‘Magic’ is perhaps the best way to describe Tilly and the Wall. Bursting with vibrant colors and unbridled energy, the Omaha band has been making magical music for years now. Comprised of local music staples Derek Pressnall, wife Jamie Pressnall, Neely Jenkins, Nick White and Alarid, Tilly and the Wall has made it their mission to show the love and that love has taken them from Omaha to Iceland to David Letterman and everywhere in between. It’s been a crazy ride and it’s not over yet.
The group sprouted in 2001 from a very organic process. It happened by chance. There was never a preconceived notion that Jamie Pressnall was going to tap dance her way into an album deal or Alarid and Jenkins were going to be the singers.
“It didn’t come out that way. It wasn’t like ‘ok you’re going to be a tap dancer and we’re going to be a band with a tap dancer.’ The band kind of started in this really weird way. Nick White and I had just moved to Omaha and we were all becoming friends,” Derek Pressnall explains. “I started hanging out with Jamie and she had these ideas for these songs. It was really the two of us at the beginning and she was like ‘oh I have to bring Kianna.’ It kind of grew in this weird way as we were getting to know each other. Tap dancing was talked about at some point. She started tap dancing and for me, that was awesome because I had never seen anything like that before. I was like ‘this is crazy [laughs].’ I never had any doubts it would work.”
Neither did the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts. In 2005, Tilly and the Wall became the first “band in residence” and used the Bemis Underground to write their follow-up to 2004’s debut, Wild Like Children, which was the flagship release for Conor Oberst’s label, Team Love. These two records really pulled Tilly from local to national recognition, culminating with an appearance on David Letterman in 2007.
“Surreal is a perfect word for that experience. It was great though. We were in New York at the time with our second record. It was such a crazy time for us. It was our first headlining show in New York and we were about to go to Iceland for a festival,” Pressnall recalls. “When we were in New York City, we were sitting in our friends apartment, Jamie got a call and it was Kianna and she said ‘were playing David Letterman!’ I was like, ‘wait, what?’”
“At that point, that was our pinnacle of success. He won’t have you on if you’ve ever played another Late Night show. If you’re debuting on TV, he will have you,” Alarid adds. “We were freaking out when we got that call. We had to play Letterman the night we got home from Iceland. So we flew back to New York, landed, did Letterman and then had to play a show in New Jersey later that night. It was insane.”
Tilly and the Wall was off to a powerful start. On the heels of Bottom of Barrels, the group released 2008’s o, which produced the singles “Bad Education” and “Pot Kettle Black,” the latter being extremely successful. It was featured in TV spots for the Seth Rogan film Observe and Report and served as background music to TV shows like 90210.
“I wrote that track. I just noticed that Omaha seems to be the fu*king spawn of some nasty ass sh*t. Dude, it was everywhere. Back-stabbing was rampant,” Alarid says. “We were all guilty of it. The song was about the moment I realized we were all doing it and how silly it was. It was poking fun, but at the same time, calling myself out.”
Then life happened. Alarid moved to Kansas City, got married and had a child. Derek and Jamie got married then had two children while Jenkins and White moved to Los Angeles. Needless to say, the band went on a much-needed, self-imposed hiatus in 2009. They had been touring for the past 8 years and it consumed most of their adult life. The break seemed necessary to not only regroup, but to reinspire.
Now here we are. It’s 2012 and Tilly and the Wall has just released full-length album #4, Heavy Mood. Despite its weighty title, the record is full of several up- tempo dance grooves and bright, fairy tale lyrics. The female Pressnall is still tap dancing her way across the world, something many critics said was just a publicity stunt. Clearly, it’s nothing short of innovative and is making a lasting impression. The intricate routines she executes on stage are incredible to watch.
“We honestly didn’t have a drummer. If we had preconceived the idea we were going to have a tap dancer, it never would have worked. We weren’t joking. We were just doing it until we figured something out. It was unique, but it was just honest and became who we were,” Alarid says. “She’s also very good and nobody else can do her job. Either people were really confused or thought it was cool, interesting or different or they were like,’ gimmick,’ but that’s going to happen. We never cared what people said.”
