It’s on a blazing summer day that I meet Sheer Mag, the Philadelphia indie rock band, at House of Vans, one of several large venues across the country where the company throws concerts and parties while also subtly reminding young people of some of the options available to them in the footwear industry. The New York version is a large converted warehouse in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, amid a thicket of still operational factories. Despite regularly hosting concerts, House of Vans is an ill-fitting space for an indie rock show. There is a makeshift skatepark in the back, with a bowl dug into the ground and some rails bolted to the floor, though it’s unclear if anyone actually skates there. Mostly, the venue feels like a soundstage—the sort of setting for a concert in a television show where some effects guy has to fill in the crowd during post-production.
Nonetheless, Sheer Mag are here, one day before flying to Europe for a string of shows, to play alongside the Providence punk band Downtown Boys and the Australian trio Royal Headache. So far into their careers, Sheer Mag have consciously avoided the trappings of upwardly mobile indie bands, including things like performing at the behest of a shoe brand. The group produces their own music—initially on a bedroom 8-track—and distributes it without a label. The same goes for their merch. Even my entering into their green room while the other bands soundcheck is a newfound intrusion, as the band has mostly avoided the press until now. (Singer Tina Halladay will at one point say with exasperation that a British publication asked to spend three hours with the band on an off day.) They don’t seem to mind my presence, though, as they pass the time chatting about new Royal Headache material they’re overhearing and whether they should wear new shoes gifted to them by Vans when they go onstage (they stick to what they brought).
But Sheer Mag has a new album out—their debut full-length Need to Feel Your Love, which they sell at the show a week before its release date because there’s no label to stop them—and so they are cautiously submitting themselves to the promotional Rube Goldberg machine. It’s a good thing, though, and I say that not as a journalist with an assignment but as a fan of their music. Need to Feel Your Love is an excellent record, one that reveals a band wonderfully out of step with their contemporaries. Though produced in a way that grounds them as affably lo-fi, Need to Feel Your Love has a rear-view vision of rock music, when the riffs were clean and catchy and the songwriting melodically driven. Thin Lizzy comparisons are common, and Halladay does have a Phil Lynott tattoo on her leg, but there are traces of Kiss and Chic, too.
Where many of today’s indie rock bands are concerned with the crush of content or the ways in which technology has infected the motions of romance, the people in Sheer Mag’s songs often exist in a world before cell phones, where people met in bars and confronted each other in person. The band, though, are fairly typical millennials (we talk a lot about podcasts) who instead still find a certain power in the imagery of yore. Their retro aesthetics are balanced by politics that feel very of-the-moment.
The concept of protest music returned en vogue immediately after Donald Trump was elected president, despite warnings from critics that the George W. Bush era should be a reminder that art isn’t necessarily better in periods of strife. This seemed to be affirmed by the “Our First 100 Days Project,” which enlisted 100 indie acts to help release a song for the first three months of Trump’s presidency. The endeavor had noble intentions—for $30 you could download all 100 songs, with the money being re-routed to charities supporting causes like LGBT and women’s rights—but also was careful to not outline any blueprint for the next four years. Indeed, most of the project’s songs have nothing to do with politics at all. By contrast, much of Sheer Mag’s take “protest music” literally takes place at protests. Need to Feel Your Love is an album that sounds like a throwback yet has also arrived at the right time.
Sheer Mag formed in Philadelphia after the principal members—Halladay, brothers Kyle Seely (guitar) and Hart Seely (bass), and chief songwriter Matt Palmer, whose ages range from mid-20s to early-30s—wound up living in the same house after attending SUNY Purchase together in upstate New York, initially playing in separate bands before the Seely brothers asked Halladay and Palmer to help with some instrumental demos. Living in the Point Breeze neighborhood on Philly’s south side, the fledgling Sheer Mag immediately latched onto the issues that have come to define America’s major cities in these market-driven, growth-obsessed times: gentrification, shitty apartments, and so on. The song off their first 7-inch, released in 2014, titled “Point Breeze” goes, “The streets are changing / a white breeze blowing through them,” while their breakthrough single “Fan the Flames,” released in 2015, takes on run-down apartments overseen by neglectful landlords: “That’s the man you gotta give it to,” the song opens. “We pay him our rent to have a hole in our roofs.”
The individual members of Sheer Mag have been on this trajectory since they were kids. Hart Seely says that becoming a vegetarian in his teens was his “gateway drug to being a socialist/communist type.” (“A long journey in between those things,” he jokes.) He explains that he and Kyle grew up in a household where political arguments between them, their dad (“pretty left wing” but “too much a Democrat”), and their mom (“really conservative, not socially but just in a capitalist sense”) were frequent and fun, though it was clear to their parents where their politics were headed.
