Wednesday, 1 November 2017

SHARKK "Be That Way" Interview

As the drummer with the bands Tropical Death and Looprider, who are themselves releasing the Modern Maze EP and re-releasing the Ascension mini-album respectively on Cassette Store Day 2017, Sean McGee is probably Call And Response Records’ loudest cheerleader for cassettes. However, while he’s an ensemble player in those other bands, he is the leader, producer and sole full member of Sharkk, whose second release, the Be That Way EP, joins his other bands on the Cassette Store Day release roster this year.

Inhabiting a sonic and musical territory that will sound instantly familiar to fans of mostly U.S. turn-of-the-millennium indie rock and pop-punk, Sharkk is a way for McGee to filter and process many of the influences that shaped him growing up. Sharkk’s first, self-titled EP was in many ways about McGee piecing together a story of how he got to where he is now. Meeting up to talk with him about this new release, it’s interesting how much the past continues to inform and shape the way he takes his music forward.

IAN: So I thought this time, we’d go through the album track by track and you could tell me about what’s going on with each song. The first song on the album is Firelight.

SEAN: Yeah. So with Firelight I had a simple punk riff and I felt like I wanted Eugene [Roussin, Tropical Death guitarist/vocalist] to help out. He came over and was like, “I really want to put synth on it,” so we got my wife’s Microkorg out. It was meant to be a simple pop song and it kind of is – it reminded us of The Get-up Kids. I didn’t have the lyrics and so he just said, “Let’s do them now.” My lyrics are usually more personal, but because of the way we wrote it, there’s more fiction. It reminds me of things that happened to me, but it’s not real in the same way. It also has that Eugene, Tropical Death vibe. I’d like to work with him more, maybe make a new project. Eugene has a very unselfconscious sense of humour and I think he sometimes likes the idea of, “It's supposed to be stupid,” but I can’t always go as far down that road as him. Sometimes I had to stop him being too funny.

IAN: I think Eugene likes to write from the point of view of characters, often taking on positions he doesn’t agree with in order to satirise them. What’s this song about?

SEAN: Basically it’s the story of a kid who finally gets the girl. His parents are divorcing and he hears them through the wall. I’m like, “Where does that come from?” Eugene likes to create stories out of the air, out of his imagination, but I like to speak more from experience. I tell people my lyrics are fiction, but actually it’s usually just me talking directly. That’s the difference between me and him: he likes to take on someone else’s perspective in order to say what he really wants to say, but I like to mask my own voice when actually it’s really me talking. This song adds some color to the album though by coming from a different perspective. My voice sounds less confident I think, because I had to think about how to sing it because it’s not my story.

IAN: I sometimes find that I’ll write something and then can’t sing it because the words just don’t sound right with my voice or my delivery.

SEAN: That happened with this song too. I had to change some words because my mouth just moves in certain ways. I had to change words to a different word with the same meaning so they flow out of my mouth. I don’t relate to the lyrics in the same way as with my other songs— my parents aren’t divorced – but I understand sadness! I wish I’d sung them sweeter, but I think maybe I sang them too aggressively because I wanted it to fit in with the rest of the album. Basically I just got to write a cool little punk track with my friend, which was nice!

IAN: OK, so the next song’s Tonight. The lyrics from this one are where the title of the EP comes from really, isn’t it? It’s interesting how the phrase “be that way” changes its meaning when used out of context like that. I initially read it like, “OK then, be that way, I don’t care!” while in the song, the meaning doesn’t sound so confrontational.

SEAN: Right. I mean, here it’s more defiant perhaps, saying, “Be your way, fuck everybody else.” I didn’t realise till later, but the way I use “be that way” in this song, it’s more vague than I originally intended. What I was trying to express is that, for example you have these kids who have a problem – maybe they’re depressed, gay, whatever – and they’re having a hard time because of it. When I sang, “It ain’t so hard to be that way,” what I wanted it to mean is people say “Why are you complaining? Why can’t you just be normal.” And their response is “It’s not so wrong to be that way! Being my way isn’t wrong. Why can’t you understand?”

IAN: The next song, Underground, makes me smile a little because of how much time I’ve spent in what I guess you could call the “underground”. There’s a lot of mixed emotions that come with that: there’s pride but at the same time being underground is in some other ways a mark of failure.

SEAN: Thematically it follows on from the previous track for me. Although beside the fact that these lyrics suck, there is a bit of a question of why is it called Underground? Initially it was a demo title that just stuck.

IAN: It feels like it’s saying something like how because underground is the very bottom – like, it’s below the lowest point really – there’s actually a strange sense of security in that. Like you can’t fall any further. You’re on solid ground.

SEAN: What it’s about is that the singer is mad about stuff. There’s this bitterness toward the resistance you meet trying to do what you want, but there’s some irony here. You’re not falling down here in the underground – like, what are you trying to prove? I wanted it to come across as positive though. I wanted it to be a fist-pumping song, but when I think about who’s singing it, which is me, 32 years old and not really amounting to anything, it’s kind of ironic too.

