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Tilly and the Wall: Put on your dancing shoes

story by tim mcmahan



Lazy-i: October 29, 2003

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You can tell just by watching Omaha band Tilly and the Wall take the stage that you're in for something completely different.

All five members walk right up front -- there is no drummer and only one person is slinging a guitar. A pretty, dark-haired girl deftly steps atop a specially constructed and microphoned wooden box. All share a knowing glance, grinning as if they just did something terribly lewd in 8th-period study hall.

Then, the woman on the box begins dancing, her tap shoes slapping out the only rhythm this band needs. At first it's cute, but when the guitar breaks in, the keyboard begins its see-saw glow, and their voices join together on the harmonies, you can't help but grin yourself. Tilly and the Wall has drawn you into their self-styled talent show, and you just know who is gonna win.

"I don't want to answer when people ask me what instrument I play," said tap-dancer / percussionist Jamie Williams, completely oblivious to the fact that she has single-handedly added tap as a viable instrument to the indie rock landscape. "A lot of people have said they heard about it and thought it was a gimmick. They tend to pass judgment quickly. But after they watch and listen to our music, it speaks for itself."



It's not the first time Williams has donned tap shoes in a band. She put on the clappers as a member of Park Ave., a now-legendary project that included Bright Eyes' mastermind Conor Oberst, The Faint's Clarke Baechle and fellow Tilly and the Wall member singer/percussionist Neely Jenkins. Another tap-supported band was Magic Kiss, a combo that included Tilly percussionist/vocalist Kianna Alarid.

"After Magic Kiss broke up, Kianna and I were still writing songs and I wanted to do something with Neely," Williams said.

Enter old friends guitarist/vocalist Derek Pressnall and keyboardist Nick White, refugees of Dunwoody, Georgia (a suburb of Atlanta), who had been lured to Omaha by the burgeoning indie music scene and the promise of free room and board. "They would drop by my place to watch episodes of Dawson's Creek," Alarid said. "We began hanging together as a gang."

The ensemble made its stage debut at an open-mike night at The Ranch Bowl two years ago. Since then, they've experienced the extremes of touring, playing sold-out shows opening for Bright Eyes (White is one of that band's rotating members) and for fewer than 10 people opening for Chicago's Head of Femur.

"It doesn't really matter how big the crowd is," Alarid said. "We play because we love to get up there."

"The idea is to make it a performance that's fun to watch while we're having fun ourselves," Williams said. "If you have fun on stage, so will the people in the crowd."

The liveliness of their stage performance has translated well to recordings. The band's self-released 6-song demo Woo!, recorded in Conor Oberst's basement studio, has managed to generate a buzz mostly through word of mouth. It caught the ear of Southern California's Rue Royale Records, who is putting out the band's three-song single, which is celebrating its release Nov. 1 at Sokol Underground.

Recorded in the home studio of Stephen Pedersen (Criteria) and mixed by A.J. Mogis, the single is more of the same Tilly hi-jinx marked by jangly acoustic guitar, colorful keyboards, tapping (of course), and the girls' glorious, almost naïve vocals.

Next up is their debut full-length. The band will record part of it (tap, vocals, etc.) at Presto! Studios with Mike Mogis in mid-November. The balance of the tracks will be recorded at Pedersen's and Oberst's basement studios (Look for plenty of guest appearances by the Saddle Creek musicians) with the final mix in time for a spring release on a mysterious new record label.



"They would drop by my place to watch episodes of Dawson's Creek. We began hanging together as a gang."


"It was the hardest, scariest decision of my life. I was freaking out."



After that, it's more touring. To clear the way for life on the road, both Williams and Jenkins made the tough decision of quitting their day jobs as teachers.

"I taught for five years and decided to take the year off to tour," Jenkins said. "It was the hardest, scariest decision of my life. I was freaking out. I love my job at Bancroft (elementary). Everyone there was very supportive of the decision. I feel stronger for it. I don't want to go through life not knowing what could have been if I hadn't taken this chance."

Williams, a Head Start teacher, now substitutes. "I was offered a job teaching the grade I wanted at the school I wanted, and turned it down for the band," she said. "It would be nice to have the stability, income and the benefits, but I don't feel like I'm losing anything."

The rest of the band has part-time jobs that give them the flexibility to hit the road as often as they want. The goal is to get aboard as an opener for larger touring bands, tap-tap-tapping their way across the country and into listeners' hearts.

The band's name -- and the story behind it -- is a perfect metaphor for how this unconventional ensemble hopes to find its audience. Williams said the name was inspired by a children's book by Leo Lionni, titled "Tillie and the Wall."

"It's an inspirational story about a little mouse that lives by a wall and always wants to get to the other side, even though everyone tells her she shouldn't," Williams said.

"We're just trying to have fun. A lot of younger kids -- girls -- have come up after a show and said that we've inspired them, that maybe it's okay to try something different."

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Published in The Omaha Weekly-Reader October 29, 2003. Copyright © 2003 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.