Calum Henderson talks to the acclaimed recording artist and guest star of Master of None S01E03 about Aziz, stock photography, and who he’d face in the Fight For Life.
The third episode of Aziz Ansari’s widely acclaimed Master of None largely revolves around a ‘secret show’ by an act called Father John Misty. Ansari’s character Dev has managed to wrangle himself a pair of tickets to this exclusive performance, and faces a dilemma over who he should take with him. His best friend Brian is a huge Misty fan, but then another friend insists that taking Brian would be a waste – Dev has to seize this as an opportunity for romance.
The episode is a funny and astute exploration of things like relationships and courtship and texting and manners in the modern age – something Ansari has literally written the book on. Dev asks this barmaid, but then she doesn’t text back, so he asks this journalist, who says yes. But then the barmaid texts back, so he ditches the journalist and takes the barmaid because she’s better looking.
Throughout the date – which is a fucking nightmare – the rangy, bearded figure of Josh Tillman, aka Father John Misty, louchely commands the stage performing ‘Chateau Lobby #4 (In C For Two Virgins)’, one of the wryly romantic songs from his 2015 album I Love You, Honeybear. It seems like a really good show.
Ahead of his appearance at Auckland’s St James’ Theatre on Thursday (read on for a chance to win tickets) – at which any number of similarly disastrous dates could take place – I called Tillman at his home in New Orleans and asked the question foremost in my mind.
Do you think Dev made the right call by taking the hot barmaid to the Father John Misty secret show?
Hmm. I personally have never gone to a concert as a date. It doesn’t sound like a good… I mean, I don’t really like concerts. So I have a hard time relating to this dilemma. But it seems like knowing about an obscure cool artist, which seems to be the function that I play within the show… that spending that capital on trying to impress a girl, while definitely a shallow enterprise, is maybe like… If you’re going to drag your ass out to a concert and deal with the seventh ring of hell that is any live show, then you may as well do it to get laid.
How did you end up providing the backdrop for this nightmarish scene?
It really was just as simple as getting an email. They sent me the script and I just thought it was kind of a weird thrill seeing fictional characters invoke my stage name over and over again. When I was reading the script it was like, “God, this is the seventh time that they’ve said ‘Father John Misty’.” Then when I watched the show it was hysterical.
I’m a big fan of [Aziz Ansari’s]. I’ve been asked to do a lot of really stupid TV shit but I had no reservations about this. I think he has an interesting voice right now. Just the way he’s addressing social media and romance, like with the book [Modern Romance]. I think people struggle to address that without coming off as out of touch or curmudgeonly or something. I think his ability to talk about it without alienating people is pretty unique.
There’s a running joke about how this show is going to be packed with white people (“If a race war breaks out at a Father John Misty show, I’m fudged…”) – how do you feel about being identified as a ‘thing white people like’?
I mean, I get it, I’m a white guy who has a beard and plays an acoustic guitar. But if you go to Kendrick Lamar show you’re going to see mostly white people too and I can’t explain why that is. Most concerts you go to it’s a really white scene. I listen to a lot of interviews with rap dudes and it’s something that they say a lot – you look out and see a lot of white people. But I laughed, I found it funny.
I feel like I get irrationally embarrassed whenever something I happen to like is identified as a ‘thing white people like’. Which is probably stupid…
Ultimately everybody has bad taste. Bad taste transcends race, it transcends gender, it transcends economics. It’s really the thing that binds us all, it’s the great equaliser.
The first time I heard Father John Misty was via Spotify’s ‘Discover Weekly’, you know, the playlist the Spotify robot makes of songs it thinks you’ll like. One of the songs it gave me was Bored in the USA. I was enjoying it, I think, then it came to this point where the crowd all started laughing at these kind of self-pitying lyrics. I was like, “hang on, is this a live track? Why are they laughing?” It threw me. So I ended up googling it and learning it was a deliberate part of the song, and was like “oh OK, that’s kind of genius.” What was the idea behind putting a laugh track under one of your songs?
I was on… well, I was hallucinating when I had the idea.
