HeardYa, J. Tillman [The Interview]

by Woody on December 4, 2009

HearYa’s own Tom Cruise body double and bearded teen wolf concert goer, SafariMan, spent some time on the phone with J. Tillman. You can buy Tillman’s latest (and great) album Year In The Kingdom now. You can find SafariMan roaming the streets at SxSW 2010.

So where are you today?

We’re in DC tonight at the 9:30 club.

Very nice. I caught your show in Chicago a couple weeks back. You had a tough slot on a Sunday night but I thought the show was great.

Yeah, that actually wasn’t too bad. We’ve been averaging about 75-100 people at each show.

What did you think of the new Lincoln Hall?

It was pretty nice. But, I really missed playing Schuba’s.‚  I mean, that place was great, but I hold a special place in my heart for Schuba’s . I was bummed we didn’t get to play there.

I actually saw you play for the first time at Schuba’s 4-5 years back when you were playing drums for Damien Jurado. Back in those days as a hired gun was songwriting always the goal?

Well, at that time I had just moved to Seattle with the expressed purpose of playing music.‚  I was about 20 and I just wanted to play music with whomever. So, while I was playing bass for Delorean and drums for Damien, I didn’t really think of it as a means to doing my own stuff.‚  I mean, I really did want to ultimately do that as well. But, it was slow going getting my own solo shows and playing with them gave me some wisdom.‚  When we started that tour I didn’t know Damien as well. But, he was really great to me, letting me play a few songs to open up some shows. I learned a lot during that time.

You made a few comments on stage about it being impossible not to sound like an A-hole when you say anything on stage. Are you comfortable when you’re up there between songs? Or, do you just want to focus on the songs and get off the stage?

Honest communication is really important to me. I put a lot of stock into words and expressions. The gears are always turning even over mundane conversations. So, when I fall into those modes on stage–just saying things that you’re supposed to say for the sake of saying them, I get a little self-conscious. A lot of nights there’s just not much to say. It’s a long and tedious set, and I want to manage the crowd’s attention. So, when I say stuff like that I’m just being honest and I think the crowd usually appreciates that.

It’s interesting to hear you refer to the set as tedious. I actually was surprised at how you were able to get your songs to carry live. Did it take you guys a long time to develop these songs to play live?

We haven’t been playing these together that long. Most of the preparation comes months ahead. I’m always thinking about different ways to play each song and playing around with the arrangements. By the time we actually get together, I think I have all of the ideas about the arrangements. But, what ends up happening is that half of those ideas end up being bad. There’s a process of working through what does and does not work. What’s exciting about the band is surrendering your material over to them. We have a really great musical dialogue.

Vacilando Territory Blues¦wait, did I pronounce that right?

Yeah, that works.

What does that even mean?

It’s a weird Spanish word that basically means ‘to wander without purpose’. There’s not a really accurate equivalent in the English language for it.

If you had to coin the English equivalent for Vacilando, what would it be?

Hmm. Party? To party. To wander aimlessly. To Party…no, that’s stupid, I can think of something better. Let me come back to that.

Anyway, VCB had a couple of songs with more complete arrangements like ‘Steel on Steel’ and‚  ‘New Imperial Grand Blues’ featuring horn sections, distorted guitars, etc. Do you ever envision putting out an entire album that’s more rock/blues and less stripped down folk?

The initial vision was for that record was to be a full band kind of deal. Like a straight ‘rock’ thing. I recorded about 7 or 8 songs like that and thought I’d slap on a few solo acoustic arrangements on there and it would be done. But, I ended up being just kind of dissatisfied with it. So, I wrote 7 or 8 more songs and at the end of the day was only comfortable with a few of those as well. I probably recorded 40 songs for that record and there would be 3 or 4 of each batch that ultimately ended up together on the record. I’d had such a hard time finding a central theme for the record that eventually the central theme became not having a theme at all. That idea was really attractive to me. There was a time that year where I said, ‘I can’t do this anymore’. I got into a bad headspace feeling like this (my solo career) was not a sustainable venture. That created the tone of the record for me. It turned into a record about the angst of making a record, which was a good depiction of where I was. I really couldn’t stand to listen to that record for a while. But, now I think I’m in a place where I can actually enjoy it. Not like I sit around and listen to my own music all the time or anything.

