Father John Misty’s war on social media, entertainment and ‘fake critical thinking jargon’

Father John Misty, aka Josh Tillman, is a man of many, many words. And he doesn’t hold back on his forthcoming album Pure Comedy (out April 7) – a 75-minute manifesto on evolution and human existence that will surely divide some fans.

Where 2015’s I Love You, Honeybear dealt with the beautiful, fucked-up imperfections of people within the day-to-day minutiae of a relationship, Pure Comedy explores global issues of chaos, progress and the survival of our species. Tillman knows he’s asking a lot of his audience – preempting criticism in the epic 13-minute Leaving LA: “Some 10-verse chorus-less diatribe plays as they all jump ship, ‘I used to like this guy. This new shit really kinda makes me wanna die.'”

No stranger to controversy, Tillman often feels misinterpreted in an era of internet outrage. Whether it’s the now-infamous on-stage rant atXPoNential Music Festival, his covers of Ryan Adams’s covers of Taylor Swift, or the interpretation of ‘The Night Josh Tillman Came to our Apt.’ and ‘Strange Encounter’ as ‘misogynistic’ (he stopped playing them live). And now he finds himself the centre of another storm about his lyrics, and coincidentally again about Taylor Swift.

Where I Love You, Honeybear deals with the intimately personal experience of falling in love, Pure Comedy feels a lot more ‘macro’ and politically charged. Was it a conscious choice to, for the most part, take the focus away from your personal life?

I think the two albums are actually more entwined that it may seem at first blush. Like writing about love and sort of where Honeybear left off – a song like ‘Holy Shit’ – which is really addressing the limitations of the rational. And this album – where I spent so much time trying to intellectually, and sort of philosophically, deal with the more transcendent aspects of love and really getting to a place where I realised that love is more or less the substance of survival.

And that’s really where this album picks up – is with a song like ‘Pure Comedy’. Which is a song about love, and the first couple of verses where I’m describing the kind of cave man scene and really addressing our helplessness as a species. And we’re really unique in that way: when we arrive here we’re utterly helpless. We’re totally at the mercy of other people to take care of us, or we die. I really think that that’s where love comes from – it’s born out of our innate helplessness.

Whereas I think it’s easy to think about love as this kind of abstract, romantic kind of principle, or some kind of divine thing that’s not innately human. That it’s somehow godlike or something. And realising that it really is the substance of survival. And that song: it’s basically this kind of crazy laundry list of what happens when we attempt to replace love with ideology. These kind of bizarre, ironic ideologies. And we try to isolate ourselves from one and other. Life really kind of becomes this absurd farce – hence the title ‘Pure Comedy’. And the song really ends on this note of like – I love philosophy, I love numbing the pain, I love thinking about these bizarre religions and this bizarre stuff. But I hate to say it, as much as we love and have come to rely on all that stuff – it really doesn’t mean anything. Each other is all that we really have.

“The way to justify being wilfully ignorant of context and intent is to make yourself look really smart by employing a bunch of fake critical thinking jargon.”

I think a lot of people sort of gravitate towards some of the more salacious lines and have sort of taken that song to be political in some way – but really, any reference to politics in that song is just one in a big group of bizarre ideas that have sort of taken over human life.

So speaking of people taking a salacious line – the Taylor Swift thing. Did you think when you were writing it that you might be courting some kind of controversy?

[Sighs] Well, I mean I understand the way the world works, and, you know, the fact of the matter is – even your publication did something I saw that was trying to assert that there was some innate racism to the whole thing . . . Which I thought was pretty cheap and gross. When people hear a line like that – the media responds in a certain way. And it is like easy to say like “God why are people so literal about this stuff?” And the fact of the matter is – they’re not.

But in order to court controversy, as you put it, you have to be wilfully ignorant of context, or intent, of the fact that it’s a song. I mean it’s got a fucking saxophone solo in it. How fucking serious can it be? And what’s funny is that – with that half-baked think piece that came out on your website – the way to justify being wilfully ignorant of context and intent is to make yourself look really smart by employing a bunch of fake critical thinking jargon and sort of like, social justice and whatever.

