The Many (Mostly True) Faces Of Father John Misty by Andrew Arnold
Father John Misty struts on stage at Cain’s Ballroom, bathed in the crimson light already drowning his band and instruments, giving him the air of a demonic hipster preacher come to reap some Tulsan souls. He’s a slim man, even taller than expected. Clad in a slim blazer and equally cropped Henley shirt—an outfit so common, yet somehow he makes it his own—he grabs his microphone and launches into his first song of the night, the first track of his same-titled album, I Love You, Honeybear. Maybe it’s the thin mist issuing from the smoke machine, or the weed that’s been burning long before the lights dimmed, but there seems little difference between the front man, also known as Josh Tillman, and his players—even the Peter Jackson-like bassist tucked in the far corner. Otherwise, each are dressed in tight-fit suiting, their faces hidden behind beards and longish haircuts in various states of growth and upkeep. In fact, many of the men in the audience are Misty look-alikes. One man sports a straw hat, giving him the illusion of a runaway Amish person who traded his black-and-white plain clothes for a thirty-dollar T-shirt at Urban Outfitters. Stranger still, some audience members raise their hands in reverence for the night’s headliner, creating an atmosphere of Lacanian worship. The scene is reminiscent of the music video for “The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apartment,” in which a Misty doppelganger invites his real-life double to his home for rounds of alcohol, cocaine, and laps in an undersized pool.
Nearby stands a friend, head bowed toward his cellphone, hands clasped around the screen. From an earlier conversation, I know he’s on Tinder and, for some reason, doesn’t want others knowing, even though he could probably find more than a few Tinder-ites in this crowd.
I ask what he thinks so far.
“I like the music,” he says. “But I hate the Mick Jagger shit.” He motions toward the stage.
As Misty lifts and swings his microphone stand above his head between pelvic thrusts, I can’t help but agree. I’m in the presence of a man with a calculated persona. Such an impression feels fair. With music that echoes the humor of Bob Dylan and Neil Young’s brooding, how could he not? The man’s got something to prove. A brand to maintain. If you had time to peruse the merchandise table, you would find the requisite albums, t-shirts, and posters, but placed casually in the middle is a glass vial filled with a green-colored fragrance, labeled “Innocence” by Misty in gold lettering and comes with cotton candy pink packaging. Even after seeing the $75 price tag, you can’t help but laugh at the moxie. Further, you would notice the music piping into the dancehall following the opening act—an eccentric mix of Django Reinhart, Sergio Leone, and orchestral brass. This is not the regular segue music here at Cain’s. It’s as if Misty himself chose the songs to precede his entrance.
All these oddities combined beg the question: When and where does the performance begin or end, if at all?
By the second song, Misty has yet to address his fans. Much is said about his banter, somewhere between asshole and humble, so his silence is surprising. One would think a honkytonk venue such as Cain’s and the general flyover country that is Oklahoma would garner some sort of fodder for Tillman’s West Coast sensibilities, but no. Not until the particularly distorted (in a good way) ending of “Strange Encounter” does he finally engage the crowd.
“Thank you. Shut up,” he says between applause, giving each word the same tender cadence. The crowd only roars louder.
The man who lovingly taunts his admirers has undergone several transformations. Born and raised under the auspices of Christian parents in Rockville, Maryland, he ultimately rejected the religious lifestyle and fled West, where he became J. Tillman, a little-known folk artist who released seven albums with various outlets. In 2008, he became the drummer for popular folk band Fleet Foxes, an ultimately unsatisfying gig he quit in 2011 because, as he says in a Grantland profile, “being a drummer in a popular band was complete anesthesia.” In other words, J. Tillman was bored as hell. It would take a mushroom-fueled drive from Seattle to Big Sur for him to reemerge naked and newly christened as Father John Misty.
