In front of a crowded room at Northern, Olympia's answer to Seattle's all-ages Vera Project, Pearly Gate Music's Zach Tillman polished off the song "Oh, What a Time!" by telling the audience: "That song was about what would happen if I went on a gay date with Jesus. Look, I know you were crucified, but I'm not that into you."
Lawnapalooza With Pearly Gate Music, Throw Me the Statue, Noah Gunderson & The Courage. Husky Union Building lawn, UW campus. Free. All ages. 11 a.m.–4 p.m. Thurs., May 20.
Beginning with the name of his band and straight through the 10 songs on Pearly Gate Music's self-titled debut album—which hits stores Tues., May 18 via local indie label Barsuk Records—Tillman wades through Christianity's closet, familiar ground for a kid raised singing and playing music at church back home in Maryland. On his record of somber pop, boisterous choruses, and aggressive, teeth-clenching emotion, he does not exactly question religion. He has a pretty good idea of what he believes today, and how that jibes with what he believed 10 years ago.
"I hated Christianity for years and years," he says in his U District home, sidled up to his lady friend and frequent collaborator, Jenna Conrad, as she rolls him a cigarette. "[I thought] I have no use for this, there is nothing good in it, it is only based in fear, and guilt, and shame. But now I think Jesus is a pretty cool guy."
Tillman was introduced to music the same places he was to God: home and church. His dad played guitar, and Tillman (whose brother, Josh, is the drummer in Fleet Foxes and an accomplished solo artist as well) was taken with both religion and music through high school. He sang in church, attended youth group, and led Bible studies. He played bass in a neighborhood band called Emanon (yes, "no name" spelled backwards), not because he wanted to play bass, but because he really wanted to be in a band. The instrument stuck, and for a time so did the religion.
Things changed in the fall of 2000, when he left for the University of Maryland to study English literature and philosophy. "I was in Philosophy 101 and I just remember sitting in class, like, looking at other people, being, like, 'Did you hear what he just said?'—just so excited," he says, recalling his exposure to new ideas he'd never contemplated during his adolescence. "My brain was just, like, going crazy. Everyone else was sleeping in class and I was, like, 'Dude, wake up. This is crazy. You're not gonna believe this shit.'"
The next year he dropped out ("I was just, like, I can fucking read on my own time. This is expensive") and got in the van with his brother and the band Saxon Shore, which just happened to be in the market for a bassist. Tillman landed in Seattle not long after, full of grand ambitions. "I moved out here when I was 21 and I was, like, 'I am just going to drink and play in bands and party.'"
Working with the pop-rock act Siberian, Tillman met fellow Seattleite Joe Syverson—then working in the band Throw Me the Statue—at a show they were playing together at the Silverlake Lounge in Los Angeles. About a month later, Syverson called to say he was putting together a band, Final Spins, and wanted Tillman to play bass.
"His bass playing was amazing in Siberian," says Syverson. "When you're looking for new people to play with...it's like you're dating dudes, or something. It's weird, 'cause you see other musicians play, and you like the way they play, and you kind of seek them out. Luckily, it just kind of randomly worked out."
It wasn't long before Tillman asked Syverson to return the favor and play bass for Pearly Gate Music, where Tillman works a nylon-string acoustic guitar. And over the past year the pair has had a rather unique musical relationship, each playing bass in the other's band and occasionally sharing the bill.
"When people work together well, it goes to show that it doesn't matter who's fronting the band," Syverson says. "It could be different songs and a different format, and it still works. It's interesting to be involved in that, for sure."
The first time Tillman's friends and family got a chance to see him perform the music he'd be tinkering with in his downtime was at a 2007 benefit at Chop Suey for Crocodile Cafe employees who'd lost their jobs after the club abruptly closed that year (it has since reopened under new ownership). Tillman took the stage after Siberian's mini-set and sent chills through the room. His brother Josh, obviously shaken, took the stage afterward and was nearly speechless, barely getting out: "Did you just see my brother?"
"It was really intense watching this person you'd seen play with bands multiple times in the past...onstage by himself," says former SW clubs editor Aja Pecknold, manager of Fleet Foxes, Josh's girlfriend, and the person Zach credits with motivating him to get his debut a proper release. "And all of a sudden Zach is just completely destroying the crowd."
Tillman says he loved playing in Siberian, just as he loves working with Final Spins and ((Low Hums))—the latter two projects he'll continue, even as Pearly Gate Music gets set for a year on the road. But ultimately, he got antsy—his own songs were starting to percolate, and in a way it surprised him.
"I kind of thought that [songwriting] was always other people's territory—'I'm an auxiliary musician, I can just come in and support. I don't want that attention, I don't want that scrutiny put on myself,'" he explains. "And then just kind of through a really timid, humble process...[I] started to find my voice and find what I was good at and what I wanted to do."
Today Tillman appears surer of himself. He performs solo as often as he plays in a band, and due to family obligations and other responsibilities that will keep his regular band at home, he's enlisting a new, all-female band that will back him for what looks to be an eventful summer, including a run across the country with Canadian indie-rockers Frog Eyes. From Pearly Gate's album, foot-stompers like "Bad Nostalgia" and the fire-starting sure-to-be single "Daddy Wrote You Letters" are bound to turn some heads this summer.
"It's not your standard folky band or singer/songwriter band. The beats of it aren't your typical 4/4, which I love," says drummer Faustine Hudson, who will soon assume the drum throne in Pearly Gates. "Somebody once said to me, 'You can play the drums and just beat on 'em, or you can play the drums like you play the piano.' His music is very dynamic, and there's a lot of room to play like the piano, I guess."
As Tillman's music has evolved, so have his views on religion, in particular the one in which he was raised. He no longer makes the Bible a part of his daily routine and no longer considers himself a Christian. But he also no longer hates Christianity, and doesn't think "it's better or worse than any other religion." He remains spiritually intrigued, going as far as attending Mars Hill Church at least once, in part due to a "morbid fascination" with pastor Mark Driscoll and his "prescribed masochism." And when Tillman sits down to write a song, the religious archetypes and hymns he was raised on continue to inspire.
"It had such a profound impact in my life that I think I tend to shape certain thoughts through that form," he says. "I'm fascinated by the icons and the structure and the tradition. As far as Christianity goes, I'd say it's more academic than, like, inspirational. I get a lot of fun out of kind of jabbing at that institution a little."
Note: This story has been corrected to reflect that Tillman was raised in Maryland, not Massachusetts.