Inside Sheer Mag’s Grassroots Rock & Roll Takeover
When Rolling Stone meets up with Sheer Mag in Nashville in May, the glamour of the indie-rock touring life is immediately apparent. “We got into town a few hours ago, and the side door of our van is jammed – we’ve all been squeezing in through the front,” says frontwoman Tina Halladay by way of introduction. “We were going to make you come with us to get it repaired, but the shop is already closing for the day.”
Vehicle issues aside, the members of Sheer Mag are all in high spirits. The previous evening the band had rocked a bar in Huntsville, Alabama (“It was surprisingly good,” Halladay reports. “A lot of old men with white hair who looked like they were just there to drink but were checkin’ out the show”), and tonight’s gig is at Nashville’s Blue Room, the well-appointed – check the massive elephant’s head mounted on one wall – and, true to its name, very blue, music venue connected to Jack White’s Third Man Records shop. The band runs a quick soundcheck, tearing through “Milk & Honey” a jangly power-pop rocker from their upcoming full-length debut, Need to Feel Your Love, and then discusses how to kill a few hours in Music City. “We haven’t been here in a while,” points out rhythm guitarist Matt Palmer. “The last time was two years ago, I think.”
“There was no one there!” shouts perennially energized guitarist and main songwriter Kyle Seely from the stage as he tends to his gear. “It was a cool gig!”
Tonight’s headlining show will be considerably more packed. There will even be shouts for an encore, which will be obliged, as well as a random cry of “You guys fucking rock!” as the band returns to the stage to play that last song. These days, this sort of fervent response seems to be a common reaction to Sheer Mag, who formed in Philadelphia three years ago and, over the course of a trio of self-recorded, self-designed and mostly self-released seven-inch EPs, as well as growing word-of-mouth buzz around their cramped, high-energy shows at small Philly bars and clubs, have quickly risen to become one of the brightest lights in the American rock underground.
This is in large part due to Kyle’s explosive riffing and seemingly encyclopedic grasp of popular music styles – a typical Sheer Mag song crams a compendium of classic-rock, power-pop and garage-punk ideas into a harmonically busy and insanely hooky three-and-a-half–minute framework. But no less central to the band’s appeal are Halladay’s soulful, raw-throated vocals; primary lyricist Palmer’s sharp-focus, often politically pointed words (one song on the new Need to Feel Your Love is a firsthand account of the violence that unfolded on Washington, D.C.’s streets during Donald Trump’s inauguration; another memorializes 1940s German anti-Nazi activist Sophie Scholl); and the heavily stylized sound and overall presentation of the band’s music, an outgrowth of the restless creative minds of Kyle and his older brother – and Sheer Mag bassist – Hart.
What’s more, Sheer Mag have done it all with little in the way of assistance from a label (they hawk their wares at shows and via an official Bandcamp page) or publicist (though they’ve brought one on board recently). “I wouldn’t say it’s a big moral thing or anything,” reasons Hart, who comes off as the more staunchly idealistic of the two Seelys. “I just think more bands should be independent. It involves more work but you make more money. Therefore, you can work more on your music, too.” Sheer Mag’s streamlined operation also extends to their social-media presence – which is to say, they don’t really have one. “It’s just kinda silly to be like, ‘OK, first thing’s first: Gotta make a Facebook page. …,” Halladay quips.
According to Kyle, however, the collective antipathy to banging out a quick post or tweet has little to do with any more-indie-than-thou ethos. “I just don’t care about bands when they do that,” he says. “It doesn’t make me like them more. You don’t need to know what they had for breakfast.”
And anyway, Palmer adds, the band members don’t view their anti-social-media stance as particularly militant. “I mean, we have a lot of friends in bands that think even Bandcamp is too, like, visible,” he adds. “Their demo is just up on YouTube or something.”
