Wednesday, May 16, 2007

A Night with J. Tillman


Black and white. Truth and lies. Right and wrong. Sometimes, things are completely as they seem. So when Josh Tillman walked onto the dark stage at L’Europeen last night with the help of only one spotlight, it seemed very fitting. He sat alone, in the middle of the stage and plugged in his guitar.

Bonne Soir,” he says softly to the crowd. A polite reply is returned from the 100 or so fans sitting comfortably in the small auditorium. “The rest of this night will be in English. Next time though. Next time.”

It’s the last night of a long solo tour across Europe warming up unknowing crowds for his friend Jessie Sykes. Josh is to the point on a stint where “your songs start to sound like sand in your mouth.” For some reason, I assumed after an exhausting month on the road, waking up in a new bed every morning, he’d be as cold and ominous as the black and white image that adorns the cover of his new record. Instead, the huge smile Josh wears seems as much a part of his attire as the t-shirt with the slightly stretched collar or the tattered old leather shoes. He dwarves me, not only in size (standing at least six inches taller than me with shaggy hair and a full beard), but in stature. His outgoing personality and warmth makes it impossible not to want to talk to him.

For most of the set, Josh sings with his eyes closed, delicately picking riffs to the strangely quiet and even more strangely elder crowd. You can actually hear his fingers slide across the fret board, or him clearing his throat.

That’s Europe man,” he laughs after the show. “So polite.” I ask about the tour and the fans. “What fans,” he asks jokingly. “No, it’s just a very dutiful, almost built in crowd you get in Europe. The same fans in every city. It’s weird. There’s a very strong alt-country fan base, so if they deem your music to be good, they show up. But the fans are usually a lot older (which is true as the audience carried attaché cases as opposed to Ipods, dressed in suits not trendy t-shirts). So I have to wonder, are you really going to be around much longer buying my records?”

Lots of fans buying his records does not seem to be a huge driving force for the songs he’s writing. As he plays as much for himself as those of us lucky enough to be in attendance, he samples liberally from his complete catalog, despite the fact most people in the room have no idea who he is, or what songs they’d like to hear. Lilac Hem and My Waking Days are placed beside Crooked Roof or Jessie’s Not a Sleeper and I wonder if anyone else understands how great the setlist is. He’s used to playing for small crowds who are largely unfamiliar with his work, but that helps him write.

That’s where Cancer & Delirium came from,” he admits. “I had just finished touring and needed to write to stop from going crazy. But I didn’t want to write the same record. I didn’t want to stay in the same style as I did with Minor Works. I never want to have to create the same record over and over. That record was kind of like a writing exercise for me. I wondered if I could write songs with a chorus and a bridge. I was probably listening to Born to Run or something. It seemed almost cheesy.”

I can’t help but laugh and think to myself, ‘I actually really like that record.’

“So I decided that I was only going to record at home using instruments we had lying around. A glockenspiel, an accordion, a banjo. Luckily my roommate and my brother are both fantastic musicians, so it was an easy process. As we got farther along, we were all like, 'wow, this is really good.'

The decision paid off. Cancer & Delirium combines the things I liked about Minor Works with the sparse, open arrangements he used so well on the first two releases. But not everyone thinks that way.

Well, Fargo didn’t really want this record,” he admits with a laugh. “Not that they don’t want another record, just not this one. And it’s not the next record I wanted to give them really. The record I’m working on when I get home is much different. It’s going to be a full band record. So I knew I really had to go with an Indie record label that was excited by my past work. That’s why it was great to work with Morgan. He was excited to put the album out, and gave me the freedom to really do what I wanted. To be fair, I’ve had a great relationship with Fargo too. I’m really lucky. I think it was Jessie who gave my songs to Michel at Fargo. I had like six songs, not even finished and I met him at SXSW. Like a week later, I got a call from him, ‘yes, we want to work weeth you.’ I’ve never had to compromise too much, which is great.”

You get the sense that the bleak, heartbreaking themes J often writes about are a result of the lifestyle he has chosen. Traveling alone, spending night after night at shows, takes a toll on him. But the choice to be a musician is one he is more than satisfied with.

It’s a hard,” J admits. “Lots of solitude. Humans have to work. Our bodies don’t function if we aren’t working six or seven hours a day. But you are alone out there. Your friends aren’t around or they are working. So you end up sitting alone, getting extremely narcissistic and jaded, wondering why no one else gets your fucking genius. But, it’s a risk. You know. Ten years from now I might be working at a bar. But when got Cancer & Delirium in the mail, I opened it up and put it beside Minor Works and thought, ‘this is what I want to do. I want to make records and line them up and just look at them.’ It’s a great feeling.”

Friends are one thing that really push Tillman, probably because his friends are so talented. So much music comes out of the Pacific NW, some of it great. Most of it bad. J, however, is surrounded by talented friends that push him musically. Al James, Damian Jurado, Laura Gibson.

People talk about the NW and that sound, but I’ve been writing songs like this since I was 17,” says Tillman. “But what really pushes me is my friends. I don’t get to see them nearly enough – well aside from Jurado – but I love to see them play when I’m home. But musically, its… when Al gave me the new Dolorean record, I was like, “Damn it, Al.’ He really raised the bar. I think we all have in some way or another. But in the end, I will crush them all.”

Things are changing in the music business, maybe even more than the musicians themselves. The internet changes how people listen and how people sell records. For people like Tillman, it’s a perfect situation. “I don’t really want much. I want to be able to put out records, and have a small fan base that comes to the shows and buys them. It’s nothing too big. So the internet is perfect for that. I mean, you don’t need a record in the stores any more. I’m sure if I walk down to the Virgin Megastore down the street, my record will be there, but it’s not doing anything. I’d rather have some MP3s online that people actually care about. Blogs are great. I really wish there was another word for them, but blogs blow me away. Most of them are done without advertising, just a labor of love. That’s like my records, because I’m not going to see any fucking money from them. But there are all these people who take the time to talk about me. It’s fantastic. One blog, Gorilla vs. Bear, really embraced me and talks about whatever I do. I don’t really fit into the stuff on there. It’s really more NYC dance punk and stuff, but they have always been great towards my music. I had no idea how big things were, until I started getting emails from all over the place.


J sits back down for his encore. He asks for requests. The crowd is silent. “Are any of you familiar with any of my songs,” he asks. “A request would really help me out up here.” Sadly, the crowd stays politely quiet. He starts playing My Waking Days. The whistle cuts through the silence. The spotlight shines on him in a room of darkness, and just as silently, he ends his set and the lights come on. Just like that, he’s gone, back into the black and white world most people see him in, but for the last hour he was alive and in color, and certainly made me even more of a fan.

MP3:: Crooked Roof – J. Tillman (live in Paris @ L’Europeen)

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