Interview: Shannon and the Clams make a ‘Rat House’ out of their bedroom
Shannon Shaw was starting to freak out. Her band, Shannon and the Clams, had already re-recorded their new album three times, but their new label (Hardly Art) still wasn’t happy with the finished product. Stressed, tired and determined to resolve the lingering uneasiness she had about the direction the new album was taking, Shaw went back to the drawing board and began rifling through lyrics and random melody ideas that she’d previously stashed in the “Notes” section of her phone. One day and three songs later, “Dreams in the Rat House” was finally done. Since the album’s release this past May, the trio have yet to stop touring, playing their ’60s pop-hued, loosey-goosey garage rock in cities across the country. We got a chance to sit down with the lo-fi queen before a gig in Boston at Great Scott last week, where she talked about directing the band’s new music video, recording in bedrooms and performing a set entirely in Spanish.
You guys are always on the road, when did you have the time to make this new album?
It was hectic. We said, ‘OK, no shows for an entire month,’ which is saying a lot for us. Before the last two years we were probably playing two or three shows in Oakland a month, two or three shows in San Francisco every month and touring whenever we could. So we told ourselves no shows for the month, so we can write and record an album. A week of that month was to supposedly write demos at home, Cody [Blanchard] and I, separately, and then meet up a couple times and work on songs together. The rest of the month was supposed to be spent at my uncle’s cabin in the middle of the woods in the Santa Cruz. We thought it was going to be so cool to seclude ourselves and be in the middle of the woods, in the winter. It was going to change the mood. We were hoping we would get something different out of it. We listened to it when we got home at the end of the month and it was so humiliating. It was like we had cabin fever and went nuts and had no idea what we were doing. The vocals were so out of key, all the singing was so off. The drums would be perfectly timed, then so slow, then so fast. You can’t groove to that. None of us even noticed that is was f—ed up when we were recording. We thought it was some masterpiece.
Did you have a deadline that the label gave you?
Yeah, it sucks now. As the band grows, we have to think so much further ahead, and plan, and these are things that we never did before. When we first started someone would call us and be like, “Dude do you want to play our house party tonight?” And we would automatically be like, “F—, yeah!” and just pack up our s— and go to a party. Now we’re supposed to be planning an album’s release a year in advance, get the music done and get them everything in a certain amount of months in order for them get things going.
Even though you’re now working with a bigger label, you’ve kept that same lo-fi sound. It’s not overproduced.
Thanks, it’s because we’re keeping as much control as we can.
How important is it for you to have the majority of control over your sound and what you do?
It’s so important. I feel really bad for friends of mine, who have an amazing thing going, and then they get signed to a label and the label wants you to record with someone specific because they are, ‘so pro.’ Then the album sounds pro and it’s different. The songs still might be great, but sometimes if all the things you like about the music change, like if you don’t how it’s recorded, it could completely turn you off. Both labels we’ve worked with have loved and appreciated us for what we sound like, but they also have maybe gently prodded us to try and work in a studio or something, and I keep fighting it. I can’t help it, I love lo-fi stuff. I love when someone gives me a mix, and it’s recorded off of a record, and you can hear the crackle of the record spinning…. oh man. It’s almost like it turns me on or something.
So how did you record this last album?
We did it all ourselves, but it was recorded several times. I think there were four sessions. We started out working the opposite of how I usually work, which is why I think it turned out so f—ed up the first time. We were planning ahead and prepping, and that’s just not natural to me. So then, the second session, we just tried to re-record the parts of the songs where the speed was off and re-record vocals and maybe punch in different guitar solos. But it still didn’t feel right and in the meantime we kept turning what we had after each session into the label, and they wouldn’t say much each time. So we went back at it for a third time, and at this point we’re no longer working in studios, we’re working in bedrooms, which is actually where we work best.
Does it just feel more natural for you guys?
For some reason it always makes sense to us, and it’s a cozy environment. I mean we don’t have studios or studio space, but we have equipment. We fixed things a third time and it was much better, but still not there. It’s funny, I got kind of bratty and demanded the label give us some feedback because I was freaking out not hearing much from them. Sarah [at the label] who is in charge, and who is such an awesome human being, told me a few things, and it was pretty crushing at first.
Do you not deal well with criticism?
No actually, I think that any person who knows how good it feels to improve should be able to accept constructive criticism. I went to art school and had to get leathery skin for that stuff. It’s just always hard after you have been laboring and freaking out about something for so long, to hear that it isn’t good still. I let her words marinate and I realized, ‘She’s f—ing right, this thing is terrible.’ I ended up going through all these scraps — when I say scraps I mean that I’ll write down a line of lyrics randomly when I’m driving, or record a little melody. So I went back through my phone and looked at some of the scraps that I had been meaning to work on, but had forgotten about. And, I wrote “Into a Dream,” “Heads or Tails” and “Rip Van Winkle” basically in a day. Then we put them in to see the track order, and where they would fit in, and it was like ‘oh, this is exactly what was missing’.
Are you happy with what you finally put out?
I feel really good about it. I really think people should trust their instincts. I know that sounds really cliché [but] it’s so true. It captured all these different things I had been feeling and thinking about for a while.
The new album seems to have a lot of references to old stories, and kind of a fairytale-like nature. Was that something you envisioned?
I think it’s kind of just a running theme for us. I definitely think that fairytales are just interwoven into our music. That’s how Cody writes, his songs are stories. In mine, I draw a lot from imagery and the idea of turning a real story or issue into something fantastical, so you can hold it at distance away from you.
You have an art background, and the band does most everything itself — including making the just released video for “Rat House.” Was this the first music video you did all by yourself?
I did some minor stuff in school, but this was my first music video. I’ve never been good at the technical stuff. I know exactly what I want it to look like, but right now I don’t always have all the tools to do it all on my own. I need someone to remind me what to click… like Cody! It turned out exactly how I wanted it, though. This is the best thing I’ve made, video-wise. I did a documentary a few years ago called “The League of Beard Enthusiasts,” before the current beard craze, when people thought beards were disgusting. I got a bunch of friends to grow their beards and made it into a competition and made, like, a mockumentary of the process and did this whole behind the scenes thing. It’s really stupid.
You guys do an awesome Del Shannon cover. Any particular song you’d love to cover in the future?
That’s the best part of Halloween, because we do a cover set every year. This year we did Los Saicos — some crazy, early garage-punk rock band from Peru. It was such a challenge to sing in Spanish. I know some Spanish, but to sing and speak only in Spanish on stage was really hard. With covers, you get to learn how to play someone else’s songs but, for me, that means I have to unlearn everything I’ve taught myself. So doing a DEVO cover set was so hard because the timing is all over the place, doing a Credence Clearwater Revival cover set is really hard for me because you’re changing keys constantly. As for covers I want to do, though, I’ve wanted to do “Rag Doll” by Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons — trying to involve some more layers of music to our band, maybe another singer or two.