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.”
There’s a dark backdrop to some of the other tracks, too, including the S&M-themed “Don’t Make Me Hit You” and the lightly bobbing desperate-wish anthem “12:12.” Tillmann will revive the songs on stage with a band that includes Omaha bassist Denver Dalley (also of Desaparecidos) and Minneapolis’ own Lizzo from the Chalice, who is singing backup as well as opening the shows with her new Lazerbeak-produced solo project.
“She’s incredible, and adds a sexy element, too,” he said.
While he has gotten more and more serious in his music, Tillmann maintains plenty of comedic work on the side, including a “Nocturnal Emotions” podcast. He is very seriously developing a TV comedy show with prior tour mate Josh Tillman, aka Father John Misty, wherein the two singers play “a country music duo past our prime,” he said. He also will be back in town Dec. 13 to perform on Minnesota Public Radio’s “Wits” series with David Cross.
For this return to Minnesota, Tillmann will receive an official proclamation Friday declaring it Har Mar Superstar Day in Minneapolis. Among the causes for celebration, the document signed by Mayor R.T. Rybak praises him for working “across multiple mediums of performance art,” and for 2013 being “the strongest musical year of [his] career.” No, it doesn’t say anything about his knack for stripping.
“It definitely means a lot to me,” Tillmann said. No hint of irony there, either.
When he won $25,000 in a band contest last year sponsored by the website ArtistSignal.com, blues-rock stomper Alex “Crankshaft” Larson promised to use the money to make music videos, including one in which he’d fill a Cadillac with cement for his song “Fill It Up.” He made three videos in the end — one boasting an $800 inoperable Cadillac that gets a messy makeover — and is premiering them Saturday for Crankshaft and the Gear Grinders’ gig at Famous Dave’s Uptown (9 p.m., free, all ages). … Musical nonprofit Vega Productions co-hosts a fundraiser Saturday at the Ritz Theater with local rock vets the Honeydogs, burgeoning high schoolers Bomba de Luz and moody folk-rock band Fairfax, AK. Proceeds go toward the Instruments in the Clouds project, Vega’s new cloud-based database documenting donated instruments for students in need. (8 p.m., $12-$15, 345 13th Av. NE., Mpls.) …
A composers-oriented label known for issuing everything from Vietnam field recordings to Talking Drums albums, St. Paul’s Innova Recordings is issuing the latest effort by ex-Lookbook sonic innovator Grant Cutler this week, a vinyl record with Innova staffer Chris Campbell called “Schooldays Over.” Based on an Irish folk song, it features meditative instrumental suites, with string work by local MVPs Joey Van Phillips, Michelle Kinney and Jacqueline Ultan. … Ex-Lookbook singer Maggie Morrison’s old band Digitata (featuring Ryan Olson and Poliça’s Drew Christopherson) will reunite Sept. 28 for the Totally Gross National Product Party at Icehouse, also with Marijuana Deathsquads, Lizzo, Moonstone Continuum and more. …
Some multi-night December gigs to look forward to: Mason Jennings will return to First Ave Dec. 5-6, gearing up for the release of a new album produced by Iowa guru Bo Ramsey, who will also be playing with Pieta Brown as an opener for those shows. Also, Cloud Cult will stretch out for three nights Dec. 6-8 at the underused Southern Theater in Minneapolis, the culmination of an acoustic tour that the band plans to record for a live album. … And yes, you can also look forward to the annual Replacements tribute at First Avenue on the Friday after Thanksgiving (Nov. 29), details of which are still TBA. And no, the Replacements themselves probably won’t play in town anytime before then. Word is they’re not making any further plans until after the last of the three RiotFest gigs in Denver on Saturday.
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