Har Mar Superstar: The belly of the beast

He resembles a short, overweight porn star and he is quite prepared to strip down to his underpants to warn his adoring public about the perils of 'dialling while under the influence'. Can this one-man soul revolution defeat body fascism and create perfect pop? Har Mar Superstar is in no doubt. Garry Mulholland joins the self-appointed sex god to blaze a trail round his home-town, LA

Sunday 05 September 2004 00:00

'I'm trying to make Sunset Strip cool again." This task may turn out to be beyond the talents of Sean Tillson. Sunset Boulevard is the place the man also known as Har Mar Superstar calls home, but to LA residents, it's just a long main drag where tourists come to gawp at the sign on the hill. Nevertheless, it is the perfect place to meet a man who is on the verge of becoming a star; someone, according to Mr Superstar himself, who is set to take the new annual Justin Darkness award for Most Unlikely Pop Idol of 2004. This is also the man who is currently bouncing off the sofa of his Hollywood management office, hitting us with his best pleased-ta-meet-ya beam and announcing that "I have to eat a Mexican or I will die."

'I'm trying to make Sunset Strip cool again." This task may turn out to be beyond the talents of Sean Tillson. Sunset Boulevard is the place the man also known as Har Mar Superstar calls home, but to LA residents, it's just a long main drag where tourists come to gawp at the sign on the hill. Nevertheless, it is the perfect place to meet a man who is on the verge of becoming a star; someone, according to Mr Superstar himself, who is set to take the new annual Justin Darkness award for Most Unlikely Pop Idol of 2004. This is also the man who is currently bouncing off the sofa of his Hollywood management office, hitting us with his best pleased-ta-meet-ya beam and announcing that "I have to eat a Mexican or I will die."

But the city's Latin residents can rest easy. The El Compadre Mexican bistro on Sunset is the first stop on a Friday afternoon tour of Har Mar Superstar's fave Los Angeles haunts. Admittedly, this wheeze is not as simple as it first appears, as Tillson has only been living in LA for nine months, and confesses that his workaholic touring, recording and promo schedule means that he only returns to southern California "to eat and sleep". But Tillson's a trouper, and despite only getting two hours shut-eye the night before, happily drives us around Hollywood in his Toyota Scior, a black box-like affair that he bought "because it looks like a rollerskate".

The reason Tillson is getting the big press-trip push from his Warner Bros record label is The Handler, a new album that transforms Har Mar from a jokey figure with a vague connection to the more "ironic" parts of London's electroclash club scene, to a serious pop/R&B contender. The comedy element within Har Mar's schtick - chubby pale bloke with balding mullet behaves like irresistible sex-god, complete with Benny Hill/Carry On-style sexual innuendo - has been overtaken on The Handler by great tunes and a genuinely exciting white soul voice. There are unashamed pastiches of/tributes to his musical heroes Prince, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson and Elton John - not to mention contemporary nods to Eminem, Nelly and Missy Elliott. The wild card is a closing cover of The Most Depressing Song Of All Time, Gilbert O' Sullivan's "Alone Again, Naturally", which pretty much sums up Tillson's thin line between deadpan quality pop and slapstick kitsch. The song is performed straight, sad and lovingly, until it reaches a line about the protagonist feeling "bright and gay". Har Mar can't resist stopping everything to make a nudge-nudge musical joke on the word "gay".

"Oh man," Tillson protests, "it just had to be done. I don't want people to see me as The Comedy Guy. But I ain't gonna stop having fun. HEUGH-Ak-Ak-Akk!!!" The "HEUGH-Ak-Ak-Akk" is Tillson's most constant and occasionally off-putting verbal tic. He finishes every statement with a nervous, inappropriate, machine-gun giggle. But you get used to it, especially when cruising around Hollywood on a sweltering afternoon, listening to a CD by rootsy Eighties US punks The Replacements, while Har Mar points out Hollywood High School, the plethora of churches of Scientology, and the In-n-Out drive-in which Tillson insists do the best burgers in town.

