BY SOPHIE BURKHOLDER Shannon Shaw is the fearless leader of the Oakland-based vintage rock foursome, Shannon and the Clams. Drawing inspiration from 50’s and 60’s era rock, they sound like some dreamy combination of the Zombies, Chuck Berry, and the Chantels – with a little added edge from their punk DIY-scene roots. Earlier this year, Shannon and the Clams released Onion, their sixth studio album and first on The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach’s label. Partially inspired by the loss of friends in the deadly Oakland Ghost Ship fire of 2016, the record follows Shaw’s gritty Winehouse-like croon as the band pulls back each layer of the metaphorical onion they’ve grown into since their start ten years ago. We got Shaw on the phone in advance of the Clams’ Thursday show at First Unitarian to talk about that introspection, what it’s like to be a woman in rock today, and how it feels to have John Waters as your biggest fan.
PHAWKER: I wanted to start by talking about Onion, and more specifically the dedication of it to the victims of the Ghost Ship fire back in 2016. What made you decide to do that? Were you part of that artist collective, and did you have friends in it?
SHANNON SHAW: Basically, that occurred when we were halfway through writing the album, and that was just complete sadness. It was so unbelievable. I’d never suffered or lived through trauma like that before. There’s a hole in Oakland now. But I think a big part of why it touched us so much was that not only did we all live there or have lived there, but we all lost friends in the fire, and that place is the kind of place we would play. Our band came up in the Oakland warehouse scene. We would play more warehouses than we would play anything else. The warehouse scene is a very unique, very special, and very sacred place. So it just brought on a lot of reflection of all sorts when that occurred. It was constantly on everyone’s mind. Before we figured out who had passed in the fire, there were days of everyone waiting on edge, trying to find out who was at the party. I know that our drummer was saying he was having a party that night and Ghost Ship was close to his house. And I was actually at a bonfire at my brother’s house, and there were people coming and going from that party at that bonfire. Like people left our bonfire to go there. Luckily, they didn’t make it into the warehouse, but it was super traumatic.
PHAWKER: You said that you were halfway through writing the album when that happened, so did you end up keeping those songs you had already written?
SHANNON SHAW: Yeah. Yeah, definitely. Maybe a third of the album is more related to those events.
PHAWKER: Do you still keep up with the Oakland scene, or have favorite bands coming out of there right now?
SHANNON SHAW: The Oakland scene has changed so much, but I try to. When I’m home, my brothers play in some bands. The garage rock scene that was in Oakland feels like it’s morphed. A lot of it’s gone. A ton of people moved away. A lot of people became junkies. A lot of people just broke up or got married and settled down. So what’s left of that scene has morphed in an interesting way. I feel like people are getting more creative. With the Ghost Ship fire, I feel like that blew a big hole in the scene too. In one sense, it’s brought more people out. Over time a lot of people have had to move away, but the people that have stayed almost have a deeper passion and a better understanding of how fragile and temporary life is. I feel like it made a lot of genres and mini-scenes within the Oakland punk scene come together more, and support each other more.
PHAWKER: What’s your take on the metaphor of the layers of an onion? Everyone knows that line from Shrek.
SHANNON SHAW: Wait, what line from Shrek? I’ve never even seen Shrek [laughing].
PHAWKER: [laughing] I’m pretty sure he lives in an onion, and he talks to the donkey character about ogres and onions having layers, or something like that. But do you maybe want to talk about your take on it, and why you chose that to be representative for the entire album?
SHANNON SHAW: I think a lot of themes for me and for Cody when we were doing the songwriting was about growth and change and moving forward and looking inward. I was having this big epiphany about needing to take care of myself in order to do better and be a better friend, be a better daughter and partner and musician and human. I just realized how everything is so connected, and that there really are endless layers, and once you peel one back, seeing how that layer is directly the result of the one beneath it. I didn’t necessarily get lost in getting to the bottom of those feelings, but I wanted to be prepared to go through these layers and be able to fully reveal myself.
PHAWKER: Yeah, the lyrics definitely address that. Sonically, this track is also pretty unique, and very different from your older songs like “The Cult Song” off of Sleep Talk, for example. That older one feels more Chuck Berry to me, but new ones off of Onion remind me more of the Zombies.
