As he drove his 1998 Ford Club Wagon to Albany, Oregon, the artist recently known as Father John Misty joked “I did get baptized in this van when I was 8. And then I lost my virginity in it when I was 13. And then I killed someone for the first time in my life when I was 19.” Come Friday, he’ll pull up at Lower Sproul to perform a SUPERB event.
Misty, whose real name is Josh Tillman, is full of contradictions. The answers he gave during our phone interview were both wildly sarcastic and deeply analytical. He doesn’t want to be modern, yet he’s very much of his time. He’s a complex guy who, until recently, revelled in the simplicity of raw music. He seems to form a meeting place where paradoxes coalesce into a harmony.
Despite being well-known as a former drummer for harmony-laden indie folk band Fleet Foxes, Tillman has an extensive discography of solo work. His previous albums as J. Tillman expressed a sentimental rawness as a somber tone generally pervaded his consistently-structured songs.
Fear Fun, which dropped in April, is Tillman’s eighth album and his first as Father John Misty. While elements of his previous sound remain, the album is a digression that manifests in a diverse array of songs, including a country stomper, an atmospheric ballad and twangy blues rock. He moves from pastoral scenery to “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings.”
“I just wanted a sound that was devoid of any distracting affectation,” he said. “I just wanted it to sound good, you know?”
His departure from his past musical efforts was so radical that it merited a change in moniker. Although the name sounds deceptively like a persona cultivated out of a mystic vision, Father John Misty doesn’t mark a shift in his personal identity. It was just an arbitrary choice to distance himself from his past work.
“That difference [between J. Tillman and Father John Misty] is chiefly musical, so one’s best option for sussing that out is to listen to the music and use some deductive reasoning,” he said.
Given this distinction, his lively stage presence seems to mesh better with the grandiosity of Father John Misty.
When asked about his penchant for incorporating funky dance moves into his performances of slow-building folk songs, he said, “The dancing really is in some ways so natural that I don’t have a reason for doing it. But it also is an extension of the fact that I gesture quite a bit when I talk or express myself.” He doesn’t try to conform to any expectations of a folk singer.
His sarcasm extends to the characterization of his upcoming show tailored for the Berkeley audience: “I’ll probably bring some juggle sticks onstage and ride a unicycle and bleach my hair blue and wear alternative rock T-shirts from the 90s and hacky-sack and wear one of those snowboarding jester hats. That’s kind of the Berkeley vibe. I want to nail that one in.”
The danger of satire is in losing a sense of yourself by expressing the opposite of your beliefs. And yet, his work seems to have become more personal.
“Sometimes satire is the most straightforward thing,” he said. “There’s nothing innately straightforward in some kind of sentimental, confessional song. Those ideas are cloaked in so much romance that someone can say ‘I love you’ plainly in a song, and it can be schmaltzy.”
In the aptly-named track, “Now I’m Learning to Love the War” (which seems to reference the film “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb,” a satire of the Cold War), he becomes the object of his own criticism with the lyric, “Try not to think so much about / The truly staggering amount of oil that it takes to make a record.” Apparently no one is safe from his judgment.
The catalyst for his stylistic metamorphosis was his writing process for a dystopian novel. “I’ve just realized that I have some kind of mandate from myself, given the kind of person that I am, to communicate creatively in a way that’s (congruous) with the way that I think and talk conversationally,” he said.
His absurd music videos are an extension of this communication. For “This is Sally Hatchet,” a gang underworld is set at a pizza place. While he cuts off his fingers with a pizza cutter, a pentagram-enscribed pizza serves as the centerpiece. The song climaxes as sexy silhouettes of ladies dance around a gun range.
When asked how he makes them, he joked, “I conceptualize them and just kind of start begging my friends.”
Aubrey Plaza of “Parks and Recreation,” who perfectly fits his penchant for sarcasm, manically broods around in the video for “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings.” It seems unfitting to have a comedienne act melancholy, and yet this further ties into his tendency to communicate through backwards meanings. He said he liked working with her because she’s “pretty weird.”
To express why he likes to work with weird people, Tillman paraphrased Albert Einstein’s view that an idea has no hope if it’s not first viewed as absurd. “That’s kind of the premise of that thinking,” he said.
The music video ends with Tillman stuffing a wild Plaza in the back of a van. Maybe he’s not joking about his formative experiences in his 1998 Ford Club Wagon.
What: Father John Misty Concert
When: Friday, Sept. 28
Where: Lower Sproul, UC Berkeley
Other Details: Free event by SUPERB
Contact Caitlin at [email protected]