The relics of the modern world can be found almost naturally among the Bay Area's vast garage and DIY rock scenes. Striking up a correspondance with Shannon and the Clams, we explore their new album Dreams in the Rat House from Hardly Art with its reflections of yesterday sounds heralding from the dreams and the worlds of imagination. From the group's 50's and 60's music model for transferring internal and mental emotions to the corresponding space-fantasyland-waves reminiscent of the McGuires Sisters, Zager & Evans, Marc Bolan, etc; we talked to Shannon Shaw and Cody Blanchard about how these vintage backdrops work with retro fairy tale tropes that are put toward today's times and expressions.
So my first question spans that space between the upcoming album, Dreams in the Rat House and the 1950s, and your collective revisionist dreams of the 50s sound being faithfully reconstructed as if assembled with that same analogous recording gear with new attitudes and new blood. When and where did that golden era of musical interest become keen to you all?
Shannon: I don't think I try to write music that sounds like it's from the 50's, but oldies are the music I grew up listening to. I think tunes from the 50's and 60's are so ingrained in me as a model for transferring emotions out of your head through your mouth that my songs often have that flavor or spice to 'em. Also back then, people really sang. It's rare these days to hear people lay it all out like that. I feel like a loud yet controlled, emoting voice is such a vulnerable thing. I know that when I get to singing really passionately, I feel like my dress just fell off, or my pants ripped in front of a crowd of asshole teens and boy is that special!
Cody: I always loved that stuff when I was a young boy, but only passively. I didn't realize how much I deeply secretly loved it until I moved to Oakland and it started appearing around me more and more, with all of the r & b and soul and oldies dance nights and DJs and things. Moving here introduced me to the wide variety and depth of music from the 50s and 60s that I never knew about before. I think what limited my passion for the style was that I didn't know there was anything beyond Top 40. Once I started discovering all these weird B-sides and regional artists and underground acts and the … Bottom 40 I guess, from that time period, I went wild and really fell in love with it again. There is something weirdly simultaneously both warm/comforting and mysterious/other-wordly about the recording quality from that era. It's like it came from a distant dimension, but that entire dimension looks strangely like your favorite uncle's big old American house in a perpetual summertime, with a big old yard full of dogs and baseballs.
With the storytelling mysticism from songs attributing “Princess Ozma” or “Rip Van Winkle” to the sci-fi fairy tale creatures of Gremlins from the “Gremlins Crawl” single, what is the connection and fascination of the fantastical in your collective songwriting?
Do these classic and familiar characters also work in any way in conjunction of helping to re-shape the more analogous tropes of your music toward something otherworldly with your own current era, sonic garage leanings?
S: I love metaphors and allegories and I think fairy tales are part of that family. I think it's boring (and uncomfortable!) to directly sing exactly what you mean. I like giving my issues little costumes so they are still private but can be interpreted by people however they need. I am also really inspired by the visuals paired with the fairy tales from the turn of the century. I obsessed over my mother’s childhood copies of Grimm's and Mother Goose and Aesop's Fables and memorized all the attention to detail and emotion the artists put into each illustration. Those have haunted me since I was just a little dude and I know they influence my art and, in a way, my music.
C: I live in a fantasy most of the time. The most enjoyable way I relate to things is through imagining or projecting them into a fantastical daydream. I think I just love the strange and I love the far-out ideas that people come up with, all the way from wild tribal religion and folklore to modern science fiction and TV and even (especially) the bizarre ways and characters that people invent to advertise products. I like seeing people's outlandish ideas presented in whatever form, polished or not. It's always shocking to me what average square people are willing to accept, in terms of total weirdness snuck into mundane stuff. I love hearing an old pop song about a wizard or elves or outer space, like the McGuire Sisters' “Will There Be Space on a Space Ship” or Zager & Evans' “In The Year 2525”. I am also deeply critical of vague/generic/predictable lyrics. It's sometimes a deal-breaker for me, whether or not I like a song. It drives me crazy to be able to predict what someone is going to say in a song, or to hear all the lyrics and not be able to make sense of them because they are so shrouded and personal. Unless there is good imagery, like T. Rex. Most people don't try hard enough writing lyrics. They should be required to take poetry and economy of words classes, so the lyrics can stand on their own without song.
