Digging the Earth: Michael J. Sheehy on Music, Politics and Personal History
Miraculous Mule introduces politics into their poisonous melodrama on their latest album and frontman Michael J. Sheehy shares his greatest musical inspirations.
Their single, “Where Monsters Lead”, is possibly one of the loudest, most uncomfortable satires on the Trump administration as well as Brexit’s most infamous figures, Nigel Farage. Politics in rock is nothing new and, to varying degrees, has been explored with purposeful intent. Miraculous Mule, however, demonstrate these expressions with a line of attack that sees them delivering venom with their rock. Think the panicked energy of anarcho-punks Flux of Pink Indians, and not, say, the punky reggae party of The Clash. Sheehy and co-horts are having a few laughs, sure, but they’re also drawing lines in the sand.
Two Tonne Testimony comes just off the heels of Sheehy’s last outfit, United Sounds of Joy, a lovely, dubscaped ambient-rock project that had him team up with his former Dream City Film Club bandmate, Alex Vald. While that project explored the sonic dynamics of galactic space, Two Tonne Testimony digs the hard, difficult earth for its textures, turning up the unyielding soils of arid land. The songs on this album are not despairing, but they do cast a critical, questioning eye on the state of human affairs.
Miraculous Mule’s detour into the more psychedelic reaches of rock, this side of The Yardbirds, has Sheehy eschewing much of the atmospheric prairie-folk of his solo career. What you hear is the frustration of three maturing men who aren’t ready to throw down the gauntlet just yet. Even the sun-soaked “Sound of Summer”, an earlier single, knocks a cold groove from a hard stone. Growing stems from a psychedelic root, “Where Monsters Lead” discomforts with a sine wave sounding across the stony blast of hard rock like a distress signal. And the band’s latest single, “Shave ‘Em Dry”, goes even further to illustrate the poisonous melodrama that is always brewing beneath their songs.
Michael J. Sheehy talks to PopMatters about his newest work with Miraculous Mule and also delivers us a generous list of his all-time favourite albums. You may be surprised to discover the many disparate villagers it took to raise the musician.
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Miraculous Mule has always been the side of your work in which the music is harder; this time Two Tonne Testimony removes much of the other elements (mainly blues) for a more distilled form of rock, stripped to the bone, sometimes brutally hard (there are traces of psych-rock here). Could you elaborate on the approach for this album?
The sound for the new album came about fairly naturally. We'd been gradually working towards a hard rock sound through our live performances while touring the first album. In a way it was a return to how we began playing together as teenagers when it was all about catharsis and making as much noise as we could muster out of the cheap equipment we had access to.
At the risk of sounding a little pathetic, I guess in many ways what we're doing now is tapping into our teenage selves as men in our 40s. Despite the fact that gravity is taking hold, nothing much has changed; we're still angry, we still need to express ourselves, and we’re still trying to push ourselves beyond our limited abilities. At heart we are a garage rock band with leanings towards gospel, psychedelia and punk.
Can you touch upon some of the themes that this album tackles, namely the political ones?
In truth we weren't that surprised by Brexit and Trump's rise to the White House. We hoped good sense would prevail and we were disappointed when it didn't. But we were unsurprised. People like Trump and Farage exploited people's fear and ignorance and appealed to the distrust of an establishment that did very little to ease the burden of stagnating wages and a rising cost of living, imposing austerity measures which punished the poorest in society for a banking crisis they didn't cause.
We wrote 'Where Monsters Lead' two years ago in response to the rise of the far right. People think that populists like Farage and Trump are the answer to their prayers without realising these snake oil salesmen want nothing more than for the weak and the poor to turn on each other while these toads in suits sit around laughing at their expense. People on the left need to be careful in how we conduct ourselves over the next few years; it's easy to be hoodwinked in a very similar way -- I've noticed a few on the far left doing exactly the same thing as those on the far right, i.e., conflating liberal values with neo-liberalism; they aren't the same thing.
For me, the extreme left and right are mirror images of each other and it should be remembered that some of the most heinous crimes against humanity have been committed in the name of the far left hence the line in 'Where Monsters Lead': "Don't become the monster you despise".
In terms of your list of best/favourite albums, can you discuss the differences in the way you discover music today than you did 30 years ago? I notice that much of your favourites (Mary Margaret O'Hara, Gavin Friday) are from some time back. Are your attitudes to discovering new music any different than they were a few decades back?
