Har Mar Superstar is a Twin Cities institution. Sitting down to talk with Mr. Mar himself, Sean Tillmann, was bound to be fun, but the conversation also touched on some seriously grown up topics.
Tillmann is gearing up for “Har Mar Superstar Sings Sam Cooke” shows at the Dakota, after all. Four shows, two tomorrow (both sold out), and two on Valentine’s Day (as of press time, tickets still available for the early one) celebrating soul legend, Sam Cooke.
We shopped for records at Mill City Sound in Hopkins, and grabbed a beer next door at the Mainstreet Bar and Grill to talk about Sam Cooke, the supper club vibe, and getting older.
Sean Tillmann: I just got recognized.
City Pages: That’s gotta be weird.
ST: You get used to it. If I’m at a bar talking to someone after a certain point in the night, I might get crabby about it, but for the most part, I’m pretty used to it. I like it. It’s flattering, but it’s not fun when you are talking with someone. About half the time people catch on, and half the time they don’t. Either I have to leave or they do.
CP: OK, you live here now, but you were in New York. How long have you been back?
ST: For like two years. I was in New York for four years, and in L.A. for 8 years before that.
CP: Do you get recognized more often in New York or here?
ST: It’s hard to say. In New York people tend to mind their own business, or they have the opposite attitude. “Hey, fuck this guy!”
CP: How did the Cooke shows at the Dakota come about?
ST: Sam Cooke is one of my favorite artists ever, and I have always wanted to do a supper club style show, and sing his songs. The Dakota approached me about doing a couple of shows, and I thought it was the perfect place to do it. When it is happening is perfect because I am in the middle of recording some new stuff, and nothing will come out for a while. These shows at the Dakota will become a tour that’s going to nationwide in the spring, May and June. The Valentine’s Day shows are being recorded by my brother who is a live engineer. I’ll him capture those to see if they can become a Live at Dakota limited edition vinyl, sell it, give it away on Spotify sort of thing.
CP: Did the Dakota approach you about the February 14th shows?
ST: The February 10th shows sold out so fast, and they brought up Valentine’s Day shows. There are still a handful of tickets left for the early, dinner, show on the 14th. It’s the expensive one—it’s $120, but it includes a four-course meal, the show, tip, and tax. For Valentine’s Day, it’s a pretty good deal if you are have a certain comfortability in your life.
CP: Have you ever played there?
ST: No, I have been meaning to do something there. I feel like a regular Har Mar show there wouldn’t be as fun as doing something like this. Something special that’s kind of grown up.
CP: Are you going to wear a suit?
ST: Probably! I’m trying to figure that out right now, pick the one, but yeah, I think so. I feel like it is a fun vibe to be able to do that, and not feel weird about it.
CP: So, you’re looking forward to the supper club vibe?
ST: Yeah, but I want the show to between the Sam Cooke [studio] recordings, and [Cooke concert album] Live at Harlem Square. You can tell they’re just partying. That crowd is screaming. That’s next level, and I think they recorded that in the middle of the night. This will be, energy wise, somewhere in the middle of the two. The whole thing is reverence to Sam Cooke. It won’t be as wild a show as Harlem Square at the Dakota.
CP: Are the set lists going to be similar?
ST: Yeah, there’s seven of us learning a lot of songs. I’m sticking with Sam Cooke’s pop and love songs. I’m not going to get into any religious, gospel stuff too much because I don’t feel comfortable doing it first of all because I’m not religious. It would feel like faking it. Also, a lot of those songs aren’t for me, you know? They’re for people of color, or people who have had a struggle. I can’t sing “A Change is Gonna Come” because that’s not for me, but I am going to have a special guest on stage sing it. It would feel weird for me to do it. I’m trying to be tasteful in putting together the sets, and not do the spirituals that don’t have anything to do with my life. I would feel like a fraud.
CP: What are your five favorite Sam Cooke songs? Or ten! Whatever you want to do.
ST: Oh man. “Bring it on Home to Me” is probably my favorite one. I’ve been covering that one at the end of shows for a few years now. It’s a straight-up heart-wrencher. The best relationship song. I’d say, “I’ll Come Running Back Home to You.” There’s something about the range of it, there’s something emotional about it. It’s not obvious if he is singing emotional words—there is something deeper about it that tugs at me. I love “A Change is Gonna Come,” obviously. Every time I hear it, I am fully bawling…
CP: Right? I am right there with you.
