Shannon and the Clams
Shannon and the Clams’ Uncanny Melodies
Shannon and the Clams’ approach to rock ‘n’ roll falls under the catch-all heading of garage rock, or garage pop, or maybe even garage punk. It’s rough, but catchy, and directly inspired by early rock ‘n’ roll. But the Oakland, California trio is a good example of how much diversity there is under the latter day garage heading.
Vocalist and bassist Shannon Shaw can sing like a ferocious and wounded animal or like an archetypal blowsy rock ‘n’ roll seductress. But mostly she sings like Roy Orbison. She sang along to her Roy Orbison tape a lot growing up and it shows in her mellow and melancholy delivery.
The Clams are drummer Ian Amberson and guitarist/vocalist Cody Blanchard. The three of them write the odd straight-up punk songs together, but most songs are written by either Shaw or Blanchard. Blanchard sings with a wild, androgynous style that recalls teen idols like Frankie Valli, Del Shannon and Lou Christie – three favorites of the band. You can hear the inspiration from early ’50s pop hits mixed into their noisy punk rock and they’re right up there with Mark Sultan and Greg Cartwright for penning tunes that you could swear you heard once on an oldies station. But, more than the music of any particular era, Shannon and The Clams are inspired by weirdos.
The strange and maudlin side of artists like Christie or Orbison attracts them as much as those artists’ prodigious talents do. With Christie it’s more about the weirdness. “He can sing really beautifully and he has a really wide range, but he can also go crazy and sing so high like a chimp or something,” Shaw says of her appreciation for the man who sang “Lightnin’ Strikes.” “It’s still beautiful, but it’s comical and just fucking weird,” she concludes.
She is on the phone from a hotel room in the Peppermill “Resort Casino” in Reno, Nevada. The band is gathered there after playing a show in the café of a nearby charter high school the night before.
In the case of Roy Orbison, Blanchard and Shaw are enchanted by the unmistakable sound of pain. “Roy has a very tortured voice. Even in the upbeat songs, he sounds like he’s in emotional turmoil and he’s so uncomfortable with himself,” Blanchard says of Orbison, who reminds him of Joey Ramone. “There’s like a weird, quiet, sad beautiful thing there,” he observes about both late greats.
Shaw concurs about the ever-present anguish in Orbison’s voice and adds: “He had the most tragic life I’ve ever heard of a celebrity,” she says of the icon who lost a wife and two sons among other painful losses.
This attraction to pathos and strangeness was apparent on the Clams’ 2009 debut LP I Wanna Go Home, but it’s in full flower on their latest, Sleep Talk. The sophomore album is weirder, and louder than the first, but also more classic and filled to the brim with the kind of sorrow that can only be released in song.
Both songwriters are pretty open about what inspires them and what they’re going for. “Even more than looking for really old stuff, I like looking for really weird stuff. Even ’70s or ’60s stuff that’s just really weird. All the stuff that Joe Meek did is really good because it’s off kilter. It’s good but it’s a little bit bad and the production is really strange,” Blanchard offers. Shaw and Blanchard use the words “weird” and “strange” a lot, but trying to discuss their music without those words would be, well, a little weird. They play a kind of damaged doo-wop, where the woo-oohs and whoah-ohs sound like imps in a haunted forest. It can feel familiar and creepy at the same time. “I’m naturally inspired to do something weirder. I’m always tapping into the weird part of my brain. I don’t even think about it really,” Blanchard relates.
If you think he’s exaggerating, sit down with the lyrics to “Warlock in the Woods” or “The Woodsman.” They’re both pretty weird, but also emotionally affecting. Both songs are gory fairytales that double as metaphors for the things that turn people into monsters. The unpredictability of his vocal style imparts an extra shot of sickening horror to them. It even gives his more straightforward songs like “You Can Come Over” a similarly unsettling quality.
