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Har Mar Superstar. The name itself sounds ridiculous, over the top, evoking suburban shopping malls and knock-off decadence, and the man who inhabits it lives up to the billing. Short and doughy with long, thinning hair and an uncanny resemblance to Ron Jeremy, southern Minnesota-bred Sean Tillmann has long used his alter-ego to shock and entertain, often in gaudy costumes or, more often, in his underwear. And he's made it pay off, appearing in movies with Ben Stiller, writing TV shows for HBO, and being close friends with celebrities like Drew Barrymore and the Strokes frontman Julian Casablancas.
But when Har Mar Superstar gave the world its first glimpse of his newest incarnation with the scorching retro R&B of "Lady, You Shot Me," it seemed as though everything we knew about the man had been turned on its head.
"It does [feel different] but it doesn't at the same time," Har Mar says. He sits inside the Triple Rock on a sunny afternoon in late March, in town for only a couple of nights to play a show. It's a few hours before showtime and the room is empty. "I definitely always wanted to write an album based more on my voice. This time around, that was kind of the impetus. I was listening to a lot of Otis Redding and Sam Cooke, and I took that influence and went with it."
HAR MAR SUPERSTAR plays with the Chalice, Baby Boys, and Painted Ponies on Saturday, May 4, at Turf Club; 651.647.0486.
The lead track off his latest record, Bye Bye 17 — released in late April on Casablancas's Cult Records — "Lady, You Shot Me" is more than a throwback to a bygone era. It's a masterful take on the form, a song that crackles and burns with the desperation of a man who's been scorned and hurt, ratcheting up the tension with a series of high-speed key changes. And it revolves around Har Mar's stunning vocal — raw, full-throated, unhinged — in a turn that may well be his best yet.
"The songs come from a really real place," he says.
Indeed, over the years he's kept himself busy with a variety of different projects, including Neon Neon, Fur Pillows, Gayngs, and Marijuana Deathsquads. But one in particular, Sean Na Na, has long been the down-tempo counterpoint to Har Mar — and now Bye Bye 17 would seem to mark the convergence of the two. "This is all channeling this weird nothing time, where a lot of things that had happened all emerged in my brain at the same time," he says.
Making such a leap is an important indicator of the spot Har Mar Superstar inhabits in his career. For years, his persona served, at least in part, as a shield for his insecurities, an excuse to be as wild and liberated as he wanted to be. So he admits that, at least initially, he was worried that people wouldn't take the change seriously — in fact, several labels he spoke with wanted him him to release it under a different name. "I didn't think it was a good idea, so I just stuck to my guns on it," Har Mar recalls. "The point's totally valid, but I wasn't ready to restart another band — I'm in so many already — just because somebody feels like that's a good idea."
Based on the initial response to "Lady, You Shot Me," that perseverance already seems set to be vindicated. Premiered by London's the Guardian newspaper in March, the single debuted at number one on Hype Machine and climbed near the top of the charts on Last.fm. "I just set out to make a Har Mar record," he says, playing down the significance of his reinvention, but clearly pleased by the reception. "If the songs are good enough, [fans will] get hip to it."
For nearly a decade, Har Mar has lived outside of Minnesota. But when he walks into the Triple Rock — wearing a pair of green and black sunglasses, a small PA tucked under his arm and backpack slung over his shoulder — everyone in the bar is still on a first-name basis with him. He's even stopped by a bartender that he just met the night before, and the two chat and exchange phone numbers. Everywhere he goes, Har Mar makes friends.
Up until about a year ago, Har Mar lived in Los Angeles. Following the release of his previous album, 2009's tongue-in-cheek, '80s-pop-inflected Dark Touches, he says he collaborated on a TV show with Ellen Page and Alia Shawkat (of Juno and Arrested Development fame, respectively) that was picked up by HBO, but ultimately dropped in favor of the smash hit Girls. ("They probably held on to us just so we wouldn't go another network and be a competing show — which is cool," Har Mar says.) It wasn't his only encounter with Hollywood — he's had cameos in the Starsky and Hutch remake and Whip It, among others — but eventually the glitter began to wear off.
"I got one of those horrible loans eight years ago for a house," Har Mar says. He speaks fast and concisely, peppering his speech with chuckles and booming laughs. His voice is raspy, seasoned by years of drinking and partying. "I was just throwing money into the ether and not really owning anything. So I just walked away." In many ways, he says, living in L.A. was counterproductive from an artistic standpoint. "I love L.A., but when I'm not working on something there I don't do anything. The weather's good all the time, which is awesome, but I just find it gets monotonous. It's really easy to like lose a year."