This article ties in to a podcast I recorded with Sean Tillmann, available here.
Har Mar Superstar is the cipher through which Sean Tillmann expresses his art. Over nearly twenty years of activity, Tillmann has brought immense integrity to a constantly evolving catalogue. Nowhere is this more true than on his latest EP, Personal Boy. Taking all of his previous material and expanding on it naturally, Personal Boy is an exciting growth that works just as well on its own gargantuan merits. It consists of a mere three tracks (and a radio edit), though each is strong enough to outlive the brevity of the record as a whole. Its title track, however, is a lengthy affair that saunters through various chambers of melodic cool. I caught up with Tillmann, two days after its release, to get his perspective on its writing and recording.
I’m really syked about Personal Boy; how it turned out. It was, kind of, an accident that we actually even made that song. I’d been making some dance tunes with BJ Burton and Lazerbeak, from here in Minneapolis, and we went out to April Base in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. We just stared messing around with this chord progression that I had, and I had this idea, “Personal Boy”, as a thing. It just ended up taking on a life of its own. By the time we left the studios, instead of making all these dance tracks that we were setting out to do (which we’re still gonna finish), we ended up with this epic, eight-minute song that begged for a Titanic treatment.
It’s a far cry from his most formative material. The EP is, largely, sincere in its performance and production. Though it does have some obscured twinge of irony as an aspect, it’s a markedly candid release. Once, in the days of the Power Lunch, a mischievous sense-of-humour pervaded Tillmann’s persona. Unfortunately, this was the result of a shallow press and a need to deliver his music in a certain tone. In the belief that he wouldn’t be taken seriously, Har Mar Superstar became, to some extent, an excuse. Behind that, the fire to compose and create without the trappings of irony was always genuine.
You can’t do something for twenty years and still be super tongue-in-cheek about it. I mean, you can… Only like Weird Al can do it, but he wasn’t tongue-in-cheek; he was doing parody, y’know? I was trying to stay more ironic in the beginning, just out of insecurity of the fact that I don’t look like an R&B star; but I can sound like one. Once it became more of a real career, it’s like, “Well, now I guess I, in the most minor league way, am an R&B star. So, I might as well start acting like it”. Well, I guess I don’t wanna act like an R&B star because there lies a lot of terrible behaviour there! But, I might as well sing like it, and write like it. Act like it is probably a bad choice of words!
This led to more heartfelt releases, like 2013’s Bye Bye 17. On that album, and others like it, the passion and skill of Tillmann is tumultuous. Beyond the individual quality of the songs, it’s a project that bubbles with life and atmosphere. It sets a mood, strikes a tone and is, clearly, the product of intense labour. His most recent LP, Best Summer Ever, took that to new extremes with its clever concept. Styled as a fictional “best of” Har Mar Superstar (between 1950-85), it can have the effect of re-contextualising his entire catalogue.
It seems that, in these imaginary “glory days”, Har Mar Superstar was a trailblazing and influential presence. The record, whatever times the constituent tracks may be said to hail from, shows Tillmann at his least ironic yet. If we’re to take Best Summer Ever as canon in some overarching mythology, it presents his late 90’s and early 2000’s work in a different light. Perhaps, in this period, Har Mar Superstar was doing all he could to stay relevant in the ever-changing landscape of pop. By the time of Bye Bye 17, in this alternate universe, he returns to his original styling in a fan-pleasing turnaround. That would make Personal Boy a sort of rebirth; a step forward for an aged artist with a career of great legacy.
That idea would also give a different edge to the irony of works like You Can Feel Me. In this world, where Har Mar Superstar has set fire to the charts for close to seventy years, the intentional comedy becomes somehow sad. That’s a twist that, having read other interviews with Tillmann, I believe he’d appreciate. In my dialogue with him, I brought up this self-woven fan-fiction. He seemed to agree that such a thread makes sense but, for him, the concentration always falls on the composition. With such an eclectic spectrum in his music, it follows that bringing that material to life is equally varied. The inception of Tillmann’s songwriting can have its impetus, almost, anywhere.
It just depends, y’know. Sometimes, somebody hands me a beat and I go home and write to it. But sometimes, in the room, I’ll be playing a keyboard part or a bass line and somebody else kinda jumps in and we just make the song. A lot of the time, I’ll sit at home on a guitar or piano and just write the song, start to finish, [then] produce it out with a band. That’s kinda how I did all of Bye Bye 17, or collaborating with people in a room, writing the songs.
This augurs well for the future, as it means that Har Mar Superstar can still reinvent or discover uncharted ground. After all, Personal Boy sounds like a step into new territory itself. From there, Tillmann has no limits but his own creativity. While it’s fun to play with tying his various albums together cohesively, he’s in no way constrained by the need for a narrative. Despite having brought a fresh EP into the world just days ago, Tillmann is always at work behind-the-scenes. Intrigued on some indication of his current trajectory, I asked directly what’s next for Har Mar Superstar.
I’m making a dance record right now. It’s like, BJ and Lazerbeak make some sort of catalogue of killer beats. Then, me and Spank Rock sit down and try to write lyrics that fit to weird ad-libs that we’ve done on the tracks; first glimpse sorta things. It’s, kind of, all over the place. It can be anything. I’m making another soul record and the dance record at the same time. We’ll see which one gets done first, but the dance record is more like… We wanna just do ten killer tracks that you could put on at a party, that will not stop the dance.
I don’t think anybody makes a full-on dance record without having some sort of personal song, or whatever; something that slows it down. We wanna have it be like no slow, all go; another fun record that’s just fun all the way through. We’ll see how it turns out, ’cause that’s what we say now but we’ll get into Winter writing sessions and we’ll do the exact same thing that everybody else does! So, who knows? But that’s the idea, we’ll see. I’m just constantly writing.
One thing that’s followed Tillmann, tainting the totality of his music and statements, is body shaming. It’s the collective notions of society that forced Har Mar Superstar to hide behind the aforementioned irony for a number of years. Even when attempting to use it to his advantage, which mostly worked, the press would latch on to his image as some indictment of his abilities. It’s not something I particularly wanted to bring up with him, as he’s often asked about it in interviews. Yet, an apology seemed due, since my English countrymen have been ruthless offenders in the past; attacking his appearance without a thought for his output otherwise. In reality, Tillmann is incredibly mature about it. When the subject came up, he offered some thoughts on how he approaches it today.
I can’t sit around and get sad about it, or anything. I can, once in a while, swipe back and put people in their place, but I try not to let it control my life. It’s just one of those things. You go to AllMusic, or some sort of website, and the first four sentences of my description are always like, “This out-of-shape, balding idiot from the Midwest,” you know what I mean? It’s like, “What the fuck, dude?”. Nobody else gets described like that. If you described a woman like that you would get fired, but it’s totally fine to do it to me. It’s a weird double standard, but I don’t let it control my life and I’m still living out making music and having fun. The crowds that I draw are always a good time, so I can’t really complain about my life.
And, of course, he shouldn’t. Tillman should simply continue writing, recording and performing music in whatever form attracts him. With each release, Har Mar Superstar becomes more essential. It’s something that I only hope continues but, with his recent EP in mind, I don’t think his inspiration will fade anytime soon. Speaking to him, however brief, was an honour. Below, you can find our conversation in full as a preview episode to our third season of podcasts. We’ll be starting the full season properly at the end of September, kicking off with an episode featuring Vic Berger. In the interim, make sure to check out this bonus episode with Tillmann! I also highly recommend you hear the gorgeous Personal Boy.