SHANNON SHAW: Yeah, we used to record all our own music. Cody [Blanchard] used to do the recording, so the old stuff is definitely going to be more rough and more punchy, which is totally reflective of the scene we were into then. And I think as we got the chances to work in studios with producers and have access to technical nice sounds, and any instruments or amps we would ever want to play around with – I think that just kind of gave us an opportunity to explore other things. It gave us a chance to try other stuff. To me, I feel like it’s more Zombies now than it ever was. It’s definitely less simple. The more I play music, and the more comfortable I get with my band, the more comfortable I feel trying out other ideas. And I think they always have great ideas, but I feel like I have a little bit more confidence with going out on a limb and trying something a bit different. So it’s definitely a natural progression to this newer sound, but we’re always going to have a punk background. It’s something we won’t escape from, in a good way.
PHAWKER: I agree. Speaking of doing your own thing, I was wondering if you could talk a bit about what it was like to work with Dan Auerbach on Onion and on your solo debut. I don’t think he gets enough credit for the amazing producer that he is, so maybe you could tell me some things you learned from him in the studio.
SHANNON SHAW: He’s fantastic. I think he’s a natural. I think he’s really got a good eye at seeing the big picture, and his ideas are striking him like lightning. All the time, they’re coming. He’s really good at quickly layering stuff, and then going back in later, listening to what you did, and then selectively removing stuff to kind of make everything really well balanced. He’s got such a good ear for balance, and all that. I’m just surprised to hear you think he doesn’t get enough credit, because I feel like he’s so good at it.
PHAWKER: Well, I think a lot of people hear his name and associate it with the Black Keys, and kind of forget that he does so much behind the scenes work with a lot of people who are more actively making music than that band.
SHANNON SHAW: Yeah, you’re totally right. We were in a restaurant the other day and we heard a Dr. John song, and we were like “Whoa, this is really good.” And we had a feeling it was produced by Dan, and we looked it up, and it was. Actually, I remember this one time while I was working on my solo project, that I was sitting in the studio while he was working on some other stuff. And I was just trying to do some homework on him. You know, it was my first time spending any real time with him, and I was alone, I didn’t have my band with me, so I was trying to be prepared. I was trying to find the first music that I liked the production of, because I’m really not technical. I don’t know as much about that. There’s some producers from the 60’s and 70’s who I like a lot, but I’m not a big technical factoid person. Anyway, I wanted to educate myself to give Dan some ideas of what I like. So I said, “Oh, what about that one Lana Del Rey song called ‘Shades of Cool’?” And it was produced by Dan, and that blew my fucking mind. Because there I was sitting in his studio, excited to work with him, and trying to give him some homework, and I found out that he produced this song I’d be listening to every day for two years straight. So yeah, maybe you’re right. Because I didn’t know he’d produced it until I looked it up and read all of the details of the music. And then it was really interesting hearing him explain the process of working on that song with her and producing it, and thinking about how we were working together. Everyone is so different in the studio, you know?
PHAWKER: Well, I don’t know, but I can imagine.
SHANNON SHAW: [laughing] Yeah, well it’s very interesting. For my solo, we had a week of songwriting, which was an interesting experience, because I’d never written with someone I didn’t know before. And then we had a day or two where me and Dan and Richard Swift were jamming, and created songs that way. And then, with the Clams, we came pretty prepared. We still had the same amount of work to do, but we worked in such a different way. I feel like you could spend a ton of time in the studio, but both things happened pretty quickly. Dan works really quickly, and very efficiently.
PHAWKER: I’m sure you know that John Waters is a huge fan of your band.
SHANNON SHAW: [laughing] I do know, and it still blows my mind.
PHAWKER: Yes, I got to see him talk for the first time last year, and it was hilarious. Have you ever met him?
