lazyhome         reviews         hype         webboard                interviews

Tilly and the Wall

Tilly and the Wall:
Growing Up Tilly

Now in their seventh year, the band proves older is better.
story by tim mcmahan



Lazy-i: July 31, 2008

Tilly and the Wall
w/ The Ruby Suns, Go Motion
Aug. 7, 8 p.m.
Sokol Auditorium
13th & Martha St.

One of my fondest memories of Tilly and the Wall has nothing to do with a performance.

It was a hot sticky summer night, probably sometime in early August and just around 2002, shortly after the band began to play music together and years before their first official CD, Wild Like Children, was released on Conor Oberst's Team Love Records.

Sokol was still an important venue back then, and there was a show going on that evening at either the Underground or upstairs in the Auditorium. It was between sets, and people had momentarily escaped the hotbox inside to get some fresh, unsmoke-filled air. Out of the darkness, a car came zooming off 13th St. and into the Sokol parking lot. Seconds later, Derek Pressnall and Jamie Williams tumbled out of the building, laughing and holding each other, stumbling to the car. A scene from American Graffiti was reenacted as everyone got out -- Nick White, Neely Jenkins and Kianna Alarid -- and began running around the car before climbing back in, laughing hysterically, and then speeding out of the parking lot and down the darkened street.

It was a classic moment of youth. It was five friends having fun on a hot summer night. God only knows where they were headed or when they'd ever get to sleep. But it was that moment of exuberance that permanently defined Tilly and the Wall and their music -- young, fun, carefree, headed together somewhere, to a place that was probably more fun than where they came from.



I read the above to Neely Jenkins while she and the rest of the band were traveling along some anonymous Interstate, headed to Washington, D.C., where they had a gig last Saturday night at the infamous Black Cat nightclub. Neely was the first in what would be three hours of rotating interviews with four of the five members of Tilly (Jamie was unavailable), each passing the cell phone from one another, occasionally getting cut off whenever the van passed through a service drop-out.

The memory of that summer night choked-up poor Neely, who fondly recalled the early Tilly days, before the world tours and the guest appearances on Late Night with David Letterman, back when Tilly was just a bunch of friends looking for something to do. "It was just for fun, really," she said of the band. "We played our first show at (the now defunct) Newells. It was hilarious. Nick didn't even have a keyboard yet. We were bouncing on the floor, and that was the night that a lot of our friends who we thought were awesome came to us and said, 'You have something special.' We said 'Whatever,' but the more we thought about it, the more we thought it would be fun to try something like that. Shortly afterward, we were offered a tour. I never thought it would come so far."

With the blink of an eye, seven years passed. After a 7-inch single and a self-released 6-song EP titled Woo in 2003, Tilly became the first band to put out an album on Oberst's just-christened label. Released in 2004, Wild Like Children was followed two years later by Bottoms of Barrels. Then this past June came the band's third full-length. Officially untitled, it's been going by the name O, thanks to the O-shaped cut-out on the CD jacket.

Now 34, Jenkins said the band hasn't changed despite the fact that keyboardist Nick White lives in California and Jamie Williams became Jamie Pressnall after marrying Derek Pressnall last year. "It's definitely different now," Jenkins said. "I look at everything as an experience that I'm lucky to have been given."

Jenkins and Jamie Williams both had fledgling careers as teachers when Tilly first formed. But right before the EP was released, they decided to put those careers on hold to pursue music.

"Sometimes I ask myself if I'm too old to do this," Jenkins said. "Maybe I should go back to teaching because that's what society says I should do, but then I think about touring and getting to see my friends on the East Coast again. In the beginning all anyone saw was three girls in a band, and no one took it seriously. Now we know how the game is played. We don’t take guff from anyone anymore."

It also forced the band to leave behind some of their carefree ways and focus on the business of music. "It started off being a fun experience. But after doing it awhile, it's more like business and not so easy," Jenkins said. "It's more of a job than it is something that's really fun to do. It's still fun, don't get me wrong, but now you have to do interviews and do the load-in and make sure things run smoothly. It's really awkward to have a good time and be responsible for making sure everything runs like it should."


















Tilly and the Wall - O album art

"In the beginning all anyone saw was three girls in a band, and no one took it seriously. Now we know how the game is played. We don’t take guff from anyone anymore."





















Tilly and the Wall



"Four years ago I could have quit music. I finally realized that I am a songwriter. It took me a long time to be able to say that out loud."

Though they're big enough to play the 1,400-capacity Sokol Auditorium, Tilly has yet to graduate to a tour bus. Instead, they've added an equipment trailer to the back of their crowded van -- the Tilly road entourage has grown from five to 11.

