Tough Love: Sheer Mag
Turn up to a Sheer Mag gig and you might find yourself in the middle of a moshpit, floating at the back of the venue or screaming along to every lyric against the barrier. As long as you’re safe and you’re having a good time, Sheer Mag don’t care. But as much as the Philadelphia band strive to create a welcoming experience, their carefully constructed bubble of inclusivity sometimes comes under threat.
“I was just like, ‘What the fuck is wrong with you? Get the fuck out of my face.’” Lead singer Tina Halladay is telling me about an incident when a stranger approached her after a show and started stroking her back. “He’d tried to add me on Facebook earlier that day. I was like, go fuck yourself. Then, he said something really weird – that he thought I wouldn’t be able to sing. I was blown away. Why would you think I wouldn’t be able to sing?” There’s audible disgust in her voice. “Yeah, I look like I can’t sing because fat people can’t sing for some reason? I can’t be talented or sexy or anything – I’m a fat chick, so I can’t do shit right? Like, fuck you dude.”
Tina is a force of nature. She delivers her soulful wail with raw punk energy, and the band have generated a cult following largely thanks to their live shows, which often see her throwing herself into the crowd, sweaty and still singing. Since forming in 2014, Sheer Mag have remained largely self-managed and continued to book their own gigs. And having released a trilogy of EPs, last month their profile increased considerably with the release of their debut album Need to Feel Your Love.
Much of the appeal of Sheer Mag comes from how classic rock and punk collide in their sound, look and message. When riffs that could have been ripped straight from Thin Lizzy provide a powerful backing for Tina’s insistent punk polemics, traditional American rock tropes are cleverly subverted by resolutely left-wing lyrics. Need To Feel Your Love’s heavy metal-influenced opener Meet Me In The Street sees the band “throwing rocks at the boys in blue” in protest of Donald Trump’s inauguration, while the strutting single Suffer Me is about the Stonewall riots of 1969. The album ends with jangly sing-a-long (Say Goodbye to) Sophie Scholl, which pays tribute to the young German woman who was beheaded for handing out anti-Nazi pamphlets.
Tina recognises a comparison between the Nazi Germany which Scholl protested and the rising tides of nationalism today. “Donald Trump is just a fraction away from being a fascist,” she argues. “When I was in Berlin I went to a Holocaust museum and learned about the Nazi Party’s rise to power. I was listening to the speeches and I just started fucking crying. I couldn’t handle it any more. Trump’s speeches sound the same.”
Tina and guitarist Matt Palmer write Sheer Mag’s songs together. “He is one of my best friends so he knows what’s going on in my personal life,” Tina says of their creative process. “A lot of those songs are about me and my experiences. With the political songs, it’s [Matt] researching things that he’s read about and writing from even a farther away perspective than mine.” Tina’s personal outlook, she explains, is pinned down by her upbringing. “I’m from a single parent household, and I was on welfare when I was younger,” she remembers. “We were the poorest family and people looked down on us. My mom was on food stamps for some months, and it was so shameful for her to use them. It would be different if it was some rich, white dude singing about this shit.”
And, she tells me, it’s not rich white dudes she wants to play shows for either. “Fucking old white dudes, standing in front of the crowd, getting mad at people for dancing!” she recounts in horror. “It happened in San Diego and I flipped out – I was like, get in the fucking back of the room! I just screamed at them. Then these kids took their spot up front and danced. They looked so happy.”
You’ll realise by now that Tina Halladay isn’t your average bandleader – fat, feminist and utterly unapologetic, the only other comparable music artist around right now is Beth Ditto. As a result, other kids who don’t quite fit the mould see themselves shimmering back in Tina’s tough, tight performances. Does she feel intimidated by the idea of being a role model? “I see how people can feel that way, but I don’t really feel that way a lot of the time,” she responds. “Maybe sometimes. I’m up for the challenge I guess, and I know I can handle it. That’s like the least of my worries right now. I’ve got lots of stupid shit to worry about.”
"Being angry, in my eyes, is a productive way of dealing with injustice" – Tina Halladay
Can she use those worries as fuel for her fierce presence onstage? “In my mind, being angry is more productive than being sad, especially after the election,” she muses. “Being angry, in my eyes, is a productive way of dealing with injustice. I don’t know what I would do if I wasn’t singing and dealing with my emotions in that way. I would probably freak out way more than I do. It’s really cathartic… A lot of women especially, say that I inspire them and that’s a really amazing thing. That alone is worth everything. All the work is totally justified by even one person.”
In a world where even the high street is cashing in on faux politics, Sheer Mag represent something realer and more resilient, and Tina Halladay is the distillation of that determined spirit. It feels good to have her on our side.
Need to Feel Your Love is out now via Static Shock Records