Words by Bill Robinson
Listening to Shannon & The Clams feels a lot like flipping through a crate of old 45s. The Oakland band mix doo-wop, garage, surf, psych and a whole lot of other things I don’t have the time to list, creating a sound that’s at once nostalgic and completely refreshing.
Before they hit Mary’s Underground later this month with fellow seps Jeff The Brotherhood, we caught up with vocalist Shannon Shaw to chat about the process of nailing this sound, the unlikely wisdom of spiders, Dion, Bob Dylan, and lots more.
MARY’S: Hey, thanks for chatting with us. I’m a big fan of the band.
SHANNON: Oh rad, thank you.
MARY’S: I’m very keen for your show at Underground. Are these your first international shows since COVID?
SHANNON: Yeah, this is the first time we’ve been overseas.
MARY’S: Did you purposefully decide to come to Australia first, or was that just a logistical thing?
SHANNON: Oh no, we love Australia. Our drummer on the Australian tour is Australian. We had this booked for October 2020, then we had to move it to 2021, and here we are now. I think this is the third time it’s been booked.
MARY’S: Yeah I saw Eric Moore (King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard) is drumming on this tour. How’d you come into contact with him?
SHANNON: Him and Will, the keyboard player in The Clams, they’re buddies. Will went on tour with King Gizz and his partner’s band La Luz, they went on that King Gizz festival tour… what’s that called?
SHANNON: Yeah, Gizzfest. So they went all over Australia together for a few weeks and became good friends. We’ve bumped into him a few times at some festivals and he came out the last time The Clams played in Australia. Will thought he’d be a good person to fill in for now. He’s excited to be a Clam. He wants to dress up like us, so that’s exciting.
MARY’S: Mad, well I’d certainly hope so. I was reading about ‘Year Of The Spider’, and it kept coming up that you are (or were) an arachnophobe, so I thought Australia was an odd place for you to continue touring. Have you had any encounters with spiders while here?
SHANNON: Nothing too bad. One time at my friend’s house, she showed me a huntsman on her back wall outside. That was really scary. Then me and Cody saw an Orb-Weaver on Rottnest Island when we went to see Tame Impala a few years ago. That was pretty impressive. I am definitely still an arachnophobe but I have tons of respect for spiders. We can be in the same room, as long as they’re kind of far away. I don’t need to beg someone to remove the spider from my room.
MARY’S: I’ve heard you say before that you sometimes feel like spiders are following you. I was actually talking to someone about this recently, who’s really into receiving messages from the universe and all that… she said that if spiders keep showing up in your life, it means you need to be more patient with your craft. Because spiders are very patient craftsmen when they’re spinning their webs, apparently. Is this relevant to you?
SHANNON: Oh, yeah, for sure. That’s relevant to me. I do have to remind myself that spiders are creators. They’re just living life and they’re an important part of the ecosystem. They don’t want to scare me, they don’t want to fight me. I do think that’s a good point your friend has there. Every time there’s an urge in you to do something healthy, like having patience with your creative process, I feel like that’s a good thing to do. Take a step back, re-evaluate, find something new to do, go in a new direction. Have you ever seen those tests where they give spiders acid and take photos of the webs?
MARY’S: No, I haven’t, but it sounds wild. Are the webs hell crazy?
SHANNON: Yeah, you should check it out. It’s pretty wild. It’s just the spiders trying something different.
MARY’S: Well, on the topic of trying something different. On your new album, it feels like you’ve taken a few steps in multiple new directions. I feel like on every one of your records, you take a step in a new direction, but particularly on this album. Is that something that you and the band sit down and decide to do—like, we need to expand our sound, we need to continue exploring—or does it happen naturally?
SHANNON: Well, I think it’s a natural thing that happens, but also it’s good to get constructive criticism from one another and be encouraged to try something different. Change is good. I don’t sit down and say ‘now it’s time for me to try a disco ballad’. It’s not really like that. It’s more like we make each other mixes of new things to listen to. We try to keep inspired. Sometimes when I’m having a hard time writing a song, I’ll go do something completely different. I will learn how to play a Metallica song or I’ll work on drawings for a few days instead of painting. I try to shake things up instead of getting stuck in a loop. That can be really good. And it can be really good to show your song to someone and take some advice you’re not comfortable with. It can be a good lesson. You don’t necessarily have to keep what you did, but I feel like most of the time it’s helpful to take some advice and edit yourself.
MARY’S: When you’re taking something to the band, opening yourself up for this kind of criticism, can it get quite cut-throat?