IAN: Haha, well we’ll see about that. The next track is Fuse, and it kind of shifts the tempo down.

SEAN: From my perspective, I hear the voice of someone afraid of growing old and being irrelevant. This song is a feeling I can only recreate in songs. It’s looking back on a past summer love of sorts. The only way I can write a nice sappy love song that kids can relate to is if I remember how I felt back then. This song is saying we’re never going to be able to be together again, so we have to enjoy it while it lasts. That’s what I like about songwriting, and I’ve talked about this with my wife, who’s also a songwriter: it’s a way I can talk about memories, feed off past memories and have it not become something destructive or unhealthy – because they’re nice stories that are good to share.

IAN: Sometimes it feels to me that the nature of rock, pretty much since the 1970s when it reached its maturity as a genre, is to look back. It’s the mainstream popular musical form that deals most powerfully with nostalgia. Some might suggest that makes rock less relevant than dance music or hip hop, but having a relationship with the past and being able to link that in with how you’re feeling or what you’re experiencing now seems like a valuable role for pop culture to play as well.

SEAN: Yeah, that’s why I like it! Deathcab For Cutie’s new album is really his divorce album. It’s looking back nostalgically, but it’s really about now. He’s only going to be able to write that once. I’d have to divorce [my wife] Madoka to write that album!

IAN: Or get Eugene to write the lyrics.

SEAN: It’s also my limitations as a lyricist that I have to have these experiences I can feed off. I’m not a poet, not a storyteller; I just do what I can. Talking about lyrics can be so lame, like, “Look at these great feelings I have!” but it’s also fun just trying to put it down and make sense of it. I was watching a cheesy film with my wife and the girl was saying, “No more secrets, OK?” and my wife asks me “Do you have secrets?” I mean, of course I do! Do you want me to tell you everything? That’s what lyrics are for!

IAN: So the last song on the album is Hanging On, which is another slower paced song but much heavier.

SEAN: I don’t think I could write another song like this. It’s very minimal. I thought about calling it “Cicada” because they’re born, they sing their hearts out and then they die – “Is this really all there is? I don’t want to leave yet.” It’s about death and directed at a dying person saying, “I know I’m never going to see you again, but I don’t want to lose you.” At the same time, the dying person is the one who taught the narrator that they need to hang on. It’s kind of simple. It’s also a nice parallel with the first EP, because the first one ended with Doe, which is saying “We’ll make it there somehow,” but this is ending with death and the message is “Hang on.”

IAN: Are there some themes like that you find yourself returning to again and again?

SEAN: If I could narrow my songwriting down to three themes, which are on the last EP and this one and which I’ll continue writing about, I think they’re firstly these love songs looking back on sweet, naive past romances. Then there’s the fist-pumping “fuck you” songs, and then there’s death – the numbing feeling of “we’re going to die and this is all we have”. Those are the cheesy things that really get me going!

IAN: You always seem to collaborate with a bunch of other people, despite this really being a solo project. How did the various contributions pan out on Be That Way?

SEAN: Basically I wrote the songs, but Eugene was a part of the process of Firelight. He added keys which changed the vibe. Eugene wrote his synth and guitar parts. Yoyo [Looprider guitarist/vocalist Ryotaro YoyoAoki] played on the last track, although I kind of directed him in what to play, then he improvised the noise section at the end. On Underground my friend Machida wrote one of the guitar parts, and he and Eugene also helped record Tonight. Panther Lau was part of the process of Fuse, sending demos of his ideas for parts back and forth. He played guitar and keys. Machida helped on Fuse as well.

IAN: Production-wise it’s also a bit of a change from the first EP.

SEAN: The process was a bit strange, because I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do a DIY album or a well-recorded pop-punk album. I think it went more the latter way in the end, and because I was heading in that direction, I listened to a lot of pop-punk, especially when I was thinking about lyrics and vocal delivery. I was listening to the song Gone by Pulley a lot when I was trying to make Underground to try to get some inspiration.

IAN: How about the overall texture of the sound – the recording and mixing? I really like the way the music sounds.

SEAN: It was recorded by Graeme Mick, who has also worked on recent Tropical Death and Looprider releases, and it was mixed by Mike McGovern, who I worked with before on my split cassette for Cassette Store Day 2016. Carl Saff mastered it. You know Epitaph Records? I think their stuff is really nice sounding. I wanted to be like this. I was talking to Graeme and played him Millencolin’s No Cigar and he was like, “Yeah, we can totes do this.” I think that level was a bit out of my reach really, but Modern Baseball and the album Holy Ghost was maybe more like something I could get close to.

(We start listening to the song Wedding Singer)

SEAN: It sounds organic, like some kids in a room. If you hear overly produced pop-punk, it sounds terrible, but if you hear well-produced, organic sounding stuff, it sounds great. I think that’s what I wanted on this album: in a way to sound like a band, I guess.

Be That Way is available from SHARKK directly via Bandcamp or from the Call And Response online store. For more information about SHARKK, there is a Facebook page here.