Between the surreal 2016 election season and the unending public turmoil of 2017, fans could hardly imagine a better time for a dose of Josh Tillman’s signature brand of sardonic, introspective existentialism, delivered in the form of his third Father John Misty album, Pure Comedy.
It was never his intention to create a timely album. Tillman wrote most of Pure Comedy in 2015 and recorded its basic tracking and vocals in March of last year. Last month, we met him outside the velvet-draped lobby of the Bowery Hotel — which certainly looks like the right place to discuss the potential decline of American civilization. Apologizing for both his hangover and his sunglasses, Tillman ruminated on Donald Trump, social media, and our culture of resentment while handing out American Spirit after American Spirit to the steady stream of men who approached him for a cigarette. Tillman joked, “When the ledgers of history are drawn up, I’ll be on the side of the smokers and the masturbators. Those are my people. I mean, what do you do when you’re happy? What do you do when you’re sad?”
You wrote most of the album during 2015, but it sounds like you could have written it over the last couple months. What do you want to write about now that everyone should be bracing themselves for in two years?
Oh god. It’s funny, because I have what could be easily seen a cantankerous worldview. It’s either cantankerous or very Biblical in a way that maybe I’m not aware of. I have an occasionally petulant worldview where I’m like, look, people are insane and entertainment is a farce. That’s how I’ve been dealing with life. The things in my life, that was just how I had to deal. Then this collective traumatic event, this spiritual death of dignity, happened in November and a lot of other people, maybe for the first time in their lives, started saying, “Oh, life is absurd. Entertainment is a terrifying farce.” Then this album I had made became sort of painfully literal all of a sudden. Which, to me, was not the album that I wanted to make.
I’m reminded of “Ballad of a Dying Man.” The idea of critiquing someone who is super critical, which of course requires you, yourself to be critical. I feel like that’s what people find appealing about your work right now, the idea that it is sort of cynical but you have a sense of humor about acknowledging, “Oh right, I’m doing this too.”
I am one-hundred-percent complicit. I wrote the first five songs and — look, you can’t write about humanity unless you are experiencing it. I don’t want to give the impression that I’m old Uncle Jerry standing on top of Fuck Mountain, waving his finger at people. But there was a moment where it felt like, “It can’t just be this thing.” If you’re going to write about humanity, you have to have a human being at the center of this album. That’s when I realized what “Leaving L.A.” needed to be, where I needed to go writing-wise. In “Leaving L.A.,” I had that first line for a year [“I was living on the hill.”] and I would sing it over and over again. I was like, I don’t know what this is. What is this supposed to be? I guess once I realized what I was really writing about … I understand if people need a political album right now, so they look at my album and say, “This is a political album. This is an anti-Trump album.” Of course a part of me is disappointed because that isn’t what I set out to do. But if people need that, then I do want my music to be useful. I’m sort of torn on it, because there is something disappointing when people listen to Pure Comedy and they hear a line like, “Their idea of being free/Is a prison of belief/They never ever have to leave,” and they go, “Oh, he’s writing about Republicans or dumb Christians.” That’s not what I intended the song to be, because we are all … my album is my prison of beliefs. My prison of beliefs is thinking in that way and dealing with it.
The album feels like a critique of the stories we tell ourselves while acknowledging that this is the story you tell yourself: that we have to analyze and discuss what stories we keep passing down.
You can look at the title two ways. One being “What a callow dismissal of humans. Ew. Who do you think you are?” But when you fall in love with someone, for example, unless you are a total psycho, which this culture has a scary efficiency in creating, and you have some checklist of what people need to be in order to be worth your love, for most of us, what you’re falling in love with is someone’s absurdities, the parts of someone that are weak or helpless or absurd. You can’t write about something that you don’t care about deeply. There’s no such thing as cynical music. It’s about ideals.
I’d say your previous albums have established you as a cynic only in as much as you’re also a romantic.
A cynic doesn’t sit down for hours and hours at a time, trying to figure out, “What is the most beautiful way to say this?” A cynic will say, “This is fucking stupid. I’m going to drink.” I mean, I also do that.
The titular song “Pure Comedy” opens the album with the idea that there is an inherent genetic issue with how babies are born, and the flawed process by which they are taught about the world. Listening to the album I kept wondering, do you think you’ll have kids?
Oh, I don’t know. It’s hard to answer that question in a vacuum. I’m in love with someone, so everything in my cellular being wants a child with them. But then my weird, deranged intellect of self-reflection is afraid.
There’s a existential hurdle you have to get over to accept, “Well, I know all this about the world and now this kid is going to have to manage too.”
