Tuesday, August 12, 2008

He's with the Band

What do you do if you’re fifteen years old and your favorite band asks you to contribute artwork for their new album? If you’re Lee Heinemann, first you suppress the urge to purge.

“I thought I was going to throw up,” Lee says of the moment Tilly and the Wall asked for his help with o, which was released on June 17.

But he quickly beat back nausea. And then he got to work.

* * *

Before we get to now, we have to go back to then, when Lee was an unassuming junior high kid consumed with art and music, the kind who takes a sketch pad everywhere because you never know when the muse might come.

He was just 12 years old when he first heard Tilly and the Wall, the mixed-gender Omaha indie-pop band famous for its buoyant songs and the tap dancing that often stands in place of more conventional percussion. Soon, Lee and his friends in the now-defunct band Taxidermy Recital were hitting the road from their home in Kansas City to see Tilly on Midwestern stops in Omaha and Lawrence, Kansas. He quickly saw the distance between band and fans disappear. “They’re very accessible” Lee says of Tilly, whose members routinely chat with fans lined up to get into shows.

Lee began giving the band his drawings, and Taxidermy Recital gave them a copy of its CD, which featured a cover Lee had created. Soon thereafter, Derek Presnall, Tilly’s guitarist, asked Lee to paint the cover for a seven-inch single by Presnall’s side project, Flowers Forever. At that point, Lee’s transformation into something more than a fan began.

* * *

A few weeks after catching a Tilly show in Omaha in March of this year, Lee received an e-mail from Kianna Alarid, the band’s bassist and singer. She had a proposition.

Since its inception, Tilly and the Wall has possessed a heightened sense of community. Omaha is home to a small and notoriously supportive group of musicians and artists. Tilly can trace its roots back to Park Avenue, a band that also featured Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes and Clark Baechle of The Faint, and now Tilly makes its home on Team Love records, which was established by Oberst and Nate Krenkel in 2003. That sense of community extended to Tilly’s fans, and the band had an idea to increase the level of intimacy between artist and audience even further.

Tilly wanted some artist friends to create individual jewel-case-sized pieces of art to be included in a limited edition of the new album. The idea was not for each artist to create one piece to be reproduced; it was to create individual, unique pieces so that no two copies of the album would be alike. The works would go straight from the artists’ hands to the disc’s cover.

Alarid’s request to Lee was both simple and daunting. Could he create 1,000 inserts for the new album?

Thrilled, flattered and a bit overwhelmed, Lee got to work. Though each piece would be distinctive, the series would be cohesive, as he used silk screens and spray paints to create brightly colored backgrounds overlaid with dark images. After Lee sent an initial batch of 500 to Team Love, they asked him to create as many more as he could as quickly as possible. He worked around the clock to deliver 700 more images to the label.

More than a dozen artists participated, but Lee was one of the stalwarts of the project, and Team Love’s Matt Mangin praises his work. “Lee's [pieces] are some of the very best and so cool,” says Mangin.

For his part, Lee can’t quite get over how wonderful and strange it is to be part of his favorite band’s circle of friends. “The whole thing is so weird,” he says. “Going from being a really big fan to being part of the album they’re putting out is a thrill.”

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