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
In Seattle, Tillman befriended Damien Jurado, whose CDs, with their Christian subtext, had gotten past the gatekeepers at home. Jurado encouraged Tillman to pursue his music, and eventually took him on tour.
“As a teenager, I fell deeply in love with folk music—the simplicity of it, the humanity of it, the emotion,” says Tillman. “But to me, it was this old form that nobody bothered with anymore. Hearing that first or second Damien record, I was like, ‘People are still doing this?’” Working construction and living in the basement of a friend’s brother, Tillman threw himself into singing, songwriting and recording. Soon he was performing and releasing music under the name J. Tillman. “I didn’t like the name Joshua,” he says. “I was named very symbolically. I was named after Joshua the bible character, and was told that my name is about leadership and courage and obedience to God and all that stuff. I was already at a point where I was like, ‘Fuck that, I don’t want to embody that. I don’t want to stand for that.’ Names take on a lot of significance when you are in, like, a spiritually minded household, so I am not surprised that that was the first thing to go.”
Taken as a whole, the seven records he released under the J. Tillman moniker are the sound of a man engaging the fallen angels of his youth in spiritual warfare. His voice was his sword; his guitar, his shield. “The music is very dark, and about death and betrayal and spirituality, man’s relationship to God, my relationship to God,” he says. “I think the reason those records are so humorless is because a lot of my childhood I was told that all of my humor was inappropriate and ungodly. But as I got older, I found the sting of that sort of thing lessening exponentially.”
After six politely reviewed, modest-selling albums on micro-indies, Tillman had a small-yet-devoted following. But the prospect of him ever being able to quit his day job remained remote at best. And then, a dramatic reversal of fortune. By the tail end of the aughts, Tillman was dating Aja Pecknold, sister of Robin Pecknold, frontman and primary songwriter of Seattle’s Fleet Foxes. In 2008, the band released its breakout self-titled debut. During the first tour in support of the album, friction between Pecknold and the band’s drummer came to a head, resulting in said drummer being fired at the end of the tour. Now Fleet Foxes needed somebody who could not only keep a beat, but also help recreate the album’s sunbeam harmonies.
“They knew me, and knew that I sing like a motherfucker and I play drums and even had a beard,” says Tillman. “It’s like I was genetically engineered to be in that band.”
When Tillman auditioned, he didn’t even own a drum kit. “I think I overestimated my interest in being the drummer in somebody else’s band when I said (I’d join),” he says. “You have to understand I was doing construction and I was pretty beaten down by the grind by that point. I worked with 50- and 60-year-old dudes every day, getting on the bus every morning when it was still dark, and I felt like a 50- or 60-year-old dude. I had been making these records that no one gave a shit about and touring my ass off. I was like, ‘Fuck this constant songwriter misery. I can do that.’”
Although the Foxes welcomed him with open arms, Tillman felt conflicted in that he had played no constructive role in their burgeoning stardom. For the longest time, when fans would approach him after shows and ask him to sign their copy of Fleet Foxes, he refused. “I would just say, ‘Sorry, I didn’t play on that,’” he says. “And (my bandmates) would be like, ‘Come on, you are in the band.’”
His first year as a Fleet Fox was a stone-cold gas: rave reviews, adoring crowds, more money than he’d ever seen in his life. His initial pay check from the Fleet Foxes was for $13,000, which is a fuckload of money for a guy who, three months prior, could barely make his rent. But two years of touring and living in each other’s back pocket soon took their toll on interpersonal relationships within the band.
“We were all being standoffish and short and just sort of unhappy,” says Tillman. “I was very confused. I was like, ‘How did we not make this work? How are we not all having a great time? This seems like it should be so easy.’ Instead, it turned into ‘Touring sucks, promo sucks, being in a band sucks, the isolation that I feel sucks.’ Like, everything about this sucks. And then the relationships in the band became very strained, and no one could talk to each other. It’s like, no one ever hung out. It was just very isolated, and I mean, you really need some camaraderie when you’re stuck with five people and that’s your whole world. It started feeling like a fraud to me. You know, here we are playing this kind, gentle, positive, shiny, smiley music about the sun and mountains and families and happy shit, juxtaposed with the weird, weird misery happening inside the organization itself.”
