SHANNON AND THE CLAMS: TRANSPORTATION TO ELSEWHERE
illustration by bijou karman
For the conspiracy theorist and/or dedicated pop culture spelunker, the lineage of Shannon and The Clams’ meat-ground prom-gone-wrong party anthems may be traced back to some far darker origins. It was disgruntled child-actor turned black magic gossip guru-magoo Kenneth Anger who was the first to use 50s/60s oldies music in ironic and unsettling contexts in his disturbing experimental films, and he then influenced the Kuchar Brothers who quickly influenced the Pope Of Trash John Waters, whom the Clams have been conjoined with as a constant reference point mascot. Clearly, it is natural to see the Clams as the most up-to date surfacing of this twisted sentiment. In fact, you could say that any Clams record is a grand cinematic supercut of the all the best parts of every oldies song you’ve ever loved. Their new album Gone By The Dawn marks an interesting turning point for the group, a maturing of their signature kitsch that at times may have softened a misunderstood, wailing catharsis. Now we see them feeling confident enough to let their bleeding hearts glisten in the open. My own group Jail Weddings could be easy contemporaries to the Clams, as we began around the same time in 2007 with similar intentions of bringing a modern mutation to oldies while exposing the writhing serpent hidden within it, so we had many parallels in our respective reality tunnels when we spoke. Gone By The Dawn is out now and they perform on Wed., Sept. 23, at the El Rey. This interview by Gabriel Hart.
You recently played Burger Boogaloo, where John Waters was the host. Did you get to meet him? What was it like—especially considering he’s always used as a reference point when people talk about the band?
Shannon Shaw (vocals, bass): It was great meeting him. I was super intimidated and scared, and sort of avoided him, but he summoned me and kissed me on the cheek and told me I was beautiful and asked me how I was so tan. He was very gentlemanly and elegant all while being just as hilarious and crass as you would ever expect. He really knows how to zero in and make you feel good, especially if he can smell that you’re nervous. He and I hung out during the entirety of the Black Lips show and man, he was joking and being so effing funny the whole time but I clammed up—no pun intended—and I could not relax or for the life of me be my self. No charm or good jokes came from me. Just this agreeable meek version of Shannon that only came out when I was still Mormon, or when I’m taking a class for the first time at the gym or am having social anxiety! I hope he saw through it …
The best bands, in my opinion, are not the ones that just bang out the chords and melody but the ones that offer an invitation to a whole alternate universe they’ve created. What kind of world are Shannon and the Clams beckoning us to?
Shannon Shaw: I hope that we have a created a world where people feel like if they wanna do it they can. I’ve been telling any person lately who tells me ‘I wish I could be in a band’ or ‘I wish I could dress like that’ or ‘I wish I could sing’—I’ve been saying, ‘If you want to play music you CAN and you SHOULD.’ I didn’t even start singing or playing bass till I was 25 for crissakes! And no one made me do it. I just really wanted to. It was really hard and really rewarding and I am so glad I did. We have really created the kind of music that we wanna hear and I strongly believe that if you want to do it, you can. So the world we have created is one where you can do anything, be anything, look anyway, and feel good. It’s cheesy but it’s true.
You’re obviously inspired by oldies music—it’s of course antiquated pop music, but it possesses an inherent dementia that no other genre can claim—I always imagine a bunch of girls wielding knives when I hear ‘I Will Follow’ by Little Peggy March. Where do Shannon and The Clams fit in?
Shannon Shaw: I’m drawn to this era of music for a few reasons. First off, it’s mostly what I grew up listening to. A lot of music from that time is seriously emoting. Whether it’s embarrassingly vulnerable, heart-pouring-out borderline pathetic and definitely desperate, or a full-on loss of control complete with ‘had it up to here and I can’t take it anymore!’ voice cracks—Etta James, Little Richard, Timi Yuro—they hit home.
The singer can have all the range in the world, but if there’s no pain in the voice, it’s just not convincing enough for me as a listener—or even as a fellow human.
Shannon Shaw: It’s like their display of emotion and desperation and absolute emotional breakdown is sort of sweet release for the viewer or listener. We’ve all felt this way but for someone to be willing to use their raw power and pain and display it … it gives all us shy guys a silent cathartic passage to relief—or to understanding. You get to live through them and take a break from your own reality yet it can help work your own shit out. Like watching E.T. or Stand By Me or Dumbo, or reading Murakami or Steinbeck or Lord of the Flies, looking at those Dust Bowl portraits or smelling your grandma’s scarf and your great-grandpa’s leather book and feeling the handle of your dad’s old hammer. It’s a transportation to elsewhere.