“Yeah!” Kyle responds with a laugh, adopting a tone of mock-geek pretension. “Like, ‘YouTube is the place. …'”
And yet, despite the fact that Sheer Mag don’t exactly act, sound or look like your typical rock band in 2017, here they are. They played Coachella in 2016, performed on Late Night with Seth Meyers this past May, and are now sitting across from a Rolling Stone writer and politely answering questions as a photographer “takes photos of us in Jack White’s weirdly curated yard,” as Halladay puts it with an uneasy laugh.
In fact, the looming presence – real or imagined – of the White Stripes man becomes something of a running joke as the band settles in to chat in the Third Man yard.
Palmer: “We’ve probably met him, like, three times already.”
Kyle: “He’s just been wearing a horse mask.”
Palmer: “He might be underneath this turf.”
Halladay: “In a turf-suit.”
But allow, for a second at least, that there might be a genuine line to be drawn from Jack White to Sheer Mag. Much as the former, in the early days of the White Stripes, operated according to a self-imposed aural and visual framework – just two instruments and voice; a strict red-white-and-black color scheme – Sheer Mag also seem to function within prescribed, if less exacting parameters, in their case a fizzy, lo-fi production style that often makes it sound as if their music is being listened to through a broken speaker; a deliberately crude, if also wholly distinct, approach to logo and sleeve design that suggests a series of all-nighters at the local Staples. Furthermore, Sheer Mag, like the Stripes before them, make no apologies for their love of high-octane riff-rock, splattered with all manner of heroic, and some might say indulgent, lead-guitar licks – an attitude that falls outside the traditional indie-rock aesthetic.
The result is that Sheer Mag comes off as a band that seems to exist outside of place and time. The music is often driving and aggressive, but also somewhat soft and fuzzy around the edges. Need to Feel Your Love‘s lead track “Meet Me in the Streets” – the one about Inauguration Day – opens with a rafter-raising, AC/DC-worthy guitar riff before being lassoed in by some gentler, tambourine-accented drum patter; “Turn It Up” comes on like a fist-in-the-air New Wave of British Heavy Metal anthem, only recorded on a boom box in a garage; and “Can’t Play It Cool” starts off in full-on Thin Lizzy attack mode (more about that later) but by the first verse shifts into a torch-y, early-Sixties-style pop tune, with Halladay pleading, “Tell me where do the lonely go-oh?”
The singer herself is a rare, versatile talent. A punk rocker with the heart – and pipes – of a soul singer, her voice is gritty and raw but also disarmingly tender and vulnerable. She’s capable of sounding sneering and snotty one minute and conjuring a formidable howl the next; at times, such as on the new album’s “Until You Find the One,” she telegraphs desperation and heartache with an almost adolescent innocence. According to Kyle, when it came to having Halladay front Sheer Mag, “I hadn’t really thought about it but it all just started to make sense,” he says. “Because I knew she was a great singer and performer. I thought she was badass.”
All that said, Kyle doesn’t see any sort of overarching intention in Sheer Mag’s presentation. “We didn’t have a master plan,” he explains. “But I think there’s something to be said of doing what we do with the sort of restrictions we have. It keeps us from doing something that maybe we’d think is really dumb later on.” When it comes to the music itself, however, there is perhaps a bit more of a purity of purpose: “For me,” he continues, “the fun thing is just making great pop songs, basically.”
Making great pop songs, however, wasn’t always the goal. Growing up in Syracuse, New York, in the late Nineties and early 2000s, Kyle and his brother were into decidedly heavier and more modern musical styles. “I had a metal phase, and then I got into punk, hardcore, that scene,” Kyle says. “And Hart, he’s three years older than me – he was into tech-metal, math rock …”
“… a lot of nu-metal,” Hart says with a slightly embarrassed grin. “Tool, basically.”
The two Seelys picked up instruments early on, switching between guitar, bass and drums, and often playing together. But, Kyle adds, “There was also some classic older brother–younger brother competitive shit. I looked up to Hart, and when he got into guitar it was probably a catalyst for me. He started forming bands in high school but I was too young. So while he was playing in battle of the bands I would be home practicing. I wanted to prove that I could rock too!”