Like The Replacements, Tillson hails originally from Minnesota. His hometown, Owatonna, is just south of St Pauls and Minneapolis, where his main influence Prince was born and raised. One of three siblings, his parents were teachers, and the young Tillson was an academic high-flier. "It's a family of over-achievers," Tillson states, a quote that has come up in many an interview. Indeed, attempts to grill him about his background hit a stone wall of friendly non-communication. "Yeah, it was a small town." "Yeah, my parents are happy as long as their kids are making a living." "No, it was just a typical childhood." As I discover later on, it's not that Tillson isn't passionate about anything or unwilling to talk. He just gives the impression that there are certain things he doesn't care to think about. Despite his affability, there's a hard-headed, "takin' care of business" attitude to him. He admits that he has time for little else, including a relationship. Although, if I didn't want to discuss my private life in public, that's what I'd say, too.

Perhaps surprisingly, it is the enduring American punk rock scene that propelled Sean Tillson towards becoming the Har Mar Superstar we are growing to know and love today. By the time the over-achiever had graduated from high school early and gone to study theatre at the Minnesota Centre for Higher Education, he'd been playing guitar and singing in punk bands since he was 13 years-old. He toured America at 17 with bands called Calvin Crime and Sean Na Na, and made two albums with each. "Sleeping in a van or on people's floors and having every band that comes to town staying with me - that's probably how I got to where I am today. I know everybody now because I'm the guy they come to stay with and I have friends in every city. Being in a band that gets too big too fast and doesn't really know anyone - then touring - would suck. For me it's just like going to see your friends every two months. People who were booking shows in basements 10 years ago are now some of the biggest bands around. We keep popping up in each other's lives constantly. That's the best part." By age 20, he was hatching a plan for a funk-based solo project, a character perhaps...

Har Mar is the name of a shopping mall in St Pauls. "It was across the street from where I worked in this office job with my dad. He became the director of the board of teaching in Minnesota so I worked with him for, like, a summer. On my lunch breaks I'd go to Har Mar mall and write lyrics, but I didn't know what to call the project yet. I'd stare at girls in the food court and laugh about being in this really shitty mall. All the first songs were about shopping and clothes and all that stupid shit. It just dawned on me one day... Har Mar Superstar, it just rolls off your tongue." So why did he tell the press that Har Mar was a play on his "real" name, Harold Marvin Tillson? "The Harold Marvin thing was just me pretending to be my brother in case the mall tried to sue me. I just lied to interviewers."

By now, we are in the deliciously dark confines of the Velvet Margarita Cantina, a Mexican restaurant-cum-bar at 1612 North Cahuenga. I truly recommend this place if you're ever in LA. They serve us astonishing pineapple margaritas - in a pineapple! And, as Tillson says, "It's totally gaudy, cheesy... It's like an amusement park in a bar." Stepping back out into the LA glare, we make two more stops. An impromptu photo-op outside legendary live metal venue The Rainbow Rooms ("My favourite night-time haunt. Metal kids know how to party!") is followed by a twisty drive up those fabled Hollywood Hills, so that Har Mar can throw shapes against the dramatic backdrop of the smog-covered sprawl of Los Angeles in "Top of the world, Ma!" style. Like I said, the guy's a pro.

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We head back to Tillson's management office to do an interview proper. Three things are worth mentioning at this point. The first is that one of my questions is answered as soon as we meet. I could have sworn that the age given on his CV, 26, was a lie after seeing him in videos and onstage. But in person, Tillson looks even younger than his age, an effect added to by his US teen "Awesome, dude!" verbal stylings.

The second is the Har Mar walk. Anyone who's seen a Har Mar show or video will be familiar with it - a head-and-shoulders-back, arse-wiggle strut that defines his "Touch me, for I am gorgeous" male model characterisation. Well, if that walk was worked up by the former theatre student, he has now become it.

And the third? No one in LA recognises him. Not even the people in the cool record store we browsed through earlier. Har Mar Superstar's very existence is, at the moment, lost on his native land. As Har Mar announces onstage in LA the following day, in reference to 2002's funky-if-half-formed You Can Feel Me album, "We're gonna play an oldie... which none of you will know 'cos only 6,000 people in this country bought my last album."

He's very aware that The Handler, which is co-written and produced by Pink collaborator John Fields, and features guests including Karen O of Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Michael Bland of Prince's NPG backing band, Pete Thomas of Elvis Costello's Attractions, and, um, Holly Valance, ups the Har Mar ante considerably. It's on a different musical level than You Can Feel Me and his self-titled debut (a primitive affair which came out on legendary riot grrl label Kill Rock Stars, which gives you some clue about Tillson's real attitude to women behind the horny dog-isms).

The marvellous Jackson Five-tribute first single "DUI" is not about drunk-driving, but dialling under the influence, which Tillson, reclining therapeutically on a sofa, reckons is "something we've all done, and something that has wrecked more than one relationship for me. And started some that should never have started."

I wonder if any of Har Mar's US punk network, worked up over five years of constant gigging, are annoyed with Tillson for going for the mainstream pop high-ground. "Yeah. And anyone who says I'm selling out I'd tell to fuck off, because I wanna eat steaks and own a house. I don't think indie ethics are gonna get anyone anywhere. Jealousy happens everywhere on every level. Someone doesn't make it as fast as you and all of a sudden you're the bad guy - the butt of the joke. Sorry, but I'm not as insecure as you guys so I'm not gonna sit and wallow. If someone gets successful, it's reason to celebrate. It's not like there's only room for one band to get huge. I don't really understand that mentality - when people get competitive about their bands. You guys are just making each other less pertinent instead of uniting and making each other bigger."

Tillson doesn't care to be aligned with the recent breed of successful "funny" bands - The Darkness, Tenacious D, Electric Six. ("I don't think those bands have much of a shelf-life, do you?"). "I'd rather be seen as coming from an art school background than pop. I want to make and sing pop but also have complex levels to my persona. I wanna go on CD:UK and Top of the Pops and say exactly what I think. Not play along and pretend I like Peter Andre videos. Somebody needs to do that so I'm just gonna do that myself. Anytime you speak out the crowd generally goes with you."

Not a world-changing ambition, admittedly. But there is a subversive element to Har Mar Superstar, and it revolves almost entirely around Tillson's timely assault on body fascism. The comedy of watching a plump, five-foot-five man with bad hair gyrating in a thong/jockey shorts/greying Y-fronts (he uses all three in different shows and videos) is undercut by Tillson's deadpan belief that he is irresistible to the women in the audience. By the end of a Har Mar show, everyone realises they're laughing at themselves, rather than at Tillson. It's an extraordinary trick.

"The first couple of times girls ripped my clothes off and we started to make out, it was, 'This is screwed up, but awesome!' Then I began to expect the admiration, which is kinda screwed up too. HEUGH-Ak-Ak-Akk! I thought, this is easy... might as well do it for 'em. I started wearing more elaborate stage clothes and I didn't wanna ruin 'em in the middle of a tour - I sweat a lot - so, out of basic necessity... But I've never stepped back and thought, I shouldn't be doing this."

Is it a deliberate assault on the cultural obsession with the "perfect" body? "Yeah. And from the reaction I get from girls I don't think it's unwelcome. People are ready for it. Take your shirt off, who cares? Why does everybody need to look the same? I don't care what other people look like... unless they're hot girls I wanna have sex with. HEUGH-Ak-Ak-Akk! But hot's a very general term in my world. I don't have one type, like skinny or something. I like 'em all. People should just accept bodies and it's up to me to shove it in people's faces. Everyone who's grossed out is probably grossed out 'cos they have exactly the same belly underneath their shirt and don't wanna show it. Because they're pussies."

Almost every feature about Har Mar mentions his resemblance to Ron Jeremy, a hardcore porn star notable for having a huge penis and being extremely unattractive. Har Mar has got rid of his Jeremy moustache, but, well, he really does look like him on the videos.

"Yeah, it's annoying. It sucks. He's really ugly. Thanks. He hasn't done anything. He's had a lot of sex, he's got a big dick, who cares? He's kind of an asshole. But soon people will be going up to him and saying, 'You're like Har Mar Superstar', 'cos I'm gonna be way more famous than he ever will be."

Phase one of the Har Mar global awareness campaign began last year, when Tillson fronted a Vladivar vodka ad campaign based around Har Mar's male model persona. Presumably, considering his dismissal of indie ethics, Tillson didn't have any qualms about selling out? "Nah, I don't have any problem with that at all. The only time I question it is when I remember that Bill Hicks thought that if you do commercials you're shit. But wait - Bill Hicks is dead. And I don't know him. So why do I give a damn?"

