Tilly and the Wall is the upbeat, colorful Omaha band everyone knows immediately because of their trademark tap-as-percussion sound. The band recently played some shows in the area and I had a chance to sit down with their star member and tap dancer, Jamie Pressnall, before their show at the Bowery Ballroom. Check it:
Dese’Rae Stage, PopWreck(oning): Who are your musical influences?
Jamie Pressnall: We all have different influences. I personally love Top 40 stuff. It’s kinda what I grew up listening to. I grew up in dance class, you know? I really love Wham! Lately, I’ve been listening to a lot of Sinead O’Connor and Cyndi Lauper. There’s so much great stuff out there. Capgun Coup–they just got signed to our label [Team Love Records]. They’re from Omaha and they’re really amazing, too.
That’s a few of them. I really love Bob Dylan and Lou Reed. You can sorta tell in our song writing styles more, who each of our influences were, I guess. I can just ‘cause I know them, but it’s kinda across the board.
PW: How do you guys do that?
JP: What, with the five different songwriters?
PW: Yeah, how does that work? Is there a power structure?
JP: No. If anybody has any ideas for a song, they just bring whatever they’ve got. When we write the records, we just take off. We’re all just like, “Okay, the next four months, all we’re doing is writing the record.” And usually we work at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts. They give us a space, so we just go there.
Basically, there aren’t rules, but you’re supposed to be there as much as you can. We try and be there eight hours a day, just like a job. Usually, there’s one or two ideas to work on, so someone will bring a full thought, like a finished, almost-skeleton of a song and then they’ll give you direction, like, “I want it to sound like this or…” For me, because I’m a percussionist, they’ll be like, “I want it to be drive-y or heavy or dark,” and give me some kind of adjectives and I’ll try and realize that as much as I can. It just depends.
Sometimes people come in with a verse or a chorus or they’ll be like, “I want to write a dance song.” It just runs the whole range. We just try and be as supportive as we can and work on it. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Some of ‘em make it, some of ‘em don’t.
PW: Speaking of which, “Tall, Tall Grass” is an old, old song.
JP: I actually wrote that song for Wild Like Children. The verse was the same, but that’s the only part of the song that stayed the same. I was trying to re-work it. I tried to do it for Bottoms of Barrels and it wasn’t working. Then, when we started working on this record, I was like, “You know, I’m gonna see if “Tall Tall Grass” will work for this record,” so I just kept working on it.
Derek [Pressnall, guitar] had a chorus that he wrote that was perfect. Basically, everybody contributed. Nick [White, keys] wrote the melody for a bridge, which we needed. We kept the lyrics the same. It was kind of cool because we’ve had that song for six years and it’s evolved and changed a bunch and it’s a totally different song now, but we’ve all contributed to it, so, in a way, it’s kinda like the story of our band. We thought it’d be cool to start the record with it.
PW: Your shows are so high energy and so much fun. What happens if someone’s in a bad mood beforehand? How do you psych yourselves up?
JP: Sometimes you’re just in a bad mood and that’s when you’re like, “This is my job and people paid money to see us play.” If I’m in that kind of a mood, I just think about how people are excited to see us, how they fucking spent money and everybody’s broke. I just try to put myself in the shoes of the audience. That helps to get me excited and get me in a good mood. I just try and feed off their energy. Usually, a few songs in, I’m in a really good mood.
PW: What are you doing once you’re done touring? Going back to Omaha?
JP: Yeah. Well, we’re possibly going to Europe the last half of October. It’s not confirmed, but we’re hoping that’ll be happening. Basically, in between, I’m just in Omaha. I substitute [teach], so I usually just work a few days a week and hang out. I manage Tilly, so that takes up a lot of my time as well, but I’m trying to pass the reigns over. I’m like, “Who wants to do it? Do you want to do it?” I’m working on that. I’m hoping that someone else can start doing that soon.
PW: What does everyone else do? What do musicians do when they’re home?
JP: Well, Derek has another band, Flowers Forever, his solo project. He spends a lot of time doing that. He’s a visual artist and he works at the art movie theater in town. He’s on call when we’re home, so he works a couple of days a week there. We have paycheck jobs when we’re home. He just does a lot of art stuff.
Kianna [Alarid, bass] has an EBay store, Neely [Jenkins, vocals] substitute teaches, and Nick works on set designs. It’s kinda stuff you can come and go with. We just have odd jobs for some extra money when we’re home. Tilly pays the bills, but barely, so it’s like if I ever want to go shopping or go out to eat more than once a month, I need to have extra money coming in.
PW: For real?
JP: The thing is, Derek and I have a house. We have a mortgage now. I mean, I could have had more money if I’d made different choices, so I chose to get an extra job when we’re home. Our goal is to not have to do that. That’d be awesome.
PW: So, what’s the deal with the drummer?
JP: I don’t know. He’s awesome? What do you mean?
PW: Well, in the past, there was no traditional drummer involved full-time.
JP: There was me.
JP: Well, we actually have had drums on every record–on a couple songs. On this record, we didn’t want to limit ourselves to a tap dancing beat as the main percussion. We didn’t feel like doing that. For me, I wanted to challenge myself and do different things. I wanted to incorporate other kinds of percussion. We all talked about it. It was a way for us to do something new and interesting to us. So we’ve got drums on a lot of the songs on the record. Live, we do stuff together like you saw. So, as artists, we’re just trying to always do what we feel is gonna be fun and interesting. I guess that’s what the next level was for us: going more traditional. In some ways.
PW: The new album is different. It’s a little darker. What influenced that?
JP: Nothing, really. Nothing that we talked about or was intentionally discussed. We talked about the record being a little more punk and a little more rough and raw sounding. And we wanted to write some dance songs. We didn’t really have any ideas. Everybody just brings their own songs and, since we function as a collective, that’s just how it came out.
There were a lot of songs that didn’t make it on the record too, but we kind of gravitated toward those songs that went together and were a little darker and had more of an edge. I think it’s just how that songwriter was feeling at the time, which is cool. We wanted to go in a different direction, but didn’t know what. When those songs were brought in, we were like, “Sure, let’s see what we can do.” It was actually cool because we have a stomp troupe on some of the songs.
You know how, down south they have the stomp teams for pep rallies and stuff? I always wanted to do that. We talked about it for Bottoms of Barrels and it just wasn’t appropriate for any of those songs. I was like, “These are perfect songs for something like that.” So, it works. We had a group of about ten people and we had rehearsals and I taught them the dance and we recorded in a big gym, so it was really fun to do something like that and challenge ourselves.
PW: What’s your favorite song to perform [from the new album]?
JP: We don’t actually perform this one that much because, technically, it’s hard to perform, but I really like “Poor Man’s Ice Cream” a lot. I think the lyrics are really good and I like the beat. That’s one of the stomp team songs. That was a big challenge. It is fun when we do play it. It doesn’t sound that good yet, so we’re hesitant to play it live. It’s hard to play. I have to listen to a sampler. We have a sample of the beats and I stomp with them, so if I can’t hear that completely perfectly I’ll get off and then it just looks ridiculous. It looks like I’m lip-synching to tap dance beats, you know what I mean? So I don’t wanna do it until—it’s just so rare that I can hear everything perfectly on-stage.
PW: Favorite song to perform overall?
JP: I like “Cacophony.” It’s on the new record and it has a really great energy and it’s just got some attitude, so it’s fun to play live.
PW: Costumes! How does that work?
JP: Well, everything you’ve seen was designed by our friend Peggy Noland. Her website is peggynoland.com. She’s this amazing designer from Kansas City. She has her shop down there. She’s just awesome. She designed everything Kianna wears, pretty much, and a lot of the stuff I wear. All of us wear her stuff. She’s amazing. Basically, if you have any ideas, she can just make it. She’s that good. You’re like, “I want this,” and she’s like, “Okay,” and just sews it. The last couple of years, we’ve been wearing her stuff. She’s rad.