Sure you don’t.‚  But I could see you maybe having your own music as a ringtone on your cell phone.

(laughing) Yeah, I think ‘James’ Blues’ could make a good ring tone.

If you had to name a musician who would have their own song as their ringtone, who would it be? And, it can’t be a rapper.

Hmmm. Probably someone like Joe Perry. Yeah, I could see that. Just having one of Aerosmith’s classic rock tunes blaring every time someone called him.

We both have beards. However, yours is much more robust. What’s the best and worst part about having a totally awesome Grizzly Adams beard?

To be honest, and don’t take offense to this, the worst part about it is having to explain it all the time. It’s become such an abstraction. Such a loaded image. The things that people assume about you could not be more ridiculous. I’ve had a beard with a few exceptions since I was 23. I haven’t used a straight razor in probably 10 years.

So, the voice is not tied to the beard, like Sampson from the bible.

No, certainly not. I mean, if I had to explain it I guess I’d say it’s because it’s actually physically difficult for me to shave. I have a nerve condition that impacts the right side of my face, which includes my eyeball. It makes it difficult to see out of my right eye, especially when I’m trying to look off to the side, or look down. That makes shaving really tough. If I did use a straight razor I might end up slicing my jugular. So, I just avoid it all together.

We caught your Thursday morning set at the Red Eyed Fly in Austin during SXSW. HearYa had an all day party the day before so needless to say we weren’t in great shape the next morning. On stage you proclaimed, ‘The score at the end of day one is 0-1 in the SXSW vs. Tillman cage match¦in favor of SXSW’. You then invited someone to come up on stage and chug a PBR with you. What’s the best way to kick a hangover when you’ve got to get up and play like that?

Yeah, that was a rough one. I guess I’d have to say that ignoring the hangover when you’re out there is really the only way to get around it. Luckily, I don’t have to deal with that as much on this tour. When you’re tour managing yourself you don’t have the luxury of drinking too much. You’re doing all of the driving, you have to settle up with people at the end of the night, and sort out the details for the trip the next day. Europe is a really a stream of hedonism though. There’s no way I’m going to try to handle all of those logistics myself so we always have a tour manager. On those days, there’s nothing that tastes better than a bottle of jager that’s been chilling in the van overnight.

Are you going to be back at SXSW this year?

I don’t think so. At least I don’t think I’ll be performing. The SXSW shows are hard to do. They just need ‘X’ amount of performers to fill the time. It’s really hard not to feel like you’re just a cog in the wheel. I might head down there with Zach to hang out. But, we’ll see.

You’ve managed to keep a steady stream of new music coming out with 6 records in as many years. Now that you’re pulling double duty with Fleet Foxes—-how do you manage?

I actually have had a surplus of free time since joining Fleet Foxes. Before, it was like I was working all the time on different projects. There were certain times I was playing in a couple different bands and literally working all the time. When you’re working 50 hours a week, it’s hard to find the time to work on stuff. Now, it’s like we go on tour for 6 weeks and when you get home you have a few weeks off. That’s more than enough time to get an album to get together. I’d say my records take about 10 total hours to make and mix.


Oh yeah, VCB took no more than 12 hours to make¦total. It’s just about finding those hours and the money to get it all cranked out. I think it took 7 Days to make the last album (Year In The Kingdom).‚  That’s what appeals to me about smaller labels, they’ll just do whatever. I can just call up Mike and say, ‘I’ve got something I want to put out there’ and he’ll be like, ‘Yeah, that sounds good, let’s do it’.‚  With a bigger label they want to put it through the PR sausage maker. So, getting anything out that way takes forever. Keeping the process tight and the means limited allows you to be free to do what you want.

