If you follow Josh Tillman, the artist better known as Father John Misty, on social media, you’ll come across some absurd dispatches. On any given day he might post his own made-up lyrics to the House of Cards theme or put Spotify on blast for including him on a playlist titled “Indie Brunch.”
In fact, his stream-of-consciousness ramblings became so consuming last fall, he decided to take a six-month Twitter sabbatical. “It was an impetuous choice,” the 34-year-old tells EW during a chat at Manhattan’s Bowery Hotel on a gray March day. “I was working on [my new] album and was distracted by the phone. If you take away songwriting and making albums, if you remove that from the equation that’s me, all you have left is a mustache.” Contemplating the internet’s whirlwind metabolism, he adds: “When the transcontinental telegram happened, there were people saying, ‘Why do we need to know what’s happening in Prussia?’” (He logged back on last month.)
As in his 140-character missives, Tillman explores his singular worldview — humanistic but heavy with irony — on his sprawling third album Pure Comedy, one of the year’s most engrossing and weirdly brilliant indie-rock records. “All my albums start with a cliched question that I’m categorically unqualified to answer,” he says of the ambitious project. “And I think you hear in my music the audible groan of someone going, ‘Oh my god, you’re doing this?’”
The 74-minute album caps Tillman’s meteoric rise: After leaving the folk group Fleet Foxes, where he played drums, in early 2012 and adopting the Father John Misty moniker, he released 2012’s Fear Fun and 2015’s breakthrough I Love You, Honeybear, earned writing credits with Beyoncé (“Hold Up”) and Lady Gaga (“Sinner’s Prayer,” “Come to Mama”), and now sits near the top of the Coachella poster.
Tillman is also one of music’s foremost provocateurs, constantly poking at modern cultural norms in lyrics and public statements and drawing plenty of ire in the process. “If people are obsessed with what an asshole I am,” he says, “then I’m taking up way too much space in their mind and they’re giving me a weird power over them. Because if you hate something, you shouldn’t sit around thinking about it.”
Read on for EW’s lengthy chat with Tillman, which spanned why Donald Trump won the presidency, what separates Tillman from Jimmy Fallon, and why, exactly, he fixates on Taylor Swift.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Honeybear tackled the intricacies of love, but Pure Comedy deals with more global themes. What precipitated that shift?
JOSH TILLMAN: They aren’t so disparate. When you start talking about love and you keep pulling the thread, you get to these other questions. This album starts [by] talking about the nature of love. Love is the substance of survival. At the beginning of “Pure Comedy,” the scene [is that] there’s nothing about the human experience that is particularly engineered for survival. We’re so helpless — more helpless than, like, any other creature on this planet. If we are not taken care of, then we die real easy; our skulls are soft. You think about babies screaming in the night so that predators know exactly where the humans are. Predators are like, “These weird animals are completely helpless. They’re low-hanging fruit.” When you look at how omniscient and powerful and the center of everything that we think we are, that’s how helpless people react to their helplessness — by telling themselves weird stories.
So we come up with these constructs to introduce order into the world.
Totally. That’s comedy. A lot of people are going to take what they know about me from the internet and then the title and go, “Wow, what a cynical, dismissive, callous perspective on human life.” But when you fall in love with someone — unless you’re a total psycho — you don’t love someone because you have some checklist of acceptable traits. You fall in love with someone because of their weakness, because of their absurdities, or because of their pain. You’re like, “I have that same pain.” That’s my perspective. What I love about humanity is our absurdity and our weakness and our comedy.
With these songs, you’re looking at how the world has this element of randomness and suggesting that that, in turn, introduces this element of comedy. Have you found it liberating to look at the world that way?
I don’t know if I’ll ever be free — but that’s what I want. I can’t think of a better way to spend one’s life than the pursuit of freedom. I was reading this thing the other day that was like, “Is life a simulation? It’s a simulation and there are these glitches that are happening. Donald Trump is a glitch. The [La La Land] Oscar flub was a glitch. The Cubs winning the World Series was a glitch. What’s going on?” That, to me, is not freedom. Freedom is saying those things happen because we want them to happen — and we have to decide that we want other things to happen.
When people go, “How did Trump happen! Oh my god!” It’s like, well, if you had any awareness of the fact the Midwest has been turning into a wasteland of fentanyl addiction and empty factories and poison water, then this would not come as a surprise to you. I don’t know what the f— is going on either. On the one hand, the world is total chaos, but on the other hand, things don’t happen out of nowhere. It’s so absurd to me to be like, “The only way that Hillary Clinton could have lost was if Russia hacked our democracy.”
In your extended “Pure Comedy” film, you said you “want to make music, not entertainment.” How do you reconcile that with your role in popular music?
