“Honestly, nothing has really changed except my songwriting prowess,” says John Sharkey III about the difference between his brilliant noise rock band Clockcleaner and his brand new outfit, Dark Blue.
“I was pretty good before,” Sharkey says, “but now I’m much better. I do the same thing as always — I write it all in my head, every part. I don’t sit down with a guitar and contemplate the stars, pining for inspiration. That’s nonsense.”
From 2003-08, Clockcleaner provided scabrous relief from the rising tide of folk-informed American indie strum. Driven by Sharkey’s throat-ruining screams, Clockcleaner marked a return to the boisterous bygone days of bands like Big Black, Dazzling Killmen and Rapeman.
And then, after a handful of singles and two excellent albums (including the brilliantly-titled Nevermind), Clockcleaner fell to pieces following a particularly disastrous trip home from South By Southwest in 2008.
To hear Sharkey tell it, the demise was inevitable. “I was rapidly outgrowing the people Clockcleaner was attracting,” he says. “Getting emails from people I’d never met that started with “Hey, [homophobic expletive]!” was starting to wear on my patience.” Tellingly, the slow-roast, mind-cramp sludge on the final EP Auf Wiedersehen (Load, 2009) was a far cry from the band’s original noise punk urges, and paved the way for Sharkey’s next project, Dark Blue.
“I started singing in a lower register near the end and [Clockcleaner bassist] Karen [Horner] was like, ‘That sounds kind of like Peter Murphy’ which lent itself to writing slower and lower.”
After spending time in Australia on and off from 2009-13 (his wife, whom he met during that ill-fated SXSW, is Australian) and knocking out a few records with a new outfit called Puerto Rico Flowers, Sharkey put together Dark Blue with bassist Andrew Mackie Nelson (also of hardcore band Ceremony) and drummer Mike Sneeringer (of Purling Hiss) in early 2013. Pure Reality, the group’s full-length debut, is a knowing throwback to the mid-tempo Oi! records Sharkey obsessed over as a lad in Philly.
What did you think of Australia when you were there?
Their sports are awesome and their beer is awful. Most of their beers taste like wringing a bar mat out at 4 a.m. It’s a country the size of the States but with 23 million people, so there is a lot of open space. The isolation is really appealing. I also had very little interaction with anyone. I learned the comforts of being isolated. It really is kind of like a mental bomb shelter. Walking around by yourself in the middle of the night can do good things for a person.
Did you go to a lot of shows?
When I lived in Melbourne and worked at a bar, I saw a fair bit [of Australian rock]. I think Americans, especially American punks, tend to romanticize Australian punk and rock. Stuff like the Birthday Party had a time and a place, but Melbourne was infested with this twee stuff that was awful. I did see one performance that actually penetrated my soul. I saw Rowland S Howard play alone at the pub where I worked. It was the bleakest, most beautiful live music I’ve ever seen. He even scolded one buffoon two minutes in for talking. Magnificent. I brashly punished him afterward, “Yo, Rowland, I’m John from America!” It was obnoxious but we shot the shit for a good 15 [minutes]. He was so striking. His face had varicose veins. Looked like an actual vampire. I’ll never forget that night for as long as live. When I moved to Canberra, I saw almost zero live music. I saw Eyehategod and the Wiggles farewell tour [with my son]. I personally have been trying the synthesize the two ever since.
You were really into Oi! as a kid, right?
That was what I really liked when I was younger, yeah: second-wave British punk skinhead rock. The Last Resort, Shame 69, Anti Nowhere League. I was a skinheadish sort when I was real young. It wasn’t political, I liked the look: the Docs, the liberty spikes, the bondage pants. I rediscovered a lot of that stuff when I was working as a night watchman, doing 4 a.m. patrols, preparing to write a new album.
You are a notorious sports nerd, but rugby — one of your passions — is not a sport all that many Americans are into. What drew you to it?
I started getting really into rugby when we lived in Canberra. It was this brutal mish-mash of bodies. It looked a hurling match without the stick and no helmets — which is fine because it’s not like you’re gonna make these players any smarter. And Canberra is small enough that you see them all the time. It’s like walking around and seeing Michael Vick in a pub every other week.
There’s a rugby league player getting arrested for grabbing a woman’s vagina. There was one guy, a captain for the Canberra Raiders, who was delisted from the league for sending out a photo of a dog licking his balls. This was one of the senior leadership members of the team. This was a decision made by a grown-ass man. The game itself is incredible, the raw strength and courage it takes. But you play it, and your brain is slush.
Couple that with the depression of growing up a Philadelphia sports fan.
The only psychic tool any Philadelphian needs is a negative outlook, especially concerning the city’s sports teams. I learned at around age 7 to stop asking my old man if the Eagles or Phillies were gonna win a championship. I never liked hockey. That shit was like white trash roulette to me. I don’t eat hoagies for breakfast, which is a typical Flyers fan activity. I grew up liking the Sixers. My school was full of black kids and white kids and I definitely remember being called a “[racist expletive] lover” for being Sixers fan, thank you Philadelphia. I saw the Phillies win the World Series alone by myself in a pub 11:30 a.m. in Australia. I can’t explain it, but it was kind of perfect. I felt a little gypped until I remembered I couldn’t give two flying fucks about that stupid fucking parade, a scene that meant vomiting on a police officer that was smoking a joint and looting a luggage store. That’s called becoming a man right there.