SHANNON SHAW: Yeah, a bunch of times actually. He hosts the Burger Boogaloo every year, which is basically the best garage rock festival ever. That takes place two blocks away from my house in Oakland. I love it. But he’s hosted it the last several years, and always finds funny ways to embarrass me, and always sends for me to come visit him when he’s backstage. But I feel like I still don’t know how to act around him. I love him so much, but I’m still so starstruck that I don’t know how to act like myself. The last time I saw him, he got mad at me, because he found out that we’d gone to Baltimore and not told him. He was like “You didn’t tell me you were in Baltimore!” I was like, “I didn’t know how to get a hold of you.” I didn’t think he’d want to come to this weird little punk show art gallery. And he said, “Are you kidding me? You can get in touch with me if you really wanted to.” And he was like, mad at me. But it’s just that I still feel way too shy to contact him like that. But anyway, I’ve also gone to see him do his Christmas shows and his Valentine shows a few times. He’s great. He’s so much warmer than you’d expect. He makes you already feel like you’re his good friend. I like that.
PHAWKER: Do you have a favorite movie of his?
SHANNON SHAW: I love Female Trouble so much. I mean all of his characters are always awesome, but I think that one is especially hilarious. I don’t know why, but Hairspray was always my least favorite. I think it was because it was on Comedy Central all the time when I was a kid, but it was the edited version. But I also love Cry Baby. I’m definitely a big fan. The first time I saw Pink Flamingos was in a tent in my mom’s backyard. My friend had stolen the VHS copy from his mom without his permission. We actually just got busted about it, because we were joking about it on Facebook. I was like “Oh yeah, we watched your copy.” [laughing] And his mom piped in and was like, “You stole my copy of Pink Flamingos and showed it to a minor?!”. Yeah, definitely never ever thought I would meet someone like John Waters, or ever be someone that he admired. I can’t wrap my brain around it.
PHAWKER: [laughing] I’m pretty sure I read a quote by him about your band that said, “They’re like my wet dream.”
SHANNON SHAW: [laughing] Yes. If he does another movie, I would give anything to do the soundtrack.
PHAWKER: On a final note, I was wondering if you could speak about your experience of being a woman in rock today. At times, I feel like things are getting better because female artists seem to be getting more recognition. But there’s definitely a lot more progress that needs to be made, in my opinion.
SHANNON SHAW: I think this is an endless drain to be unclogged, and some shit will always come up. It’s going to be a long time before we get everyone on the same page. Just the other day, this man came up to me, and said, “Hey, you’re a pretty decent bass player.” And I was just like, “Oh my god.” I mean this used to happen to me all the time, where these guys are just trying to find a way to critique me. And that dude would never have gone up to a dude in a band and said that, ever. There’s something about me being a girl that makes him feel comfortable enough to talk to me about it. That’s probably going to keep happening for a long time. With all of the #MeToo stuff coming out – I think that’s blowing a lot of guys’ minds. Because I think a lot of men out there had no idea that this kind of stuff happens to every woman they know and have ever known. I was actually having this conversation with my nephew recently. He was trying to engage in this conversation with me and he said, “Well I don’t really believe in the wage gap between genders.” At first, I was enraged, you know, I was like “Where did you come up with this information?” And he was like, “Well, think about it. It doesn’t make any sense. A guy applies for a job at a corporation, and then a woman is applying for the same exact job. They’re not going to pay them differently.” I just thought, “Oh, you innocent angel. I’m about to poison you a little bit, and let you in on how fucked up the world is.” Because he wasn’t raised to think like that, so in his mind he would never do something like that. So then, I talked to him about it, and talked to him about ways I’ve been treated worse or differently because I’m a girl in a band. I almost felt bad, because I know I took some of his innocence away. But I think the best part about #MeToo is that it’s shaken a whole lot of pieces of shit out of the woodwork. It’s making people talk about things they’ve never talked about, and it’s enlightening to so many other people that really thought they had a grasp on what things were like. I think there’s a bigger conversation going now than what I’ve ever experience before. And that’s a really good thing.
PHAWKER: It’s painful, but it’s good.
SHANNON SHAW: Yeah, it’s painful. But it’s like every time I get a comment or I hear something, it kind of makes me feel more powerful, and almost makes me feel more just when I have to rip someone to shreds over something like that. I think women in music need to be sharing all of these stories, and encouraging people to be open about it, and then being really fucking confrontational when someone says something to you. If you can, you know not everyone feels comfortable doing that. I don’t know, I think people need to talk way more, and just be really loud about it.