Some acts can be so amazing that the first time you hear them, you wonder how you missed them. So when Spoon's Britt Daniel sang "I don't dig the Stripes but I go for Har Mar" on Kill the Moonlight opener "Small Stakes," I felt compelled to look up who or what Har Mar was. That was 15 years ago, and I've been telling people I know to keep an eye on this guy ever since.
The Minneapolis native's soulful tones seemed to capture what music was missing then. While he's since released multiple albums and toured at a relentless pace, Har Mar seems to have hit a new career peak with his last two records, Best Summer Ever and the Personal Boy EP. The Houston Press was glad to chat with the singer and songwriter about touring, his other work schedule, and what fans should expect from next week's Houston appearance opening for the Afghan Whigs.
We connected while Har Mar is in the process of ordering food while in the midst of his tour of almost 40 cities, 28 of which are with The Whigs. That seems grueling by any standard, enough to wonder how Har Mar fits everything he does into such a schedule. "The tour is going great. It looks like a lot of work, but in reality about 75 percent of the time I'm sitting around watching TV," he says. "I've been touring since I was 16, so I'm used to it."
But any any standard, the artist also known as Sean Tillmann does a lot. Last year he released the full-length Best Summer Ever through Cult Records, toured, and released videos for several songs. This year he followed up by dropping the Personal Boy EP on his own, recording the theme song for the rebooted Mystery Science Theater 3000, and appeared in a video for the Afghan Whigs' "Demon In Profile" — all in the midst of seemingly nonstop touring.
"The Mystery Science Theater thing happened because [creator] Joel Hodgson and most of the original people behind the show are all from Minneapolis," says Tillmann. "Joel had been a longtime fan, so when he was kicking around the idea of revamping the show, he asked me if I wanted to do the theme song. So, after some time passed, I hit him up and asked if he still wanted me to do it, and he remarked how he was just getting ready to call me.
"On releasing the EP, my contract with Cult was expired, and while the management and staff at a record label are great things to have, I felt like the EP would be a great litmus test to see how things would go if I did something on my own," he continues. "I know a lot of other people who are self-releasing things now, and while the logistics of releasing things can feel like work, and it's all hard work, getting the check and not having to cut it up is nice as well."
And with Personal Boy, Tillmann is definitely doing things on his own. Building on the '80s soul-pop aesthetic of Best Summer, he takes that sound to a whole new place while recording a solo cover of the Afghan Whigs' "Demon In Detail," an action Tillmann claims was spontaneous.
"I was recording other stuff and I already had the two songs' Personal Boy' and 'Timeback,' and I thought it would be this 'meta' thing to cover their song with the backing band in our own way, while I was also in the video for their original version on the song," he says. "Almost like an Easter egg for their fans who were unaware of my work for the tour where I'm selling the 12-inch vinyl of the EP. I really love the song, their version and ours. With the band, I think we added a nice spin on it."
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Assisted by producers BJ Burton (Sylvan Esso, Bon Iver) and Lazerbeak (Lizzo, Doomtree), the tracks on Personal Boy really seem to pop, even though the title song is just shy of seven and a half minutes. "It's pretty much whatever comes out," Tillman explains. "I never try to have any limitations on what I write, and the direction comes from the unknown, which is usually where the magic occurs."
There's definitely plenty of magic when it comes to pretty much everything that Har Mar Superstar does; his voice is hard not to love and his live show is unmatched as far as energy and intensity goes. His recent shows have showed a lot less skin than in his earlier years, while keeping the party going in a more restrained way. "The shows now are with a full live band, and it's definitely more polished," he says. "I don't have to shock anyone anymore and I just let my voice speak for itself. I guess I'm just getting older."
You can stream Personal Boy in all of the usual places, or purchase it directly from Har Mar Superstar in various formats. You can catch his more polished show as a special guest of the Afghan Whigs next Thursday, October 26 at The Heights Theater. The all-ages event has doors at 7 p.m.; tickets are $28 to $56.