As AC/DC once put it, “It’s a long way to the top if you wanna rock & roll.” Not so for Sheer Mag, the Philadelphia power-soul riff factory who propelled themselves from DIY basements to headlining venue tours in just a few years. They aren’t seeking a spot on the music industry summit—just a sustainable future where they exercise full control over the band and and its music, from top to bottom.
Their unwavering independence is clear, from their self-distributed albums, to their raucous self-booked tours. That ethos is consistent with the band’s message: be yourself, against all odds. Tracks like “Nobody’s Baby” and “Suffer Me” subvert the casual misogyny often found in riff rock, swapping it out for a strong sense of identity and open-mindedness. “Keep me out of your fantasy,” bellows frontperson Tina Halladay on the latter: “Can you give me that one luxury?”
Over the phone from her Point Breeze, Philadelphia apartment, Halladay acknowledges the subversive nature of their lyrics. “People like rock & roll,” explains Halladay, “but it didn’t always come from the best place.” Their debut self-released full-length album—Need To Feel Your Love, out last June—is about taking the power back. “It’s really cool to see people sing along to ‘Nobody’s Baby’ like they would ‘The Boys Are Back In Town,’” she says.
Sheer Mag play Villain on 10/21 with Hank Wood and the Hammerheads and Haram.
AdHoc: I’ve been jamming you guys for a few years, since the singles, and it’s exciting to see all your success. Do you feel differently about the band now than you did a few years ago, when you were coming up?
Tina Halladay: Well, we know each other a lot better now, so I guess that’s different. And we’re just really excited, optimistic for the future.
How would you say you’ve grown over the last few years?
I think we’re all much more serious. We all have a better idea of what we want to be. We’re learning how to be a band and how to do all these things we didn’t really know how to do, by [virtue] of being our own label. That occupies a lot of time—doing different things that most bands don’t really worry about.
Ha, like everything: distribution, doing our own mail-orders, more day-to-day stuff. We have a tour manager for the first time ever on this tour, which is a huge relief, because he’s going to make sure we’re at the shows on time and all that stuff. We have to figure out contracts, we had to do our own taxes last year—ugh, so much stuff.
Have all these duties affected the enjoyment you get out of playing? Does the stress bleed into the music?
A little bit, of course. Sometimes I’m like “I just want to be able to play, and not have to worry about this stuff.” But it gets easier, honestly. It feels good for it to be mostly ours.
This is a rare time in music where bands can be their own everything, and do it well.
Yeah, I think the music industry is a little freaked out that we’re helping show people that it’s possible. Who else? Like, Chance the Rapper, Frank Ocean, etc.
There are tons of examples, in all corners of the industry, of people are doing it themselves. Was that part of the concept, when you formed the band?
I’m not sure anyone else had the thought initially. I mean, we all had no idea what to expect. I think it more just happened that way. We all realized that some of the stuff happening was bullshit. When our first demo came out on Soundcloud, we had some people hit us up with interest. We asked all these questions, and just never heard back. Like, they got freaked out that we knew enough to ask a bunch of questions, instead of just being blindly excited that some “name” wanted to put out our music.
I’m sure you still get stuff like that all the time, right?
I think labels have kind of given up. I think they know that if they want to work with us, it’s not going to be a traditional signing sort of thing.
That’s exciting! The band has surpassed a huge milestone, in that case—that you’re able to do your work without others pestering you.
I mean, maybe we’ll get a crazy offer some day, but I haven’t seen anything in a while.
Is there something that you guys are holding out for that you haven’t seen yet?
I don’t know. I don’t think we know either.
Sheer Mag is often cited as being influenced by ’70s rock—“cock rock,” for lack of a better term. Was there an overt decision to subvert the misogyny of that culture?
Somewhat. When we started playing these songs, and they asked me to sing instead of some guy, that was the first step toward that. That was definitely a conscious decision. It slowly came to us that pursuing [subversion] was a good idea.
People like rock & roll, but it didn’t always come from the best place. It got really soulless towards the end. That’s when the hate on disco came—things like that. There’s tons of racism and sexism coded into the criticism of disco. But, yeah, it’s really cool to see people sing along to “Nobody’s Baby” like they would ‘The Boys Are Back In Town.’
A bunch of dudes screaming “I’m nobody’s girl!” is really cool. It should be that way; we all should be able to relate to the meaning of songs without the gender that someone might identify with. How closed-minded are you if you can’t relate to things in different ways, through different people?
If Sheer Mag was writing and performing these songs 15, 20, 40 years ago, do you think they would have the same impact that they have now?
I don’t know—maybe not. I don’t think I would have ever been in a band back then. They wouldn’t want a fat woman fronting a band. Not on the forefront, at least. That’s a hard question. Maybe that means it is something more “now.”
Do audiences today have a wider understanding of social constructs like gender roles than they did before?
I think so, yeah. Someone recently put it that way to me—like, when you watch a crowd and see men who might not necessarily be super comfortable with [discussions of gender roles] rocking out, that we’re chipping away at toxic masculinity, with songs like “Nobody’s Baby.” That’s a really amazing thing for someone to say. I hope that it is happening.
You still play punk shows in dirty-ass basements across the country, but you’ve also appeared at major festivals like Coachella. Do you ever experience cognitive dissonance?
We just kind of got a taste of that, with this bigger headlining tour that we’re doing. I felt weird when we were playing a supporting role on bigger shows, like opening for Parquet Courts or playing festivals at noon or some shit. Those shows aren’t that fun compared to punk shows. At first we were like, “This is fuckin’ stupid.” Now we’re doing a headlining tour with bigger shows, and that feels better, because we’re doing our own shows. The feeling remains the same as it did [at] the punk shows, because people are excited to see us.
Are you nervous?
Nah, I can’t really be nervous.
Do you feel you play the same show no matter how engaged the crowd is?
I think the difference between us having a really awesome time and having a fine time is the crowd, for sure. We all try to put 100% effort into every show we play, as best as we can, but the crowd makes it into an amazing show.
Do you ever get the feeling that you have to win people over? Or that you are winning people over?
Yeah, I think it’s important to not be discouraged when people are just standing and watching instead of going crazy. Like, if we play a good show and people are standing around, maybe that just means they’re paying attention. I have had some funny interactions, though. In Europe, some guy came up to me and was like, “I hate the record, but I love you live.” And all I could think was, “You are a psychopath.”
What an asshole!
I just laughed really hard. Said “Ok,” and walked away. But then he was at the show the next day, so that’s cool.