Playing music comes as naturally as breathing to some people. It’s a mechanical action—an instinct. The subconscious, in concert with the rest of the body, does the bulk of the work. Also, much like breathing, for these individuals, playing music is integral to survival. They take in stimuli, process them, and fashion them into art. Creating is a necessary component of living.
The older we get, the more responsibilities we accrue, and the harder it becomes to find the time to make music. As important as it is, the act of artistic creation pales in comparison to family. You work a job so that the ones you love can eat food and have a place to sleep. Life is no longer about personal gratification. Instead, someone’s survival directly depends on you pulling your physical, emotional, and financial weight. Still, the urge to create is explosive.
John Sharkey III has deep insight into this conflict. A lifelong musician, in the early ’00s he relocated from his native Philadelphia to Cleveland in order to play with foundational hardcore band 9 Shocks Terror, as well as punk groups The Final Plan and Bomb Builder. When he returned to Philadelphia, he became a founding member of the notorious noise rock outfit Clockcleaner. Known for their scathing, bitter lyrics and caustic live shows, the band carved out a reputation as one of the most vitriolic acts of the decade.
And then, everything changed. Sharkey met and fell in love with an Australian national and decided to follow her back home, effectively disbanding Clockcleaner in the process. While in Australia, he began writing subdued, synth-driven rock songs under the name Puerto Rico Flowers, putting together bands in both Australia and the US to help with live shows. Sharkey and his wife, Yasmin, have moved between Canberra and Philadelphia several times, with two children, Johnny and Iris, arriving along the way.
Sharkey disbanded Puerto Rico Flowers during his last move to Australia. After a short period of inactivity and a move back to Philly, he resurrected the last stateside PRF lineup under the name Dark Blue. Occupying a sonic space somewhere between Rose Tattoo and The Comsat Angels, Dark Blue have released a series of well received singles and an LP titled “Pure Reality” (Jade Tree). The band’s second full-length album is due out this November on 12XU.
Somewhere in between the madness of intercontinental living, raising a family, and maintaining consistent musical output, Sharkey has also managed to buy a house and start a business; he’s a silkscreener by trade. His Good Penny Printing company has gained traction with punks and sports enthusiasts alike.
I caught up with Sharkey while he was playing with his oldest son at a playground in Delaware County, PA, close to where we both grew up. We have been close friends, and occasional collaborators, for over 20 years. As important as the city of Philadelphia was to our personal development, “Delco” will always be our spiritual home. It’s an unassuming Irish Catholic suburb, but an air of anxiety hangs heavy over the neighborhood. “I’ve always been uncomfortable here, in a way,” Sharkey says. “All Delco taught me was how to hate the human race, fully. Delco will erode your sense of right and wrong, it will dismantle your senses of sympathy and empathy very quickly. It’s very mean spirited. It’s that lower-middle-class chip on the shoulder. It’s a perplexing area. People are very judgmental, and it’s based on nothing. It’s not like they are holding anything above you socially or financially. I mean, we all live in row homes as far as the eye can see. It’s really Lord of the Flies out here, especially for young kids. Fucking kids out here are terrible. It was just pack mentality status growing up—kill or be killed. If you were a runt out here intellectually or physically, you were completely eaten alive.”
Outside of discussing the psychological scars developed during our formative years, Sharkey and I had a lot to talk about when it came to work, family, and the absolute physiological imperative of making music at any cost.
You started Clockcleaner shortly after moving back to Philadelphia from Cleveland. Tell me a bit about what your life was like at this point. Did you have any established responsibilities outside of making music?
Not really outside of just like, paying rent. I didn’t have a family. I didn’t have a real job.
How did you pay rent?
I picked up occasional shifts at different screenprinting shops, but it was a good year before I had a steady job after moving back from Cleveland. I had zero responsibilities other than not dying in my sleep.
So that was then and here you are now. Obviously, things are different. What do you do for a living these days?
I’m a textile screenprinter. I have my own personal business, and I also work half the week for another company in center city Philadelphia doing exactly the same thing. Basically, I run the entire gamut at two different print shops. At the company I work for, I take care of every single facet of things, except for dealing with customers, which is my least favorite part of… life in general. So I do everything involved in the screenprinting process, pretty much.
