TLOBF Interview :: J. Tillman

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Photographs by Sonny Malhotra

Having taken up sticks for Fleet Foxes just under a year ago, the name Joshua Tillman has grown from a quiet murmur to a resonating, breathtaking howl. However, it would be erroneous to imply that Tillman is merely latching onto the coat tails of Fleet Foxes success, as he released five records as a solo artist before joining the band, not to mention his most recent, beautifully honest Vacilando Territory Blues (out now on Bella Union). After gleefully watching the sound-check for tonight’s show at Bush Hall, I caught up with Tillman to chat about his most recent release, his musical beginnings, Bob Dylan and religion.

Hey Josh, how are you doing?
I’m a little wiped out: we flew in from Stockholm early this morning and I haven’t really stopped. We’ve been living pretty hard on this tour and it’s kind of caught up with me today, but I’m good, excited.

How was the show in Stockholm?
Really unexpectedly great.

Why unexpectedly?
I think I have a pretty low expectations of my own musical performance, but I don’t mean that in a self deprecating way. It was great fun though and people knew our stuff which was cool. Also, I think I’m taking a lot of people by surprise because I’m touring with a band for the first time, so in general that has been interesting and different.

How have you found the response to Vacilando Territory Blues?
I’m not really sure, I get a lot of the critical responses but I just think “whatever” to those. I think people really like it, a few of the tunes are beginning to resonate with people and I feel like the live shows have elevated some of the tunes. And you know, I’m relatively happy with it.

Only ‘relatively’ happy with it? How would you describe this album in comparison to your past efforts?
Well, it is different in that I was less interested in making a certain kind of album this time around. With previous albums, from the get-go, I would get an idea in my head like this is going to be the ‘country ballad’ record or this is going to be the ‘obtuse, lo-fi’ thing. That sounds disingenuous but its not, I just get really excited by the prospect of making lots of songs that relate to one another, but in a slightly weird disjointed way. On this record I fail lie three or four times in a row at making those connections but at the end of the day I had all these songs and they kind of worked. It is actually quite cool because the record dictated to me what it was as opposed to vice-versa.

So would you say there were any prevalent themes or ideas that drove the songs on the album?
Not particularly, I mean I could just sit here and make up an answer for the sake of it but I guess I’m more interested in what other people see in it, rather than dictating what it means.

The title track is certainly a beautifully crafted song, what is the story behind its’ delicate melody?
That song is about me moving to Seattle and the images that I associate with that journey. And obviously it is about my brother, and him subsequently moving to Seattle. At that point we hadn’t really spoken for a few years because we were kind of figuring out life on our own, it was as if we needed to become individuals for a few years. So yeah, its about being brothers, and I mean the end of the song says it all. I just wanted the song to be really literal, I wanted my brother to be able to instantly know that it was about him and for him.

I read somewhere that in Spanish “Vacilando” means to care more about the journey than the destination. Do think that is an accurate description of your approach or your music?
I saw that word for the first time in John Steinbeck’s ‘Travels with Charley’ and it struck me just phonetically, I just thought it was a cool word. He also described it as meaning to wander with no preset destination but I’ve head about15 different definitions. The definition wasn’t particularly important to me, I just liked the way it sounded but actually I guess it probably ended up being a little too appropriate, more appropriate than I would have liked. It is interesting when you make an album and live with it for a little while how things start to reveal themselves to you. So, yes the word does fit well but I don’t want to be heavy handed with that, you know its not like I’m a wanderer alone on a highway to nowhere!

So, speaking of journeys, how did your musical one begin? Even before it became a career?
I started playing music with my brother when I was about 12 and he was 11. I was obsessed with music but the idea of becoming good at the guitar bored me to tears, I’m not really technically proficient on any instrument. I just learnt enough chords so I could write songs, although I have accidentally improved over the years. Progression is pretty slow though: over the course of the past five years I’ve probably become as good as most 16 year olds do over the course of five lessons. I was much more interested in song writing, I probably fancied myself as a person who really had something to say. I think it is just a bad habit I have stuck with really, as a way to identify myself. I don’t know why but every body seems to need a way to identify themselves, be it like “I’m Funny” or “I’m smart” or “I’m a songwriter” or “I’m a drummer”, I think we just cling on to that thing for dear life because if we don’t have it we’re lost. So I guess my musical journey has been all about figuring out who I am through the process of making records. I think I am now coming to the other side of that where I can just view myself as myself, and not get on stage and feel I have to present some false, disingenuous version of myself.

