13 min read

Sharkey's Machine

An essay on John Sharkey III's music and the author's (admittedly limited/reductionist) notion of manhood, and an interview with the man John Sharkey III himself
Sharkey's Machine

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I have a somewhat complicated relationship with masculinity. I mean, first of all, I’m a cis man and, when it comes to many of the stereotypes attached to that designation (short temper, solispsism, self-victimization, overrating of one’s own sense of humor), I check a lot of the boxes. I’ve even, once, in my Robotussin youth, punched a hole in drywall. Barely. To the amusement of all who witnessed it. And after I took my first real beating, my capacity for imagined violence, inflicted upon any and all who’d wronged me, took on a power and vividness that infringed upon my waking life in such a way that would make a back issue of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comic book blush. If I could fight worth a damn, I don’t doubt for a second that I would. I could go on, but we all know Boyish Self-Aware Litany of Flaws can easily vear into perverse bragging. It’s not terribly interesting once you’ve read a couple Harry Crews books and/or interacted with men even once. But also, for all my (no pun intended) pearl clutching at my own testes, I do *extreme Doris Day voice* enjoy being a boy. And I love a lot of macho art. Especially when said macho art is willing to complicate itself. I love skinhead signifiers and broken hearted baritones sung by burly bad boys who hate macho men so dang much that they want to just beat them all to a pulp. Not for nothing is Sheer Terror one of my favorite bands.

Which brings us to John Sharkey The Third. The Philly native (not to be confused with the college kids who moved there to start Blake Babies tribute bands*), in his outsized stage persona and tuff mod/mature skin aesthetic, has always been, for good or ill, the kind of man I’d have liked to be if God hadn’t seen fit, when he made me, to reuse Paul Reubens’ mold. Sharkey made his bones playing in scabrous jerkcore outfits like Nine Shocks Terror and Clockcleaner (the latter being Sharkey’s main band for much of the aughts). In Clockcleaner, Sharkey lived in the role of both misanthropic amalgamation of each and every AmRep frontpeople, and a Birthday Party era Nick Cave type. If Nick Cave had been permanently banned from Men’s Warehouse and  preferred the writings of Marx, Leg Show, and back issues of Answer Me! over Faulkner. The band is good stuff. Even if the early stuff wouldn’t pass today’s twitter tests (something Sharkey has been honest and appropriately self lacerating about), by the end of the project, Sharkey was as invested in undercutting the inherent machismo of Clockcleaner as inhabiting it. The band’s seven minute version of “Ready To Fight” took the, implicit in its title, goonish speed-demon charm of the Negative Approach classic and turned it into a droning, slobbering ballroom cockblock; a fuck you bummout to stagediving youth (both sonic and crew). Then Clockcleaner played all seven minutes plus of it while opening for Negative Approach.

(*tbc I like a lot of those bands. Just acknowledging certain class/cultural differences)

After the dissolution of Clockcleaner (or concurrent to… I’m not the man’s official biographer…), Sharkey put out a few records on Fan Death Records under the moniker Puerto Rico Flowers. While sometimes categorized as “goth” because of Sharkey’s timbre, it could be argued (by me) that Flowers was as much a continuation of “Ready 2 Fight”’s dirge, but with feedback replaced with synths. Even the “Fascination Street” groove of “Sisters” was outnumbered by the funeral bass-throb of the other tracks on the full length, 7. Goth, at its Platonic ideal, is as overwraughtly fey as filigree will allow. Don’t get me wrong; I love Puerto Rico Flowers. If it’s predominantly dirge, it’s a sexy dirge indeed. But the act is still more Pete Steele man-doom than Andrew Eldritch decadence.

