My interview with Har Mar Superstar

Har Mar Superstar, born Sean Tillmann, is one of those people whose undeniable talent has led him on a journey through genres and unabashed theatricality. How many people can do semi-nude handstands, then belt out a soul song with complete mastery? Bye Bye 17, his last album, was filled with songwriting craft and vocal chops. But all the musicians he has toured or collaborated with, bands like The Strokes, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, have known about his talents for a long time. Now his new album, Best Summer Ever, is about to be released. The idea was to imagine the greatest hits of Har Mar Superstar – but from 1950-1985. Forget that he wasn’t even born then. Julian Casablancas assisted with the concept and the production, and first song off the album “Youth Without Love” was a Casablancas- penned demo that the two of them loved. Har Mar also brought in musicians like Karen O and Shawn Everett.

Northern Transmissions caught up with Har Mar Superstar on the eve of a tour that starts at SXSW and goes through the spring to promote the new album. Alice Severin asked him about his work with Julian Casablancas, his idea for the concept album, and his views on podcasts and politics.

Northern Transmissions – How are you and where are you at the moment?

Har Mar Superstar -I’m great! Back home in Minneapolis at the moment. Just moved back and feeling really good about the new band I’ve assembled for tour.

NT – Your new album, Best Summer Ever, is coming out in a few weeks. How has the writing and recording process been for you?

HMS -The writing and recording process was pretty natural for me. I basically wrote most of the songs on guitar in my bedroom and took them down to Sonic Ranch in Tornillo, TX with a few of my best friends (Chris Bierden, Ryan McMahon, Matt Sweeney, and Ryan Olson) to get the basics recorded. After that I met up with Julian Casablancas to decide which songs we’d finish together for the record with Shawn Everett. No shortage of genius there to assist me. It was a blast! I’m very excited to share it with the world.

NT – You’re releasing it on Cult Records, the label run by Julian Casablancas. He also co-wrote the first track off the album, “Youth Without Love.” It’s a stomping song, showing off your vocal talents and pop soul sensibilities. What’s it like working with him, and do you think he has a special insight into bringing out the best in artists?

HMS -Julian is always full of insight that I’d never think of at first listen. Every Cult Records release is curated by him in a personal and loving way. I feel very lucky to be part of the team. I’ve learned a lot working with him. “Youth Without Love” was a demo he had sitting around that I really fell in love with, so we made it real. I love when a plan comes together.

NT -The album has as a theme the fictional greatest hits over a period of time in the past. How did you come up with the idea, and were there certain images or influences that you structured the album around?

HMS -I was writing super varied styles of songs for the record. Just throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks. I think the idea came when we started listening to everything as a whole and realized the songs we wanted to finish all seemed to be from different eras. It helped us with the production of the songs although they don’t appear on the album in the fake chronological order.

NT – What’s it like being one of the few people here that understand irony? What has shaped your point of view?

HMS -I don’t know if I’m one of the few that understands irony. I may be one of the only people who doesn’t hide behind it to say mean things. I grew up with English teachers for parents, so I guess I was pre-disposed to use it properly. Irony can be hilarious and very sad at the same time. You never know what life is going to hand you.

NT – Your Nocturnal Emotions podcast was brilliant – you always got the interesting conversations out of people. What do you think is important to keep in mind about interviews, from both sides?

HMS -I wouldn’t say I interviewed people as much as just guiding fun conversations. I think the most important thing to remember in that situation is to pay attention to what sparks your subject’s interest and keep going down whatever road lights up their eyes. The storyteller will always come out if you play to someone’s excitement. Other than that, just treat people intelligently, and they’ll give you the same respect.

NT – Your last album, Bye Bye 17, was a brilliant love letter to soul. Your voice just sounds better and better. I saw you live here in NYC and was an instant convert. What are you planning for the live shows coming up in support of the new album?

HMS -There are 7 of us in the band now. Live horns and keys have been added to the guitar/ bass/ drum formula, so we can really explore musically. It’s very spontaneous sounding, and there is a lot more room to play off of each other. We’re having a blast.

NT – You seem to be able to approach any genre and put your stamp on it. When you sit down to write songs, do you start with structure, words, or a mood?

