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J Tillman: Wowing Midwestern Youth with Unmastered Majesty

Posted by June 23rd, 2005 1 Comment » Interview
Q & A with J Tillman

By Matt Ashworth Hey man, how’s it going?
J Tillman: Good. I’m actually on break from my day job, which is selling shoes. And a dream come true. I wish someone would interview me about that.

NM: So you’re a cobbler then?
No. No. Cobblers make shoes.

NM: OK well let’s talk about shoes next time… What’s the “J” stand for?
JT: Joshua. But I refuse to be referred to as anything but “J,” so it’s kind of an irrelevant question.

NM: Why, what do you have against the name Joshua?
JT: The name is fine. I’m trying to be funny.

NM: According to your website, you’ve got two recordings done, I Will Return and a newer one called Long May You Run. Which one has been getting some airplay on KEXP and some other indie radio stations and helping generate the local buzz around you and your music?
JT: I recorded I Will Return about a year and a half ago, and that’s the one that’s been just recently been getting played on KEXP and KGRG. I did Long May You Run a couple months ago. It’s still unmastered but I’ve been mailing it to weird kids in the midwest who are, for some reason, chomping at the bit for unmastered, unreleased J Tillman material. It’ll see the light of day sometime, but right now I’m focused on the band-oriented material. LMYR was recorded with one room mic and no overdubs and would be incredibly boring live.

NM: You’re actually one of the few local singer/songwriters who can hold my attention without a full band, but you recently added one. Talk a little bit about the difference between doing your songs solo acoustic vs. with a band.
JT: Well, it’s hard for people to talk over a banjo solo. In order to win an audience over you have to “wow” them to a certain extent. I know that I see some dude with an acoustic guitar and I just kind of turn off. It’s unfortunate. I mean, there are a lot of incredible songwriters out there, but it’s hard to keep people’s attention with that medium when you’re in a bar and people are trying to play pool and meet girls. It’s also changed my songwriting and singing style as far as writing choruses and bridges and singing out a little more. Right now I’ve got a banjo, pedal steel, cello, bass and drums on stage. A lot of ballads. Fewer concrete narratives.

NM: When will Long May You Run get a proper release? Have you signed with a label?
JT: No “signing” of any sort, but a great label in Arizona called Keep Recordings just did a limited (100 copies) release of I Will Return with really beautiful hand-done packaging. It was kind of a nice extension of what I’ve been doing anyway.

NM: You recently supported Richard Buckner on tour. How did you get hooked up with that opportunity?
JT: Damien Jurado asked me to play drums for him and bass for another band on the tour called Dolorean, and offered to let me play a couple songs before his set every night. It was pretty great exposure. To drugs.

NM: So you’re one of those guys who can play, like, every instrument well?
JT: No. I don’t play the guitar very well. I’m a much better drummer.

NM: You draw comparisons to Nick Drake and actually cite him as an influence alongside Flannery O’Conner and Pete Seeger on your website. Tell us why those artists helped shape what you do.
JT: Pete Seeger just has such a pure, mournful voice. Even when he sings about corn or something it’s just heart wrenching. I think everyone goes through a Nick Drake phase in college, and the over-the-top kind of feel to I Will Return is sort of testament to mine. He’s got some of the silliest lyrics imaginable about magic, etc., but when you remember how young he was when he wrote those songs it adds an element of innocence and vulnerability that’s just transcendent. Read some Flannery O’ Conner, start with A Good Man is Hard To Find.

NM: Name some other local musicians you really like.
JT: The Stares, The Western States, Dear Darling, Whale-bones.

NM: Name three local bands that are totally overrated.
JT: Over a beer sometime. Or ten. Because there are quite a few.

NM: I know I say this to all the rock stars, but you really are a dreamboat. Since you’re a hunk AND a musician, do you pull tons of tail?
JT: No, girls see a beardy guy singing country songs about romantic dysfunction and/or murder ballads and kind of run screaming. The other day on the bus I overheard these two high school girls say, “Look, it’s the sad guy from ‘The Stranger’.”

NM: By the way, what kind of drugs were you exposed to on the Buckner tour? Do you have any left?
JT: He’s playing in town in August, so I’ll hook you up.

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