Dead Men Dancing: An Interview With Michael J. Sheehy

Capturing the cinematic sweep of a lounging troubadour on his last dime and meal, Michael J. Sheehy's cold romantic fables are the stuff of Tony Richardson films.

Michael J. Sheehy’s inception into rock music history could not have come at a worse time. As the fronting member of the deliriously trashy Dream City Film Club, Sheehy belted out numbers of bleeding, raw soul-punk, which fashioned together the dark atmospheres of the German Weimar era with the brash intensities of the Stooges. The trash-glam bravado, however, was lost in the glut of boyband fever and the steady rise of lightweight alternative rock featured on teen soaps which crested during the late '90s. Dream City Film Club offered something alternately beautiful and dirty; sounds which cut into the soul like a rusty blade but left a handsome scar.

The band’s likely downfall was that they never came up for air, often brooding in a closed-off underworld of drunkards, loners and losers. It was music that pulled at the edges teasingly before submerging the listener mercilessly beneath the hopeless gloom. “I once described the Dream City Film Club sound as Marlene Dietrich taking on the Stooges and the Birthday Party in a gang bang,” Sheehy says. “I was really into dark cabaret type stuff and Jacques Brel. At the start of the band, those were my big influences. In a very self conscious way I tried to merge those sounds together and then the other band members were pulling in other directions. I guess that's what made it interesting. I find the Film Club albums very difficult to listen to. I was a different person back then and I barely recognise my younger self.”

When Dream City Film Club finally disbanded at the tail-end of the '90s, Sheehy set course for a solo career which would reward him with a body of deeply personal works that plumbed the depths of Americana and gothic blues. Still considered a cache artist today with a loyal following but with a bare minimum of press coverage, the British singer manages to capture the full cinematic sweep of a lounging troubadour on his last dime and meal. Sheehy’s cold, romantic fables are the stuff of Tony Richardson films, the filmmaker who spearheaded Britain’s “Angry Young Men” movement in cinema during the '60s.

“My favourite films are undoubtedly road movies," the singer explains of his visual music. La Strada by Fellini and The Straight Story by [David] Lynch are two that come immediately to mind. I like being taken on a journey and it doesn't necessarily have to lead anywhere, the journey itself is what matters. I guess if my music is cinematic at all it comes from my love of road movies. I'm drawn to the album as an art form more than individual songs, so I try to use a common theme and an overall tone to drag people into a different world for 50 minutes or so.”

Much of the artist’s haunted blues circle around troubled childhood memories that wrestle up from the parched earth they’ve been buried in; it’s a disturbing mixture of trauma, sex and sometimes murder, chillingly delivered with cool, measured restraint. Sheehy’s solo debut, Sweet Blue Gene (2000), was a starkly minimalist effort that captured an air of primordial rage and despair over a smooth wash of minor chords and a few skeletal hip-hop beats. The album went largely unnoticed by the general public, but it cemented the singer’s reputation as an assured player of dark, folk-melodrama, a spiritual-descendant of the legendary Hank Williams who examined similar stretches human nature. Sheehy’s brushes with country and western are pointedly influenced by a sort of innocuous '50s Midwest aesthetic; a point of reference like Elvis Presley won’t go undetected in much of the singer’s music, quite noticeably on his far more spare work.

As Sheehy explains, the heart of his writing lies on American soil. Seen through the prism of an Englishman’s daydreams of life on the other side of the pond, his music altogether encapsulates the shimmering distortion of American idealism -- a sound that could only have been funnelled through a pipedream by a daydreaming Brit. “Presley was my first hero and I don't think anyone has had more of an influence on me than him,” he says. “We grew up listening to him and those influences of blues, gospel and country in his music is what sparked my interest in American music. My father played a lot of country stuff too; Marty Robbins, Hank Williams, George Jones, Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn and Merle Haggard are still favourites of mine. Blues and gospel, I had to discover for myself and it's become a lifelong passion and a never ending journey of discovery.”

The scuzzy, pulp-noir blues of Ill Gotten Gains followed in 2001, and this time the black waters flowed deeper. Topics like soured drug deals, spousal abuse, addiction and paranoia were covered with the shoulder-shrugging attitude of a man tuning his dry, rusted folk in a room full of drunks. Sheehy continued to play around with samples, framing the death-strains of his rockabilly guitars with distorted, chugging drum loops. Ill Gotten Gains widened the bottomless void of gloom, allowing more influences to slip in (a particular emphasis on gospel and prairie-folk is placed here) and, once again, the singer varnished his tunes with cinematic flair. Sheehy illustrated his stories with a voice both gentle and admonishing; his scruffy, well-meaning persona often recalled the presence of a reluctant surrogate father contemplating the company of a wayward, orphaned child.

