As Har Mar Superstar, Sean Tillmann is the master of ceremonies whenever he takes the stage.
His concerts are legendary, necessary to be attended in order to “get” that while the Har Mar persona may seem, on the surface, like some Andy-Kaufman-as-Tony-Clifton shtick, he’s a damn talented musician and singer.
Yes, he made his bones disrobing down to his briefs. Yes, he started out singing over pre-recorded click tracks in bars and clubs where the assembled few didn’t quite know what to make of him. And yes, he loved every single second of it, from the looks of confusion and unease at the start of each show to the effervescent ecstasy of shared musical communion by the time he played his encore.
For the past two decades, he’s enjoyed something of an exalted status in the American indie rock scene, and his latest album, “Roseville” — released last week — is a stellar, soulful and smooth collection of pop-oriented R&B, which has been his wheelhouse for years.
It's difficult to imagine a guy who laughs so easily, smiles so frequently and loves to inspire others to do the same through song in a place of such indescribable darkness, but a few years back, Tillmann told The Ties That Bind Us recently, alcohol had led him there.
“I didn’t quite realize how depressed alcohol was making me until it got to a point where I was having constant fantasies of jumping in the Mississippi (River, which splits Minneapolis-St. Paul, the city he calls home, down the middle) and letting myself get dragged,” he said. “I lived a block away, so I mean it was a real possibility. And I actually bought a rope to hang myself with, so it was just a heavy time.”
Fortunately — not just for Tillmann, but for the legions of fans who celebrate the man, the myth and the music — it’s also a time that’s behind him. He’s been sober now for roughly two years, and the bounty and beauty of that decision are painted across “Roseville” in loops and swirls of kaleidoscopic gratitude.
Har Mar Superstar: Mighty like a 'Roseville'
It's a record that doesn’t pull any punches, from the melancholy opening chords of the first track, “Solid Ghost,” in which Tillmann opens the doors to what he’s been through: “Dwelling on my sadness, becoming one with my shadow / never tried to take my life but I admit that I got close …” But like all things Har Mar Superstar, he doesn’t dwell there long: 50 seconds in, the horns and chiming bells and boogie-feverish rhythm lets listeners know exactly what this record is: a celebration of renewal, and a love letter to the town that’s been his home since he landed there shortly after high school.
“The honesty of things, all of that came across with the album,” he said. “I think I touched on it all on ‘Bye Bye 17’ (released in 2013) and ‘Best Summer Ever’ (his 2016 release) without really knowing it, but when I quit drinking, that’s when I realized how big of a problem it was,” he said. “And that’s when I realized I needed to take responsibility with everyone, from people I encounter to my friends to my loved ones.
“I care a lot, and I’m a really empathetic and compassionate person who feels a lot, but I wasn’t allowing myself to. I was just avoiding a lot of emotions, but now they’re being properly channeled, and I feel good.”
And “Roseville,” his seventh release, sounds even better. It’s billed as a “career-defining culmination of life and musical experiences that were heavily influenced by 70s AM gold artists including Todd Rundgren, Elton John, Carole King, David Bowie, Paul McCartney, Genesis, Hall and Oates, Meat Loaf, Dory Previn, and ELO,” but it’s a tribute record in sound only. There’s a definitive throwback vibe to the 11 tracks on “Roseville,” all of it anchored in the humor and pathos that have become part of the Har Mar Superstar brand over the past 20 years.
After playing in the punk outfit Calvin Krime and in the guitar project Sean Na Na, Tillmann threw himself into the Har Mar Superstar persona around 1999. The name comes from the Har Mar Mall in the Twin Cities suburb of Roseville, and in the beginning, he toured with a MiniDisc player filled with prerecorded music that acted as a backdrop to his soulful, sweaty stage show.