After graduation, Hart left Syracuse to study at SUNY Purchase, a state college in New York’s Westchester County. Kyle followed him there a few years later. At Purchase, the two started a “Fugazi / At the Drive-In type band” called Sirs, Kyle says. “We did a couple tours. It was your sort of standard mid-to late-2000s post-hardcore/emo thing.”
It was at Purchase where the Seelys first met fellow students and future band mates Halladay and Palmer. But Sheer Mag didn’t come together until, independent of one another, they all moved to Philadelphia post-college. (Why Philly? “We didn’t want to go to New York, where everyone was moving and it was really expensive,” Halladay says.)
Eventually, the four wound up living together, along with several other roommates, in a run-down building known as the Nuthouse, located in the not-yet-gentrified South Philly neighborhood of Point Breeze. There, they each continued in separate pursuits. Palmer played in various projects, while Halladay fronted everything from the organ-led soul/punk group the Shakes to a Motown cover band (“It was a bunch of old heads – like, Joe Jack [Talcum] from the Dead Milkmen was playing keyboards,” she says) to a Patsy Cline tribute act. Hart and Kyle, meanwhile, spent a lot of their time hunkered down in their third-floor bedrooms, laying down some of Kyle’s riffs, along with bass and drums, on an old Tascam 8-track recorder. Those tracks eventually became the songs on the first Sheer Mag EP – “What You Want,” “Sit and Cry,” “Point Breeze” and “Hard Lovin’.”
“That EP is literally bedroom rock,” Kyle says. “We recorded the drums really quietly and did everything on the same amp. After we had a couple tracks we were like, ‘Ah, this is sounding really good. Maybe Tina would sing and maybe Matt would wanna play … drums!'”
Palmer: “I was the original drummer.”
Halladay: “For, like, an hour. Then we were like, ‘Matt can’t do this!'”
Palmer: “I was good at ‘Sit and Cry.'”
Kyle: “It would’ve worked.”
Palmer: “No, it would not have worked.”
Kyle: “You were strangely good at ‘Sit and Cry.'”
“But anyway,” Palmer continues, “that’s kind of how it happened. Hart and Kyle asked Tina and I to come upstairs and listen to a demo they were working on, and that was basically it. They had at least two or three songs done, musically, and they wanted us both to write lyrics. And after we figured out I was not a good drummer it was, ‘Would you rather play rhythm guitar?’ Then we got our friend to drum [later replaced by current member Ian Dykstra] and we played our first show three or four months later. The reception was pretty warm from the beginning.”
But if the reception was warm, it was also only coming from a very small group of in-the-know fans. There was no press push around Sheer Mag, and the band certainly weren’t doing much promotion on their own. Sheer Mag’s first seven-inch officially saw release in the fall of 2014, but even in terms of getting the music out to people there seemed to be a bit of self-sabotage at play: When they posted the EP’s leadoff track, the garage-rocking “What You Want,” on Bandcamp, it was with a cool $100,000 download price. “But that was more because we couldn’t figure out how to have it up there and not available for download,” Kyle explains. “So we just set it for $100,000 so that nobody would download it.” He pauses. “Though if someone had, I guess we could’ve just quit right there.”
It was with the band’s second four-song EP, II, issued roughly six months later, that they began to garner some widespread attention – in particular for the track “Fan the Flames,” an R&B-inflected rocker whose buoyant melody disguises lyrics that rail against the gentrification the band saw happening around the Nuthouse: “And when our neighbors burned,” Halladay wails, “the realtors shook hands with their backs turned.”
“Our neighbors’ house did catch on fire,” Palmer says. “The wiring in the building was really old and shitty. It was a young couple and they fucking lost everything.” He wrote the lyrics, he continues, “as kind of a sequel to ‘Point Breeze,’ which was about how we saw our neighborhood changing, and was sort of the first political song we did.”