In interview, and in the band, Blanchard is the intense, reserved yin to Shaw’s ebullient yang. Shaw sees herself as writing more lyrically candid or “whiny” songs, as she puts it. Cody’s lyrics tend toward the dark fantasies whose meanings are partially cloaked. “He spins these wild interesting tales,” Shaw gushes. Her self-deprecation aside, the differences in their songwriting and singing makes for some really compelling musical chemistry.
A lot of Shaw’s songs have some personal event as the starting point for whatever melodramatic trajectory they might take. “The Cult Song,” off Sleep Talk, was at least partly inspired by her experience growing up Mormon. It’s a slack, Ramones-inspired stomper with the refrain “I don’t wanna be in a cult no more.”
“It’s kind of more of a stupid fun punk song about wanting to be free but, yeah, it’s also based on being Mormon and not wanting to be controlled by the Church,” she reveals. “I’m a little afraid of what my cousins and family are going to think. I kind of rip on some Mormon angels and prophets,” she adds, laughing nervously.
If Shaw will eventually have to answer for writing “The Cult Song,” at least it was a hit with the fans. In Oakland, and across the United States, Shannon and the Clams fans are very demonstrative. “The crowd that we get out is so wonderful, everyone knows the lyrics and sings along so loud and dances and knows all the parts to the songs and it’s so cool and so flattering,” the singer says. But Florida boasts the band’s favorite tour stops. “In Orlando and Gainesville I really felt like those were our people. They were like Oaklanders, a really wild, jovial, happy crowd. They’re such generous and fun and creative weirdos, which is what we’re really drawn to,” she continues. “We’re really happy, friendly people. Sometimes I feel like we’re like the Muppets on tour. They’re such a big happy, crazy crowd of different weirdos coming together, kind of like us and the kind of people I like.” she offers.
Shaw did design the album art for First Blood, the second album from fellow Oaklander Nobunny, and he practically is a Muppet. She also tours the world as a punkette/bass player in the band Hunx and His Punx. And Hunx, AKA Seth Bogart, kind of makes you wish The Muppet Show was still on so he could be one of its fabulous celebrity guests.
There’s a huge difference for Shaw between being in the Clams and being a Punkette. “I think being a Punkette is a break in a nice way. I’m not in charge, so I get to be less responsible. Hunx just wants us to have fun and be entertaining in the background, so a different part of my personality gets to come out,” she says.
Shaw wrote three of the songs on the recently released Hunx LP Too Young To Be In Love and sings on it too, while Blanchard contributed the song “Keep Away From Johnny.” A Hunx song is more fun and lighthearted than a Shannon and the Clams song, and simpler and poppier as well, leaning more in the direction of the ’60s girl group sound, which makes it an ideal outlet for the more playful/less eerie creations of Clams’ members. “Maybe it was going to be a Clams song but it was way too silly and stupid,” says Blanchard of “Keep Away From Johnny.” He adds the disclaimer, “most of my favorite music is silly and stupid, but it was way too goofy for the Clams.” (Blanchard has another outlet for silly and stupid tunes in the form of a side project called King Lollipop.)
Don’t get the wrong idea. The Clams have a pronounced silly side. All three of them appear on the cover of their debut album wearing prim frocks with bows in their hair/wigs and you don’t have to twist their arm to get them to, say, dress up as unibrowed cave dwellers for a show. According to Shaw, this is not some campy image the band is creating. They’re just being themselves. And they just happen to be a lot like the Muppets.
Indeed, the music itself could belong to a weird kids show, but one with more adult-world lonesomeness and heartache in it than even the weirdest kids show has. Like Shaw, Blanchard also appreciates entertainments made for the very young. “People don’t restrict themselves when they try to appeal to kids. They just use their imaginations and it ends up really strange,” he observes. Well, strange and sometimes wonderful – a lot like what Shannon and the Clams have achieved with their own imaginations and few restrictions outside of the weird-but-effective side of the American musical tradition as a guide.