Last year, Oakland-based garage punk band Shannon and the Clams announced that bassist and vocalist Shannon Shaw will be joining Dan Auerbach on stage as a solo performer as a part of his latest project, the Easy Eye Sound Revue. After working with Auerbach and his house band, featuring legends like Bobby Wood and Duane Eddy, Shannon and the rest of the Clams got together at his studio in Nashville to record their latest album with Auerbach as their producer. They signed to his label, Easy Eye Sound and will be opening each show of the 2018 tour.
Onion, set to be released on February 16th, draws inspiration from their ten years as a band, as well as the Ghost Ship tragedy that hit their hometown in winter of last year. They’ve released videos for the first two singles off the album, “The Boy” and “Backstreets,” showcasing the higher level of production and freedom to experiment inspired by Auerbach’s influence as an engineer. mxdwn spoke with Shannon Shaw and guitarist and songwriter Cody Blanchard about working with Auerbach in the studio, solo projects and the experiences that inspired the writing of Onion.
mxdwn: For this new album, you merged with Dan Auerbach and his label Easy Eye Sound How long was that project in the works and who reached out to who?
Shannon: He had asked us to open for him a couple times and the timing was always bad, we were always on tour or unavailable. Let’s see… how does this story go? Basically we were given the opportunity to go to Australia, which we’ve been trying to do for a long time, but it’s so expensive to get there. We could get a tour but the actual flights out there, we couldn’t get enough money to get out.
Then eventually when we got there, we talked to the guy that runs the festival called Lucky Fest and he was like, “you know the only reason you’re here is because Dan Auerbach insisted that I book you,” and we were like, “what are you talking about?” He said, “He forced me to listen to your record a million times and I got really into it, now I love your band,” and basically the offer he gave us covered our flight. So after that I was like, “Oh my God this guy great!” That meant so much to me that he was so passionate about our music. I eventually told him about that and he had no idea that he got us there. To him it wasn’t a big deal, but to me it was a huge deal.
Anyway, he was following me on Instagram and I wrote to him and I was like, “Hey I’m Shannon, I just wanted to let you know, thank you so much, you’re the reason we went to Australia” and we kinda started chatting that way. He invited me to go see him perform at the Fillmore and it was a great show and we got along really really well. Eventually he told me to go out to Nashville to his studio and write and record this solo project out there. So that was really scary, but I did it, and after that I was like, “I really think the Clams will love this studio.” And then he asked the Clams if they wanted to come out to record, so that’s how that happened.
mxdwn: What was it like working with Dan as a producer?
Cody: He set up his own studio and it’s very streamlined. I think it’s like the way I would set up a studio if I was doing it, where you don’t really have to go unpack any gear or microphones or anything, it’s all set up already, so the studio was really fast to work in. I thought he was really rad to work with, he had a lot to add as far as encouraging that we streamline the songs and then cutting things out. Maybe his trademark thing is he loves to layer on a lot of instruments, so you get the basic song and then add you know, twelve other layers of stuff, of all these different instruments, so that was rad ‘cuz you end up with a really dense, lush sounding song. And then you can cut stuff out, cut away whatever’s not working, so that was cool. I feel like he was very present and very engaged and involved in the whole process.
mxdwn: Shannon, what was it like going out on your own to do solo stuff and working with a band that wasn’t the Clams?
Shannon: Well, it was a very good self esteem exercise for me, as I realized once I was out there. I was really nervous — Cody and I have worked together for so many years and I’m actually a really shy musician and he’s helped me be comfortable and a little bit more confident, and same with Hunx & His Punx, that’s the other band that I’m in, but going out there on my own I realized how much I depended on someone like Cody and the Clams to help me and make me comfortable, so it was definitely like “Oh, I’m alone, going into the unknown.”