With the group’s break obviously over, they are back to work touring and promoting in support of Heavy Mood. True to Tilly form, the album was not planned.
“We were all in different cities. I was not yet pregnant. I had still been writing songs and I was like ‘these are Tilly songs.’ I called Derek and he was like ‘lets do it,’” Alarid says. “We just started sending things back and forth. Everyone got their burners on again and started cooking a new album. In March 2011, we came together. Everything felt right like no time had passed.”
Loyal as ever, Heavy Mood is produced by Mike Mogis and distributed by Team Love. It has contributions from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ guitarist Nick Zinner and The Faint’s Clark Baechle. “Love Riot,” the first single, almost mirrors a Yeah Yeah Yeahs track as Alarid screams in true Karen O fashion “love riot/let’s do it right/we won’t be quiet” over a gritty, surf-guitar driven backbone. In fact, the first 3 tracks are explosive and reinforce that, yes, Tilly has returned.
“I think the reception of the album has been great. We just got back from the East Coast and are about to head to the West Coast,” Pressnall says. “The crowds have been awesome. They’ve been full of devoted fans. Every person at the show has been singing along and giving us so much energy. Tons of fans that have heard the record have loved it. We’ve been getting a lot of positive feedback.”
Although Pitchfork gave the album a shabby 5.9 out of 10 rating, Tilly’s true fans love it. The members of the band could care a less about critics anyway. They are too busy hanging tough. There’s a message they are trying to get across and in many ways, it’s a rebuttal to any negativity out there.
“This time I feel there is a specific message and it’s a lot more clear this time. The name is Heavy Mood, which might seem like a dark statement. The lyrics to the title track is like there is a heavy mood out there, but what we need to do is lift up the weight,” Alarid says. “That’s the whole point. ‘Yeah, it’s gotten this bad kids, but there’s nothing we can do but lift it up now.’ It’s definitely a more specific statement.”
There are many ways Heavy Mood is some of Tilly’s best material. It’s well polished, cohesive and Tilly’s DNA is firmly intact, but most of all, it’s fun. That’s what this is all about. Talking to Pressnall and Alarid is an immediate boost. They say the word ‘love’ so many times, it’s infectious. When negative situations do arise, they are able to deflect it. For example, with 3 women in the band, they sometimes stumble across the occasional misogynist, but are mentally prepared to handle it.
“I think it’s all how you perceive the world around you. Or you can know that people that act that way aren’t ‘there’ yet. It’s like getting mad at a baby. Sound guys can be demeaning and act like I can’t set up my own stuff. It always dawned on me like ‘that’s your problem.’ I had some epiphany moments where I realized a couple things about how empowered I really was,” Alarid says. “Even before that I was very fortunate to know I don’t have to be offended. You have to tell people what’s up sometimes. You don’t have to waste your energy teaching him a lesson. You just let it go. When you get caught up being offended, all that does is suck your vital energy from doing your mission. When you’re doing your job, your life’s work and dedicated your emotion you are a positive person and you’re doing the right thing so when this bullsh*t happens, it doesn’t even matter. Being a female in this industry, yeah, this stuff is going to happen. All you can control is how you respond.”
It’s clear Tilly has grown up. They are mothers, fathers, wives and husbands, but will always remain young at heart. There is an undeniable authenticity to all of them and they make it work. Even with Pressnall juggling his latest project, Icky Blossoms, with Tilly’s commitments, he seems to handle it well.
“It’s definitely hard, but it’s what I like to do, you know? So I make it work. This is what I chose to do with my life. I see it as my job. It’s a lot to do, but I love it. I take each day by each day,” he says. “I feel very grateful that I am able to do this with my life. If I want to continue down this path, I have to keep working really hard. But yeah, it’s crazy having a couple bands and it’s wild, but it’s been wild fun.”
“With Tilly, we’ve always just been like, ‘we’re just people.’ Everybody feels like they can talk to us. I think that attitude of ‘oh, I’m so cool’ only comes from if you think you’re hot shit then people are going to treat you like you think you’re hot shit,” Alarid concludes. “We’re a full-on dork band. Come on, look at us. On stage, we’re dorks. You want to be a fucking person. What else would you be?!”