Whenever you hear someone say, “Anyone who’s fucking stupid enough to have a child in this world!” It’s always been like this. Think about the beginning of man. Imagine a caveman looking around, thinking, “Who would want to have a child in this mess? They’ll probably be eaten by a predator.” They could have said that. They could have said it at any time in human history. The point of the beginning of that song is, we think of love or compassion as this fruity, ethereal abstract thing, when it’s actually the substance of survival. We come out too early, we’re completely unlike any other mammals, we don’t know what we’re doing in any kind of innate way and we’re helpless for years. If other people don’t take care of us, we die. We called that love. Why would six men go out into the wilderness, knowing only two of them would come back? Because we don’t actually have any other choice than to love.
Some people might blanch at the idea that love is just a useful evolved trait.
Right. “Oh, religion invented love.” It’s something I was thinking about a lot. I’m not really interested in discourse right now. Right now there’s a generation that grew up on message boards and they think that the key to life is walking someone through an irrefutable logic door, which is just ridiculous, especially if you want to talk politics. You cannot convince someone of what you believe by pointing out hypocrisies. That’s something I had to realize coming out of Christianity as a kid. When I was in my 20s, I took on a personal crusade against Christianity in my mind, and I think I realized at some point the perfect argument didn’t exist. Even when you’re talking about religion, you’re not really talking about religion, just in the same way as when you ask someone if they want to have kids, you’re not really talking about whether or not they think having kids is intellectually ethical. There’s some smoke and mirrors. Because the real answer is, I had trauma in my childhood and I’m running from something and there’s some way to get revenge on my own life by not having children. We are afraid, for good reason, of talking about our real reasons for believing.
What I do think is really interesting about right now is that we’re now seeing that Republicans and conservatives don’t really care. They’re not Buckley-ite idealists. They voted for this nihilist oaf. At the same time, liberals are not really cultural revolutionaries. Now all that’s left in this conversation, the humming dynamo at the center of all political belief in this country, is a culture of resentment. Every talking point, it’s now been proven no one actually gives a shit about it. You can make words do anything. I think what’s going on is that there’s just a lot of cage-rattling happening. The 20th century was grotesque experiment in ever-increasing forms of control, some subtle and some not so subtle, and people are rattling the cage and freaking out.
In “Leaving L.A.,” you write “Anything else you can get online/A creation myth or a .45.” Do you see it as, we’re just funneling these things we should be dealing with in real life into social media instead?
Why does Twitter exist? Why do people want this medium where they can be willfully ignorant of context and scream at each other? These things don’t come out of nowhere. They are collaborative efforts in the collective imagination. There’s something that we needed to exist that manifested it.
You’ve talked before about writing on Beyoncé’s Lemonade, specifically on the song “Hold Up.” What was it like to go from working on your album, which feels very personal and touches on your childhood, to writing for what turned out to be this intimate, emotional album for Beyoncé? Did you know what that song was going to be a part of at the time?
Hmmm, well, it’s hard to explain without sounding like a total psycho.
Oh no, please do. Are you kidding?
Well, when you’re writing songs for someone else … I was not in the room with anyone. There was some vague kind of direction, but I mostly just got the beat and then the hook, and I then wrote lyrics and a melody.
So you were just told generally what the song was about?
Yeah, sort of. When you do that, you have to put your psychic antennae up and you go, okay, I’m going to take what I know about this person, which is a lot of abstract information, coalesce it and think, “If I was that person …” All I know about her is what everyone else does. I don’t have any inside track. But you can empathize. You think, “If I keep pulling this thread …” I was surprised too, when the record came out and I saw what the narrative was. I thought, “Huh, pretty on the money.” On one hand, there’s getting that call and thinking, “Excuse me?” Then on the other hand, I was getting asked, “What it’s like to work with strong women artists?” We’re just artists. I really just come at it artist to artist. We both have the same values. There’s some deviations, but we believe in the same things. I kind of intuit that, or feel that. You don’t have to imagine that you’re someone else. You imagine, “This is how I would feel if this was my life.”
In your recent Beats One interview with Zane Lowe you made an interesting point about how difficult it is to rebel when all of current pop culture is saying, “Oh yeah, you should rebel.” With that in mind, what do you think of Katy Perry’s “Chained to the Rhythm”?
I actually applaud that. Someone should do that. But in a larger sense … look, I just don’t want to talk shit about Katy Perry, because there is totally a part of me that is like, “Fuck. The establishment can’t say that. It doesn’t deserve it. It doesn’t have the right.” There are two different perspectives, because her, as a person, I get it. It’s funny. She also grew up Christian and you can never shake that guilt, that feeling of, “Well, I can’t just not say anything.” But then you have her at the Grammys, and then it’s on to the Oscars flub, and then it’s like, who fucking cares?
