Shannon And The Clams: Interview
“I like to keep it simple. Simple in the sense of not putting tons of work into forcing something to be polished.”
It’s impossible to describe Shannon And The Clams, featuring Shannon Shaw on bass and shared lead vocals, without at some point referencing John Waters. Their oeuvre is so fully steeped in his style of heightened, grotesque 60s nostalgia that their press shots could double as screenshots from Cry Baby or Hairspray. As their official bio (by fellow Oakland garage rock kids and labelmates Nobunny) on Hardly Art’s website puts it:
Calling all Hobos, Twisters, Freaks, and Geeks: pogo the crust out yr eyes, and marvel in this blindingly bright, full color 3-D world of ours. The sunsets are getting more beautiful ‘ery damn day thanks to pollution. You can order some psilocybin on the internet and watch nukes explode online all from the comfort of your own bed! Get outdoors cuz life is beautiful and everything is terrible.
The second biggest reference point for their campy aesthetic is definitely The Cramps’ B-movie motifs, though their music sounds a lot more like Smokey Robinson than psychobilly. Despite their misfit vibe, they were right at home headlining a sold-out show at the much-loved Brookyn DIY venue Death By Audio, where the walls are covered in deranged and brightly colored murals and you could spend hours reading the artsy and irreverent bathroom graffiti.
Finding Shannon in the crowded space was harder that one might think, given that their fans tend to look quite like the band themselves (I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen so many men wearing floral print outside a luau). When I did track her down, it took quite a few minutes to make our way through the crowd, as Shannon was stopped and hugged by almost every tatted and back-patched kid in the vicinity. Finally, we made our way outside and she talked to Tiny Mix Tapes about her childhood as a Mormon in rural Northern California, the Rat House of the group’s new album title (Dreams in the Rat House), and the time she and her bandmates kicked some Alabama jocks’ well-deserving asses.
Who are your favorite up and coming artists from the Oakland scene?
I really love Cool Ghouls. They’re incredible. They have a lot of harmonies like The Allman Brothers or the Grateful Dead. I like them because they actually sing, you know? And it’s cool to see dudes doing such great harmonies because it’s really rare in this genre these days. I also love Buffalo Tooth, they’re great.
Do you feel like there’s a unified aesthetic going on in the scene there, or are you all doing your own thing?
I definitely think that there is a mutual love for Oldies music, or like ’60s pop. I definitely think that’s a strong connecting thing. And also for homemade recordings, that’s a big part of it too, for building layers by hand and putting out a big sound.
What makes you interested in making music so heavily influence by girl groups and doo wop? Do you worry about sounding “new,” or is that not important to you?
I think I just can’t help but make that kind of music. I was basically brought up on that kind of music. I was raised Mormon so my parents were pretty strict about what kind of stuff we could listen to. But it was a lot of Oldies. Oldies were always on; that was what everyone could agree on, but my mom also loved some bad new country, like in the ’80s. But I think that the Oldies sound of the early ’60s really touched me as a kid, because I think the way people did those vocals, they were really emoting, I really felt something from that. I definitely feel like when I listen to something like “Angel Baby,” Rosie, from Rosie And The Originals, isn’t the best singer, but I feel like, you can feel that she means what she’s singing about, and I feel like that’s something that’s been sort of lost in music.
There are all sorts of angles to that — I know that a lot of the singers from that time didn’t write those songs. That really blew my mind when I found that out, because I thought they felt so much because they wrote the shit they were singing about. And it really blew my mind when I found out they didn’t write it, because if they didn’t write it how could they tap into that genuine emotion? But now I realized that the stuff I really like is still coming from a genuine place. I think you can really feel the difference between someone who’s really feeling it and someone who is singing it nicely and beautifully. I feel like the pop singers today who are on the radio and MTV and stuff, they’re great singers, but do they mean what they’re singing about? I think it’s so rare these days. So I just think that that’s what naturally comes out of me when I write about stuff.
She went up to them and was like, “Don’t you be mean to Shannon!” and the big dude, who started the whole thing, knocked her out. So I went crazy.
Your lo-fi sound seems like an important part of your music, to me a least. How important, do you feel, is the lo-fi quality of your recordings, or is that done out of necessity?
I like to keep it simple. Simple in the sense of not putting tons of work into forcing something to be polished. Simple like raw. Like I would rather something sound raw than polished. You were asking me also about whether I was worried about sounding new? I just try to not think in time periods even though it’s easy to say my favorite stuff is Oldies, that’s just true, and I love ’80s punk too. I don’t, when I write a song, sit down and say “I want to make this song sound like it’s from 1964.”