It was with Dark Blue (the Philadelphia post-punk, Madchester-infused, heavy guitar pop act he formed with various ex-hardcore notables in 2013), that John Sharkey III became the Skinhead Adjacent Hooker (in that the songs contain a lot of hooks) With A Heart of Gold that I always wanted him to be. Here, Sharkey’s voice maintains the ‘60s art-croon he’d been exploring for years, but the emotive hiccups in phrasing becomes more intentional and less the byproduct of post-hardcore voice cracking. The result is less emo and more emotive, which allows the songs to be about themselves rather than the novelty of “scary guy singing pretty.” Surrounded by guitars that should have, in a better world, been on the second Stone Roses album, Sharkey allows an unadorned romance to coexist with his still maintained dim view of all the weak and selfish humanity that he doesn’t specifically love. The drums still thud and plunder more than they groove and sing, but now it sounds satisfyingly dramatic, not too far from Anton Fier’s under-appreciated bombast on Bob Mould’s Black Sheets of Rain. Throughout, Sharkey performs a vision of manhood that is vulnerable without a sense of the (often) pandering sensitivity that is (often) a mask over future malfeasance. Sure, masculinity is a series of tropes and societal oppressions (to both the actors and those unfortunate enough to have it acted upon), but there’s still something attractive about a frontman who sounds like he can kiss real nice, will text the next day, and, should the need ever arise, still be willing and able to take a baseball bat to the face in the defense of his baby (of any pronoun).

Fond as I was of Dark Blue’s stacked amp emotionalism (and intent as I apparently am on inflicting my own narrative upon its frontman’s life), when John Sharkey The Third reached out to tell me that his new record was a solo, largely drumless, folk record, my response was, “oh. That’s… cool…” Even if I wasn’t a fan of his earlier work, my attention span in general usually prefers the handholding of a nice drum track. Luckily, Shoot Out The Cameras, the songs on the solo record Sharkey is now releasing (with 12XU in America and Mistletone in Australia) are compelling enough to slap me around in the way I like, even without a single snare hit to tell when to laugh or cry.

Shoot Out The Cameras, despite the absence of bludgeoning drums and (with a few notable exceptions) waves of guitar distortion, is a heavy record. Grief, over lost loved ones and encroaching ecological disaster, hangs over almost every song. Inspired by the country and folk music he grew up with, the literal inferno of his adopted home, and the metaphorical inferno consuming the home Sharkey left behind, Shoot Out The Cameras is stark and mediative. Only occasionally leavened by the sound of Hammond organ or Mary Lattimore’s harp, every sharp strum of Sharkey’s (and that of collaborator and producer Nick Craft) guitar is a flash of silver in an otherwise bone dry landscape.

The album’s sparseness is one that allows for no retreat into ambience, and one which showcases just how far Sharkey has come as a vocalist. Without diminishing any of his earlier singing (all of which suited the task at hand at least and, at its best, set fire to all the furniture), Sharkey has never sounded so natural. The singer has kept the low croon that wetted the panties of countless ex-hardcored dudes, while putting the more cartoonish translucent black cape aspects of it back on the rack. And what he’s added to his singing is a range, both in texture and emotion, that he’d either not used before or has previoulsy obscured under the surrounding volume. What the listener is left with is an austerely furnished room, a jug of pre-mixed gin & tonic, and an interlocutor who refuses to break eye contact. In some songs Sharkey has abandoned the manly trappings either he’d relied upon, or I’d projected upon him, leaving only the body, beaten but still breathing. And in others, he still sounds fully like any outdated notions of a man, but a man inseparable from his wife, his children, and a world that’s never prioritized the binary concerns of its fleshy parasites. But don’t let my adderall poesy fool you into thinking that any of this is a drag. Shoot Out The Cameras is, after all, a goddamn folk record.  So all that sense of an impending oppressive, existential beauty never gets in the way of the tunes being catchy as shit.

Mr. Sharkey was nice enough to answer some questions!  Shoot Out The Cameras is out March 5th! Buy it!

Why/when did you move to Australia (Including and aside from “darkening politics” stateside”? What are you doing there?

Sharkey: Well one day I was getting gas at the Wawa in my old neighbourhood and I saw this bumper sticker that said “America, Love It Or Move To Canberra and Lead A Happy and Productive Life In A City Where Your Kids Won’t Be Gunned Down In Their School” so I decided ok that’s for me. It was a pretty easy choice and yes I know I’m in a very rare and fortunate situation but if you can do it, do it.

