Shannon and the Clams make classically stripped-down music: over tautly-played guitars, the interweaving vocals of Shannon Shaw and Cody Blanchard lay out surreal narratives. It’s a timeless style, and it works. Their new album, Dreams in the Rat House, continues their tradition of taking a solid garage-rock sound and taking it to surreal places. (Think The Cramps; think Panther Burns.) It doesn’t hurt that both Shaw and Blanchard also make music as part of other, equally impressive, groups: Hunx and His Punx and King Lollipop. We caught up with Blanchard after the trio’s European tour to talk Lovecraft, vocal harmonies, and the swirling cover art of Dreams in the Rat House.
The title of Dreams in the Rat House seems to nod pretty strongly in the direction of H.P. Lovecraft. Was that sense of surreal cosmic horror something you had in mind as you were writing these songs?
A very strong nod indeed! This sense of surreal cosmic horror is always on my mind. It’s my favorite thing to think about. I think the title is a perfect fusion of my influences and Shannon’s influences. (The Rat House was an old shack on Shannon’s family property that was a big part of her childhood and the image is highly nostalgic for her and representative of childhood and growing up.) I tend to write more fantasy fairy tale lyrics and Shannon tends to write more nostalgic/personal/family lyrics.
How do you know whether a song you’re writing will fit for Shannon and the Clams or another of your projects? Has writing for multiple groups made your songwriting change?
It’s almost always clear from the beginning where the song will go. You can just tell. A song will either feel like a Clams song right away, or it will feel like something else. Having these other projects just gives us more outlets and I think stimulates us to write even more songs.
When you came through New York in June, you played at both Bowery Ballroom and Death by Audio. What’s the experience of playing each of those spaces like?
They were both amazing and completely opposite. Death by Audio is incredible and so claustrophobic and sweaty and packed with people. We played our first NYC show there like 5 years ago. It’s definitely more punk and more our scene I think. The Bowery is very big and beautiful and they have a very nice backstage and the staff is very helpful and nice. It’s totally the opposite. At Death by Audio, it’s all “do it yourself”. You just take care of yourself and you gotta squeeze through crowds of sweaty people. We love it. The Bowery is very hands-off, and you just have 2 or 3 staff helping you do everything and you just hang out in the backstage the whole time because it’s so comfortable and nice back there. DBA is definitely more hands-on and forces you to be part of the crowd and be involved with the audience. But every once in a while, you do just want to escape to a little private backstage and be alone! It’s helpful for costume changes too!
How much of the vocal give-and-take is worked out beforehand, and how much of it comes from practices and playing live?
Almost all of it is worked out before hand. Shannon usually has ideas about who will sing what and all of the backup parts. It’s already constructed in her head. But, almost always, during recording or practicing, somebody will improvise and come up with something great. Good stuff usually happens when you just play a song over and over and over, or even just part of a song. Just play it in a loop and something good always happens.
Where did the cover concept of Dreams in the Rat House come from? Looking at the LP, there’s also a significant contrast between that and the photo of the band on the inside.
The cover was Cody’s creation initially. It was actually just a draft of an idea and we were just using to get started. He threw together this little photo montage from a bunch of portraits that were shot by Kaliisa Conlon about a year previously, and put them over a blurry color backdrop. It was inspired by old 70s record covers and those 80s movie posters that have the montage portrait paintings and partly by Bollywood movie posters where there a lot of close-ups of people’s faces in various states of melodrama. We wanted it to look like a poster for a very weird dramatic film. Actually we were trying to come up with something better or more interesting, but nothing really came together. Our old drummer Ian was working on this crazy volcanic prehistoric forest diorama sculpture thing that ended up being the back cover. We didn’t feel it was strong enough in the end to be the front cover, so we went back to the portrait montage thing. We added a collage of outer space photography as a backdrop and overlaid a sort of crystal ball bubble shape as a nod to the Wizard of Oz, which we love so much aesthetically. The bubble shape was actually a photo of Ian with his head inside this 60s clear plastic hair salon hair dryer thing. We erased his face from the middle and just used the round bubble edge.
For the lettering, we contacted this amazing text artist named Caitlyn Galloway. She nailed it exactly on the first try. I sent her a bunch of Victorian lettering and old fairy tale book lettering and early 20th century product logos and some musical notation and said “Uh…something like this? Like if you can just mix all of this together, that’d be great,” and she totally nailed it 100%.
We wanted to mix it up on the inside, so we put in that weird dark rainy photo in. We didn’t want all the art to be too similar. That was from the same photo shoot with Kaliisa Conlon, but it was a terrible day. We flew her out in March intending to shoot outdoors, but it was nonstop crazy rain the whole week. Eventually we just went outside in heavy rain and shot a bunch of photos in the rainy forest. It turned out really cool and dark I think, but it was miserable standing in the rain for hours and Kaliisa was running around in crazy high heels in the mud, it was fantastic.
What have all of you been reading lately?
We’ve been reading a lot of Murakami. Shannon has read almost all of his books. She picks out the best ones and recommends them to the rest of the band. Also read recently, Blood Meridian, which is unbelievable good and scary and The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, classic H.P. Lovecraft witchery, necromancy and paranoia. Also Shannon reads lots of paparazzi trash magazines and books about serial killers. She gets herself all scared when we end up at a truck stop in the middle of nowhere. Any of these strangers could be a serial killer!!!!
Photo: Kaliisa Conlon