How Being Denied Food Stamps Inspired Sheer Mag’s Latest

How Being Denied Food Stamps Inspired Sheer Mag’s Latest

A few years back, Sheer Mag frontperson Tina Halladay found herself screwed out of her job, newly single and in the throes of her father’s passing. Somewhere in that swirl of misfortune — which was all happening during the lead-up to and aftermath of the 2016 presidential election — Halladay was denied access to SNAP benefits (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, FKA food stamps).

“People have to show you how to fill out paperwork like that,” she tells TIDAL. “Getting medical bills and SNAP benefits and all that is a huge maze, and if you don’t have someone showing you, it’s pretty difficult because so much of it makes no sense to you. Getting help in this country is a huge bunch of fuckin’ red tape.”

“It shouldn’t be that hard to exist,” she adds.

The 34-year-old Philly resident has had a rough half a decade, and many of those inconceivably frustrating experiences — which intersected with the socio-political turmoil of the time — were sewn into the conceptual fabric of Sheer Mag’s second album, A Distant Call (out 8/23).

Sheer Mag formed in Philly in 2014 after four of their five original members had graduated from SUNY Purchase. As they dropped a string of highly praised seven-inches in the years that followed, they quickly became one of the most notable punk rock bands in the American underground. Although they were emerging from the DIY punk and hardcore universe, and proudly wearing those ethos on their jackets, Sheer Mag were playing unabashed power-pop with Thin Lizzy ambition — a breed of rock that felt refreshingly different from what many of their peers were doing at the time.

Despite the arena-rock homage of their massive riffs and Halladay’s gargantuan vocal delivery, Sheer Mag’s 2017 debut full-length, Need to Feel Your Love, was a sharp-toothed protest album. Halladay belted about the Stonewall Riots, racial inequality, gentrification, anti-Nazism and the necessity for love. Political undercurrents had always been present in Sheer Mag’s music, but it wasn’t until the writing process for A Distant Call that Halladay felt comfortable broaching her own personal tumult through song.

“I think that our writing relationship had to mature before we could tackle more sensitive subjects like my father’s death and my place in the world as a fat woman,” Halladay says. She and her bandmate Matt Palmer collaborate on their lyrics, so trust was incredibly important. “We had to write 24 or more songs together to be able to get to this point where we could be completely open and understand each other,” Halladay says.

She considers A Distant Call a concept album only because the order of events the protagonist endures doesn’t match the exact timeline of her real-life experiences. Still, the entire record is her story. Being denied food stamps because of a paperwork error, being exploited by her former bosses, the conflicted relationship with her late abusive father and the condescending comments people make about her weight are all topics Halladay sings about in candid terms.

“When I was a girl / I did my best to hide / we’d all had to run for cover / from my father and his drunken pride,” she snarls during “Cold Sword,” an emotional and musical standout.

These aren’t common lyrical themes for a band that sounds like Sheer Mag. The quartet plays a meaty, fist-pumping cross between ‘70s proto-metal, power-pop and ACDC-indebted hard rock. During a cursory listen, Sheer Mag’s big riffs, flaming guitar solos and Halladay’s mighty wail may bring to mind anthems of partying and macho mindlessness — not the astute tales of class struggle that boil right beneath their rockin’ surface.

Sheer Mag aren’t at all interested in writing about those things. They’re righteously pissed and rightly so.

“People not having a place to live or food or health insurance is violence,” Halladay says. “It’s just not a form of violence that you’re comfortable calling out because everyone’s supposed to be able to take care of themselves for some reason, even though this entire country is rigged and really hard to exist in.”

A Distant Call ultimately concludes with a ray of hope that a decent future is in sight. “I mean, you have to have hope or what is the point of anything?” Halladay says. “I think people are finally realizing you don’t have to respect these people’s opinions who are basically fascists.”

Read on for Halladay’s breakdown of the album’s story arc, some of the experiences that informed the lyrics and how Sheer Mag are bringing rock & roll back to the people who started it: the working class.

Can you explain the concept of the album?

The storyline doesn’t really start until the second song and it’s just about a person who’s going through all this bullshit. Losing their job; things are going badly in the world around them and that’s affecting them.

They’re dealing with a relationship that isn’t going great and eventually ends. And then their father passes away and they’re dealing with all the emotions that come along with that because it was a very tumultuous relationship.

And the bottom just dropped out. And they have to decide whether to turn everything around or be defeated, and obviously they’re not going to be. So they have to turn outward and deal with what’s going on.

So that’s side B, when she starts to turn things around and comes out a changed person, having dealt with all these things that have somehow made them stronger and able to deal with the world around them in a positive [way].

What about the lyric in ‘Silver Line’ where you say that you got fired from your job and you ended up going to strike? What was that like? 

I think that was more along the lines of referencing the teacher’s strike in West Virginia while all of this bullshit is going on in my own life.

I got injured and broke my thumb and my job at the time, I was working at a sustainable Laundromat, and they basically took advantage of me being not naive and not knowing how to exploit the system. They just got me to sign papers that basically said I forcibly quit so they didn’t have to give me any unemployment.

It’s just relating that to the teacher’s strike. It’s like I’m striking for nothing with no contract, and seeing how the way the world works not for individuals but for corporations and companies.

Obviously a rock album about those sorts of political topics is not necessarily a new concept. And I think you do a really good job of being really clever and going about this in a refreshing way. But I’m wondering how conscious you are of singing about economic struggle in a way that’s breaking through the noise of what’s been said before?

We just try to be true to ourselves and the way we’re all feeling and what the people around us are talking about. I don’t know if we consciously are like, ‘We need to do this different.’ It’s just trying to be true to ourselves and also being catchy and relatable.

And being vulnerable I think is really important as well. That scares people, but I think that’s what really makes music something that everyone can feel and relate to. Is that vulnerability. If you put it out there I think it’s rewarding.

So why make rock music to talk about these issues?

We look at it through a pop music lens. Like, what is catchy and what is going to make people want to listen to it and listen to it over and over again. And maybe not necessarily know what the song is about at first, but wanting to know. And maybe making someone think [beyond] the surface level of a song, trying to [find] meaning and understanding.

Some people compare Sheer Mag to AC/DC or Van Halen. But your lyrics are very, very different from those bands. Do you think of yourself as reclaiming rock from more macho, frivolous bands?

I think it’s maybe bringing it back to what it was probably about for people who invented rock music. [These were] struggling people, people who were not writing about a bunch of bullshit party lyrics and misogynist bullshit about fucking girls and being rich.

It’s new because I’ve never heard or seen someone that looks like me or thinks like me represented in that kind of music. But who knows?

(Photo credit: Marie Lin)

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