Among them is Kianna Alarid, who Neely handed the phone to next. Though creating O was a collaborative effort, it was Alarid who was responsible for bringing some of the album's more adventurous songs to the studio, including dance-happy tracks like "Chandelier Lake," and the '80s-style Go Gos-flavored rave-up "Falling Without Knowing." As well as maybe the most diverse track from the session, "Beat Control" -- a dance song with no intent other than to get every ass in the room shaking; a song, as one local sound engineer put it, that "every 15-year-old girl is gonna love." It's pure Debbie Gibson/Paula Abdul circa 1983, and unapologetically so. I've heard it compared to Dee-lite, probably due to its amazing video created by the Kansas City band The Ssion. "Beat Control" is undeniably infectious; it's almost impossible to get out of your head after you've heard it just once. It also marks a new direction for Tilly and the Wall that takes their sound beyond the tap dancing, the coy acoustic guitar and the girlie harmonies.

So different, in fact, that it wasn't a surprise that the song was released only as a single and wasn't included on the U.S. release of O. Alarid said the decision to leave it off was solely Team Love's. "We're putting it on the U.K. and European release," she said. "It fits fine on the album."

When it came time to record the single, Alarid said producer Mike Mogis -- the guru behind some of Saddle Creek Records' best-selling albums, including releases by Bright Eyes, Cursive and The Faint -- was a bit perplexed. "He kept obsessing over the vocals," she said. "I said, 'Dude, don't worry about it, just make the beat bangin'. Mike, let the beat control you. That's what the song is about, don't worry about anything else right now.'"

Alarid also is responsible for some of the album's more aggressive lyrics. Thumping anti-shit-talk anthems "Pot Kettle Black," and album-closer "Too Excited" don't hesitate to drop a few F Bombs in the midst of venting frustrations. While earlier Tilly albums were just as rebellious as O, often cheering on a defiant underdog, the language rarely crossed the PG-13 mark. Alarid said the change is part of a personal progression in song writing. "I am growing up; I am an adult," she said. "This is how I feel right now, and the only thing I care about is getting across what I want to say. The past year has been so filled with moments like that."

Specifically, moments of frustration lived within the insular Omaha music scene, a world rife with drama and gossip. "I had a few major life changes that involved relationships last year," Alarid said. "Outside parties had issue with it, and I don't understand why anyone gives a shit. Omaha has a small-town mentality even though it's a bigger city. A lot of stuff I write, like 'Pot Kettle Black,' was done tongue in cheek. It's supposed to be a little funny, but I'm also making a point."

Alarid said one change in her song writing might have something to do with buying her first electric guitar and amp. "It allowed me to write 'Pot Kettle Black' in the kitchen," she said. "None of us even had computers when we started. Then we all got laptops with (Apple recording software) GarageBand. It changed everything."

What hasn't changed, however, is the money, or lack of it. Despite moderate sales success, Tilly and the Wall hasn't become a big-time money-making band. Wild Like Children has sold 21,000 copies; Bottoms of Barrels, just under 26,000, while O has already sold more than 5,000 copies since its June 17 release, currently ranking in the College Music Journal top-10, where it's sat for the past few weeks.

"Money? It's not happening," Alarid said. "We make enough so we can get from tour to tour, and every now and then we get a little money out of nowhere from record sales and BMI. It always comes at the last minute when you only have $100 left in the bank. We're not at a level where we have to have another job, but we're not anywhere close to living super comfortably.

"If Tilly wasn't around tomorrow, I don't know what I'd do," she said. "Four years ago I could have quit music. I finally realized that I am a songwriter. It took me a long time to be able to say that out loud. I love it and I do it all the time. I have 100 songs in my computer. I learned to become a musician and a songwriter, and really, a writer in general. I'd love to become a writer; the idea of it makes me happy. But right now, I'm sticking with the band."

Like Jenkins, Alarid looks back on the band's early days with fondness. "We were younger, and I was a total party girl," she said. "We're all old now. I just turned 30 this year. Over half of us are over 30. It's still just as fun, but we take it more seriously. Back then, it was like, whatever. We once went on tour to Minneapolis for two days, got carried away and forgot our money. We can't do that anymore."



Alarid handed the phone to Derek Pressnall who had been asleep even though it was his turn to co-pilot/navigate the van. Tilly used to be an example that it was possible for men and women to be "just friends" without the inevitable tension. Then out of the blue, Pressnall married Williams and blew that example out of the water.

He laughed at the story and explained how the whole marriage thing happened. "I met Jamie before going to Omaha, when she was on a Bright Eyes tour," he said.

By 2002, Pressnall and best friend Nick White had decided to leave their home of Dunwoody, Georgia, and head to Nebraska. "I wasn't looking forward to moving to Omaha, actually," Pressnall said. "I wanted to move to Atlanta, but I had lots of friends in Omaha and it was convenient. And I figured maybe I'd get to hang out with Jamie. I do think single men and women can be best friends, but we became best friends and our relationship became strong on a different level. I didn't think she liked me, but slowly, after awhile, I think she fell in love with me somehow."