Sure, it’s a function of the internet. People feel the need to have a conversation about anything and everything, and then the conversation just moves on.
We all employ such willful ignorance because we like getting bent out of shape about stuff. It’s the cage-rattling again. The willful ignorance is that we all know it doesn’t fucking matter. We all know that. We know. But if you want to accomplish something emotionally, if you want to feel that sweet dopamine dump of outrage, we’ve gotten really good at omitting things so we can go, “OH MY GOD.” I didn’t hear about the Oscars thing until yesterday. It is funny, but treating it like the 9/11 of the entertainment industry is a little much. Why do we care so much? Do we know what it even means to care? Do we realize how absurd this is, this pearl clutching?
Speaking of the Oscar flub, I don’t know if you happened to see this New Yorker piece discussing this theory that the world is a simulation?
I know. It’s like using Russia as an excuse why a deeply unpopular technocrat didn’t get elected because she was looking at data while the Midwest turned into a wasteland of federal, poison water and empty factories. It’s like, “Okay, if you really don’t want to think about it …” Donald Trump is not a glitch. He’s not an anomaly. If you look at the political and philosophical currents, all the way from deindustrialization all the way to the internet and total immersion celebrity culture, who else is going to be our president? He’s actually the only guy that makes sense, if you look at where we’ve been going. A celebrity is invincible because they have perverse incentives. Whether it’s “grab the pussy” or making fun of the journalist, these were all boilerplate. I was listening to an interview with Matt Taibbi from Rolling Stone and he was saying, “You know, you’re not really supposed to say this, but the media, we know what we’re doing. You can get rid of a presidential candidate if you put out 5,000 stories.”
So he’s saying that they should have done that with Trump?
Oh no, no. They tried, like, seven times. He was fucking invincible because celebrity is not about dignity. There are these perverse ideals for them that don’t apply to politicians. A politician thinks, “If I’m disgraced, then it’s not worth doing this because I won’t have the dignity that you need to be a leader.” A celebrity is all about indignity. I really think in the future we’re not going to have famous people. We’ll just going to have infamous people. Look at the Oscar thing. Look at what people get off on, which really is the outrage thing. To maintain that culture, you can’t have well-liked people. We’ll just have infamous people so we can sit around and go, “AAAAGH. Can you believe this?” But we won’t have to feel responsible. We’ll say shit like, “Oh, it’s a simulation. It’s Russia.” Instead of saying, this is the way the world is because this is how we want it and there’s no other explanation. The second we want it to be different, it can be different. The problem with the left, I think, is that for quite some time now there hasn’t been an alternative. Our imagination is dying and we don’t have an idea for a better version of the world. If we did, do you think we would live this way?
Is the issue that there is a better way, but that way would require people to think about what they’d have to give up in order to actually achieve it, or even just what they imagine they would have to give up, and that prospect is so terrifying, they can’t really approach the idea?
The left thinks the revolution is going to look like some battle of ideas that takes place in the culture. Revolution has always been people with nothing to lose getting rid of people with everything to lose. If we can afford to get bent out of shape about Oscar flubs, then we have everything to lose.
There’s a massive underclass in this country and Americans have always been willfully ignorant of class. We walk around telling ourselves we have democracy, that we have equality that we clearly don’t have, which you can see with these deportations. Now there’s this shit where you’re not going to be able to use cash in most stores. It’s starting in L.A. I was at the store and they said “We’re phasing out cash.” I was like, are you fucking serious? They said, “Oh yeah, it’s a Trump thing.” I guess I’ve just been busy looking at Oscar flubs.
Meanwhile, there’s a bigger flub we should be paying attention to. A larger snafu.
The unrepresented people in this country, what more reason do they need? We’re breaking up their families and taking away their ability to operate in our culture. No health care. Meanwhile, liberals are going to be like, “But I respected your identity politics! I read think pieces about all this! I’m not the enemy!” Yeah, you are.
In the liner notes of Pure Comedy, you float the idea of introducing bears back into modern society, as a way to unite us around a common enemy. Do you think Trump could be the bear?
I think it’s literal bears. If climate change is a thing, if it is getting hotter and hotter, then animals are going to have to start coming into our cities.
Some places are already having problems with wolves and mountain lions in residential areas.
Maybe our concerns are about to get a lot less abstract.
This interview has been edited and condensed.