The Night I Almost Killed Josh Tillman

I ALMOST killed Father John Misty. It happened at a music festival in 2015. He was standing there with my friends – handsome, charismatic and composedly high on mushrooms, cocaine and MDMA – telling a story about how he took acid at a Taylor Swift show in Melbourne the night before and experienced something “holy”. I had a bottle of amyl in my pocket with his name on it.

• • •

IT’S two years later on the Splendour In The Grass tour and we’re in a mid-century furnished room at Sydney’s Old Clare Hotel discussing another near-death experience. It happened in the JCPenney department store when he was eight, and frames the second verse of the sprawling ballad ‘Leaving LA‘ from third album Pure Comedy.

We’re talking exclusively about this song today because in many ways it wraps the entire Father John Misty story into 13 minutes – his transition from austere balladeer and Fleet Foxes drummer Josh Tillman to the fantastical alter-ego he conjured after leaving Seattle for Los Angeles in a shroom-induced haze.

For better or worse that “self-destructive act of myth-making” is the reason he’s here today, but he also grapples with it. He’s acutely aware of everything everyone has ever said about him, and internalises those opinions, both good and bad. If “don’t read the comments” is the first rule of the Internet, he’s the cautionary tale of what happens when someone does the opposite every damn day.

He’s been called “pretentious” (by the critic Greil Marcus); just another boring white dude courting controversy (by everyone with a Twitter account and a keyboard) after he sang lyrics about “bedding Taylor Swift” on Saturday Night Live earlier this year; and the “most self-important asshole on earth” (by Ryan Adams).

But this is not the Josh Tillman I first met at Meredith, or the man I’m interviewing today. He’s a warm, funny, and generous interviewee; a charismatic and complicated man that still wrestles with depression, his difficult childhood in an evangelical Christian community, substance abuse issues, and an overwhelming desire to be understood.

And yet when he sashays into the hotel room with a Paloma cocktail and lights up a cigarette in the non-smoking room I just put a $250 deposit on, I wonder where the line between Father John Misty and Josh Tillman begins and ends. My first reaction is to open the window, but it’s glued shut for the exact reason I’m trying to open it. “It’s OK,” he says, taking another puff from the American Spirit cigarette he just pulled out from a fresh deck. “I smoke in every hotel room.” Later I will google, “How to remove cigarette smells from hotel rooms”, just to be safe.

“The first time I took mushrooms I had this realisation that I should just be myself,” he later explains. “Sometimes it means being superficial. Sometimes that means being obscenely vulnerable. Sometimes it means being funny. And sometimes it means being banal.”

"I was living on the hill"

THE starting point of ‘Leaving LA’ is a road trip Tillman took with his wife Emma – a photographer and filmmaker who he met at a bottle shop in Laurel Canyon – from their pokey mudbrick “hut” near a water tower in Elysian Park, LA, to New Orleans.

Why New Orleans? “Well, are you going to move to Los Angeles to San Francisco or something?” he says, laughing. “We just wanted to go somewhere that was really crazy, or different or unique – where we didn’t know anyone. We wanted to see what would happen to us if we just dropped out completely.”

The pair is back in LA now, at a much bigger place in Laurel Canyon, closer to friends and collaborators and the place where their story began. “I realised that I don’t want to be isolated. We both realised that. For me it’s really important to be around the people I make music with. That’s a lifeline for me. There’s only so much I can accomplish by myself.”

You can’t really underestimate the role Emma plays in the Father John Misty story. When you strip away all the bravado and bluster his alter-ego affords him, you’re left with a vulnerable, romantic man that is deeply besotted – and indebted – to his wife.

“I realised after the fact what the whole song was about,” he says. “It was that moment with Emma on the way to New Orleans and this silence, this unspoken thing, and that’s why the song ends the way it does. The song is about the unspoken.

“After it was recorded, after it was finished, I was examining this thing and I realised that all of this mess – this giant mess of ego and fear and vanity and want – that would be the substance of my life if I didn’t have Emma. If I didn’t have her, this is what my life would be. This hand-wringing anxiety over, ‘Who am I?’, ‘What do I mean to the world?’, ‘Does my work mean anything?’, ‘Will it last?’, ‘Am I just a white guy in 2017?’ That would be my life without this person.

“In that way, that song was me coming to grips with what’s actually valuable, with what has value in my life, and for me, that’s Emma,” he continues. “In some ways it’s a three-year realisation of that. Because you get a little fame, a little success and it’s seductive. And you start to think that you could live on just that, and you start to question whether or not you actually need this other person. These are ugly realities.”

