Shannon and the Clams were well into recording their sixth album, Onion, when tragedy struck their hometown of Oakland, California. A fire at the Ghost Ship warehouse claimed the lives of 36 concertgoers and musicians that night in 2016 – many of them friends of the Clams. The event shook the DIY community of Oakland, and its aftershock was felt in similar creative spaces throughout the country. While their album had already taken shape, bassist and vocalist Shannon Shaw tells me how the group ended up incorporating the fatal fire into their new release.
“I don’t know if [guitarist and vocalist] Cody [Blanchard] felt the same way as me, but I wasn’t sure if I should or not,” Shaw tells me earnestly. “It was one of those things that me and the other people in that world have experienced. It was just on everyone’s mind all the time, and it still is, really.”
I can hear in her voice that while this is something the greater DIY community may have moved on from, it’s now forever ingrained in the fabric of their hometown. Shaw confirms my silent guess.
“It continues to f–k people up.”
In an act of healing – not just for the Clams, but for all of Oakland – it was weaved into Onion, released earlier this year.
“It became this thing were it would be weird of us to not write about our feelings,” she continues. “To me, that’s what music is: a diary that is important to share because it brings people together and sometimes brings people relief. I felt like I would not be being myself if I didn’t express myself in regards to the fire. God, I’ve written a lot of sad songs in my time, but when I wrote these, they were more for other people.”
Shaw and Blanchard have had different feelings in the wake of the fire, but both felt their band could express the way in which it affected them through music.
“I wanted people to know it was okay to feel everything,” Shaw explains, “and to be open about it and to try and grasp and remember all the amazing ways they’ve influenced our scene, and to let people know they won’t be forgotten. Cody’s take was to explain the plight of the artist, and what it’s like to be forced into the shadows, and all the cool and amazing things that happen in the shadows that people miss. I think that ended up being this really unexpected part of the album. Obviously, we didn’t know that was going to happen and we had a lot of material. But when it happened, that event took over.”
Even though Onion’s subject matter is deeply personal and at times heavy, the album does not stray from the Clams’ trademark brand of 60s-inspired, R&B-tinged psychedelic pop. When I ask her about how moments on Onion manage to be musically fun even when lyrically sad, the idea of music being a mirror to everyday life resurfaces.
“The lyrical content is there, but maybe trying to mask the vibe, but also I kind of think that’s a metaphor for life. Nothing is completely black and white, and using art or music as a tool to reflect that – the big picture or the full scene – that comes naturally.”
Their signature sound was fortified further with the help of Dan Auerbach, frontman of The Black Keys, and a fan of the Clams. Before the band signed to Auerbach’s Easy Eye label, Shaw embarked on a solo journey to his Nashville studio as part of his Easy Eye Sound Revue and to record her solo album. An incredibly accomplished musician in her own right, Shaw notes that her newfound creative partnership with Auerbach kept her on her toes.
“The Dan stuff threw me for a loop, because it’s a totally different world. It’s the big time. I come from the DIY punk zone. I’m comfortable in those shadows. I think to be somewhere shiny and pro instead of recording in a bedroom was intimidating – it’s just as simple as that.”
Shannon later returned to Nashville, the Clams in tow, to mold Onion into the lush and layered gem it became with Auerbach by their side.
“Dan is so good at seeing the big picture, and he also has this huge mental catalog – and really good taste – of sounds and instruments. He could just listen to our songs – which were already pretty good – and have these ideas for things we’d never even thought of. He just knows how far you can take a song: how many layers of stuff [and] how many guitars can you get on there before it’s too much.”
The band’s roots, their “shadows,” were not forgotten in the sparkle of a new producer and album, though. Shaw explains what she’s most looking forward to on the tour they’re about to embark on, and it’s not the big cities that thrill her.
“There’s a tiki bar out in Wilmington, North Carolina, and they have a big dock. At the end of the dock they have bands play right over the ocean. They’ve been asking us to play for years and it’s just never worked out with our routing and our schedule to go all the way out to the beach and play, so we’re doing that this year and I’m so excited. I’ve never played over the water.”
It’s clear that the Clams are on to their next adventure, with hope in the face of tragedy and shimmering sounds in tow.
Catch Shannon and the Clams at U Street Music Hall on Thursday, July 26. Big Huge and Gauche open. Doors at 7 p.m. Tickets are $15. And don’t miss the after-party with DJ Baby Alcatraz and Rob Macy at Dodge City. Doors at 10 p.m. Free.