Arts & Entertainment
6 min

Shannon and the Clams

The California garage rockers headline NXNE

Dreams in the Rat House album cover

When Shannon and the Clams’ record label first heard a rough version of their third album last fall, the response went something like this: “Too much Clams, not enough Shannon.”

Songwriting and vocal duties in the Oakland garage-rock trio are split between bassist Shannon Shaw and guitarist Cody Blanchard (drummer/vocalist Ian Amberson rounds out the group), who wrote the bulk of the material for what would become their third album in an initial creative spurt.

So, the band returned to the studio. The resulting album mashes together the duo’s vastly different songwriting styles with their shared love for unhinged punk and retro-pop oddities from the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s.

While the label’s critique would have been enough to ignite internal turmoil in a less chill partnership, Blanchard has no problem leaving the spotlight to Shaw, whose brassy, badass wail has earned her a rep as a formidable front person.

“It’s cool when she takes some of the attention off me so I can be quieter in the background,” Blanchard says. “Since I put out a solo record under the name King Lollipop last winter, we’re each getting equal attention from young fans.”

It’s not hard to see why Shannon and the Clams might set a Californian teen’s heart aflutter; their hooky, reverby pop tunes are an amalgam of wistful, Phil Spector-era pop crooning and raucous garage punk.

The album’s title, Dreams in the Rat House, is a nod to the duality in their approach: it makes reference to both HP Lovecraft’s story “The Dreams in the Witch House” and Shaw’s childhood in Napa, specifically a crumbling, cobweb-infested shack on her parents’ property dubbed the Rat House.

“The title is half Shannon, half me; it represents the album pretty well,” Blanchard says. “The ‘Rat House’ part is representative of nostalgic childhood memories and the importance of your home when you were growing up, and the ‘Dreams in the Witch House’ part represents my interest in weird, psychedelic stuff.”
Many of Shaw’s songs spring from visceral childhood memories, whereas Blanchard prefers to pen lyrics based on fictional narratives, a style he honed as a creative-writing student in college.

He cites maverick 1950s pop producer Joe Meek (The Tornadoes and Petula Clark), “Lightin’ Strikes” singer Lou Christie and his girl group The Tammys, and Spaghetti Western composer Ennio Morricone as musical inspirations, for their experimental flourishes and general penchant for weirdness – something he believes modern pop needs more of.

“It’s odd because there has been a lot of really great, experimental stuff that came out of America, but in the mainstream there is still an aesthetic conservatism,” he says. “There’s a desire for things to be more polished.”

That affinity for weirdness endeared the band to gay audiences in San Francisco early in their career, as did Shaw’s bass playing, singing and co-writing contributions to trashy homoerotic garage-pop group Hunx and His Punx.

Nowadays, the band’s most visible fans are starry-eyed teenagers in Southern California who treat Blanchard like a pop idol – an odd feeling for a punk rocker who spent his formative years playing basement jams and gay events.

“All of us really appreciate gay culture because it’s unafraid to be really wild, audacious, nutty and generally more expressive than classic American, straight, white culture,” Blanchard says, adding that their Californian teenybopper fans are equally fun – but overwhelming.

“Usually the teenage kids are really wild, enthusiastic and so excited,” he says. “To the point where they often hurt themselves or drink too much booze in the alleyway and get really sick. They haven’t figured out how to control their crazy energy.”

Regardless of their demographic, Shannon and the Clams intend to pair their increasingly ambitious songwriting with ever-weirder sounds and experimentation.

“So far, we haven’t gone all the way into the craziness of using weird orchestral sounds and wilder singing,” Blanchard says. “But we’re on our way.”

FIVE OTHER NXNE ACTS TO CHECK OUT

Gentleman Reg

The hometown troubadour’s latest album, Leisure Life, gave his bittersweet musings on love in the big city a California makeover, à la Hole’s “Malibu.”

Wed, June 12, midnight

The Rivoli, 334 Queen St W

Charlotte Day Wilson

The Halifax-based, Toronto-raised singer/songwriter/producer returns home with an arsenal of harmony-laden electro-acoustic ballads.

Thurs, June 18, 8pm

Monarch Tavern, 12 Clinton St

Nü Sensae

The pulverizing Vancouver punk trio is riding high on their excellent Sundowning LP.

Thurs, June 13, 1am

Horseshoe Tavern, 370 Queen St W

Fri, June 14, midnight

Parts & Labour, 1566 Queen St W

Ryan Hemsworth

The rising Halifax producer/DJ is having a break-out year thanks, in part, to his chopped up yet heartfelt reworkings of R Kelly, Frank Ocean and Backstreet Boys tunes.

Sat, June 15, 1am

Black Box, 1087 Queen St W

Chad Valley

“Silky,” “smooth” and “Ibiza” are three words oft-associated with Oxford, England, musician Hugo Manuel’s Balearic house and R&B edits.

Sat, June 15, 10pm

Black Box, 1087 Queen St W

Sat, June 15, midnight

Sidedoor, 771 Dundas St W

Here’s a video of what else is happening at this year’s music conference: