A Conversation With Josh Tillman Regarding His Love of Mushrooms
This year's been busy for Josh Tillman. In January he left his full-time gig as Fleet Foxes' drummer to re-start his solo career as “Father John Misty” (he's released a whopping seven folk-centric albums in five years). As Father John Misty, he just published his debut novel --printed as a pair of broadsheets in very tiny print -- and packaged it with his new batch of songs Fear Fun, a conceptual album that was largely inspired by time spent on psychedelic mushrooms. Of course, Hive wanted to know more about the mushroom ingestion process and how it affected his creativity. But during our conversation he revealed that he's also working on a feature film and a new novel about a pack of post-apocalyptic Chihuahuas. Turns out, it does wonders for your creativity and your productivity.
In the press materials for Fear Fun, it says you got tired of writing music until you got into a van with a bunch of mushrooms and headed down the coast. Is that the best way to get your creative juices flowing?
Well, you know, altered perspectives are very useful for a writer. If you’re interested in excavating the human experience, the best subject you have at your disposal is yourself, because you have total access, if you’re willing. Mushrooms are very useful in that respect. The first thing they go after is dismantling fear, or contextualizing it, and immersing you in it in a way that you have to consider it. It’s only amplified my fear a few times. One time was after I cut all my hair off. I did a big trip, and I was really kind of confronted with the fact that I was deeply freaked out about the prospect of being a citizen of the world. My long hair and a huge beard came out of a contrarian sensibility. I was freaked out about the idea that I’d become a Pavlovian citizen or something. But those cases are few and far between, and based in some limiting event or something.
People have this idea about mushrooms and songwriting, this cartoonish view where you sit down with a guitar, take a bunch of mushrooms, and trip out and write a bunch of crazy shit. But it’s really about expanding -- and these are all kind of loaded words -- but experiences in a mushroom trip that are useful enough to be brought back and implemented in what’s commonly referred to as the sober state. So I don’t really party with them -- they’re too useful -- but for me, specifically, it was a big part of dismantling my idea of myself as a “folk songwriter.” The first course of action that came down was writing this novel, which is basically personal mythology written in my conversational voice, and that really informed the subsequent songwriting.
Is there a direct path from the novel to the album?
Yeah, absolutely. In that, when I was writing the novel, having had no experience identifying as a writer of any consequence, I didn’t have much to lose by doing it. As such, I didn’t have the same parameters around what I could or couldn’t do as I did around my musical expression. I was using these dormant abilities -- witticism, satire, etc., and having a really fucking good time doing that. I hadn’t enjoyed the creative process in so long, not in an innocent, creative way, as opposed to, ‘Is this album good? Is this gonna help my career?’ There was no lust for success, and I think that once I accessed that, I couldn’t really go back to the old style of songwriting once I’d done that. I didn’t buy that bullshit about myself. It became almost comical. In that way, the novel really informed what I felt obligated to do in the musical sense.
"Mushrooms create all these visualizations that are sometimes really surprising, and sometimes really funny...You enter cosmic joke territory, which is always where I’ve kind of been, because I was raised with all sorts of cosmic jokes."
Were the mushrooms vital to getting into the novel? I have a lot of mushrooms questions.
That’s cool. I’m into it! The novel is like -- in order to write a personal mythology, or something, you have to really mine the subconscious. The visualizations that occur – being on mushrooms is like a waking dream, or something, and I was really interested in creating a lexicon of symbols that were exclusive to me, and original and funny. Symbols that I could load with my own meaning, and refer back to, like mythmaking. Mushrooms create all these visualizations that are sometimes really surprising, and sometimes really funny. And also, more pragmatically, when your vanity kind of dissolves, and for me it does – and I don’t mean vanity in the ‘looking in the mirror’ sense, I mean vanity as a fear of being perceived as anything other than good, or successful, the curating an image of yourself, that shit we all do to get by – with that coming down, shit gets really funny really fast. You enter cosmic joke territory, which is always where I’ve kind of been, because I was raised with all sorts of cosmic jokes. So I feel like they’re really conducive to my pre-existing mindset.
When did you first take mushrooms?
I’d say, like, four or five years ago, but didn’t really implement them creatively or therapeutically until about two years ago.
Watch Father John Misty's disturbing video for "Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings" below.
I’m surprised that it’s so recent, given how important they seem to be to you.
Well, they’re something that I’m excited about. It’s sort of the difference between reading Grapes of Wrath when you’re 15, and reading it when you’re 30. When you’re fifteen, every drug is advertised to you as a party. Drugs are all lumped together. They’re all used to get fucked up, and that’s the long and short of it. So for a lot of people, you hear them talk about how they used to do mushrooms in tenth grade, and then there’s this idea in the culture that experiences invoked in that state are invalid -- like that they’re not real or something. That’s because we have this addiction to scientifically mandated reality. I’m a slow learner, and when I was in my 20s, I didn’t particularly like people who did a lot of drugs, because they all kind of did them in the same way -- for oblivion, in general, and there were things that were more interesting to me than that. But as you get older, your ideas about these things refine, and change.
How did mushrooms influence the music on Fear Fun?
When you talk about that, you’re really just talking about this larger shift in perspective that informed my creative process in general. I’m really rigorous and focus-driven in the studio. Those times are not really the times for that. I just was on a series of dropping out for a couple weeks at a time here and there, drawn to the contemplation space, the writing space. On tour, I like to just have them around because they’re good for your eyesight, and your observational faculties. I find that they kind of help my general distractedness. But there are a few different ways that I kind implement them.
The music, and especially the artwork, are pretty psychedelic. What about that stuff connects with you?
I’ve always been drawn to shit like that. It’s not like I went from being a total fuckin’ mindless square-- my sensibilities have always leaned in that direction. I like the grotesque. I saw Dima’s artwork and immediately wanted that. He did that painting for the album. He’s an out-there dude. We had a lot of conversations about the album, and he made a visual interpretation of what he heard in the music. It was somewhat collaborative in that I kind of curated him as the artist, and in that way was kind of complicit in that. But the piece itself is just Dima’s experience with the album. When I collaborate with visual artists, I really like to just curate, and just let that person do what they do without oversalting the soup.
The songs here are stories, and you were talking about how mushrooms open you up to other perspectives as a writer. Is that a direct relationship?
I’ve always been narrative. Not as explicitly as I am on this album. A lot of the time on my previous albums, I was writing from the perspective of other people, and had this sort of muse for this music. It was more like channeling than drawing so explicitly from my own experiences. A lot of that shit is just kind of the way I talk. That was a big realization from the novel – that musically, I was now obligated to sing to the best of my ability, rather than in a way that I thought wasn’t dumb. Which in retrospect is quite embarrassing. But to sing honestly, and write in my actual conversational voice, not trying to pull one over that this 22 year old dude is some sad wizard. “I’m a guy, I’m Josh Tillman, I’m thirty. I moved to L.A. for some weird reason, and I drive around in a van and eat pizza and smoke weed. That’s true.”
"A lot of the imagery in the album is nowhere to be found in the book. The book is full of hypothetical video game proposals, and bedbugs, and jetpacks, and Satan opens a hell-themed restaurant… it really is its own entity"
Was there something kind of mystical about going from the novel to the album?
There are correlations. A lot of the imagery in the album is nowhere to be found in the book. The book is full of hypothetical video game proposals, and bedbugs, and jetpacks, and Satan opens a hell-themed restaurant… it really is its own entity. The attitude is the same, more or less, but the subject matter is – I like straining the relationship between my own experiences and my imagination, and that’s definitely something I kind of explored in the book.
Do you see yourself writing another novel?
I’d like to. I’ve got a story being boarded out. My girlfriend and I are writing a movie. She’s a – have you see the “Nancy From Now On” video with the dominatrix?
Well, check it out, buddy! That’s my girlfriend. We made that video, and we’re working on a movie, so I’m kind of more in that headspace. The video thing has got me fascinated with video, and what you can do with film and shit. But I do have a novel plotted out about a pack of post-apocalyptic Chihuahuas – they’re feral Chihuahuas, they’re one generation after, and they’ve heard all these stories about the humans, and the humans are basically like the equivalent of Greek gods to them. There are these two parallel storylines of the Chihuahuas telling the story of the humans and me telling the story of the Chihuahuas.
Watch the video for "Nancy From Now On" here:
It sounds like you’re mostly interested in finding new ways to tell stories.
Yeah. I’m a word-dude. More so than a music person. I’m a word person. I didn’t figure that out until recently, that there’s power in the ability to use words. I’ve always been dismissive of music with little or no lyrical fuckin’ balls. But words are innately musical. Words evoke sound. They’re the mass.
Fear Fun is out now on Sub Pop.