Sheer Mag: “We all love rock music unironically”

Sheer Mag are unabashed about their love of serious rock n'roll. Ahead of their new album 'Playing Favourites', Lisa Wright meets frontwoman Tina Halladay to talk about the band's singular mission: to rock harder than they've ever rocked before.


If you thought the extended live music-less void of the COVID years was bad, try being in Sheer Mag. A band who, from their buzziest early days nearly a decade ago, have exuded the spirit of heady, unfettered rock’n’roll in its most life-giving form, Tina Halladay and her group of Philadelphia-based cohorts are a unit that don’t make sense without the sweat and sawdust of a live room. Who found their tribe in gig spaces, and who’ve set out to create those same environments across the globe with every hedonistic, joyous show they do.

It’s why their new record ‘Playing Favourites’ begins with a title track in thrall to the giddy joy of being back in the band; “But if you give us a shot, turn up the music, we’re a sight to see / At the end of the day baby, we’re all you need,” goes its lyrical ode to the magic of the stage. And it’s why, three albums in, Sheer Mag are still on a mission to plug in and inject a few extra volts into the power of rock. “I feel like, bands like [‘More Than A Feeling’ ‘70s hitmakers] Boston, where they have all those songs about just being at a rock show and being a rock’n’roll band, it was that vibe,” says Tina of the record’s opening manifesto. “We’re all here together, so let’s do what we’re supposed to do.”

Zooming in today from her home, we’re met with not one Tina Halladay but two: the husky-voiced frontwoman, occasionally slurping from a truly American Big Gulp cup, and the cut-out mask of her own face wearing a Simpsons-style beer can helmet that adorns the wall behind her. “Heh heh,” she laughs throatily. “I forget that’s there.” She’s most animated when talking about the feeling that live music gives you, like at the formative shows she’d go to as a teen in the local Sports Plus arcade.


“It was like an early Dave & Busters – there’s games and laser tag and dumb shit like that, but there was also a big recreation room and, for some reason, they allowed people to have shows there for a very brief amount of time,” she grins. “I remember going to those as a teenager and it being the craziest thing ever because they had no idea what they were getting themselves into. 

“It’d be a bunch of emo kids – I’m from Long Island so that was what was going on in the early ‘00s,” she continues. “Those shows coincided with me closing the door on friends that I didn’t like for how they made me feel, finding friends that made me feel good about who I was, and finding those spaces that [were filled with] a bunch of freaks like me.”

Sheer Mag started later, forming in 2014 before releasing a buzzy compilation of their early tracks in 2017 and their first studio album, ‘Need To Feel Your Love’, later that same year. From the start, that sense of kinship, fostered over a mutual love of ‘70s rock’s trad mainstays, has proved their greatest asset. “We love rock music unironically. So many people put their shit out there with a little hint of sarcasm or ‘We’re kind of just kidding’ but we genuinely all love rock music and it’s really important to us in a very real way,” says Tina. “It’s all very genuine and I don’t think that exists a lot.”

It’s meant that, over the years, Tina and Sheer Mag have inadvertently ended up breathing new life into a genre that’s always felt overwhelmingly male, making records that even the most seasoned purist couldn’t argue with, but giving it a long-needed update. Undoubtedly, they’ve opened the door for many to follow them. “I can’t even count how many people have come up to me and said, ‘I started a band because I saw you’. It’s a little bit of a backhanded compliment, like, ‘If your stupid ass can do it, then I know I can!” she laughs, “but it’s also awesome. It’s insane to me because I never questioned that I always wanted to sing in a band. I never thought I couldn’t do it, I just had a hard time convincing other people that I could, maybe. I had to trick ‘em first. But I guess it’s hard for me to wrap my head around having to see [someone up on stage first] because there’s not really a tonne of people who look like me making rock music. I had to stretch it in my brain a little bit. Like, Meatloaf is a fat guy and he’s belting it out even though he’s kind of a piece of shit…”

For all the woefully predictable misogyny that comes with being a woman fronting a rock band, Tina’s experience, she explains, has also been linked with an additional strain of fatphobia. “There’s been times where people at the venue have been like, ‘Are you the merch girl or the tour manager?’ and my face is on the poster 10ft away from us,” she says. “Of course, I’m never anyone’s girlfriend, they never say that… But I am the tour manager and I am the merch girl to them. Now I have a certain attitude and a way that I walk into a building that keeps that stuff at bay more, now that I’m confident in my abilities and that I should be there.”

Sheer Mag

Yet for all those hurdles, there’s never been a time since guitarist Kyle Seeley first painted their gold, glammy band logo onto a bed sheet before they’d even finished a song (“We were like, this is fucking sick. This shit writes itself…”) that Sheer Mag have questioned their calling. And on ‘Playing Favourites’, they’re doubling down on the commitment.

Take the infectious bar room jive of ‘Eat It and Beat It’: a track that, says Tina, “is as much about our own insecurities as it is talking shit about other bands.” Recounting the negative voices saying “you’re getting old” and “you just don’t got what it takes”, the sheer vibrancy of the track feels like a middle finger up to those notions in and of itself. “That song is like… we’re all in, you know? We’re giving all we’ve got,” she nods. “We’ve got a sound guy now – phew! I might even have in-ear monitors like a real person who sings, instead of just Texas headphones which are two monitors pointed at me blasting my own voice into my head…”

After a decade of largely refusing to play the standard industry game, they’ve signed to Jack White’s Third Man Records with the hope of seeing what else they can line up in the Sheer Mag story. And, filled with disco-leaning joy (‘All Lined Up’, ‘Mechanical Garden’) as well as their classic strand of raw, fist-punching rock’n’roll exuberance, ‘Playing Favourites’ is a record that deserves that additional label power and potential ears.

For Sheer Mag’s part, they want to break through the current “ceiling” that they felt they’d hit as a fully independent band, but the real reward isn’t massive streaming numbers or mainstream accolades – it’s getting in the van with your best mates, and playing the sort of show that can truly change lives. “Kyle always had this idea about the band before we even started that we wanted it to be like DIY stadium rock and just sound huge. We wanna be loud and to have everyone feel it and feel the music pulsing through it, that kind of shit, you know?” Tina says. “We’re giving it all we’ve got and I hope it works out. But it’s already worked out. This is a huge part of our lives and it has been for ten years. It’s the longest relationship I’ve ever been in.”

Playing Favorites’ is out on March 1 via Third Man Records.