Talking Australian Soccer, Philadelphia Sports, and Dark Blue With John Sharkey III

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The first time I heard music made by John Sharkey III came via his old band, the abrasive, irreverent Clockcleaner. Since Clockcleaner came to an end a few years ago, Sharkey has continued to make music that reaches the listener on both a visceral and an intellectual level–first with Puerto Rico Flowers, and now with Dark Blue. This year has seen three releases from the band: two seven inches, Subterranean Man and Just Another Night With the Boys, and a full length, Pure Reality. All of them are well worth checking out.

I talked with Sharkey over the phone on a rainy Wednesday night (though not in Stoke.) Besides the band, we discussed soccer. A lot of soccer. This is not without precedent–the cover art for Just Another Night With the Boys specifically invokes the sport, and we went deeply into it. At the end of our talk, we traded book recommendations–I suggested David Peace’s Red or Dead, and he made a convincing case for Martin King and Martin Knight’s Hoolifan. An edited version of our conversation follows.

The seven inch that came out a few months ago, “Just Another Night With the Boys,” has soccer-inspired artwork. What made you decide to go with that as the theme for it?

The theme behind all of the records so far, especially the covers, is that they’re snapshots of my time in Australia. When I lived in Canberra, I used to drive up to Western Sydney, to see the team that I supported, named the Western Sydney Wanderers. They would play in Parramatta. I would drive up to these matches. And it was their first season, and these people had been feverishly lobbying for a team for years, in the A-League, which is like the Premier League in Australia.

People just went fucking apeshit the second that team came to fruition. So this supporters’ group called the Red and Black Bloc formed. They’re like any other soccer ultras: they parade up and down the streets of Parramatta. But they were a little more feverish, because it was their first season. They were still a little wet behind the ears. So the song was just about driving up to Western Sydney and watching these games, and hanging out on Church Street in Parramatta and watching these people just fucking flip cars, light shit on fire, and fucking throw shit though building windows. Act like fucking maniacs. Because, you know, it was like a kid finally has their toy, and they’re going to abuse it a little bit. It’s really a very contradictory title, because I would only go to these games by myself. I never accompanied them.


Have you been following the team since then? Have the fans maintained that level of craziness, or…

I think it may have calmed down. It was totally absurd when it first started. They had a messageboard, and I would read the shit that they were talking about, like: “Rule number one: Don’t talk to the media about the Red and Black Bloc!” They took themselves a little too seriously, but I guess you need to in those situations, and I thought it was kind of cool. It was endearing.

I have been keeping up with the team, and the supporters. The team is doing quite well. They’ve just made it to the final stages of the Asian Cup. That’s like the Champions League of Asia.


I don’t know a lot about the A-League, other than that there’s a guy who played for the Red Bulls who’s over there now, and that Manchester City bought a team in Melbourne…

They used to be called Melbourne Heart, and they were fucking terrible. They’re called Melbourne City now. Man City dumped a whole shit-ton of money into the club. I hate to say it, but: it’s a club for developing Australian players, and it’s also kind of like a retirement league for stars. [Alessandro] Del Piero plays for the Sydney team, you know, and he’s tearing it up, because he’s still awesome, but he’s literally forty years old now. After he left Juventus, he thought, “Well, where do I want to go live? I’ll go live in Sydney. It’s nice and easy, and I’ll get a few million dollars to play in this league down here; it’ll be great.” I wish it attracted bigger stars from around the world, but that’s probably a few decades off.


The impression I get is that it’s where Major League Soccer was a couple of years ago, where you’d get some international players who were not necessarily in their prime.

It’s kind of like MLS. The quality of play is, honestly, a little better. It’s not as physical or frantic. The thing about the MLS that I don’t like–I’ve watched the Philadelphia Union, and it’s a very structuralist style. There’s no formation; you’re watching it, and you’re like, “What the fuck, it’s a 4-1-1-2. Okay, what the hell?” In the A-League, you can tell what they’re doing, and you can tell it’s a little more thought out. The quality’s a little higher. But it’s very, very similar to the MLS. MLS is probably a little more popular; on many levels, yes, they are on par.


I support the Red Bulls, and I keep an eye on some other teams. But I feel like, with the exception of some things that happened in San Jose, it seems like you don’t get a lot of the…breaking things that comes with a lot of supporters’ groups elsewhere.

