It was 2013, and I found myself in the city of Glasgow. It was an unusually warm Sunday in the month of May. I was alone in a strange new place. I wandered its unfamiliar and uncompromising streets, questioning the decision to make a new start for myself.
This story begins as so many often do, with heartbreak. Now, whilst the remedy to cure such emotional turmoil may never be known, the popular and somewhat temporary solution seems to involve moving as far away as possible from that situation. So that is exactly what I did.
Try as I did, I found it difficult to occupy my mind. So many questions and thoughts replaying in my mind like a bad film, plaguing and haunting me with every step. Now, If I was Ernest Hemingway, I would have simply drunk the days away on good rum, talked about the merits of bullfighting, perhaps gone hunting, wrote a novel, sailed a boat and found solace in the arms of a beautiful woman. That seemed to work for him. Alas, as you have already guessed, I am no Hemingway. So it was with that stark realisation, that I went in search of my own remedy for my woes.
As the sun beat down, I made my way into an old, battered and bruised record shop, the best kind: vintage and retro posters covering the walls, vinyl, CDs, and tapes restlessly waiting to be discovered, as the sounds of Donovan drifted through the air. The smell of old magazines and coffee reigned supreme, I breathed it in, furrowing my brow as I began searching through the vast array of music; Chet Baker, Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, they don’t make them like that anymore I muttered to myself, before walking aimlessly down an endless corridor of sleeve covers. It was at that moment, it caught my eye instantly, ‘Har Mar Superstar Bye Bye 17.’ The artwork in hypnotising red, yellows and blues, slapped me across the face. I picked it up and looked at the song listings, ‘Lady You Shot Me, Prisoner, Late Night Morning Light, We Don’t Sleep.’ Have you ever just picked up something, and instantly you just know it’s meant for you? That’s what it felt like.
Har Mar Superstar started as a solo, modern pop R&B side-project for Sean Tillmann-Hauser in 1999. I recall, that I had once upon a time watched him live on TV, giving an all-action, power-induced performance, which had always stuck in my mind. Maybe that’s why I subconsciously gravitated towards the album.
I left the store and began negotiating my way through the busy streets, bought myself a coffee, and found my way back to my car. I drove through the city until I found the motorway, and carried on until I left it behind and reached quiet, desolate and secluded country roads. I put the window down, felt the heat beat down and rest against the side of my face.
I slid Bye Bye 17 into the CD player, pressed play, and turned up the volume. BANG!! it hits you straight away. Picking you up and carrying you back to the days of Atlantic Records and Motown. It shakes your hand and welcomes you to a world of Otis Reading, Stevie Wonder, and Sam Cooke. It is an explosion of brass horns, and funky baselines. A kaleidoscope of beautiful, old-fashioned music, driven by devastating vocals. They grab you by the heart and take you on a journey from the opening lyrics: ‘Lady You Shot Me. On top of all the tears, you brought me. You broke my one rule, you treated me cruel. Now I lay bleeding, it’s just your love that I’m needing. What else can I do if you are untrue.’
The album of ten songs, clocking in at just under 30 minutes, gives you funk, soul, jazz, blues and everything in between. As I would discover, it’s not just an album for a drive in the remote arms of country roads on a warm spring day. Neither is it an album just for the morning, afternoon, evening, or nighttime. It’s an album for all time. It is a rollercoaster, that passes by in the blink of an eye. I first listened to this album at a time when I was in the depths of despair, and it carried me out of that funk, and into a year of adventure and exploration. I listened to it whilst on road trips across the UK, Barcelona, Poland, and walking the streets of Havana. In many ways, it became the soundtrack to a period of my life that I now remember so fondly. Now, all these years later, I dance to it with my 18-month daughter around the kitchen.
10 years have passed since Bye Bye 17 was released and in my opinion, it remains a classic. ‘We must’ve been psychically connected in some way at the time because I was very much in the same headspace. Starting over and breaking out of a rut was definitely the unofficial theme of the album.’ Sean tells me, as he sits down with The Atlantic Dispatch. ‘I can’t believe it’s been 10 years already. It seems like yesterday and 100 years ago at the same time. I was in a very uncertain place when I made the album, both personally and professionally.’
Bye Bye 17, was a departure from Sean’s previous records, which as it happens, are criminally underrated. Songs like Body Request and Cut Me Up on his album The Handler, have more character and energy to them than most pop stars masquerading as musicians today could dream of mustering up. Bye Bye 17, perhaps displayed his full range of talent, from searing vocals to confident and vulnerable lyrics, allowing people to see a different side of him. Each song has its own personality, from the hypnotising and effortlessly beautiful, ‘Everywhere I’m Local’ to the upbeat funk of ‘We Don’t Sleep.’ This month marks ten years since the album was released, and it t was a pleasure to catch up with Sean as we looked back on Bye Bye 17.
LOOKING BACK IT WAS A PRETTY MAGICAL TIME
I can’t believe it’s been 10 years already. It seems like yesterday and 100 years ago at the same time. I was in a very uncertain place when I made the album, both personally and professionally. I wrote the songs as I was leaving LA after living there for 8 years. I was making my way across the country moving to Brooklyn, and I stopped in Austin, TX to record/finish writing the album at Public Hi-Fi with Jim Eno from Spoon. I had purged all of my personal belongings and only took what would fit in my car. It was simultaneously very freeing and scary feeling.
