Listening to Tilly And The Wall is a kaleidoscopic experience – like being psyched up by a romantic fun-loving cult with a passion for colour and harmony. Known for their eclectic dress sense and sing-along tracks, Tilly produce rousing melodies with chants borne out of American teenage angst and an irrepressible lust for life. Hailing from Omaha, Nebraska, the five 20-something musicians have just released their third album, ambiguously non-titled, but not self-titled either.
Rather than employing something so dull as a drummer, Tilly And The Wall has Jamie Pressnall the tap-dancer drilling out beats with her feet for percussion. I caught Jamie in the middle of sorting out the cassette tapes of her youth, to get the lowdown on Tilly’s latest adventures.
The new album is commonly referred to as O, due to its spherical shape. “It’s not really titled actually,” Jamie explains in her mid-American drawl. In the US, Tilly commissioned 20 different artists to produce a thousand pieces of art apiece. Once the 20,000 original pieces of art were assembled, they formed the shape of an – “O’. “It’s really to draw attention to the artwork that was made for the record. The – “O’ is like a symbol, but we all call it different names. I call it Masks, some people call it O.”
The band’s name is sourced from the title of children’s book Tillie And The Wall by Amsterdam writer and former Andy Warhol employee, Leo Lionni. Their debut album Wild Like Children mourns romances lost and details raucous teenage binge-drinking and sexual experimentation. Standout track Nights of the Living Dead cries out, “The high school kids are all fucked up, touching each other, oh my god. Forty ounces was never enough, we wanna pass out in your yard…Dressing in drag…while boys kiss boys”. The band has a penchant for childlike wonder and pensive romanticism, with lyrics such as, “I laid on my bed, let the punk record spin, the sloppy guitar it was shooting out stars – they all went to my heart, some rainbows in the dark,” from Rainbows In The Dark on their sophomore release Bottoms of Barrels.
The sonically hyperactive Tilly And The Wall have grown up, with O covering themes of mythical symbolism in nature, astrology, sex and magic. I ask Jamie how she would describe the new album and she squeals, “Crazy pop punk!”
The band formed out of a group of high school friends. Jamie and Neely had been in a band with Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst before forming Tilly and releasing albums through Conor’s Team Love label. “All my friends were musicians and artists, I learned so much from them. I’ve watched Bright Eyes and all our friends’ bands just start touring the country and then start touring internationally,” Jamie explains, “I was just like, that’s actually something that we can do. With Tilly, we have had the opportunity to do that.”
Tilly And The Wall have become firm festival favourites in the past few years, playing Coachella and shows from Iceland to Japan and Europe. The band often puts on gigs with the likes of Rilo Kiley, Of Montreal and current best buddies CSS. “We’re going to tour the US in September opening up for CSS,” says Jamie. “We’re so excited, we love them!”
Tilly put on a dynamic live show. Tiny, dramatically dressed singer Kiana Alarid, a former toymaker and florist with unicorns tattooed on her arm, leaps around the stage. When I saw them play in New Zealand last year, she donned sequined Mickey Mouse ears, yellow tights and rainbow coloured shoes, breaking out into spontaneous Beyonce butt-shakin’ dance moves. Jamie says the band yells and screams before a show to hype themselves up. “You always think about the crowd and the audience, that they’re actually there to see our show and support us. We are lucky to do what we do. I get really excited to play live.”
Tapping tirelessly on stage during shows must require some serious stamina. “I plan the set so that I have breaks every three or four songs. The first couple of weeks on tour I am exhausted but then you just get used to it.” A classically trained dancer, former professional ballerina and dance teacher, Jamie likens tap dancing to working out. “When you have to do it every day, it’s like your body adjusts. But even if you practice every day it’s not the same as performing. You so much have adrenaline going, I dance differently. It is a rush.”
Jamie says that she doesn’t drink or do drugs on tour to keep her energy levels up. “I’m really conscious of what I eat and I try to stay as healthy as possible, otherwise I get sick. I used to get sick all on tour the time. I had pneumonia three times in one year because my body would get so tired when we were touring. I would eat whatever, I would drink. The last couple of years I haven’t gotten sick I think it’s because I’m really careful of what I eat on tour.”
With five members in the band all producing lyrics, the songwriting process is very collaborative. “Usually the person who wrote the song will bring the skeleton of a song to practice, whether it’s the lyrics and a guitar part or keyboards. Then the person kind of directs you. Like, I want it to sound punk, I want it to sound rough, I want it to sound poppy.” For Jamie, her inspiration on this record, so much bigger in sound the last, came from marching bands. “I’ve always loved marching bands and I wanted to bring that sound in to a record. I try to draw inspiration from everything – music, friends, relationships.”
Jamie grew up all over America but went to high school in Omaha, to a soundtrack of Elliot Smith’s Roman Candles and The Cure’s Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me. “It’s mellow,” Jamie says of Omaha. “There’s a very slow pace of life and everybody stays inside a lot, because the weather is really extreme. It’s either, like, freezing or really hot. There’s only three weeks out of the year where it’s nice weather so you’re indoors a lot, which allows you to be a little bit more creative I think.” As a word of advice, Jamie offers her philosophy on life to Australian Tilly fans. “Do what you love, do what makes you happy, and don’t ever have regrets in your life.”
Coming up next for Tilly And The Wall is a tour of the UK in October after performing with CSS, and they hope to make it back to Australia soon. “We would love to come back,” Jamie enthuses. “We had so much fun when we were there! We’re hoping we can for sure, that would be awesome.”
O is out now on Dew Process.
First published on Faster Louder