John Sharkey Can’t Wait to Bury Puerto Rico Flowers
If you know John Sharkey III, it’s probably as the frontman of ragged post-punkers Dark Blue. Or maybe from fronting nihilistic noise rock pranksters Clockcleaner in the mid-'00s. But in between those two bands, Sharkey started a solo project under the evocative name Puerto Rico Flowers. Utilizing dollar store synths and bass-heavy structures, Sharkey made long, pounding songs that touched a lot on misery and a little bit on love, pulling from the romanticism and gothic sounds of '80s English artists. Due to their scant discography (two EPs and one album), it may be tempting to think of PRF as a transitional work, but make no mistake — this project is responsible for some of Sharkey’s best and most powerful songs. (Just listen to the desperation and intensity contained in “Voice of Love” and try to say otherwise.)
On the eve of their first show in five years — as well as their last — CLRVYNT had a lively conversation with Sharkey on Puerto Rico Flowers’ childhood origins, properly channeling appreciation from fans and what it’s like finally bringing the project to an end. Scroll down for PRF's "Sentimental Sunday," appearing on cassette and digital in December on Accidental Guest.
I know you're in the midst of preparing for the last Puerto Rico Flowers show. How are the practices going?
We only practiced once. We’re probably not going to again either. [Laughs] The one went ... well? This is kind of, you know, old hat for all parties involved, except for Terence [Hannum of the Holy Circle], our new keyboard player. We really don’t need too much preparation.
Because you take a lackadaisical attitude toward the band or because the songs aren’t that complicated?
Well, right now I have very limited free time between work, Dark Blue and Puerto Rico Flowers, so it’s not that I take a lackadaisical approach to it. It’s just [that] music has to be the last of my priorities at the moment. And it may suffer, we might fuck up some of songs, but it’s our last show, so I don’t really give a shit. [Laughs]
So, that’s the question: What made you want to return to this project after about five years and close the door on it, so to speak?
It never really had a proper ending. I kind of ended it prematurely upon going back to Australia the second time me and my wife moved there. I had a lot of free time this summer; actually, my wife and kids were in Ireland and I was bored out of my fucking mind, and so I was talking with someone and this kind of came up. And I haphazardly agreed to do it. Looking back at it, I probably wouldn’t have said yes. I guarantee you I wouldn’t have said yes maybe two months ago, but July, when I was a man alone with nothing but my thoughts, yeah, it seemed like a pretty good idea at the time. [Laughs]
What’s it like returning to these songs after five years? You can tell they were made in this very specific mindset. Do you still have the same emotional connection?
You know, emotionally, maybe not. They were always fun songs to play. So, that’ll be fun — just to get on stage and sing songs. Throw some beer at the crowd, be a rock star. [Laughs]
Your bread and butter.
[Laughs] Exactly. But emotionally, I’m not going to feel too much for these songs. I’m just going to have a good time singing them.
Why did you pick Baltimore for your last show? Is there a connection between Baltimore and Puerto Rico Flowers?
We always had good shows there. We played there once. I mean, we only played eight shows total as a band, but that was by design anyway. But I’ve always had a fondness for the city. I think it’s my second favorite American city.
Cleveland, Ohio. There is a special connection. I mean, our label is from Baltimore. And Sean [Gray] at Fan Death was a driving factor of the band being. So, I always considered it more of a Baltimore group. That’s the thing — it really didn’t have a home base. While it was happening, I was kind of traversing the globe, living in Australia, living in Philadelphia. There never really was a set group of musicians. And we have a lot of people who like the band who are from Baltimore, so we owed it to the city to give them a proper send-off.
That brings me to the next question. How did Puerto Rico Flowers come about? I know Clockcleaner had ended. Were you just itching to start a new musical project and go it alone?
Technically, Puerto Rico Flowers started while Clockcleaner was still a band. I met my wife while I was in Texas. There was a big chunk of time where we were separated before I moved to Australia, so I was a sad son of a bitch for a couple of months. I’m preparing to move to Australia. I sold all of my records and most of the shit that I owned. And every now and then I would go down to the Clockcleaner practice space and just fuck around with a four-track. And that was how I wrote the first six or seven Puerto Rico Flowers [songs]. And I didn’t take it very seriously, but when I moved to Australia I kind of persuaded it more. It really started out of my boredom and being a sad bastard, basically waiting to move to Australia with my future wife. [Laughs]
Is that “sad bastard” quality why Puerto Rico Flowers sound so sad bastard-y, a.k.a. gothic?