Palmer is the voice of the band’s politics in song – he penned the words to “Can’t Stop Fighting” (a rousing track from 2016’s III EP) after reading about the “insane atrocity of unpaid labor in Mexico,” and the ones to Need to Feel Your Love‘s “Expect the Bayonet” in response to the recent presidential election. “That song has to do with voter disenfranchisement, gerrymandering, the myth of voter fraud, all of that shit,” he says. “This idea that we live in a democracy, which is a dubious claim.” But he’s not Sheer Mag’s only politically minded member. “We all went to Inauguration Day in D.C.,” he says. “We saw the crazy bullshit with the black bloc – people throwing rocks and bricks at cops, and the cops shooting teargas grenades back at them. So we all get pretty involved. And Hart’s always pushing for it to be more political.”
To this last point, the Seelys have a certain political astuteness embedded in their family history. Their father, also named Hart, is a successful reporter and writer who, over the course of his career, has authored several books that turn the utterances of political figures like Donald Rumsfeld and Donald Trump into poetic verse (“If God ever wanted/An apartment in Trump Tower/I would immediately offer/My best luxury suite,” reads one stanza from Bard of the Deal: The Poetry of Donald Trump). But while the younger Hart acknowledges that his father’s “honest political anger” likely rubbed off on him and his brother, he also says that “it’s not like he tried to indoctrinate us or anything.” If anything, Kyle adds, “He and my mom just raised us to be conscientious and not, like, a weird conservative fuck. Basically, ‘Don’t become a shithead.'”
Politics, however, make up just one side of Sheer Mag’s lyrical makeup. The other, which can be heard in songs like III‘s wrenching “Worth the Tears” and Need to Feel Your Love‘s jaunty first single, “Just Can’t Get Enough,” finds Halladay exploring the highs and lows of matters of the heart. Interestingly, these lyrics often come from Palmer as well. “Christina and I talk about the songs and sort of conceptualize them, and then I end up putting most of the words down on paper after we figure out an idea,” he says. The result is that while Halladay delivers pleading lines like “Why can’t you dance with the one that you brought?/Treat me the way I deserve?” (from III‘s “Nobody’s Baby”) with forceful conviction, Palmer says he wrote the words to the song in “probably two days. It came really quick.”
But Palmer is also quick to emphasize that, in these cases, he’s conscious of “not being appropriative” of Christina’s own life experiences. “I just realize there are some perspectives that are more interesting than others,” he explains. “I’ve found in other projects I was in I would always write love songs and I would cast myself as the victim. But really it was like, ‘I’m the asshole breaking up with people.’ That’s not a sympathetic perspective to hear about in a song.”
As for whether Halladay ever feels like her co-lyricist is trying to burrow himself too deep in her head? “I think he’s already pretty much in there,” she says with a laugh. “But I’m also an open person, so it’s not like he really has to crack me open.”
With a band as stylistically omnivorous as Sheer Mag, it’s tempting to try to play a game of “spot the influences” in their music. But despite however many Thin Lizzy–referencing riffs, Nerves-style power-pop rhythms or Fleetwood Mac–esque melodies an astute listener might believe they can pick out, there’s another band that stands as perhaps the most direct inspiration on Sheer Mag – and it’s not much of a real band at all. Rather, that group, which went by the name of D’s Licks, was a project of Kyle’s that he conceived back in his days at SUNY Purchase. “It was this kind of weird hard-rock/hardcore thing,” he says. “Which sounds, like, really stupid.”
“I wanted us to sound like we were recorded a long time ago.” –Kyle Seely
As Kyle tells it, D’s Licks also came complete with an involved – and rather bizarre – backstory: “The whole idea was that D’s Licks was this band from Syracuse that had existed in the Seventies and never went anywhere,” he continues. “They had recorded, like, 20 albums or something, and the guitarist in the band was my uncle. Years later, he was on his deathbed and he told me where all the tapes were for those albums. And he said I should continue playing their music and keep the legacy alive. So the whole mystery behind D’s Licks was that we were carrying the torch for this band that didn’t exist. And I made up all these albums.”
