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YEAR OF THE SPIDER: An Interview with Shannon & the Clams

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Although Shannon and the Clams’ new album was completed shortly before COVID-19 seized the globe, it wasn’t forged free of tumult.

In 2019, Shannon Shaw, the Clams’ magnetic front woman, was driven from her Oakland apartment by a persistent peeping tom. Later, on the eve of the Clams’ tour with Greta Van Fleet and The Black Keys, Shaw discovered that her father had been diagnosed with cancer. The Clams were then confronted by Nashville’s tear of a tornado, shortly after recording “Year of the Spider” with The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach. Months later, a rash of wildfires ravaged Shaw’s hometown of Napa. And then, of course, the pandemic took the reins.

In late August, I spoke with Shaw and Cody Blanchard, the Clams’ guitarist and contributing vocalist. In an effort to sidestep the haunted year in the rearview, we discussed their new album, latest reads, current obsessions, and the Burger Boogaloo situation.

Shannon and the Clams are, from left, drummer Nate Mahan, vocalist/guitarist Cody Blanchard, vocalist/bassist Shannon Shaw and vocalist/keyboardist Will Sprott. (Photo courtesy Kristen Cofer/Easy Eye Sound)

What is it like to take these privately-divined songs to the stage for the first time? 

Cody Blanchard: It’s pretty fun. I think it’s pretty exciting. When we’re writing, and even when we’re in the studio, you don’t really get to play it for fun. It’s serious, and you’re trying to get stuff done. But when you get to play it live a bunch of times, it becomes way more fun. You get to hear how it actually turns out. It’s more relaxed.

Shannon Shaw: Is it? You think it’s more relaxed the first time we play it live? No way. We are so opposite, me and Cody. We’re a good yin and yang. For me, it’s the ultimate test. You are watching the audience and seeing how they feel about a song they’ve never heard before, seeing if they love it. It can be really hard because if you don’t know a song and you’re hearing it for the first time, you as the audience member are taking it in. You’re probably not going to immediately be crowdsurfing and singing along. So it can be kind of a tense moment, but definitely thrilling if people are responding to it. A lot of the time, when you’re recording, the way it comes across in a recording doesn’t translate live. It can be a little bit of either tweaking the song to make it translate live, or you have to cut things you thought were gonna be awesome live from the set. For me, it’s a little scary.

Shannon, I heard that you’re leaving the Bay. Any Oakland haunts that you’ll miss?

SS: I’ll miss everything. Luckily, my brothers still live in Oakland, and my parents still live in the Bay Area, so I’ll still be around a lot. It hurt to leave. It’s definitely where I got my start. I don’t know if I would’ve been in any other city, who knows if the stars would have aligned enough to be here now.

Where are you living now?

SS: I live in Portland now. I moved in October.

How are you liking Portland?

SS: It’s really beautiful. Something I like about Portland that feels really different from Oakland is that it feels like country vibes inside of a city. I’m from the country, so I like a slow pace and friendliness on the streets. People stop and let you cross the street, almost to an annoying degree sometimes, where I’m not even close to the corner, but all the cars will stop and I feel all this stress. In Oakland, you just cross the second that you can.

How has the backdrop of the Bay Area informed your writing? Would you consider it a contributing character of sorts? 

SS: I feel like living in Oakland was a time when I met a lot of people and was inundated in various scenes where people were really open to different kinds of people and different kinds of experimentation. So I always felt comfortable trying new things.

When I moved to Oakland, that was the first time where I was around different people than who I grew up with, where I felt free to be myself, and felt free to explore. So, in that way, I felt like it gave me a confidence that I never had before. I feel like Oakland’s always been really supportive of us. I feel like they’ve supported every album, and nothing ever sounds the same. Every album is like a graduation, and has new influences and a new vibe. But they all need each other. Every album needs each other.

How does “Year of The Spider” distinguish itself from your previous work?

CB: As far as the studio and production, I think we were ready to do kind of the same thing we did on Onion, but do it better and faster, and be more relaxed because we knew the program already. We had already been in that studio. For me, for songwriting, I’ve just been getting more and more attracted to disco and glam, but also really dark, old folk music, like Appalachian folk music. So that was stuff I was more interested in doing, versus being really entrenched in this 60’s pop stuff that we’ve been doing for a long time.

SS: In general, we are always trying to experiment more. If you don’t, you’re kind of dead in the water. You should always be exploring new avenues, trying new sounds, expanding your taste in music.

CB: But Shannon and I have gotten into really different stuff. She talks about Lee Hazlewood a lot as inspiration for this record. I feel like Shannon has been listening to more old South American pop stuff.

Photo courtesy Perry Shall.

How did you connect with Dan Auerbach [of The Black Keys]?

