MUSIC "This is where the heartbeat is. Does that sound cocky?" Shannon Shaw, bold-voiced singer and bassist from Oakland's Shannon and the Clams, is cautious how she answers my question. She's in a booth, finishing up her fries at Grubstake, just off of Polk Street. The eatery is my suggestion for a pre-performance chat about the band's new album, Sleep Talk (1-2-3-4 Go! Records), slated for release April 5.
Amid the bustling dinner-time sounds of the restaurant, Cody Blanchard, the guitarist, eats something vegetarian, while Ian Amberson, the group's drummer, opts for the more traditional caldo verde soup. In a few hours Shannon and the Clams is playing a show at the nearby Hemlock Tavern, along with openers Guantanamo Baywatch — a Portland, Ore., band they admire — and Uzi Rash.
The heartbeat Shaw refers to is the Bay Area and its seemingly tight-knit music scene. I'd asked if the group's members if they thought their success could have been achieved anywhere, or if it's something particular to their Oakland stomping grounds.
"The Bay Area is defined by its history of fun punk — stuff like the Mummies, the Trashwomen, and the Bobbyteens," Cody says, in acknowledgment of our locale's rich garage rock history. But as much as they're influenced by the "weird and wild people" they consider like-minded allies, and the strange beauty of Oakland's abandoned neighborhoods, Shannon and the Clams' inspiration also comes from a place in the past, no less strange, sort of dark, yet innocent. Their music is the sound of teenage despair.
NOT QUITE QUEERCORE
I first encountered Shannon and the Clams live at Oakland's Stork Club in early 2009. I'd seen their ridiculous name around before, but didn't know what to expect. They'd been categorized as everything from queercore to surf punk to the downright nauseating term retro-billy. "I think the people feel a kinship with us," Cody says, discussing the group's fan base. "People become really comfortable letting their freak flag fly."
Still, Cody doesn't think some of the labels assigned to the band were the best fit. "I'd rather musical genres have more to do with sounds instead of politics, gender, and sexuality," he explains, while acknowledging that it isn't how things often work.
On that night two years ago, Shannon and the Clams turned out a solid performance that incorporated oldies elements such as late-1950s, early-1960s vocal styles and instrumental sounds. The group even covered Del Shannon's "Runaway," which was the moment of confirmation for me. I knew I was hooked and wanted more.
The group's version of "Runaway" is a keeper, but Shannon and the Clams isn't just recycling rock 'n' roll hits from a repressive American era when feelings were bottled up, not talked about. The group's songs and sound possess an individual spirit and personality that ranges from playful to feral, calm (a clam anagram) to cuckoo. Both shine through on Sleep Talk, the follow-up to 2009's I Wanna Go Home, also on 1-2-3-4 Go! Records. The new collection of songs was written and recorded in three weeks.
The Bay Area's most recent wave of psych and garage bands draws from the acid-soaked late-1960s, with results that often come out drone-y, druggy, and dreamlike. But the Clams obviously take note of the less-altered dawn of that same decade, before psilocybin and its closely associated synthetic cousin became the remedy reaction of youth and counterculture. Melodramatic songs of angst and lost love were common.