For most of his life, Sean Tillman, aka Har Mar Superstar (and Sean Na Na), knew that he wanted to indulge his love of R&B in some fashion. Before becoming a musician, his options were little more than expressions of fandom--wearing purple lace or oversized sunglasses, testing Jheri-Curl on Caucasian hair, knowing who's who among Tony! Toni! Toné!--but ever since he picked up a bass and started a punk band (Calvin Krime, which disbanded in the late '90s), his path was clearer.
"I kinda always thought that (I was going to do R&B), I just had to figure out how to do it. ... I just had to figure out how to make beats and write songs in that style," says HMS Uperstar (which is a British naval ship name for him that I just made up).
Tillman exhibits his remarkable and peculiar genius by turning his weaknesses into strengths. To be charitable, Har Mar is no Usher--instead of chiseled abs, he's soft in the middle. Instead of professional hairstyling, Har Mar usually sports a "balding mullet" 'do that wouldn't be out of place at Wrestlemania. Instead of Prada, he wears outfits designed to make himself look ridiculous, many with fringe. Long, sinuous fringe. In doing so, he inverts the notional parameters of what it means to be a Superstar.
The cumulative effect--"Har Mar" is a cocky, brash, egomaniacal sex freak with the appearance of a lumpen wage slave busting loose at a drag show--works so fucking well that dude has women stuffing dollar bills down his drawers at shows. It's his willingness to take the piss out of his own self/persona that people, especially women, respond to so favorably. Frankly, it's hilarious. And the icing on the comedo-sexual cake that is Har Mar kicks better dance moves than Napoleon Dynamite. "I like to like drop down to my knees with my feet out to the side, and then get up. I like spinning a lot. Spinning is good."
For all his sartorial and self-presentational cleverness, the schtick would fall flat if he was faking the funk. After three albums as Har Mar (and a couple as Sean Na Na--an earlier variation of the Har Mar persona), one thing is quite clear: Sean Tillman can write better R&B songs than most of his counterparts in the less tongue-in-cheek faction of the "urban music" biz.
On The Handler, released last fall, Tillman hooked up with producer John Field, who is a fellow Minneapolitan. "We didn't know each other until we got in the studio together. ... He was doing Andrew WK's stuff, and Pink, and all these people, and he knew I moved to L.A., and we hooked up, and it was immediate and awesome." Using mostly live instrumentation for the first time, Tillman and Field alone performed most of the tracks, but they didn't forget to invite some guests. "(W)e had Michael Bland come in; he played with New Power Generation for a long time, the drummer. ... He's the guy with the little hat in all the videos. The big guy. He's rad, he's so awesome. ... Pete Thomas, who plays on every Elvis Costello record, played drums on 'Sugar Pie.' ...(W)e just recorded in a garage, in Hollywood. But it doesn't sound like it."
It may not sound as if it was recorded in a garage, but it does sound like Har Mar's been paying attention to his heroes, perhaps too much attention. For instance, you could easily fool a novice into thinking that "Sugar Pie" is actually Stevie Wonder's "Isn't She Lovely." "Save the Strip" has the kind of guitar part favored by the likes of Babyface and Timbaland. And "Cut Me Up," the fourth track on The Handler, is a ringer for 1999-era Prince. This overt reverence raises the question of whether Har Mar's ever met his Minneapolis homeboy. "I love him, but I don't really want to meet him. I have a feeling it would be one of those things where it wouldn't be as cool as you build it up in your head."
The Handler and accompanying tour is a leap in sophistication for a songwriter who's done much of his R&B with computers. The Handler, however, represents but part of his overall compositional ouevre. In addition to songs for alleged former paramour Kelly Osbourne and one for J. Lo that will "never see the light of day," he's "written a bunch of songs, who knows if they're gonna get used, and by who, I can't really say at this point. I've worked with J.C. Chasez in the studio a bunch; INXS, I was in the studio with them, helping with their lyrics and melodies. Fuck, I dunno. ... I've written a song that's either gonna be a Paris Hilton or Britney Spears song. It's all up in the air. I won't believe it's gonna happen until it's printed on a record, you know?"
For a performer who's suffered his share of abuse from crowds that don't get what he's doing (specifically, whilst opening for Incubus in the deep South), Tillman remains unafraid to put it all out there no matter the context. This year, he's already done shows opening for Beck and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and is currently touring with Aussie wunderkind Ben Lee. "It's fun, man. We're friends, and a weird combo, and it works well. ... I guess I don't really poll the audience. I've had awesome shows; that's pretty much all I care about, you know? (laughs) It's my job."
But as some Incubus fans learned, you shouldn't throw things at him. "I got pelted with a lot of shit. And I punched a lot of people in the front row that spit on me. ... There's awesome places (in the South) like Austin and Atlanta, but then there's places like Jackson, Miss., which is a fucking shithole, the armpit of the world. That's where retards are gonna throw shit at me. And that's where I'm going to fucking play 20 minutes longer, because they don't want to see me, and throw shit right back. That's my way of combating it," he says, giggling in his inimitable manchild fashion.
Tillman seems to really like Tucson, perhaps for its readily available and inexpensive cocaine, a must-have item in any Superstar's rucksack.. "I love Tucson. I wanna go to (Hotel) Congress and just write on a typewriter. It's really set up for that kinda deal. I love it," he hisses. "You think people are gonna come to our show in Tucson? We'll party. Let's have a party," he says, with the toneless seriousness of someone that doesn't fuck around when it comes to partying.
Asked why he's the "fucking best," as he so frequently puts it (his old Web site: www.thefuckingbest.com), he retorts, "Mainly because I'm straightforward in everything I do, so I wanna let everyone know that I'm gonna rock them, straight off the bat, and then I do, because I'm full-on. It's just sort of innate. I'm just the best."