I would say yes. [Laughs] I wouldn’t say no, I’ll tell you that. I’ve always been a fan of that style of music. And to me, [Puerto Rico Flowers] really wasn’t that gothic. It was more caveman synth-pop. And that was the kind of stuff I really liked as a kid. I didn’t like rock music until I was much older. In the area of Pennsylvania I grew up, people who really liked rock music like Guns N’ Roses and Metallica; they were total shitbags that I wanted nothing to do with.
That’s really what it comes down to. I would stay up real late at night and listen to this radio station called Eagle 106. And after 10 o’clock, they would play the “Sexy Love Talk” show, so I would listen to that and snicker like a fifth grader, and then after that, they would just play pretty interesting English music. Like Erasure and Depeche Mode. The first time I heard Stone Roses was when I was in the fourth grade on the radio really late at night. I had no frame of reference for any of that stuff: Morrissey, the Smiths. I mean, it’s better than what those assholes in sweatpants and Flyers jerseys listened to, and I fucking hated them. It was an easy thing to glom onto, if that makes any sense. That’s why Puerto Rico Flowers sounds the way it does — because those melodies have been in my head for a long-ass time.
You touched on this a bit earlier, but is it true that Puerto Rico Flowers lyrically is about you falling in love with someone from Australia, and that’s why Australia is on the cover art for your releases?
Yeah. There’s a lot of symbolism that goes into that, but yes. The main start was to kill time while I was waiting around to leave. So, Australia was weighing heavily on my mind. The logo conceptually means nothing. This is probably going to bum out some people, but everything about the band’s aesthetics and the name of the band mean absolutely nothing. I thought Puerto Rico Flowers sounded cool — that’s it. I lied before and said it had some other meaning in some other interview — I don’t know. That’s when I took it seriously, maybe. Yeah, it means absolutely fucking nothing. The logo: I thought it would be cool to put the Puerto Rican flag inside the outline of Australia. That is it. But yes, the reason that maybe Australia played so heavily into the overarching look of the band was probably because that subject matter was weighing heavily on my brain. Puerto Rico Flowers was the first time I started taking the words I was saying a little more seriously. That’s why they’re a little more autobiographical.
Does it bother you that people treat the project a little more seriously than you? I know there’s a reason there’s a last Puerto Rico Flowers show happening. For a small group of people, this project means quite a lot.
No, it doesn’t bother me. It’s quite flattering that I can do something so half-assed and people still really take it to heart. That makes me feel happy. I’ll never take that for granted. In the famous words of Chuck Bednarik, my favorite Philadelphia Eagle of all time, “When people come up to me and say, ‘Are you Chuck? Hi, Chuck,’ I love that. That’s the reason I did this.” That’s not the reason I did this, but I fucking love it when someone comes up to me and tells me they appreciate anything I’ve done. I’m not going to pretend it doesn’t feel good. [Laughs]
I was reading some older interviews you did when [PRF debut album] 7 came out, and you said you were already gearing up for the next Puerto Rico Flowers album and writing songs. What happened to those plans?
A second child. [Laughs] And you know, I did kind of lose interest in Puerto Rico Flowers. I was writing songs that were really guitar-based, and oddly enough, none of the songs I wrote for the second PRF record ever became Dark Blue songs.
I was going to ask you about that. I was listening to the last Puerto Rico Flower song, “No Tomorrow,” and I was thinking that I could see how you were starting to get into the Dark Blue mindset. So, it’s interesting how you see such a split between the two.
Right? That’s also why I think I lost interest in Puerto Rico Flowers. If you hear to the Dark Blue shit, it sounds nothing like [Puerto Rico Flowers], and if you listen to the last Puerto Rico Flowers stuff, it sounds nothing at all like PRF. I think it might have been an exercise I needed to fulfill, and that’s it. I mean, here I am talking about music from my childhood. I think it’s something I needed to externalize before I could move on.
There’s a planned cassette release of Puerto Rico Flowers' discography in December. Do you like that this entire project has been crystallized into one complete release?
It’s a nice thing. It’s kind of like bookending the project, adding some closure to it. I can’t even tell you whose idea it was. It might have been Sean Gray’s, it might have been mine. But it’s not a bad thing to have it all collected into one place, and it’s only on cassette, so, what —15 people are going to hear it? It’s cool to have everything collected in one thing. I will be honest with you: I am happy to never think about Puerto Rico Flowers again. Not because I have bad feeling about it or anyone involved, but it’s just fucking old. I don’t give a shit about it anymore. I want to play these songs one more time with my friends, make hundreds of dollars and go fucking home.
It’s done. Finito. Completion. [Laughs]