Five years ago, Sheer Mag were the buzziest DIY band on the planet. Now, they’re a full-throttle independent rock ‘n’ roll machine who tackle domestic abuse, prejudice, death and anxiety on ferocious new album ‘A Distant Call’. Singer Tina Halladay tells Ben Homewood why the world needs the Philadelphians…
On November 3rd 2015, Sheer Mag started a seven-week European tour with a show at Bologna’s Freakout Club. Its name was a perfect fit.
Back then, Sheer Mag were the year’s most hyped band, freaking people out with their buzzing, big-hearted rock‘n’roll, and exploding out of south Philadelphia’s DIY circuit. Accentuating the best bits of the classic rock they loved and subverting its macho stereotypes, they had a brilliant, scratchy logo and looked like a bar band excavated from the 1970s. They lived, and recorded, in a place called The Nuthouse, its compact spaces the perfect incubator for their greasy noise. They had released two self-made four-track EPs, ‘I’ and ‘II’, and their songs sounded like they were on fire. The likes of ‘What You Want’, ‘Point Breeze’ and ‘Fan The Flames’ were white hot, insanely good. Sheer Mag were unsigned and they weren’t doing interviews. Word was spreading, and tickets were scarce.
“That first European tour was insane,” says the group’s singer Tina Halladay. “Our tour manager messaged me beforehand and said, ‘You will probably break up!’ I was like, ‘Yeah whatever, I guess we’ll see…’”
Sheer Mag just wanted to play, so they flew to Europe, hired a van and proceeded to spend endless hours inside it, freezing. Halladay first met guitarist Matt Palmer and the Seely brothers, lead guitarist Kyle and bassist Hart, who grew up in Syracuse, at Purchase College, New York. Their friend Ian Dykstra was on drums in those days, indeed, Sheer Mag have never really had a permanent drummer (current touring member Giacomo Zatti is their fourth). Clearly, the close confinement was intense.
“We only had one day without a show and it was spent travelling on an overnight boat to Finland, so we really didn’t have a day off,” Halladay remembers. “It was freezing cold, I don’t think any of us had headphones, mobile phone data or any distractions. It was a pretty torturous seven weeks, but every single venue and every single person was amazing. Every promoter was like, ‘This is the most people we’ve ever had and the most money we’ve ever made.’ The fans were the only reason we survived.”
Four years later, Halladay can laugh at the memories. NME finds the singer fresh from a visit to the post office, at home with her brother in Philly. She’s preparing to put her life in a bag once again to hit the road this week until early November, in support of new album ‘A Distant Call’. Another pulverising few months beckon, but Sheer Mag are well accustomed by now.
They completed their EP series with the blistering ‘III’ in 2016, and debut album ‘Need To Feel Your Love’ followed in 2017, adding disco, plus touches of Abba and Fleetwood Mac to the mix. If their debut showed their range, ‘A Distant Call’ stands tall as their most complete work to date, 10 tracks of straight up rock‘n’roll, urgent and unruly. Mixing from Arthur Rizk adds warmth and gloss to recordings first tracked in the freezing snow of DeRuyter, New York.
It’s also their most personal release, ruthlessly exposing Halladay’s experiences (through a fictional protagonist, it deals with body image issues and details a whirlwind period in which she was fired, broken up with and lost her abusive father) in a way that just wasn’t possible until now. Sheer Mag needed to become inseparable to make this record, and Halladay says freezing together in their van four years ago was the first major step in getting there.
“We’re all incredibly close, we’re like siblings at this point,” she says. “We fight, we go on [laughs] and annoy each other and yell at each other. We’ve been through so much.”
Halladay has come to cherish her relationship with Palmer in particular, after the group’s creative process thrust them together. Sheer Mag songs are made in a production line: first, the Seely brothers conjure groove, snap and corkscrew solos, then Halladay and Palmer summon melody and lyrics. On ‘A Distant Call’, Palmer came to inhabit the singer’s mind like never before.
“In the writing relationship we have, Matt ends up doing the final arrangements of the melody and lyrics, he writes most of them,” Halladay explains. “Our relationship had to get to this point for him to be able to do justice to my experiences, like my father and our relationship and his death and how that affected me, and body image and just going through the world as a fat woman. It took 24 other songs [on the EPs and ‘Need To Feel Your Love’] to get to the point where he could do it justice and make it really meaningful.”
What they came up with grabs you and doesn’t let go.
“How could I learn to love from somebody so abusive?” asks ‘Cold Sword’. “I pulled back and went away, to nurse my heart’s bruises”. On ‘The Right Stuff’, Halladay sings, “Eyes stare and people turn, my heart starts to race and my face burns.”
Looking back, she says, the recording process was taxing in the extreme.
“The conversation around body image is a lot more open now, so that wasn’t too difficult, but the stuff with my father made me confront some things I’d maybe been ignoring or hadn’t been able to articulate,” Halladay explains. “That was really therapeutic and really hard, I think it was hard for Matt to even attempt it. You don’t want to mess something like that up.”
Perhaps the best example of what she means can be found within ‘Cold Sword’, the album’s motoring centerpiece. You’ll want to dance to its thrusting rhythm, but its message is altogether more serious.
