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.
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.
Their last outing had them orchestrating a blues-rock ruckus that treaded on the trash-glam of frontman Michael J. Sheehy's former band, Dream City Film Club. Miraculous Mule's latest offering, the scorching sandstorm Two Tonne Testimony, is an about-turn that explores a brash psychedelic rock. Noisier and far more restless this time around, the band has moved beyond the personal politics of their wine-soaked deployments of love and hate for the more macro designs of our general well-being.
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.
* * *
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!
When Unremarkable “Talent" Pops Their Clog (and Other Thoughts on Favorite Albums)
Led Zeppelin: IV
I wouldn't put this album into a list of my favourite albums of all time in fact; it's not even my favourite Zeppelin album (II and III for me all day long). But it was the album that opened out a whole world of 'Rawk' and blues music to me.
At the age of 15 I was working at a supermarket in Camden Town and naturally, it was a formative time, particularly when it came to discovering music. As the oldest of my siblings, I had no elders to point me in the right musical direction. The only thing we had was my dad's record collection which was mainly made up of country, old rock 'n' roll, and Elvis, so I had to go away from home for guidance.
The deputy manager at the supermarket was a lovely geezer called Dave who turned me on to this album and a whole host of other artists. I told him I was learning to play guitar and he began to wax lyrical about the genius of Jimmy Page, who I had never heard of, so I had to find out more. I'd vaguely heard of Led Zeppelin but I'd never knowingly heard anything by them. He advised me to nip to the Woolworths which was next door to the supermarket and purchase this album.
I bought the cassette, slipped it into my walkman, and listened to it during my lunch hour. The opening sound of the tape machine clicking in and Page 'warming up his army of guitars' leading into Plant's naked banshee vocal then kicking into the main riff surely has to be one of the greatest openings to an album ever. It can also boast one of the best endings with “When the Levee Breaks". I remember being slightly underwhelmed by “Stairway to Heaven" but loving the rest of it. It sounded so dark and heavy to my 15-year-old self. As I said, this album merely whetted my appetite; after this came Hendrix, The Doors, The Who, a whole host of blues artists and a journey of musical discovery which I'm still on today.
For that reason, as much as it's great music, it's a special album for me. I really looked up to Dave. As well as being a music fan, he was a genuine sweetheart; funny, gentle and kind. One night, when we were leaving the shop and he was locking up, he was collared by the store detective who found two cartons of Benson and Hedges concealed in his briefcase. Apparently, cartons of B&H had been going missing for a few months and he was suspected. They were waiting for a chance to catch him red handed. Needless to say, Dave was sacked and despite my best efforts to stay in touch with him, I never saw him again after that night. I often think about him and I'm forever grateful to him for opening my mind to a world of music.
Richard Pryor: Greatest Hits
I'm really not comfortable with the infectious mass-grieving we see every time some fairly unremarkable “talent" pops their clogs. (See Cilla Black, very average singer who betrayed her working class roots. Who knew she had so many fans?!) I understand why people grieve for artists who have really meant something to them, people they've never met whose talent has really impacted upon their lives. But it seems to me that social media has exacerbated a trend for people to grieve for celebrities they haven't even thought about in years. As far as I can see, it's nothing more than the herd mentality.
I remember the night Richard Pryor died. I was pretty devastated, not to mention extremely drunk. It was 2005 and if Facebook existed back then, I didn't use it. So instead of posting RIP to my timeline, I called just about every person in my phone book to tell them that Pryor had died. And 90 percent of them were understandably dismayed at receiving a phone call from a very drunk man wanting to commiserate with them about the death of a comedian who didn't mean as much to them as he meant to me.
I grew up with Pryor. The first time I went to the cinema without my folks was to see Brewster's Millions and I know almost every line of his 1979 Live in Concert film because me and my little brothers wore out more than one VHS copy. Though his comedy was rooted in his own very bitter experience as a black man in America, it transcended that and crossed cultures to make three teenage white boys from London laugh their arses off. This album is a compilation of his first three live albums for Warner Brothers and it's absolute genius!
The Birthday Party: Hits
I suspect I rather overdosed on this in my youth. I remember vividly the impression it made on me the first time I heard it. It was unlike anything I'd heard before and I'd heard Nick Cave's solo stuff, but that did nothing to prepare me for the violence and viscera of the Birthday Party. Tracy Pew's grinding bass, Roland S. Howard's razor sharp guitar and Cave's voice aping Iggy, Elvis and assorted wild animals. I can't tell you exactly what hearing this did to my young brain but it was very deep and profound. Still sounds ace!
Gavin Friday and the Man Seezer: Each Man Kills the Thing He Loves
Gavin was a founding member of avant Dublin goths the Virgin Prunes and this was his first post-Prunes album. Compared to the Prunes, it's pretty tame stuff however. It's still pretty edgy and manages not to buckle under its rather lofty pretensions. For me, it's as good as Gavin ever got, more palatable than the Prunes and darker and more incisive than his later albums.
