Drummers don’t spend a lot of time in the limelight. Known best for their epic deaths in “This Is Spinal Tap” or when they’re swapped out by Pearl Jam, the men who sit behind the skins are seldom heard from in the music world, with few exceptions. It does not appear that J. Tillman will be one of them. Though his immense songwriting talent could have the final say on that matter.
Despite a sixth solo album, his second of the year, the Fleet Foxes drummer says his music represents just a fraction of himself “under a magnifying glass.” Heck, even his MySpace page, a site categorized as “social” media, doesn’t offer many clues. Instead it offers this explainer for lack of personalization: “In response to the huge influx of disappointed and disgusted messages regarding my lack of personal correspondence, I feel compelled to make it officially known that chances are I will not respond to your message, though many of them are valued and appreciated. Anything you might need to know about my shows, releases, etc. is readily available on the internet, somewhere. Please don’t take it personally, thanks for listening.”
“It’s kind of like an occupational hazard of being accessible in that way,” Tillman says. “I make music and I make it available, but I can’t necessarily deliver the kind of insight or correspondence people expect on those sites.”
Fans shouldn’t take it personally, and Tillman says many have understood his reasoning. Instead, they should probably his enjoy his high standard for substance and a desire to pursue something deeper through his music than superficial Internet interaction.
“To people on the Internet, I’m purely an abstraction. To them, I’m just the music I play. And you can’t really communicate with people when that’s the beginning and end of perspective of me, any more than I can communicate with them with my abstraction of them, which is a person on the Internet who listens to music.”
So here’s what we do know about Mr. Tillman: The “J” stands for Joshua. He hails from Seattle, by way of Maryland. He’s contemplative, as illustrated by the I’m-thinking pauses of a phone interview, and he’s far more than a stand-in smacking the skins for the Fleet Foxes, as evidenced by his latest solo release, A Year in the Kingdom.
The album alternates between relatively simple, acoustic guitar compositions like the album’s title track and carefully crafted, intricately layered numbers, such as “Crosswinds,” which weaves whistles with crystalline strings and a serene chorus on a four-minute spirit walk through an enchanted wood.
Though Tillman calls the work his most “joyful” to date, and the uptempo-ish opener fits that label, the overall acoustic aesthetic, coupled with his Sam Beam-ish vocals and song titles like “There Is No Good In Me,” may belie that. While the songs come across as slightly mournful, they’re not difficult to thoroughly enjoy. Tillman’s punctuation of particular parts of his songs with additional instruments — a lonely piano, a serenading string section — with a chorus of angelic voices perfectly illustrates the value, and impact, of restraint, rather than firing every arrow in his musical quiver all of the time.
But even if you feel you can draw conclusions about Tillman from this finely crafted mix of songs, you may want to curb that feeling.
“There’s something there,” he says. “I try to be as brutally transparent with certain things as I can, but it’s a very small picture of a very small part of myself. Personality and identity, that’s all very subjective. You think about the way you view your friends, you expect them to react within certain parameters. Everyone has a certain role in your life. With music, it’s the same way, you have to put parameters around it in order to make sense.”
While his music may not be the clearest lens with which to observe Joshua Tillman, it certainly is the most enjoyable.
• For more on J. Tillman, visit myspace.com/jtillman.