Entertainment has become a state of mind. It’s no longer really a commodity; it’s a way of life. Music is not a single serving experience. You live with an album. [Pure Comedy] is not explicitly political, but people are likely to experience it that way, because of what’s going on. If that’s what they need right now, that’s totally fine. I want it to be useful. But I like the idea of someone revisiting the album 10 years from now, 20 years from now. Entertainment doesn’t really do that. Entertainment gets old and it gets embarrassing and it dies. And you never think of it. When you look at art from 20 years ago, it’s as good as it was then. We’ve lost the distinction between the two. It’s important as a culture to make a distinction. People go, “Well, but you’re an entertainer.” And I’m like, “F— you. Jimmy Fallon is an entertainer. I am not an entertainer. And if you can’t see the difference, then you are truly cynical.” Entertainment is about forgetting your life and art is about remembering your life. So whether I am successful or not at being an artist, that is what I aspire to.
Lots of these songs deal with timeless concepts, but some of the ideas are very 2017: social media addiction, celebrity culture, and so forth. How do you think modern audiences will digest those topics?
The coverage of “Total Entertainment Forever” was “Father John Misty makes fun of Taylor Swift.” That’s what the takeaway was — but not because they don’t get the song. You’d have to be really willfully ignorant to not get what that song is about. I don’t think people are as stupid as they pretend they are. People pretend to be really stupid on the internet because outrage is now a commodity. It’s what people want. If I wanted to make fun of Taylor Swift, I would go about it in a completely different way than making a song that is mourning the fact that I know that someday soon, we are going to reach a new level of dehumanization when Oculus Rift becomes pornographic. Look at the internet. It started very idealistic: “This is going to be true democracy.”
It became a vehicle for porn.
Then it became porn and outrage. You don’t think that, in a few years, the police’s only job is going to be to drag people from their homes and force them to go to work? Once [the Oculus Rift] becomes standard issue. I don’t want that to happen. People who really hate me could get into that thing and simulate murdering me.
There’s a sequence of zeroes and ones that would do that. We’re going to be there very soon.
All they had to do was figure out a way that it didn’t make you nauseous to be in it. … But the point [of “Total Entertainment Forever”] is that I don’t think that there are going to be famous people in the near future. There are only going to be infamous people. Jennifer Lawrence will be famous and everyone else will be infamous.
So why did you mention Taylor in that song?
Nothing else rhymed with Oculus Rift.
She was inescapable.
That was the thing. And when you’re a songwriter there is this sort of recycling that happens. This weird little avalanche happened. I went to her show, I did those covers and then all of a sudden I was getting asked about her every interview. And then before you know it, she’s just in my subconscious. And my songs are the byproduct of my subconscious mind. It’s a pretty simple equation.
Have you two met?
Yeah, she’s lovely. I had a very pleasant, brief interaction with her. Talk about someone who has to deal with a lot of psychic craziness. It’s not easy. That’s the point of the song. Human beings should not be turned into entertainment. I really believe that.
There’s imagery here of cities burning, the apocalypse coming to pass. Do you buy into that worldview? How literal are these lyrics?
I’m not like stockpiling a bunker or anything. Part of “Things It Would Have Been Helpful To Know Before the Revolution” is we’re such narcissists that we think that when we die, the world dies too; for us, the world is what happens in our heads. But the world’s gonna be fine. There will be some kind of ice age or something, but the planet’s gonna be fine. We’re just ridiculous. What are we gonna do, explode the Earth? We’re just gonna kill ourselves. It’s like, let’s worry about each other. If we really did, then we would also stop doing s— that is f—ing with the environment. Because what’s f—ing with the environment is a direct result of us not taking care of each other. If we focused on that, the world would look a lot different. We wouldn’t have nuclear waste. We wouldn’t have children picking through our discarded iPhones in Cambodia.
You’ve worked with Lady Gaga and Beyoncé. How did those collaborations come about?
With Gaga and Beyoncé, it was just a matter of someone playing my music for them and it resonating and then them calling me and asking them to write. There was no industry maneuvering. It was really simple. Gaga is the real deal. [I’ve] been subjected to a never-ending barrage of pop music my whole life; you just don’t really have a choice. Music is just everywhere all the time now. That’s what pop music is: music to be everywhere all the time. And I wanted to know, how does this music happen? What does it look like when it is being made? What you get is one person at the center, like Lady Gaga or Beyoncé, who cares very much about music. Who cares very much about truth. I think it’s insane to not have a choice in whether or not you hear certain types of music. This goes beyond music. I don’t remember making a decision to know all about Donald Trump. I just do.