“Everyone’s Riding On The Rolling Tide”

THOUGH they don’t appear in the recorded version, these were the first words Tillman matched to the plaintive chords that start ‘Leaving LA’. In fact, they’re the same words that pour out of his mouth every time he writes a melody he likes. “It’s like a nervous tic or something,” he explains, “and then I start replacing words.”

There are a lot of words on ‘Leaving LA’ – 659 to be exact – and they’re delivered matter-of-factly over the 10 unchronological verses that frame this song. Aside from a refrain of “ohs”, there’s not a single chorus to be found. So what makes ‘Leaving LA’ such a compelling listen from start to end? The genius is in the way Tillman bends time to his will, like one of his musical heroes Scott Walker, stringing the listener along by setting up the start of each verse like a set of bowling pins primed to be knocked down.

Mara taunts me ‘neath the tree
She’s like, “Oh great, that’s just what we all need
Another white guy in 2017
Who takes himself so goddamn seriously.

She’s not far off, the strange thing is
That’s pretty much what I thought when I started this
It took me my whole life to learn to the play the G
But the role of Oedipus was a total breeze

“I’m setting up these punchlines,” he says. “There’s an A-section to every verse, and a B-section. Every one of the A-sections sets up the B-section. There’s a bait and switch … I wanted to create a sensation where halfway through the song you’re just waiting to hear what I’m going to say next. When you start doing that you stop keeping track of time, you stop thinking, ‘Oh, where is this going?’”

That doesn’t mean he’s not conscious of the fact people may consider the track a little, well, indulgent. “If you think I’m an asshole, and you think I’m some kind of indulgent dick who just can’t get enough of his own voice and has to write a 15-minute song, obviously the song is like Chinese water torture. But if you’re on board, if I’m in good faith with you, then I think you can hear something new every time you listen to that song…

“Since the album [Pure Comedy] is about humanity, about humans. I think it was important to have a song that demands empathy. Like I said, you can either think I’m like a dick, or you can accept that I’m as complicated a human as anyone else, and then get inside the world of that song and empathise with me.”

There are other practical reasons the song came out at that length. “It took me about 15 minutes to get from my house to the freeway, so I wanted that song to be a literal amount of time that it took for me to leave town. But a lot can go on in your head in 15 minutes. That’s what it’s like to be inside my head for 15 minutes.”

“My First Memory Of Music’s From…”

IT’S not until the ninth verse that the childhood near-death experience is revealed. Tillman vividly recounts a story about choking on watermelon candy while his mother Barbara screamed for help. Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Little Lies’ played over the store’s speaker system. Did that happen? Yes. Was that really his first memory of non-Christian music? Who knows.

“When I try and think about my first memory of music, when I can really remember hearing music, it was in that moment. But the point is not whether I heard that music for the first time, the point is the event, and the music was this peripheral detail in a semi-traumatic childhood memory.”

The telling of that particular story sparked a revelation about the song he had been writing on and off for the past three years.

“There’s a lot in that story: fear of the outside world – how alien that music was to me – and the whole thing with my mom. It’s not incidental I call her Barbara in that song. Getting to that point in writing the song, and realising that ‘Pure Comedy’, ‘Total Entertainment Forever’, ‘Ballad Of The Dying Man’ – the world view that’s in these songs, it’s not an objective world view. This is the worldview of this kid; this little kid who is still me. I still wrestle with that kid part of me.”

“The first time I took mushrooms I had this realisation that I should just be myself."

AFTER the formal part of the interview concludes we head up to the rooftop for a quick photoshoot in a stairwell and another additive-free American Spirit cigarette. It’s at this point I decide to reveal my part in yet another brush with death.

He had just played a “fucking amazing” late-afternoon festival set, capped off by an explosive take on ‘Ideal Husband’, his mea culpa to Emma, complete with pelvic thrusts, feedback squalls and a dramatic mic stand spike right at the end. I decided to offer up the bottle of amyl, a toxic inhalant often sold in sex shops as a leather cleaner, as either a show of appreciation or a misguided attempt at bonding. I can’t recall. He looked curiously at the bottle before attempting to neck it.

“Oh god, that was you?” he says, laughing. “I had no idea what that was – we don’t have that in the States.”

Does he ever think about what would’ve happened had he chugged an entire bottle of poison on a remote dairy farm about 90 minutes from Melbourne? “Not really,” he says – but the thought of death did briefly enter his mind. “I was just thinking the whole time, ‘How the hell are they going to explain that to Emma?’.”

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