If you do a google search for Har Mar Superstar, chances are you’ll see him in his underwear, most likely holding a couple of puppies. This is an image he’d like to move past.
When Sean Tillman started playing shows as Har Mar Superstar in the late ’90s, he hit the punk circuit pretty hard, from a completely different angle than anyone else out there. He played irony-drenched R&B tracks, just him and backing tracks, singing lyrics like “Baby do you like my clothes?/’Cause I sure don’t like yours/Unless they’re lying on the floor/With your body next to me, baby.”
The only other person in the DIY scene at the time doing solo dance tunes, Tillman says, was Peaches. That was when Har Mar Superstar earned his reputation for stripping down to his underwear, because it was an unusual and memorable gimmick, but it really wasn’t Tillman’s thing. What he did best was bust the best dance moves you’d ever seen, and sing in people’s faces. Anyone who saw Har Mar Superstar back in the day likely considers it one of the best shows they’ve ever seen, and that’s because Tillman knew that everything in that scene was stacked up against him, so he went big.
“You have to come at people full on so that they’re caught off guard more than you are. Everyone is like, ‘OK, we’re having fun. That really weird looking guy made a fucking party happen,” Tillman says.
Almost as soon as people started talking about his amazing, personal-space-invading shows, he tried to shed the ironic-pop-star image, but it took a while. He was able to really pull it off on 2013’s Bye Bye 17, a record that is both a clear throwback to Motown, and pretty serious. For those previously unable to get past the irony, the record was a chance to hear his incredible voice for what it really was.
“It was a big risk, and a lot of people were like, ‘I don’t know if you should do that man,’” Tillman says. “Bye Bye 17 is the one my fans played for their friends, and they’d say ‘see, this is the one. This is what I’ve been talking about. Now you’re into it, too.’”
His latest album, Best Summer Ever, was produced by the Strokes’ Julian Casablancas, and is easily his most diverse to date. He describes it as a concept record of his “greatest hits from 1950-1985—an era that I largely didn’t live in.”
Musically, it’s an extension of the more earnest side of Tillman that he started exploring on Bye Bye 17. Because his fans were so willing to take him seriously on that album, he felt liberated to do whatever he wanted on this one.
“I just got into not hiding behind irony anymore,” Tillman says. “I like to have humor, and some fun involved, but I think the tongue isn’t in the cheek with these, even if I’m doing super-’80s sax solos that sound like something off of the Jewel of the Nile soundtrack.”
As Tillman tours to promote Best Summer Ever, he comes armed with a six-piece live band: guitars, drums, synths, horns. “I’ve always wanted to have a live band. The success of Bye Bye 17, after touring that for a long time, building the momentum, it made it financially feasible. Crowds were bigger. It just made more sense to take the step and do it,” he says.
As for his current live show, it’s unlikely that he’ll be stripping down to his underwear. He puts on a high-energy set by dancing in the crowd, doing handstands while singing and just utilizing the space however he can.
“I feel like there’s not enough energetic shows out there. I would love to be surprised by someone that I haven’t seen before that just turns up the energy, gets you out of your comfort zone,” Tillman says. “The older you get, the more curmudgeonly you get. It’s fun to harness that energy, like a thing that permeates the room. I’m entertaining myself just as much as I’m entertaining everyone else.”
INFO: 8 p.m., Nov. 8, Don Quixote’s, 6275 Hwy. 9, Felton. $15. 335-2800.