HMS -I normally start with a phrase or melody I’ve thought of and build out from there. I never know what style the song will end up in right away. I like to let a bunch of ideas get stuck in my head and record them into my phone memos as I walk around. That way when I sit down to actually finish a song I have tons of ideas to cull from.

NT – So much of the press is about clickbait now – people will do anything to be controversial, and we see this played out in the political world. You’ve expressed support for Bernie Sanders. It seems linked to the issue of trying to take back the narrative from the mainstream, which also relates to music. Is it especially crucial to speak out now?

HMS -I think it’s amazing how Bernie’s voice is being heard and backed. If people weren’t speaking out his message would never have made it this far. I think he has a great chance of getting into the oval office. That would be amazing. I think people are finally ready to fight en masse for a politician that can’t be bought and really has the good of the common man in his best interest. Time will tell. I’m keeping my fingers crossed and doing anything I can to help.

NT – And five albums that you return to.

Stevie Wonder – Songs In the Key of Life
Shuggie Otis – Inspiration Information
Cyndi Lauper – She’s So Unusual
Unwound – Repetition
Everything by Sam Cooke

Interview by Alice Severin

Har Mar Superstar webpage

Lucius releases new album Good Grief – review

If you have heard of Lucius, it might have been via Matt Sharp, of Weezer past, and his incarnation as The Rentals, where they did sharp work providing vocals for Lost in Alphaville. Or it might have been Wildewoman, their debut album. Or maybe you noticed the two highly stylized look-alike women providing a unique visual. Doesn’t matter. Short version, whether you have or haven’t had the pleasure, their newly released album Good Grief is something you need to listen to. Now.

Lucius, at the center, are Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig, who met at the Berklee College of Music, then moved down to Brooklyn. They now play with Dan Molad, Peter Lalish, and Andrew Burri. They’ve spent their lives listening to music, and an enormous amount of time touring. When the present is this good, history seems a distraction. But Lucius might say it matters a lot.

What makes Good Grief so listenable is the toying with genres and ideas found within, playing in a sandbox of sound. And that their songs and harmonies fit together – and ignore trying to fit into the pop brand of the moment. Instead, Lucius is their own creation. The production, while offbeat at times, never intrudes. Someone actually thought about what would suit the two women, their galactic prism of vocal ability, and their clever songs – rather than imposing some identikit tone and mood. That thrill of risk taking and experimentation – using what they’ve got to do what they want – is heady.

The first five songs go by in a moment. No clock watching here. “Madness” is storytelling, and all the vocal talent is used to make a song, not a point, not a genre. Yes, there’s a bit of a country vibe, but the background and the music feels complex. The huge wave of emotionally charged vocals cuts through – all the bullshit.

“Something About You” has that 80s feel but the vocal is clear and direct, taking control, slightly on edge. When the immense pop chorus with the bone shaking reverberation of bass comes in, “if only you could see yourself through my eyes” – even through the odd synth and the syncopated drums, you’re propelled. It’s like pop country – after a long visit to a spa on Neptune.

“What We Have (To Change)” is a song where again the thick production provides a foil for the clever Aimee Mann-like lyrics, but fortunately everyone knows when to stop, leaving space, something for each part to bounce back against. The otherworldly vocals in the background next to the guitar form a contrast that works together.

“My Heart Got Caught On Your Sleeve” is just beautiful. Harmonies and simple piano with sounds filling the air around them. It’s got an emotional kick, so rare. The song swells and grows, a little like After the Gold Rush era Neil Young. “I am lost in my own home, I am lost,” cries like the emptiness echoing from the walls.

“Almost Makes Me Wish For Rain” has that Prince vibe, reminding of the great Wendy and Lisa solo albums, the funky simple complication of the post-Prince era. The rain at the end of the song. And listen to “Truce”. On repeat. That chorus, the way it moves forward under the space funk vocals.

Words aren’t casually thrown away. You can feel the edge, the ability to unravel, in “Gone Insane”. Lyrics like “My fists are clenched and I’m so angry with myself” and “Go on call me the one who’s gone insane” are transmitted with force. Again, there’s a whole story in that one line, and Lucius know when to push and when to fall back, their soaring vocals able to rise out of a state of calm. Dynamics that feel that natural display a fine polish. The craft in this music is evident.