Requisite COVID question

Did I get it? No. My father did and he was fine. One of his coworkers went to a strip club and he ended up in hospital. Don’t let them tell you all your elders are smarter than you. Australia fared pretty well due to our geographical advantage. The tyranny of distance has finally paid off and I now suffer from a mild case of survivor guilt seeing the rest of the world. Even though the Australian government is just as twisted, sexist, transphobic and racist as the USA they still doled out enough money for most people to weather the storm.

Requisite how was the album made question

To speak to my last point I applied for this thing called a government grant. Being a former member of the USA I’d heard nary a word of such fantastical things but nevertheless I won the grant and recorded the record with my mate Nick Craft in 2.5 days. We did it in Queanbeyan, a small town on the outskirts of Canberra. Nick is like my Ralph Mooney. A total pro and confidant. He was an Aussie legacy band named Sidewinder who kicked ass. Please go check them out. No I don’t get kick backs

It’s not too huge a mental leap from devastating wildfires to pandemic. Do you think the themes carry over, or is that lazy? Gun to your head, do you consider the album more political or existential? Arguably a dumb question, but your answer doesn’t have to be!

No this is a good one as the writing for the record spanned that time period. The record itself is about the bushfires but the themes do overlap a bit; fear, paranoia, guilt, dread and in the end resignation. The record by and large is an existential snapshot of a brief moment in my charmed life but as they say the personal is alway political. I fully realise that this blip on my radar is everyday life for some and that makes it even worse for me.

As death drive is often intrinsic to the country/folk traditions you’re drawing from, and considering your generally *cough* dim view of humanity and the world (and correct me if that’s unfair/inaccurate), can you envision making an album like this outside those themes even without the circumstances that inspired it? Or were the themes what necessitated the sound?

Oh I can’t keep making these downer manifestos, I know. I’ve already written most of the next LP and yeah it’s not cheery one bit but maybe that 3rd LP will be all daisies. I blame Iris DeMent for this. She made me this way. She taught me how to channel the darkness as a way to get rid of it. You know me, I’m a pretty easy going fella. If I didn’t have these records who knows what a soggy sock I’d be

Did you try to balance the dark vision of many of the songs with the unadulterated romanticism that you started to explore with Dark Blue?

This record was written so fast that I couldn’t really control its direction too much but by nature I’m a romantic. My childhood was filled with Sinatra, doo-wop, Patsy Cline and whatever else my grandparents were listening to. That kind of sound is embedded in me, cannot be washed away. I could make a power electronics record sound sweet and forlorn. Don’t dare me please.

Was it difficult/scary making a record so sonically afield from your usual steez? Without the protection of distortion (for the most part) or drums? Or do you not see it as afield at all?

I don’t see it as that far flung really. It was a lot of fun to make and it was done so quickly. I recorded all the vocals in 2 hours. I wanted it to sound natural, not perfect. It’s 2021, you can make any record sound perfect. I’ve alway wanted to make this record and deep down maybe I always was just the guy with an acoustic guitar? I just never went to University to find out.

Outside the obvious influence of your mother’s Iris DeMent fandom (and your grandmother’s country leanings), was your family (wife and/or children) an influence? Lyrically or musically?

Yeah once I had kids it was hard not to write songs with them in mind. It’s weird it’s like love songs take a different shape. I sing to my wife in some of these songs but most love songs are about my children now. I’m ok with that and I think my wife is too hehe

Speaking of DeMent, normally when a bio mentions music that the artist’s parent turned them onto it’s something from the parent’s youth. But the DeMent albums came out in the ‘90s. So your mom was buying new music at the time. Was she a musician? A big folk fan? Tell me about her!

It was so bizarre actually, I’d never seen her go for anything new but one day we specifically went to this record shop together. I bought Black Flag First Four Years and she got Iris DeMent My Life on cassette. She used to bludgeon us with that tape and Infamous Angel. What is doubly strange is that she is not at all a tender person hahaha. She’s a tough Philly gal from the Polish neighborhood of Port Richmond. It was like my future self travelled in a time machine back to 1994 and hypnotised my mom knowing these records would be beneficial.

