The Last Unicorn

Sean Na Na blows his own horn with dark, potent pop and not-so-ridiculous R&B

It's almost a relief when, for an encore, Tillmann breaks into a surprisingly not bad cover of R. Kelly's "When a Woman's Fed Up" (a riff on psychic, not sexual, impotence). He breaks his voice just a little, though not quite enough, and holds too much back emotionally--he even half-apologizes for the song choice. If he wanted, Sean Na Na could be the unlikeliest local sex-symbol-in-his-own-mind this side of Mark Mallman, who conquered Twin Cities rock clubland on nerve alone last year. But baby isn't a man, apparently. Not just yet. Though you can hear some kind of maturity lurking in those lyricless Tony! Toni! Toné! moans.

 

After the concert, Tillmann powers down onstage while the crowd empties out into the coffee shop proper. At the counter, a young woman with short locks orders a "pink"-flavored pop and sensibly asks the barrista what this might taste like.

Going over Viagra Falls: Sean Tillmann, a.k.a. Sean Na Na
Michael Dvorak
Going over Viagra Falls: Sean Tillmann, a.k.a. Sean Na Na

"It tastes like pink," he answers flatly.

"That's exactly what I wanted to hear," she says with a grin, and glugs. Nonplussed, I order one too, and it does taste like pink. Under my bottle cap is a little fortune that makes me think of Tillmann's unicorn tee: "The rainbow treasures will soon belong to you." Does that mean I'll soon be hornless as well? Damn, and just when the summer heat is on, the Minnesota ice lost to memory. (Some coincidence that the name of the soda is Jones.)

Or does this bottle cap mean that Sean Na Na, the hard-to-know author of songs such as "Sean Tillmann Is a Fucking Star," will open up a bit and tell me what neuroses lie behind that machine-gun spray of nervous laughter? (He uses it to punctuate every awkward answer to my pre-interview questions over the phone.)

Indeed, weeks after the Foxfire show, Tillmann does open up, at least enough to show me his unicorn collection, which he keeps in his snug St. Paul bedroom on Selby Avenue. We bond over Virgin Suicides, with its cool animated unicorn sequences, and I suggest that the creature might represent an even split between masculinity and femininity.

"Yep," he says. "Especially that one." And he points to a particularly well-muscled beast on the poster over his bed, letting loose another machine-gun titter.

Tillmann lives in the bachelor apartment he shares with Allen, an old friend from the Arts High School in Golden Valley, where Tillmann transferred in his junior year to pursue acting and to escape his native Owatonna. The flat is tucked into a rock 'n' roll apartment building that houses Tulip Sweet's Tom Siler, Francis Gumm guitarist Paul D. Dickinson, rock critic Henry Hormann, and ex-Supermodel frontman Jeff Budin. The Selby Tigers live up the street. Though Tillmann says the building never rocks off the foundations, the snooty neighbors "think that we're, like, the most insanely gross people because we don't wear Abercrombie & Fitch."

Neighbors aside, Tillmann thinks beat music should be bumped in a vehicle, so we hop into his van to blast the Bar-Kays sample from his forthcoming, and, again, surprisingly not bad album of R&B--a direction only hinted at by his R. Kelly cover. He seems wary of taking this new music seriously, either in interview or in the lyrics themselves (which consist mostly of faux-uplifting tributes to his neighborhood). Recorded (and often performed live) under the mall-referencing moniker Har Mar Superstar, the music has been taken by some as a racial joke, though the references to drinking 40s are strictly autobiographical, as a glance at his glass recycling reveals.

Tillmann will claim to the death that Har Mar is his "little brother," and may well write City Pages, as he has done before, to state as much. And he is understandably concerned about what Sean Na Na's audience will think, halfway over the rainbow into what may well be the indie-rock stratosphere (if any such thing still exists). Yet Tillmann's jumpiness is still, well, kind of grade school weird. "You can go ahead and talk about Har Mar Superstar," he tells me days later in a midnight phone message, "But could you please address him as an alter ego? His name is Harold Martin Tillmann. It's a split-personality sort of thing."

I'll say. But I have the solution: one man, one horn. Take those hip-hop beats--lent by his friend Howard Hamilton III (a.k.a. The Busy Signals), Triangle, and the Selby Tigers--and marry them to the free-flowing vitriol of his pop music. If Har Mar's Boyz II Men-style a cappella jams were as dark and potent as everything else he writes...let's just say the neighbors would finally have something real to worry about.

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