SCENE: Shannon and the Clams open up

Pub date June 23, 2010


A long version of the interview in the current issue of SCENE:

If I’m going to stay up late and go as deep as I can into the night, so far that I’m just about lost and in trouble, I want the sounds of Shannon and the Clams with me. The Oakland group’s album I Wanna Go Home (1-2-3-4-Go! Records) is packed with songs that have been there and will shine a light to lead you back into the day, while letting you have a sip or two and an adventure or three along the way. This is rock ‘n’ roll music, electric-charged by bassist Shannon Shaw’s wild wonder of a voice, guitarist Cody Blanchard’s flair for classic crooning and crying, and drummer Ian Amberson’s fierce reliability. See Shannon and the Clams live. You will believe.

SFBG Shannon, when did you start to sing for fun? What singers did you love as a kid? What kind of stuff forms what you’ve called a “rage cage,” and does singing help you break out of it?
SHANNON SHAW I have been making up songs since I could talk at the ripe age of two. The first song I remember in full came about because I was cast off to spend time in my room for being bad. There, I formed a rage cage (rage cage: an explosion of anger you can’t escape from) and sang a song that lasted the duration of my time out. The lyrics were something like: ‘I’m really a princess, and my mom doesn’t know because she’s evil, and I’m a princess, and my gramma is my real mom who is a queen and she loves me and lives in a castle…my castle, I’m a princess, where’s my castle?” Very sophisticated, eh? I think I was 4ish at the time.
My favorite singers growing up were definitely Roy Orbison, Kermit the Frog, the Mouse Girl from An American Tale, Mrs. Brisby from The Secret of N.I.M.H., Eric Burdon, George Strait, Les Claypool, Ronnie Spector, Shelley Fabares, the Supremes, and Connie Francis. I know it’s a strange combo, but it’s true.

SFBG Did you all meet at California College of the Arts? What was that experience (meeting and being there) like?
CODY BLANCHARD Yeah, I met Ian and Shannon [during] my second year there. And me and Ian lived in a big house together with 5 people, but we were always really busy with school stuff, so we didn’t even hang out much. We used to have crazy gigantic parties there — that’s where Shannon and the Clams started playing as a band. I wasn’t in the band yet, but I would listen to them practice. 
IAN AMBERSON Cody and I used to live together, but we all joined forces by way of CCA. The music my peers introduced me to had a big impact on my knowledge and taste. CCA is so small that sometimes you form relationships and exchange ideas with people at a higher rate, just by your proximity to others in a context that attempts to promote creativity.

SFBG Cody, you sing an amazing song called “Warlock in the Woods.” Can you tell me a bit about the warlock?
CB The warlock was a child whose mother didn’t want him and ditched him in the forest and tied him up with tree roots. The roots started to grow around him and tell him their secrets and poison his mind. He sort of went into a cocoon of roots, then was released decades later, very mixed-up and manipulated by the dark spirits of the forest. He took a cave as his new home and was convinced that he must capture the hearts of young children and travelers in the woods and put them inside this amulet, which the trees had given him, in order to find his way home and to be free of the forest. In the end, he realizes that all the hundreds of hearts he has taken have done nothing for him and he was still living in a cave, lost in the woods, and that he was tricked by the evil forest into doing their bidding.
I like to write songs about fantastical stuff these days, weird little stories set to song. That’s my favorite kind of song; one that tells a tiny story that you are easily able to follow just by listening.

SFBG What is your favorite item of clothing right now?
CB A rope belt.
SS A ripped-up white Adam Ant V-neck T-shirt that Seth of Hunx and His Punx gave me. While I was on tour with them in France I saw him wearing it one day and said, “I love Adam Ant, I need your shirt.” He took it off of his back and handed it to me. What a good friend! He stood there, nearly naked as a jaybird, to give me the shirt of my dreams. I wear it every Friday night if you ever wanna see it.

SFBG Whose sense of style do you admire?
CB The members of the Lollipop Guild — you know, from The Wizard of Oz. We represent the Lollipop Guild!
SS A really pleasant pie-baking mother of the ’50s, mixed with an ’80s skateboardin’ bad boy.

