He’s lived it up with Kate Moss in London, Ozzy Osbourne in Los Angeles and Macaulay Culkin in New York, to drop just a few names. The thing Sean Tillmann really likes to talk about these days, though, is his so-called “grandma house,” where he intends to hang out with his less-famous Twin Cities friends.
“I’m not changing a thing, I love it,” he said as he welcomed us into a country-quaint kitchen that looked decorated circa 1954.
Better known by his half-baked but fully cemented moniker Har Mar Superstar, Tillmann hasn’t officially called Minnesota home for 13 years — going back to when he was 25 and quite literally living out of the Turf Club in St. Paul.
Just last month, though, the Owatonna native bought a small two-story house tucked away in the heart of northeast Minneapolis. It’s the kind of home a family of seven used to live in a half-century ago, and now it’s just Tillmann. Well, he and Lord knows who else who might show up on any given night.
“I’m not moving back here to settle down,” he promised/threatened.
Right on point and on cue, Tillmann will play another packed First Avenue show on Friday in support of his new record, “Best Summer Ever,” and then he immediately hits the road. His tour will extend well into the summer and send him and his new seven-piece band all over this continent and Europe. So much for home sweet home.
Even during the wildest stretch of his past decade of decadence — somewhere between the time he DJ-ed on the isle of Ibiza for a month and battled Ben Stiller in a dance-off in the “Starsky & Hutch” movie — the man who became Har Mar Superstar could be called a party animal, a gossip hound, and, yes, maybe even a joke at times. But you could never call him a slacker.
Tillmann’s years of hard work and creative reinvention finally paid off with his last album, “Bye Bye 17.” Boasting a classic Sam Cooke/Motown-inspired soul sound, the 2013 effort proved not only that the little guy has big pipes, but that he also has solid writing chops. England’s NME magazine praised how it “ditches raunch and irony for old-fashioned songwriting and something approaching sincerity, and the results are kind of amazing.”
Finally, it was time for more people to take Har Mar Superstar seriously. However, even some of the record labels interested in releasing “Bye Bye 17” had a hard time buying it.
“I talked with some labels that wanted to put it out, but they couldn’t get around it being a Har Mar Superstar record,” he recalled. “I’ve worked too hard to change the name now, for better or worse.”
Luckily, that was right around the time one of Tillmann’s biggest supporters and closest musical cohorts, the Strokes’ singer Julian Casablancas, decided to start his own record company, Cult Records, which issued “Bye Bye 17” as one of its flagship releases. That alliance grew even stronger with this new record. Not only is Cult putting out “Best Summer Ever,” but Casablancas was also heavily involved in the writing and production of it.
“It’s a whole process with Julian, which I love because I’ve known him for 20 years, but I’m not sure if other people would love it,” Tillmann said. “He runs his label basically as a curator, and he wants every song to be something he’s proud of. It can get a little hairy, but the end result is 100 percent amazing.”
‘Whatever I wanted’
Don’t go thinking “Best Summer Ever” is simply a continuation of “Bye Bye 17,” though. Tillmann traded in the ’60s flavor of the prior record for a more modern electronic sound. Sonically, this one is less Temptations and more Gayngs, the all-star electro-soul project helmed by Poliça producer Ryan Olson, another of Har Mar’s “Best Summer Ever” collaborators. (They’re also working on new Gayngs tunes, too.)
Recording mostly took place at Sonic Ranch Studio in the desert near El Paso, Texas, where Poliça also recorded its new LP. “Border Patrol rolling by at 3 a.m. on three-wheelers while you’re trying to smoke weed,” is how Tillmann described the setting.
The album opens with a strings-laden cover of ’70s swamp-pop singer Bobby Charles’ gusher “I Hope,” one of several lushly arranged ballads. More up-tempo tracks like “Anybody’s Game” and the Casablancas-penned single “Youth Without Love” are heavy on new-wavy synthesizers and flittering beats. Yeah Yeah Yeahs singer Karen O (another longtime pal) helped write and sing a playful, moody grinder called “Haircut.”
The album also takes a couple of wide-left turns with a punky gem called “Famous Last Words” — which could have been recorded by Tillmann’s noisy teenage band Calvin Krime — plus the fun, lovelorn ditty “My Radiator,” played entirely on acoustic guitar.
Thanks to “Bye Bye 17,” Tillmann said, “I really felt unburdened and free to do whatever the hell I wanted.
“I’m thrilled that record got the reaction it did. I would’ve been happy making another record like it, and still might do that later. But I intentionally didn’t want to do that, and Julian probably wouldn’t have let me, anyway.”
Lyrically, “Best Summer Ever” is also quite a changeup. For a guy known to take his clothes off on stage, Har Mar bares a lot more here. Songs like the writhing ballad “How Did I Get Through the Day?” and the closing track “Confidence” show a personal, downcast side never seen before.
“Sometimes I can’t rely on myself to be open, to be honest,” he sings in the latter track, and finally confesses at record’s end, “My confidence is only skin deep.”
“It’s kind of a downer album,” Tillmann admitted, blaming in part a romantic breakup and ongoing mental health issues.
“I kind of shut everything out, and the only time I really let stuff in is when I write. I don’t think I’m in a bad place, but I definitely get depressed. I always have, going back to when I was growing up in Owatonna and didn’t know where I fit in.”
He didn’t move back to the Twin Cities for any healing or balance-seeking purposes, he clarified, but nonetheless he feels like he fits in here.
“The artistic scene here has evolved and grown so much since I left. People are doing amazing things.”
Plus, he laughingly pointed out, “I have good friends in a lot of cities, but I can’t afford a house in Austin, Portland or New York anymore. Those cities are crazy expensive now.”
Score one for northeast Minneapolis’ plethora of grandma houses.