And so basically, in order to allow yourself to be dumb you have to make yourself look smart, and it ends up being a pretty self-defeating feedback loop. I think that if you listen to that song, even if you listen to the way I sing that first line – I think that there’s a palpable sadness. There’s all kinds of context that is important when you’re listening to music.

Given that kind of feedback loop of outrage, and you do reference social media a lot on the album as well, you recently quit Instagram and Twitter [ed.: following the interview Tillman returned to Twitter for a fan Q&A]  – is that part of the reason you took a step back?

Imagine if Twitter was a physical location. Imagine if Twitter was a bar. Would you go there, ever? Would you go to a bar to be surrounded by angry people, sarcastic people and know-it-alls? It’s so much noise. And I don’t think that people’s knee-jerk reactions are really all that interesting. I prefer conversation where there’s some…. [trails off] You know, now I sound like I’m being a…. For me I just got off because it ended up being a distraction.

And also I realised that at some point: I would think that people would understand who I am as a person through my music. And that Instagram was just these kind of silly, peripheral things of understanding who I am. But I started to realise that people took what was happening on Instagram or Twitter as the sum total of how to understand me as a person, and that really started to harm. I mean, think about it: for me, the only thing that you can learn about me from my Instagram, for example, is how I feel about social media. That was literally the only thing.

“Imagine if Twitter was a bar. Would you go there, ever? Would you go to a bar to be surrounded by angry people, sarcastic people and know-it-alls?”

In songs like ‘Bigger Paper Bag’ – there’s a sense of you struggling with your role as an entertainer. And it’s something you talked about in about your now infamous on-stage ‘rant’ in Philly. What do you want your role to be as an entertainer?

I don’t think of myself as an entertainer. Jimmy Fallon is an entertainer. An ‘entertainer’ has a set of principles that I don’t necessarily see myself as being bound to. I think that entertainment is like heroin, and art is like mushrooms or acid. They both feel good, but they serve very different functions. Entertainment is about forgetting about your life, and art is about remembering.

After Philly there was a lot of people essentially saying “shut up and play”. In some ways this album is like that rant put to music – so is it in some way a bit of a middle finger to those people?

No. I mean, the album was pretty much written by the time I was up there in Philadelphia. I think it was mostly recorded too. This was just stuff that was on my mind. And this was the day after Trump got the Republican nomination and we were now in this new reality where one half of the people who were going to be president was a reality TV star. To me it was kind of unthinkable to just act like everything was normal.

It really wasn’t about teaching anyone a lesson. It was just like – I just cannot in good conscience act like everything is the same, you know what I mean? I saw such a disturbing relationship between entertainment and the kind of passivity I was witnessing that I had a very hard time bringing myself to, I don’t know – it was kind of a moment of self-loathing or something … And it wasn’t until after that that when I really got a sense of like, “Look, I’m not just an entertainer. I’m an artist.” I will say that if I’d make an album about doing drugs and heartbreak or something – I would have a very hard time going out on the road and playing those songs in this climate. I’m glad that the music I have now to play is something that has substance.

Why didn’t you put last year’s single ‘Real Love, Baby’ on the album?

Well, it just has nothing … I mean can you imagine that song on this album? [Laughs] Every album that I make has kind of a thematic core to it, it’s not just a random smattering of songs that I’ve written.

But there are a lot of things that are personal on Pure Comedy as well, and moments about love?

Yeah, I mean there is the most personal song I’ve ever written smack bang in the middle of that album – ‘Leaving LA’. But the idea is that if I was going to make this album about humanity there needed to be a portrait of a living, breathing human being: in all of their fear and doubt and insecurity and empathy. What’s the point of talking about humanity if you’re not going to talk about humans?

You wrote ‘Leaving LA’ during a period when you were living in New Orleans, when you’d given up alcohol, drugs, smoking, coffee, meat – to see what that was like for you. Did it help?

Well, it wasn’t really about helping or not. It was just I had a sense that if I was going to write about these things that, you know, I’m kind of method writer. My life needed to have a certain internal silence in order to write about this stuff with a clear head.

When are you touring Australia next?

I am not sure. They just wheel me out on stage and say “Dance monkey!”.

Pure Comedy is out April 7 through Sub Pop/Inertia