You don’t see it in American sports at all, except when you win a title. Especially, in Europe, when your team loses, that city is fucked. It’s going to fucking burn down. Here, the closest memory I have of anything like that is when the Phillies won the World Series, and Broad Street just got destroyed and looted. Cops started drinking on the street, and it was total bedlam. Americans don’t react that way unless a trophy’s lifted. For the rest of the world, that’s par for the course for soccer. Maybe not so much anymore, but it’s still pretty exciting when it happens.


What first got you into soccer?

The idea of getting up at 7:30 in the morning and getting drunk on Saturday. To be totally honest, that was very appealing to me when I was in my twenties. We had no frame of reference. We had no friends who were into any of it, me and my group of friends, so we picked teams arbitrarily. I thought the slogan “You’ll Never Walk Alone” was really fucking cool. It sounded really fucking skinhead–I thought, “That’s tough!” I didn’t know it was a Gerry & The Pacemakers song. Me and my group of friends were like, “Fuck it, that’s it! That sounds cool; this Stevie Gerrard guy, he’s all right. Let’s watch this team. Fuck Man United–everybody likes that team.”

It was really pedestrian. I’m not going to pretend we had any clue at all about any of it. But we stuck with it. I’m almost ten years into it, now–getting up early, watching games.


I haven’t done it as much this season, but I really enjoy that feeling: “I’m up really early on a weekend! And I’m going to a bar!”

It’s really festive. There’s not many excuses to be half-cocked at 8:30 am other than when your team has a 7:30 game.


Have you been following the Union since the beginning?

Actually, not really. I was living in Australia for most of the initial season. I missed a lot of their beginnings. Since I’ve been back, I have been….not fervently watching, because in America, there are a few other things that take up my attention a little bit more, especially in the summer and overseas. I do follow the Union; not closely, but I would call myself more than a fair-weather fan.

They’re an interesting team. They tend to score a lot of goals really early, and then just piss that lead away immediately. That’s their MO. At least, it’s been since I’ve watched them. MLS is so weird–half of these players look like American football players, or rugby players. One of the forwards on the Union…I don’t know if you’re familiar with Conor Casey?


I was just thinking, as you said that, “You’re talking about Conor Casey, aren’t you?”

He looks like a tight end! He’s huge. The first time I laid eyes on that guy was when I went to a match a few years ago. I thought, “Where the fuck did this guy come from?” I was completely flabbergasted that he was on a soccer team, let alone as a forward.

I do follow the Union. I’m astounded that they have such a supportership for being the poorly-run and poorly-performing team that they are.


The Red Bulls had Sebastian Le Toux for a season, and he didn’t do much, but it seems like he’s done pretty well since going to the Union…

He’s one of the bright spots of the team. And then, we got Andrew Wenger. That’s another thing that’s weird about MLS: there are trades. He’s the first overall pick from last year’s draft; it’s good to have someone like that developing in your midst. Other than that? The coach is getting canned mid-year. Coughing up leads constantly. There’s not a whole lot to be incredibly excited about. I see it getting better in the near future.


I’ve been following a second-division team, Minnesota United, as well, and I feel like where the NASL is now is where MLS was, a few years ago, in terms of quality. That seems positive.

It’s cool that there’s another league. I’m not really familiar with it. My brain is filled with so many mushed sports at this point. It’s not just soccer–I also follow the Australian Rugby League      , Australian football, and other [soccer] leagues around the world, not just the English Premier League and the A-League. Other American leagues are going to have to up the ante before Daddy Sharkey starts paying attention.


How do you keep up with various Australian leagues? Are there bars around you that show it, or…

The Fox Soccer app is really helpful, because they show every Australian major-market team. You can watch all the teams. The two main leagues that I follow in Australia are the NRL, which is the National Rugby League, and the AFL, the Australian Football League. And both are shown on the Fox Soccer app. So I can watch those games–sneak off into the bathroom at work and watch a replay, or stay up really late and watch them live. The time difference is so vast–we’re still sixteen hours behind Australia, so sometimes during the day, I can stay up ‘til 10 pm and watch a game that starts at noon over there. It takes a lot of fucking patience and a lot of motivation to follow it, but–while I was living over there, I was so fervently into these sports. I feel like I’d be a fucking traitor not to keep up with it.