Some of their titles?
Hart: “Pass the Gun Around.”
Matt: “Table for One.”
Hart: “The Knight Who Killed Kings. That one was about Bobby Fischer.”
Kyle: “The cover was a robot guy moving a bunch of weird, Tron-like chess pieces around. It was a whole chess-themed concept album!”
Needless to say, D’s Licks didn’t last long – though, with Hart on bass and a friend who went by the name of Spider on vocals, they did play one gig at a small Syracuse-area bar (video of which, if you search hard enough, can be found online). But the band’s influence can be felt in Sheer Mag, from the throwback-style logo, hand-drawn by Kyle (“I wanted something badass, and specifically hard rock/heavy metal,” he says) to the inscrutable cover art of their three EPs, all of which feature their “ghoul” mascot (Kyle: “We went down in the basement and I think it was Hart, maybe it was me, one of us just threw the Sheer Mag banner over his head and it looked like a ghost. We took a picture and scanned it at Staples and it became this motif”).
As for Sheer Mag’s music, Kyle says, “When we were first developing our sound, what I was going for was I wanted us to sound like we were recorded a long time ago. And that definitely came from the D’s Licks project.”
That grainy, lo-fi sound is most in evidence on Sheer Mag’s first EP, the one Kyle and Hart cut in their bedrooms at the Nuthouse. But not much has changed since then. Every Sheer Mag effort, including the new Need to Feel Your Love, has been recorded on a portable Tascam 8-track, with Kyle and Hart playing all the instruments and the latter handling the mix. “They have this weird symbiotic relationship, with the producer/musician thing all rolled into their brotherhood,” Palmer says. “Kyle is like a savant musician and guitar player – he can play every single part better than the person who plays it live does. And Hart gives him direction, like, ‘Can you make a riff that sounds like this?’ And then Kyle can, pretty immediately. Though they bicker like brothers do, they have a lot of the same reference points and they can communicate almost nonverbally.”
The Seelys’ instrumental tracks then make their way to Palmer and Halliday, who come up with lyrics and vocal melodies. “We’ve sort of developed this assembly-line thing in the writing and recording stages,” Kyle says. “It’s like there’s these two weird halves of the band.” As for the somewhat lo-fi sound of the recordings, he continues, “It’s really just a different way of thinking about production, I guess. I’ve thought about going in a more polished route. I’m not ruling it out or anything. But there’s a charm to that level of tape quality, where everything is smushed together.”
Which is not to say that Sheer Mag’s parameters are overly strict. If anything, Need to Feel Your Love demonstrates a widening of their stylistic range, in particular in the funk and soul strains heard on tracks like “Pure Desire” and the title cut. “There’s some Nile Rodgers, a lot of ABBA,” Kyle says about the influences. “Even albums like Kiss’ Dynasty – that whole era when rock bands were drinking the ‘disco Kool-Aid’ a little bit. I love that sound. So there are some curveballs. We felt like this was a chance for us to do some more adventurous stuff while also keeping the sound very much in our wheelhouse. And I’ll be interested to hear the reactions we get for this album. I feel like if it’s just nothing but people saying ‘Thin Lizzy,’ I’ll be pretty surprised.”
The constant Thin Lizzy comparisons, in fact, are somewhat of a source of bemusement to the members of Sheer Mag, none of whom consider the Irish rockers to be a particularly significant influence on their music. “I mean, I’m flattered,” Kyle says of the association, “but I think there’s a lot more to it. With this band it’s easy to build a narrative of, like, Born ‘n’ raised on rock & roll! But the reality is not that. I kinda got into the music in a different way.”