How a member of a successful band can find dissatisfaction with his life is easier to swallow once you know Tillman’s intelligence. Listening to him on podcasts like Marc Maron’s WTF or reading about him in Spin or Rolling Stone, I get the feeling he’s a hard man to interview, not because he’s difficult to work with, but rather because he has so much on his mind. He’s well-read, uses words like “arcana.” He feels attuned to culture at-large, particularly those parts he finds self-indulgent or narcissistic. Being center-stage allows him a voice he didn’t have behind a drum kit. But he doesn’t want you thinking he’s something special. In his hit song, “Bored in the USA,” he sings:
They gave me a useless education
A subprime loan
A craftsman home
Keep my prescriptions filled
Now I can’t get off, but I can kinda deal
All behind a laugh track, suggesting others mock these concerns or that they’re not unique for his generation. This type of wry commentary enforces the Dylan-esque qualities he probably frowns upon, or at least shrugs.
As Misty reaches the end of his regular set list in Tulsa, he’s shown a broad array of voices, ranging from the melancholic “Nothing Good Ever Happens at the Goddamn Thirsty Crow” to the current sonic, husky punches of “An Ideal Husband.” But what’s more surprising is an untouched side of the bearded singer’s persona. Hearing songs from both 2012’s Fear Fun and I Love You, Honeybear in succession makes me think, Man, this guy really likes love songs. But not sentimental love—love stripped of sappy ornamentation. For instance, earlier in “Chateau Lobby #4,” he speaks of taking a lover, “in the kitchen/ [lifting] up [their] wedding dress somebody was probably murdered in,” adding how “bourgeoisie” it is “dating for twenty years.” Whether these songs are about his wife, Emma Tillman, is unclear. Their affect on the audience, however, couldn’t be more apparent. During the love songs, the crowd transforms from an undulating mass to pockets of couples, arms wrapped tight around shoulders and hips, hands buried deep in jean pockets.
How many masks can one man wear? Is Father John Misty just the latest personage of an artist putting a face on his craft? What happens the next time he’s bored?
By the time Misty bows off the stage and is summoned once more by stomping boot heels, the crowd hasn’t lost its fervor.
“Thanks for participating in this empty gesture,” he deadpans, clearly aware of the show’s artifice. Thus begins a Q&A session, a fixture of his encores, a performance within the performance. After making it clear he will not hang out after the show, he opens the floor for questions. “Yes, you,” he says, pointing. “Dude who looks like me five years ago.”
The questions range from his religious preference (Satanist), to his favored inspirational artwork (a Van Gogh calendar), to a particular invention he proposed months earlier at a show in Lawrence, Kansas—a “69” Casket, a casket designed so “loved ones can be together for all time.” He declines requests to play his Lou Reed-inspired interpretations of Taylor Swift songs, a possible crafty response to Ryan Adam’s 1989. One fan wants a haiku.
“Bob Willis used to play here,” he says, counting the syllables with his fingers. “Now people drink Red Bull here.”
While the scansion is rough, and Bob Wills’ name is clearly printed above the stage, his fans don’t care. They cheer him on anyway.
He closes with renditions of “I Went to the Store One Day,” a somber acoustic solo number, and “Everyman Needs a Companion.” A piece of the latter catches my ear: “I never liked the name Joshua/ I got tired of J.” How many masks can one man wear? Is Father John Misty just the latest personage of an artist putting a face on his craft? What happens the next time he’s bored? My questions fade as the house lights flood the room, revealing a dance hall now mined with crushed beer cans and spilt mixed drinks. I notice Misty, hanging around the stage, shaking hands with people in the front row. My friend, still glued to his phone, asks if I want to speak with the man. I’m writing about him, after all. I could ask what he thinks about religion, how the subject appears in his songbook. Or about his depictions of love and relationships. But part of me already knows the answer would be buried in sarcasm. Besides, I think, walking toward the exit, I wouldn’t know which man—the lover, the critic, the comedian—I was speaking with.
Andrew Arnold lives in Houston, TX, where he works as a copywriter. He received his MFA from Oklahoma State University. His fiction appears in Superstition Review.