The title track is an adaption of the famous lines from Oscar Wilde's “Ballad of Reading Gaol". There's also an Alex Harvey inspired take on Jaques Brel's “Next", which manages to be even more menacing and deranged than Harvey's brilliant version. There are a clutch of bruised and beautiful ballads and a fantastic version of Dylan's “Death Is Not the End".
For my money, Friday deserved to be at least as lauded and well known as Marc Almond -- and not just because of this fantastic album, but also his live performances, which were always heavy on theatre and emotion. I covered a Virgin Prunes song called “Sweet Home Under White Cloud" on one of my albums and sent a copy to Gavin's management and was pretty stoked to get a postcard from the man himself telling me how much he liked it.
A couple of years later I met Gavin in Dublin. I was invited to his show at Vicar Street and he couldn't have been more charming and I couldn't have been more of a drunken dickhead. I shudder with shame when I recall the evening. It was like a reversal of the old adage “never meet your idols as they will only disappoint you". That night it was the worshipper who was the disappointment.
Elvis Presley: California Holiday (Original Soundtrack)
Or to give it its original name Spinout!, renamed in the UK because "limeys wouldn't know what the fuck a spinout is, so instead let's give this piece of shit film about a singing race car driver a nondescript name like, I dunno, California Holiday". Yep, the king had totally lost it by this point, just look at his barnet! It's a fucking disgrace!
A few years back I fell on hard times and had to sell some vinyl so I could charge my electricity key and a few of these shitty Elvis soundtracks had to go. But I held onto this one for two very good reasons. At this stage of the game, they were churning out so many of these piss poor films that they couldn't quite write enough shitty songs to fill an album. So, a few bonus tracks were added to pad the album out. For this album, you get three extra songs, two of which are absolute corkers and must have come as a shock to listeners at the time after a soundtrack which contained such turds as “Smogasboard" and “Beach Shack".
First of all, Elvis has a crack at Dylan's “Tomorrow is a Long Time". For my money, it's up there with his finest recordings and rests somewhere between The Band's take on “I Shall Be Released" and Hendrix's version of “All Along the Watchtower" in the pantheon of great Dylan covers. Elvis took his cues from Odetta's version, which appears on her album of Dylan covers (another cracking album and one of Elvis' favourites) and, somehow, he transcends it. His version is haunting. He finds new meaning in the song and the lines "I can't see my reflection in the water, I can't speak the sounds that show no pain, I can't hear the echo of my footsteps, I can't remember the sound of my own name" are particularly poignant.
Elvis must have wondered just who the hell he was at this point and what had happened to the soulful young man who helped to revolutionise music a decade before. On this song and the other, a cracking piece of filthy R&B called “Down in the Alley", it's almost as if the old Elvis is trying to break out of the dark prison of the Hollywood humiliation he's found himself in. Two years later he'd be rocking them like the old days in a black leather suit for a TV show which would revive his career. So yes, this album really has the very best and the very worst of the king.
John Cale: Music for a New Society
Sometime during 1999, I went along to watch John Cale read from his newly published autobiography, What's Welsh for Zen? at Filthy McNasty's in London. The first words issued in that wonderful Welsh accent that night were: "I don't suppose I could ask you all to stop smoking?" (Remember that? Smoking? In a pub?). In retrospect, it seems like a reasonable request. But at the time it was preposterous and compounded by the fact that Cale went on to read a passage from his book where he and Lou Reed had a brief smack-fuelled reconciliation at some den of iniquity somewhere in mi-'70s London, which ended with John finding Lou nodded out, sitting on the shitter with blood trickling down his arm from the puncture marks of where he'd missed his vein. I remember walking home thinking "John Cale is a bit of a bell-end".
Skip forward two years and I've been invited to open for Cale at a very plush venue in Cork, Ireland. Not by Cale himself, I hasten to add. For some reason, we had to share a cab from the airport to the venue with Cale, his manager and the lovely young man who promoted the show. The first words issued in that wonderful Welsh accent (that told the warped story of Waldo Jeffers mailing himself to his sweetheart in the Velvet Underground's “The Gift" all those years ago) that afternoon were: "I don't suppose there's a place one could get a decent cappuccino around here?" Again, echoes of the word "Bell-end" were bouncing around my mind.
We get to the venue, Cale soundchecks, I soundcheck, then while walking to the backstage area I'm suddenly hit by this almighty stench of the sea. Cale has requested 12 fresh oysters to be shucked and ready for his delectation before he goes on stage. Apparently, this is something he requests for every show he does. The echoes of "bell-end" are getting louder. I play my set armed with just my guitar, my voice, and my songs. I play a blinder! I'm inspired! The venue is a huge room in the town hall, the audience is really receptive and I'm opening for the guy who produced the Stooges first album, who produced Marble Index by Nico, Horses by Patti Smith, who wrote and produced Paris 1919 and Music for a New Society and who was in the Velvet Fucking Underground.
