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Tilly and the Wall: Beyond Novelty

story by tim mcmahan



Lazy-i: May 31, 2006

Read where it all began.
Check out the Oct. 29, 2003 Lazy-i Interview with Tilly and the Wall!

The idea that Tilly and the Wall is considered sort of a novelty act is nothing new to the band's keyboardist Nick White. He knows that to most people familiar with their music, Tilly is "that band with the cute tap-dancer."

"It might be hard for Jamie, because she's the one that has to talk about tap dancing all the time," said White about Tilly vocalist/tap-dancing percussionist Jamie Williams. "We're just so happy with how she does things. I think however people take it, we're fine with it."

Fact is, in a world of literally thousands of indie bands, Williams' tap-dancing has been an attention getter. Her tap shoes are a carry-over from her and bandmate Kianna Alarid's short-lived former band, Magic Kiss (In fact, they also could be heard in Williams' first band, Park Ave., that featured a young Conor Oberst and Clark Baechle). Tap dancing was the perfect accoutrement to their self-released DIY-flavored 6-song demo, Woo!, recorded in Oberst's basement. Oberst knew a good thing when he heard it, and Tilly's official full-length debut, Wild Like Children, also became the debut release for his Team Love Records label.



A rousing tap-fueled song cycle, beneath Wild's novelty veneer was tuneful, honest and at times, deceptively somber song writing. Track "You and I Misbehaving," for example, captured teenagers struggling with the idea of growing old. Actually, all the songs were about struggling -- with growing up, with "love," with themselves, told in a way that related to anyone who was on the outside looking in during their high school years. Add a sense of youthful defiance and Tilly was this generation's Holden Caulfield.

Now after almost three years of successfully touring Wild, Tilly is back with a new album -- a little older, a little wiser, and much more professional sounding, thanks to the Mogis brothers -- AJ in the studio and Mike on the mixing board. But while Bottoms of Barrels is a natural evolution of the band's sound, the tap shoes are still there. In fact, they've never been more in-your-face.

"We wanted to make the tap dancing even more dynamic and percussive," White said. "When we started, Jamie was dancing on the floor. There was no dynamism. Now she dances on top of a hollow wooden box that's mic-ed. The sound is much fuller."

It isn't just the tapping that's unique about Tilly. Few (if any) bands can boast having three women vocalists -- Williams, Alarid and former Park Ave. member Neely Jenkins. Guitarist/vocalist Derek Pressnall rounds out the five-piece. Tilly's girl power has had an impact on its audience.

"We notice in the crowd that there are tons of different types of people, but the vast majority is younger girls," White said. "Maybe that has to do with the tap dancing. Girls take dance lessons and can identify with it. Maybe it's that younger girls relate to bands with girl singers. I'm not sure why it happens. We get spoiled because they're always so enthusiastic and we feed off the crowd's energy. I don't know what we'd do if we were playing to a roomful of middle-aged guys."




"We get spoiled because they're always so enthusiastic and we feed off the crowd's energy. I don't know what we'd do if we were playing to a roomful of middle-aged guys."









"Everyone in the band roots for the underdog. The 'we' is everyone in the band and whoever relates to us."


But part of their appeal also certainly comes from the music's inspirational message. On tracks like "Sing Songs Along" on the new album and "Nights of the Living Dead" from the debut, Tilly isn't so much singing to the crowd, but singing with them. Lines like "So puff out your chest in some weird dusty fight / We're taking no part in your cracked antique life / We're believing everything that we have heard / We're taking our turn with the kids that don't learn" are an underachiever's call to action.

"Everyone in the band roots for the underdog," White said. "The 'we' is everyone in the band and whoever relates to us. We don't want to exclude anyone. It has to do with the name of the record (Bottoms of Barrels) -- they're the ones we like best."

Quite a different message from the glitzy, materialistic, Barbie-doll world of pop divas like Christina, Britney and Jessica. Who would you rather have your daughter identify with?

"I feel the same way," White said, adding that Tilly's music also is a painless entry into indie music for kids who grew up with radio.

"We're an easy jump for younger kids just finding out about independent music. It's not a hugely different kind of music. I don't think we sound like Britney, but if you heard Britney and then our band, it would be an easier transition than, say, if the first indie band you heard was Smog."

No kidding.

White said their musical evolution was inevitable considering how the new record came together. Tilly spent part of 2005 as a band in residence at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts. "Being at the Bemis allowed us to immerse ourselves in art and culture and really try to go with whatever we were feeling rather than in any one direction," White said. "This album feels like a collaboration, a collective of artists working together while being different than one another."

A collection centered 'round a worn pair of tap shoes. What a novel idea.

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Published in The Omaha Reader May 31, 2006. Copyright © 2006 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.