It’s early on a Monday afternoon in New York, but Father John Misty has already taken LSD. “It helps with my depression and anxiety,” says Misty, real name Josh Tillman, slumped on a couch at the Bowery Hotel. “It’s just a thing that works for me.” Thirty-six hours earlier, the singer made his biggest appearance yet, on Saturday Night Live, performing two tracks from Pure Comedy, his morbid and hilarious third LP, which takes a hard look at narcissism, Internet addiction and PC culture in the age of Trump. “I couldn’t believe they booked me,” says Tillman, who played drums in Fleet Foxes until 2012, and broke out with 2015’s I Love You, Honeybear. The SNL afterparty was everything he hoped it would be: “There was debauchery. The whole cartoon version of what you can imagine in your head is basically what happened. I think I was out until noon the next day.”
On SNL, you sang the line “bedding Taylor Swift every night inside the Oculus Rift.” There was a lot of outrage afterward. You must have seen that coming. The press won’t get people’s attention by writing, “Area man sings about the potential narcotic, soul-killing hazards of entertainment.” And who else’s name rhymes with Oculus Rift? I lost sleep over it because I knew what I was doing. I did all kinds of acrobatics in my head to find a way around it and change the lyric, but ultimately I had to sing what I wrote. Nothing I can do is going to please people who are determined to get bent out of shape about something. You have to be willfully ignorant of the fact the song is about more than that.
Still, it’s hard to think of a single person on Earth more likely to cause a bigger reaction than her. Right, which makes it the perfect subject for a song. Even explaining it here, we’re turning this interview into an article about that moment. Even if it’s not written that way, that’s the way it’ll get picked up. At some point we all need to grow up. Willful ignorance is what children do. I mean, Bob Dylan would reference actresses by name in a surreal way to make a point about the culture.
Some critics are saying what you wrote is no better than what Kanye West wrote. If you can’t see the difference between those two lines then you are a bullshit music writer. You have to think that is really a Trump-ian form of malignant self-permission where I wrote songs thinking, “What’s going to get the biggest reaction from the pearl-clutching brownshirt liberals?” That’s not how I do things.
You were raised in a strict evangelical household. Can you understand why evangelicals supported Trump in such big numbers? Over the past 20 years, we’ve thought of conservatives as being these Buckleyite, moralistic, financially austere people who believe in dignity and free speech. With Donald Trump, we’ve seen none of them really give a shit about all of that. They’re applauding him dumping a trillion ghost bucks into the economy and expanding the military and cutting taxes for the wealthiest. He is clearly not a Christian. What it shows is that the center of their worldview is a culture of resentment. That’s the humming dynamo at the center of all of it.
What a crazy coincidence that the teaching of Christ sees to be so compatible with late-era capitalism, suburban isolation, rampant consumerism. And so I am not ever surprised when I see evangelicals contort themselves to justify supporting Donald Trump. There is so much animosity for Hillary Clinton in that world that people like my parents voted for Donald Trump.
Are you able to communicate with them? No. But there’s a lot more going on there than just religious and political differences. When I do interviews I kind of have to overplay the religion thing. I mean, it was a big deal, it was like the main event, but there was other shit that’s a lot harder to talk about that I can’t really talk about.
What obligations do artists have to combat Trump? People kept asking me what I was going to do on SNL. I think you only have to pull stunts if the content of your music is meaningless. Artists need to consider whether they can live with themselves if they’re just singing about breakups and whatever. I mean, Lorde is on the show next week. The dichotomy between my performance, which I’m sure has been widely derided, and hers … I’m not going to get into this because the headlines when it gets picked up will be “Father John Talks About Lorde” and then a picture of me in earbuds screaming next to a picture of her where she’s like, “Huh?” I think people only want symbolic victories in the world of popular music where you can vaguely project the feminism thing even though their industry is so clearly anti-woman. If it’s vague enough, narcissists can project. They need blank surfaces to project onto. And we are living in a narcissist culture, so it makes perfect sense. And a lot of the worst narcissists are the most fuckin’ self-righteous ones.
It’s hard not to be bummed out while listening to Pure Comedy. Well, there’s a difference between art and entertainment. Entertainment is really about forgetting about your life, and art is about remembering your life. Sometimes remembering your life involves stronger emotions than the narcotic glow of entertainment. Jimmy Fallon is a fucking entertainer. What I’ve set out to do is more than to just entertain.
