Before he re-christened himself Father John Misty, Josh Tillman was the drummer for a little-known folk-rock band you probably haven’t heard of called Fleet Foxes. We kid, of course: Fleet Foxes is so huge that it’s sort of amazing anyone would willingly leave it. But that’s exactly what Tillman did in 2011, when he was in the midst of a full-scale musical identity crisis.
“All of a sudden everyone in my life was pointing out that I had done it,” the affable Tillman told The A.V. Club in a recent interview. Outwardly, he was a member of one of the most popular indie-rock bands of his generation, but inside he was “too ashamed and embarrassed to admit” that playing in Fleet Foxes wasn’t making him happy. “I was kind of bored playing drums in a band,” he said. “Which was depressing, because playing in the band was kind of a golden ticket.”
How did Tillman get from that point to Fear Fun, his first album as Father John Misty, which comes out May 1? First, he quit Fleet Foxes. Then he got in a van with a lot of drugs and started roaming with no particular destination in mind. Over the course of several months, he discovered a few things. The first was a sense of humor. Not that he wasn’t funny before—in conversation, Tillman is a stoner quipster in the mold of Mitch Hedberg—but he found that he could now be funny in his songs.
On Fear Fun, the jokes are dry and often dark, like on the album’s best track, “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings,” which tells a bizarre story about bodies, both cold and sensual. “In that song, I’m singing about sex and death,” he said. “Funny is a good foil. Humor is illuminating, and it also gives you power.”
Somehow, at the end of his journey, Tillman found himself in perhaps the last place the Seattle transplant would’ve expected: sunny Los Angeles. And not just L.A., but Laurel Canyon, the symbol of ’70s music-industry excess, a place he describes in the song “I’m Writing A Novel” as being “filled with people pretending they don’t see the actress, and the actress wishing that they could.”
Tillman ended up hooking up with producer Jonathan Wilson and recording Fear Fun at Wilson’s Echo Park studio. Tillman’s new surroundings inevitably ended up influencing the new songs, which touch on some of the city’s greatest music—think Neil Young with Harry Nilsson’s whimsy—and proved to be a creative and personal breakthrough, lifting him out of a post-Fleet Foxes depression.
“This place, it is full of small dogs and entertainment lawyers and Hummers,” he said. “Laurel Canyon is kind of grotesque. It’s this nature-themed place, and everybody is kind of angry.”
How does this mix of nature nature, anger, dogs, and entertainment lawyers translate musically on Fear Fun? Find out for yourself.