Illustration by RACHEL WADA
Misty Mountain Hop
If Father John Misty’s life was a Hollywood movie, it would be a metaphysical jail-break thriller about a wrongly convicted man escaping the prison of belief thanks to the liberating power of rock ‘n’ roll and psychedelic drugs. MAGNET goes to the mountain to help write the script.
BY JONATHAN VALANIA
Father John Misty lives in a red-clay adobe pueblo on top of a low mountain in Echo Park. Good luck trying to find it without GPS and a helicopter. Down below the cloud line, the hazy glittering grid of Greater Los Angeles recedes into the infinite. From the vantage point of this fairly Olympian perch, the City of Angels looks like flecks of diamond embedded in a filthy sidewalk. Like most wise men atop mountains, Father John Misty’s possessions are few: his beard, his acoustic guitar, his vinyl copy of On The Beach and a mason jar filled to the brim with psyilocybin mushroom caps. There’s no internet access, cellular service is intermittent at best, and in Father John Misty’s world there is no such thing as TV—just Richard Brautigan novels. There is a black 1972 Cadillac Hearse parked out front that he literally bought for a song. His sole companion, besides his thoughts and psychoactive fungi, is Emma, his gorgeous twentysomething gal pal, currently a grad student at UCLA film school, and last seen in the “Nancy From Now On” video in a black bustier and garter belt, slapping Tillman around and forcibly shaving off his beard, Delilah-like, in a room at the Chateau Marmont. She makes a helluva kale smoothie.
Father John Misty is the nom de soft rock of one Joshua Tillman, a.k.a. J. Tillman, ex-drummer for Fleet Foxes and author of eight largely ignored and invariably joyless solo albums of pious folk rectitude. These were the songs of innocence, the whispery bedroom folk he made on the sly between globe-trotting tours wherein the Fleet Foxes charmed the pants off the world, but could barely stand the sight of each other. Those albums remain a well-kept secret.
And then one day in 2010, he blew up his life. Killed off J. Tillman, quit the Fleet Foxes, let his raging id off the short leash it had been kept on since his tormented childhood trapped in a fundamentalist Christian house of pain. Instead of muting his wicked sense of humor and bottomless appetite for the absurd, he turned it up to 11. He changed his stage name to Father John Misty. Threw his guitar and a family-size sack of magic mushrooms into the van, and set the controls for the heart of Babylon.
Look out Hollywood, here I come.
Fear Fun (Sub Pop), Father John Misty’s debut, came out a year ago, and after 12 months of trippin’-balls touring, four cinematic high-concept videos (in his latest, he dances to “Funtimes In Babylon” amid the ruins of a 747 crashed into a suburban subdivision, a set piece left over from Steven Spielberg’s War Of The Worlds), inclusion on innumerable year-end best-of lists and a lot of swooning word of mouth on social media, the album has become the sleeper hit of the year. This despite a very public gloves-off Twitter war with Pitchfork. But more than any of those things, the reason Fear Fun has legs is because it’s front-loaded with earworms dressed up in stoned-in-the-Canyon harmonies, scuffed-denim twang and acid-witted Nilsson-ian soft-rock pastiches. And, most importantly, The Voice. Dude sings like an angel wrapped in velvet and smothered in honey. His voice is characterized by something extremely rare in modern music: the unstrained quality of mercy. To quote the Bard, it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven. Or, as Tillman puts it, he can sing like a motherfucker.
It is shortly after 10 a.m. on yet another glorious, sun-kissed day in Babylon when I show up at Tillman’s compound high atop Misty Mountain. His publicist assured me via text when I deplaned that he was awake and eagerly awaiting my arrival, but he seems surprised and unprepared when I get to his front door. For one thing, he is completely naked. “Sorry,” he says sheepishly after pulling on some pants. “I’m sure you’ve seen worse.” I tell him it will make for a colorful opening scene for the story. Shirtless and shoeless, wild-haired and sporting one of those Old Testament beards, he escorts me back down the stairs to a small room adjoining the pueblo. Ordinarily, this serves as the studio where he works on his paintings, but for the next couple days it will serve as my guest quarters and locus of more than eight hours of intensive on-the-record conversation.
The room is rustic and airy. A gentle breeze climbs up the green mountain and funnels through the windows and open door like a peaceful, easy feeling. There is a small choir of crickets sounding off in the corner, and the occasional lizard scampers past my feet. They are adorable, just like pocket-size dinosaurs. There are a half-dozen canvasses leaning against the walls, all brightly colored, lurid and childlike in their primitivism. None has a title except the one he calls Mona Lisa 2. Tillman excuses himself and returns with two steaming mugs of java and a peace pipe. Time to wake and bake, it would seem.
Well, when in Rome.
Despite the fact that, by his own admission, Tillman got a shitty education, constantly shuffled from one barely accredited Christian school to another for acting out or asking too many questions, the good Lord blessed him with a beautiful mind. He is witty, well-spoken and well-read, not to mention a preternaturally gifted prose stylist.
We sit cross-legged on the floor and pass the peace pipe before launching into an intense and expansive conversation about art and God and ghosts and all the crucial events that lead up to us sitting here: his profoundly unhappy fundamentalist upbringing in the exurbs of Washington, D.C.; his nervous breakdown at a Christian college in upstate New York; his narrow escape from the prison of belief; his desperate exodus to Seattle; his joyless tenure in Fleet Foxes; his forays into psychedelia, including a visit to a shaman in the Cascade Mountains who squeegeed away the crusted ego that was blinding his third eye and fed him Ayahuasca until he realized, to quote Bill Hicks, “that all matter is merely energy condensed to a slow vibration, that we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively, there is no such thing as death, life is only a dream, and we are the imagination of ourselves”; the murder of J. Tillman, the birth of Father John Misty and all the fun times in Babylon that ensued. All of which he is nakedly honest about, sometimes painfully so. He is eager, he says, to answer the many, many questions nobody has bothered to ask him. The result is one part dictated memoir, one part sinner’s confessional and one part talk therapy.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Look for Part II tomorrow.