Philly rockers Sheer Mag have literally done it themselves. Between 2014 and 2016 the five-piece released three self-recorded EPs and played a ton of shows. With a blend of classic rock riffs, punk ethos and a powerhouse vocalist in Tina Halladay, they’re not afraid to tackle the difficult topics either, whether it’s about the gentrification of their area (‘Fan The Flames’), the unpunished murders of women in Mexican city Ciudad Juarez (‘Can’t Stop Fighting’) and have made metaphorical links between domestic abuse and class oppression (‘Hard Lovin’).
After having recently reissued all three EPs as a storming compilation, the band have now unleashed debut album proper, ‘Need To Feel Your Love’. Guitarist Matt Palmer explains that crafting the record has been a six month process, starting back last Autumn. On it, they’ve stuck to their DIY roots, Matt saying that “the process was exactly the same as all of the EPs.” Despite this, there’s a little bit of extra gloss on show, which he puts down to bassist Hart Seely “getting better and better at producing.” At the same time, they wanted to make sure that Tina’s words weren’t lost in the clash of riffs. “Mom has been telling me for years: ‘I can’t hear Christina!’” he laughs. “We didn’t wanna go full-blown pop mix like Katy Perry but we figured there’s gotta be a middle ground, and get to a point where people can actually hear the lyrics!”
It’s a good job you can too, because they’re just as forthright as ever. They address racism and the American constitution (‘Expect The Bayonet’) and political protest (‘Meet Me In The Street’), while also referencing the 1969 Stonewall riots on ‘Suffer Me’, and even the White Rose Movement, a non-violent resistance group who distributed pamphlets about the Nazis’ war crimes, on final track ‘(Say Goodbye To) Sophie Scholl’. There’s also a clutch of love songs that often centre on the less idyllic side of romance, which Matt says is a more “sympathetic perspective.” “Something I try to be conscious of is leaving gender out of as many love songs as I can,” Matt explains. “It doesn’t always work. Sometimes I’ll put in a gender because I’m not a perfect songwriter! But I do want to tell stories that are universal and aren’t at anyone’s expense.”
We caught up with Matt ahead of the release of ‘Need To Feel Your Love’ to chat about politics, history, the need to keep things fresh and why we shouldn’t feel guilty about liking cheesy pop.
The album’s opening track, ‘Meet Me In The Street’, was inspired by your time at the Disrupt J20 protest in Washington. What was that experience like for you?
That was crazy! At a certain point during the day, maybe noon, the police just started firing tear gas canisters into the crowd. We were just walking around and heard the loudest sound I’d ever heard, I was like “what the fuck was that?” The riot cops were just shooting tear gas at protestors and there were weird members of the alt-right and some guy came up and was like “fuck you, pigs!” Some guy came and took my picture and was like “see you on the internet, buddy.” I always wondered if the picture was gonna show up. It was the first time I’d ever witnessed the state gnashing its teeth at its citizens in a way like that. It was insane to see the militarisation of the police like that with grenade launchers shooting at protestors.
That track was obviously built around your own personal experience, but while on other tracks the way you talk about politics in your songs is forthright, you’ve been tactful to not misinterpret the experiences of other people. So with ‘Expect The Bayonet,’ for instance, you talk about systemic racism with some tact because of your own experiences as a white man.
Yeah, definitely. It’s a tricky tightrope to walk to write about social injustice when I’ve experienced so little compared to some of the subjects of so many of the songs. It’s really important for me not to co-opt the narrative and take on the burden of oppression that isn’t my story. When I try and do things like that, I try to tell it more as an omniscient narrator rather than from a first-person perspective.
With ‘Expect The Bayonet,’ it’s definitely about the systemic racism of American society and the government. At the time a Supreme Court Judge had died and he had this idea that the founding fathers knew exactly what they were talking about and that we shouldn’t be reinterpreting them or modifying our laws to accommodate oppressed minorities or other groups. To me, that’s just hypocritical. At the time the constitution was written, all the founding fathers were slave owners and women couldn’t vote. I can’t even imagine what they would think about homosexual rights, let alone trans rights! So really, it’s about how the United States has never been a truly free country and there’s this weird contradiction about how the country was started and this lie that sort of has been perpetuated through our history.