When it came time to make a follow-up to the first album, Fleet Foxes were running on fumes both creatively and interpersonally.
TILLMAN: Basically we went into the studio with no songs.
MAGNET: Zero songs written?
TILLMAN: There were some songs written, but no one had played them before. We tried for, like, six months to get together in a room and, you know, write music together, and just nobody could stand to be in a room together for very long, and Robin definitely exacerbated it. And then apathy set in. Like, we’re wasting so much money sitting around these studios and then doing things in these half-assed ways. Like, you’ve got this huge budget to make this, and everyone keeps talking about what an amazing record it’s going to be, and then we’re recording in our practice space with, like, the bus going by, so none of the tracks can be used.
And it’s just like, we have all these resources at our disposal and all this dough, and we can make this amazing thing. There was all this pie-in-the-sky talk: “We’re going to go to Iceland and record onto water,” or “We’re gonna, like, tune the mountains and play those and it’s gonna be mind-blowing—it’ll be like Astral Weeks, but better.” And six months later, we’re back in the practice space trying to piece something together with Pro Tools. Like, “OK, grab that middle part,” you know? So, that whole thing about scrapping [a completed version of the record and starting over, as was widely reported at the time] was bullshit. We limped our way into this first version of the record. There was barely any there there.
Then there was more pie in the sky, where it was like, “Oh, we’re gonna go mix it at Sear Sound and they have an old-school analog board and it’s gonna sound amazing!” We get there and it’s like, nothing in the studio works. They spent like a month (at Sears Sound) banging their head against the wall because the basic tracks sounded so shitty. We were just kind of limping through the whole thing, and it wasn’t very inspiring. But the hardness of making the album to me wasn’t so much wrapped up in the search for perfection so much as, “Does anybody want to do this? Does anyone want to be in this band or make this record and, like, try and do this thing?”
MAGNET: I didn’t like the second record nearly as much as the first one.
TILLMAN: I didn’t either. I joined this band because I was like, “Man, this is so refreshing. This music is guileless and catchy and fun to play and fun to sing.” But by that point, it’s just not much of a band. People’s idea of Fleet Foxes was that it’s these five guys in a room all singing together, you know, and harmonizing in the studio, but it’s like nobody sang on those records other than Robin.
MAGNET: I mean there are like three spots of (group) harmony on the second record, but so much of the stuff that we did, Robin would go back and erase it and then do it all himself, and we’d have spent like days trying to get these vocal things the way they’re supposed to be, and then, without telling anyone, they just get scratched and re-recorded. We’d listen back and be like, “What did you do? Like, what are you doing?” And it got to a point where I didn’t even want to lay anything down. He’s either not going to like it or it’s going to get replaced. When that record came out, I refused to do any press because if anyone asked me, I was going to tell the truth, and that would be a lot different than the bullshit story that was being sold to the public and the press.
By the end of the Helplessness Blues session, Tillman had amicably split with Pecknold’s sister, who was now managing the band. Eager to get out of Seattle and put some distance between himself and the double bummer that the Foxes had become, Tillman bought a used van (the same van he loads his gal pal Aubrey Plaza into at the end of the “Hollywood Forever Cemetery” video), packed up his belongings and began winding his way down the West Coast. He stopped in at Big Sur and was pretty much living out of his van when a friend called to tell him about some musician buddies who had an awesome place in Laurel Canyon and were looking for a roommate.
“I was confusing Laurel Canyon with Topanga Canyon, and so I agreed to move into this place sight unseen,” he says. “And so I’m following the GPS driving through L.A., and I look up and I’m like, ‘I’m in fucking Hollywood right now! I live in Hollywood! This is fucking great!’ I was just so open to that sort of thing at that juncture. I was just like, ‘Yes, just give me something fucking weird.’”
MAGNET: So, it was just an accident that you wound up in the same place that Neil Young and Joni Mitchell and Jim Morrison and the Mamas And The Papas and the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers lived and loved back in the day? There was no walking-in-the-shoes-of-giants kind of thing?
