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Father John Misty is Over the Demonic Clown Thing

The first time I saw Father John Misty I thought he was an asshole. But I also thought he was handsome, charming and capable of a deep and crystalline insight that most performers lack. He sang about hallucinogenic misadventures, sexual dominance and how

07 November 2013, 11:20pm

Photos by Jeff Bierk

When Father John Misty’s Fear Fun came out on Subpop in early 2012 it seemed important to contextualize him by noting that he was formerly the drummer for Fleet Foxes. Since then, on the weight of his songs and non-stop touring, that context has moved to the edge of irrelevance. If things continue to go the way they’ve been going for Father John Misty (whose real name is Josh Tillman) the mention of his former involvement with Fleet Foxes will be as important as mentioning that Neil Young used to be the guitar player for Rick James.

The first time I saw Father John Misty I thought he was an asshole. But I also thought he was handsome, charming and capable of a deep and crystalline insight that most performers lack. He sang about hallucinogenic misadventures, sexual dominance and how we’re contributing to the demise of mankind (which is depicted as being inevitable) simply by being there. He showed us how we’re living a lie while he gyrated on stage like a stripper and everyone sighed and fawned over him. At the end of the night I gave him a rose and he hugged me. It turns out this isn’t an uncommon reaction to Misty’s onstage “demon clown” persona, which he told me about recently as he prepared for a solo show in Toronto. During our discussion we also talked about fanaticism, his relationship to psychedelics, his recent marriage and his strange new perfume, Innocence by Misty.

Last time you were in Toronto you spoke about your diminishing relationship to the songs from Fear Fun due to non-stop touring and then you smashed your guitar and left the stage during the encore. What happened?
Well, when I was a baby I used to get really upset about things and I would run around looking for the softest part of the room to cry. Toronto has been one of my favorite places to play. It was maybe the softest place. I’m glad that I did it on one hand and on the other hand I’m annoyed that I gave anyone the satisfaction of thinking like, “What a princess,” or whatever, you know? I don’t like giving people that satisfaction. But that’s just the price of admission, that’s the cost of doing business. So whatever. But I was going nuts, I was really exhausted and in a lot of ways the demonic clown thing that I’d been doing had run its course. It had become like a cabaret act.

Is that a character that you’re playing?
No, it’s a fragment of me. It’s a very real aspect of my personality but it’s not the only thing I have to offer, you know? At the beginning it was fun because no one expected that. Letterman was maybe the only real moment of it. It wasn’t premeditated in any way, I was having this euphoric moment of mischief. Everything after was some dim reflection of the Letterman moment. But at some point it became par for the course. Once something is anticipated it doesn’t have the same kind of comic violence that it did before.

And you’ve been doing that act for a while. How long have you been touring?
If I kept touring up until May it would be 2 years. There was a time between October of last year and March of this year where there were 4 days off total. It’s fucking insane. But I felt compelled to do that, I needed to do that. I trust my instinct that touring that much is necessary. I knew it would take a toll on my health and on my sanity and it did.

How do you feel about tonight?
Great. This tour is great one because it’s different. I don’t have another demon clown show in me. The band thing was a grotesque exercise in aesthetics or rock n roll artifice. A lot of what I do is fucking with artifice or fucking with what seems to be a clichéd aesthetic but back loading it with something that’s odd. It’s like setting up a foil for myself. The bigger the foil, the stranger and more interesting are the things that contradict that. But you have to set up a really big spectacle in order to get that desired effect.

The fucking with artifice aspect really comes out in a song like Now I’m Learning to Love the War where you sing, “Try not to think about / The truly staggering amount of oil / That it takes to make a record.” It’s like you’re shooting yourself in the foot.
Especially in the live context because I made a habit of pointing to the merch. That song isn’t a save the environment song by any stretch, it just purely is pointing out that we’re complicit. I’m interested in attacking this very comfortable idea, this very comfortable rhetoric that we all subscribe to, consciously or not, which is that the highest moral is to find something that you’re passionate about and then do it for a living. And that that is the highest good and it’s something that gets bandied about all the time to justify a huge swath of human activity. Attacking that is satisfying for me.

Maybe this is a strange question but have you ever considered starting a cult?
No. Not at all. Have I led anyone to believe that I’m interested in that?

No, but I find a lot of cult leaders share a common thread where they warm up their audience only to throw them into something uncomfortable, almost as a test, which you do with your audience. Plus you have a very compelling way of speaking and way about you that I feel like a lot of people want to follow you and want to hear you speak. You inspire a cult-like fanaticism.
Well I’ve chosen a medium that invites that but I have a very low threshold for fanaticism. I’m very suspect of the fanaticism around the artist or the singer. People are responding to this aggregate version of me. Like videos on Youtube and the live show and the album and whatever. The reality of me I’m sure would fall short of anything that would inspire that sort of fanaticism. I don’t relate to it. You know, I feel like I’m writing off all these people but I’m really not, I’m just saying that I think that anyone who claims to enjoy me or claims to enjoy my music has to take into account the fact that I’m in conflict with what it is that I do and that’s part of what makes it interesting. But most of the time the conflict just predicates an experience with fans that ends up being very enjoyable. It’s fun and they’re really intelligent people and I’m a commodity and I’m a novelty and I sort of enjoy that status for a moment, being commodified in that way. Like, I’m Mickey Mouse. You know, they’re taking a picture with Mickey Mouse, there’s nothing beyond that. And that’s fine.