Things took an even darker turn on 2002’s No Longer My Concern. Sheehy’s previous works took stock of human misery from an objective distance. Concern turned those musings inward, stripping away the excess trills of his storytelling for haunting vignettes that described lives mired in the treacheries of human desires. The album’s most unnerving and blood-curdling number, “Dark Country Moment” (a duet with Cranes’ singer Alison Shaw), seemingly detailed the dangerous relationship between a sexual predator and his victim. No Longer My Concern provided Sheehy the stage to unfold his darkest drama, a finely wrought cinema of lusts and death. The album followed a particularly tumultuous moment in the singer’s life.

“It was made after a long and destructive relationship had come to an end,” Sheehy recalls. “I could also read the writing on the wall as far as my record/publishing deal was concerned. I was with Beggars Banquet and 4AD respectively and I knew I would probably be dropped after the album was released. I remember feeling pleased with the album but knowing deep down it would be another commercial failure. I felt somewhat bitter at the time but looking back Beggars and 4AD had been very nurturing to me and gave me everything I needed to develop as an artist throughout Dream City Film Club and the three solo records I made for them.”

2007’s Ghost on the Motorway distilled Sheehy’s sonics down to a ghostly wire of spare, tumbleweed blues. His most minimal affair, Motorway zeroed in on the country and western influences of his earlier work, exchanging much of the handsome, back porch strains for the death rattles of the darkest prairies. Here, Sheehy’s voice evokes a sanded-down weariness, eliminating much of the echoing reverb of Sweet Blue Gene and intimating his grievances from a narrow, compressed space. The album still manages to startle the listener quietly with its most ironic angle in confessional sound: the aggression in the silence, bitterness beneath the smile. “My album Ghost on the Motorway was really inspired by my first (and so far only) tour of the USA back in 2002," the singer says. “I spent most of the tour in a drunken haze but I think it affected me more than I realised at the time.”

Sheehy channelled his dark descent into addiction into his follow-up to Ghost on the Motorway in 2009 on With These Hands, a concept album of sorts that used the theme of boxing as a metaphor for the struggles of life. With These Hands chronicled the fictional character of Francis Delaney, a young, angry boxer coming up from the hard streets and making the painful transition into adulthood. The album continued the singer’s exploration of stark, minimal arrangements that featured on Motorway. This time, however, Sheehy was far wearier, drawn out to the breaking point where he had had enough with life.

“I've always loved boxing and even boxed as a school boy,” he relates. “I wasn't very good. I'm drawn to sports characters that have squandered their potential and succumbed to their demons. The songs were originally written for a musical which never saw the light of day. I've never found it easier to write an album than that one, the songs seemed to write themselves. Looking back it's not hard to see why; I was writing about myself. My dependence on alcohol had cost me friends and lovers, it had probably cost me my career and in 2011 it almost cost me my life. I got drunk one summers afternoon and accidentally started a fire at my flat while trying to cook something, I passed out and only came to when the fire brigade broke down the door and dragged me out. Two months after the fire I decided to quit drinking and I've been sober ever since. I decided I didn't want to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Certain tracks opened up new dimensions in Sheehy’s compositions. The eerie chill of “Don’t Let Them Steal Your Soul” is heaven in the grave, the singer’s vocal hovering just above the malaise like a slow-dispersing fog. On the title track, the fuzz of electric guitar imparts the nervous energy of a young boxer entering the ring for his first fight. Some of the singer’s most accomplished work, With These Hands completed the arc in his varied and richly textured solo career.

A new plateau has emerged in Sheehy’s life with Miraculous Mule, his current band he’s been recording and performing with. Featuring his brother and their various friends, Miraculous Mule reaches back to Sheehy’s days as a young punk; it’s a volatile mix of punk-rock, heavy blues and gospel. Like Dream City Film Club, his new band mines the earthy, rough blues of the Stooges but maintains an almost ethereal air of wisdom and confidence. As the singer explains, “The band was formed because of a desire to do heavy, garage punk versions of spirituals and work songs. Many of the songs we've recorded for the album were originally recorded by Alan Lomax at Mississippi State Penn. We wanted to do them in a way they hadn't been done before. Following on from that we were inspired to write a few of our own too. Sometimes being a solo artist can be a lonely endeavour, with the Mule I feel part of a team; it's me, my brother and our best friend sharing the load -- good times and bad.”

Much of the characters Sheehy sings about are exaggerated projections of a bruised and damaged ego, refracted versions of the self impressed upon various storyboards of poem and sound. Like dancers, his characters follow the rhythm and pattern of songs that hover just outside the perimeters of their existence. And yet their lives are engulfed by sound, a narration calling upon them from within and far above. Sheehy’s songs are indeed dancers -- a queue of dead men, lined up and groomed, up for offer. They laugh, sway and glide, spin the room with desire, death and dreams of decay…

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