Cale didn't say a word to me all night. Not a single solitary word. Sweet F.A. In retrospect, I can see I was probably being a little too sensitive. Cale could be a nice bloke for all I know and it's probably not fair to judge someone you admire in situations such as the one outlined above. It resulted in me being unable to listen to this album for years and I forgot how heartbreakingly, gut-wrenchingly beautiful it is. Not for the emotionally fragile. It's raw, like a suppurating wound doused in cheap whiskey. I'm glad I dug it out again.
One highlight of that night in Cork was my uncle, aunt and cousins from my mother's side coming to the show. Both sides of my family are huge Elvis fans and of course, Cale did his dismantlement of “Heartbreak Hotel", ten minutes long; just Cale and his piano, pounding it into the dirt, after which the audience rose to its feet to give Cale a standing ovation. All except my family, who stubbornly remained seated. My cousin turned to me and shouted in disgust over the din "Sure isn't he fecking crucifying it!" Happy days.
Nina Simone: Sings the Blues
I remember the first time I really heard Nina Simone. I was 19-years-old and standing in the dining room of my rather posh girlfriend's house in Whetstone when she casually slipped on a compilation cassette of Nina's best-known work. “I Put a Spell On You", “Sinnerman" and “Black Is the Colour of My True Love's Hair" really stood out for me. I somehow convinced her she should let me take this cassette home and really study it. She agreed and in return, I gave her my virginity. Seemed like a fair exchange; I no longer needed it.
To me, Dr. Nina Simone is the Queen of the Fucking Universe. She cannot be categorised and she doesn't sound like anybody else. She draws on everything from Bach to the Bee Gees, Bessie Smith to Bob Dylan, Gershwin to Leadbelly; she even managed to lend Jonathan fucking King some gravitas by covering his “Everyone's Gone to the Moon" in the late '60s.
I was lucky enough to see her play at the Royal Festival Hall in 1999 as part of Nick Cave's Meltdown festival. She came out, plonked an opened magnum of champagne next to the grand piano, stood facing the audience soaking up the adulation, regarded us with what seemed to be contempt and finally sat down and played. I was in ecstasy, so much so that I can only remember one song with certainty: she played “Mississippi Goddamn!" and half way through she started singing Bob Marley's “Get Up, Stand Up!" while she got up from the piano and shimmied around the stage.
This was her first album for RCA released in 1967 and as the title suggests it's mostly blues or blues-flavoured material. She is backed by a great band, including the extremely funky Bernard Purdie on drums. Highlights for me are Gershwin's “My Man's Gone Now" and “Since I Fell for You".
Tim Buckley: Greetings from L.A.
Apparently, this album shocked fans and critics alike when it was released in 1972 and, to be honest, I was pretty stunned when I first heard it as a young man. All I knew about Tim Buckley was his earlier, slightly hippyish, jazz-folk albums and Starsailor (some would say his masterpiece). So I was more than slightly unnerved upon hearing Buckley singing, quite frankly, about the joys of cunnilingus, his penchant for black women, and visiting a dominatrix so he could get beaten, spanked and whipped in order to “make it right".
On Buckley's earlier records he used his voice to try to commune with celestial beings, revelling in the richness, range, and colour of his tenor, not too unlike the way his son would sing on his album, Grace. I know it's probably unfair to compare father and son but, for my money, Jeff was the superior singer. He had a sweeter tone and probably a greater range, but due to the fact he only completed one album, he never fulfilled his undoubted potential. It would have been interesting to see if Jeff could have also ditched the angels and got his freak on like his father did on this album.
There's nothing pretty or angelic about Tim's voice or subject matter here. In fact, at times it can be a very uncomfortable listen. “Sweet Surrender" is as brutally honest a song about infidelity as you are ever likely to hear, almost embarrassingly so. The vocal performances are sometimes emotionally raw and verging on animalistic, others are playful and fun. The other shock is the musical leap from the jazz-tinged psychedelic folk of earlier records to this funky as fuck, in-your-face raw soul music, and a couple of these songs wouldn't have been out of place on a '70s porno soundtrack.
Dolly Parton: Both Sides of Dolly Parton
Both Sides of Dolly Parton is an '80s compilation which mixes some of her best loved country sides with a few of her pop hits. I bought it mainly for a cracking song called “Shattered Image", which I couldn't find on any of her albums. I've been in love with Dolly since childhood. She may not have had the seismic cultural impact of an Elvis, Dylan or James Brown, but in terms of talent she's the match of any of them. Many will see her as a kitsch cabaret act but her gifts are supernatural as far as I'm concerned; a great songwriter, singer and no slouch on guitar, banjo, fiddle, dulcimer and piano.