For Sheer Mag, Balancing Protest and Play in 2017 Is a Tricky Business
The Philly garage rockers have something to say about America's issues, but saying it with rock music is harder than it seems.Music Features Sheer Mag
Sheer Mag have never sounded like a punk band in the traditional sense. Not in the guitars, which chug out the kind of high-octane riffs that might as well expel plumes of motorcycle exhaust, nor in vocalist Tina Halladay’s bright, crackling hooks, nor in the power-pop-tinged melodies that weave it all together. It’s a sound that can’t help but channel the retro cool of a ‘70s dive bar jukebox, no matter what format it’s playing on, or where.
But Sheer Mag are a punk band in the ways that matter most in 2017. Since forming in Philadelphia back in 2014, they have espoused a fierce DIY ethos, remained unsigned despite having their pick of labels and, most important, honed the progressive ideologies that are now essential to their art and their community. The quintet, currently on tour behind their stellar debut LP, Need to Feel Your Love, didn’t originally set out to make political music, but that changed as they witnessed struggles with gentrification and housing quality in their Point Breeze neighborhood. On one new song, “Rank and File,” Halladay sings, “If you’ve fallen lonely on your cause / I got the rank and the file here to even the odds.” On the chugging “Can’t Play It Cool,” she sings, “We all do what we can to keep living to keep despite the pain / In a world that’s going insane / I’m just trying to find a way to explain.”
The ‘70s-style arena rock that Sheer Mag draws their inspiration from didn’t set much of a standard for social consciousness—many of its most famous acts, like Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones, left it with a reputation for misogyny, hedonism and appropriation. For Halladay, that made it all the more important for Sheer Mag to push the sound in a more thoughtful direction, one forged by the punk bands that followed those classic-rock monoliths—The Clash, Minor Threat, Dead Kennedys.
“I love rock ‘n’ roll, and it’s really hard to love something that probably hates you, if it had the chance,” says Halladay.
“I love rock ‘n’ roll, and it’s really hard to love something that probably hates you, if it had the chance,” she says. “All these [classic rock] motherfuckers have really bad history, but it’s cool to take it back from that place. It wasn’t always like that, of course, because white people didn’t invent rock ‘n’ roll.”
Guitarist and main lyricist Matt Palmer is careful to acknowledge the distinction between politics and art, but still sees a purpose for his band where the two overlap. “Sheer Mag is primarily entertainment about politics,” he says. “Real politics is like, organizing and taking to the streets and speaking and taking action. This is just music about that. But we wanted to create a soundtrack for those real political actions.”
That goal is more pronounced than ever on Need to Feel Your Love, which followed a trio of EPs that won Sheer Mag an early cult fanbase. As the new album’s title suggests, it’s dotted with love songs, but its gravity lies in pointed storytelling and protest anthems. Where other current artists politicize messages drawn from personal experience, Sheer Mag takes a wider—and inherently riskier—approach, sometimes addressing topics in times, places and experiences far from their own. “Suffer Me” is a fictionalized account of the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York; album closer “Sophie Scholl” narrates the execution of its namesake, a nonviolent anti-Nazi activist in 1940’s Germany.
Approaching such disparate topics and questions of representation is a complex task, especially in the age of instant hyper-scrutiny. Palmer notes that as a cisgender male, he’s most concerned about the reception of his portrayal of the Stonewall riots. “Honestly, I’m open to criticism about it,” he says. “‘Suffer Me,’ I think, toes the line. I’m still trying to figure out what is the most effective and appropriate way to tell these stories. It’s hard, just, like, historically speaking… white musicians have had the visibility to tell all sorts of stories and get them really fucking wrong for a really long time.”
Still, he feels the importance of writing such songs outweighs the risk of misrepresenting the subjects. He approaches Sheer Mag’s storytelling in the folk songwriting tradition, but for him, these songs aren’t about standalone historical events; they’re allusions to modern issues and history’s tendency to repeat itself. “With ‘Suffer Me,’ it’s just a song about being pushed too far and then snapping, and then sort of organizing a community.”
He compares Sophie Scholl’s main form of activism, the then-illegal distribution of anti-war leaflets, to modern political expression through digital channels. “That song, the parallel is just trying to keep people from having plausible deniability about the deplorable things going on in the world around them.”
Says Halladay, “I think it comes back to speaking for people who don’t have a voice, but not commodifying that voice, just doing it justice.” It’s weird—it’s easier, I think, for me in those kinds of instances, because I’m from a working-class family who’s been in poverty and things like that, so it’s something that I can speak about. But the other side of it, it’s speaking in solidarity,”
Perhaps as a result, some of the most powerful songwriting on Need to Feel Your Love comes from its two modern protest anthems. “Meet Me in the Street,” inspired by Palmer’s experiences at Inauguration Day protests in Washington D.C., this past January, beckons “Come on down and get in the mix / we get our kicks with bottles and bricks.” The danceable guitar and Halladay’s exuberant vocals on “Expect the Bayonet” bely the song’s stand against institutionalized racism and gerrymandering, which includes a tacit threat: “Though violent minds hatch violent plans / for many it’s the only thing they understand.”
So when it comes to protest tactics, how radical a movement is Sheer Mag advocating for? “In ‘Expect the Bayonet,’ there’s that line that’s just kind of saying that the way these people communicate is through violence and destruction, and they’re not going to understand any other language. Not so much violence towards people, but just, like, destruction of property. That’s what capitalism has always responded to,” says Halladay. “I obviously can’t speak for every single person [in the band] for the extent of what they think needs to happen, but in general I think they feel pretty similarly about the working class needing to unite to take power back.”
She admits that it’s difficult to stay politically engaged to the degree that they’d prefer while touring extensively. As a result, at many stops along the current run, the band has invited activists from #DisruptJ20 to raise money for the legal defense of the protesters arrested this past Inauguration Day. It’s a smaller step than might be ideal, but it helps bridge the gap between soundtracking a movement and actively forwarding its efforts. Otherwise, until Sheer Mag return to Philly and get the chance to regroup, they’re focusing their energy on the music and the shows.
“I want it to feel empowering to people,” Palmer says. “I don’t want it to end with doom and gloom. That’s the entertainment part of it. It’s like, you can write about whatever you want, so why not write about an imaginary world where we can smash the state? Why not write that song, and maybe it’ll come true one day.”