Tofu and Whiskey Furry, greased-up man child Har Mar Superstar — the singer-songwriter who's become known as the R&B Ron Jeremy — is changing his act. Sorta. He still gets sweaty at his live shows, so naturally he will shed a few layers of clothing.
"I just don't need to take off my pants anymore because people focus on that too much," he tells me from a tour stop in Philadelphia. The tour kicked off with a few supporting slots with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, stopped by his spiritual home base of Minneapolis for Har Mar Superstar Day, as declared by Mayor R.T. Rybak, and swings through San Francisco next week (Tue/15, 8:30pm, $12. Bottom of the Hill, 1233 17th St, SF. www.bottomofthehill.com).
But the real maturing of Minnesota-bred, New York-based Har Mar, aka Sean Tillmann, can be heard on new record Bye Bye 17 (Cult Records). On it, Har Mar glides gracefully from old school soul on "Lady, You Shot Me" to doo-wop on "www" to Beck-worthy retro funk on "We Don't Sleep." It's all a far cry from raunchy earlier beat-based releases like cult Beth Ditto collaboration "Power Lunch."
The hooky "www" takes place in San Francisco, and has a melancholy story beneath the shimmy-worthy riffs. Opening the song, he croons "woe is me/I missed another opportunity/another day gone/another day older."
"I was thinking about that documentary The Bridge, about all those people from all over the place who travel to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge...It made me think about San Francisco, making a pilgrimage there to die. When I found myself thinking about it more, the sentiment of it is so...there's something about suicide that's so selfish that you have to slap yourself out of those thoughts."
The album, rooted in grainy production and endless pop hooks, was recorded with Spoon's Jim Eno, and released through Julian Casablancas' (the Strokes) record label, Cult Records. Har Mar had been wanting to work with Eno for years, having met him more than a decade before at Eno's show in Milwaukee on Thanksgiving. Har Mar was in town to spend the holiday at his mom's house so he brought Thanksgiving leftovers for the band to the show, and they've been friends ever since.
Bye Bye 17 — the title of which is meant to convey "a rebirth into weird musical manhood" for the 34-year-old — takes Har Mar's voice and backs it with powerful horns, Eno's masterful drumming, and swinging guitar.
"I hadn't written an album on guitar for Har Mar, and I wanted to try that," says Har Mar. "And I thought it was time to write an album for my voice, more than just picking cool beats and writing songs around them, which I used to do."
But despite the sonic shifts on Bye Bye 17, Har Mar's funkified voice has been there all along: he's always had the pipes to back up the sound. It was just packaged differently than one might expect, with a beer belly, which seemed to throw people. On previous records like 2002's You Can Feel Me and 2009's Dark Touches, that vocal gift was layered thick with ultra-sexuality which often translated into hipster irony for the lazy masses. Though it was still totally fun party music, regardless. And that sensibility remains.
It's where the Har Mar character started, way back in the early 2000s, with a desperate urge to continue the party. Before Har Mar, Tillman was the bassist and lead singer of noise band Calvin Krime in the late '80s, following that up with Kill Rock Stars pop act Sean Na Na. When he was on tour with Sean Na Na, he often played with fellow KRS acts like Bangs and Gossip, and he claims the best part of the night would often be the after-parties, at which Tillman and all the girls would dance and sing along to songs like TLC's "No Scrubs."