It’s interesting you bring up that historical aspect of the constitution and founding fathers, because a couple of other songs on the album also have a historical basis to them such, as ‘Suffer Me’. The Stonewall riots in particular happened so many years ago, and yet there’s still a long way to go.
Yeah, definitely. The Stonewall riots were a crucible moment for the LGBT movement in the US and while progress has been made, it’s very much an ongoing battle. So many politicians are still debating whether trans, gay and queer people are entitled to the same freedoms and rights as everyone else. They’re still debating that! The argument is over! They are entitled! But the government hasn’t got there yet for some reason. It was really important to show our solidarity for those groups.
Sheer Mag get compared a lot to classic rock bands like Thin Lizzy and AC/DC but you also reference a wide range of genres. ‘Til You Find The One’ is a bit of an acoustic ballad, ‘Need To Feel Your Love’ was inspired by Al Green and you’ve mentioned Fleetwood Mac and Nile Rodgers. Is it important to you to draw from a wide variety of genres?
Classic rock is the foundation of Sheer Mag. When we’re on tour we just listen to classic rock radio all the time! Between all of us, we’re like fucking classic rock scholars; Tyler’s an encyclopaedia of knowledge about butt rock and classic rock bands. But we draw from a bunch of stuff. Punk and hardcore is another foundation for all of us. I love The Kinks, and Fleetwood Mac is a giant. I wish I could write like Stevie Nicks. She’s so weirdly vague. All of her songs are so confusing actually, they’re all about shadows and shit like that! It conveys a good feeling though. We’re always looking for more music to rip off though!
That’s such a harsh way of putting it!
It’s true though! I think that’s what a lot of people do. If you take a little bit from every place, then it becomes its own thing and it speaks to all the influences that you have. It’s a diverse palette of stolen riffs and ideas!
The combination of classic rock, punk and Tina’s voice is something all its own though! Do you think coming from a very DIY scene where you have the freedom to write and record as you see fit helps to mix it up and give that scope to add something new to something classic?
The medium is the message in some ways. There have been classic rock bands before but they haven’t used the template of DIY in the same way we have. Having the freedom to do that is something that defines the band: we can record whenever we want, we can put out records when we want and not have to wait a year. Some many of my friends on record labels have to wait nine months after their album is finished for it to come out, but we can release it as soon as it’s pressed.
Is maintaining that ethic something you’ll always continue?
Yeah! We’re trying as hard as we can not to be greedy and just building bit by bit! Slowly but surely as opposed to jumping to a place. Getting into the mainstream is a very tricky thing and you might just end up alienating people when you cross over and we’d rather not be a bunch of sell-outs and have our fans be like “what the fuck? Now they’re on Columbia and they suck!” We’re gonna keep building up and hopefully we’ll put out other bands’ records and have our own indie label someday. We’re just sort of taking it slowly and not getting ahead of ourselves.
Recently, you were performing at a wedding in North Carolina and you played a cover of Shania Twain’s ‘Man! I Feel Like A Woman’. What else did you play?
We mostly did covers. We did ‘Tubthumping’, ‘Kiss Me’ by Sixpence None The Richer. Wedding songs, you know! ‘Young Turks’ by Rod Stewart, that was Kyle’s idea, he loves the guitar part. But that’s another important type of music that I forgot to mention! Really corny guilty pleasures! Songs from the 90s, and we did ‘Teenage Dirtbag’ too. We were all eleven in 2001 or whatever, so all that corny shit and nu-metal, we grew up listening to that and we’ve got to the point where we don’t feel embarrassed about liking it.
The whole concept of a guilty pleasure is flawed though, because even if objectively you think an aspect of the song isn’t so great you can still like it and not have to feel bad about that.
I agree! I like the idea of guilty pleasures dying out and that’s a good thing because it’s the idea of the death of the record collector, mansplaining, asshole guy who likes to think there’s “important music” and “music you like.” It doesn’t have to be cut and dried and there’s stuff you can take away from that.
So what would be your non-guilty pleasure?
That’s a tough one! Maybe Hanson - ‘MMMBop’.
It’s almost surprising that Hanson are still a band, they’ve kept going and they’re not doing too badly!
I actually looked them up recently too and I’m like damn, they’re all pretty well adjusted! I don’t know how great their records are these days but they turned out okay!
‘Need To Feel Your Love’ is out now via Static Shock Records.