So it’s not like, nostalgia, for you?
I’m sure it’s all interwoven in my brainhole. Like, what feels right. For me it always goes back to these certain shadows of Oldies songs that I love. But I sometimes get stressed about other new bands, that people are like, “Oh, this new girl group like Shannon And The Clams,” I hate being put next to certain other artists. And I shouldn’t say who they are but I really hate being compared to these other people who probably also like Oldies but I really feel like its’ a really different thing. And I’m the only girl in the fucking band…
So it’s not really a girl group.
Yeah. It’s just easier. I shouldn’t be annoyed. It’s just easier to explain it that way.
What was it like filming [Hunx’ web show] Hollywood Nailz, and is another episode in the works?
Well I was only in one little scene. It was so fun. I wore jeans on camera which I don’t… it’s weird seeing myself, I looks so different than I feel. I’m wearing a long sleeve shirt and a weird little wig. But it was really really fun playing a character. And it was really scary, because Miss Shannon, the trans woman that was on the panel, HATED me. We had never met before then and I was so fucking polite to her — I don’t get it, but she hated my guts. And she had a whip and was like whipping me and throwing shit at me? And telling me she hoped I fucking died? While I was lip-syncing to “I’ve Got The Power,” I could hear her being like, “She should just fucking die.” Like, what the? Me? What did I do? She was just straight-up harassing me. It’s rare I’ve been told I should die. But it was fun. That crew of people… are so fucking creative and smart and interesting resourceful people. So it’s a pleasure to get to work with them. I hope I get to be in the next one, we’ll see! They live in L.A. though, so it’s a little hard.
Do you consider yourself a political band? If so what are your politics?
That’s a sticky question. I don’t consider us a political band. But we definitely have a lot of strong beliefs and feelings about things, and will absolutely not work with people we think are pieces of shit. We don’t want to work with people who don’t have respect for others. I just think that’s a general thing; it’s not quite political. But I’m not like against people who are in political bands. There are so many sides to every story and so many angles. I just know the things I won’t put up with and I won’t let people put up with. We’ve definitely gotten in some major fights with people on tour… who’ve tried to do mean stuff to us. That’s so vague. We fought a bunch of jocks… me and the drummer who just quit the band. We got in a brawl with like 10 jocks.
Like a physical brawl?
Yes, a physical fight.
Yeah. It was crazy.
Did you guys win?
Kind of… basically they were harassing me. I was by myself loading gear after we played a show in Alabama, and these like 10 dudes, football/college guys, were making fun of me for being fat. And talking about how white trash I was, and how they were gonna go rape me in my white-trash van, and I was going to like it because no one likes someone who looks like me. And I was trying to ignore it because there were so many of them. But I just can’t, I just can’t ignore that kind of shit. So I walked by and was like, “What’s your guys’ problem? Do you really think that rape is funny? How did you want me to react to these jokes?” and they just couldn’t even own it. Some of them were like, “Ew we wouldn’t rape you you’re too fucking fat,” and then some of them were like, “We never said that, you’re just disgusting and desperate.” Anyway, as soon as another dude, the drummer, came out and was like, “What’s going on?” they jumped up and started screaming at us and it was this big screaming match, and I tried to go inside because it was getting too crazy, and this really sweet 18-year-old fan of ours, this tiny girl, was like, “Oh you guys were so great tonight, why are you so upset?” and I was like, “There are these dudes being assholes out there, and I can’t do anything about it, there’s too many of them,” and she marched out there, all wasted, and I was like, “Don’t go out there!” but she went up to them and was like, “Don’t you be mean to Shannon!” and the big dude, who started the whole thing, knocked her out.
So I went crazy. By that time, there was a ton of people. I basically crowd surfed across a bunch of people and started choking him. Then I got my shirt ripped off by one of these jocks, and his girlfriend was punching me in the face over and over… but she was really weak so it didn’t really do anything. And I just blacked out with rage. I cannot stand for that kind of abuse. People like that should be destroyed. It got way crazier, but we don’t have to go into that. All I’ll say is that me, and the drummer, and the merch guy were covered in crazy ass bruises the next day, which were really funny. Don’t get me wrong, it’s probably going to translate really weird into writing, but it was a funny, interesting experience. I kind of have an interest in seeing how disgusting certain people can be.