TILLMAN: No, I don’t really like that shit. I had to constantly answer the question did I like Crosby, Stills (And Nash) when I was in Fleet Foxes, and I was like, “No. I mean, I like Neil Young. But to answer your question, no.” It’s too airtight that I would just move down here and be like, “Yeah, visions of the canyon, man.” It’s just not my thing. And even if I wanted that, that hippie version of Laurel Canyon does not fucking exist. It’s just rich people with small dogs screaming at each other. That is what Laurel Canyon is. I would be out on the front porch, a white guy in Laurel Canyon, with long hair, playing acoustic guitar and singing, and someone from down the street would be like, ‘Shut the fuck up Go back to where you came from!”
The night before Fleet Foxes played the Bridge School Benefit back in 2009, the band attended a barbeque at Neil Young’s ranch, along with all the other performers that year: Sheryl Crow, No Doubt, Gavin Rossdale, Chris Martin, Wolfmother, the Monsters Of Folk. At one point, Tillman broke off from the crowd, walked down the hill to the bonfire and sat down on a log, where he could be alone with his thoughts. “Next thing I know, Neil Young is sitting next to me smoking a joint with some old road dog, talking about the good old days,” says Tillman. “Then he turns to me and he hands me the joint, and I will never forget the way the fire flickered across his face and all the stars in the sky. Then he smiled and said, ‘Time to play hostess.’ And walked off.”
Man, that’s like getting holy communion from Jesus, I tell him. He just nods wearily, seemingly already incapable of savoring the pinch-me moments of nascent fame.
At the ripe old age of 27, Joshua Tillman discovered psychedelic drugs, and it was a match made in heaven. Soon he was taking “heroic doses.” Three mugfuls of mushroom tea and 20 minutes later, you’re the piper at the gates of dawn. Tripping, he says, afforded him life-changing insights into his troubled psyche.
“I went on this big hike, and I was walking up this mountain, and along the way I kept taking off articles of clothing,” says Tillman. “By the time I got to the top, I was naked, so I climbed up into this tree and I’m sitting naked on a branch contemplating my own absurdity and impermanence. I had what I perceived to be like a really, like, critical encounter with my absurdity and my childhood, where I realized that I had attempted to perform electroshock therapy on myself or something, where I had attempted throughout my 20s to eliminate this history. I had to try to become a person of my own fashioning. I just realized that there are all these things that I can do and that I haven’t been doing. It’s like, ‘You’re funny. You have a kind of a bizarre outlook. You can talk. Like, all these things are good things. Why do you feel such self-loathing about those things?’ That for me was, like, unbelievably liberating. And it really was in a single moment, and it was like this big realization where everything changed. And that’s part of the reason why I can’t play the J. Tillman songs anymore.”
And then he did what anybody else in his shoes would have done: He climbed down from the tree, put on his clothes, walked down the mountain and wrote a novel.
Mostly Hypothetical Mountains
Father John Misty
The last time Tillman did “heroic doses” was a month ago. He and Emma drove out to Joshua Tree, checked into the Gram Parsons death suite at the Inn and then tripped their brains out in the desert. “It was fucking great,” says Tillman. “It’s tough to describe. You know, metaphysical experiences lose value every time you talk about them, or try to talk about them. They become more attached to language. Like William James talks about that in his metaphysics book. Every time you talk about them, they become a little more corrupted, a little less profound. But while it’s happening, it heightens my communicative faculties. It gives me access to a lot of my ideas. My head is full of crazy imagery. When I’m on mushrooms, I feel like I’m at home.”
Tillman was tripping his tits off for every show on the first leg of the Fear Fun tour.
This talk of cosmic experiences in the desert wets my long dormant psychedelic appetite. For a while I had Tillman convinced that we should get up in the morning and drive out to Joshua Tree and trip.
MAGNET: We could do that tomorrow, couldn’t we? We could go to Joshua Tree, if we got up in the morning.
MAGNET: Would you be up for that?
TILLMAN: I think so. [half-heartedly] I’d be down.
MAGNET: It lasts about four to six hours, right? So after we’d be sober enough that we could drive back home in time for catching my plane.
TILLMAN: Well, I’m just trying to think about how game I am for tearing out there. I’m going out there on Saturday [to play Coachella]. I kind of feel like keeping it closer to home before I start getting crazy. Have you been out to Joshua Tree before?
