On the last night of the S.S. Coachella, Josh Tillman sat before a couple of dozen fiction fans, a rare sight on a ship devoted to irony-soaked hedonism.
They’d assembled in Michael’s, the manly smoking-jacket-and-Scotch bar aboard the ship, for an event drolly billed as “Father John Misty reads selections from his favorite works of literature.” But Tillman, the singer-songwriter behind FJM, read from the novella printed in nearly illegible font in the liner notes of his album “Fear Fun.”
It’s a smart, bitterly amusing story about a guy sent to hell, where Satan shows him how to get around the place. The crowd eats it up, partly because the story is truly funny in a Ray Bradbury way. But also because this is the one hour of the cruise dedicated (even with a wink) to a higher pursuit than keeping your BAC above one decimal point.
“I don’t have any vanity wrapped up in my writing, so I really like reading it here,” Tillman said afterward, as trails of his cigarette drifted into the sea air. “I know I could have read this at, like, an 826 LA event, which I totally support. For this thing, I had initially planned to read the David Foster Wallace essay about going on a cruise. But then, I like the risk of reading [my novella] here.”
The whole idea of Father John Misty was kind of a risk as well. Tillman’s project, in which he adopts a kind of hipster-Dean-Martin persona over bleakly funny story-songs about L.A. life, came after years in much more earnest outfits – as the drummer for the arch-twee folk group Fleet Foxes and his own confessional solo work as J. Tillman. His shows aboard were unexpectedly raucous, and his burned-out yarn-spinner’s stage vibe was among the week’s most refreshing performances.
“I’d gotten really frustrated with the singer-songwriter archetype," he said. "I thought there was nothing to be accomplished there anymore, and it couldn’t address the sense of humor that’s a huge part of my personality.”
He’s kind of the ideal choice to play on a cruise – his persona definitely owes something to the suppressed darkness of Vegas lounge acts (he drives a 1972 Cadillac hearse around town, after all). But in other ways, he’s also the last guy you’d think of for the S.S. Coachella - there's a reason he read a story about spending time in hell here.
“I haven’t left my room this entire time except to play,” he said. “It just confirms what I know about myself and what I like. This whole thing is beautifully absurd. I understand people with jobs wanting to cut loose here. But then again, you’re here, I’m here, I guess we are ‘cruise attenders’ after all.”
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