Fleet Foxes' J. Tillman on medieval-couplet riddles and other elusive truths

Fleet Foxes' J. Tillman on medieval-couplet riddles and other elusive truths

Can you carve air? These men can! They work the udders with their hands!

Josh Tillman may get more exposure as the drummer in Fleet Foxes, where he's known for cracking wise on stage with singer Robin Pecknold, but the singer-songwriter has more going for him than simply knowing his way around a kit and a joke. As a solo perfomer going under the shortened moniker J. Tillman, he creates plaintive, spare, haunting country-folk, and he's been busy lately, releasing his fifth and sixth solo records in 2009: Vacilando Territory Blues in January, and Year In The Kingdom in September. Now Tillman is on the road touring his ramshackle, Steinbeck-literary, Dylan-mystic tunes, coming to Minneapolis' Music Box Theater on Nov. 6. Catching him while driving his bandmates around on a quest for Persian rugs, The A.V. Club spoke with Tillman about elusive truths, messing with his audience's heads, and trading riddles with Pecknold.

The A.V. Club: You put out two records this year. Were they two separate writing processes?

Josh Tillman: Definitely separate. The Vacilando record was a way for me to purge a year and a half of a bunch of different writing cycles and so when that record was done there was pretty much nothing left that I wanted to do after that. All of the Year songs are pretty brand new. It was kind of a distillation of a few different things; it was sort of an earth, earthly love, judgment, death, and illumination cycle. In my mind was kind of how I wanted it to play out.

AVC: You grew up on Christian music; would you count that as an influence?

JT: No, that was music that I grew up listening to that I can’t say has had much of an impact on anything I have done in my adult life. Maybe Christianity has, but certainly not the bullshit Christian music I was listening to when I was 12. To me there's not much substance in that music. I don't have a message or anything, so I don't feel any obligation to make my intentions for a song accessible to a listener or an audience. I'm not interested in conveying anything to them so much as what's best for me. 

AVC: Does songwriting help you come closer to some truths?

JT: I don't think so. By the time I get around to writing a song I think I’ve boiled everything down. You know, there's an economy in lyric-writing that doesn't afford you, or at least me—I usually start off with nine or 10 verses and then boil it down to two or three that are half the length of the original verses. I think for me it's about what you leave out [rather] than what you put in. I’m not sure that the songs help me figure anything out so much as they're a distillation of the original question.

AVC: Are you comfortable as a solo performer?

JT: Yeah... No! [Laughs.] I try to make myself, and subsequently the audience, as uncomfortable as possible, whether it's completely desecrating a song they thought was one thing, or getting too drunk to really do a very good job. I think that providing obstructions in the live setting is when you get something that actually means something, as opposed to just aping your way through your greatest hits. I don't think that just because a lot of my music has a quieter aesthetic; [it] excludes me from achieving that in a live setting, from being dangerous or something. 

AVC: You joined Fleet Foxes after the albums were recorded, but you seem to have a great rapport with Robin Pecknold, almost like you're his older brother. How do you get along?

JT: Robin is far more mature than I am, so it's funny you would read it that way. It's eerie sometimes. Our senses of humor are so locked in and we are so similar in a lot of ways that it's a really interesting dynamic. This weekend, we started this game where we were writing riddles for each other and the answer was a band [and song] title, but the riddle had to be a medieval couplet and be delivered in the Macbeth voice. We're indefatigable with things like that; we'll be going for hours while everybody else is going nuts.

AVC: Can you give an example?

JT: Yeah, one was: "Can you carve air? These men can! They work the udders with their hands!" and the answer was "Aerosmith, 'Get A Grip.'" A lot of stuff like that makes its way onto the stage, which is fun because people expect us to be serious and whatever.

AVC: Between your solo career and Fleet Foxes, do you count yourself a success?

JT: I don't know. My idea of that is constantly changing. I mostly just throw it out to the universe and I can't really do much after that. I've never taken the steps to be "successful": I’ve never had a manager or signed to a publishing house. I’ve talked to people about it but I've never followed through because it gives me the creeps. So I guess with the way that I've conducted myself I'm in the logical spot and I'm fine with that. Even my limited interactions with success have left me confused and bummed out, so I don't think the two can co-exist.

"Though I Have Wronged You" from Year In The Kingdom:

"Firstborn" from Vacilando Territory Blues:

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