By Jim Schutze
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Tillman is in Los Angeles, packing up after the previous night's show and getting ready to hit the road in support of his debut on Sub Pop, Fear Fun. There's a lot going on in the background, as band and crew members ask him last-minute questions, but he is focused and sharp during our phone interview.
"I'm just excited to utilize my narrative voice," he says of his newfound musical path. "I'm just really enjoying the liberty."
Fans of his earlier work, a seven-album solo project known simply as J. Tillman and later his role as Fleet Foxes' drummer, are discovering he's not the pensive, solemn introvert he once appeared to be. He's actually outspoken and hilarious. He recently spent the better part of a day Tweeting his quick wit at Pitchfork, after his new album received a review he wasn't pleased with. His national television debut on The Late Show With David Letterman featured Tillman doing choreographed dance moves to the mellow "Only Son of the Ladiesman."
But the whole thing has people wondering: Is this some act he's putting on? He denies it. In fact, he claims he's been playing a character up until now.
"I used to do these J. Tillman shows and I would play my sad-wizard, Dungeons and Dragons music and watch people's eyes glaze over," he says. "Then, in between songs, I would start being myself and shooting the shit and telling jokes. ... All of a sudden, people were rapt with attention and I had this very devastating and sobering realization that I was way better at that part of the show than the music part."
His last album as J. Tillman was 2010's Singing Ax. When he finished the record, he was ready to move on, and opted not to support it on tour or even do any interviews.
"I nailed it to the cross," he says.
An opportunity came up that made the death of the J. Tillman character easier. He joined Fleet Foxes as their drummer, a job he did with surprising proficiency. Doing so fulfilled a lifelong goal, but he quickly realized he had more to accomplish in his career.
"This really latent dream of being in a band and making a living doing it that way," he explains, "it was hugely instrumental to stare that in the face and experience it and realize that it wasn't enough."
During his last few tours with Fleet Foxes, Tillman would spend his time off making what would become Father John Misty's debut. When he quit the band, he says he finally felt free to embrace his inner smart-ass.
"Being told all through my formative years that I was kind of a clown was essentially the ultimate assessment of what I was," Tillman says. "What I didn't have the wherewithal to realize was that I was confounding authority left and right, and there's something very valuable about that. It's really like the revenge of the 8-year-old me."