When they began, Tilly and the Wall stuck out in the indie rock landscape of the mid–2000s with a conspicuously unique feature: tap dancing. The presence of Jamie Pressnall, the group’s tap dancer, provided a characteristic touch that was enough to set the band noticeably apart from their peers, but never too much to saddle the band with accusations of gimmickry. After their last album, 2008′s O, Tilly and the Wall took a break for a few years, during which several band members had kids while others explored a variety of different projects. Keyboardist Nick White took the latter route, playing with The Young Veins until the Tilly crew regrouped to write and record their most recent effort, Heavy Mood. We caught up with Nick to chat about the sincerity, friendship, and the band’s hometown of Omaha, Neb.
OS: Did your experience with The Young Veins influence how you approached the new Tilly material?
NW: Yeah, it did for sure. I came to The Young Veins right when they finished recording their album, and it was the first band I’d ever auditioned for, which was a different experience for me. It was cool doing that. There were tons of keyboard parts happening on The Young Veins album and I was kind of consolidating them so that they could work in our live performance. It was a lot of adapting the parts to play live. I had never adapted someone else’s parts to play live, so that, I think, really expanded how I felt about playing in a rock band in general. And then also, it made me really motivated when we came back to Tilly to push creatively with the band. Having a project in which I had a lot of say definitely felt really special to me, not that it hadn’t before, but then it was more so. Everything with Tilly felt very pressing and very important.
OS: The album definitely has the same youthful vibe that you guys have channeled before, but there is certainly something new there as well.
NW: Right. There’s nothing we can do—whether we cover songs, or whatever we play, acoustic guitar or electric guitar—that could not sound the way the band sounds. Within that, we have a lot of freedom to try different styles and not feel like we’re getting away from what the band has sounded like or could sound like.
OS: Was it any harder to maintain the band’s youthful exuberance now that some members have become parents in recent years?
NW: I think, if anything, it’s been helpful. Because I imagine that Derek and Jamie and Kianna have it as a creative outlet of sorts. Any kind of art is a nice companion to the mundane of the day to day. I think that the energy level was so high and we were all so excited to be back working with one another that it was easier than ever to channel that energy. It was a long process getting the album written and recorded. It basically took all of last year through the winter of this year. The first two practices when we were sending demos and coming to town and imagining what we could do, it just felt like the energy was totally building.
OS: Certain songs seem more aggressive—lyrically and sonically—than previous Tilly albums. Could you attribute that shift in tone to anything in particular?
NW: Partly it’s us having played music for a certain amount of time and really feeling the shift where we’re all really on the same page about it. Kianna felt really into the more aggressive songs and the act of getting shit together and changing can be positive and it can be right now. It doesn’t have to be a future goal. A song like “Love Riot” is fun, you know?
OS: There’s a very sincere feeling to a lot of the messages on the album, as well.
NW: Yeah. It’s hard because you never want to be sincere in a way where people are turned off by that. Not in an overly heart on your sleeve kind of way. I think that we’ve always tried to ride that line between being very honest, but at the same time making it appealing.
OS: I mean, there is a lot of cynicism and irony in indie rock, which you guys kind of stand in counterpoint to. Where would you place the band in relation to that general feeling of disenchantment?
NW: I don’t know exactly if it’s a counterpoint. I enjoy all types of music and all types of messages, but I feel like the band’s trajectory has been always slightly outside of the way that the rest of alternative music has gone. Maybe we’re a little slower to react at times [laughs]. I don’t know what it is. We’re five weirdos—five people who kind of exist in their own worlds a lot of the time. I think it’s really cool to be in your peer set working alongside other musicians with similar goals. In Nebraska, we were always really lucky, because that felt like the case, but at the same time we’re always happy to be leaning into slightly different territory.
OS: There are a lot of strong statements of friendship and support on the album—like on “Thicker Than Thieves” or “I Believe In You.” Do those reflect the closeness of the band members that you mentioned?
NW: Yeah, for sure. At this point, I treat them all as my family, and we all have for years. We’ve been a band since 2001. It’s wild spending so much of your adult life with people who are so special. And something like “I Believe In You,” I took to that song because it’s not only an affirmation that there [is] nothing you could do that would make me write you off, but it’s also about how sometimes you need to step away and let someone else figure out their life.
OS: Jamie’s tap dancing on this album appears almost as much as a traditional drum kit. Would you say that tap dancing is still a central or defining part of your sound?
NW: I would. We didn’t have any expectations for what we needed to have accompany these songs when we started the demos, and it worked out that a lot of the time we were working, Jamie was in her second pregnancy. She has two kids now. We were doing things, but it was never a problem for us. Like I said, the band always has the tendency of sounding like the band whatever we do, so we would be forced to reimagine songs and say, “Well, this song we’re going to do without tapping. Are we going to use live drums or electronic sounds?” “I Believe In You” is all found sounds that Mike [Mogis, producer] recorded on tour and blended them together. Whenever he got a chance over the tour, he would record clips. Some of the tracks, like “Heavy Mood,” are programming and live drums and tap dancing.
OS: You guys are preparing right now in Omaha for the upcoming tour. What do you like about going back there as a home base? Do you still feel a strong connection to the local scene?
NW: I do. It was kind of amazing flying into town—I got in at 11:30 p.m. or something—I was staying at one friend’s house who was working at a venue, so I took my two keyboards, my suitcase, and my backpack and went straight to the venue to wait for him to get off work. It’s just familiar faces. I dropped off all my stuff at the door and went in and caught up with everyone. It’s such a welcoming town, and especially at this time of year it’s so beautiful. Coming from L.A., it’s nice to have a moment like that.
Catch Tilly and the Wall on their current tour and check out the new video for “Defenders” below!