To move things a little towards the band–you’d said that all of the Dark Blue records were inspired by your time living over there?

Yeah, pretty much. They’re all snapshots in time–encounters I would have or things I would see. The first record cover is a group of women at a 65-and-over water aerobics class. The second seven inch is me in the stands of that soccer match. The LP–at the center of Canberra is a mountain, and the telecommunications company Telstra built a large tower there in the 80s. It’s a ubiquitous symbol of Canberra, the Black Mountain Tower.

Canberra is the focal point, the main theme, to all of these songs anyway. Most of the songs’ subjects are Canberra-based, except for a few, which are about Philadelphia. And those, in turn, are still about Canberra, because it’s one big compare and contrast anyway. The filthy, culture-less cesspool that is Philadelphia–yes, I grew up here, and it’s ingrained in me, but it’s a cesspool. Contrasting that with this bush capital, lots of space, with olive and brown, scorched earth, rolling hills…. Kind of a comfortable desolation surrounding this planned community that was Canberra. It’s really at the crux of it all, a huge compare-and-contrast with both cities.


Do you see the lyrical focus on Canberra being something that will keep going for the band?

I’m never going to forget it. It’s going to wane in the coming record. I can’t just write about Canberra all the time, as much as I’d like to. I don’t know if I can bring myself to do it. This record is a snapshot of a place in my timeline. I can always look back on it. It’s a snapshot in time. It’s probably the most personal I’ve ever gotten, musically. I’ve never really tried this hard to focus on lyrics and portray themes, almost therapeutically. Lyrics have been… “I don’t care what the fuck I say in this song, as long as the song sounds good.” I don’t see it carrying over too much into the next LP. Which, I can tell you, is already written. A lot of it is not about Canberra. A lot of it is focused on the crushing defeat of returning to Philadelphia.


The two seven inches and the album all came out within a fairly short period…

That’s kind of how I write. I just write in spurts and bursts. Most of these songs were written before I even came back to Philadelphia to start the band. I was a night watchman at the Australian Institute of Sport, and I would walk around all night listening to Sham 69 and Stone Roses and get ideas in my head. Stealing ideas from shit that I listened to when I was very young and incorporating it with the song ideas I had at the time. I would walk around in a comatose, sleep-deprived, fog and write these.. That’s what the record sounds like: it sounds like an Oi! record written in a comatose fog. Blurry lights, jumpy, shot nerves, all of it. It all played a part.

I would walk around, it would be four in the morning, I would be completely beleaguered, and a fucking kangaroo would dart out at me. Or a fox would jump out of a fucking bush. Canberra is a rural area that was built up as a planned community, so you’re going to have that stuff no matter where you go. I used to have a wombat that lived on my street!

That was the idea–make an Oi! record in a hazy fog.


I think there are really interesting things happening on the record with tempos, and the way that tempos evolve over the course of the LP, too.

None of it was originally planned, for the structure of the LP. You’re not the first to mention that; somebody said that it felt like a wire being re-tensioned as the record went on tightening and tightening. That’s a very apt description.


For the second album, are you keeping to the same style, or adjusting it further?

It’s a little heavier. It’s a little more ignorant-sounding, musically. Vocally, it’s a little more croony, actually–a little more thought out, a little more melodic, vocally. It’s more ignorant and bashing; the drums are more idiotic-sounding on the new stuff, but still, it sounds a little more refined. It definitely sounds like a follow-up.


I was looking at the interview that went up today on Yellow Green Red, where you talked about wanting to tour stadium grounds if you tour England…

That’s really all I want to do if I’m over there. I’m not much of a tourist. I don’t care to see Stonehenge or any of that bullshit. But I want to go to Anfield. I really want to see The Den. If you go to YouTube and you type in “Panorama Milwall,” you get an episode of Panorama from the 70s–it’s a documentary about the Millwall Football Club. It is fucking mental. It’s insane. These people are out of their minds. The Den has been notorious for violence. Not that I want to be a part of it or see any of it, but I want to see where these things have taken place, and put some visuals to these stories that I’ve heard.


Dark Blue will be playing a free show at Rough Trade on Sunday afternoon, October 26th.

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