Where did you get the name of your album, Dreams In The Rat House? It reminds me of Kristin Hersh’s (of Throwing Muses) book, Rat Girl.
It’s got a double meaning. There’s a book called Dreams In The Witch House by H.P. Lovecraft.
I definitely didn’t think that I was the type of person who would be allowed, accepted, or able to play music, and I think everyone should know they are able and it’s possible for them to play music or really do fucking anything…
Oh yeah, I saw a play version of that once, it was really cool.
Oh you saw it as a play? I couldn’t imagine what that’d be like. So it’s delicately touching on that idea. And so, I grew up on a farm, and we had this house on our property, called the Rat House. During the 1906 earthquake people were displaced from their homes, so they built these things called earthquake houses, littered all over the Bay Area, and we had one on our property. By the time we moved in, my dad bought it in like 1978, it was all dilapidated and scary, in the ’70s it was a meth lab and blew up so there was a hole in the roof, it was crazy.
Anyway, we called it the Rat House, because my parents would fill it full of storage that no one cared about, so it was all fucked up and rotting in there, and like, our oldest brother Jason, who was so cool and we worshiped him, he was 13 years older than me, and him and all his friends would like read porn out there and shoot BB guns into the walls, like at pictures of people they hated, and like, smoked pot and cigarettes and drink beer, and we would watch them through the windows and we thought they were so cool, and then we would try to sneak in during the day, during high school and found dead cats in there and stuff. So it was just like this amazing, scary, cool thing that we kind of fetishized as our future place to hang out. By the time we were adults it wasn’t really there anymore, now it’s like this cute cottage, my other brother moved into with his wife. But I guess it’s this weird, nightmareish, fantastical, memory from my childhood, the Legend of the Rat House, I have nightmares about it all the time, it weaves its way into my dreams constantly.
Well if you ever read Rat Girl, Hersh lived in Massachusetts in what she called the Rat House, and it’s where she started having bipolar episodes and hearing things, and it’s where she started hearing Throwing Muses songs in her head.
What! Whoa, that’s nuts. That’s awesome.
I get a kind of apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic vibe from you guys. Is that intentional? Are you optimistic about the future?
I am just generally optimistic all the time about everything. And I am not afraid of the future, and I also just don’t think about it. Because I’m afraid of making assumptions or fantasizing that I’m gonna be somewhere, and I don’t want to be disappointed. So I just keep an open mind and enjoy every single second, right now. You know, I never thought about it having an apocalyptic feel, but that doesn’t surprise me. I mean, we’re really influenced by certain fantasy stories and fairy tales, and Aesop’s Fables and old Disney stuff, and I feel like a lot of that has this insanely dark endless pain and sadness that is hard to articulate, which I sort of associate with how I was raised to think about the apocalypse or hell as a little Mormon kid, and I really associate my same fearful feelings of that kind of stuff. Or like, do you know The Little Matchstick Girl, that story? Just read it, the darkness from that story is so traumatizing as a little kid, it gives me that same feeling of like hopelessness, nothing you can do.
You’re playing the Brooklyn DIY venue Death By Audio tonight. Have you played here before?
The first time we ever played in New York was here, I’m so happy to be back here! Eden [who runs Death By Audio] is such a legend.
Do you think it’s important to play all ages/DIY venues? Is it worth dealing with the problems these venues present?
I do, I really do. Sometimes I get really annoyed at all-ages shows. Like there are rules sometimes about what I can do, like I can’t drink, or I can’t this or that, and if it’s all ages there are a lot of my friends who are adults who might not want to go, and that might bug me, but at the same time, those are the shows I want to play. They’re the funnest, when people are not afraid to express themselves, not worried about what people think of them. It’s funny because in a way, that age, like when I was a teen, I was terrified by what other people thought of me. But when I think of all-ages shows, there’s a certain mindset that I feel like brings all kinds of people together, and [kids] can’t stop expressing themselves, can’t stop oozing their joy at whatever, you know? So I love it.
Where I grew up, there was nothing to do ever. There were no all-ages shows. I can remember the three concerts I went to as a kid growing up in Napa and believe me, they weren’t fun or cool or anything. And so I do think it’s important that kids and anybody are finally included, that they can get a taste of what options there are in the world. When I was in Napa, growing up, there was nothing like that. I definitely didn’t think that I was the type of person who would be allowed, accepted or able to play music, and I think everyone should know they are able and it’s possible for them to play music or really do fucking anything, so I do think it’s important.