Sheer Mag Avoid the Rank and File

Sheer Mag Photo by Marie Lin
Sheer Mag

Sheer Mag isn’t taking the conventional route to success, but that hasn’t stopped them from becoming one of the hottest independent bands in North America. The band has managed to gain a lot of attention without a label or even much media until this year, even keeping their social media to a minimum. Coming out with three critically acclaimed EPs, their new full-length Need To Feel Your Love didn’t disappoint either. Thanks to their great music, they’ve quickly rocketed to even more attention and are embarking on one of their latest long tours. We caught up with lyricist Matt Palmer to discuss writing perspectives, the band’s unique writing process and how they’ve avoided the tie-ups of the industry.

Northern Transmissions: Why have you guys stuck to being completely independent from labels and what freedoms has it offered you?

Matt Palmer: We had the idea to put out the first 7″ on our own because we could just get the ball rolling, we wouldn’t have to wait for anyone else to put it out, so we made 500 copies of the first record. On the second one we collaborated with Katorga Works and they fucked up our inserts, and that’s the only time we worked with another label. No one’s going to care about your art more than you are. Labels also make you wait for months to fit you into their promotional slot. I have friends on major indies and they record their record, it sits on a shelf for 11 months before the label gets it out. We finished mastering our record and it was out in three months. We just make more money this way too, most labels take 20% and give you 20% of the stock to sell yourself. We got to a good start and were able to put the money we made back into our label, so it pays for itself.

NT: How do you think you managed to gain attention while being fairly barebones on social media for so long?

MP: There’s definitely something that’s interesting about not knowing and the mystery of remaining inaccessible to the press. It’s a little more intriguing than someone that posts on Instagram all the time, not that I hold anything against people that do. We wanted to hold back, we all know what we appreciate in the music we like, and it’s never having a great social media account. If a great artist has a really funny Instagram, that’s cool but the Facebook page isn’t going to be the hook that makes a band compelling to somebody.

NT: Has it been hard to manage the attention now that you’re snowballing into the public eye?

MP: It feel cool. We’ve been paying our dues, and we turned down a lot of interviews and press in the first year because we weren’t quite sure what we wanted to talk about. We didn’t want to define ourselves too early. Sometimes in the press they’ll stamp you as Thin Lizzy or Michael Jackson, I see the same labels regurgitated over and over again. We wanted to figure out our identity first. We’ve been getting more comfortable with the press stuff. I spent a long time writing the songs for this record so I have a lot to say about them. It’s interesting for me to see what I get asked about, what songs stick with people and what they ask.

NT: How did you guys start writing in this hand-off sort of way where each member handles a different part of the song?

MP: The music is almost is entirely conceived and composed by Kyle, then him and Hart will take it into the lab and tinker with it to find out what structurally makes sense. Then Hart will record and it’ll basically be the instrumental track, virtually done. He’ll give me the track, then Tina and I discuss what kind of song we want it to be. I’ll go home and compose to that song. It’s not a perfect method. Sometimes I’ll hear a song, and think “I don’t think this chorus should go here,” or I’ll have ideas on stuff to add and they’ll have to go back and record. It feels collaborative in a weird way. It’s improvisational in a weird way. Everyone adds their piece without feeling pressured to rush their contributions.

NT: Something that always stood out to me was how clearly old school and classic your sound is without ever feeling like a rip off of something else, has it been challenging to keep this clearly retro sound so fresh?

MP: It’s true that we definitely have some very direct references. Some artists are definitely stealing riffs. We’re not doing it wholesale but on the first record, “Hard Lovin” off the first EP, Kyle was really into Nick Lowe at the time so it’s basically the intro to “So It Goes” with a different rhythm on the drums. What keeps us from being derivative, I’m not sure. The two different halves of the song writing brain are working on different levels. Kyle and I are rarely thinking about the same thing while writing songs. It never comes out as one, the different perspectives are baked into the music.

NT: I feel like your take on political rock never seems too preachy or dishonest, so do you feel like there’s a key to good political music?

MP: Trying not to be condescending or preachy when writing political music is probably the hardest part for me. You want to present your narrative in a way that’s not going to alienate anyone, and will make them feel like considering an idea. So much political music is really annoying, it’s hard to make people not tune out. So much political music makes me roll my eyes and think “They’re really hitting the head on the nail,” it’s very obvious. I try to couch it in metaphor and not be extremely concrete in the language. I want the songs to be primarily catchy and I don’t want the weight of the song to be carried by the message. If someone likes the song and hears a line that they’re interested in, they’ll go and read the lyrics and then they’ll find out what it’s about. In terms of the perspective ideas about how to write, is considering which perspective to take. When you’re writing about experiences that aren’t directly yours, and trying to mindful of appropriating or not speaking too much for a community that I don’t represent. I knew I wanted to write a song about the Stonewall riots, and the hardest part was figuring out the perspective to take. When I’m telling the story, which is basically about this gay club in Greenwich Village that was routinely harassed by the NYPD. One night the tension snapped and the patrons fought the cops. It was the start of LGBT advocacy. I tried to tell it from a third-person perspective, not as someone there in the fight, because I feel like that would be overreaching my bounds, and then the chorus snaps to Tina’s perspective. I’m trying, so hopefully I’ll get the chance to write more songs and figure it out more.

Words by Owen Maxwell

Catch Sheer Mag this fall at these dates:
09/01 – Montreal, QC @ La Vitrola ~
09/02 – Toronto, ON @ The Horseshoe ~
09/03 – Detroit, MI @ UFO Factory ~
09/04 – Cleveland, OH @ Now That’s Class ~
09/05 – Buffalo, NY @ Mohawk Place ~
09/11 – Pittsburgh, PA @ Cattivo #
09/12 – Columbus, OH @ Ace of Cups #
09/13 – Louisville, KY @ Kaiju #
09/14 – Bloomington, IN @ The Bishop #
09/15 – Chicago, IL @ Thalia Hall #
09/16 – Madison, WI @ The Frequency #
09/17 – St Louis, MO @ RKDE
09/18 – Lawrence, KS @ The Bottleneck
09/19 – Omaha,NE @ Reverb Lounge
09/20 – Minneapolis, MN @ Triple Rock
09/21 – Fargo, ND @ The Aquarium
09/25 – Vancouver, BC @ Rickshaw Theater ^
09/26 – Seattle, WA @ Chop Suey ^
09/27 – Portland, OR @ Hawthorne Theater ^
09/29 – San Francisco, CA @ The Chapel ^
09/30 – Oakland, CA @ Starline Social Club ^
10/02 – San Diego,CA @ Soda Bar ^
10/03 – Los Angeles, CA @ Hi Hat ^
10/04 – Los Angeles, CA @ The Echo ^
10/05 – Phoenix, AZ @ Rebel Lounge ^
10/06 – Albuquerque, NM @ Sister ^
10/07 – Denver, CO @ Larimer Lounge ^
10/09 – Oklahoma City, OK @ 89th Street ^
10/10 – Dallas, TX @ Club Dada ^
10/11 – Austin, TX @ Barracuda ^
10/12 – San Antonio, TX @ Paper Tiger ^
10/13 – Houston, TX @ Walter’s ^
10/14 – New Orleans, LA @ Siberia ^
10/15 – Birmingham, AL @ Saturn ^
10/16 – Atlanta, GA @ The Masquerade ^
10/18 – Asheville, NC @ The Mothlight ^
10/19 – Charlottesville, VA @ The Southern ^

! = w/ Royal Headache
* = w/ Haram
~ = w/ Lost Balloons
# = w/ Flesh World
^ = w/ Tony Molina