- Interview by
- Alexander Billet
Let’s go back in time about six months — back to October when Bernie Sanders’s heart attack prompted the mainstream media to declare his campaign all but dead. Most could barely hide their glee.
Then something remarkable happened in Queens. With Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez warming up a crowd of tens of thousands, a recovered Sen. Sanders took the stage to the sound of Sheer Mag’s “Expect the Bayonet.”
It had the feeling of a comeback tour, and rightly so. Since then, Sanders has brushed aside worries of his being “too old,” climbed to a lead in the polls, and won the popular vote in seven primaries. With the field cleared and the execrable Joe Biden now ahead in the delegate count, Sanders is again the underdog, but not yet defeated. If Sanders’s rallies since then have often taken on an air of a concert, there is good reason for it — and it comes straight from the top. “One of the questions Bernie always asks before an event,” Sanders’s deputy campaign manager told CNN, “is do we have a band.” He’s gained the endorsement and support of Jack White, Las Cafeteras, Cardi B, Killer Mike, M.I.A., Bon Iver, Lizzo, Neil Young, Zola Jesus, Ana Tijoux, Michael Stipe, Vic Mensa, Jeff Mangum, Public Enemy, and a long list past this one. If every meaningful social movement has its soundtrack, then the one around Sanders is uniquely vast and varied.
That Sheer Mag’s music played a significant role in helping build this kind of youthful, swaggering vibe around the Sanders campaign is no surprise. The band exists at the weird, often obscured intersection of punk, power pop, left politics, and working-class life. Their music sounds familiar but somehow fresh and new, comforting but aggressive and wild, like a cross between Thin Lizzy and Bikini Kill.
Jacobin’s Alexander Billet asked the band — singer Tina Halladay, guitarist and keyboardist Matt Palmer, bassist Hart Seely, and lead guitarist Kyle Seely — about its music and outlook, and the role of artists in radical social change.
Sheer Mag’s politics have always been apparent but in that very punk-rock way. Was there always an impulse as a band to ally with the Left?
Our politics have been a part of Sheer Mag since it started. We’ve always used union-made shirts for our merch, and we release our music through our own record label, the Wilsuns Recording Company, though we have teamed up with other small and independent labels for international releases. Our politics are baked into the way that Sheer Mag is run, but we began exploring more socialist ideas in our songwriting as we matured as a band and as people.
I always wanted our band’s politics to come off as more nonchalant than I think they have — not the only thing about us, or used to put us up on a pedestal as some acquired taste. This is not to criticize the brashness of our message or anything we’ve done, it’s more about a narrative that gets created and repeated by journalists. I’ve been of the Left basically all my life, but I’ve also come around to the idea that it’s maybe more persuasive or less alienating to the vast majority of working people, who don’t see themselves as very “political,” for us to not be pigeonholed as a political band.
Was there any discussion about openly supporting Bernie Sanders as a band? How did “Expect the Bayonet” come to be used during Bernie’s “comeback” event back in the fall?
We’ve all supported Bernie since the 2016 primaries, but we never had an official relationship to his campaign. None of us had any idea that he or some young staffer were going to play “Expect the Bayonet” bookended on both sides with “Back in Black” by AC/DC at his rally in Queens.
Needless to say, it was a very pleasant surprise. “Expect the Bayonet” is about systemic racism and disenfranchisement going back to the writing of the Constitution and the threat of radical change if the people aren’t allowed to have their say.
Total surprise. My dad emailed me and Hart saying that his friend who was at the rally in NYC had heard it, and then we started seeing it getting covered in the music press.
Sheer Mag have a distinctive sound in that there’s this very seamless blend of punk and classic rock. In a lot of people’s minds, these sounds are diametrically opposed; punk was seen as a response to or push against an approach to rock that was seen as “overblown” in the ’70s. But I would imagine you all would have a different take?
Being able to access the entire archive of recorded music as easily as we can now definitely breaks down those genre boundaries. In the ’70s it was probably considered pretty weird to listen to both Black Flag and Fleetwood Mac, but now it’s seen as having a well-rounded taste in music.