PW: How do you keep up with your dancing? Do you take classes?
JP: I grew up taking classes. I kinda stopped taking classes in my teens and then I taught. I was a professional ballet dancer for a while–a couple years. I didn’t really enjoy it. In Omaha, that’s really all there is if you want to be a dancer. So then I went back to teaching dance. During this time, too, I was in bands.
I was in a band called Park Ave and I tap danced on a couple of the songs with the drums for fun. I played guitar in that band. I did the same thing in a band called Magic Kiss with Kianna. And then with Tilly, we were all just hanging out writing songs, not even really a band yet. We were like, “Oh, we don’t have a drummer.” I was like, “I’ll just tap dance until we figure out what we’re gonna do.” Then we just never went back, really. It just never got discussed, getting a drummer. It just was me. I did play guitar for a while with the band. I’d sing too, but we just decided to stick with our strengths. I’m not good at guitar and not good at singing. I do that to write songs, but I’d rather have somebody with a better voice singing, so I just stuck with the tap dancing after Tilly actually started out.
PW: Do you keep it traditional when it comes to your tapping?
JP: Not really anymore. In the beginning, it was a lot of traditional steps. But now, as the band has grown, I just do what’s needed that I think sounds cool. It’s some traditional mixed with what I call Tilly tapping. We mix stomping, flamenco–sometimes just whatever works. If I have to make a sound, I’ll try and figure out a way to make that sound. So it’s a bunch of weird steps. I have to videotape myself a lot so I know what I did later ’cause there’s no way to remember it other than doing it over and over. It’s like body memory. It’s challenging at times, for sure.
PW: You guys did Sesame Street.
JP: Yeah, we did the alphabet song. It’s gonna air in the fall and we’re so excited ‘cause I used to teach pre-kindergarten, so I could watch that with my classes. So I’ll have that later. But between Derek and I, we have twelve nieces and nephews who are all really young. We’re superstars to them now. We’re like, “We’re gonna be on Sesame Street.” Now they think we’re super famous, which is totally not the case.
It was really cool, though. We blue screened it for eight hours and they’re gonna animate around us. We haven’t seen it. It’s supposed to be edited soon and I’m not sure what they’re gonna do, but I’m really excited to see it. We just filmed all day, did a bunch of different versions of it and we don’t know what they’re gonna use. I think it’ll be really cool.
PW: If it’s nearly as adorable as the Feist one, it should be great. What have you been listening to lately?
JP: Now? What am I listening to? I actually like the Ruby Suns, who we’re playing with. They’re awesome. They’re from New Zealand and they’re really, really cool.
Who else? We’ve been listening to a lot of dance music–the new Miley Cyrus! She doesn’t really need any more promotion, but she’s pretty fun. We all have fun in the van with her tunes. I really love Sinead O’Connor. I’ve been listening to The Lion and the Cobra, one of her older records. It’s awesome.
PW: The last question is hypothetical: if you guys were headlining your dream tour, who would be supporting you?
JP: Well, honestly? There are so many great bands. We all love Quasi. They were trying to work us out a tour, but that didn’t work out. They would be awesome.
One tour, we were trying to figure out who could open for us and our booking agent asked if we had any ideas. I was like, “Oh, there’s this really awesome band called Beirut!” I just had heard that record. I was like, “You think they could open up for us?” He was like, “Yeah, they’re way bigger than you guys.” I was surprised. So yeah, I don’t know.
I love Radiohead. Can Radiohead open up for us?
Filed under: interview with | Tagged: beirut, derek pressnall, feist, flowers forever, jamie pressnall, kianna alarid, magic kiss, neely jenkins, nick white, park ave, peggy noland, quasi, radiohead, ruby suns, sesame street, team love, tilly and the wall |