So was it as a ‘drummer’, a ‘guitarist’ or ‘singer-songwriter’ that you first identified yourself as?
Well, my first instrument was drums. As a kid I had all this nervous energy so I would just constantly tap on things, eventually my parents thought if they got me drum lessons I would stop tapping. The minute I picked up those drumsticks it was just over for me, I was just like ‘this is it.’ My drum teacher was like this legendary DC Jazz musician, but I would never really be prepared for practice so he used to get pretty frustrated with me, tell me I was throwing my parents money away and suggest I try the clarinet or something. He saw me playing years later and I saw him nodding as if to say ‘not bad’ and that was like the ultimate approval. But drumming was something that I only really did in high school after that I got so into song writing that I ceased to identify myself as a drummer.

josh-tillman-by-sonny-malhotra-3

What kind of music did you listen to when you were younger and was it just as important as actually playing instruments?
No, not at all really. I think the whole idea that it is important to be exposed to great music when your young is a fallacy, because if my parents had played, what they deemed, great music to me I would have hated it and done everything I could have to listen to the opposite. I grew up around Christian music, really terrible Christian music because my parents listened to it all the time. It is weird that I gravitated towards music so much because I hated its association with the Church: and that is how I knew music when I was younger because we weren’t allowed secular music in the house. Maybe I felt I had to reclaim it for myself.

But, I’m actually glad I didn’t grow up with that much musical input from my parents because I got to discover people like Neil Young in a very neutral way: I just thought “this is amazing” not, “oh god this is something dad would play”. Although there was a Peter Gabriel record that my dad was really into which I loved and still listen to. But generally I’m glad I don’t have to associate any of the music I like with my parents.

Can you remember what the first record you bought was?
That would have been Petra On Fire. Petra are like this heavy-metal Christian band that my brother and I pooled our allowances to buy. I even remember us opening the cellophane on the cassette together, but I didn’t really buy records because there wasn’t a whole lot of freedom to do that sort of thing. I mean I would ravenously pour through my friends’ records when I was at their houses’, I just listened to whatever I could get my hands on. In fact, because my parents would allow secular music in the house I began to ask myself what “secular bands” have put out “Christian” albums. So I went and bought like U2’s Joshua Tree and Slow Train Coming by Bob Dylan.

How important was discovering Dylan for you as a musician?
I didn’t know anything about Dylan when I bought that record, I vaguely knew the name but nothing else. I just put the record on and thought there was something amazing about this guy, slightly crazy, but amazing. In fact the last song on that record is called ‘When He Returns’ which is just like this gospel, piano-led epic piece of music so after hearing that I went out and bought New Morning and Nashville Skyline and all these other weird Dylan records. I went about it in a weird, totally wrong way. Usually you hear the classics first but I just heard these bizarre records like Oh Mercy. I remember just thinking “this guy is crazy” and then eventually I found my way to The Times They Are A-Changin’ and I thought this is it. My life just totally changed and I know everybody says that about their Dylan experience, but it is really true for me, it inspired me to go and do what I do now.

What about the first gig that you yourself played? Do you remember how you felt or being nervous at all?
After hearing that Dylan record I immediately started writing Dylan rip-offs. I played them at my High School in senior year, which was probably the first time my friends had seen me play guitar and do my own thing. It was really liberating and fun, I don’t remember being nervous – I was too excited! Also I didn’t really see it as being a reflection on my worth, I was more excited about exploring the possibilities of singing and writing songs. I didn’t think anyone could actually become a songwriter and make records professionally; I didn’t know what I was going to do. I don’t want to make myself sound too doe-eyed or anything but I didn’t know the first thing about starting a band or getting signed. That was just a really exciting time for me, spiritually and intellectually as far as like starting the process of not being spiritual.