The reference to the late Bill Hicks, the counter-culture's favourite cult Texan stand-up, is a bit of a giveaway. The nature of Hicks's material and appeal hinges on a "you're with me or against me" anti-establishment stance, and the fact that Har Mar knows Hicks's legendary rant about doing adverts being akin to "sucking Satan's scaly pecker" means he does think about integrity, despite bullishly claiming it's all about "eating steaks and buying a house". Indeed, his most passionate response isn't made about his appearance as Dancing Rick in the recent Starsky and Hutch movie ("I definitely intend to do more acting"), but comes when I ask if he's going to vote in the next presidential election. "Of course I'm voting. For Kerry. Whoever isn't Bush, who stands a chance to win. I don't really think there's any reason to go kill a bunch of women and children for your own personal vendettas, oil companies and the inner workings of your family ... But I'd never vote for a Republican. I've never agreed with one. There are cool ones, but they never run for office."

Tillson is also fearless about biting hands that might feed him in the future. He was recently hired to write a hit for Jennifer Lopez... "Oh, they gave me a week to do it, and I wrote it, and it was really dirty. I was basically making fun of her, so they didn't use it. That song was really hard 'cos she has no personality and her voice sucks. So there's a three-note range you can use and nothing you can sing about. Not left with a whole lot to work with. But if it was, like, Jamelia, if people are cool and want to work with me, then I'd love to write with or for them. If they can hang, and they're fellow Handlers, then they should come handle." I ask him about the oddest Har Mar quote, made to this very paper over a year ago. It is unusual, is it not, for a budding global stud to "not care for penetrative sex"? "Oh yeah. There was a point where I didn't like it. I got over that, though. It was a long phase. I was just afraid that girls would get crazy clingy." So you had a fear of commitment? "Yeah. Didn't want to send a wrong message. Which probably sent an even worse one." But you also admitted you were bisexual in the same interview. "But everybody is, though. To a degree. You might not act on it. I don't think I'd go around saying I was bi. But I made out with dudes at school. It's all par for the course. HEUGHHEUGH-Ak-Ak-Akk!"

All this brings me to an obvious final question. Is Har Mar - the self-adoring, materialist, ambitious, thick-skinned hedonist and R&B-loving hetero sex-god - a face that Sean Tillson - arty, academic, anti-Bush, feminist, bi-curious and nervy punk rocker - keeps in a jar by the door? Are you just acting a character? "At one point I was. But I was way more over-the-top ... and cocky, because nobody knew who I was. But I gave up on the persona thing, because people know now what they're going to get. This is how I am. I lay around and I'm pretty mellow. But when it's time to get onstage I just, like, rock out. I don't think there's any separation anymore. I don't get into character before I get onstage. I just act how I feel."

The following evening, at the Sunset Junction Street Fair in Silverlake, LA, Har Mar Superstar feels good. He plays a set, backed by John Fields and Michael Bland on bass and drums, that transforms a few hundred punk/hippie/student/gay alternative onlookers from bemused gawkers to seduced fans within 30 brilliant minutes. Dressed in red, white and blue flares and green jockey shorts, he once again undercuts the initial comic impact by singing and dancing with genuine flair, even managing to croon sexily while doing a headstand on "E-Z Pass".

But the finest moment comes during "DUI", when he takes his remote control mic and zigzags through the crowd - never missing a note - does part of the song standing on the sound stage at the back, and then zigzags back toward the stage. He's heading straight for me, and the crowd parts, but one very sexy woman stands her ground. He takes his cue and makes a bee-line for her, covered in sweat. She dances with him for a second, and then produces a $20 bill from her pocket, puts it between her teeth, bends down to a suggestive angle... and pushes the note into the waistband of those ludicrous green jockey shorts. Har Mar bounces away to finish the song, and the woman is engulfed by female friends, congratulating her for doing it, giggling somewhat hysterically.

The world's most unlikely male stripper has come to make you stuff your hard-earned moolah down his sweaty pants. His name is Sean, and he is funky. In more ways than one.

'The Handler' is reviewed on page 24. Har Mar tours the UK from 25 Sept. See www.harmarsuperstar.com for more details

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