Sheer Mag arrived with a bang back in 2014, a Philly band that came out fighting, throwing punches with 1970s hard rock songs that landed with punk force.
The band announced its arrival with a four-track EP full of power chords and songs of love and desperation that shouted out South Philly while observing a gentrification war raging in “Point Breeze,” which observes that “the streets are changing / a white breeze is blowing through.”
The world took notice. Pitchfork praised the Christina Halladay-fronted band’s “scuzzy junkyard guitar sound.” Rolling Stone put them on a Bands You Need to Know list. At the South by Southwest festival the following year, the music industry dangled deals.
Sheer Mag resisted. While releasing two more EPs that would eventually be compiled together in 2016, they did no interviews, didn’t hire a manager, or sign to a record label.
Instead, the band chose to go it alone, releasing in 2017 its proper full-length debut, Need to Feel Your Love, on its own Wilsuns Recording Co. label. And now its brand-new follow-up, A Distant Call (*** ½), is also self-released.
“I think we were all like, ‘This just feels really weird,’ ” Halladay recalls. “It just didn’t feel like what we should be doing. We were just trying to figure out what we felt like as a band. It felt silly to feed into this weird hype thing.”
Halladay was speaking this past week at Sheer Mag’s rehearsal-space headquarters in a converted paint factory in West Philadelphia, her voice intermittently competing with SEPTA trains rumbling by on the way to the airport.
She was with two other band members: brothers Hart and Kyle Seely, who play bass and lead guitar, respectively, and make up the core lineup along with rhythm guitarist Matt Palmer, who moved to New York for love last year.
When Halladay’s phone rings with the tone of the Weather Girls’ “It’s Raining Men,” Kyle Seely picks up the conversation.
“We were also flying by the seat of our pants. So we decided to try and take it at more of a relaxed pace,” remembers Kyle, advertising his ’70s rock love with a Boston T-shirt.
Not talking to the press until Need to Feel Your Love was released was an effective strategy because it allowed the band — who will play Union Transfer on Oct. 10 — to grow at its own chosen speed.
And it also built the mystique of Sheer Mag, and now that the veil is lifted, it turns out they operate with a unique division of labor.
The songs are all credited to the band as a whole. But the majority of lyrics are written by Palmer even though Halladay sings them and they usually represent her perspective.
Lyrics are written after close collaboration between Palmer and Halladay and much discussion. Close friends since college, the pair have developed an extraordinary level of trust. “Sometime it’s almost like I’m interviewing her,” Palmer says, talking on the phone from Brooklyn.
Matters were delicate on A Distant Call, conceived as a cohesive story about the travails and triumphs of one woman who, essentially, is Halladay. It includes the most directly autobiographical songs the singer has sung, in “Cold Sword” and “The Right Stuff.”
The former is about her alcoholic father, who died in 2013. “When I was a girl, I did my best to hide,” she sings. “We all had to run for cover, from my father and his drunken pride.” The song mentions her father’s physical abuse of her mother. Halladay says she’s played the song for her mom, but hasn’t yet succeeded in getting her to pay attention to the lyrics.
On A Distant Call, Sheer Mag are steadfast in their unabashed affection for forebears like the Clash, a band Halladay says the Seelys “love too much,” and Thin Lizzy, the 1970s group fronted by Phil Lynott, whose image Halladay has tattooed on her right thigh.
Thin Lizzy — whose big hit was 1976‘s “The Boys Are Back in Town” — is mentioned so frequently in connection with Sheer Mag that Halladay can’t help but be tired of hearing it. “They are my favorite band, though,” she says.
Lynott’s outsider perspective as a black Irishman gives his music power, Halladay says. “To me, those are all the best bands. Like Judas Priest with Rob Halford, a gay man in the middle of a metal band. Like Queen. I just feel like when someone has that edge and they’re not just like every other cookie-cutter rock band, there’s a whole new depth.”
Other comparisons irk her more: “At least it’s not someone lazily comparing us to another band with a fat person in it. Like people say we sound like Alabama Shakes or the Gossip, and we don’t sound anything like them. I’m just also a fat woman. That’s infuriating.”
On A Distant Call, “The Right Stuff” is about body issues. “I’m the biggest one in the crowd, and I don’t say it much out loud / But eyes stare and people turn, my heart starts to race and my face burns.”
“I’ve been fat, and I’ve been called fat since I’ve been in third or fourth grade,” Halladay says. “For a long time, Missy Elliott was the only person I could think of who was a fat woman in music.”
The catharsis of being in a take-no-prisoners rock band is particularly satisfying after spending much of her life being teased or regarded as invisible, Halladay says. “Just existing was dissent for me, and I’m sure for a lot of other people.”
Up onstage, "I can block some of that out, but a lot of people don’t have that luxury.”
She’s a fan of Lizzo, the world’s most proudly visible plus-size pop star, who will perform at the Made in America festival next weekend.
“I was like crying the entire time” when she saw Lizzo perform at the TLA this year, Halladay says. “She’s amazing and beautiful. It’s so inspiring. I love her.”
People probably feel the same way when they see you onstage, I tell Halladay. “I can only hope,” she says.
Halladay has been singing since she was a little girl, but the members of Sheer Mag didn’t meet until they were college students at SUNY Purchase.
Halladay grew up in a working-class town on Long Island. The Seely brothers are from Syracuse. Palmer hails from Vienna, Va.
Halladay moved to Philadelphia first in 2010, when she was singing in the soul-punk band the Shakes. The Seelys arrived shortly thereafter and started working on demos together in their Bella Vista basement.
The songs, like “What You Want,” that came together at the beginning of Sheer Mag embraced shouted choruses and riff rock. “Catchy cool,” as Kyle puts it.
Any chance of those ’70s signature sounds coming across with ironic distance was eliminated once Halladay came aboard. She sings it like she means it, man. “Irony is like a big crutch so you don’t have to truly connect with what you’re doing,” she says.
In 2019, Sheer Mag are now a half-decade into their recording career. The buzz has died down and with A Distant Call, the group has settled into life as a working band.
Palmer, who works in a “showbiz adjacent” job as a production assistant at fashion shows, is the only member with a job outside the group.
Most of the band’s income comes from merchandise sales, Halladay says. As Hart Seely heads to the building’s entrance to greet a truck delivering LPs, CDs, and cassettes of the new album, Halladay talks about being able to get by because Philadelphia is so affordable. Plus, “I’m really good at living on no money.”
Philadelphia has been good for Sheer Mag, she says, “because New York is too big of a pond. I don’t feel like we would have had the same impact if we were there. Everyone’s so jaded. No one’s paying attention.”
So does Sheer Mag’s rough -edged personality mesh better with the rugged, underdog character of the city that Hart Seely says now “feels like home.”
“I think so,” says Halladay. “New York is so much more sleek. It just feels harder to survive. Substance is less important. I feel like Philadelphia is more raw and ugly and vulnerable."
Sheer Mag with Tweens at Union Transfer, 1026 Spring Garden at 8:30 p.m. on Oct. 10. $15. 215-232-2100. utphilly.com