One of those early shows brought him through East Tennessee, home to the drug and alcohol treatment center that sponsors this blog, for a show at the indie rock club The Pilot Light. Tillmann remembers that the late actor Brad Renfro, a Knoxville native, happened to be in town that night, wandered in and got on stage, wanting to rap over one of the beats. Tillmann happily obliged, then stood in the background behind Renfro and seductively disrobed down to his briefs during Renfro’s performance. “He turned around and just said, ‘Oh, God,’’ TIllmann said with a laugh. “I don’t think he knew who I was, but I thought it was really cool, because he was an amazing actor, and I was a huge fan of a lot of his stuff.”
Nights of increasing loneliness
What started out as a solo R&B/pop project, however, quickly became an underground phenomenon. Whether he performed wearing a choir robe or one of his increasingly elaborate outfits, he became a master showman in addition to a captivating singer, and fans came to understand that when Har Mar Superstar came to town, it was going to be a party.
While he always relished his role as ringleader, he added, it also became hard to say no to those who wanted to buy him and his band members a round.
“People would bring us shots of Jagermeister on stage — I’d ask for them,” he said. “I’d black out by the end of the set sometimes, and that’s just not a cool feeling, letting people down. (The band members) would have arguments all the time about who would be the sober driver. We were just young partiers having fun, but we were also impeding ourselves.
“These days, it’s nice to be able to complete a load-out and sell my own merchandise and drive the band back to the hotel. I really have no problem being around booze. Now, I’ll go to the bar and hang out with my friends, but at 10, when you see their eyes glaze over, and you answer the same question for the same person three times, you’re like, ‘OK, I’m gonna go home now!’ And when you do, you don’t have to rewatch the latest episode of something like ‘Breaking Bad’ because you saw it when you were drunk but can’t remember anything about it!”
As much as Tillmann made a name for himself among music lovers, however, he also earned the respect of his fellow musicians, in the Twin Cities and beyond. Bands like The Strokes, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and the Red Hot Chili Peppers all tapped him to open tours for them. Father John Misty shared a co-headline tour with him and even played as part of his backing band, as did R&B/hip-hop diva Lizzo. By 2013, Tillmann hit his stride, and by the time “Best Summer Ever” was released, the lineup had settled into a seven-piece juggernaut that slides fluidly between genres and styles as part of an around-the-rock-and-soul tour de force.
And for a long time, he added, alcohol was an ideal party favor for whatever shape or form Har Mar Superstar took.
“It was just one of those things where I couldn’t have imagined for a long time not drinking,” he said. “Being on tour, you’re constantly in bars and being given booze, and sometimes — especially early on — that’s all you’re given, just drink tickets for performing. So it’s a culture that perpetuates itself. People like to ask, ‘Why are these musicians all dying of alcohol and drugs?’ Because it’s our currency for the first 10 years of your career!
“It’s all you get. And sometimes, the only connections you make with other humans are doing cocaine all night. You think, ‘These are my friends!,’ and some do turn out to be lifelong friends. But some are just people you do drugs with.”
Har Mar Superstar: Sobriety looks good on him
And eventually, Tillmann reached a point where such encounters weren’t enough. As a guy who prides himself on navigating the intricacies of the human heart through song, he began to see that drugs and alcohol prevented him from getting close to others beyond surface-level conversations over lines of blow and rounds of drinks, and the depression he felt stemmed from the toll that lack of connection took.
“Things were pretty bad, man,” he said. “In the Midwest, just going to the bar and drinking heavily is part of the culture, really. I know it is in a lot of places, but people take almost this pride in it here, and we’ll all be sharing our blackout stories and laughing about falling on our faces. But then you stand back at some point and realize that anybody listening to this story would be horrified, because we’re all drunks, accepting it as our normal reality.”
Nights like those took an increasingly greater toll, along with drunken social media posts, over-sharing during beery bar conversations and waking up with increasing amounts of shame for what may have transpired the night before. Eventually, a bad show in New York, one that disappointed the audience as well as his bandmates, became a wake-up call.