MAGNET: Nope, and I love the desert. Plus, the Gram Parsons thing, I’d like to see that rock where his drug buddies tried unsuccessfully to cremate him and smoke his ashes. Just think how perfect it would be for the story.
TILLMAN: [starting to change his mind] Yeah.
MAGNET: Something like “I’m was riding shotgun with Father John Misty and it was right around Barstow when the drugs kicked in…”
TILLMAN: Yeah, I can definitely get behind that. Yeah, let’s…. let’s… Fuck it. Let’s make some history!
It was probably all for the best when the pep talk wore off after a few hours and Tillman put the kibosh on Joshua Tree. OK, I tell him, but you’re gonna have to change your name to Father John Pussy.
Tillman calls those bad impulse decisions ‘amphetamine choices.’ You don’t have to be on fast drugs to make amphetamine choices, but it sure helps. “It’s like an evil Choose Your Own Adventure, where every decision you make is a bad one,” he says. “Emma and I were talking about this the other day. I was like, ‘I could derail my entire life. If I did cocaine all day for a week, I could successfully ruin my life. I guarantee it. The choices that get made, the passions that get stirred, the reason that gets marginalized.”
Having sorted out his past and figured out his future, all that remained was to put the present out of its misery. “I tried to quit (Fleet Foxes) while we were making the album,” he says. “I called the other guys in the band and was like, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore.’ They were like, ‘The album is just a pain in the ass—once we get on tour, it’ll be great.’ And I was like, ‘OK.’ By that point, a tour had already been booked and I didn’t want to fuck everyone over, so I missed my window. I decided I would stick it out until the end of the tour.” The tour ended in Japan. Because communication had more or less broken down within the band, when the time came, Tillman did it with an email he sent to everyone in the band:
I realize this is sort of a bizarre time, seeing as we’re all on tour together right now and very well may all be in the same room as you read this, but on this last break home I had a pretty potent moment of clarity wherein I realized that I need to resign from the band.
This may come off as a touch dramatic, and silly, given that we’re a few weeks away from being done with this record cycle anyway; however, in my mind, it’s a big decision to extract myself emotionally, creatively, etc.
Again, I don’t want to seem presumptuous that I think this is some kind of big deal; I know people are looking forward as opposed to wringing hands over the band right now, but it’s important to me that I let you all know, as part of a larger shift in perspective.
I’ve been a real a son of a bitch to you guys on more than a few occasions, and I’m sorry you all had to bear the brunt of my self-loathing and unhappiness for so long and with such regularity. That said, I’m proud to have been a part of such a great band.
I think you know that ultimately what this is all about, and has been about forever and ever, is the fact that I am an impossibly self-motivated, obsessive narcissist (7 records… Who the hell does that? Someone should have held a creative intervention), who, as long as he isn’t diverting all his energy into his own enterprises, feels constricted, and marginalized, and useless. Which makes them full-blown, wounded-pride, wildly-irrationally resentful creeps.
I’ve hit a fork in the road in terms of how I regard myself, and what liberties I need to give myself to just move forward and be as productive and useful as I can without living in a malaise of mind games. “Mind games” as in, a 4-year emotional steeplechase trying to fend off the depression that sets in anytime I’m not being creative of my own volition (this sounds dramatic, but is absolutely true) and telling myself I’m an asshole for not being able to just be congenial, content and grateful when I find myself with everything everyone I ever came up playing music with ever wanted (chiefly, respect/salvation from death-work), and worked their asses off for, sitting in my lap. Yet, the dreamer in me persists in being a total ingrate; ornery, petty and mean.
We both know what was going on in my head—internalizing the success of this band as a direct statement on the uselessness and uninspired, boring nature of my own music. My big failure, which is precious above all things to me, and is just about the only thing I’ve ever found to do that felt like it meant anything.
ALL OF WHICH IS INSANE. SO:
I have this choice to either be productive and useful and do what gives me sustainable purpose and allows me to take my mind off all the obvious angst (see: the nature of this entire ridiculous email), even if that means I’m a total misanthropic, selfish monster who can’t get along with others, or to try and maintain the alternative, which it is obvious I fucking suck at. At fucking 30 years old.