SHANNON: There have been some songs where we’ve been at a standstill. Like there’s this song on ‘Year Of The Spider’ that Will and I did not like, but Cody liked it fine. Our issue was with a lyrical thing. But everyone else we showed it to—our label, our management, our booking agent, the producer—they were all crazy about this song. I’m sure I could’ve had my way and said ‘no it’s not going on the album’ but I’m not really like that. If I feel really strongly about something, later I’ll feel completely different about it. I feel like I judge my closest friends really harshly at first, then at some point I get really humbled and realise this person is amazing. It can be the same with a song. So I’ve come around to this song, but Will hasn’t.
MARY’S: What song was it, can I ask?
SHANNON: Yeah, it was ‘Flowers Will Return’.
MARY’S: Right. Do you play it live?
SHANNON: Nope. Maybe one day when we’re all on the same page. But generally we’re in agreement. Sometimes something happens where someone loves their part but I’m not feeling my bass line or vocal performance. They’ll be saying ‘we should play this song!’ and I’m like ‘no, maybe we should give this one a break’. We have moments like that, but generally we’re on the same page.
MARY’S: Yeah, well with a band like Shannon & The Clams, which feels like it’s got such a strong direction, was it hard to find people who shared that vision? Or was it a matter of you having the vision and conveying it in a way others could understand?
SHANNON: Yeah it took awhile to get to that place. I’m self-taught and didn’t start playing or singing until I was 25. I had no language to explain what I wanted. When I first started playing I was a solo act, playing bass at open mic nights, because I needed some kind of catharsis. I was having a hard time. None of my peers would be at these open mic nights, it was just my own weird thing that I was doing. Before he was in the band, Cody asked me to play a house party and I was too shy to do it by myself, so I assembled a band. I had no self esteem. I didn’t know how to tell them what I wanted. The first Clam—and we’re still friends—he didn’t get it. He hated oldies. He didn’t like punk but loved Sonic Youth. So what he played was very Sonic Youth and his contributions were very arty indie-rock. He didn’t get my perspective and I didn’t know how to explain it. Then we had a drummer who also didn’t get it. It worked for the first few shows, but our personalities were very different. People kept encouraging me to listen to Cody play guitar. I went over to Cody’s house and I heard him playing one of my songs, and I thought ‘he gets it. This guy gets it!’ It was very surfy but very ghosty, like Joe Meek or Phil Spector. It was exactly what I wanted. It took a few years to figure out how to explain myself with words, and I still have a hard time, but I feel like now I’m playing with people who totally get it. And Dan Auerbach, who produced the last two albums, totally gets it.
MARY’S: I’m always blown away by Cody’s guitar playing every time I listen to the records. It’s so good. Do you two have similar tastes, or does it vary a bit?
SHANNON: Our tastes do differ. I find that I get invested in a genre. I get completely obsessed with it. Whereas Cody… we’re just really different. I work really slowly, he works smarter not harder, I work harder not smarter. He’s constantly finding new stuff and getting inspired by new things that I don’t get. He’s really into Philip Glass and these Japanese composers from the 80s and Giorgio Moroder. He’s shown me things that I never would’ve found and didn’t know I would like. We’re all into slightly different stuff, but we do have a lot in common. We all love doo-wop. Will wasn’t really a punk person. He’s always been more into soul and motown and oldies. He’s like the biggest Rolling Stones fan ever, and not really a big punk person. But he still gets what we’re going for.
MARY’S: Who were some of the more left-of-field artists that inspired the new album?
SHANNON: Well, I don’t know if this would be considered left-of-field, but I’ve been really obsessed with Dion. Are you familiar with Dion?
MARY’S: Can’t say I am, no.
SHANNON: He’s from Dion & The Wanderers, Dion & The Belmonts. He’s an artist from the 1960s. He did some doo-wop and acapella stuff. He had this huge career in the late 50s and early 60s when he was a teen. Then he left his teen band and became a solo artist but was also a junky. So his music really started to change. He would go back and forth between being a sober born-again Christian, back on the wagon, back off the wagon. So his music really changed a lot throughout the years. It’s really rare you find an artist where you love their music from the 50s, the 60s, the 70s, the 80s. It’s rare. But he had an album that came out in 1975 that was a flop called ‘Born To Be With You’ that Phil Spector produced. I’ve been a fan of this album for the past couple of years. But there’s also this album that came out called ‘Kickin’ Child’, an unreleased Columbia album. So Dion was like the first rock ‘n’ roll album on the record label, which is hard to imagine now. The main dude at the time was really uncomfortable with rock ‘n’ roll. It was still nasty and creepy for squares like that. They eventually said he could record these standards but he wanted to record more experimental music. He was really inspired by The Animals’ cover of ‘House of The Rising Sun’. He loved how they took an old blues standard and turned it into this super catchy rock ‘n’ roll song with a totally different vibe. They said ‘record these standards then you can mess around for a while’. After they finished they buried all his more experimental stuff which was really more folky and much weirder than all the hits from his early days. They put it out in 2017 and it’s so good. I’ve been obsessed with that album, ‘Kickin’ Child’. All of the sad songs are really special. You should go check that out.