“It just sort of woke me up to the point where I needed to grow up or figure out my shit, so I took a couple of weeks off of drinking, and I liked how it felt,” he said. “That turned into a couple of months, and then I was really loving not waking up every day at noon and ending up at the bar at 4 or 5 out of boredom because I had no other idea what to do with myself.
“I tried to go back to being the guy who could have a beer or two, but it really doesn’t work that way, at least for me. Within two weeks, I felt like I was heading back to the same level of drunkenness and depression, and by that point, I was feeling really bad about blacking out. It’s a bad look in your 40s being a blackout drunk and not being in control of yourself, so I felt a responsibility to myself and those around me and make a change.”
He went to a couple of 12 Step meetings, but what worked more than anything was embracing how much better he felt from not drinking, and taking full advantage of it.
“I became a morning person, because before, I was sleeping until 1 or 2,” he said. “I didn’t want daylight hours or the reality of stuff I had to do. I started accomplishing so much, and there were so many layers of shame spirals I was experiencing on giant levels and on little micro-levels, too, that I eliminated by being in control.”
The little things — like being able to drive whenever he wants instead of trying to figure out if he’s too drunk to get behind the wheel — have made him a happier, healthier human being, and that, in turn, makes Har Mar Superstar a better artist.
'Roseville': A love letter to life and all that comes with it
“I found for me that by just cutting out the booze and feeling great, nothing else really even occurs to me anymore,” he said. “I feel like that without booze, I only have 1/10 of the problems I used to have. I don’t wake up regretful of emails I sent or phone calls I made or things I don’t remember. I was obviously crying for help but not realizing it when I did those things, trying to connect with people from the past, but it was just embarrassing more than anything else.
“You come across like a maniac, but I think deep down, you’re struggling to find anybody who knew you before you had these problems. For me, I just didn’t quite realize until I stepped away how depressed booze made me, and now without it, I have so many less problems.”
He continues to work on himself in other ways, mostly through therapy, and he’s found a love of being able to help other artists and musicians find their own way to sobriety. Anyone who been to or knew Har Mar Superstar back in the day can clearly see that if Tillmann can get sober, anyone can … they just need a little help to get there, and no one is more equipped to offer that than a guy whose life was so secretly hopeless that he once thought about throwing himself into the Mississippi.
“Being able to give people tips, that helps me refortify my love for not drinking, and being able to help people, even if they’re just taking a break for a month or two, is my way of giving back,” he said. “I’m all about whatever works. It’s all personal, and it’s all about whatever’s going to help you, because it really is kind of life-threatening, and it’s important to give it priority.”
Now that he has, the life he lives is as charming as the music he makes. Rather than wallow in self-pity when COVID-19 shut the music industry down, Tillmann got a day job, and now gets up at 5 a.m. to deliver mail for the U.S. Postal Service. He clocks out after 10 hours and still has enough time in his day to work on his music, a far cry from the day-in, day-out commitment of drinking.
“(Sobriety) has definitely informed so much,” he said. “I have so much more energy, and by working for the post office and not drinking, I’m 40 pounds lighter than I was. And I have more compassion for the crowd (at Har Mar Superstar shows). I care a lot more about everyone’s experience.
“Before I was struggling to get through stuff, because I was handicapping myself with substances and hangovers and everything else, but I don’t have any of that cluttering things now. And that makes me super-excited and more open to having an emotional experience with the audience, and making sure everybody’s having a great time.”
And until then … until COVID subsides and the stages reopen … he’ll keep on doing his thing: delivering the mail, making music and enjoying life as a sober dude who loves his life instead of thinking about ways on occasion to end it.
“I feel like I’m in a good position, and releasing an album right now is perfect, because it’s sort of a winter-in-the-spring album,” he said. “It’s got the heaviness of winter, but the hopefulness of spring, and March is a perfect time to release it and have people be reminded of how beautiful it all is.”