“I remember my mom telling me that like, ‘You’re gonna be a leftist’ when I was trying to be a vegetarian and vegan in high school and shit,” Hart says. “And she was right.”
Palmer—who says the band sometimes joke about a photo of Hart in college, holding a protest sign reading “Be Realistic: Demand the Impossible”—writes the vast majority of Sheer Mag’s melodies and lyrics. Like the Seelys, he was raised by a Democratic family that helped shape his politics. He remembers growing up in Virginia and traveling to Bush-era anti-war protests in Washington, D.C., with his aunt. Like most millennials, the Obama years didn’t inspire much reason to march, but Palmer cites demonstrations in Philadelphia following the police killings of Philando Castille and Alton Sterling as formative protests in his life. The band wrote the new album’s opening song “Meet Me in the Street” after being inspired by Inauguration Day protests in Washington, where far left activists battled with cops. “So come on down and get in the mix,” Halladay sings. “We get our kick with bottles and bricks.” (Halladay, who seems less enthused by the process of being interviewed than the others, says she did not attend the protests.)
With Sheer Mag, the politics are inextricable from the band—this past May they performed with Larry Krasner, the Democratic candidate for Philly’s district attorney, who is well-known for having sued the city’s police department 75 times. Like many liberals, the band felt enlivened by Bernie Sanders’s run for president, and they openly refer to themselves as socialists. At one point during my conversation with Palmer, he says the phrase “Bernie would’ve won,” and we both laugh because it’s a meme, but also because we think it’s true. Though he eyes my recorder warily as he burns through Marlboro Reds, Palmer goes off without much provocation, sounding like the sort of young people I know who are trying to funnel their hope about the future into something.
“I was talking to my parents about single payer and my dad’s like, ‘Matt, we live in a democracy, people have said that they don’t want single payer.’ And I’m like, ‘I actually don’t think that, I think people do. I just think that the entire thing is misconstrued,’” he explains. “I think that it’s been misrepresented and so many political issues have. It’s framed in this way that seems like there’s only one option. That we have to be extremely aggressive in our foreign policy to these Middle Eastern countries. And we have to cut taxes to pay for the military. And we couldn’t afford to have Medicare for all. A myriad of issues. But it’s like a shift in perspective. And that’s the perspective that I generally take things from.”
It will be of no surprise to you that Palmer and the Seelys mention the controversial lefty podcast Chapo Trap House when I ask them which current media resonates with them. Still, what’s interesting about Sheer Mag is that, although they have a morbid streak (two songs end with scenes of death), they don’t want to be defeatist. They don’t want to make music that wallows in our harsh reality, and, in fact, they swing the pendulum all the way back in the other direction, writing upbeat music that has a positive outlook on the power of the people.
Need To Feel Your Love is in many ways hopeful, expressing optimism about society’s collective ability to effect change. “Meet Me in the Street” has a lyric that goes, “Silver spoon suckers headed for a fall / Justice for all,” which sounds nice but is, of course, pure fantasy. “Suffer Me,” a song about gay liberation that takes place the night of the Stonewall riots, ends with an image of “one less boot pressing down on one less throat.” The songs harken back to a past that the band, and its listeners, can’t even remember, and may not even exist, when protests in America were triumphant battles between cops and citizens. “Expect the Bayonet” warns “rich men in their white skin” that “if you don’t give us the ballot, expect the bayonet.” Still, the music doesn’t feel didactic—“Fan the Flames” has one of the most melodically exciting indie rock choruses in years, which may help mask that it goes, “You’ve got to stand up and break the chains / Make a plan and demand what the damage pays.” Palmer says that centering this sort of positivity is purposeful.
“At this point, we’ve been sold this rotten bill of goods,” he says. “Like, what’s the point of being? What’s the point of working within the system that we already have if we’re either going to have Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton? And we’re either going to have Obamacare or get it repealed? What’s the point of being pragmatic about that? I think that, like, if you start thinking about these issues more radically it’s also the only thing that can cheer you up. Also, I don’t know if there’s ever going to be a worker uprising or something like that, but it’s funner to think about than writing songs about like living in a capitalist nightmare.”
Halladay, who conceptualizes the songs with Palmer and is ultimately the one tasked with selling them to the listener as the band’s front vocalist, is similarly hopeful that the band’s music can be even the smallest stone on a path to a better world.
