The Last Unicorn
Is Sean Na Na a performance artist? Consider the elusive art of his performance on April 28, the warm spring evening of his sparsely attended CD-release party at the Foxfire. Onstage, the erstwhile Sean Tillmann cuts a plump but darkly handsome figure in his thick black-framed glasses and baseball tee adorned with sparkly rainbow and unicorn.
He begins his set with the first few chords of "Unicorns," cooing its confessional opening line: "I wanted to get on her, but this unicorn has lost its horn." Unlike other Minneapolis odes to impotence overcome--say, "I Will Dare" or "Little Red Corvette,"--the tune is about nothing but the will to potency, and it leads off the suggestively titled album, Dance 'Til Your Baby Is a Man (Troubleman Unlimited). But after only a few bars, Tillmann breaks a string and stops the music.
Like a rattled loverman who has dropped his condom in a bedside dust bunny, Tillmann spends the next five minutes talking the crowd through the string change, feeling the need, apparently, to keep us excited. "Oh, this is going to be great," he rambles, while stringing and retuning his instrument. "This happened last time we played Minneapolis." (Tillmann lives in St. Paul, and favors the Turf Club.) "Just wait, it'll be fantastic." His two bandmates, Sean Na Na's semipermanent collaborators, seem at a loss for filler. "Lucky" Jeremy Allen plays what sounds like TLC's "Waterfalls" on his burbling Hammond organ; drummer Ben Webster taps one cymbal only once--a model of restraint. The pre-drinking-age fans on the floor cheer for no reason other than to keep Sean Na Na's mood up. He's edgy, they can tell, and they seem to know him pretty well by now. Just relax, they want to assure him. It's okay: It happens to every guy once in a while.
Finally Sean turns to the mic, oozing fake excitement that seems meant to mask what might be nervousness. "I think this is the one," he exclaims breathlessly, not referring to anything in particular. Is this a joke? Are we his true love? Is he bragging? Or praying? Are we supposed to dance 'til he's a man? (Actually, per Foxfire custom, nobody moves a muscle.) Then Tillmann delivers a punch line worthy of Eyes Wide Shut: "Now I'm going to fuck you."
He's in good company: Westerberg, Prince, Pirner, Slug. Seems like every seminal song-and-dance man from our clime in one way or another deals with impotence through his music, seizing the mic like it's some Pez dispenser for God's own Viagra. Maybe it's something in the ice--or maybe there's too much ice: Minnesota as a cold shower, a clothes-soaking, cock-shrinking torrential downpour with only the heat of our little club campfires to fluff our spirits.
Slave Raider or Man Sized Action aside, we never did well with the cock-rock thing anyway, at least not without heavy doses of ironic yuks. Even our most influential adaptation of metal's power trip, Amphetamine Reptile--the label that became synonymous with sensitive-geek noise--announced its insecurities up front. Face it: With the sole exception of steel-piped Tina Schlieske, Minnesota can't do macho--not convincingly, at least.
Which is fine, except that, through some conspiracy of Norwegian cultural genetics, most unassuming bands confuse macho with balls, hesitating to stick their skinny necks out for an audience. It can be wearying, night after night, to try caring about musicians who look like they're trying their damnedest to look like they don't care about you.
Confronted with this same dilemma--how to be a man on the microphone--Tillmann has cultivated that distancing mechanism of rock 'n' roll cowards everywhere: ironic stage patter. Yet his salvos of babble, as demonstrated above, are surprisingly revealing, and thus daring. At age 22, Tillmann has van-toured tirelessly since he was 17, when he was fronting Calvin Krime--one of the last AmRep bands--before going solo two years ago as Sean Na Na. He has retained a classically punk nervous energy ever since, perhaps fed by his lab-rat levels of nicotine consumption. Yet he summons so much vocal confidence--think Elliot Smith with lungs---that the Foxfire crowd goes along (in its own fashion), flexing its eyebrows and its pinkies furiously.
At his CD-release show, Tillmann hits high notes dead on, playfully trilling with all the soulful alacrity of Ginuwine doing Sleater-Kinney. (You can see why Mary Lou Lord was happy to split a single with him on the Kill Rock Stars label.) When he's committed to a song, it doesn't matter how half-written it is (and much of Dance 'Til is amorphous and tonally monotonous). The thumpy rants and grade school mashbook poetry pound on the singer's twin obsessions--violent rage and death--until they yield to a droney, acoustic-pop bliss.
Tillmann is singing down to his audience now--"I'm so far above you," he chimes over and over--which strikes me as somewhat ungrateful. But maybe he's just talking to himself, transcending and gazing down on his petty insecurities with an audience he doesn't quite trust to be satisfied, and a band with which he purportedly never practices. On the drums, Webster flails with all the manic abandon of his fellow Texans Trail of Dead--he looks like he's caught in a wind tunnel--and after only a few bars both he and Allen are red and swooning.
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.
"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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