And you know, Dan is a totally no-nonsense, “don’t waste my time” type of guy, in a professional way, just very like, “Come on, let’s do this, what’s the problem?” Whereas with someone like Cody I’m like, “Waah I’m shy, I don’t feel good about this” and it takes me a while to get really comfortable. But with Dan, I had this opportunity that I didn’t wanna blow, so I was relying a lot on fake-it-till-you-make-it, and just pretending to be, not someone else, but forcing myself to pretend to be comfortable, which I wasn’t. It brought up all these feelings, like my tricks with self-esteem from middle school or high school or something, I kept thinking like, “I’m pathetic, I don’t know what I’m doing, I don’t deserve to be here.”
It was weird! I haven’t felt that way in so long. I went on to meet all these really important people in the music world because Dan’s band are these amazing old guys that played with Elvis and Dusty Springfield and lots of contemporary, very famous country singers and stuff, Johnny Cash. I could go on and on, but every time I met a new person I’d feel like “Oh hey, Bobby Wood, you played piano for Elvis.” You know, he wrote the part in “Sweet Caroline” that goes, “bah bah baahh!” So all those details were coming to mind and then sitting down with them to write a song with them, it just felt so out of my element. I kept questioning why I got to be there. Eventually something came over me, like, “Oh my God, you’re being a baby, you’re taking this opportunity for granted. You’re here for a reason. Dan wants you there, these people, in a weird way, are your peers, and you’re working together.” It’s not like I’m there ‘cuz someone was pitying me, like “let’s keep this pathetic sack of trash around” [laughs] You know? It’s not like that, that would be a waste of time!
So it was definitely a good exercise in self-esteem and in confidence, it was good for me.
File Photo: Marisa Rose Ficara
mxdwn: Early reviews of Onion have described it as a big leap forward for the band, what about the material sets it apart from your old stuff?
Cody: The production is definitely different, there’s a lot more going on, a lot more layers of stuff. The engineering and production sounds a lot sharper, more put together, and I think for me with the songwriting, I guess I felt a little bit more experimental. ‘Cuz there are always certain sounds I’m trying to chase after. We’ve achieved a lot of them at this point, so I’m even more adventurous now and getting inspiration from elsewhere, I guess because we’ve been doing it for ten years. Also I will say, this is the first time we wrote and rehearsed with a keyboard player and a drummer and everything and I think their input in rehearsals changed things a lot.
Shannon: Also, our keyboardists and drummer are multi-instrumentalists, as is Cody, so being in the studio and having it so streamlined gave us a lot more room to experiment and try stuff. Our drummer definitely did a lot of keys and stuff on our last record, but this time he was like helping arrange things and picking up tremolo guitar and trying electric bongos and so was the keyboard player, so these guys got to mess around with more stuff and show more of their talents.
Cody: Also we had a lot more time. I kind of demanded that we have at least ten days in the studio because our last ones we all did in about three or four days, and I knew we needed more time to play around. So that helped a lot.
mxdwn: Coming out of the Oakland scene, I know the Ghost Ship tragedy last year really hit home for the band. Can you talk about how it impacted you and what effect it had on the album?
Cody: Yeah, I was living in Seattle when it happened, I had just been at home in my apartment writing a lot of stuff, I ended up writing a total of 20 different demos. Right in the middle of that I remember waking up one morning and having all these messages in my phone, and looking at social media and seeing all this stuff about the fire and realizing I knew some people in there and didn’t know where they were. It was such a crazy feeling. I’d been living in Seattle for a year at that point, so I ended up using all the Frequent Flyer miles I had from traveling to fly to Oakland the next day because there was a big memorial happening. It was so intense, I felt like everyone I’d ever met in Oakland was out, like everyone I’d ever known in one place, and it was really intense and emotional. And kind of amazing too, just to see everyone help out. There were people forgetting old grudges and things…
Shannon: Oh totally.
