Har Mar Superstar's star turn
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."
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."
So Har Mar moved to New York City, and it was there that he delved into the work that became Bye Bye 17. "It's great. I find myself writing a lot more," he says of New York. As a songwriter, he says, he "always [tries] to tell a story," and often that means drawing from personal experience. "When I get stuck, I just walk outside the door and crazy shit is happening everywhere — just awesome, weird, real-life shit that you can draw off of. Because in L.A., you're in your car a lot, and not really interacting with people all the time."
It was there, too, that Har Mar embraced the mood that came to mark the music on the new record. "It felt great being back in winter when I wrote it," he admits, almost visibly lighting up at the thought. "That's how I would do it here: I would fuck around all year and the second it would snow, I would just like write two albums or whatever. So that motivated me, the grayness and bleakness of winter. I find it really inspiring."
One of the primary qualities that Har Mar has built his reputation on over the years is his ability as an in-the-flesh (pun intended) performer. Yes, his affinity for taking his pants off is infamous — has anyone ever been so comfortable in his body? — but Har Mar is also an impeccable entertainer, one who can hold a room's attention with his gifts for humor and storytelling as well as with his talents as a singer. And as he's developed the material from Bye Bye in concert over the past year, he's worked hard to refine his stage presence.
"I try to stay a bit more still to really maximize the power of the vocal," Har Mar says of his current live show. Sometimes he even brings out a suit — but that's not to say that he won't employ costume changes anymore, either. "I'm also adding a little choreography tricks with the band. I'm trying to make it more of a show that way and less of me being an idiot rolling around."
He's also been pushed to try out standup by Casablancas, whom he's known since all the way back in the mid-aughts when he toured with the Strokes. He describes his friendship with Casablancas as one of "brotherly mentoring." "We're mutually enamored by each other," he says.
Casablancas's influence also proved crucial to how Bye Bye turned out, even though he didn't get involved in the record until after a full mix had been completed. Har Mar had recorded in Austin, Texas, with Spoon's Jim Eno and a cast of musicians that included Chris Bierden, Matt Romano, and Jeff Quin, with Spyder Baybee Raw Dog and Ryan Olson also contributing parts. The initial mix, he says, "was really ornate." But in Casablancas's hands, it took on a whole new life, "like it had been dubbed on VHS eight times and unearthed from a garage."
"He listens really close," Har Mar says of Casablancas. "The whole ethos with Cult Records is to put a stamp of approval on every song on every record." In fact, the final version of the record is shorter, too — cut down from almost 35 minutes on the original mix to under 30. "He wants everything to be the best it can. He sits and thinks about the record more than I ever did."
The end result is an album that's tight and fiery, without any wasted breaths or unnecessary fat. Each song packs a punch and could stand alone as a single, and the snarl of the album's lo-fi production, rather than flattening out the tones, somehow brings it all to the surface, accentuating the energy and passion that Har Mar himself channels through his vocals. Even if the latent humor is missed, it's more than made up for in the gnarly funk of "Prisoner," the doo-wop of "Restless Leg," and the ache of "Late Night Morning Light."
"I'm 35 years old," Har Mar says with one of his rumbling, almost maniacal laughs. "I feel like I finally wrote the record that catches up with everything [in my life]. This is the record I've been meaning to make."
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