So before you realised that you could actually become a musician professionally was there anything that you wanted to be as a kid?
For a long time I wanted to be a Pastor, because that was my idea of being a performer, that was the closest I could imagine myself getting. I was actually a pretty aimless kid, I didn’t really do anything: I never really studied hard and all my parents were interested in was my spiritual stated. When I was younger my reality was heaven and hell and angels and all this bullshit that doesn’t mean anything in terms of becoming an actualised human being.

Your music has such a raw honesty to it, how does performing now make you feel?
I’ve only started to really enjoy playing live within the last year or so. It has been pretty torturous I’d say. I really enjoy it now though, I feel like when I was younger I was just taking myself too seriously: when you are young you give yourself licence to get indignant when people don’t understand what a fucking genius you are! My mind was really poisoned by the idea of success I guess, and now I’m recalibrating my reasons for playing music.

How was the idea of success poisonous?
Because I wasn’t writing songs just to make music I wanted to, I started to think of it in terms of ‘this needs to happen because I can’t do construction for the rest of my life and I can’t make coffee for the rest of my life and I looked at music my escape, my way out of life’s drudgery. Then when you start playing music professionally, you realise there is just as much drudgery as anything else.

Since joining Fleet Foxes last year and touring with them, how would you say that your solo career or music has been affected? Has it changed in anyway?
No, it hasn’t really changed at all. People have really exaggerated my involvement with Fleet Foxes; they had two records done by the time I joined the band and the writing was already on the wall that they were going to be the next big thing. I just learned the drum parts for their songs and tried to execute them as best as I could. I didn’t write anything you know, I didn’t really contribute anything creatively other than I hit the drums a little harder than their previous drummer! They would be just as good and just as successful without me so…. The whole thing is just kind of a head fuck. Sometime in interviews, just out of necessity, you have to make up an answer and pretend like you are a part of the process but then you say those things enough times and you start to forget how it really is. It is more work to explain the reality of the situation than just to play along and do what you have to do to get to lunch, and get a sandwich!

Do you think there will be more of a collaborative effort with Fleet Foxes the future then?
There are big plans for that but I’m not sure how it will play out. I’m just as comfortable with the idea of being told what to do as I am with contributing something. I’m just really interested in serving the song as a drummer, and someone bringing a whole song to me is more exciting that sitting around having a head scratching session for days on end.

Do you think the recent influx of internet-born singer-songwriters is a good thing or do you think it has become too easy to get lost in the crowd?
I don’t really know if it’s a good or bad thing. I think that if people are making great music they manage to transcend whatever idiotic bureaucracy is currently distributing music to the masses. There is no rhyme and reason for this kind of stuff. There are great bands that make it big and obviously there are terrible bands that make it big; sometimes good bands make it big because of the internet, sometimes they don’t. It is just complete anarchy out there and if you try to make sense of that stuff you will lose the plot for sure.

Finally, is there anything you are currently listening to that you think everyone should hear?
Actually on the play list I made for this tour is a guy called Jack Rose who is just an incredibly, really inspired guitar player. James Blackshaw whose instrumental, 12 string guitar-led songs I’ve been really into at the moment. I’ve also been listening to a lot of a band called Earth at the moment. They play like this sludgy metal and they have really long biblical track titles. They’re a Seattle-based band as well and they’ve been around forever. The story is that Dylan Carlson, the lead guy, was involved in the transaction of Kurt Cobain getting a shot-gun which is seriously dark. If anyone is going to play metal then it is him. I’m constantly listening to music, so I would recommend doing that. I just love it: it is transformative in the way that religion is supposed to be transformative. It changes everything about a scenario or a season of your life.

mp3:> J. Tillman: ‘Steel On Steel’
Taken from Vacilando Territory Blues, out now on Bella Union Records.

J. Tillman on MySpace