The start of something. Just listen.

Review by Alice Severin

Lull brings out new music – Cicada and Rainer

New single from Lull – “Cicada/Rainer”

This North London based-band was formed in early 2014 by Jon, Toby, Filipe and Simon. Their press compares them to Smashing Pumpkins, My Bloody Valentine and Slowdive. But they are very much their own. February 29th sees the release of single “Cicada/Rainer” on Plastic Fish.

Cicada starts off with the front man’s voice, close, so close. Jon has developed as a singer, and there is a clarity there that lets us appreciate bits of odd intrigue like “I can’t hear in a straight line” along with a concentration that recalls early Radiohead. The verse continues until a lead up to the non-existent chorus, announced by an strange childlike piano part, underlying their stretch for complementarity. The vocal harmony removes any need for analysis, pulling everyone back in. Once the guitars get thicker – well balanced by the drums which break up the wave of sound into bitesize pieces, building with that dimensional intensity – the feeling of going somewhere envelopes until you’re lost in a sea of sound. It’s more polished than before but grips on with velvet gloves to the oceanic sound that Lull seem to be only improving upon. They’ve got an idea here, a good one, and no matter how much it may remind of the high points of the shoegaze scene of the past, Lull emanate the excitement of the new.

Rainer comes out harder, drums and guitar riff, before dissolving suddenly into arpeggios and background silence. The vocal is soft, but when the bass and drums return, it moves along with them, a ribbon of coloured silk along a dark highway. The chorus is all the moments of the 90s, vanquished, remembered, and dissolved into a neat absinthe flood of heat. There’s levels here, a multi-dimensional construction, every part something to explore. If this is the direction Lull are headed in, then there is a fine sea of pleasure to anticipate. They might have to invent a new word, because their music goes beyond shoegaze.

by Alice Severin


Seratones – live at Mercury Lounge, NYC

Seratones Live at Mercury Lounge, NYC

Seratones blew in on a southern breeze to NYC’s Mercury Lounge. Let’s let the singer, AJ Haynes, introduce, just as she did from the stage on Houston Street: “From Shreveport, Louisiana – you can blame us for all the slush and shit.” There’s definitely a warm weather vibe from the foursome, including Connor Davis on guitar, Adam Davis on bass, and Jesse Gabriel on drums. The audience was ready to heat up and by the third song, Necromancer, which is the single and video, Seratones have brought a straight flush of honky tonk, whisky and hip shaking music to banish the cold grey winter world. Their sound – one part southern rock, one part blues, a dash of Janis, a spoonful of Amy Winehouse, and a few shakes of that homemade bitter you just can’t find anywhere else. The bassist is solid, keeping the train rolling. Nothing flashy, just that stuff that makes you jump on the bar with no idea how in hell you got up there. Adam has got RIP Lemmy in tape on underside of the bass. Connor throws out some fine guitar lines, and Jesse hits the drums like he’s still fighting off any demons they might have met during the filming of the video. Together, they mix up a hard edged backing that might be too a little too strong for some vocalists. But not this one. Haynes is an admirable front woman, playing guitar, coaxing and cajoling the crowd, with a strong set of pipes that doesn’t falter through the entire show. All attitude and a little bit of sass. She introduces a song, saying it’s about when you want someone to come over, and they do but after – “they’ve got to go away”. AJ Haynes is the one calling the shots here. For the last couple of songs, AJ puts down the guitar and steps off the small stage, dancing through the room, and she seems freed from all restriction. She draws attention like branch water from a well, and you’d be mad not to wonder if there’s a solo spotlight somewhere with her name on it. They were great last fall at CMJ, making it no surprise that eyes are on them. With the tour and some TV appearances lined up, Seratones are a band to watch. And going home, when the announcer on the train says “this is a KIngs Highway bound F local train”, it feels like one of their songs, and you’re heading somewhere back in the bayou, with a beat. Rack ‘em up again.

Review by Alice Severin

link to Northern Transmissions review of Seratones live

Seratones live on CBS March 4