On top of all this, I have had, what is in my mind at least, a substantial creative breakthrough, and writing, recording, etc. has taken on a whole new identity and voice, which I believe is my own, and which I don’t think I’ve ever been able to use until now, and I really, really, want to use it.
According to Tillman, Pecknold responded with a single sentence email. “It seems like the right call.”
That night, the penultimate night of the tour, Tillman lost it three-quarters of the way through the set. He kicked his drum kit over and started sobbing uncontrollably.
“It was like years of this pent-up unhappiness and going onstage and doing this anesthetized, sterile, fucking show night after night after night, and I was like, ‘I just want something real to happen on the stage.’ You know, like, I’m tired of this fucking… it’s just bullshit,” says Tillman. “The curtain came down and Robin went out and did a couple solo songs to keep up appearances, and Casey (Wescott) just kind of held me while I wept like a maniac. I was just sort of realizing, like, ‘Man, I put so much into this, and it’s really sad to not have more to show for it.’ You know, like more of a relationship with these people, more of a relationship to this thing, any sense of ownership. You know, I felt like a fraud. Like I sold everything to do this thing because it sounded like a good thing to do, and that’s not why you’re creative, that’s not why you make art: because it seems like a sustainable, adult way to make a living. That’s not why I make music.”
Tillman wants to go to the Chateau Marmont for dinner. He’s obsessed with the place—he and Emma are semi-regulars—and it’s easy to see why. Looming magisterially over the Sunset Strip from its perch in the Hollywood Hills like a duchess in a whore house, the Chateau Marmont is iconic. It is Hotel California. Errol Flynn swashbuckled here. James Dean brooded handsomely here. Greta Garbo hid here. F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hunter Thompson wrote and drank here. John Belushi OD’d here. Lindsay Lohan is banned from here—she owes or owed the hotel something like $46,000, according to the gossip rags. It is where high Babylon goes to dine and be seen. “This is a great place to see Lionel Richie or Steven Tyler eating a Cobb salad,” Tillman deadpans. Last time he was here, he saw Joseph Gordon-Levitt lunching with RZA. Tonight we spot Katy Perry and the chick who played Donna on That 70s Show.
Tillman clearly savors the existential absurdity of celebrity as much as he’s horrified by it. He’s doubling down on the notion of going Hollywood. He is working on TV pilot with Kyle Flynn, who plays keyboards in the Father John Misty touring band, about a cheesy once-famous country-music duo (think Big & Rich) that has fallen on hard times and has been reduced to making ends meet by mixing up batches of a potent meth/bath-salts hybrid that it sells through the Korean mafia. “It got a real Big Lebowski comedy of error kind of thing happening,” says Tillman, who would play one half of the country duo along with Sean Tillmann from Har Mar Superstar.
Still, even Father John Misty has his limits. He turned down $75,000 to cover Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s “Lucky Man” for a Volkswagen ad, and politely declined when NBC wanted him as a guest judge for yet another American Idol knock-off.
Tillman gets a call from Jonathan Wilson, who co-produced and played on a lot of Fear Fun. In addition to an acclaimed solo career, Wilson—who looks like a hippie Christian Bale—has become a very in-demand producer. He’s been out drinking with Lucinda Williams and her beau, and they want to meet us for a drink. Fuck yeah. Last time I checked, she was still the legendary sweetheart of the alt-country rodeo. After dinner, we retire to the bar and join them in a booth. It becomes immediately apparent that the half-empty glass of cabernet sauvignon sitting in front of Lucinda isn’t her first of the night. Earlier tonight, she was at a rehearsal for an autism benefit that Stephen Stills is throwing on Saturday. She’s doing “For What It’s Worth.”
“So, I said to him, ‘Should I call you Stephen or Steve?’” she says. “And David Crosby chimes in: ‘I just call him Fuckhead.’”
A few more rounds later, we pile into the white van for the moonlit trek back to Misty Mountain, winding our way through the Hollywood Hills on Mulholland Drive, windows down, cool wind in our hair. Warm smell of colitas rises up through the air. There is a parking ticket flapping on the windshield and, with all due apologies to Dr. Thompson, it bores us. Ah, fun times in Babylon.