“It’s about my father and it’s the one that was the most difficult to write, record and deal with,” she says. “I’ve told Matt a lot about mine and my father’s relationship and his actions towards me and the rest of my family. I wrote it all down. I wrote everything I could remember, every experience, like being terrified and upset, just every moment that he terrorised mine and my family’s life. I wrote pages and pages of what I could remember in order and gave it to him to work with.”
Elsewhere, in amongst the anxiety and pain of Halladay’s revelations are bursts of Sheer Mag’s customary imagery: picket lines, crooks, dodgy deals, bombs, jail cells and the mayhem of war and politics. These songs are a blur of personal candour and universal truths, set to unrelenting groove and total guitar hedonism, offering glorious contrast to their blackened content. Bass lines pulsate, guitars shimmy and shake, drums thwack. As always, it functions as one giant rallying call, and Halladay is proud to say so. Sheer Mag are here to say that the personal and political aren’t divisible.
“What a lot of people in the world don’t realise is that politics is in everything,” the singer says. “The life that you live, the food you eat, the people you meet, it all has to do with politics and the way our systems are built and created. The people you’re attracted to, the people you see every day, all those things have to do with politics, so there’s no way to not be political. To say something like, ‘I’m not political’, is just showing your ignorance or your privilege.”
Avoiding politics would be “a cop out” for Sheer Mag, and Halladay regales us with some recent drama around planning their tour merchandise to illustrate the point.
“We’re planning to sell a poster that will benefit some Planned Parenthood [sexual healthcare organisation] schemes in Wisconsin and they said, ‘Are there certain places you don’t want to sell it because maybe people will be upset and not agree with it?’” she says.
“Hell no! Anyone opposed to Planned Parenthood is not someone I want to be my fan or be at my shows, so no thank you. I just don’t see how someone who could feel that way would like our music.”
Halladay spits out the end of her sentence, totally mystified. Her confusion is no surprise: Sheer Mag’s bond with their fans is obvious. People wait patiently to talk to the band after shows, forming snaking lines for the merch table, eager to get closer.
“It’s always very overwhelming and awesome, especially women coming up to me and telling me things like, ‘I started a band because of you.’ I’d never expected for people to care so much and be so excited, especially so early on,” says Halladay.
The singer has a theory to explain the devotion and love, too.
“It’s a lot of [reasons], but the one I feel the most is that I don’t look like every other person in a band and I don’t sing about the same things every other person sings about,” she says. “It’s important for people to see themselves, people can relate to me because I’m other and I’m different and that is important to people.”
Halladay saw the same in Judas Priest singer Rob Halford and Thin Lizzy’s Phil Lynott, who she describes as her “favourite” (she has Lynott inked on her right thigh and named her dog The Rocker after him). But while she says “this band and me being in it wouldn’t have existed 30 or 40 years ago,” she notes there’s still “a lot of bullshit to deal with”.
“It’s like, bouncers automatically stopping me and no one else, if I don’t have my [backstage] pass or something,” she explains. “Even promoters who haven’t done their research saying, ‘Oh are you the tour manager? Or are you doing merch?’ I’m just like, ‘No, my picture is on the wall right behind me.’ It’s just ignorance, it’s silly. It makes them look stupid.”
Halladay has got used to setting such people straight in no uncertain terms. When NME first interviewed the singer at SXSW in 2015, it was after a show at which she shoved a man back into the crowd as he stumbled on stage fumbling at the crotch of his jeans. “Get your dick back in your pants dude,” she told him.
Ever since their earliest days, there’s been a sense of necessity about Sheer Mag; they’re a band the world needs and they know it.
“There are a lot of people who want to see themselves. There are young girls out there who’ve never seen a person who looks like me leading a band like this, that representation and seeing yourself is really important for people to realise their potential and what kind of a person they want to be,” says Halladay. “White men have all of these different role models in the world being shown to them, it’s not the same for everyone.”
Sheer Mag, then, present a thrilling alternative. Two albums in, they’re thriving.
“So much rock music in popular culture is so bad and meaningless in my eyes,” Halladay continues. “I love rock‘n’roll, so for people to have to dig so deep to find music that is meaningful sucks.”
Thankfully, it’s no longer necessary to dig to find Sheer Mag. They’re still putting music out through their own Wilsuns RC imprint, ordering vinyl and handling merch, but their stance on the music press has softened and they’re more visible than ever.
“At the beginning we were just trying to figure out what kind of a band we were, so we didn’t want to just latch onto these ideas or anyone that could take advantage of us or control us,” Halladay says of their initial reticence. “At this point we know who we are as a band, we know what we want and we have the confidence and power to say, ‘Ok, people want to hear this, so let’s see what’s important for us to say.’”
As for the mechanics behind building their empire, the band now have a manager and have just taken on “people to help us with money and business stuff”. Halladay paints a simple, contented picture.
So, is the label chase over?
“If we are being chased then they’re not contacting me!”
The singer laughs, clearly happy Sheer Mag are doing this on their own. Really, it’s the only way it makes sense. Their music comes from a primal place, mixing our most instinctive feelings into hopeful, vital rock‘n’roll, full of action.
“This band, it’s not a want, it’s a need. Every day,” Halladay sums up. “It’s so important and good for me to be able to perform and let out all that aggression, anger and energy inside of me that needs to come out. When I’m not on tour for a long time I lose my shit. I need that release, that feeling, to not feel totally crazy and restless.”
Tina Halladay can’t hide the excitement in her voice and no wonder. Sheer Mag are on the road again.