Tilly and the Wall building a bridge to indie-pop success

Posted: Thursday, March 20, 2008

Go ahead, just try and find someone who has uttered a discouraging word about Tilly and the Wall, an indie-pop band from Omaha, Neb., that often uses a tap dancer in place of a drummer. Comb through review after review - nothing.

Allentown Morning Call Photo
Allentown Morning Call Photo

During an interview from her home in Omaha, bassist-singer Neely Jenkins is asked if she can think of someone who dislikes Tilly and the Wall. After uncorking a booming belly laugh, she says: "We played in Amsterdam last summer, and after the show we were hanging out and somebody yelled, 'Tilly and the Wall suck!' and then ran away. We laughed so hard."

Truth be told, Jenkins is more likely to hear marriage proposals - or, as happened at a Feb. 29 gig in Los Angeles, demands from fans that she have their babies - shouted at her during Tilly and the Wall's live shows. "That happens every once and a while," Jenkins admits after some coaxing. "It's no big deal."

Such devotion, however, is noteworthy, and likely to build in the coming months, when Jenkins and her bandmates - singer-tap dancer Jamie Pressnall, singer-percussionist Kianna Alarid, guitarist-singer Derek Pressnall and keyboardist Nick White - release "Tilly and the Wall," their third album.

(The band is already on the road previewing a handful of new songs from the disc, which will be released on June 17.)

Those already smitten are taken with Tilly and the Wall's brash blend of catchy melodies, stellar harmonies, contagious merriment and infectious inspiration that animate songs of splintered romance, the courage to pursue an idea and standing up for the things you love.

"Energetic" is the adjective most often used to describe the band's live shows, which feature colorful costuming (teal leggings, yellow tutus, flowered tap shoes, a gold lame prom dress, etc.), glow sticks, glitter, balloons and neon lights.

Jenkins has a hard time describing the new CD. First she says it is "a little more full sounding than (2006's) 'Bottoms of Barrels.' There are a lot of different instruments." Then she says, "But it's also a little more stripped down."

Like Tilly and the Wall, which first came together in 2001, Jenkins, 33, has led something of a charmed existence as a musician.

Born and raised in Lincoln, Neb., by a mom who runs a day-care center and a dad who is an electrical engineer, Jenkins came to think of music as a career relatively late in life. "I was in different choirs and choral groups in junior high and high school," she says. "And I was in love with the Monkees. I was always dancing around to their music. ... My dad was a huge Blondie fan, and both of my parents liked the Beatles."

Jenkins, however, didn't begin playing an instrument until she was in college. "A friend showed me how to play the bass when I was about 20," she says.

In the mid-1990s, while attending the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, she was introduced by mutual acquaintances to Conor Oberst, before he became revered indie-rocker Bright Eyes.

"All of his friends were going to school in Lincoln, and at that point, he was in Commander Venus," says Jenkins, referring to the indie-rock band that recorded two CDs between 1995 and 1997. "Conor had heard that I played bass."

After Jenkins graduated with a degree in education, Oberst talked her into moving to his hometown. There, she taught fourth grade for five years, earned a masters degree from the University of Nebraska at Omaha and played with Oberst, Alarid and Jamie Pressnall (then known as Jamie Williams) in a "fun pop band" called Park Ave.

"Jamie tap-danced a little bit in Park Ave.," notes Jenkins, who along with Alarid added hand percussion to the mix. "At one point she just said, 'I think I'm gonna tap dance on that song,' and it started happening."

As Park Ave. became a dead end, the three women joined forces with Derek Pressnall and White in Tilly and the Wall (the name derives from Leo Lionni's children's book "Tillie and the Wall"). Bright Eyes fans Pressnall and White had moved to Omaha from Atlanta. "Jamie was on tour with Bright Eyes selling merch (merchandise) when she met Derek in Atlanta," says Jenkins, "and they really hit it off. So Derek eventually moved to Omaha."

(After dating for a couple of years, Derek and Jamie were married in a friend's back yard on Aug. 12, 2006. "The girls in the band were all in the wedding," says Jenkins, "and Of Montreal played at the reception, which was held at the Bemis Center for the Arts.")

Just before Tilly and the Wall was ready to record its first CD, 2004's "Wild Like Children," opportunity knocked again. Oberst had decided to start a label that would be a sister imprint to Saddle Creek, for which he records and his brother, Justin, helps run.

"Conor had all these ideas, so many bands he wanted to sign," says Jenkins. "He took us out to dinner and said, 'We want to put your records out.' So we became the label's flagship band."

And when it came time to tour, "we were super-lucky we had friends who took us out with them," says Jenkins. "First, there was Conor and getting to play with him before these huge audiences. Then there was (Seattle indie-rock band) Pedro the Lion, which had a really good following. And (L.A. indie-rock act) Rilo Kiley. They opened a ton of doors for us."



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