In the seven years that Lebowski Fest has paid fanboy homage to 1998 cult comedy The Big Lebowski, the event has grown from a Louisville, Kentucky, party into an R-rated road show of goofy indulgence. As attendees trade barbs devised by the Coen brothers, White Russians will be consumed, bowling balls will be tongued and tossed, and the likelihood of hearing the word "dude" lobbed around will reach an astounding high. Dressing up is encouraged: There will be beards, bathrobes, hunting jackets, and Viking gear (that last one is intended for the females). Yeah, viewings of the movie are scheduled, too, but why rewatch a silver-screen Walter Sobchak when you could hang out with a stranger dressed just like him?
Nowhere is the jolly excess of the fest more apparent than in the selection of R&B jester Har Mar Superstar as this tour leg's marquee musical act. At first, the choice is puzzling: What's an overweight guy in briefs singing about drunk dialing have to do with a film whose soundtrack boasted Captain Beefheart, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Townes Van Zandt? By the time the pudgy charmer nails his first falsetto, the epiphany has hit: It's the absurdity of Har Mar's performances, not his music, that makes an excellent choice to lead the revelry. He is a man so dedicated to his kitsch that he created his own character. In a better universe, this Seventies-esque holdover would be shoehorned into a Lebowski rewrite; in the meantime, his camp bridges the fictional and the flesh-and-blood.
Har Mar Superstar is the dance-floor-ready alter ego of Minnesotan Sean Tillman. With a history that includes punk/noise-rock projects Sean Na Na and Calvin Krime, Tillman crafted his flamboyant persona around 2000. Copping two-thirds of his new moniker from the name of a local mall, Har Mar was a response to what Tillman felt was a humorlessness that was saturating music around the late 1990s. "I realized that people want to dance more than they want to hear people cry about their emotional problems," he said. "I wanted to have some fun and play the music that I actually listen to." The material in question turned out to be sexualized R&B brimming with come-ons, the kind exemplified by Stevie Wonder and R. Kelly. The difference between Har Mar and his pop inspirations is that Tillman turns the shtick tongue-in-cheek.
The music and character are intimately linked elements; absorbing one without the other lessens the overall enjoyability. Amidst snappy beats and shimmering production, Har Mar alternates between a high-pitched post-Bee Gees call and raplike inflections. He sings about BDSM ("Cut Me Up"), provocative business clothing ("Power Lunch"), and public transportation ("EZ Pass").
Most of Har Mar's performances find him shirtless or pantsless. When he does wear clothes, a vest with tassels is likely to be involved. A cursory Google search reveals more about his theatrics: Live shots show him gyrating, putting a mike to the mouth of an E.T. puppet, and looking befuddled as a dollar bill sticks to his chest hair.
The low-key offstage Tillman contrasts Har Mar's buoyant, anything-goes showmanship. While polite, the musician is reserved and keeps the conversation sparse and mostly nonspecific. (His personal MySpace page reveals a crucial detail: "I like playing music. I hate talking about it.") He emphasizes that Har Mar is an instinctual character, not something that he has ever given much thought to. "I think I was more inspired by bad performers," as opposed to good performers, he added, electing not to name names (there isn't one in particular). His reason for performing barely clothed is so practical that it takes a bit of the humor away: "Stage clothes are expensive and they get ruined if you sweat in them too much. It made sense to take them off." Are the delights of Har Mar still foreign to some? "Oh yeah, there's tons of people that still don't get it," Tillman said with a laugh. "I don't think about that, really."
After going on Har Mar hiatus following 2004's The Handler, Tillman's recent return will be accompanied by October's Dark Touches. The material available from the album thus far is indisputably Har Mar. The slithering "Creative Juices" finds him name-dropping R.E.M., Grace Slick, Gray Goose, The Golden Girls, Patrick Swayze, and Walker: Texas Ranger. "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is thumping club fun. "There's a lot of straight-up pop," Tillman noted of Touches. "It's all over the map."
While Har Mar's Lebowski Fest run won't mark his debut at the event (he played a Seattle date a year or two ago), he's looking forward to his performance. "I leave it open-ended so I can explore on stage," he said. "There's not anything spectacular [like] fireworks lined up, but I am sure some weird shit is going to happen."