You have songwriting credits on Beyoncé and Lady Gaga’s new albums. What did those experiences teach you? I gotta be careful here, but I will say this: When the average person imagines how a record is made, they envision people in a studio playing together and the artist taking the reins. Even when they hear someone else wrote a song, the presumption is that it’s some kind of minor tweak. It is interesting when fans find out someone else more or less wholesale wrote a song. They get angry. What I see in certain corners of the musical intelligentsia right now is the idea that pop music is rooted in feminism. But this industry is horrible to women.
Horrible in what sense? There’s just so little dignity. I know half a dozen women in the industry, and it does treat them like human cattle. Around the Nineties, the industry decided it didn’t want to work with artists anymore because they’re a pain in the ass. They realized, “We just need people with dreams of being a pop star. Not people who work to make music – people who submit to anything it takes.” This hilariously incoherent idea that feminism is the byproduct of that world drives me insane.
Also, a lot of them tell me that they look at my experience in the indie world and they go, “God, I would give anything to be able to do that, to have the freedom you have.”
You’re still on Sub Pop, an indie label, after selling 250,000 albums. Were you tempted to sign with a major label? I talked to every major label under the sun. They do this Jedi mind trick: “It’s time to go to the next level.” I’ve seen smart, principled people try, but it never works out. But as long as they say, “It’s time to go to the next level,” then you will forget all that. There are many other things I’ve said no to. I was asked to audition for the second season of Stranger Things. I didn’t want that level of exposure. I don’t want to be TV famous.
I feel like indie acts sometimes sign to majors, have a big hit and then completely disappear. Right. It never works out. But as long as as someone says, “It’s time to get to the next level,” you forget all that. I don’t know what it is. Again, signing to a major label means you give up freedom. It would mean giving up all these relationships I’ve made at Sub Pop. These decisions need to be made out of principle. Also, I don’t belong in that world. I don’t share the values of that world.
So how long ago did you take acid? About three hours ago. I take quite a bit of it, diluted.
You said it helps with your depression. So you’re self-medicating? Oh, yeah. Absolutely.
Do you take actual medication for depression? No. I’ve had therapists tell me that I really need to be on it, but I’m just not ready to give up drinking.
Did you drop acid before SNL? Mm-hmm. It’s just kind of like being a stoner. I’m not on a psychedelic journey all the time.
Do you worry about damaging your brain like Syd Barrett or Brian Wilson? With them, the real danger was in the first time you take it. It can exacerbate pre-existing [conditions], like schizophrenia. I’m not ready to give it up. I think living is just a risk. In the next few years, we’re going to start seeing the long-term effects of cell phones.
Is there any part of you that misses just being the drummer? Oh, no. It was time to move on. With Fleet Foxes I had to confront a certain sacred cow in my life, which was the idea that if I was in a popular band, if I just get to be a working musician, then that’s going to be the antidote for all the boredom and pain in my life. But it’s so much easier to be successful than it is to be happy. That was the real takeaway from that experience.
Did people tell you that you were crazy to leave? Of course, yeah. And I was one of them. I’ve heard people say, “Well, it must have been easy for you.” And it’s like, name another drummer from an indie band that’s gone on to do what I’ve done. You would see that a lot more often if it were easy. People think I was signed to Sub Pop because I was in the building or something. The whole time I was in the band I never went to that office once. I didn’t even know who those people were.
You recently erased your Twitter and Instagram accounts. Why? I was in the studio working on the album, and it was distracting. But think about what Twitter would look like if it was a physical space and the people who hung out there talked that way. Would you ever want to go there? There will be moments when I go on Twitter and let people hate me. It’s, like, self-harm.
You’ve been described as a “hipster favorite.” Does that ever annoy you? No. Because what are the traits of a hipster? It’s judgmental, petty people saying, “I’m cooler.” At the core of leveling that charge, someone is saying you’re not as cool as you think you are, so it’s them tacitly saying they’re cooler or more authentic than me. But isn’t that what a hipster does?
You’ve also been called “insufferable” and “superwhite” online. Again, that’s white people saying that. It’s so silly.
A lot of the songs on your new album reminded me of Neil Young’s On the Beach. I think someone should start a website where they do modern-day music writing – the intersectional-virtue-warrior style of music writing – about old albums. With On the Beach it would be, “Oh, great. Another white man singing about how tough it is to be white.”
Do you hope to be like Neil Young some day? Still doing this in your seventies? Yeah. I’m a lifer, man. Like we were talking about earlier with these waves and these attitudes … you don’t choose the time in which you live when you’re an artist. I just know these fads and ways of thinking are going to come and go, but I’m a lifer.