As the mayor proclaims Friday his day in Minneapolis, Sean Tillmann convincingly lays claim to a classic sound.
It was 1 p.m. New York time, and Sean Tillmann couldn’t muster the will to “roll out of bed just for a hot dog” — even a free one at his favorite new Brooklyn hangout, the Lake Street Bar, whose musician owners modeled it after the divey watering holes of Minneapolis.
“It really does feel like a unpretentious, Midwest kind of place,” raved Tillmann, better known by his stage and screen moniker Har Mar Superstar. “I love walking in there and seeing people I know from back home.”
Yes, the Twin Cities is still home to Tillmann, even after a decade spent bouncing around the Hollywood celebrity crowd, the isle of Ibiza and London party scenes, the giant festivals of Europe, and the road life with such high-profile Har Mar supporters as the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and the Strokes.
Now based in New York City, from which he chatted by phone two weeks ago, the Owatonna native is coming back to Minnesota to kick off a tour that might be the most ambitious endeavor of his already audacious career.
Friday’s sold-out show at First Avenue is a coming-out gig of sorts with a full band whose goal is to bring to life the vibrant, throwback soul and R&B sounds of the latest Har Mar Superstar album, “Bye Bye 17.” Released in April on Strokes singer Julian Casablancas’ new label, Cult Records, the record finds Tillmann trading in the sexed-up, modern, R. Kelly-like sound of his previous records and instead channeling Otis Redding, Stevie Wonder and Sam Cooke — and not in any kind of funny, white-guy-sings-the-blues way, either, but with authentic, horn-driven conviction.
“There’s really no irony at all on this record,” Tillmann, 35, firmly stated.
“Irony” is a word that comes up in a lot of write-ups on the album, often in a backhanded-compliment sort of way. Such as this line in a 7-out-of-10-rating review in England’s NME magazine: “ ‘Bye Bye 17’ ditches raunch and irony for old-fashioned songwriting and something approaching sincerity, and the results are kind of amazing.”
Even when he was stripping to his briefs on stage and starring in slapstick vodka TV commercials, Tillmann took his music more seriously than critics gave him credit for. Thus he doesn’t see “Bye Bye 17” as all that major an artistic shift, but he’s fine if other people do.
“It probably would’ve bothered me if it had been on my first couple albums, but I’ve grown up a lot and really learned not to care about that sort of stuff,” he said. “More and more, I think people are recognizing this record for what it really is.”
The making of “Bye Bye 17” certainly was a new experience as Har Mar albums go. He wrote most of the songs on guitar in 2011 after taking up residency in the New York apartment of his musical pal Adam Green, formerly of Moldy Peaches. That’s when he decided to relocate there permanently.
“I was staying in Adam’s place, and he was using my place in Los Angeles, and we both kind of got out of our element to work on our records,” he said. In Tillmann’s case, he said he was inspired “just to be living somewhere where there’s winter again.”
“It’s not like Minnesota winters, but there’s still that hunkering-down thing in New York, which can be really great for songwriting. Sometimes it’s nice when you don’t leave the house for three days — which never happens in L.A.”
Recording took place last year in the winterless wonderland of Austin, Texas, where Har Mar shared a monthlong residency gig with his Minnesotan cohorts in Marijuana Deathsquads. The sessions were produced by Spoon drummer Jim Eno with players including Poliça bassist Chris Bierden and the horn section from Prince’s favorite Austin band, Grupo Fantasma.
“I had the songs all pretty well mapped out, and everyone knew what to do, so we were able to get each of the songs done in two or three takes, and that was it,” Tillmann boasted.
Channeling the old-school R&B/soul greats came naturally, he said. Although he first hit the Twin Cities scene in his teens screaming his head off in the noise-rock band Calvin Krime, and stuck to the punky stuff later as Sean Na Na, the Perpich Center for Arts Education graduate said that singers like Redding and Wonder “were always there” in his musical curriculum, too. He did go on something of a kick, though, as evidenced by the origin of the album’s single, “Lady You Shot Me,” titled after Cooke’s final words when he was gunned down in 1964.
“Ryan Olson [of Gayngs and Deathsquads] and I had both kind of gotten obsessed with Sam Cooke and were watching different documentaries on him together, and for some reason those words stuck with me,” he recalled. “They seemed to encapsulate a certain feeling I was going for.”