If you plug J.Tillman into the iTunes search query, the genre comes up as alternative country. So that’s what they are calling folk music now? I don’t quite understand all this sub-genre mumbo jumbo; I just call it folk—with a twist. No matter how you categorize his music, however, Josh Tillman has set out to cross paths while keeping his well-rounded scene just that.
On a rather late night to be holding a show on a Sunday, J.Tillman nevertheless filled the upstairs hall at The Middle East in Cambridge, MA. The atmosphere was light throughout the venue as we waited through the opening set by Pearly Gate Music (AKA Zach Tillman, Josh's younger brother), until 11:15pm when Josh hit the stage.
All the while beforehand—to my surprise—Tillman could be seen walking about the venue, checking in with the band and making small talk with a few people. And yet, the majority of those in the room didn’t even recognize him; he was just another awkwardly attractive man with a face covered in fur and a head full of country hair. The sight fit the scene, so really why would have anyone noticed him?
“There is nothing sexy about a guy who’s put out seven albums and nobody's heard any of them,” he told me later that night. And while his statement may ring true now, I am under the impression that with the dawning release of his second LP, Year In The Kingdom, along with his incessant touring (either solo or as the drummer in Fleet Foxes), his unrecognized grandeur is soon to be swooned over.
Tillman is no stranger to folk music, in fact, having nurtured his skills long before his recent stint with Fleet Foxes. His spanning albums—of which there are no shortage—can be compared to the likes of Bon Iver with their crashing, melodic swirl of instrumentals—light and airy, though certainly not lacking in organic emotion.
In a not-so-typical fashion for a folk show, he started off on an acoustic Guild guitar that could have been taken from Grandpa’s attic. Yet as soon as he got underway with dreamy tunes like “Masters House,” off of Vacilando Territory Blues, there was no doubt this man accompanied much the same distinctiveness and vocal clarity as do Fleet Foxes. In fact, his voice could have carried throughout the room without a microphone or an amplifier and they would have been just as pronounced.
Right around the time he got down on his knees and starting crashing items into a gong and shaking random items (such as his car keys) beside the microphone during the breakdown in “Howling Light,” it became quite obvious that folk as we know it had taken a turn toward alternative. Without a doubt we could add another member to Volcano Choir with this type of collaboration, respectively of course.
Amid his crispy, somber-like vocals, his lyrics spoke volumes—even as their meanings were slightly locked behind some obscure biblical references—cloaking them heavily throughout such songs as “First Born,” “Year In the Kingdom,” and “Masters House.” Ultimately, his intense harvest of passion found its way in and around each song he played. To witness folk music composed and performed so fresh yet controlled, it just about makes your body tingle. That is unless J.Tillman’s lustful voice doesn't get to you first.
Following his performance, J. Tillman graciously took some time to speak with me about his music.
How do you manage time between both the bands? Between touring and practice, it must be hectic all the time.
It’s been pretty busy. The start of this tour—the first week—I was kind of losing my mind a little bit. Like, what am I doing, doing a five-week tour after a year and a half of straight touring [with Fleet Foxes]? I knew that it was going to feel like a little too much, but I think it’s lent a certain urgency to the whole performance.
Segueing into that, how do you keep the energy and the effort up? There has got to be something keeping you going.
You have to have a vision. And I think I mean that literally; I have visions of this thing. That’s where a lot of my songs come from. It’s not really about me having energy. It’s about this thing taking over. Most the time I feel like a receptor to this thing, and it keeps working through me.
It is clear you were born to do this. Was there ever a point in your life when you thought you might be doing something else? And what might that be?
There have been a lot of times when I knew, [but] I never thought that I would live off of it. I have done plenty of other things in the past 10 years, mostly day jobs. But there is never any alternative, there is never anything that would take the place of this thing. It’s not like I could go to school and put the same energy that I have for this into that. I only have this kind of a vision for this.
Your sound on Year In The Kingdom is obviously breaking a lot more barriers than previous albums. Do you think that your participation in Fleet Foxes has given way to that promotion?
Maybe on some subconscious level, but to me I’ve always viewed my albums as a larger narrative. And certain albums that I made were really made to just set up other albums that I knew I was going to make in the future. I think that the last two albums have been kind of a way for me to set up this next record that’s percolating. A few of the albums are religious sacrificial lambs. Like I made this album, Minor Works, a few years ago. In my mind I was like, Well I am going to make this really safe album because that sounds fun, and [it] will also provide a really bizarre context for the album after that. And all the albums are kind of related to each other in kind of a counter-intuitive way.
Like one segues into the next?
Yes, in kind of a way that makes sense and doesn't make sense at the same time. I kind of want to confuse people—like I am confusing you right now!
Good job, but I am catching on! So what are your plans with Fleet Foxes? Are you going to keep rolling with that?
No, I mean I just joined. That’s just another thing that I do. I am totally committed to it; I don’t have any plans… I am just going to keep being in that band. I am really lucky; I have such an abundance of music in my life. I am in Fleet Foxes, and do this, and keep playing on all of my friends' albums. To me it’s a bigger picture than I think most people see it. I don’t see any one thing as being a primary thing; it’s just all a part of my musical experience.
I personally hope everything goes well. I am very pleased with your solo work, but when I first heard of you—and found out you were the drummer of Fleet Foxes—I didn’t believe it. You are just all over the place!
It won’t blow up [my career], I’ll tell ya’ that. Your timing has to be… There is nothing sexy about a guy who’s put out seven albums, and no one's heard any of them. It’s bad for branding. You really need the entertainment industrial complex to latch on in a way that’s marketable; and I just don’t really fall into that category. And I don’t foresee falling into that category. That doesn't bother me; it’s just my lot in life.
Do you hope that? Or do you think maybe you are just being pessimistic?
I don’t think it's pessimism; I don’t think it's even realism. Because I don’t think blowing up versus not blowing up. I just don’t think one is more necessarily real than the other. You only have to embrace your experience for what it is, and not exist in parallel universes, quantum possibilities. So I embrace this experience for what it is.
For more information on J. Tillman, please visit his Myspace page.