Have you played any of the new record for your old noisenik pals (ex hardcore folks, Berdan, etc.)? What do they make of it? What would baby John Sharkey lll make of it do you think? Was 12XU initially receptive?

Yeah oddly everyone fucks with it pretty hard (too my face) Gerard said “people are gonna fall over with they hear how good this is) Jon Collins who ran Manic Ride Records and initially signed Clockcleaner said he was proud of me. Maybe because I’m not lighting my chest hair on fire anymore but regardless it’s been very flattering. A young whipper snapper JSIII would be mildly hesitant but I seem to remember having louder poseurs in my crosshairs back in the day so I may have survived his wrath. I’m getting confused.

Along those lines, do you still think of yourself as belonging to any of the subcultures (punk, skin, whatever) you made your bones in? Do they have any use in 2021?

There’s two sides to this coin. What I def don’t want to be is the cliche of the ex punker middle age acoustic herb but I always thought it was cool when I would read about people’s punk past. I still listen to bad 90s crust and shit like External Menace on the regular so it will never leave me. I just hope Nick doesn’t mind on the overnight drives in the bush. That’s one rule to entering my life. You gotta at least love all The Exploited records up to Beat The Bastards (a masterpiece).

Thank you, John Sharkey III for joining us! Thank YOU for reading!

New Music Recommendations

Since I got a bunch of wild “content” coming up, I’m not going to do my monthly album roundup for a bit. It didn’t do too hot numbers wise anyway. But I still want to use Abundant Living as a tool to promote new, less hyped, stuff that catches my ear. So whenever a newsletter isn’t 15,000 words already, I’m going to try to throw a couple recommendations in at the bottom. Buy everything!

Morbo ¿A quién le echamos la culpa?The Mexican punk label, Cintas Pepe, can do no wrong in my eyes. And they’ve been big upping this Puruvian outfit for years. They say is Morbo’s best release and, while I think their debut is AMAZING, I’m inclined to agree. While not as leftfield as that first 2011 album, Morbo’s newest makes up for any missed shit-fi charms by jamming a million hooks in every song (and still making sure that the hi hat sound offends god and man alike). And I want to kiss the bass sound on the mouth. This lil’ fucker is going to be on every troo punx’ EOY list so you owe it to yourself, poseurs and punks alike, to get onboard or be left behind as a spikeless jacketed unadulterated chump.

Joy Joy Seriously delightful Vice-Squad-via-Revolution-Summer type shit. Sounds like angry ghosts trapped in the Coney Island bumper cars. Who knows what they did to deserve their internment on this mortal plane??? But, whatever, that’s not my problem. Or yours. Because what these Portland (CORRECTION: New Orleans. SORRY, JOY) weirdos have given us, the living, is a wailing, weirdly catchy cacophony of kilterless groove punk perfect for throwing a brick through a Starbucks window, or just getting cigarette burns on your older sister’s Pylon shirt.

Cheb Sma' Balak I don’t know much about Cheb outside this one interview I found (and it’s a pdf so you gotta scroll down) but, as you may be aware, I know what I like. And
I like this very much. This, by a Rabat expat now living in Europe, totally rules. Call it DIY chaabi. Call it art pop. Call it Morocco freak beat. Doubt Cheb will care (though if he does, he can get in touch and I’ll rewrite!) but just buy it. If you dig any of the sounds coming out of the Egyptian alt scene that supports Tamer Abu Ghazaleh (and you absolutely should) then get on this ASAP.

Children With Dog Feet Curb Your Anarchy When this gorgeous slab of Nuke York death crust (or just punk… I dunno) came out, I posted about it and mentioned that I’d had some *cough* tempestuous  interactions with some of the members in the past (one of ‘em shoved my frail and handsome body at a Tragedy show). Some dude in Australia quote tweeted me and said that he had “no time for toxic masculinity.” Other bands he’d posted about were Guns ‘n’ Roses and The Stranglers. I have no idea if he was kidding. People sure are complicated. Regardless, this EP is hella sick. I’d have to be shoved way harder for me to think otherwise. (btw that’s not an invitation to do so. It hurt my feelings!)

Thanks for reading. See you soon.

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