Har Mar Superstar (a.k.a. Sean Tillman) is a living legend. He’s been showcasing his golden voice and impressive dance moves as Har Mar since 1999, and in 2013 he signed with Cult Records; a record company owned by Strokes frontman, Julian Casablancas. His first release with Cult Records was the poignant and danceable Bye Bye 17, an album which has not only expanded the minds and touched the hearts of all who’ve heard it, but has also provided a spectacular soundtrack to all my workouts.
His new album, Best Summer Ever is a delightful blend of R&B, electronica, and punk that enhances every human experience: fans of Michael Jackson, Dean Martin, and Alabama Shakes should take note. His voice is desperate and powerful, his songwriting is clever and nuanced, and Melisma recently had the pleasure of interviewing him in the green room of the Brighton Music Hall, touching on his songwriting process, his hometown of Minneapolis, and alien invasions.
I was wondering about your cover of Bobby Charles’ I Hope– it’s kind of an unknown track- how did you find it and decide to cover it?
It was kind of a song that I’d only heard like, in passing before, and Julian [Casablancas] had heard it recently and was like “You should really cover this song,” and I didn’t even know who sang it when I’d heard it the first time, so it was kind of like a lucky thing that he found the track! We tailored it to my voice and it was kind of like a meeting of the minds.
A lot of your songs about love have slightly comedic undertones, and I was wondering what the relationship between comedy and sincerity is in your songwriting…
I think there’s a big correlation there- cuz there’s always a happiness with the sadness sort of thing… I don’t know, I think there’s kind of comedy in everything, in love, in everything! I don’t know, I try not to overthink it, and just let it happen.
Since signing with Cult Records in 2013, how has that songwriting process changed for you?
I mean, I still write songs the same, I guess it’s more like the production process that’s different. Julian’s more of a producer in the way that he hears little flourishes and parts that maybe weren’t there before, but I go about it the same, it’s just the execution that’s different.
And how much of a hand do you have in the actual producing?
I mean, a lot, in the fact that I write most of it, but I kinda hand it over a little bit and let them do what they will to it.
Throughout your career you’ve phased between so many different genres and styles- what’s the drive behind that continual shift?
The goal is to do whatever makes sense, yunno? There’s no… I don’t set out to sound like anything, I just do what happens, it’s just whatever I’m feeling at the moment.
So, because you’ve done so many different styles, and your discography is massive, what’s the Har Mar equivalent of a gateway drug? How should first-time listeners start digging in?
Oh, man it’s hard to say! I mean, some people like the electro stuff more, some people like the soul thing… I dunno, it kind of just depends! Probably Bye Bye 17 at this point is the one that people connect with right away, and they can kind of go from there.
Today I was working out to Bye Bye 17, and I discovered that 4.5 mph is the exact speed to strut to Prisoner of Love.
Oh, [laughs] sweet!
[laughs] Which albums and artists have taught you the most about music and the creative process?
Karen O… working with her has helped me out a lot, as far as learning how to make sure that every word and every sentence means exactly what you want it to. I think just like, listening to and watching everybody is kind of the deal- you just learn so much through osmosis.
You and other artists from Cult Records- is there a lot of permeability between you guys?
Yeah, everybody’s kind of friends to a certain extent. Over the years everybody meets everybody.
My favorite track off of Best Summer Ever is Confidence, and I was wondering what you were trying to capture with that song…
The vibe is kind of like a a doo-wop kind of thing, but it’s more of a mood… it was just a feeling I was feeling and I don’t really know what that is [laughs]
What do you want people to learn from you and from Best Summer Ever?
I just want people to connect to a real emotion, that’s all there is behind it. I want people to connect with an emotion more than a statement. I think people should be more honest with their lyrics, which I haven’t always done, so it’s been more of an experiment for me.
Do you think that honesty should carry over into real life?
I feel like that, but you don’t have to be like… brutal about it [laughs]
When was the last time that you had your breath taken away?
Shit, I don’t know… probably… I went to see the Minnesota Opera do Romeo and Juliet and I think just the stage production was really cool, it was very sparse but futuristic but somehow old school [laughs]. It’s hard to describe, but that’s one thing that I was fixated on…
You grew up in Minneapolis, right?
Yeah, I still live there!
What’s the music scene like there?
Oh, everybody works with each other, there’s a huge hip-hop thing like Rhymesayers, Atmosphere, P.O.S., and a bunch of people… like, Doomtree doing the hip-hop thing and then there’s Marijuana Deathsquads and Poliça and me and Dillinger Four… it’s this weird, super broad- everyone’s doing different genres but everyone works on each other’s records- it’s a very collective vibe.
That’s kind of an interesting parallel between the collaborativeness of Minneapolis and of Cult Records!
Yeah totally! It’s fun, it’s a city where you can kind of do whatever you want, because it’s affordable, and you have time and money to actually get shit together.
If you could leave just one thing on this earth for aliens to find in thousands of years after all of humanity has crumbled, what would you leave?
I would probably leave just a walkman with a dubbed cassette of TLC’s No Scrubs playing over and over again [laughs]