This list is less an all-time favourite list and more a list of music I've discovered or re-discovered recently. Going back 25 or 30 years, aside from the stuff that was all over TV and radio, I discovered a lot of music via UK music papers like Melody Maker and word of mouth was always important. I distinctly remember reading about Nick Cave in the early '90s. He was talking about writing and re-writing the part where Euchlid murders Beth in his novel And the Ass Saw the Angel and I remember thinking "Who is this cat?" As I remember, Henry's Dream was about to be released and “Straight To You” was the first single. I went to a record shop and listened to it at a listening post and was hooked.
Mix tapes were another great way to discover new music. Somehow, Spotify playlists and links to YouTube clips just don't have the same magic. I find it quite difficult to listen to music online. I find it impossible to become totally engaged by the music and there are too many distractions; the next thing is always vying for your attention online. Also the older we get and the more music we absorb, the more we've heard it all before, so music naturally loses its power to shock and excite us. So sadly, those moments of having the top of your head blown off become fewer and farther between.
Sheehy went on to share his list of favorite albums in his usual smart, funny, reflective, and anecdotal manner.
Van Morrison: Astral Weeks
Morrison tapped into the eternal with this album and though he has come close to opening that portal again (Veedon Fleece, St Dominic's Preview), he has never quite managed to reach the level of mysticism and magic he achieved here. I first heard it when I was 18 and I must admit I didn't get it straight away. First of all, it came with the baggage that all so-called classic albums come with -- the weight of expectation that comes with being in the top 10 of every greatest albums ever poll -- and secondly, it sounded completely unlike anything I'd heard up to that point.
And I've never heard anything quite like it since. Somehow, this album seems to be beyond imitation. Morrison's voice and the arrangements are like an elastic band that has been stretched to breaking point, the tuning at times is on the verge of being sour. It seems like there's an urgency for Morrison to communicate his vision quickly before the portal closes, therefore it feels like everything is on a knife edge.
I've often wondered how it would feel to create something like this at such a tender age (he was 21) and how it coloured the rest of his life. Was it a burden? Did he try to recapture that vision? And how low must he have felt when he couldn't get back there? This is quite possibly my favourite album of all time.
Mary Margaret O'Hara: Miss America
This was released in 1988 and, aside from a few guest appearances and a soundtrack album, barely a peep has been heard from her since. The songs on this album range from the heartbreakingly beautiful to the totally bloody unhinged. I bought it on cassette in the early '90s, bought it a couple of times on CD over the years and finally found a vinyl copy for £2 at a charity shop. This album always manages to suck me in, fuck with my head, break my heart and spit me out. It's a one-off work of genius.
Odetta: At Carnegie Hall
My little brother Patrick got this record for me a few years ago. I dragged him along to see Odetta back in 2001 at Dingwalls in Camden Town. She was touring her album Looking for a Home, which was a tribute to Leadbelly but unfortunately, the promoter forgot to promote the gig; about 35 people turned up. I was only there because I'd spotted it in the Time Out listings and I remember feeling embarrassed and angry about the poor turn out; Odetta deserved much better than this.
When she came out to play she alluded to feeling a little disappointed, but she didn't allow it to impact upon the performance. In fact, the lack of people added to the atmosphere. She gathered us around to sit in a semi-circle and, accompanied by just a piano player, she sang beautifully. She played mostly from her current album and took the time to explain the hidden codes in Leadbelly's songs and pointed out how they were still relevant.
Odetta, despite having a calm, almost serene, countenance was still burning with righteous anger; remember the Bush boys had just stolen the presidency and she mentioned it more than once during the performance. It's a gig that will live long in the memory. It was really very special. This album is a great document of her show at Carnegie Hall in 1960. Even then she was using her talent to educate and enlighten. She was keeping America's folk traditions alive and inspired many artists including Elvis and a young Bob Dylan. Check out her versions of “Run On”, “Gallows Pole” and “Prettiest Train” (the version that inspired my band Miraculous Mule's version of the same song).
Serge Gainsbourg: Histoire De Melody Nelson
When I cast an eye over my life, I can honestly say most of my regrets are mere trifles and none cause me more than a dull ache from time to time. One regret I've always had is ignoring my French teachers when they told me someday I'd regret having given zero fucks for their best efforts to instruct me in the basics of the French language.
Alas, I find they were right. But not because of limited communication with the French every time I cross the channel to play some shows or, on the rare occasion be a tourist, but more because my lack of French has hampered my enjoyment of this album and the songs of Jaques Brel. Despite having only a very basic grasp of what Serge is going on about, this album is one of my very favourite records of all time; the arrangements, playing and production are all first class and at barely 28 minutes long it can hardly be accused of outstaying its welcome. Absolutely bloody essential!