Does your job provide incentives like health insurance, bonuses, profit sharing and 401k or something similar?
[laughs] Oh my, hell no! I’m on Obamacare, homeboy! Obamacare’s great; I don’t know why people are complaining. It works out great for me. My whole family’s covered and we don’t pay that much money a month and if I get sick I can go to a doctor, which is not what most people in my neighborhood can say.
How long have you been a screenprinter? Is your work something that you’ve always wanted to do or did you fall into it?
I started when I was 15 years old. I really wanted a Code 13 t-shirt that wasn’t the one that they were selling constantly, so I wanted to make my own.
I remember the one they were selling.
Yeah, it was the one with the dead cop skull wearing the Olde English bobby hat. I mean, that was cool, but everyone had it, and I wanted something different. I wanted a Doomed Society shirt, and I’m sure those were out there somewhere, but I wanted to make it myself. So I bought a shitty old $20 kit that you get at the arts and crafts store, and I learned how to do it all in my basement. I quickly fell in love with the idea of screen printing and what you could do with it.
Can you describe a typical day working as a screenprinter? I know you keep pretty rigorous hours and that the physical element is particularly intensive. From the moment you wake up until you go to sleep, what’s an average workday like for you?
Since I run the entire shop, it’s my job to make sure everything happens. I show up and turn on the belt dryer, coat and expose screens with the art that is to be printed that day, check in goods and handle shipping/receiving. I talk to customers about art and deal with problems or unrealistic expectations. Then I have to fucking print everything. That’s where I find real peace. I can ignore humanity for a few hours. At the end of the day I make sure everything is cooled. If I leave a dryer or flash unit on, the shop could burn down. There’s been dozens of nights when I couldn’t sleep and had to drive back to the shop to make sure it isn’t a pile of ashes. So far my record is spotless.
As you get older, do you notice the long-term labor taking any kind of physical or mental toll on you? If so, how? Is it as easy to do this job and play music as it was when you were in your 20s?
During the last tour with Algiers, my hand and wrists were completely fucked. I had been managing a shop for a while before getting back into printing a lot again, so it took a physical toll. My hands were completely numb for two months, and my wrists were swollen for three after. I couldn’t sleep through the night for any of that period. It was a fucking nightmare. That obviously affected my guitar playing.
Can you tell me a bit about your family? From the outside looking in, they seem to be the driving factor behind a good deal of your creative output.
Yeah, they’re inspirational in the way that they’re kinda what I wake up for in the morning. I don’t exactly love screen printing, but I’m good at it and it makes us money. That is gonna bleed into my creative life. Also, the fact that I’ve had to move around so much for my family, like moving back and forth from America to Australia for citizenship reasons and for my kids.
Why the moving between continents?
My wife is an Australian citizen. When she got pregnant she didn’t want to give birth in an American hospital, because she’s not fucking insane and she didn’t want to become destitute in doing so. She is also Irish and Egyptian, and that has informed me in other ways. That’s gonna work itself into at least some creative content.
How has your life changed in the time between your more maniacal Clockcleaner days and the more subdued, stoic nature of Dark Blue currently? What internal and external factors played into your personal evolution?
When I was in Clockcleaner, I was a little pissant who didn’t really have any responsibilities. I didn’t feel much of a connection to anything, so I could have a flippant attitude. As I’ve gotten older, my empathy for people has grown. That has, I don’t want to say softened my output, but it has definitely informed it more from just the white rage of my youth. I was a shithead, but I’m not gonna disavow that. I was a 23-year-old kid from Philadelphia just rebelling against everything. Now things are a little more sharpened. I’ve also become a better songwriter. That’s the thing—I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing when I started Clockcleaner. Now, I’m the best songwriter in America.
I remember hearing somewhere that you wrote songs while screenprinting at work. Do you still do that?