ST: It is the saddest and most positive song of all time. That song is really top of the mountain. If you can listen to that song, and pay attention to the words without at least misting up a little bit, you might not be human.
I also like his fun ones like “Chain Gang,” and “What a Wonderful World.” I like seeing his fun side come out in “Another Saturday Night” when he is, like, new in town and looking for a girl, and he just can’t meet them. Having fun trying to find girls. There’s so many others.
CP: Sam would have been something like 87 this year. What do you think he would think of the world?
ST: I don’t know! I feel like he would still have a very conscious view of things, and probably be a little cranky about The Man. Also, I feel like his takes, if you got to know him, on… You know how everyone is over-publicized now? I feel like his takes on things would probably be pretty fucking hilarious.
CP: Do you feel like he would be performing?
ST: He seems like a performer, you never know. I feel like if he was capable, he would still be on stage right now. He was made of music.
CP: He wanted to make a difference, and the world a better place.
ST: He wanted all of that, and it made him mad. His struggle as a minority in a terribly rigged- against-him system, it was real anger. It’s incredible to how he represented as a businessman, and a supporter of the arts. He fought really hard for his peers.
CP: What’s the connection between your song “Lady, You Shot Me” and Sam Cooke?
ST: It’s supposedly the last words he uttered when he got shot in a hotel lobby. There are a bunch of different accounts about what the circumstances could have been. I think he was frantically trying to find a girl, and I don’t want to suppose about what was happening. He went to the desk, he was worked up, the woman got scared, pulled a gun, and shot him. He said, “Lady, you shot me,” and he dropped dead. There is something so final, so beautiful, and also so sad about it.
CP: It’s an unexpected last phrase.
ST: Yeah, and it’s so cool, too. Honestly, it’s fucking cool. If you get shot, and those are your last words, you’re the coolest person in the world. It is also a deeper, all-encompassing statement on love, and relationships.
CP: You’ve been in music first with Calvin Krime, and Sean Na Na in the 90s, now with Har Mar Superstar. Do you have any other artists you would like to work with?
ST: I’ve always liked Stevie Wonder. He’s always there. Sade is always there. I don’t even have to make a list with the way Minneapolis music works. Justin Vernon to the Doomtree guys, Dessa, and the weirdo way everyone is connected… Low… Everyone ends up playing on each other’s stuff, or just being in the studio when it is happening. You don’t even have to try, and that is why it is such a great place to make music.
CP: So, you have a birthday coming up. [It was Wednesday, did you send a card?] This might be sensitive…
ST: It’s cool. I’m turning 40. I’m growing up. I don’t care.
CP: We’re almost 20 years into Har Mar Superstar. Is the idea still the same?
ST: Yeah, the past four or five years, it’s been pretty much all about the music. I’ll end up shirtless, and some shows are wilder than others, but it’s a show that people of all ages can enjoy. I try not to go on any rants. I used to be confrontational. It’s not like that anymore. I try to keep it emotionally at bay. It’s all about inclusion and fun. It’s cool to have this vibe, the Har Mar Superstar Sings Sam Cooke shows, to move it forward to this other place where you can bring your grandparents, and they would have a good time.
CP: So turning 40 doesn’t faze you at all?
ST: No, man! Now, it’s like, “who are the old guys?” but maybe I can help the careers of younger people who ask for advice. It’s a weird place to be.
CP: That sounds dangerously mature. Could it be a new mission statement?
ST: Yeah! I still like my shows to fun, and I like people to get wild. We’re still a party band, but with these Dakota shows, I’m like, “Bring your grandma, bring your 12-year-old, everyone’s going to have a good time, and no one is going to feel weird.”
Har Mar Superstar Sings Sam Cooke
Where: Dakota Jazz Club
When: 7 & 9:30 p.m. Sat. Feb. 10 (sold out); 6 & 9:30 p.m. Wed. Feb. 14 (later show sold out)
Tickets: $120 for early Wednesday show; more info here