SFBG What do you like and not like about Oakland?
CB I love that’s it’s not too big or too busy, not overwhelming. All of the neighborhoods are really small and you can find a totally hip fancy neighborhood and then walk a few blocks and be in some scary warehouse district full of abandoned hot dog stands. I like that it’s kind of like San Francisco’s more relaxed little brother. Less freaks here, more quiet — less happening, but still tons of cool stuff. I like a place that doesn’t have too much going on.
I love that there is crazy scary Ghost Town and West Oakland, but then there’s also the Oakland hills with amazing parks like Tilden and Joaquin Miller. I generally wish there were more trees and foliage. I thrive on fauna, and I grew up in a very woodsy suburb. I love the Berkeley Bowl — I guess that’s in Berkeley.
One thing I’m on the fence about is gentrification. On one hand, I don’t like burned-out neighborhoods, but on the other, I hate really expensive stuff and excess and money as an oppressive force. And I know all that stuff is catering to people like me. It makes me feel mixed-up and bad. It sort of destroys the charm of a more naturally evolved neighborhood.
IA Oakland is just a great hub. It sort of feels like being in the middle of a giant cultural sample platter. Having places like Berkeley and San Francisco nearby is nice, while not having to live in those more demanding environments.

SFBG Where do you like to go out at night? 

CB I love movie theaters so much. Usually they’re too expensive, though. My favorite thing is when a theater plays an old movie. I’ve seen Blade Runner, El Topo, The Thing, Jurassic Park, Maximum Overdrive and a bunch of other stuff in the theater. I also love to go to the video store and rent movies. It’s way more fun than Netflix or something, because it’s impulsive and you’re not sure what to get and all these other movies or snacks can catch your eye. Or I love to be around a BBQ or a campfire. My parents have a fire pit. And if there can be fireworks too, then it’s my #1 dream. Or bicycling through the empty night. Or being in a car or a train going across the country, staring out the window.

SS If I had my choice, I would hang out in a wooded area by some railroad tracks with a boombox and a bike.I used to hand out at this old Sunsweet prune factory by train tracks in an old deserted part of downtown Napa. I loved it so much. It was super overgrown with weeds, and surrounded by foliage and abandoned factories. There was a little campfire area nearby and a perfect place to sip on a Friday night sneaky flask. I think I like the feeling of being kind of like a hobo, waiting to hop a train, or camping all hidden in the middle of town. I like having freedom and privacy outside. Part of why Oakland is so rad.

SFBG Shannon, your brothers were at one of your recent shows. What’s it like to have them in the audience?
SS Lucky for me they come to most of my shows. I like them a lot. They are giant and hilarious and love to shake it. They both walk around and seem to have these magic invisible love vests on at all times. It’s really nice to see them dancing around and making people happy.

SFBG Cody, why do think there have been so many great songs about crying?
CB Umm, well crying is something you do instinctively as a baby, and you do it all the time. I guess you laugh and shit and barf a lot too. But maybe when people think of crying it brings them back to that primal state — baby times. It’s a very powerful, uncontrollable emotion. People are drawn to powerful things like that, like when a song has so much power over you it brings you back to a time when you had no control, crying. It is attractive because it is so powerful and so rare. And we try not to cry, so when there’s a song that lets us feel as if we are crying, maybe we love it because we miss that feeling. Or maybe people just want to pretend they are babies. A song about crying might make you feel like a helpless baby, which can be fun. I like to do that. Like Muppet Babies.

SFBG How about death songs, doomed teenage romance or otherwise – do you have any favorites?
SS “Johnny Angel” by Shelley Fabares, “Earth Angel” by the Penguins, “Leader of the Pack” by the Shangri-Las, “Little Town Flirt” by Del Shannon, “I Think We’re Alone Now” by Tommy James and the Shondelles, “Last Kiss” by Ricky Nelson, “Patches” by Dickey Lee. So tragic. Listen to those lyrics — oh my!
CB I love “The Gypsy Cried” by Lou Christie as a doomed romance song. Mostly because the music is soooo great. But also because you don’t really get an answer in that song; the man goes to the gypsy to see what the future holds for his love, and the premonition is so sad and devastating that the gypsy can’t even speak, all she can do is cry.
“Snowman” by Diane Ray is awesome, it’s about building a snowman to replace your former lover. “Don’t Drag No More” by Susan Lynne includes death, and the hook and title are grammatically incorrect — that’s awesome.