CB: We worked with Dan on the last record also, Onion. I think someone just turned him onto the band at some point many years ago. The first time we heard about it, we were in Australia playing a festival, and the guy who set it up was like, “Hey, you guys know that the reason we brought you out here is because Dan Auerbach told us that we had to listen to this band, and that we had to get them out for this festival.” And then, a couple years later, Shannon did her solo record at his studio. He brought in all these Nashville musicians to play on it, which was cool.

How did the trials of the last two years influence your writing process? 

SS: That’s basically how I write. I have to write from personal experiences, and I think that that’s a gift to be able to take a ton of horrible stuff back-to-back and find a way to turn that straw into gold. I know that sounds cheesy, but I’m so grateful that I’ve found a way to do that. I don’t know what else I would do if I was just filling up with all this shit all the time.

Which tracks off of the new album are you particularly excited to play live?

SS: I’m really excited about the first track, “Do I Wanna Stay.” I think it could be really cool live. It also could be one that doesn’t translate live, but I think it’ll be really cool and dramatic. I’m imagining opening with that song, and then the next song being a real thrasher.

CB: Yeah, I think that’s gonna be really fun to play.

SS: I think “Midnight Wine” will be fun.

CB: I’m excited to play “Snakes Crawl.” It’s slow and spooky and we don’t really have songs like that. Our live sets are usually so upbeat and high energy. I think it’d be cool to have this really low, spooky energy.

What were you listening to during the 2020 isolation period?

SS: I know that we both independently listened to a lot of Bee Gees in the last several years. And then watching the documentary was such good timing. I feel like the Bee Gees have so many moments, so many different types of songs. Like in the 80’s, everyone hated disco. Even when I was a little kid, disco got made fun of all the time, and now I love disco. But it’s also not just disco. They have such a wide array of sounds and songs.

CB: Yeah, that disco period was a really narrow slice of their career, but that was when they were the hottest. That was their most lasting sound. I got into a lot of atmospheric stuff, because I was just doing a lot of sitting around in my house. But I think I, like a lot of other people, got really into Hiroshi Yoshimura. It’s such a weird story. He was this ambient artist in the 80’s from Japan. For some reason, the YouTube algorithm kept churning out his albums and recommending them to people, and no one’s sure why, exactly. But they’re rad. There’s that whole story on Spin about it. But I really like his music. It’s weird, atmospheric, ambient stuff. Then he has some records that are played entirely on a Fender Rhodes electric piano, and he gets a lot of cool sounds out of it. I never really cared about ambient, atmospheric music before, but I’m finding stuff that I like in the last year and a half.

What have you been reading?

SS: I’ve been reading a lot of cheesy detective murder mysteries from Reese Witherspoon’s book club. [Cackles.] I’ve been reading a lot of that, but I’m also reading cool stuff. I’ve been trying to read more biographies. I’m reading Roger Miller’s biography, and I’m reading a Paul McCartney biography. I’m so drawn to true crime and mysteries and thrillers, but it’s good to take a break and remember the other side of my life, which is music and learning how other people get their ideas, and record, and things that they’ve gone through. I should be doing that a lot more. Fiction is such a good escape, though. It’s a break from your own mind.

CB: I usually read a lot of fiction, but I haven’t in the last year and a half. I read Sapiens, which I cannot recommend highly enough. I researched more about it, and apparently [Yuval Noah Harari] doesn’t have any original research in there, but he curated all of this existing research about the history of humans over the last 70,000 years. He’s curated it in this really palatable, awesome way. It’s a really long book, but it’s riveting, in my opinion. I keep telling everyone to read it and I can’t get anyone to read it because it’s so long. And then I’ve been reading Extraordinary Popular Delusions and The Madness of Crowds, which is a book by this Scottish guy [Charles MacKay] written in the 1800’s. It’s these studies about moments when societies–mostly European societies–were gripped by some kind of weird, society-wide madness. There’s one about stock market stuff that happened in France that preceded the French Revolution. It’s really interesting, and surprisingly readable for being written by a Scot in the 1800’s. Knowing that, I would assume it would be a very different kind of English.

It seems like it’d be applicable to now..

CB: It’s really applicable to now. Same thing with Sapiens. It was really illuminating with a lot of social issues that are going on right now.

Any thoughts on Burger Boogaloo rebranding as Mosswood Meltdown

SS: Yeah. It’s so hard to know what the right move is. I think a lot of hard lessons have been learned in the last couple of years, and I think that, big picture-wise, it’ll all be better.

CB: We know Mark [Ribak], the guy who organizes that festival. Burger Records had very little to do with that festival. It was just co-branding. Mark has been doing different festivals for over 10 years. He didn’t really have any hand in [the Burger Records scandal]. It was just a cross-promotion. But during that period, right when Burger shut down, we were in the mix. It was really crazy. Regarding the Meltdown [rebranding], the [Burger] label doesn’t exist anymore, so [the festival] can’t be associated with it. But that’s all [Mark] does. I feel like that’s all he knows how to do – put on music festivals. [Laughs.] That’s all he’s gonna be able to do.

