Music at Mars Hill is a weekly column by Luke Larsen that seeks to find God amidst the newest trends in both mainstream music and independent music.
Drummer Josh Tillman had always been the sarcastic and slightly crude member of the otherwise seemingly serious and heavenly indie folk group Fleet Foxes. So when I heard Tillman was finally leaving the band to focus on his own solo material as as songwriter and singer, I was curious to see how much of the band’s wide-eyed worldview would stay intact in his music.
Under the moniker Father John Misty, Tillman has now released his debut album Fear Fun, and it has left me somewhat enchanted since its release. Inspired musically by bluegrass, Neil Young, and 70s folk rock, the album has this unnervingly wholesome quality to it. It felt real — almost painfully real. Until I saw the band perform live, I hadn’t realized why the music had hit me quite the way it did.
We walked into the dark Doug Fir Lounge where Father John Misty would be playing. On the stage, the opening act was finishing up, which consisted of a sweaty, balding dude singing over an electronic hip hop beat wearing nothing more than his pair of tighty whiteys.
“Who’s got a DUI out there?” the nearly naked singer shouted between songs.
This just couldn’t be the kind of show a member of the contemplative folk group could be a part of. But as Father John Misty took the stage, I kept thinking of the story behind Fear Fun that I had read of earlier.
After experiencing the burst of unexpected success with the band, Tillman had left Fleet Foxes and had gone on something of a journey of self-discovery. But not the hopeful, coming-of-age kind of self-discovery that Fleet Foxes was originally born of. It was the kind of journey of self-discovery that occurs after the high of success, fame, optimism, and youth wears off. So Tillman took off on a road trip fueled by mushrooms, cynicism, self-doubt, weed, whiskey, and sex — a troubling combination at face value.
The confident man that stood up on stage, shook his hips like Elvis, and held the microphone stand up to him like it was one of the girls he was singing about, clearly wasn’t someone caught up in the lofty ideals of a band like Fleet Foxes anymore. “Joseph Campbell and The Rolling Stones couldn’t give me a myth/So I had to write my own,” sung Tillman like a true member of The Beat generation in the song “Every Man Needs a Companion.”The songs on Fear Fun are the result of that journey Tillman took and the myths he had to write for himself. But they don’t represent any resolved conclusions or regrets over the past. They take us along for the explicit ride that calls to question our culture’s belief in hyped up myths like celebrity, unadulterated sex, Hollywood, and rock ‘n roll with a gritty sense of realism. This was that sense of visceral “realness” I got from listening to the album. This was Tillman seeing if these myths held any real value or meaning.
The truth is that we hear a lot about dreams, goals, aspirations, and overcoming trials. It’s the stuff movies and books are written about. It’s the kind of stuff we like to tell people we’ve just met to make a good first impression. But sometimes I wonder if we don’t hear enough about the struggles of seeing those beliefs and lofty dreams lived out in daily life. We don’t hear much about the guy who isn’t just addicted to sex and drugs — he’s actually hopelessly in love with them.
The myth Tillman has made for himself might not be one that sounds particularly worthy of subscribing to. It’s unclear if Tillman even really subscribes to it for himself. Even so, I felt the music nudging me to remember that the myths we claim belief in are only that until we’ve tested them in the flesh and blood struggle of daily life. Only once I do that will I be able to stop taking myself too seriously and start taking more confidence in what I actually believe is true about my life. Sometimes it just requires a little journey of self-discovery to figure that all out.