That’s true. But, it can also be tough for your fans when it comes to distribution. While things have changed with the inception of online music”I remember having to order your record from Sonic Boom in Seattle because I couldn’t get it anywhere else.

Yeah, but at the same time that sort of helps to separate the wheat from the chaff. The people who end up buying it are not passive purchasers, but really active listeners. I’d rather have people who want to hear the record seeking it out than pushing it on people who have no interest.

I guess that’s true. So, do you remember what the first record you ever bought was?

Well, the environment that I grew up in was not conducive to exploring good music. The first album that I bought was on cassette of course. My brother and I went in on it together. It was some totally 80s Christian metal band. I think it had a flaming sword on the cover”that’s why we bought it. We were so excited about it. Music was an obsession for me as a kid. But, I think that what you listen to as a kid has little to do with the music that you end up liking when you get older. It’s more like you just fall in love with music as a medium. You develop your own process for analyzing music that enables you to fulfill taste criteria. The more you listen to it, the more you’re able to sort of identify yourself in certain music.

Interesting. Along the lines of identifying yourself with the music that you listen to, I wanted to ask you about the video for ‘Though I Have Wronged You’. We posted that a few weeks back and I thought it was very interesting, Can you tell me more about that?

Yeah, I wrote the dialogue for that a little while back and my friend Shawn edited it and put the video together. I think over the last year or so as I’ve found myself struggling to extract what I know about myself. When there’s more and more info about you out in the world, it’s very easy to start to identify with an abstraction of yourself as opposed to what you know about yourself. In our culture there is more emphasis being put on that info and its authority. People are placing a weird priority on that info and de-valuing the info that you get from your friends and spiritual experiences. I started to feel a disconnection from myself or at least what I thought I knew about myself. That’s what I was trying to get across in that particular video.

You spoke earlier about a time when you questioned the sustainability of music as a career. Did you ever aspire to anything outside of music?

No. There have been no other jobs that I’ve enjoyed outside of music. When I was having those thoughts, it wasn’t as simple as just not being able to make music for a living. It was more along the lines of, ‘if I can’t do this then what am I going to do?’ and,‚  ‘would life be worth living?’.‚  At the time, the only thing outside of music was like drinking and working.‚  If life was going to be drudgery, then I didn’t want to sacrifice the thing that I loved by continuing to do it as a source of destitute.

The title of your new record, ‘Year in the Kingdom’ implies certain happiness over the past year and I think the songs reflect a little more joyfulness than records past. What are you so happy about these days?

Well, ‘happy’ is a funny word. At different points in my life I’ve struggled with depression. It’s just something that I have to deal with. But, over the past several years I think I’ve learned how to manage it a little better. The theme of YITK is based on an end of life perspective. It’s not a literal year, but more like an anticipation of the reckoning that happens at the end of your life. I’m very intrigued by the elastic nature of memory”or, what you remember vs. what has actually happened. Brain chemistry is such a complicated thing. It takes a lot of brain power and creativity to memorize, catalogue and maintain the menusha of your experiences to sustain you and make you keep doing what you do. You re-create past events in a non-objective way and over huge periods of time you get distilled into this nebulous ghost. The YITK thing was more about looking back and remembering things in a totally inaccurate way, a way that’s maybe more joyful than it actually was. There have been things that have come into my life over the past few years that I know I will be able to conjure up at the end of my life and feel good about.‚  It’s not about everything being great. It’s about everything being an exercise in creativity.

J Tillman – Though I Have Wronged You

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

AndreaKaz December 4, 2009 at 2:29 pm

awesome recap….J. Tillman is a favorite of mine as well. Great questions, hagen….

I thought only your mother thought you looked like Tom Cruise?

oz December 4, 2009 at 6:16 pm

Great interview. It’s obvious you are a big fan but no stalker tendencies came out, so kudos. Tillman is hard not to love.

Ryno December 6, 2009 at 7:25 am

Nicely done with the interview. Love getting some behind the scenes insight to Tillman. Hopefully more acts are to follow and the interview can be on regular rotation in the HearYa music experience.

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