Also love that greasy title rocker “Rat House”, how did you both decide on all those psyched out cacophonous backgrounds sounds? It's like if Roky and the Elevators arrived on the scene a decade earlier!
S: I just really wanted to mess around with using the mouth as percussion! I love the instrument that Os Mutantes and 13th Floor Elevators use that sounds like a mouth but I believe it's a jug. I just wanted this song to be as curiously noisy and simple as possible. Ian and Cody had a session together building weird noisemakers, and digging out old ones for the rest.
And speaking of thematic topics, animals and creatures play prominent roles from the band's moniker to the song titles like the aforementioned “Rat House”, “The Rabbits Nose”, or even “Heads and Tails”. Is it because “Rat House” sounds more Wind in the Willows than say if you titled it, “Flop House” or “House of ill repute”?
S: That’s a really interesting point. I am the most disgustingly reminiscent person I know and themes from my childhood echo constantly in my work without me realizing it all the time! For instance, creatures served as symbols and metaphors for humans in fairy tales, cartons, comics, toys. My favorite illustrated books usually starred a mouse-girl or rabbit grandma. I'm sure in certain ways the use of creatures is a nod to that. Also I grew up on a farm more or less, and raised rabbits and chickens, horses, geese, always had a valiant family dog. I feel intensely close still to a few of them that have passed and I know they work their way into some of my stories/songs.
On this album, you both broke out of your love for the 2 and a half minute/3 minute song for genuine long player tracks that hover around the 4 minute mark like on “If I Could Count”, “Unlearn”, to the rave-up closer “I Know”. Was wondering how you both discern which songs are for extended play singles and which songs are for a longer playing release?
S: I think part of why my songs typically are so short is being afraid of taking up too much space, or afraid of really letting it all hang out for all to see. I went out on a limb this time and decided to try something new and say all I had to say in what felt like then the right amount of time. I know it is partially about repetition, cycles, mistakes…So it just seemed right to have it go on, on, on, and then surprisingly, things change when you're not expecting it. At least that was the desired result.
The dream world plays a big presence in your music, from the Sleep Talk, and Dreams in the Rat House albums, the sounds of enchantment feel like they are always heading “Into a Dream” or out of a dream. How does the unconscious realm factor into all your songwriting? Do you translate your dream journals?
S: Everybody has dreams, and although EVERYBODY has dreams, you are totally alone when you have them, and people don't usually want to hear about them, even though to you, they may be the most special, intensely wonderful or life ruining experience you've ever had. I had nightmares almost every night for probably the first 7 years of my life (that I was old enough to remember), then in my mid 20's, had a vicious case of sleep paralysis that would get me every night and even haunt me in the day for a few years. I think dreams can affect your waking life and get you thinking, I think they can help you understand things better, or just give you really interesting visual memories that can expand your mind. I know that they have influenced my art, as well as my literature choices. I think of them as a metaphor for communication and a psychedelic vessel for trapped parts of your brain.
C: I don't think that much about dreams. But I definitely try to trust my subconscious as much as possible when writing songs and not question it too much. Especially writing lyrics. I tend to stick with whatever words and story line first come to mind, because I know that, even if it's unconscious, it came from somewhere real and good and instinctual and raw. And if I start second-guessing and examining it too much, I can easily lose my meaning or my initial impetus. Writing that way is almost like a dream that you didn't actually have, but you let pieces of this unfinished, unrealized dream come to the surface instinctively and without apparent meaning and give them the body of a song. And maybe, if you don't write that song, you would've eventually had that dream later on.