by Alexander Laurence
Sometimes when an election doesn’t go your way, you need a sexy diversion. Har Mar Superstar (Sean Tillman) is a chubby white man from Minnesota who sings R&B tunes while dancing frantically. His live shows, sung to the backing track from a boom box, usually culminate in stripping down to his underwear. He has been around for years and has been busy. He has tour extensively and has penned songs for Jennifer Lopez and Kelly Osborne. He opened shows for The Strokes and Incubus. These are only some of the highlights of the real story.
He first emerged as a recording artist in the St. Paul, MN, band Calvin Krime in the late ’90s. His self-titled Har Mar Superstar (2000), launched his libidinous, sometimes B-boy prone, R&B persona. The follow up, You Can Feel Me (2002), turned out to be a more fully realized, well produced, and downright funky release. Rolling Stone Magazine mentioned him as one of the new faces of 2002. After moving to England for a year, Har Mar Superstar is back with his third album, The Handler (2004). His album got a lousy rating from Pitchfork Media, but it is as good as anything Har Mar has done. I spoke to him before his recent American tour.
AL: How long have you been playing music?
Har Mar: I have been playing instruments since I was five. I have been writing songs since I was twelve. I started a band when I was thirteen. Some of that early stuff probably showed up on a record in bits and pieces.
AL: Did you grow up in a musical family?
Har Mar: Definitely. I grew up with an older brother and an older sister. My sister was always into playing piano and singing. She is an opera singer now. My parents are art teachers. My family comes to my shows very often.
AL: How has being from Minnesota influenced your music?
Har Mar: There is an obvious Prince influence. Being from Minnesota has influenced my work ethic. Bands like The Replacements and Husker Du had to tour their asses off just to get noticed. Babes in Toyland were another band. All those bands did things in their own way but the one thing that was common to them was hard work. There are so many good bands from the area in the past fifteen years.
AL: When did you start making the new album, The Handler?
Har Mar: In January 2004. I actually started a year ago in November. But there were some hold ups and I trashed it all and started new.
AL: How do you work in the studio? Did you have some ideas already?
Har Mar: Yeah, I had some vocal hooks and guitar lines. The first time I was in the studio with the producer I was just checking out the studio. We did three songs that day. We just shot ideas off each other and put them on tape. At the end of the day we trashed what sucked and kept what was good. I would take the instrumental tracks and listen to them in my car while I was driving around. I would think of vocal hooks and melodies and lyrics. I would piece it all together. We would make more music and I would record more vocals.
AL: You work very fast?
Har Mar: Yeah. We did this album in two or three months. I left for a few weeks to do some shows and play in England. We did most of it in one month and then came back and fine-tuned the rest. We mixed the album for a month.
AL: How is the music scene different in America and the UK?
Har Mar: I am not sure. I haven’t played in the United States in a long time. In the UK people are more fanatical. They like to jump on something. A lot of people in the USA are cynical. In the UK people are more willing to like everything, and not have their one thing. I lived in the UK for a year. I have been in the UK all the time for the past two years. After I did the American tour with Kelly Osborne I moved to the UK for a year. I was on TV all the time.
AL: What is Ibiza like?
Har Mar: I did a residency there. It’s open during the summer. It’s a 24-hour party from June to September, and the rest of the time it’s an empty island. People come there from all over Europe. It’s one of those places where you go out on Monday night and get home on Thursday morning and don’t know what happened. I did a residency at Club Manumission. Ten thousand people would come every Monday night. I would perform at five in the morning.
AL: How did you get some of these people to play on your record?
Har Mar: Nick and Karen (from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs) were around and they are my friends. They came in the studio and we figured out if there was something that they could do. Nick Zinner came in and developed a few songs. He is very good at producing. Karen and I have been talking about doing something that was unrelated to her band for a long time. I gave her the freedom to do whatever she wanted. That was one day of writing and recording. The whole song was done. I was hanging out with Holly Valence and we were talking about doing something. I had a part for her to do.
AL: Holly Valence is known more in the UK.
Har Mar: Yeah. She will be a huge movie star one day.
AL: How did the song with Northern State go down?
Har Mar: We have the same manager. I have always been into their shit but had never met them. When we met we hung out for a few days in LA. They were still working on their album. We worked on one song for their album. I sang the chorus and wrote all the vocals. I had a verse in a song that I wanted someone to guest on and they just rolled it the most.
AL: How was the collaboration with Jennifer Lopez?
Har Mar: That wasn’t really collaboration. They wanted me to be a ghostwriter on her album. I was given a week to do a song in the last week of the production of her album. It sucked. It was one of the hardest things ever to do. I sent one song over. It was like trying to write in the voice of a person that you don’t care about and don’t understand. I don’t think that she cares about anything, so how can you write a lyric for someone like that?
AL: On the last album you had songs like ‚”E Z Pass” and ‚”Power Lunch.” Do you think that you have any songs on this album that can become code words or catch phrases?
Har Mar: Hopefully. I like to open common phrases and make them take a whole new form.
AL: What is the new show like?
Har Mar: I have a bass player and a drummer with me now. It’s more realized. I like the minimalism of a bare stage, a boom box, and me. But now it is time to kick it up a little bit.
AL: Is the new show raunchier?
Har Mar: I just care about making it an awesome show. It has to be undeniable. If people want to hate it, they can’t.
AL: I have seen you a lot in LA. You seem to show up at (www.polaroidscene.com). You jumped onstage with The Libertines a few months ago.
Har Mar: Yeah. I go see my friends play. But I can’t go out as much. I can’t be a fan in the crowd. I can be backstage.
AL: Do you have any hobbies?
Har Mar: I like to watch DVDs.
AL: What made you want to do the song ‚”Alone Again?”
Har Mar: It’s my favorite song of all time.
AL: Any advice to people who want to do music?
Har Mar: You should not sample shit. Write your own music. Don’t be a dick.