2015 will mark First Avenue’s 45th year hosting epic rock shows in the heart of Minneapolis. In the lead-up to this momentous anniversary, we’re telling the stories behind the local legends whose names line the venue’s famous Wall of Fame, which overlooks the titular street. Previously we featured Babes in Toyland. This time it’s Sean Tillmann, a.k.a. everyone’s favorite disco-dancing soul machine, Har Mar Superstar—our Local Current Artist of the Month.
Har Mar Superstar began some 15 years ago, when Tillmann decided to pursue his interest in recording contemporary R&B. “I wanted to be R. Kelly in the beginning,” Tillmann says.
The first Har Mar Superstar recordings were made in collaboration with Howard Hamilton (then of the Busy Signals, now with Whatever Forever), and early Har Mar shows were often split between the Superstar and Hamilton’s Busy Signals project.
Eventually, Har Mar performances evolved to consist of Tillmann alone onstage, often stripping down to his underwear over the course of a show, backed by recordings. As the project got bigger, Tillmann added backing musicians.
Tillmann has released five full-length albums as Har Mar Superstar: 2000’s self-titled debut; You Can Feel Me (2002); The Handler (2004); Dark Touches (2009); and last year’s witty, gorgeously retro Bye Bye 17.
Tillmann was already a well-known figure on the local scene before Har Mar Superstar was conceived. He attended high school at the Minnesota Center for Arts Education (now Perpich Center for Arts Education), during which time he went to as many local all-ages shows as he could, and founded the noise rock band Calvin Krime, for which he provided bass and vocals. With Calvin Krime he graduated from attending shows to performing them at First Ave and the 7th St. Entry.
“In the 7th Street Entry they’d always do all-ages Sundays,” Tillmann says. “So once a month we’d try to get on a bill. I was really overbearing and I would go into the office and look at the schedule of things coming up and stake my claim on the best shows that were coming. Of all the young bands, I was the only kid who had the balls to do that.”
Tillmann’s first performance at First Avenue took place on April 9, 1996, with Calvin Krime.
“The first time we played First Avenue was amazing,” Tillmann says. “It was a sold-out show, we got the first slot opening for the Rancid-Rocket from the Crypt tour, and it was packed. When the curtain came up, [and] it was full, I couldn’t believe it. It was the craziest feeling I’d ever felt.”
After Calvin Krime disbanded, Tillmann began recording both as Har Mar Superstar and as the power-pop project Sean Na Na.
Sonia Grover, a longtime friend of Tillmann’s and booker at First Avenue, recalls that Har Mar’s early reputation tended to focus on Tillmann’s underwear-baring onstage antics; however, she says that one of her favorite Har Mar memories is of Har Mar’s first sold-out headlining performance in First Avenue’s Mainroom last September, a time when the shenanigans were kept to a minimum.
“He got up onstage knowing people want him to take his clothes off,” Grover says. “But he warned them, like, ‘Hey dude, I’m not gonna take my clothes off,’ so I thought that was kind of funny [and] cool. The thing is, like, dude is a really awesome songwriter an he’s got a really great voice, and I think people might not realize that with some of the stuff that went on with Har Mar Superstar early on.”
First Avenue manager Nate Kranz also has many Har Mar Superstar stories, both onstage and off, from booking Har Mar to open for a sold-out show by the then-ascendant Hives on a couple hours notice, to the time Tillmann and Patrick Costello of Dillinger Four (successfully) argued their way onto First Ave’s permanent guest list.
“I remember sitting in the office one night and somebody said that Sean and Paddy Costello wanted to come in and talk to me,” Kranz says. “They came into my office, and they were like, ‘We really need to talk to you about something. We really want to get on the permanent guest list, what’s it gonna take?’”
Kranz told Tillmann and Costello that the decision wasn’t his to make, and that they would have to take the issue up with then-co-owner Steve McClellan. This led Tillmann and Costello to write a letter, detailing “all the merits of why they should be added to the life list at First Avenue,” according to Kranz, “up to and including that when they hang out at the club, other people want to come and hang out with them, and that it makes the club cooler.”
Tillmann and Costello’s letter worked and both remain on the list to this day. “It’s always great to see them come down and hang out, and I think (they were) right,” Kranz says. “But in all the time that I’ve been here, those are the only two guys that came in and made a case including, ‘First Avenue’s cooler when we get to hang out.’”
Har Mar himself has many memories of performing First Avenue and the Entry, including meeting and befriending Chavez’s Matt Sweeney and Cat Power’s Chan Marshall at performances, sitting behind the drum riser at Unsane shows in the ‘90s as a “good luck charm” for their drummer, and having to cut one headlining 2007 set short for an off-the-cuff Prince gig. Tillmann estimates that he’s played at least a hundred shows at First Avenue and the 7th Street Entry over the last 20 years—including the Current’s ninth birthday party this past January.
One of Har Mar’s most recent shows at First Avenue coincided with an interesting milestone: Friday, September 20, 2013 was declared “Har Mar Superstar Day” in the city of Minneapolis by then-mayor R. T. Rybak.
According to Tillmann, the whole thing began as a Twitter-fueled lark. “R.T. tweeted at me that he really liked my song ‘Restless Leg,’” Tillmann says. “He’d heard it on the Current. I was like, ‘Oh yeah, if you like it that much you should give me a day!’ I was just joking, and then it just sort of became a reality.”
In a fitting coincidence, that night’s show was the first time Har Mar Superstar sold out First Avenue’s Mainroom as headliner. On the day of the show, Tillmann posed in front of his star holding the official proclamation and actually riding on Rybak’s back. The photo became so iconic that Jill Riley asked him to recreate the pose when he later visited the Current’s studios.
“It was great,” Tillmann says, “because under the auspices of having my own day, my mom and dad and brother and sister all came from all over the country, and it was great to have everyone there and celebrate this weird, awesome milestone.”