Yeah, I do. That is another great aspect of screenprinting for me. I have never sat down with a guitar and wrote a song that way. Everything always comes to me in my head. It could be the most minute little thing, like a little guitar noodle or a vocal hook, and it just snowballs from that point. I don’t ever just sit down with an instrument. I’ve never sat down and started fucking around, playing and developing ideas. I write every single part of the song in my head while I’m working. Afterward, I’ll sit down with the rest of the band and hash it out with them or I’ll play it all out at once, record it and give it to other guys to learn. I’ve never grabbed a guitar and sat around contemplating the stars or thought about my fantasy football team or what I was gonna make for dinner. I’ve never fucked around like that. It’s very businesslike. Once I have the idea it becomes very focused. It is the only thing I can think about until it’s finished. It usually doesn’t take that long.
Work and family alone make for a full plate for many people. How do you manage to continually write, record, and tour on top of that? When it comes to your responsibilities as a husband, father, and worker versus your natural inclination to make music and perform, does one often win out over the other?
It is incredibly hard. It does stress out relationships in my family. Music always comes last too, oddly enough. I’d hate to think how different my recorded output could sound if I had more than, like, 48 hours to cram every single thing for an LP into a session. But that’s just how I have to do it. I have too much actual responsibility on my plate. Really, in my situation, because of necessity, art has to come last. There are times where it strains me and my wife’s relationship. It pisses her off when I’m like, ‘I have to go away for an entire weekend and record eight songs as fast as I can, and also worry about mixing and mastering and all this other time consuming shit that most musicians don’t think about who aren’t working stiffs with a family,’ you know. So it’s definitely hard to do. But it’s like a plague. I can’t not do it. Dark Blue have a new LP that comes out in November. I’ve already written the follow-up to that, and the new record hasn’t even been released yet. It’s like a fucking disease in my brain. It’s like a brain-eating amoeba that you get when you swim in fresh water. I have to feed it. I know that sounds really corny and really cliche but I have to… I can’t ignore it.
That’s one common thread that every musician with a regular job mentions over and over again, whether they work with their hands or in an office. It seems to be a compulsion for everyone.
It’s like an addiction. I have to do it. I mean, my wife is very supportive. She is the one who made me start Dark Blue. She went on Craigslist and bought me an amp, because I had sold all of my shit to move to Australia. She’s pushing me to be creative, but it’s still a bit taxing. In a couple of months, I’m going to Europe for like three weeks. That’s gonna suck for her, you know? She’s gonna be all alone with two kids and I’m gonna be off getting piss drunk every night in Germany while she’s at home wondering what her asshole husband’s doing with his life. So yeah, it is stressful but I have to… the time I can scrape together for it, I will use for that.
Is your job lenient about time off?
Well, the good thing about my job is that half the time I’m working for my own business, and the other time i’m working for someone else. But it’s kind of on a casual basis, so my schedule is much more flexible than it used to be. That’s why I got into my current arrangement. I used to work 40 hours a week straight as a manager of a screenprinting shop. It was hard with the kids and with my wife being at home with everything. So now I have time for my own work, to see the kids off in the morning some days, and to help her out around the house. I can be another pair of hands. Yeah, I can take off whenever the fuck I want, pretty much, I just need to let the company that I work for know in advance. They schedule around my absence. It’s kind of ideal at this point, but there is still a lot of work at my other job, my personal business. It’s a lot of time crunch and a lot of hustling and running around to make sure I can keep that ball rolling too. It’s hard, but you’ve gotta make it work.
Was it scary opening up your own business?
Not really, because I did it in a smart way. I still worked full time and slowly garnered a customer base. Now it’s growing, so I’ve cut back with the other job to about three days a week, and I’m doing about three days a week for myself, so I’m still working six days a week. Eventually I hope to be able to be full time with it, but I can supplement my income in other ways, so it’s not exactly scary. I can utilize a screen printing press that isn’t just for customers. I mean, I have my own Big Cartel. As buster and hustler as it sounds, I will make a hundred shirts that say “Tony Romo’s A Jerkoff” or something of that ilk, and go down to an Eagles game and I’ll sell a hundred of them for 10 dollars each, and that will pay our mortgage, you know. I do that in just a morning. Because I did it in a way that wasn’t diving into the deep end, it wasn’t really too scary.
Does having a family and a career mean giving up a degree of your artistic freedom?