That said, adds Palmer, “Kyle, he’ll talk about how he’s tired of the Thin Lizzy shit. And then like he’ll write a song like ‘Can’t Stop Fighting,’ and it’s just like, ‘Dude, it’s not gonna stop anytime soon now!'” As it turns out, Kyle might not even be the Sheer Mag member most to blame for the association. Later in the afternoon, Halladay reveals that it is actually she, and not the guitarist, who is the band’s true Lizzy freak, jutting out her right leg to display an impressively large Phil Lynott tattoo running the full length of her thigh. “I got in their heads,” she says with a smile.
But the band’s expanded stylistic palette on Need to Feel Your Love isn’t the only sign of progress in the Sheer Mag operation. For one, the band no longer records – or lives – at the Nuthouse. Rather, they’ve moved their base of operations to their Philadelphia-area rehearsal space, carving out a makeshift studio with office-cubicle walls that they snagged for free on Craigslist. And that original Tascam 8-track from the days of the first EP is also gone, having been broken and discarded – though they’ve since tracked down and purchased the exact same model, which they use to this day.
Other things haven’t changed much at all. For one, the label through which they release their music (with the exception of the II EP), has always been their own: Wilsuns RC (it’s the same imprint, coincidentally, that D’s Licks “recorded” for). For Need to Feel Your Love, they’re printing up 5,000 copies, a modest amount. “And I figure it’ll take us a while to get through those,” Kyle says. “Because people don’t buy tons and tons of records.”
They’ve been approached by record labels wanting to sign the band – “a bunch during the first year or two,” Palmer says – but have yet to take the plunge. “And we really thought about it,” Kyle admits. “Because the idea of having someone take on some of the business aspects sounded appealing. We still do a lot of the day-to-day stuff, like mailing out the records, ourselves. So there was a period when I was like, ‘I want someone to just fucking do this for us. …'”
But with your own label, Halladay points out, “You can make your own deadlines. We hear horror stories of bands finishing their records and then having to wait forever for them to be released.”
“Whereas we finished our record three months ago and it’s ready to come out,” Palmer adds. “We have about as quick a turnaround time as you can have. And even promotion and publicity … I feel like there’s other things labels do, but we have it mostly covered.”
As for how big they think the band can get operating in this fashion? “I think we’re constantly negotiating that,” Kyle says. “And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think about a ceiling. But that probably had a lot to do with why we wanted to keep a low profile in the beginning. Because some of these bands, they just get so much hype. And we were starting to feel it. The pans were starting to flash and we were like, ‘Hold on, let’s just not worry about this. Let’s just play shows and tour.’ We want to keep focusing on the music so that we can keep doing this for a little while. I’d like to have plenty of fans, but I’d also like to keep the level of integrity we have now. So we’ll see how it goes.”
By the looks of it, things are going pretty well so far. Later in the evening, Sheer Mag blast through an intense 45-minute set at Third Man, concluding with a rousing, audience-participation singalong of “Fan the Flames” before coming back out for a run-through of “Point Breeze.” Afterward, a line forms across the middle of the venue floor to the band’s merch table, where fans snatch up seven-inches, T-shirts and even little figurines of the weird ghoul dude from their EP covers. After a quick backstage break, Hart and a few of the others make their way back out to Jack White’s weirdly curated yard to chat with fans over beers and cigarettes. Then it’s time to cram through the front of their busted-up van again and head out on the last few dates of their current tour, which, Kyle reveals, will be concluding with a special show.
“We’re playing a wedding in Greensboro, North Carolina!” he says excitedly.
Halladay: “We’ll be doing a covers set.”
Kyle: “Nineties hits. Classic American Pie–style wedding music.”
Palmer: “‘Man! I Feel like a Woman,’ ‘Tubthumping’ …”
Halladay: “‘Kiss Me’ by Sixpence None the Richer.”
Kyle: “And we’re starting the set with the intro to ‘Baker Street.’ We have a friend who’s gonna play saxophone for us. So it should be cool.”
He pauses. “Shout-out to Tyler and Magena! Congrats!”
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