Bye Bye 17 means so much to me. I was always obsessed with the music of Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Kool and the Gang, and I had just discovered Betty Davis’s dirty funk albums. Before I made the move, I remember sitting in a hotel room in Portland that had a record player and a copy of Sam Cooke’s greatest hits next to it. I took a bath while listening to the collection and cried my eyes out, awkwardly getting out to flip it over three or four times. A bunch of us had flown out to do a Gayngs show in PDX. Later that night, Ryan Olson and I found a Sam Cooke documentary and watched it in his room with a few friends. We were all bawling together by the end, and I was so moved that I went back to my room and wrote the song “Lady, You Shot Me” that night. Those were Sam Cooke’s last words.
That was the impetus I needed. I was feeling stalled out and trapped by my party boy persona, and I suddenly found the voice I’d been looking for inside myself to start a new chapter. Bye Bye 17 was the first Har Mar album I wrote on guitar and piano mostly by myself. I turned inward and let myself be honest and emotional. It felt like I was channelling the oldies radio of my youth. I connected with songs that had been background music my whole life, and as I explored them further I understood them in a deeper way. The album kind of just flowed out after that. At one point, Adam Green and I traded lives for a month. He moved into my place in LA to write his album, Minor Love, and I moved into his old place in Gramercy Park to write the rest of Bye Bye 17. I love him dearly.
“I was feeling stalled out and trapped by my party boy persona, and I suddenly found the voice I’d been looking for inside myself to start a new chapter.”— Sean Tillmann-Hauser
The old-school Soul sound felt like a big risk, but it felt so right that I kept forging on. I had many conversations with labels that wanted to release the album, but most people wanted me to start over with a new band or project name. At that point, I was already 33, and I felt like I could pull off a complete career makeover without scrapping everything I’d built for years. Luckily, my old friend Julian Casablancas was starting Cult Records at the time, and he introduced me to Shawn Everett. We all put our trust in each other, and the album took on a life of its own as Shawn mixed the album in a closet-sized room upstairs from Strand Book Store. Looking back, it was a pretty magical time.
THEY ALL HAVE MEANING TO ME
I believe Bye Bye 17 may be my best record, but it really is like trying to compare your kids to each other. Each album I make is a time capsule of period of my life, and sometimes I go back and listen to them to recapture a feeling I may have lost. They all have a place in my personal evolution, and for that reason they all have meaning to me. Listening back to the early electro pop of You Can Feel Me brings me back to living in London and a wild summer in Ibiza. The Handler is a chronicle of my move to LA and the excitement of feeling accepted and valued as an artist. Dark Touches is a pastiche of hundreds of pop songwriting sessions during my later years in LA. Best Summer Ever chronicles my years in New York, and Roseville represents my return home to Minneapolis through an AM gold lens. They’re all building blocks and reactions to each other in some way.
YOU’VE GOT TO EMBRACE EVERY HAIRSTYLE AND FASHION CHOICE
I honestly can’t believe I was able to make Bye Bye 17 as it turned out, and I’m extremely proud of it. When I hear a song from it out of context it hits me the same as any other old soul record I used to hear in the back of my parent’s station wagon when I was a kid. When I realize it’s my own song, I snap out of the beautiful daydream and proverbially high-five myself, a little sheepishly.
Those moments are weird as you become an older artist with many records under your belt. It feels like someone dropping your high school yearbook in your lap. In the best way possible. You’ve got to embrace every hairstyle and fashion choice, however unfortunate or beautiful they may be. Right now, “Late Night Morning Light” stands out in my mind as a favourite track on the album. It captures a yearning, awkwardness, and desperation I think most people can identify with. “Lady, You Shot Me” will forever be my show closer and full power moment though. That was a moment I really felt like I was driving the car with confidence.
THERE WILL ALSO BE MAGIC IN THOSE MOMENTS
I think there is a ton of great music being made, and a lot of it is timeless in a very smart way. In that regard, I think Bye Bye 17 still hangs in there. That said, my ratio of hours listening to podcasts and comedy versus music is about 20 to 1 at this point.
I’m honestly not really sure there is a music scene currently. Everyone entered their own time zone during the pandemic, especially those of us who’ve been there and done that a million times over. Many of us still collaborate and support each other, but we all grew up and entered our own lanes. It’s a nice place to arrive at. I do still love the occasional all-nighter collaborating at a studio though. There will always be magic in those moments.
I’ve just recently started playing shows again which feels great. I plan to hit the road in more measured, short, and intentional jaunts. My days of playing 200 shows a year are definitely behind me, but I’ll definitely still make the rounds and play a town near y’all in the next year or two.
My latest album, Roseville, just came out in 2021, and I haven’t played it out live too much yet. It’s another one of my favorite albums I’ve ever made, so it’s been fun working those songs into a “greatest hits” style set. I’m always recording to some degree, but I don’t have any plans to release anything new just yet. Mostly I’m in the middle writing a couple different ideas for stage/screen musicals and enjoying a chill life with my wife and two little Yorkies.
As my time with Sean comes to an end, I reflect on the last ten years. A lot has changed since those days, but I can still remember walking into that record shop as if it was yesterday; driving on the motorway and playing Bye Bye 17 for the first time. Although time has moved on, that memory will always remain the same, and this evening I’ll play it once more; ‘Prisoner’, ‘Restless Leg’, ‘We Don’t Sleep’, and it will take me back to all those years ago.
Thanks for the time and kindness of Sean Tillmann-Hauser.