Cody: You’d see people that wouldn’t normally talk or socialize coming together and it was sort of putting everything into perspective for all of us, like maybe this community that we take for granted is a little bit more fragile than we thought it was. So we ended up writing a few songs after that that were directly about the fire. It put me in a weird psychological spiral, just about remembering what was really special about the scene before I moved away and reconnecting with all those people and appreciating the scene we had come from, this experimental music warehouse incubator, I had a renewed appreciation for that.
Shannon: I couldn’t have said it better!
mxdwn: How do you think DIY communities are going to move forward as cities continue cracking down on warehouse venues? Did you see anything positive come out of the community after the fire?
Shannon: I honestly don’t know what to say about that. What I can say that I saw that was amazing was every corner of the DIY scene kind of overlapped, everyone came together and all these new bands formed, lots of cool art shows came up. The community came together to support each other, contractors were donating sprinkler systems, free classes started popping up teaching people how to protect their warehouse, safety wise, legal wise. There just a lot of outreach and a lot of donation, a lot of voices of people coming from all walks of life trying to preserve what we have left, which is not much. And I don’t know what to say to what it’s going to be in the future, I hope there’s going to be some places that hold out. I don’t even wanna talk about the places that still exist that we don’t play on tour for fear that it would bring too much attention to them and they’d get shut down. We’re just going to have to figure out another way to do things.
mxdwn: One of my favorites off the album, “Backstreets,” reminds me of one of your earlier tracks, “Heads or Tails,” where there’s that theme of independence and running away, and I think that hits home for a lot of people, artists specifically, that are in that situation of not having a place to go and always being on the move. What inspires those songs for you guys?
Shannon: I’ll let Cody talk about “Backstreets,” that one is his. I wrote “Heads or Tails,” and that was me trying to understand my grandfather’s perspective. I never met him, he died when he was like 60, but he was a bad guy, a horrible, piece of shit, abusive alcoholic train riding hobo, and he just rode the rails. I never met him but I don’t know any good stories about him, and that really bothers me to not be connected in any positive way to someone who I’m apart of. So it was just me trying to force myself to see the world through his eyes, because it feels wrong to just hate, hate, hate someone.
Cody: It’s like an empathy song
Shannon: I guess it’s like an empathy song, I tried to figure out how he saw things, kind of different from “Backstreets.”
Cody: I see what you mean, this feeling of independence and making it your own way or whatever, and that’s the empathy trick, where once you know the song is about this bad abusive person then you’re like, “Oh, I was identifying with this person and empathizing with this person.” And maybe you understand more of how they were really like. There are similarities but a different kind of twist on it.
Shannon: It’s a good point.
Cody: So “Backstreets” I wrote right after I came back from Oakland, after the Ghost Ship fire, and I’m glad that came across because the way you summarized it was pretty spot-on. I was writing tons of stuff and a lot of it didn’t get used. That was actually two songs that we didn’t finish that we ended up smashing together into one. Our keyboard player Will is really into the demos I recorded, but they just weren’t working on their own, you know? So we ended up combining the songs. I actually just wrote a whole thing about this. I was doing a lot of self-conscious writing, nothing specific, just writing down whatever words were coming to mind and then figuring out what it meant afterward.
I think originally the idea for “Backstreets” actually came from when we covered this song called “Dark End of the Street” like a year or so earlier for this benefit show that was all cover bands. It’s about an affair where they have to go to the dark end of the street or whatever, and that idea was stuck in my head for some reason. Then after the fire happened it reemerged, and at that point, it became about, exactly like being an artist, a creative person and not having a place where you belong and having to find your own weird pathway. It’s really difficult and there are no guidelines or there’s no map and you’re just blundering around and it’s challenging. So I think it was a combination of old ideas straight out of my subconscious, re-framed in the context of the fire and everything that was going on.
mxdwn: The concept of “just being an onion,” what does that mean to you?
Shannon: I think I’ve done a lot of self reflection between this album and the last album, and trying to be working on myself. I guess I just had this realization that people are onions, and you peel back the layers and try to get to the bottom. Just like through therapy or something, how you keep peeling back layers to reveal more reasons why you turned out this way or that way. It’s this idea of going back and peeling back more and more, like you could go to the very end of someone, until it isn’t even an onion anymore. We’re all made up of layers, and are you even yourself if you take away all those experiences?
mxdwn: “Never Wanted Love” as an example, you guys have a knack for writing about something sad and pairing it with music that’s upbeat and makes it a great song to dance to, and because of the lyrics it has a darker twist to it. You can tell there’s always more going on in your songs than just the music. What makes you want to give that optimistic take on your songs?
Shannon: I think something that’s made us successful is that we’re genuine and authentic. I know for me, I genuinely really care about every song I write and work on, and always try to put a real experience, something that’s actually happened to me into it, keeping it about something real I think helps with that.
Cody: I always think it’s a cool trick to write something musically upbeat and then have darker lyrics. That trick’s been done in the past and I really like it when people do that. There’s this Simon and Garfunkel song that I can’t remember the name of, but it’s a very idyllic, folky hippie song, and it’s describing this beautiful small town life and all the people doing all their family stuff or whatever, and then there’s a break in the middle and they talk about a mushroom cloud burning everything into ash. It goes on and on pretty equally as long about how this atomic bomb wrecks all of that stuff they were just singing about, and that’s a really cool trick to me. Unexpected lyrics are interesting to me, because I judge songs a lot on their lyrics and if I hear a song where the lyrics seem really basic or played out, it’s hard for me to get into it.
Shannon: Me too. Something I wish someone would ask me is what every single one of my songs are about, because most of ’em I feel like no one’s figured out. And that’s totally fine, it used to bother me more, because people think every single song I write is about a man who broke my heart or something. That’s easy for people to grab onto. That used to bug me because, like, the song “Ozma” is about my dog that died, “Rip Van Winkle” is about this sad relationship I have with my dad, things like that. Everyone just thinks it’s about some guy who screws you over. But then again, my new way of thinking about it is that people interpret what they need from the song and it doesn’t matter. If you’re the kind of person like me or Cody, you wanna know what that song is about, you wanna understand those lyrics and that’s one thing. But if you’re someone who’s going through something and you just need to assign your own issues to the song, I think that’s great, if it’s helping you, great, because writing songs helps me and I love for writing and performing to be an exchange with the audience, in whatever way they need it.
mxdwn: Maybe you should write a book one day.
Shannon: [laughs] then again, there are some I’d be too embarrassed to really explain. The only person who ever asked was Lars Finberg (from the band The Intelligence), he did an interview with me about our album Sleep Talk for the Seattle Stranger, do you remember that Cody? Did you ever read that?
Cody: Yeah, I remember that.
Shannon: We went through the entire album song by song and we had to say what all the songs were about, and that was really scary, like someone reading my diary, [laughs] but really satisfying too.
mxdwn: You have a big year ahead of you, you’re coming out with better and better material and especially with this new album you’re coming into big success as a band. Are there any goals you still have as artists that you’re looking forward to?
Shannon: That’s a good, scary question. I’ve enjoyed this slow build, I think that’s my natural element, slow and sure but working hard. I’d love to just continue doing this for a living, I feel like we get a lot out of it. I would also really love to play Saturday Night Live. [laughs]
Cody: Yeah, I just want to keep going in the same direction we’ve been going in, I think we all wanna play on TV because we’ve never done that [laughs]. I’m also really looking forward to working with more producers ‘cuz that was really cool, I want to keep putting out stuff pretty rapidly. Also, I want to do solo records, I think we all have other music projects that we’re working on and I’d love to put out some of that stuff too, just have this splintering off where everyone does the solo record that’s 100% them. I think that’s cool to listen to. I always think of when Outkast did that split record [laughs]. I think that will be a cool moment when we get to do that.
Featured Image Photo Credit: Marisa Rose Ficara