Year of the Spider: Shannon and the Clams on contrasting happy with sad, working with Dan Auerbach + vintage tees?

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Year of the Spider: Shannon and the Clams on contrasting happy with sad, working with Dan Auerbach + vintage tees?

Words by David James Young

Shannon and Cody chat about their new record with us.

When one half of Shannon and the Clams – eponymous frontwoman Shannon Shaw and guitarist Cody Blanchard – join the Zoom meeting with Mixdown, they could not find themselves in more disparate scenarios.

The latter is holed up in his attic, which has been converted into a makeshift studio. The former, however, is on vacation with her husband and wandering around her hotel room to get better reception. Despite being in such different situations, however, the two are immediately on the same wavelength when it comes down to discussing their music. This may well be the modern signifier of intra-band kinship – even when at a distance, the connection is still undeniably there.

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Connection, indeed, is key on the Clams’ sixth studio album Year of the Spider. It’s arguably their most personal to date, with Shaw addressing the turmoil of dealing with both the loss of her father and a stalker within quick succession of one another.

What’s curious, however, is how these traumatic experiences are contrasted with the band’s vintage-filtered take on garage pop – see the deceptively-upbeat title track to see this in action. So, was the Clams’ plan to create their own Trojan horse? Not necessarily. “I have to write this song dealing with this super fucked up thing, but I don’t necessarily want that to be the first read,” Shaw reasons.

“Occasionally it is conscious, to put it with an upbeat song. A lot of the time, though that’s just how it happens. In saying that, I feel like that goes along with a lot of the things I’m going through. I’m having to tell myself constantly to learn from my experiences, bad and good. To keep my chin up, and make the best of things. I feel like that is kind of a theme that repeats through a lot of my songs about darker material.”

For Blanchard as a songwriter, it’s not as much about the weight of responsibility in helping Shaw to exercise her demons – it’s ultimately about serving the song, and by proxy the album as a whole. “There’s a lot of times where one of us will write a song that feels like a really important or just really cool story,” he says. “That’s not a guarantee the song will work, though – sometimes, it just doesn’t. Either it’s cut for time, or we’ll take a song with five verses down to two. You can’t be precious about it. You’ve got to be a little tough with it.”

With both the personal nature on Shaw’s end and the refined-gold approach of Blanchard, one could easily argue that Year of the Spider is also the Clams’ best LP. A blend of garage rock, soul and blues that can only come with both a distinctive framework and a solidified line-up that knows one another mile-long. This circle of trust, however, isn’t bound solely to the four members of the band. It’s also expanded to include Dan Auerbach, who plays in a small up-and-coming band called The Black Keys. When he’s not doing that, he is a record producer – and Year of the Spider marks his third album he and Shaw have worked on together.

“We brought Dan in to do my solo album, Shannon in Nashville,” says Shaw. “That was a different dynamic than when the Clams came in for [last album, 2018’s] Onion, though. It took us a little bit to get started, and we had a lot of kinks to work out. Once we got going, that said, it was awesome. I felt like when we came in to do Year of the Spider, everyone knew what they were doing. Everyone was on the same page.”

Blanchard agrees: “Everybody knew what to expect going in, and we’d established what everybody does,” he says. “It’s really easy once you’re there – Dan is so easy to talk to. We know and love all the same shit, so we’ll go out the back when we’re not recording and just put on albums for reference.” As it turns out, this isn’t the only bond that Auerbach has struck up with the Clams’ guitarist. “They send each other links to cool 60s shirts on eBay!” laughs Shaw.

Anyone who’s seen Auerbach either live or in the studio knows that the guy knows his way around plenty of vintage instruments and gear, so the question is put to the Clams as to what kind of itinerary was in use when tracking Year of the Spider. As it turns out, it’s the colour blue short of a bridal dress in there – something old, something new and something borrowed is always in the mix. “We always bring our own shit, but we usually just use it for the first day and then start using other stuff,” says Blanchard.

“I guess it’s because we already know how our own stuff sounds? To be honest, I’m not really a gear-head. There’s like 50 guitars on the wall in the studio, and I don’t really know what they all do. Dan obviously knows all of them, though, and our drummer Nate [Mahan] knows all about guitars. Usually, one of them would just pick out a guitar for me depending on the song.” As for Shaw, she’s faithful to her Danelectro bass – and plans on keeping it that way.

“It’s easy to feel like a kid in a candy store when you’re in there,” she says. “You want to try everything! Will [Sprott, keyboardist] has probably played almost every keyboard and piano that’s in the building. But yeah, I just usually play my Danelectro. There was a really nice Harmony [H-22] that was in the studio that I liked playing, but I was told it wasn’t good for recording. I always end up back with the Danelectro anyway.” Shaw laughs, adding: “Maybe Danelectro should make Shannon and the Clams a signature model!” The Clams are then introduced to the Aussie slang of “sponno” – ie. getting a sponsorship. “We want that!” cackles Shaw. “A sponno!”

Year of The Spider is out now via Easy Eye Sound / Concord.