Published Jul 18, 2017That punk music was, at least in part, a response to the self-aggrandizing and macho hedonism of '70s arena rock explains the satisfying tension at the heart of Philadelphia band Sheer Mag's music, a fascinating blend of the latter's technical excellence and melodic power played with the grit and assertiveness of the former. Over the past four years, the band have adhered staunchly to a DIY ethos (no social media, no PR), releasing a trio of EPs (titled I, II and III) and earning their fans the old-fashioned way: through ceaseless touring, word of mouth and, of course, their riff-heavy, well-crafted songs.
This past week, the band finally released their debut full-length, Need to Feel Your Love (on Wilsuns RC) and it's the best demonstration yet of their sheer magnitude: the songwriting is tighter, production shinier and the lyrics more pointedly political than ever. The band are, in a word, ambitious; it's not one that punk bands typically use, but then, Sheer Mag aren't your average punk band.
"We just like trying to challenge ourselves to be better songwriters," singer Tina Halladay asserts to Exclaim! "The object was more to have the songs be more interesting, not just different."
Halladay would be the first to tell you Sheer Mag don't exactly fit a punk mould.
"I mean, we know that we're not a traditional punk band. I don't know if punk is really always just a way that your music sounds, either. We're involved in the punk scene in Philly and we played DIY shows when we were starting out, but we don't call ourselves a punk band. We have a punk ethos, but we know we're a rock band."
On Need to Feel Your Love, Matt Palmer and Kyle Seely's guitar interplay is as sharp as ever, while Palmer and Halladay's co-written lyrics delve deeply into love, morality and politics. Album highlight "Expect the Bayonet" and "Meet Me in the Street" both confront a certain U.S. president that seems hell-bent on pulling the world apart.
"I think we've all been more politically minded since Trump. We were before, but now it's more so," Halladay supposes. "I don't know if it's just that I was too young to know if it was like this when George Bush was president, that I just didn't know what was going on, but this seems like a pretty extreme time, with a pretty extreme president."
Asked whether Sheer Mag feel it's a duty, as artists, to take on topics like those, Halladay is pointed: It's everyone's, she says, but increasingly, white men need to step up.
"I feel like white men have a responsibility right now to speak about injustices, because they're the ones with power. This came up recently, because I was talking about Beyoncé with Matt [Palmer], in a band conversation, and we were talking about how she's become more political. We talked about how there's a lot of pressure put on people of colour in the industry to be role models, and it's really unfair; it's placed on people of colour rather than white people in the music industry, and women more than men. Like, female pop stars get the weird pressure to be role models, but white men don't really get that. There are a lot fewer women and women of colour that get into the music world, and there should be more pressure on the many, many voices of dudes."
Halladay and Sheer Mag don't take their new increased visibility lightly. They poured themselves into songs like "Suffer Me," a tribute to resilience of LGBT people in face of oppression ("I hope we did them justice," says Halladay), and put pressure on themselves to make their first LP their best work yet.
"When we were writing, there was definitely a lot of pressure on ourselves. It was a stressful time for all of us, for a lot of different reasons: because of our new president, because we didn't want to fuck this up, self-doubt — straining our relationships by spending every day criticizing and working together.
"There are things I do on the record that were really hard for me, as a singer, things I hadn't done before. On 'Expect the Bayonet,' pretty much every single line is in a different octave than the one before it, so switching between octaves in that song was really challenging. 'Until You Find the One'… I think it was hard for all of us to have, like, a softer, more vulnerable song. It almost felt out of place, too far out of the realm of what we do, but then we all were happy with it in the end."
Sheer Mag wanted this record to reach their biggest audience yet, so for the first time ever, they hired a publicist. Asked whether there was trepidation in the band over the decision, that they were somehow betraying their DIY roots, Halladay suggests that patience played a key role in making sure they were ready.
"I think we just felt that we'd waited the appropriate amount of time to do those kinds of things. We wanted to do this record for real and have as many people hear it as possible. It's a pain in the ass — I don't want to do an interview every day, and I don't trust myself to be very articulate all the time. Having the things I say be quoted and whatever is scary when you haven't done it very much, but we're trying to get better at all that."
So, would the band call themselves ambitious?
"I mean, yeah. I think so. We all know what we want to do, and this is our chance to do it. I think it'd be foolish of us not to take it seriously. That's maybe the definition of ambitious, so yeah."
Catch them on tour at one of their Canadian dates, listed here.