Sometime around 1 a.m., the four members of Sydney’s Royal Headache stumble into Williamsburg taproom Jack and George’s for some late-night Dub Pies. They’re immediately accosted by a bevy of revelers who’ve also defected here, still reeling from Royal Headache’s kinetic performance just ’round the way at Rough Trade NYC. It’s the first of three New York City-area stops at the end of a month-long North American tour in support of their sophomore record High, which came out via What’s Your Rupture? this past Friday.
The guys seem gracious but tired, most of all frontman Shogun, who dips, leaps and swivels across the stage like an Australian punk version of Future Islands’s Sam Herring. Like the Baltimore band, Royal Headache’s been plugging away as outliers in an insular scene, building a reputation on the strength of their live performances. But instead of Charm City, their story takes place down under, where Royal Headache are nearly a nine-hour coastal drive from their friends in Melbourne, the lo-fi mecca of the sunburnt country and home to Total Control, Twerps, UV Race, Eddy Current Suppression Ring, and countless other like-minded acts.
But at Jack and George’s, the first topic that comes up is supporting act Sheer Mag. The Philly band joined Royal Headache’s tour in Chicago last week, and they make rather appropriate bedfellows because they’re an odd sort of mirror to the headliners’ vibe. While Royal Headache look like dads but play bristling punk rock, Sheer Mag look like punks who play melodic dad rock. Save for Tina Halladay’s formidable snarl and requisite battle vest cementing the band’s cred, the guitar licks and chord progressions fall solidly in the realm of classic pop rock – think distorted Cheap Trick or a D.I.Y. Thin Lizzy.
If those influences don’t quite come through the fuzz of Sheer Mag’s most recent EP, II, released in April, they rang loud and clear in the impeccable acoustics of Rough Trade’s black box interior, all the pomp and stomp of Sheer Mag’s catchy-as-hell floor-fillers tickling the acoustic funnybones of fans’ eardrums. When they come unhinged in the dingy shadows of Palisades this coming Saturday or manage to live out the metal fantasies their logo references at Saint Vitus on Sunday, maybe they’ll skew as scrappier, but no one will deny the distinctly delinquent vibes of this double-stacked bill when Sheer Mag’s anthems can truly breathe in their most appropriate contexts.
The same goes for Royal Headache, who, like label-mates Parquet Courts, have crafted a nuanced and angsty but always authentic take on shambling garage punk anchored by its lead singer’s ability to croon-shout. Shogun doesn’t play an instrument, ranging as far and wide as the mic he’s tethered to will allow, swinging his arms so erratically that at one point, the cord comes loose and his vocals are temporarily lost; a few songs later the cord gets caught on a front-row fangirl’s neck, but her friend is able to untangle her before any damage is done. They wind up taking selfies with Shogun visible in the background, sprawling and spinning as though the set is a yoga class his life depends on. He works up a sweat and ditches his shirt by the band’s third number, bare-chested and scrawny in the oscillating lights but ferociously unashamed.
They blaze through some sing-alongs, including “Down The Lane” and “Psychotic Episode,” from their 2011 self-titled debut, which offer a reminder that the new record almost wasn’t made; the grueling demands of their last U.S. tour in 2012 and internal disagreements caused them to break up for a short time. But High is a triumphant return to form, with Shogun’s soulful snark channeling the best of King Khan. When they finally break out the new stuff, he introduces it by saying, “I hate to tell you, but we’re a ballad band now,” then apologizes for needing a breather after five or six songs’ worth of gymnastics. He takes a knee for “Wouldn’t You Know” but is bouncing around again by the song’s end.
When he sings “Garbage,” he’s projecting it to the rafters as though, somewhere beyond that, the titular human piece of trash he wrote the song about can somehow hear him. It’s so vitriolic that every time he belts the chorus, it’s easy to imagine the subject feels a stab in the throat. He dedicates album highlight “Another World” to “fake punks” and “shit people.” By the end of the set, Shogun’s voice is spent. They come back for an encore but can only manage two more songs, chiding the audience for “ruining the tour,” then hemming and hawing before deciding on “Honey Joy” and “Carolina” and calling it a day.
So many narratives in Royal Headache’s music seem rooted in weathering the gut-wrenching pain of love. But even once the show’s over and they’re seeking the comforts of home with meat pies in a Brooklyn pub, saying goodbye to old friends who’ve congregated here, you get the sense that much of that soul-crushing passion is as much for the music itself as it is for any one character, past or present, from any of their lives. It’s a thing that destroys, but also a thing that binds. For this band, that creates a rare kind of tension that might never be quite so perfectly balanced again. It took four years for them to achieve, and 45 minutes to show us how they revel in it.
Royal Headache and Sheer Mag return to Brooklyn to play Palisades on Saturday, August 29 and Saint Vitus on Sunday, August 30. Both shows are sold-out but there will be tickets available at the door on Sunday before the Saint Vitus show.