Earlier this summer, Heart Bones (Har Mar Superstar’s Sean Tillmann and A Giant Dog’s Sabrina Ellis) announced a run of summer tour dates in support of the singles “Disappearer,” “Little Dancer” and “This Time It’s Different.” Inspired by their favorite classic duos such as Nancy Sinatra/Lee Hazelwood, Serge Gainsbourg/Jane Birkin, Sonny & Cher, and Sam & Dave, the duo draws from doo wop, classic duets, musical theater, electro dance and melancholy pop.
They perform with Good Fuck at 8 p.m. on Thursday, July 11, at the Beachland Tavern. The concert is part of Independent Venue Week, an event that celebrates indie venues around the country.
In a recent conference call, Tillmann, who’s based in Minneapolis, and Ellis, who’s based in Austin, spoke the band and the current tour.
What were your first impressions of one another when you initially met?
Ellis: We met before ever touring together. Sean was at what he claims was his fifth A Giant Dog show. I got off stage really sweaty. I see him waltz back stage and walk right up to me. He said, “We need to talk.” I thought, “Oh no. Am I being served? Who is this person?” He asked if my band could tour with Har Mar Superstar. I was stoked about it. When we went on tour together in 2016, those were my first experiences of seeing Sean on stage. I was just captivated.
Tillmann: Mine goes back a little further. I’ve been a fan of A Giant Dog. I’ve seen them play all over Austin. I feel like every time I was there for a festival or a show, they’d be playing down the street. I’d be jealous of their show and go. Sabrina is one of my favorite front people ever. When we were finally on tour together, we would sing a couple of songs together at the end of my set. Sabrina would come up and the energy was really fun and our voices sounded good together. We realized we had to try to write some songs.
You both share over-the-top showmanship. Talk about how you’ve achieved that.
Ellis: Mine is a defense mechanism.
Tillmann: Mine is a reaction to seeing shows that could’ve been more exciting and entertaining myself. I try to put on a show I would want to see. And on tour is the only time I get any exercise, so I try to make the most of it.
Ellis: I’m introverted in real life and I was picked on for how awkward I was. I didn’t say much and when I did it was some non sequitur. I started realizing that if I could entertain people, it gave me an at-times false sense of acceptance. It just became second nature.
Tillmann: I’m from the same vein but more of an overt ham as a kid. Once I got one laugh, I would repeat the joke until it wasn’t funny anymore.
Ellis: I’ve been around Sean’s family a bit during my travels to Minneapolis, and he’s always cracking them up as well, so I can tell it goes way back.
Tillmann: We weird.
What kind of challenges did the physical distance between you present?
Tillman: I don’t think that’s affected it too much. We just set aside some time. I find myself in Austin a lot. Sabrina is considered a Minneapolitan at this point. If I’m going to make a record, I pick some dates and do it.
Ellis: Sean gets in hyper-focus. We’re always traveling anyway whether it’s together or separately. It feels so natural.
Tillman: Now, we can finally play some shows that pay for our airfare.
Ellis: We can stop busking in front of the airport.
Talk about your musical influences and the classic duos that you want to emulate.
Tillman: I’ve always liked two voices together. There’s something about two great voices combined that’s really magical. It was an exciting process to co-write with somebody who sings really well. There’s something unbeatable about that. In making records, I feel like I end up focusing on this solo vision and it’s nice to have two points of view.
Ellis: Collaborating for me always feels like growth. It’s like cross-training and it stretches my abilities. Sean is an incredible singer. He also has patience with me when we’re forming an idea. It’s sometimes challenging to communicate when you’re working on ideas that are emotional and you’re excited. I’m not the best guitar player. When it’s time to show the framework of a new song, I often a have a panic attack. It’s been great to be with Sean and the musicians we’ve put together. It’s such a good working environment.
Tillmann: Sabrina is so good at coming with a formed idea that comes from her soul. I write songs like that too. I can envision where it’s going when she plays a snippet for me. We’re ridiculously fast at finishing a couple of verses and a chorus. When we sit down and focus, we get so much done.
Ellis: We had our first writing session in April of 2018, and we have a finished album we’re sitting on.
Your voices blend together really well in “This Time Is Different.” Talk a bit about your approach to that song.
Tillman: That’s the first song we wrote together.
Ellis: I started stretching through my pone recordings for some frameworks and found this snippet of a chord progression that sounded really dance-y. Sean closed his eyes and leaned back and this beautiful melody came out of his mouth. It sounded like everything mixed together. It sounded like Backstreet Boys meets Joni Mitchell. It was a beautiful coming together.
Tillmann: It was. It was obvious for me to go with gender role reversal right away. I wanted to do it now because I didn’t want to do it for every song. It was the obvious thing to address.
Ellis: I wasn’t surprised by that at all. Your performance style is very non-binary. As a person, you’re sensitive as well as extremely efficient.
Tillmann: I’ve written from that voice, and it just felt like the right place to go. It’s a classic “find the problem, fix the problem” thing. It’s a good song conceit, though I don’t think we were going that heavy.
“Little Dancer” features some great synthesizer riffs. Were you going for an ’80s feel on that one?
Ellis: We had a couple of songs that we had written before forming the band that we traded with each other. That was one that turned out to have this ’80s vibe. It’s definitely a dance song. It doesn’t have any changes. It has this static beat that I hoped would make people want to dance. They lyrics are very personal and detailed about change and insecurity and escapism and we throw a bit of obsession compulsion in there. It’s very ’80s.
“Disappearer” is a great break-up tune. Talk about the inspiration for it.
Ellis: It’s based on a friendship. It sounds like a break-up song but it’s based on a friendship that felt exciting but that person ghosted out. It’s a common thing that happens when you have friendships with other artists who are really busy as well. It feels a heartbreak when it goes. This was a sassy little rant about it.
Tillmann: I was trying to write from both standpoints. Musically, I wanted to make a song that had elements of the Association. They’re one of my favorite bands, so went for the big choral chorus.
Ellis: That song hops genres and I remember being excited about that. Sometimes, we worry about genre and sometimes the excitement and the ADHD of new inspiration will take you into different territories and you think you have to rein it in. That was a lesson for me. I wanted to starte with this crazy rave hip-hop intro and it turns into a girl group thing and then gets psychedelic and beautiful.
Tillmann: I could see Destiny’s Child doing the verses and the Association doing the choruses.
What will the live show be like?
Tillmann: There’s a band. We have three amazing people in the back holding it down. They play in the Har Mar band too. They bring to life these crazy electronic- and rock-influenced things that become something bigger. It’s all about energy.
Ellis: It’s like a dance off. It’s not competitive, but there’s a challenge element when I see Sean do something. To dance through these songs with the energy and as well as focus on hitting the noes, that’s all I can do. It becomes really meditative. It makes my mind clearer.
Tillmann: We have a full album’s worth of stuff now and it’s pretty much all originals but maybe a cover here and there. We do a throwback to our original tour idea which was to do the entire Dirty Dancing soundtrack. We’ve held onto “Hungry Eyes.”
Heart Bones, Good Fuck, 8 p.m. Thursday, July 11, Beachland Tavern, 15711 Waterloo Rd., 216-383-1124. Tickets: $15, beachlandballroom.com
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