Pressnall said she was the one who made the first move. "At that point, we were such good friends and I just felt if I made a move I would come off as this dirty creep," he said. "I didn't want to risk our friendship, everything could fall apart so easy in my eyes. So she made the move. We ended up married and here we are."

Pressnall said the marriage hasn't impacted the band or his friendships. "We're the same as we've always been, but as artists and songwriters and people, we've grown," he said. "Our roles in the band haven't changed that much. We're all more comfortable with each other and ourselves."

More than with any other album, Pressnall said the band functioned as a true collective while making O, with everyone having an equal say in how the songs came together. The best example is the album's opening track, "Tall Tall Grass," a guitar and piano-driven acoustic ballad that features gorgeous harmonies and the lines, "When I was young I used to sleep out in the garden / Wait to sneak in when the house grew quiet / Now that I'm grown I can't seem to find it / There is no tall tall grass for me to hide in."

"We'd been working on that song since we started as a band," Pressnall said. "Jamie wrote the verse, I wrote the chorus, Nick wrote the bridge. It has been with us as long as the band has been together. Our entire history is inside that song."

If there's such thing as a "renaissance man" these days, it's Pressnall. In addition to Tilly, he's the driving force behind the band Flowers Forever, which had its Team Love debut in early 2008. Along with The Faint's Todd Baechle and Jakob Thiele, Pressnall developed and hosted Goo -- the controversial DJ dance spectacular formerly hosted at Slowdown. Pressnall also is the guy who dreamed up the idea of commissioning a team of independent artists to create a series of unique artwork for the cover of O.

"It's all handmade," Pressnall said. "We're friends with so many artists that we wanted to figure out a way to collaborate with all of them. It's all works together, really -- music, film, video, dance, painting, drawing, all this stuff that's going on around us. It's all part of the same spirit."

Pressnall said coordinating all of his projects is a matter of timing. "It hasn't been hard working between them," he said. "I'm working on a new Flowers EP now, which will be out pretty soon. It's just a matter of juggling the tours."

* * *

In Nick White's case, being in Tilly is a matter of juggling airline reservations after moving to Los Angeles a couple years ago. "I book cheap flights in advance," he said after Pressnall handed him the cell phone. "I spend large chunks of time in Omaha. I was there from August through January doing the album and getting stuff ready. It's been pretty OK."

I had promised myself that I wasn't going to ask about tap-dancing. But here we were, at the end of our three hours, and the topic finally came up while discussing how the band explored new percussion ideas while making the album, including troop-like stomping recorded in a gym. These days, Tilly's tap-dancing has become a matter-of-fact part of their music. Is mentioning it even relevant anymore?

"At this point, it is relevant again because our album is so percussion heavy," White said. "If we felt tired of talking about it, we would probably be tired of using it, too. I think we all found ways to make it feel fresh."

Tilly's entire rhythm section has seen an upgrade for its live show with the addition of Craig D on drums and Mason Brown on bass and electric guitar. "It all came down to rounding out the live sound," White said. "When we added bass and more guitar, it made sense to add drums at the same time and bring in that full percussion section to represent everything we recorded."

That's when White began to cut out, Tilly apparently had driven just beyond the reach of cell service, and beyond the reach of our interview.

* * *

There's one more memory of Tilly and the Wall that stands out -- and this one does involve a performance.

It was the band's Oct. 27, 2006, appearance on Late Night with David Letterman. I was at O'Leaver's that evening, watching as Lawrence band The Pomonas got ready to play a set. No one knew Tilly was going to be on TV that evening -- they were a last-minute replacement for a comedian who had cancelled.

There on the screen were Williams, Jenkins and Alarid standing like Barbie Dolls on top of plywood boxes, with Pressnall and White off to the side. O'Leaver's can be a rough, drunken crowd; a crowd that likes its punk rock loud and angry. But that night, it didn't matter. When Tilly came on, someone yelled "Hey, Shut Up!" A wireless microphone was handed to one of the patrons, who put the mic just under the television speaker to amplify the audio across the house sound system. The crowd of young punks and drunks watched and smiled. It was a moment of pride to see one of their own (other than Conor Oberst) on national TV. But for Tilly, it was just another rite of passage on their way to adulthood.

Back to  huge.gif (2200 bytes)

Published in The Omaha Reader July 31, 2008. Copyright © 2008 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved. Top photo by Jaimie Warren. Bottom photo by Rob Walters. Used by permission.











"I didn't think she liked me, but slowly, after awhile, I think she fell in love with me somehow."