SFBG Who are your favorite record producers, past and present?
CB I really love Joe Meek. Ian turned me on to him. Such a weirdo, and his stuff is so experimental for the time [when he was recording]. And he was crazy, which is double interesting, also gay and he couldn’t play any instruments or read notation. So I hear.
Also, Giorgio Moroder is incredible, both his crazy awesome stuff with Donna Summer and his solo stuff. I think he produced the theme for The Neverending Story.
Ennio Morricone is so awesome, such an experimental freak. Big influence. I so dearly love the music from Leon Schlesinger and Harman & Ising cartoons, MGM and Warner Bros. studios. Not sure who was in charge of the music.
Also, those Italian synth weirdos who did soundtracks for all those ’70s Lucio Fulci movies, like Fabio Frizzi and Claudio Simonetti.

SFBG Shannon, what were some of your wildest and favorite experiences on the road in Europe with Hunx and the Punkettes, and what were some of your favorite ones?
SS Probably full-group ghost hunting in underwear in Liege, Belgium, in this abandoned college where we had to sleep. Lots of screaming and giggling and inappropriate flashlight shining.
Also, maybe full-band nude sauna with King Khan and his wife and kids. Those Europeans are quite comfortable with nudity. ‘Twas hard for me, because I’m a former Mormon and a bit of a chunker if you haven’t noticed. In the end, no one gave a shit and it was fun! Glad I did it.
In Paris, we played along a canal that was basically a gypsy camp. Seth wore a banana hammock made of candy that broke at a very inconvenient time. Instead of helping him with his suddenly public family jewels, some demon of entertainment overtook me and made me tear the remaining candies off his bod and throw them to the audience. I think he thought it was funny.

SFBG If you could set up a dream bill packed with bands you’ve never played a show with, who would be on it? What place would be the venue?
SS Gene Pitney, Roy Oribson, Gem, Danzig, Lou Christie and the Tammys, and the Muppet Band.
CB Oh boy, Ennio Morricone, the Lollipop Guild, the Ramones, Devo, King Tuff, Best Coast, Mark Sultan, the Ooga Boogas, Pissed Jeans, the Seven Dwarves (from the Disney cartoon), Roger Miller, King Louie (from The Jungle Book), Motorhead, Jonathan Richman, the Monks and the Frogs.

SFBG Rollercoasters or haunted houses?

SS Haunted houses. Not the fake kind at fairs and stuff. Real ones.
IA Haunted houses. Our favorite is in the Enchanted Forest theme park in Salem, Oregon. It has lots of creepy automatons and surprisingly scary uses of compressed air to scar the crap out of ya.
CB Gosh, tough call. Haunted houses. They have more character and their creation and construction is a more nuanced art form I think. They’re longer and more entertaining and weird and freaky. Although I do love rollercoaster art more than almost anything. The glitter and lightbulbs and bold stripes and stuff. So wonderful, so American.

SFBG Hot dogs or hamburgers?
SS Hamdoggers, I think.
IA The process leading up to both is disgusting, but I really prefer a well-cooked brat over a patty of beef. Hot dogs are so much more mysterious, and have a pleasant snap to them.
CB Hamburger, no contest. Hamburgers are bigger and more filling and it’s easier to fit more cool toppings on them, like cheese and mayonnaise and avocado and pickles and onions and stuff. Although Pink’s Hot Dogs in LA makes me think twice about that statement. Also, vegetarian hot dogs taste like a garbage can, and vegetarian burgers come in all types of weird flavors and textures.

SFBG 45 record parties or drive-in double features?
SS Drive-in! I’ve never been to one. Somebody wanna give me a ride?
CB Drive-in for sure. I go to record parties all the time, but I never get to go to the drive-in because they are so rare these days. I love movies so much, and the drive-in is the ultimate movie experience. You’re outside in the magical summer night and you can do whatever you want in your car. It’s very nostalgic for me. I saw Honey, I Shrunk the Kids at a drive-in when it came out. I don’t think I’ve been to one since.