I think a lot of the things people think are really serious are actually really funny – and some things people think are funny are actually really tragic to me. There’s sort of a tragic component to anything that is truly funny, not just entertaining.
And I find that Western problems or first world problems or whatever you want to call them are funny from a certain perspective – you know, compared to the ills of the rest of the world. But the fact that they’re funny sort of makes them even more sad. Because the person who’s experiencing them can’t even have the dignity of taking their own problems seriously. So ultimately that was what I was trying to do. That was the instinct.
Do you play the laugh track when you perform the song live?
Oh, yeah. I consider it as much a part of the song as, say, the piano.
And do audiences laugh along with it?
For sure. What’s kind of eerie is that I went and did a solo tour where I was playing that song for the first time – before the album came out – and the audience was laughing in the same spots where I had just put the laugh track. Nobody had heard the album yet and nobody had any idea that I’d put the laugh track in. I was just playing the song live and people were laughing… it was really creepy.
The laugh track seems to have all but died out as a TV device. Do you think it could make a comeback?
Yeah, I think in some kind of post-modern, ironic sort of way. In that same way that I’d like to put a laugh track to the news. I’d like to put a laugh track to everything I see on TV. I feel like that would make me feel better about watching TV.
So I’m also a big fan of your Instagram presence. You started out posting these sort of bleak computer animated scenes and giving them these mundane, sort of idiotic captions. Did you make those graphics yourself?
No, God, those are just screenshots of Second Life. I don’t play Second Life but I feel like it’s a fairly obvious kind of gag.
Now you’ve moved on to doing the same thing but with stock images. It seems like you’re using quite high-end stock photography…
I actually signed up for a very expensive subscription. They’re very expensive. I’m just kind of fascinated by stock photos. It’s like, here’s the thing: every choice in a stock photo is a deliberate one. Everything you see in a stock photo was deliberated over, was painstakingly debated and everything is meant to serve a function. It’s meant to communicate a certain idea, or more importantly, it’s meant to not communicate certain ideas.
A lot of the time with Instagram photos it’s the same thing. You look at a seemingly candid photo from a party and the idea is it’s meant to be candid, but the photo is deliberate. It’s not arbitrary that you’re seeing what you’re seeing. So… whatever.
This is sort of like what I was saying about what Aziz is doing. it’s cool that he can discuss this sort of stuff and have it be compelling in a certain way. I feel like when I talk about it it’s just sort of annoying. I annoy myself – my theories about Instagram are annoying.
Is it your social media platform of choice? You don’t have a Twitter…
Every other year or so I have to get off Twitter because it’s just so… Especially when you’re in my position, it’s like, “yeah I really want to go on Twitter and look at people joke about how only white people listen to Father John Misty because of Master of None…”
Finally, I wanted to ask – we have this thing in New Zealand called the Fight For Life. It’s a celebrity boxing thing where, like… there’s one coming up where the bachelor from The Bachelor is going to fight a rugby player. That kind of thing. So I like to ask people who they’d fight in a Fight For Life…
Such a violent question. It’s interesting that the violence is ideologically justified by the presence of charity, that’s kind of cute. That’s very postmodern.
Often it’ll be a sort of one-sided rivalry. Like somebody you consider your rival who maybe wouldn’t feel the same way…
Sometimes I see things written up, you know… I would want it to be a good match. I’m like 175lb (80kg) and 6’2, 6’3.
You would have a pretty good reach.
But I mean, I’m so passive. I can’t even imagine agreeing to do that. Maybe like a supermodel that I could just kind of roll around on the ground with and not ever punch.
I guess that would be kind of subversive…
Then you’re just loving, you’re not fighting. No… I can’t for the life of me think of anyone that I care enough about to fight.
The Spinoff has a double pass to Father John Misty’s show at the St James this Thursday, December 3. To go in the draw to win, simply subscribe to our email newsletter in the right column, then email firstname.lastname@example.org with ‘Misty’ in the subject line. Entries close on Wednesday December 2 at 10am, and the winner will be notified by email that morning.
The Spinoff Daily gets you all the day's best reading in one handy package, fresh to your inbox Monday-Friday at 5pm.