Meet Sheer Mag's Tina Halladay, the Etta James of the Punk-Rock Resistance

Sheer Mag
Sheer Mag Marie Lin
For a couple of years, Sheer Mag ran one of the tightest and most DIY ships in rock and roll. From late 2014 to early 2016, the Philly quintet released three seven-inch records on its own label, each with four songs and grainy telephone-pole-ready cover art. The musicians performed select shows — footage of rowdy gigs at East Coast punk dives surfaced on YouTube — but didn’t tour extensively. And they declined most interviews and other promotional opportunities, choosing instead to let their music do almost all of the talking.

Whether all of this was buzz-building strategy or simply a staunch commitment to certain ideals is neither here nor there. What matters is it worked. Sheer Mag’s street-tough brand of garage rock, punk, glam and hard soul was so compelling, word of mouth spread like wildfire. The act’s music started showing up on year-end “best of” lists, and the outfit scored spots performing at a few prestigious festivals.

Without trying too hard, Sheer Mag became one of the coolest bands going.

Then came the tricky part: answering the hype with a great debut full-length album. Released in July, Need to Feel Your Love delivers mightily on Sheer Mag’s early potential with twelve tightly wound tracks of barbed riffs, bubblegum bass lines, grimy grooves and heart-melting melodies. At the center of it all is Tina Halladay, whose astringent vocals and political passions make her sound like the Etta James of the punk-rock resistance.

Recently, Westword spoke with Halladay about her band, her politics and the pressure of making a great debut album.

As Sheer Mag became more popular and more critically acclaimed, you all did very little press. Why?

We just probably thought it was kinda stupid. It felt silly to do it before now. It feels great that people care, and we never wanted it to seem like we didn’t care that people were appreciating our music. We just felt a little foolish doing a bunch of interviews...because we had only a couple songs.

Was that something everyone in the band agreed on, or were there some people who thought you should be doing more to push Sheer Mag?

There was no big struggle. I think the more we talked about it, the more we all agreed. We all come from the same scene, and that’s kind of how that scene does things, so we were never really coming at it from the other direction. I think people are more used to talking to indie bands about this kind of thing. Some might be surprised about our methods, but they’re not so rare in punk music.

Do you think avoiding interviews fostered a mysterious image for Sheer Mag that helped fuel the rapid increase in interest in your band?

I don’t think that’s initially why we did it, but I think it just kind of happened. It’s interesting and kind of cool. We’ve, like, spun it so that it was positive that we weren’t doing anything. But it’s awesome people like it, because we’re doing all this stuff ourselves and just trying to make good songs. We’re working within our means, and we’re not assholes.

You have an interesting way of writing. [Guitarist Kyle Seely writes the riffs, his brother Hart Seely arranges the songs, guitarist Matt Palmer writes most of the lyrics, and Halladay sings.] Do you know of any other bands that take such an assembly-line approach?

Yeah, there’s a couple, but, yeah, most bands are usually like one person just calling all the shots, which doesn’t really leave much room for that person to be checked or challenged. That’s a really cool thing about us: I feel like we challenge each other a lot. Or at least I feel challenged by my bandmates.

When it came time to make
Need To Feel Your Love, did you feel pressure to follow up those three amazing seven-inches? How did you handle that pressure?

We talked about it. We were like, "We better make this one good or everyone’s gonna think we suck.” [Laughs.] It’s annoying to have so much pressure on you, but we just try to ignore it, and I think we do a pretty good job. I think that’s a huge reason that bands don’t really last, because they feel the pressure of the outside world being like, "This better be good!" instead of just letting them make music and exist.

Did you put in any extra effort to make sure the songs on the new album met the standard you’d already set?

Well, I think we’ve always had that attitude. We always want to make the best music we possibly can, and we’ve always gone the extra mile to make sure we get there. We’ve been known to skip a party with all our friends the night before heading out on the road just so we can re-record some vocals to get them just right. So we’ve never really lacked in that way.

As for you specifically, have you always been politically outspoken?

I’ve always been a little bit that way. I remember when I was too young to vote and telling my sister who to vote for for president. But I think the current climate has pushed everyone to be a little more political, and I’m disappointed that I wasn’t more informed and more political sooner.

But it’s good, and I’m glad that I can be that voice and be accepted. Even the secret shifting away of toxic masculinity of a bunch of dudes singing “I’m nobody’s girl” [from the song “Nobody’s Baby”] is a really cool thing for me. I think it’s a choice everyone makes if they want to be political or not in their art, and it’s not really a choice for me. In my heart, that’s what I feel like I need to do, and I think that’s how everyone in my band feels.

Sheer Mag plays with Tenement and American Culture, 9 p.m. Saturday, October 7, Larimer Lounge, 2721 Larimer Street, 303-296-1003.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.