You, Me, Everyone: Martin Tillman Discusses Inspiration For 'Superhuman'

Cellist and composer Martin Tillman opens up about his new album and remembers the big dreams he dreamed before coming to America.

Martin Tillman


Label: Self-released
US Release Date: 2016-03-05
UK Release Date: 2016-03-05

"It was almost like writing music for a non-existent film, there was a story that had to be told and I had to stick with it," says Martin Tillman, of his new album, Superhuman, which finds the acclaimed film composer (Pirates of the Caribbean, The Ring), moving out of the realm he's best-known for but still delivering the kind of effortlessly beautiful music his admirers know he's capable of.

Tillman had long wanted to do an album of non-film-related music. If he wasn't busy composing for the screen he found himself on the road or in the studio with any number of acts, ranging from Elvis Costello to Sting to Beck. "What finally did it," he says, "was that my wife was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis about nine years ago. It really re-calibrated my life. Because of that I started turning down a lot of outside projects, which opened up the possibility of me spending much more time at home."

He moved recording gear into his guest house and set up shop there. "I knew I wanted to fill the time with music," he says. "There was a purpose for this album, too, which was to write something beautiful for her. To me, music needs to be an energy; it needs to give you a smile. I like music with a soul. When I hear Chaka Khan or BB King, or Santana or Pink Floyd I get chills because I feel everything those performers do. It's meant to come from the middle of their embodiment. It's their expression at the fullest. That, to me, is what's most important."

Tillman was extremely purposeful in the writing process, wanting to compose something that was, in his words, "very energetic, something a little bigger than life." Inspired by music of Pink Floyd and the group's tendency for conceptual pieces, he decided to make one of his own. "The title," he says, "came fairly quick. The concept was really to write music that was up, nothing sad or tragic about it or melancholic."

The album became a celebration of their relationship as well as reason enough for listeners to find their own happiness in the music.

Joining Tillman on Superhuman are players such as bassist Leland "Lee" Sklar (James Taylor, Phil Collins), drummer Vinnie Colaiuta (Frank Zappa, Sting), guitarists Davey Johnstone (Elton John) and Michael Landau as well as Toto's David Paich. "When I think of my favorite musicians and the best possible musicians on earth that you can get, it's all of them," Tillman says, "because when you combine their musical knowledge and experience, you get 800 years of making music."

The tone of his voice shifts slightly, taking on a quiet candor. "Also, I don't know how long they'll continue to do sessions," Tillman adds. "For me, it was very important to chronicle the best musicians I could think of on one album because maybe my next record won't happen for 10 years; time is fleeting and what could be nicer than inviting my friends to play with me?"

He knew them through a variety of avenues, including shared concert gigs, some of them stretching back to Tillman's early years in Los Angeles. He had met Colaiuta on a studio date with singer-songwriter Vonda Shepard roughly 25 years ago. "She was with Michael Landau at that time so that's how I met him," Tillman recalls. These are also players who are part of a dying breed.

"I remember, 20 years ago, when I was a receptionist at a studio, I would see Landau come in for a session with David Foster for months on end, doing Michael Bolton, then doing a Chicago record, then doing an Earth Wind & Fire record," he says. "Now, when I talk with some of my friends, I hear about how they don't work in studios anymore because most big studios no longer exist. The kind of pop songs that have a middle part with a guitar solo or sax solo are also gone. And then there's money. Most people finance their own records, which is pretty much what happened to my record, with a little bit of help from Sony. It is a totally changed field, for the good and maybe not-so-good. It's sad to see that the session world as I saw it in the last 25 years, literally, is over."

Some can still find work in film, though most are on the road more than they were before. "It's a tough world out there," Tillman notes. "I don't envy the next generation."

Tillman's own journey began when he was very young, though he says that scoring films was never part of the life he imagined for himself. "It's too many months, too many people cooking in the kitchen," he adds with laugh. His parents ran a boarding school in his native Switzerland and organized summer music camps for children. "I was surrounded by about 30 kids every summer: From the top floor to the basement, there were oboes and clarinets and violins and cellos playing," he recalls. "We would even dress in period clothing. It was a pretty crazy upbringing."

Though he appreciated classical music, he soon fell in love with Toto and Supertramp. Later, he learned about Santana and Pink Floyd. By 16 he had started music school. It was then that he had a vision for himself. "I knew that I would end up in L.A. because I would look at the backs of the albums and see 'Recorded at Ocean Way' and think of those places. I read all the liner notes and the credits and I thought, 'That's such a cool town. That's where I need to go!'"

"I didn't know that it would take me almost another 18 years to find a way to make a living and get into it," he says. "I had many, many detours." (Including working as a receptionist, the decision to take up electric cello and many side gigs that ultimately brought him into Hans Zimmer's world in time to create music for Face/Off.)

His friends, he says, were skeptical of his personal vision. "They thought I was completely nuts and arrogant and a dreamer. They probably thought, 'What a crazy kid.' I played with BB King and Chaka Khan in Montreux. I knew that those moments existed before I played with those cats," he recalls. "I think that when you dream big and you're unafraid of dreaming, things will come your way. That's not just in music. You, me, everyone."

Another dream he had was making a record that was meant to be held. Superhuman's sleeve somehow enhances the listening experience, the way that poring over a Pink Floyd or Alan Parsons sleeve in the past would conjure its own set of creative possibilities in the mind. "I love the smell of the paper and the print and how you can elaborate on the artwork. You can have all the senses involved. I remember going to a record store in Zurich and how I would unwrap the covers. It was a beautiful discovery," he adds. "Now, it's a little sad with direct downloads: it's easy to overlook something because it's only a click away."

Tillman hopes to issue the record on vinyl in 2017. He's also planning a concert hall tour in the future (he mentions a 2018 European launch date). "We'll do 15-20 performances of music from Superhuman together with a chamber orchestra," he says. "We'll have dancers and multimedia. The idea is to take the music into the world of classical concert halls and turn everything upside down."

The 2018 rather than 2017 date comes down to practicality: the halls in Europe book up roughly two years in advance, though that gives Tillman time to plan the gigs down to finite details. "We might do some one-offs and festivals," he says, "but the idea is to make it more like an event than just a show."

By then the music will have been heard by many people, some of them unaware of the record's origins or the artist's intentions. Tillman says that he hopes listeners will find themselves in the music somehow. "Take what you need," he says, "people experience places like France way different than I do and the same thing with music: it depends where you listen to it, it depends on what type of music you like. If I can put a little smile on somebody's face when they listen to the music, even if it's just something that happens for someone on one track from all the 11, I'm ecstatic. Happy."

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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