The last time we played San Francisco it seemed like the whole city had changed —there were all of a sudden no cool bands to play with and we got stuck having some Alanis Morrisette cover band opening for us. A lot of the heavy hitters and lightning rods of the scene had scattered like roaches, either priced out of the city or just disgusted with what it had become. Do you see Oakland falling victim to this? Do you feel cornered, like this real estate class war is just inevitable everywhere? What is still cool about San Francisco?
Shannon Shaw: It’s really a weird time in the Bay Area like it is in other places due to cost of living and the hand-in-hand effect of gentrification. I actually think this affects many aspects of life aside from housing and leaks into other places like the arts. Many bands I knew are gone to L.A., disbanded or got ‘real’ jobs. I think the bands left just have a huge divide between them now, kind of like the citizens of Oakland. It’s currently tons of wealth and tons of poverty, and with the bands, it’s either tiny bands struggling to start anew or hanging onto threads of the old scene, or huge bands that were not as affected by the economy change. There are barely any middle buddies left! They all went to L.A. where it’s more affordable. I will say that there’s tons of cool stuff bubbling up. The punk scene in Oakland is always rad and scary and creative and ever-changing. There’s nothing like it.
What is the worst thing about being in a modern band compared to how it was even ten years ago? Let’s dig deeper than just saying ‘the internet.’
Shannon Shaw: I can only speak from personal experience and the only thing that comes to mind is seeing other bands we love that started at the same time getting torn apart and dissipating from drugs or moving to L.A.—no thanks to the San Francisco tech boom. Also, back to the economy thing, warehouses were what made the Oakland scene—and other scenes—super special and now it feels like that time has ended. Venue options in Oakland have really dwindled down to nuttin’, honey. The bigger things get, the more rules you have to follow, and that is not easy for me to get used to.
Gone By The Dawn and the new single ‘Corvette’ seems a little more heart-on-sleeve without the Clams’ usual liberal dose of camp. What inspired this?
Shannon Shaw: Believe it or not, I try and steer clear from kitsch and camp! Other than the fact that Cody and I are accidentally living cartoons, All my records have been honest and open and a roller coaster, even if the lyrics are not typically a literal reflection of the true story. This album is a departure in that sense. It shows flashes of agony and a pinch of rage, but mostly understanding and letting go, and just being OK with sitting inside of these painful moments and looking around a bit. I don’t know if I could ever write music from a purely camp point of view. My songs always come from a real place even if they turn out with a sense of humor or sarcasm. This album is just more concentrated.
Do you see yourself as doing all this because it feels like an emergency—that you could be doing nothing else? There are some artists that do what they do as a ‘hobby,’ and others who would be hardened criminals if they didn’t have this chance to express themselves.
Shannon Shaw: I do feel like I have to do this. Since I was a kid I always had a creative outlet and really needed it to just get by. Anytime I would get in trouble or be devastated or have serious family troubles, I would lock myself in my room and make up songs about my plights or draw tons of pictures. I wish I kept them all because they would be hilarious now. I remember one time when all three of my brothers were picking on me and I got sent to my room, I drew for hours this comic of me as a karate master taking turns beating up each brother. They were super-detailed and I would include lots of little digs like my brother had a long pony tail at the time, so I would put a little bow in his hair because I knew he would hate that, or my little brother I would always give him stink lines, flies and lice. I get the same rush of matched stimulation, then vindication and release that I do when something happens to me and I get in my car and speed up into the mountains screaming lyrics or moaning melodies till they become song scraps. The creation process is cathartic, as most people know. I don’t know how I would deal if I didn’t have any type of creative outlet. Maybe I would be a boxer? Or a knife thrower!
SHANNON AND THE CLAMS PERFORM ON WED., SEPT. 23, AT THE EL REY THEATRE, 5515 WILSHIRE BLVD., LOS ANGELES. 9 PM / $20 / ALL AGES. GOLDENVOICE.COM. AND ON FRI., SEPT. 25, AT THE CONSTELLATION ROOM AT THE OBSERVATORY, 3503 S. HARBOR BLVD., SANTA ANA. 8 PM / $12 / ALL AGES. SHANNON AND THE CLAMS’ GONE BY THE DAWN IS OUT NOW ON HARDLY ART. MORE AT SHANNONANDTHECLAMS.COM.