What’s next for you guys, creatively and otherwise? 

SS: The last few months we’ve just been getting ready for this record to come out. We’ve done back-to-back video content. We started a Patreon, since we were outta work for the last couple years, so Cody and I have been making a lot of stuff for that. We’ve also been working on a podcast. It’s not out yet, but we’re gonna have an interview podcast.

CB: Yeah, we’ve made 5 episodes so far.

Who will you be interviewing?

CB: We have a big list.

SS: So far it’s gonna be other musicians, and we have some friends who have big podcasts. We have Brace Belden from TrueAnon. We have some local celebs.

CB: We’re trying to talk to Greg Cartwright from Reigning Sound and the Oblivians.

SS: We have something lined up with Elle King and Doug Martsch [of Built to Spill]. It’s a star-studded list of interviewees. We’re just asking things we wanna know. Cody and I have compiled this list of 30 questions about awkward moments in your life.

CB: Yeah, it’s basically about embarrassing shit from your childhood or teen years. We don’t really talk about anyone’s career or art. That’s really easy to find. We started curating a list of questions that people always have an interesting answer for. Our keyboard player, Will [Sprott], really wanted us to write another album in quarantine, but we just couldn’t make it happen. I don’t know why. I think we were just on major vacation mode since we didn’t have to tour.

SS: I also didn’t feel ready to write it because I feel like I need the catharsis of getting this album out. We also live in different states and cities. It’s just hard. I didn’t have any emotional content to write about yet.

CB: We’ve been practicing some of our new stuff. We did a livestream with a bunch of new songs. It was surprisingly good for just acoustic guitar. But I feel like we should have a juicier answer. We’ve just been so out of money from not touring. I’ve burned through everything I’ve saved, so I’ve just been hustling, trying to make money.

SS: I’ve been doing a lot of painting. I got to go to an artist residency in Seaview, Washington at this really amazing place called the Sou’wester. It’s like a vintage trailer park. I was there for 5 nights and just got to do a body of work. I need to have an art show.

What’s it like doing a solo album versus working together as a band?

SS: It was really hard for me. I think I am so comfortable working with Cody and Nate and Will. But Cody’s the first person I show my raw, vulnerable songs to before I feel comfortable showing them to anyone else. So it was hard to take a big group of really raw music to Dan [Auerbach], who I met briefly once, and sit with him in his fantastic studio and bare all. That was really hard. I didn’t have the people I’m used to leaning on, who I’m really comfortable collaborating with and being myself with. It was a good learning experience, though. It really tested my self-esteem and my feelings of value and self-worth. It ended up being a fantastic experience, and I learned a lot. But I love working with the Clams.

CB: Doing solo stuff, I can really go into a rabbit hole and get really obsessive. I record and mix my solo stuff myself, so it’s pretty easy to get really lost. But I like having total control over every part of it. I think doing solo stuff has made it easier to do group stuff. I have this contrast of doing solo stuff for me as I’m controlling every single part of it and getting the exact final sound, but when I’m writing band stuff I have to be more open to whatever happens to it. Especially working with a producer, and working with Dan, because he likes to cut songs up and rearrange them. So you have to be free with it.

Any current obsessions? 

CB: I’ve been pretty obsessed with this band, The Stylistics, for like two years. It’s all really slow, weird, trippy stuff. They’re pretty excellent. They have a couple of songs that you’ve definitely heard, but they’re not a household name, like The Delfonics, or something. You can go deep on their first few records. They’re so rad all the way through. I was like, “Why is this band so cool and weird-sounding?” I was researching it, and for the first 10 years of their career they worked with this weird producer named Thom Bell. He was responsible for a huge part of their sound, the psychedelic, groovy part of it. I guess they were just an average vocal group, and they were trying to get a record deal, and they finally got one but couldn’t get a record made. Then the label got this guy, Thom Bell, to come in and he totally reworked the group and made it really cool.

SS: Have you guys heard Chubby Checker’s psychedelic album? It’s good. It’s called “Chequered!

Shannon and the Clams will perform at The Fillmore on January 7, 2022.

Buy tickets to the upcoming show HERE.

Excerpts from this story were originally published at LocalNewsMatters.org and Thought-Rot.net.

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Lydia Sviatoslavsky

Lydia Sviatoslavsky

Lydia Sviatoslavsky covers culture and curiosities for Bay City News and Broke-Ass Stuart. She publishes artist interviews and experimental writing at thought-rot.net. You can find her on Instagram at @rot_thought.

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