Kyle Seely never planned to become a soft-rock DJ. But then he found himself stranded in Australia.
“I was supposed to be in the States now, but I have no idea when I’ll be back there,” explains the Sheer Mag guitarist, who moved to Melbourne to live with his fiancé a few months before the coronavirus pandemic hit. Seely normally spends much of the year on the road, ripping riffs and solos in his gritty classic-pop-rock band, which also features his brother Hart on bass, guitarist Matt Palmer, and vocalist Tina Halladay. But Sheer Mag’s 2020 tours in Japan, Australia, and the United States were all canceled due to COVID-19.
Bored in quarantine, Seely was experiencing serious creative ups and downs. “Some days you feel like, ‘This is actually serendipitously perfect for me because I’m able to write my new album,’” he says. “And the next day you’re screwed. You’re useless.”
To put his attention somewhere useful, the guitarist turned to a new outlet: internet radio (or a “podcast,” or “music hour”; he can’t quite decide on the right term). Thus, Golden Seel was born: a weekly Mixcloud show on which Seely personifies a hammy rock DJ, offering tidbits and nostalgic stories between Seventies and Eighties soft rock, classic rock, and disco deep cuts.
“I basically just wanted to make something my friends would listen to while they were cooped up at home,” Seely announces in a soothing monotone over some soft synth in the intro of Episode Six. “I hope you like the tunes I play, and I hope it helps you kill an hour or two here and there.”
Seely (full disclosure: a friend of the writer) jumped on a Zoom call to discuss the origins of the show, why Golden Seel is funny but not ironic, and what his song selections can tell us about Sheer Mag’s musical DNA.
The era of the music that you’re playing goes hand in hand with your announcing style. You almost sound like an old-school syndicated radio DJ.
Totally. That’s the inspiration. Did you ever listen to Delilah? The idea was this Delilah-style show, but playing music that you maybe already hadn’t heard a million fucking times. That’s my favorite era of music, Seventies and Eighties pop.
More generally, how would you classify the music you feature?
I guess Seventies and Eighties pop, disco, album-oriented-rock kind of stuff. Sort of cheesy hits, I guess. I’m specifically not using the term “yacht rock” because that falls into the “I’m just doing this ironically” thing. [Golden Seel is] not an ironic podcast. There are insufferable yacht-rock playlists and podcasts where they’re just annoying as fuck, and they just play, like, the Doobie Brothers and think they’re the shit. I’ve been playing Abba, Steely Dan, Chic, but lots of stuff in between, anywhere from hard rock to disco.
I’m trying to do the music that inspires Sheer Mag songs, I guess. Because a lot of it is way poppier than what the final product for us is. We put a little bit more grit onto that style. But a lot of it is kind of repurposed corny Seventies pop, more or less.
A lot of the songs you play are very tightly structured, which is also the case for most Sheer Mag songs.
There’s a style of pop songwriting that I think people over the years started to think was a sign of a song being formulaic and bad. Like the “verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, repeat” thing, people started thinking, ‘Oh, that’s what they want you to do because it will sell.’ But I love that. I just think the parts and the songs got bad. You can still write a bad song. You can totally write a horrible song in that style. But, yeah, we use classic pop-songwriting structures, and that’s the kind of stuff that I love. And I think that people still really like that. A lot of really successful punk bands now write songs that are really structure-based. For a while, a lot of things were just becoming a series of riffs. Like it was a big early-2000s kind of thing. Playing with structure, they were really rebelling against that. Which is cool. But now it almost seems like the rebellious thing to do would be doing that but as best as you can, and the removal of irony from classic-sounding music. Or something.
Do you ever feel like you were born into the wrong era, musically?
Not really. Because I probably would just hate a lot of the stuff that I like now if I was around then. There’s clearly something about Hart and my and Matt and Tina’s musical interests and what we do with it, something about it that resonates with people now, and doesn’t seem like a throwback and stupid and played out. There’s been so many different eras of rock revival that have just been instantly dubbed as, like, stupid as fuck. There’s plenty of music that I like now. But I definitely don’t really identify or relate with what’s super popular now. In a way, it’s sort of sad that some of the biggest music fans are spending more energy digging through the past than finding great stuff now. But there’s also plenty of people doing that. It’s just what I’ve chosen to do. I think I’m right where I belong.
Are there specific songs you’ve played that have taken on new relevance during quarantine?
In a lot of these older songs, the lyrics have a goal of cheering people up. The Seventies were a pretty turbulent time in a lot of ways. I’ve been thinking about this lately too. It seems like artists and musicians these days are lamenting about the state of the world, and bonding with people over that, and a shared sense of dystopia and sadness and anxiety. Which is totally valid and real. But there’s also another side of things, where you don’t have to either be an escapist who’s basically just trying to distract people from what’s going on. You don’t have to choose one or the other. Dystopias and utopias are both things to consider. So positive visions of the future versus global meltdown, they’re both valid considerations. It seems that that’s not as big of a trend these days. Not to say that Sheer Mag is necessarily doing that either, but that’s something that I like about some of the old pop. That makes it a little timeless. It brightens things up a bit.
Your show has a lot of fun little flourishes: You had some of your bandmates call in, you have chimes going as you’re cueing up the song, you have bed music under your voice. How do these details complement the songs themselves?
The chimes is the closest thing to [the show] being a joke. It can still be funny. But the thing itself is not a joke. That was sort of an homage to a dumb music radio show. One of those local radio jingles. I was sort of just having fun with it. I’ve never run a show with my voice. So I was just trying to figure out what style of personality makes it run the best and doesn’t seem stupid. My first inclination is to err on the side of being a little funny. As I go, I think I’m getting more comfortable with just being clear and not necessarily putting on a hammy radio-guy voice. I try to keep them short. Some of them are facts about the music or the bands; some of them are about where I heard the song for the first time. I think I want it to be a bit more personal like that. I don’t just want to be reading off Wikipedia. People can look shit up if they want.