Yeah, of course it does, because I can’t just fuck off for eight months to be on tour. But I mean, really, I’m at a point in my life where I don’t need to tour all the time. I haven’t slowed down writing or recording music, so basically the only facet that suffers is the amount of shows that I can play live, which I actually don’t really enjoy much anyway. So it’s kind of a blessing in disguise that I don’t have time to do it. And to be honest, now when one of my bands plays a show, more people treat it like an event than just another run of the mill ‘Oh, Dark Blue’s coming around again’ thing. We’re about to release a new record, and we’ll probably play something like seven shows around the North American continent. It becomes more of an event this way, you know… supply and demand. So that’s really the only aspect of my artistic career that suffers, and I’m kinda happy about it.
How do you feel the idea of playing music has changed over the years? Does being in a band mean something different to you now than it did when you first started?
When I first started playing in a band, it was motivated by revenge. I just wanted to hurt people that I hated and that I felt slighted me in any way. It was definitely a kind of ‘stick it up their ass’ motivation. I didn’t do it because I wanted to meet girls, or because I wanted to necessarily live that kind of band lifestyle. I can’t say that I’m motivated by revenge anymore, so I guess it has changed. I guess, like I said earlier, my motivation comes from a sickness. I can’t stop writing songs, and I have to get them out of me. I have to expel them and make them tangible things, that’s really what it is. It’s become a bowel movement instead of a chip on my shoulder.
So what do you think would happen if you were to just stop playing music?
I mean, I would probably gain a bunch of weight and become either a Dallas Cowboys fan or a serial killer. Seriously, I would lose all perspective on what’s right and wrong. I would buy a Dez Bryant jersey and I would hack my family to death, probably. Most likely.
That all makes perfect sense.
I mean, I guarantee you that’s what would happen. I would become a miserable loaf.
I get to thinking sometimes about how, although music isn’t the only thing that brings me enjoyment, it’s the only thing that I feel like I do ‘right.’
I fully agree with that. I always feel that the only time I’m ever completely 100% right is when it comes to writing music. I don’t take outside criticism well when it comes to writing. I’m open to ideas arrangement-wise, especially from band members, but I don’t take suggestion very well because I know that what I’m doing is right, it’s correct. It’s 100% right, because I’m writing this, and it sounds good in my head, and that’s all that matters. I am the man making the music, you are the potential audience. Like it or not, I’m not going to change. I am completely unwavering in my belief that I am 100% right all the time when it comes to music. There is no opinion when it comes to what I’m writing. It’s all great.
Are there any conditions under which you would consider leaving the traditional workforce to play music full time? If so, what would they be?
If I could make thousands of dollars in a cover band, like a wedding cover band, I would. If I ever move to Ireland I could probably learn “Danny Boy,” “Dirty Old Town,” some Pogues songs and make thousands of dollars on the weekend playing them, and I wouldn’t have to work during the week. I mean, I could have a menial job somewhere and still do some screen printing stuff, but man, I would love to do that. Play weddings? That’s where the money is… or like, play casinos. That would be awesome!
So you would feel comfortable doing covers instead of your own songs in order to make money playing music?
Well, because nobody can really make a living off of original music anymore. I mean, no one’s Oasis anymore. It doesn’t exist. Bands that are very, very successful are touring 11 months out of the year. I’d rather stick my head in a boiling vat of dog wee-wee than be on the road for 11 months out of the year, and not even really coming away a rich man. I have friends who are in very successful bands, and they could probably be a manager at Staples and make close to what they’re making now, but without having to leave their town to take a shit in a different place every morning. That’s another thing about being in a cover band like that, it would be incredibly part time! Working on the weekends would be great! So no, I would never want to live the life of a touring musician again, because it’s a losing proposition and you maintain no lasting relationship with anything or anyone. It’s just a transient lifestyle that’s not for me. No.
Given all of the complications and hardships that occur when trying to work, raise a family, and play music; do you still feel like it’s all worth it?
Definitely, I mean I’ve never regretted a single song I’ve ever written or recorded. I’ve regretted aspects of things, the way they were recorded and portrayed or maybe some aesthetic moves but yes, it’s definitely 1000% worth it in the long run. I regret nothing. I regret only things that I have not done. It’s totally important to me that I do this. As much as i bemoan other musicians and the music industry or even the music community that I work in, I wouldn’t have it any other way. There’s gotta be loudmouths, and I’m happy to be one of them.