Sean Tillmann recalls back in the 1990s — early in his career as a performer and half his lifetime ago — rocking out at The Warehouse with his band, a noise rock trio called Calvin Krime. Tillmann played bass and sang lead in the band, which had a recording deal with Amphetamine Reptile Records, but record deal or no, the band didn’t make much of a splash in La Crosse.
“Nobody knew who we were, so there were 10 people there,” Tillmann said with a laugh. “It wasn’t a shocker.”
Tillmann has since gone on to much bigger things, recording a dozen albums and performing all over the world, including touring Australia with the Red Hot Chili Peppers and hitting the road with The Strokes on the tour when its debut album exploded.
“That was huge for me,” Tillmann said of touring with The Strokes, noting that this was in the days before social media and streaming audio, so bands had more mystique. “It was cool to tour with them, with the glory and the growing pains of all that. It was my ‘Almost Famous’ moment, being along for the ride.”
Since his Calvin Krime days, Tillmann also has written songs for stars including Jennifer Lopez and Kelly Osbourne, written and performed with Macaulay Culkin in his band, The Pizza Underground, and has had movie roles in “Whip It,” “Pitch Perfect” and “Starsky and Hutch.” Oh, and he has a podcast, “Nocturnal Emotions,” on which he conducts laugh-filled interviews with musicians, actors and artists, mainly focusing on embarrassing moments.
His successful music career, of course, hinged on leaving his noise rock days behind him. And these days, he might be better known as Har Mar Superstar.
Tillmann returns to La Crosse on March 3 for a Har Mar Superstar show at the Cavalier Theater, with Milwaukee’s Ggoolldd opening the show with it’s unique brand of dance pop. When it was first starting, Ggoolldd opened for Har Mar Superstar when he played Milwaukee, but the next time he went back, Ggoolldd had top billing, thanks to the big following the band had built.
“Their show is awesome,” Tillmann said.
Since launching Har Mar Superstar in 2001, Tillmann has spent about a dozen years living in New York and Los Angeles, but he moved back to the Twin Cities about a year ago, just before releasing his most recent album, “Best Summer Ever,” an eclectic collection of new songs billed as “The Greatest Hits of Har Mar Superstar from 1950-1985.”
That’s an indication of the humor Tillmann brings to the table. He admits Har Mar Superstar started as kind of a joke side project through which he could indulge his love of soul, R&B and pop. “It started off more tongue-in-cheek,” Tillmann said. “I didn’t expect it to take off.”
The thing is, his singing and songwriting are no joke. As a vocalist, he can hold his own with certified superstars like the late George Michael, whom he saluted recently with a recording of “One More Try,” done with supergroup, Gayngs, which has a couple dozen members including Justin Vernon of Bon Iver.
But as seriously as he takes his singing, his stage show has its quirks. He’s known for shedding clothing as the show goes on, though he said these days he doesn’t show as much skin as he used to. That part of his show has its roots in a practical concern: sweat and its damaging effect on expensive clothing.
“Really, it started as a way to preserve my stage clothes,” he said.
One of the best things about the success he’s had, Tillmann explained, is he now has connections with other musicians who can help him fully flesh out his songs in the recording studio, particularly on the last two, “Best Summer Ever” and its predecessor, “Bye Bye 17,” which he called his most fully realized albums.
Tillmann doesn’t have to worry about only 10 people showing up to watch him perform anymore, but he also doesn’t suffer overwhelmingly from the crush of celebrity. He’s been in a good groove with his career. “I’m always kind of at this point where I’ve never gone too far over the top getting popular where I can’t go back, luckily,” he said. “I’m always on the verge of something, and I like it there.”