The first time I try to call J. Tillman for our scheduled interview, he doesn't answer. To be truthful, I'm kind of relieved.
Right before the interview, I went online, glancing at old interviews, articles and bios, and ended up at Tillman's MySpace page. I looked over the blog posts and saw one titled “A word concerning Interviews.” In it, Tillman writes of his displeasure with what journalists (or, as he puts it, “students, interns, illiterates”) have written about him and ends the paragraph by pleading: “Please don't read my press, come to my shows or buy my records.”
It's a strange feeling knowing that the person you're about to interview doesn't want to talk to you. No matter, I had to try calling him again; still no answer. A third time. I hang up, thinking the interview might not happen. Fifteen minutes later, the phone rings: it's him. He promptly apologizes for not picking up and explains that he was crossing the Canadian border and was dealing with officials. On the phone, he sounds a bit weary, but not unkind. I get the feeling the interview might go OK, but I was still thinking about what I'd read.
“It's my own fault,” he says when I ask him about it. “I'm not a good communicator. It's weird; it's just kind of a bizarre element of the whole thing.”
The “whole thing” Tillman refers to is playing music. He's been releasing records for years now, quietly but assuredly, sometimes more than one in a year. Many of them went unnoticed, were self-released or had limited release in Europe only. They were hard to find, and not very talked-about.
“It can be frustrating when no one knows about what you do,” he says. “But, you know, I don't really have too much to say or explain about what I do.”
Still, J. Tillman (real name: Josh Tillman) may want to prepare himself for more interviews. His latest record, Year in the Kingdom, was released in September by Western Vinyl, the record label that's home to Dirty Projectors, Here We Go Magic and other big-name indie bands. And last year, he became the drummer for Fleet Foxes, the Seattle folk band that's become wildly popular since the release of their debut last year. As a result, interest in Tillman has grown, even though he's been releasing his own records for years.
“I mean, it makes sense. But they are very different things. I play in that band [Foxes], but then I also play in other bands, too. They're just not as well known as Fleet Foxes. It makes sense. It's the most popular band that I'm a part of, so people kind of want to talk about that.”
You get the sense that talking makes Tillman nervous. In photos, he appears stoic, but maybe also awkward. His music is quiet, mournful and reflective. Listeners might define it as overtly pained, and that may be half true, since Tillman uses music as a way to explore the human condition.
“It's just a way to transform certain elements of the human experience into something that is, you know, either entertainment or performance,” he says. “It's just a way for me to examine different elements of my human experience.”
He describes the theme of Year in the Kingdom as “just kind of the relationship between earthly love and death and all these things that go on. It's kind of like a spiritualistic, pagan sort of—trying to cultivate original ideas about life after death.”
It's clear that Tillman sorts things out through his writing—both lyrics and short stories. Though he hasn't written much fiction in the last few years, he's interested in doing more of it. “I think in this next decade of my life, it's probably something I'll pursue more. I like to just do it for the sake of doing it. For whatever reason, with music I feel compelled to commodify it and put it into the world and leave it open for critique, consumption, etc.”
That's the hard part for Tillman—not the creation or even the release but, rather, what happens after all's said and done: the way it can be ravaged. It's the reaction to what he does that he's not sure about—and the prospect of his work reaching a larger audience. “I'm not sure that that is really in the cards for me. It's, I guess, marginally larger, but I think I have kind of like a self-sabotage streak that helps me prevent—.” He trails off.
The thing he comes across as absolutely sure about is that despite his qualms, he has to sing. “This is just the voice that God gave me,” he says. “I'm just receiving different spirits and other things from that realm with music. I don't always know what I'm singing about. I'm just kind of receiving stuff from the universe.”
A little over 16 minutes into our conversation, his phone cuts out. Neither of us calls the other back. I return to his MySpace page a day later to look at the blog post again. What I'd read before has been deleted and replaced with two words:
J. Tillman plays with Pearl Gate Music and Joel P. West on Tuesday, Dec. 1, at The Casbah. www.myspace.com/jtillman.