MARY’S: I will.
SHANNON: Actually, he’s responsible for getting Bob Dylan electrified. So Bob Dylan joined Columbia for some album, I can’t remember what it’s called. He came into the studio to do acoustic Bob Dylan stuff. But the producer was friends with Dion and Dion said ‘oh I wanna check this guy out’. So they went to his session and Dion was like ‘I wanna see this guy have electric guitar, drums, we should just experiment and see how this folk guy sounds,’ and they did it. So anyway, he’s responsible for getting Bob Dylan plugged in.
MARY’S: And then there was that infamous incident at The Newport Folk Festival where Dylan was booed off the stage…
SHANNON: Oh, what was that?
MARY’S: Dylan was playing the Newport Folk Festival, as he did pretty much every year through the early sixties, and he rocked up in 65 I think with an electric guitar and people were not happy at all. He got booed right out of the place.
SHANNON: Oh, that’s right. That’s crazy. So that’s Dion’s fault as well.
MARY’S: Yeah he’s responsible for that.
SHANNON: That’s so funny. You should get into Dion. Become a Dion-head.
MARY’S: That’s exactly what I’m going to do right after this. Are there any Australian bands you’re a fan of?
SHANNON: Oh yeah! Of course there are. Well Eric played in King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard, they’re amazing. We’re buddies with Amyl & The Sniffers. They are a great band.
MARY’S: Oh yeah, Amy is one of a kind.
SHANNON: She is so cool. I want a shirt with her face on it.
MARY’S: I think that might exist.
SHANNON: Oh cool. They’re all great performers and such nice people. I love the UV Race, I love Circle Pit, I love the Ooga Boogas. There are so many. I grew up thinking the Bee Gees were an Australian band…
MARY’S: I thought they were Australian. Are they not?
SHANNON: Uh-uh. They’re more English but they lived in Australia for a bit.
MARY’S: I feel like Australians consider the Bee Gees to be Australian. But there are a few artists like that: people who aren’t Australian that we’ve claimed as our own.
SHANNON: Like who else?
MARY’S: Well, there are a few kiwi ones… like Dragon or Crowded House. They’re both kiwi bands I think, but we’ve definitely claimed them as our own.
SHANNON: INXS are Australian right?
MARY’S: Oh yeah, two of those guys went to my high school. They’re real Australians.
SHANNON: Woah, cool. I love The Boys Next Door. I love The Scientists. Kim Salmon’s actually coming to one of our Melbourne shows.
MARY’S: Yeah well I’m so excited for these shows. And you’re playing at Underground with Jeff The Brotherhood. Do you know those guys? Or is that like a Dan Auerbach Nashville connection?
SHANNON: Well actually, funny you say that, because Dan did do a 7” when he’d just started the studio. But I go way back with Jamin. Oddly enough, there’s this amazing marionette theatre in LA called Bob Baker’s Marionette Theatre that’s been around since the 50s I think, and we hired the theatre to come do performances while we were playing, and Jamin the drummer of that band, is now a puppeteer for Bob Baker Theatre. He went to school and studied it. He knows how to perform them and restore all the different kinds. He’s a man of many talents. But yeah, we’re good buddies.
MARY’S: That’s incredible. I think I’ll be chatting to one of them tomorrow morning. If it’s Jamin I’ll ask him all about puppeteering.
SHANNON: Also, Jamin was a star in Japan as a teen. He was in some teen pop punk band or something that was huge in Japan. So he had a whole career there before Jeff The Brotherhood and before puppeteering.
MARY’S: That’s wild, what a guy. Well thanks so much for chatting, can’t wait to see the show!
SHANNON: Thanks! I’ll see you there.
Catch Shannon & The Clams + Jeff The Brotherhood playing Mary’s Underground on Thursday, July 28th. Get tickets here.