Fun Times in Babylon
Josh Tillman is out of Fleet Foxes and into the weird, dark corner of the human experience— aka Los Angeles.
Let’s start at the end.
The last line of the last song on Josh Tillman’s new album goes, “I never liked the name Joshua/And I got tired of J.”
This line is more useful as an introduction than a coda. It explains why, after seven solo albums recorded as J. Tillman and four years drumming for Fleet Foxes, this album, Fear Fun, is where Josh Tillman makes his final stand. It explains why he’s recording and touring under the obfuscating moniker Father John Misty, why he upended his world in Seattle and settled in LA’s Laurel Canyon, why this music smolders with a rare combination of self-awareness, self-centeredness, unbridled libido and caustic intellect.
“You can make records under your name for a decade and never really say anything honest, even though you’re trying desperately,” Tillman says, on the phone in his Ford Club Wagon van outside the Laurel Canyon Country Store, where he sits with coffee and The New York Times crossword every morning. “When you’re young and vain, you’re reticent to reveal parts of yourself that are useful because they’re so vulnerable. With this record, I was fucking exhausted and bored of that. I was like, I’m more interesting in two minutes of conversation than five minutes of song. I can access more truth when I’m bullshitting.”
There’s plenty of bullshit on Fear Fun—beautiful, hilarious bullshit. The album is magnetic in its scorn. It was produced by erstwhile Laurel Canyon troubadour Jonathan Wilson as a pastiche of classic (and trendy) Laurel Canyon troubadours—the Mamas and the Papas, Jackson Browne, Crosby Stills and Nash, the Eagles, Gram Parsons. Song after song, it jangles, strums and gently rocks with a studied, urbane rusticity, all while mocking the image of the canyon as a storied refuge of boho-chic counterculture and halcyon artistic freedom. Like Portlandia, Fear Fun hones in on a specific locale to ridicule the young American creative class—and gets all the details right. Its mission statement is the title of its opener: “Funtimes in Babylon.”
More tongue-in-cheek self-flagellation: “Now I’m Learning to Love the War” is a softly-strummed acoustic ode that starts, “Try not to think so much about/The truly staggering amount/Of oil /That it takes to make a record.” “I’m writing a novel!” goes the chorus to “I’m Writing a Novel,” the album’s centerpiece, “Because it’s never been done before!” Other songs reference prescription drugs, designer drugs, sweat lodges, sexual deviance, Neil Young, Joseph Campbell, Heidegger and Sartre. The album cover art, cartoonish and grotesque, is by Russian-American maximal-surrealist Dimitri Drjuchin. Inside are two foldout posters printed in five-point type containing a very long stream-of-consciousness treatise. Which is the novel of the song, according to the annotated liner notes.
Pretentious? Gratuitous? Self-loathing? Yes. Insightful? Intelligent? Immensely enjoyable? All that, too.
Fear Fun’s gestation stretches back to early 2010. That spring, Fleet Foxes were set to record their sophomore record, Helplessness Blues, at Bear Creek Studios outside Seattle. Tillman, who joined the band in April 2008, had just turned 29. His romance with Aja Pecknold, Fleet Foxes’ manager and sister of bandleader Robin Pecknold, was withering. He was restless.
“I was tired of living somewhere, tired of eating in an apartment,” he says. “I felt like a sad gorilla under observation.”
Tillman got in his van, left Seattle, and bummed around a couple months with no particular destination other than out. I want to self-destruct, he thought. There’s truth in that.
While in Big Sur on the central California coast, a friend suggested he hook up with friends of friends in Laurel Canyon.
“I just felt, what the fuck would I be doing living in LA?” Tillman says. After growing up on the East Coast and six years of living in Seattle, “the idea was so revolting and intriguing simultaneously that I had to do it.”
For the next year, Tillman flew back and forth from LA to Seattle to record with Fleet Foxes. But his own songs gripped his creative mind and LA sparked a fruitful cynicism.
“If something’s gonna be gross, I want it really gross,” he says. “Here it’s a spectacle of shallowness instead of just the civilian form of shallowness. The industry this place is made on is movies, intellectual properties. They make intangibles. And that permeates the atmosphere. It’s a really abstract place.”
In January of this year, seven months after the release of Helplessness Blues and the world tour that accompanied it, Tillman officially left Fleet Foxes. He announced Father John Misty—and his continued relationship with Sub Pop Records—via personal Twitter and Tumblr accounts. Around the same time, Fleet Foxes Christian Wargo and Casey Westcott announced a new side project, Poor Moon, and Robin Pecknold tweeted about searching for work as a music teacher in Portland, where he’d relocated. Tillman says only Pecknold knows the status of Fleet Foxes. Pecknold was not available for comment.
It wasn’t a “super juicy” departure, Tillman says; there was no ill will. He left the band because he was already absorbed in solo work. “At some point, I reached a level of dissonance where I realized I was kidding myself,” he says. “This is what I want to do. I need to give it enough dignity to fucking do it.”
Dignity is nowhere to be seen in the videos Tillman made to accompany Fear Fun. The first, “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings,” features Aubrey Plaza, rising starlet of TV’s Parks and Recreation and movies like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and Safety Not Guaranteed. In it, Plaza parties through Laurel Canyon on a nightlong bender, dazed and bloody-nosed, until Tillman hefts her kicking and screaming into the back of his van, slams the door and smokes a cigarette. In the second, “Nancy from Now On,” a dominatrix flogs Tillman and cuts off his beard in a hotel room. The third, “This Is Sally Hatchet,” is unfinished at press time but appears to contain booty dancers, fake blood, a shotgun and pizza.
Tillman’s previous work—“sexless male fantasy,” as he describes it—never went to the weird, dark, provocative corner of his mind. Fear Fun sets up a stage there and offers tickets to the show. For the moment, Tillman’s more fascinated than anyone. But after a half-decade of earnest, handholding folk-pop, we’re desperate for a strong dose of irony and a sucker punch in the gut. That it comes sugared in folk-pop trappings played by a sharp five-piece band makes it all the more insidious. It took a while to get here, but Tillman has mined truth from artifice. Father John Misty will draw crowds.
“When I see people from college now they’re like, I remember you being angry all the time,” Tillman says. “I’m like, really? I though I was being funny! I’ve always left that out of the music, but at this point in my life, I recognize that’s who I am.
“You couldn’t listen to my old records and think, this might be a happy dude,” he continues. “With this record you could listen and wonder if this is a happy dude or a depressed dude. That’s interesting to me. It’s much closer to real life.”
Father John Misty plays at Neumos on Monday, May 7. Photo by Bryan Sheffield.