“I don’t think we’re that presumptuous,” she says about the idea that the band’s songs might actually help accomplish something. “But of course we want to help people and to push people to be better and to have solidarity with people who are downtrodden and to think about that more. Sometimes when people talk about our songs it’s almost like we’re tricking them, because it sounds, like, really happy, but there’s a lot more meaning once you sort of delve deeper.”
Halladay and the band recognize this to be a hackneyed mission of sorts—she punctuates her statement with an “or whatever”—but if you’re going to be a rock band, you do need to believe it. Kyle Seely emphasizes that, in his mind, the band lives its mission:
“My optimism, or what I maybe want other people to take away from us is maybe more setting an example for a way a band can do things. I want to be realistic about our place in the world, sure, because, like, rock and rock n’ roll is not that cool anymore, I guess. But I mean, yeah, I think we do things that other bands don’t. Like, we put our own records out, you know, done pretty successful as a band. For a long time, bands did everything themselves—well, I mean, not everything. We’re pretty independent still, and I feel like anyone can call us sellouts if they want because we’re playing a show like tonight or something like that. But it’s also like—the money we make from a show like this goes to us buying gear for the studio, recording the record all ourselves, putting out the record. Our shirts cost more to make because we get them made in the U.S., union-made and stuff like that. Not to be like ‘we’re the best,’ but I think that.”
As a writer, Palmer often reroutes his own experiences through the eyes of each song’s narrator, but this can get tricky when the songs are about intimacy shared by two people, or when listeners assume Halladay is singing about herself. When I ask him about writing from Halladay’s point of view, he clarifies that he tried hard to not do that on this album, instead aiming to write from a “more universal perspective,” hoping to avoid characterizing relationships through traditional gender norms. He succeeded, I think, at that—but Palmer also chooses to write from very specific perspectives.
“Can’t Stop Fighting,” off their 7-inch released last year, is about murders of innocent women in Mexico’s Ciudad Juarez, and this album’s “Suffer Me” is set “at the Stonewall on June 28th.” The act of writing about, or as, marginalized people whose lives you cannot know and whose perspectives you cannot share is more highly scrutinized now than ever, with representation in culture now as squarely a political issue as it’s ever been. Palmer is cognizant of the environment in which he and the band have chosen to assume identities that aren’t theirs. “I welcome that criticism when people have it,” he says, and he speaks with a self-defeated exasperation when explaining how he is infrequently satisfied with his execution.
In the case of “Suffer Me,” for instance, Palmer says that he tried to sidestep the issue of being a “straight cis man” writing from the perspective of a queer person by instead framing the Stonewall riots from an omniscient narrator’s point-of-view. But he is quick to point out that he failed, and that he only realized he did so after the song was recorded—the chorus, and indeed the name of the song, includes the word “me.”
Representation can’t be untangled from the band, anyway. After all they are four dudes—the Seelys, Palmer, drummer Ian Dykstra—fronted by a woman.
“My friend sent me a thing from Girls Rock camp that was just like, when you’re little and you make the neon signs like Benjamin Franklin or some shit? A a little kid made one of me and cut pictures out of me,” Halladay says. “I just started crying hysterically. Little [things] like that makes me happy because I never saw anyone who looked like me when I was growing up in music.”
Sheer Mag are in many ways a pop band. The Seely brothers record instrumentals and give them to Palmer, who comes up with the lyrics and melodies in consultation with Halladay. The assembly line process is not too far removed from how Max Martin conducts his business, though each band member blanches when I point this out. On stage, you can pick up hints of this, too. The men appear on stage first, with Halladay waltzing out later as if the star. When they play the album’s dancey title track, Kyle Seely gracefully elongates the riff, as if what was once scribbled is now being rendered in the soft glide of a ballpoint pen. It would fit right in on Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, and is far better than anything on Calvin Harris’ recent itchy homage to that album.
Sheer Mag may be socialist punks at heart, but they cut an altogether different cloth when compared to the even more explicitly political Downtown Boys, who played before them, and who railed against the NYPD’s budget from the stage. Later in the set, they trotted out a flaming cop car piñata. By contrast, Halladay, who had been the least interested in my presence today, may also have been the least enthusiastic to be playing a branded show in an oversized concrete venue that felt like a vacuum. She said very little to the crowd, instead letting the music speak for itself.
Still, the band’s songwriting and inherent charisma suggest that they could have pop ambitions. Palmer shook the idea off, saying that if anything, music is “something I know how to do and is easy, but I’d like to write in some capacity, whether politically or fiction.” But when I tell Seely that his guitar parts are as catchy as anything on the radio and ask if he’d ever want to write them for a pop singer, he’s more open.
“Tell Carly Rae Jepsen to give me a call,” he says, and I think if given the chance, he would have added a “maybe.”