From his early days in Calvin Krime and Sean Na Na, to his solo career as an indie pop/R&B artist and involvement in soft rock inspired musical band Gayngs, Sean Tillman, better known by his stage name, Har Mar Superstar, has carved out nothing short of an amazing career.
And wouldn’t you know it – he grew up in little old Owatonna.
With fellow musical acts of international success, such as Owl City and Cloud Cult, also claiming roots to the Southern Minnesota community, it could be called a breeding ground for musical talent. It has been quite the ride for Tillman, who shows no signs of slowing down.
Touting appearances on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel Live!, as well as cameos in several Hollywood films, including Starsky and Hutch (2004) and Pitch Perfect (2012), to 6 studio albums, his list of credits is quite impressive. So much so that former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak declared Sept 13, 2013, the night that that the singer/songwriter headlined First Avenue, “Har Mar Superstar Day.”
I had a chance to catch up with Tillman ahead of his two sold out shows at the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis last month and pick his brain.
You were born in Marshall, but grew up in Owatonna. Tell me a little bit about your childhood in Southern Minnesota.
Southern Minnesota is a great place to grow up. I had a pretty ideal existence as a bike riding little terror that searched rivers for slugs and minnows when I wasn’t completely being obsessed by the video store and movie theater. I got into music at a very early age and had a ton of outlets to get into it even further. I’m lucky to come from a theater and music family.
When did you decide you wanted to pursue a career as a singer /songwriter?
I was equally obsessed with Weird Al and Michael Jackson as a 6-year-old. Thriller and Eat It informed many of my musical obsessions. I danced in the mirror and stared at the turntable with headphones on for hours at a time. Plus, oldies radio in the 80s was straight up 60s bliss.
What were your early musical influences?
Tina Turner, Stevie Wonder, Elton John, Quiet Riot, The Beatles, Beastie Boys, and The Association were among my early faves.
What was your first band?
I started a band called Loaded (Velvet Underground reference) when I was 12 in Owatonna. The older kids in bands rented out VFW halls and park pavilions to throw shows and let us open. We wrote originals. I think we even had a couple pretty good songs. We just wanted to be the Pixies in a major way.
You attended the Perpich Center for the Arts. I read that you go back to the school to give talks to the students. What sort of things do you tell them?
I always tell the students to learn as many facets of multi-media arts as they can. Use all of the amazing resources that are there. Also, be nice to your peers because you never know who you can help out or will help you throughout your life. It’s a very small world the further into an artistic career you go.
For those that may not know, where did you get your stage name?
I used to go watch every movie at the Har Mar Mall in Roseville from the age 17 on. I just loved that it was such a homegrown, weird mall. When I worked for the State Department of Education across the street proofreading documents I’d take lunches there and write lyrics about passersby at the food court.
I want to encourage our readers to watch your performance of How Did I Get Through the Day, Live on the Current (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R370hYrZ7_I). There seemed to be some extra magic in the studio that day. Talk about that performance.
We were just getting ready to head out on the Best Summer Ever Tour. It was one of the first times we played live for people as a bigger band. The song is very emotional for me, so I poured my whole heart into that performance. My band at that moment was Ryan McMahon (drums), James Buckley (bass), Aaron Baum (keys), Nelson Devereaux (sax), Jake Baldwin (trumpet), and Denver Dalley (guitar). Many of them still tour with me. We embarked on a world tour the next day.
You have a pretty impressive IMDB page. Do you see yourself doing more on screen if the opportunity arises?
I’m always ready for acting jobs – just the most fun drop into another world. I studied theater at Perpich, so I know what to do. Ha!
You’ve lived on both coasts; LA for a number of years, then Brooklyn NY. What brought you back to the Minnesota?
I found myself coming back to Minnesota for a number of musical opportunities. Between joining Gayngs and writing with many, many talented musicians in town I decided it was time to come home, plant my roots, and buy a house in Minneapolis.
What is your favorite venue to play? Favorite venue to attend live shows?
First Avenue. Always and forever. I feel like I grew up there. I basically did. Turf Club is a close second.
You recently sang the National Anthem for the Minnesota United FC game against Atlanta. Do you get nervous singing the National Anthem?
The National Anthem is a hard song to sing. So many octaves. I had a great time on the field. I actually walked off feeling amazing about my performance. I’ll be back for sure. Minnesota United is a great organization.
Would you blame yourself for the Loons losing that game?
Yes. It was definitely my fault.
You are currently doing a “Har Mar Superstar Sings the Songs of Sam Cooke” Tour. Critics of the shows say you are well suited for soul music. Will we be seeing more of this side of you …Har Mar Superstar, the Lounge singer?
We’ll see! I love to pay my respects to the greats. Sam Cooke is one of my favorites of all time.
Looks like you guys have an upcoming gig on Austin City Limits (June 10). What an amazing history of talent that has graced that stage. Is this your first time playing at Austin City Limits?
ACL is incredible. I’m playing their small venue in June and have played the festival before. I’m always honored to be part of a lineage as rich as theirs.
How do live television performances differ from other performances?
Live TV is great. When you play a show like Jimmy Fallon or Kimmel it’s over before you know it started. The ultimate rush really.
You have shared the stage with an impressive array of bands, including the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, the Strokes, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. If you could open for any artist, who you have not played with before, who would it be?
Sade. Hands down.
Who would you like to have open for you? What are you currently listening to?
There are so many. Not all of them would open, but I always recommend Sweet Spirit, A Giant Dog, MGMT, Swamp Dogg, Uranium Club, Murf, and Computer Magic.
Favorite cartoon as a child?
Garfield for life!
What’s next for you?
Touring throughout the spring/ summer and hunkering down on a new album. That’s all I need for now!
By Molly Penny