Are you worried that energy could turn against you like it has with someone like Kanye West? He’s someone who says and does things that seem divisive but he’s speaking his mind and he doesn’t care whether his audience likes it or not. Like, he wants to challenge people.
Oh definitely. Shit, I’m very much rife for that sort of thing. John Lennon was like that too. It’s really important to me that I communicate effectively or that the subtleties of what I’m trying to do come across. I have these songs that have these hedonistic references and I think the knee jerk reaction for a lot of people is to hear the hedonistic reference and assume that it’s celebratory and assume that it’s a party anthem or something or that any time a drug appears in a song that that is a wholesale condoning of that thing. A lot of the time with drugs that appear in the song, it’s done in a way to add contextual color. It can also be very dark. I’ll have these songs that are a dark appraisal of a drug experience but the minute the word comes up at least a few people are like, “Woo!” I’ve utilized all these means at my disposal to create a very subtle perspective on this and it’s just getting interpreted as a party song. And it’s a fine line but I’m willing to walk that line in order to give the people who do get it a very subtle experience as to my life and my take on things.

On that topic, almost every interview I read the reporter asks you about drugs. Specifically mushrooms. How do you feel about always having to discuss that topic?
If it wasn’t in my bio I’d be surprised. But it’s in my bio.

Yeah, it says right in there that to write Fear Fun you took “enough mushrooms to choke a horse.
Typically I’m annoyed at the glibness with which the question is asked because most people don’t have the experience with psychedelics, they don’t have much of a vested interest in exploring their own subconscious because the subconscious is a scary place and mushrooms are shrouded in a hippy aesthetic or a hippy context. It’s annoying because you then have to go through the process of deconstructing every one of this person’s assumptions that they’re bringing to the conversation before you can even talk about it in any way that’s interesting or constructive. I have had really good conversations about it, but typically I’ll ask someone if they’ve ever done mushrooms and then they get very defensive and upset and assume that I’m trying to attack their credibility or that it’s some elitist power move. But it’s important to know because if you have done it we don’t really have to talk about it much, and if you have not it’s like, how do I explain this very intangible thing to you? I think the culture has, unfortunately, a non-nuanced relationship to those things and mushrooms, cocaine, weed, heroin, like, it’s all under this one umbrella of “drugs” and all of those drugs are used to party. They’re used by weak-minded people who can’t deal with the reality of their own lives so they escape into this world of oblivion. And that’s as far as the conversation goes. Anyone who has seriously utilized mushrooms for a specific purpose, namely to explore your subconscious and achieve a heightened state of awareness of yourself and of the world you inhabit, knows that there’s nothing obliviating about it. If anything you are doing some serious work with things that most people would rather just leave untouched.

Good point.
And mushrooms also don’t have a uniform impact on everyone. Cocaine has a uniform impact. Everyone who does cocaine becomes cocaine. They become a host body for cocaine. And cocaine does this thing where you become a pillar of dissonance where you’re horny but totally detached from your body, you’re talkative but totally detached from your mind. It’s a very uniform thing and it’s fun for like an hour or whatever. But mushrooms, there’s an infinite number of experiences you can have with it because your mind is an infinite place. Cocaine makes you obsessed with externalities. But with mushrooms there’s something going on internally, it’s not just purely tactile. But yeah, most of the time you’re doing like a 15-minute interview and people are like, “So I heard you drove down the van and took a bunch of mushrooms. Is that true?” And I’m like, “You want to know whether it’s true or not? Or you want to know about the experience that I had? Like, yes, it’s true. That is true. But, like, great question.”

Tell me about the scent you’re coming out with. How did that happen?
It’s called Innocence by Misty. It’s a scent for young girls by me. In my mind it’s this beautiful, perverted thing, like it’s a Nabakov sort of exercise. In some parts it’s a nod to the Katy Perry, J Lo kind of thing. It’s a perfume for young girls and it’s a joke for adults who can handle the fact that it can be beautiful and strange and a tiny bit funny at the same time.

What does it smell like?
It’s vanilla, bourbon, orange neroli, nightbloom and jasmine, nigella, it’s all pure sugar cane alcohol. You know the rocket in 8 1/2? The Fellini movie? It’s like my rocket. It was so expensive to make. Like, crazy expensive to make. It wasn’t done with any eye toward the profit margin. The ingredients are really rare and it’s this ridiculous, excessive thing.

You’re taking a year off. What will you do with that year?
My wife is working on her first full-length movie that I did the score for. And I’m trying to write this book but I need to cultivate a silence, like an internal silence in order to do it. So that’s my main prerogative.

I’ve seen some of your wife’s photography, she’s very good.
She’s very good. I’m her muse currently (laughs).

How does that feel?
It’s great. She was doing a photo show with a bunch of her contemporaries and everyone was putting their best work up and she duct taped 3 photos of me to the wall. I was like, “Oh my God, why did you do that?” and she was like, “because this is my life right now.” And I thought, what are my songs if not that? They’re photos of her duct taped to a wall.

It’s very honest.
Yeah, but it can be embarrassing. I mean a lot of people saw what she did and were just like, “Groan.” But half of them saw it and did that and half of them got it. And that is always, like I was saying earlier, the price of admission.