The first punk stuff was a reaction to the popular music of the time. I’ve probably been reacting against a lot of grunge-influenced alt-rock that dominated the music of my childhood and early teens — a lot of which I did like. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t react against it subconsciously or otherwise in my music. False modesty, overearnestness, twee, even irony — these are all huge parts of pop culture now that I think established themselves back then or in the ’90s. Maybe Sheer Mag is reacting against these in some ways. Personally, I like a lot of the pop music of the ’70s and ’80s that’s a little more over the top, maybe “overblown” as you say.
I think that in the late ’70s punk was diametrically opposed to contemporary rock music in spirit more than in sound. I listen to London Calling, a seminal defining “punk” album, and I hear mid-tempo hard rock tracks like “Death or Glory,” and even elements of disco, like “Train in Vain.” Punk certainly accelerated into new, exciting, and aggressive styles quickly, but I guess that snapshot of time was our original inspiration. We wanted to make early punk/power-pop music but with the stylings of American southern/classic rock massaged in, as well as whatever other influences we felt like. I try to write songs that don’t require a certain genre to be effective (but rock is the best). I just consider it pop music: good melody with good chords. When we started the band it felt rebellious to write pop music as a punk band, which sounds a bit silly in retrospect.
Along those same lines, these are sounds that are frequently thought of as being “macho” or dominated by white males. But you all of course have clearly positioned yourselves as a firmly feminist and antiracist group fronted by a woman. How has the group found navigating these kinds of conceptions about your sound?
The voices that are the loudest and easily accessible are often white and male. This is not specific to rock music, as much as the roots of most things are not white or male when you dig deeper.
I think that one of the reasons that Sheer Mag can revisit the classic rock sound with a kind of fresh and new perspective is the fact that our songs are sung from a point of view that isn’t seen over and over and over, the way the voice of the white male has been represented in rock music. A huge part of music is people’s ability to relate to and see themselves in it. I think it’s really cool that different people can do that with our music. A big part of that to me is being vulnerable and honest. It is difficult navigating something that you don’t see a ton of people who act or look like you being involved in, so the best I can do is to be honest and sincere. I hope people see that.
We all know how we are supposed to respond to this in this preachy way, and it would be hard to even find somebody who would disagree with the gist of that, so it feels a little performative . . . I think that the biggest barrier to all art forms right now is people not having the means to get started and then make a living doing it. If the first part of the question is inferring that “these sounds,” like classic rock or even rock music in general, is uniquely male-dominated, then I would disagree with that premise. The genre was as male-dominated as lots of other genres — country, jazz, rap, etc. It’s true rock music has been predominantly white in the United States since the ’50s. I’d like for our band to have a broad appeal, and I think that we do, but ultimately people like what they like.
Need to Feel Your Love was — I hate to say “well-timed” given the circumstances — but there was a definite way to hear these songs as a call to arms as Trump took office.
Yeah, it was weirdly well-timed. When we put out Need to Feel Your Love, the prevailing mood was that we were all anxious to get out and do whatever needed to be done, going to big rallies in the center of Philly and shit, stuff that ultimately ended up as more a waste of time than anything else, but people were looking for any way to connect with each other. Even a lot of non-activist people seemed to be more active for that time.
What’s changed since that era is that Trump has only gained popularity, as the most visible opposition has grown weaker and more prone to odd political gambles and distractions like Russia and impeachment. Large numbers of Bernie’s 2016 support have gone to support Warren, Buttigieg, Klobuchar, and the others. The “mask is off” as they say, and it’s obvious that the ruling class, however socially liberal or conservative, would rather see a Trump second term than have the Democrats become a moderate-left social-democratic party with Sanders at its helm. It’s in this context that we put out A Distant Call.
What do you think the prospects are for left-wing artists having a role in social movements going forward?
I think there has been something of a shift in the role of the artist in the last decade. Today, it seems like most of the bigger artists are more followers than leaders, like they are more influenced by the culture online or whatever than the other way around. They will come around to some idea or position after it’s completely safe or marketable to do so and get praised for it.
So yeah, putting aside that kind of focus-grouped art that just blows whatever direction in the political winds, if they are going to be outspoken participants or even leaders politically, artists should be principled and honest. They should be willing to take unpopular positions among their fan base, and also generally have some courage. Finally, they should know their place — when and where their input into things can help and where it might hurt broader goals. Rich, liberal celebrities seem to have a harder and harder time with this last point, but what else is new?