SFBG Have any of you ever had a curfew, and if so, did you break it? Do you like staying up late at night, and if so, why?
SS Our curfew system at both houses was crappy and confusing. My mom only had one if she was mad or awake, so most of the time me and my brothers would stay under the radar because she went to bed so early.
My little brother Paddy and I would sleep way deep out in our field with our dogs at night when it was hot in the summer. We would wait until we were sure Mom was passed out and then go sneak around in the country with sticks to hit stuff, or dig holes, or whatever hilbilly kids do. And at my dad’s house the curfew was always conveniently right before Are You Afraid of the Dark? came on Nickelodeon or X-Files started. He hates “scary stuff” so much. He didn’t want me and my bros exposed to it because he saw the original Mummy in the ’50s when he was little and is still scarred from it.
CB Yes, I had a curfew, and yes, I broke it constantly. I got grounded once because me and my neighbor friends camped in my backyard with a bunch of TVs and video games and Doritos and 2-liter Cokes and we got bored and snuck out of the yard and ran around the neighborhood, hid from cars, and climbed on the roof of the junior high. When we came back to go to sleep, my parents were waiting and came out with flashlights. A flashlight in your face is so disturbing. We got grounded from each other for a month.
I like the late night and early morning equally. The only thing I don’t like about the late night is that you will probably miss the early morning. Both times are really quiet and there are certain things that are off-limits, like calling people and going to the store. It limits your activity in a fun way. You have to find something weird to do. Someone once told me that there’s a theory that, since more people are asleep at night, there’s less “psychic energy” flying around at night, and so your mind feels different, quieter, more focused. I’m not sure, but I like to believe it.

SFBG It’s perfect that you’ve performed at the Stud. Etta James used to sing there, and  Shannon’s vocal on “Troublemaker” reminds me of her. Do either of you ever feel the presence of ghosts or artists or people you love when writing or performing a song? Who would you most like to join you on stage?
IA I think it would be really awesome to jam with Dick Dale or maybe the piano stylings of Zombies-era Rod Argent.
CB I don’t think think about songwriting enough to feel that. Or maybe I think about it too much. I like to think about Marc Bolan when I sing some new thing to myself. He seemed so enchanted and magical and possessed by some uncontrollable musical spirit. I like to think part of his ghost is inside me, like maybe just the ghost of his hair or something. Or I like to think at least that his ghost likes what I’m singing, and he can hear me through all the noise of the astral plane, because we are alike somehow. I would most like to share a stage with Marc Bolan. We would dress like psychedelic elves and do duets.
SS Roy Orbison is totally my #1, Gene Pitney is my #2, Frankie Valli is my #3, the Beach Boys are my #4, Danzig is my #5.
What would I give to do a show with Roy O.? I don’t think I coild ever have enough gold, doubloons, or talent to sign with him or his ghost. He was so special and unique and genuine. You can feel his troubles and pain like they’re yours when you listen. Earthshattering heartache and longing is his forte.

SFBG What are the Clams up to these days? Are you recording a new album? Can you tell me about some of your new songs?
IA We should be recording our new stuff soon, but soon might mean in several months. We are playing with the Pharmacy and Guantanamo Baywatch at Pissed Off Pete’s on 25th. That will be a show worth going to.
CB We’re getting a bunch of material ready for a new album. We have a 7″ of some really old awesome stuff coming out on Southpaw Records, it’s called “Paddy’s Birthday” and it’s so good.
We’re trying to lay off playing so much, we overwork and distract ourselves doing so many shows, although it seems like Oakland loves it when we play two parties a week. We love them!
We’re spending some money on recording equipment. The new stuff has some Buddy Holly-type poppy sparse hop jump fun songs and some dark scary Disney soundtrack haunted forest type stuff, like “Teddy Bear’s Picnic.” Also a lot of ballads like we’ve always done, but they’re vocally weirder, lots of weird doo-wop yelps, Muppet singing and Morricone primal yowling. We’re trying to finally perfect some powerful Everly Brothers/girl group-style harmonies. And we’re experimenting with some super-evil-sounding ’80s punk thrash stuff. I can’t wait to record ’em!