The lyrics are sardonic and sometimes hilarious, which makes Fear Fun a very different listening experience than any of Tillman’s studiously earnest earlier work.
“I think for a long time I was really under the impression that nothing valid creatively came out of anything other than fear and trembling—you know, darkness and whatever,” he admits. “I understand why I thought that way at the time, but I don’t see things that way anymore.”
Tillman says his new record represents his emergence from behind the manufactured persona that he cultivated on his previous releases. Although it’s evident that he experienced profound growth as an artist in between abandoning his post with Fleet Foxes and crafting the excellent Fear Fun, Tillman has a pragmatic take on the whole thing.
“I got bored, I blew up my life, and then, lo and behold, I made an album,” he states matter-of-factly. “It’s just really satisfying to have a handle on my own narrative voice, my own creative voice. Ultimately, I’m just excited to be able to continue to use that. Because it doesn’t feel like a dead end in the way that the music I was making previously felt like a dead end, because there was so much fantasy involved in it. There isn’t much fantasy in this music. It’s like, now I know how to talk about myself no matter what stage of life I’m in.”
Father John Misty opens for Youth Lagoon at Venue on Saturday (July 21).