Inside the Shell: An Interview with Shannon and the Clams’ Cody Blanchard and Nate Mahan

We’ve been trying to keep it really efficient. Lately I’ve been less ambitious with stage elements and more focused on our sound.

The indie garage-punk quartet Shannon and the Clams has been electrifying the nation with a vintage sound which incorporates elements of doo-wop, classic R&B, garage psych and surf rock into their high energy performances. At Panorama Music Festival we had a chance to catch up with guitarist Cody Blanchard and drummer Nate Mahan to discuss their extensive touring schedule, recording their most recent album Onion (produced by Black Key’s Dan Auerbach), and their plans for the future.

Ryan Randazzo (RR): Your music is described in many different ways from doo-wop, surf rock, R&B, psychedelic; you’ve got an entire array of genres in there. How did you sound form to become what it is now?

Cody Blanchard (CB): It was all Shannon at first. She was playing open mics by herself and just really wanted to love that ‘60’s girl group sound. Then we started a really ramshackle band in 2008 with different people, and it was really punk because we were sloppy and 21 years old. We just kind of rolled with it and made it fun. Then we got better and started working with better people, like Nate our current drummer for the past few years, and he is better than our old drummer. It just got tighter and we added a keyboard player, so that allowed us to get more nuanced, bigger sounds. I also think we get really restless musically and want to explore new zones. Then we hear more different kinds of music we’ve never heard before and it all gets mixed in.

RR: What kind of music are you guys into right now?

CB: I’ve been into some old country stuff. I’ve been really into mid to late ‘80’s synth driven R&B stuff. There’s this period of music that me and my wife have been trying to describe and we call it “cocaine comedown,” and it’s like late ‘70s early ‘80s. It almost sounds like disco, but it’s low and everything’s sad sounding. It sounds like the next day. Some of The Eagles’ later shit sounds like that, and Lindsey Buckingham has a couple of really clean and tight sounding tracks. I love that stuff right now. It’s very sad disco music. What do you think?

Nate Mahan (NM): I don’t know. I’ve still been high out on the early country; just exploring. California country music in particular. The Central Valley is such a strange part of California and there are so many weird genres that originate from it.

CB: It’s the frontier of the frontier.

NM: Yeah. It’s not the fancy part of California. You think the fancy part of California, you think San Francisco or L.A., which is glamorous, but the Central Valley has this whole working class thing. It’s strange that it would yield a band like Korn. I’ve been listening to Korn a lot. It’s just a strange zone for creative activity for whatever reason, and I’ve been exploring that recently myself.

RR: You recently released Onion which was produced by the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach. How was working with him, and how was creating this album different from other albums you’ve done in the past?

CB: Very different. He’s a very hands on producer. He likes to get really into the song structure and add tons of layers. It was cool not being responsible for everything. Our first few albums we recorded ourselves and I just felt like we were always doing everything. It was rad to have an outside party to come in and contribute stuff or just have a totally outside perspective on it.

NM: Getting songs down fast and having lots of time to explore what we could do with them and mess with the arrangements. I feel like it works to such an advantage when you know that what you have is quality and you can really just go from there and build it.

CB: Yeah, start with a strong foundation and layer a bunch of crazy shit on top of it. The other thing is his studio is extremely streamlined, so I think because he likes to add lots of instruments really fast and not have to wait around to move things in the studio or something. I’ve never seen that before. Most studios you’ll have to go in the closet and haul out the vibraphone, then get out the microphone, and it takes like an hour. He doesn’t have that much stuff, but it’s all ready to go. You can just record that and go, which is cool and inspiring.

NM: Yeah definitely because if you wander by an instrument, see it and go, “I’m hearing something,” he’ll say, “Great, record.” Five minutes, done. Efficient.

RR: You guys have a really extensive touring schedule. You’re going to Europe then coming back to the West Coast and working your way east. How have you noticed your audience differs from region to region, and what would you describe as your favorite market/which one do you feel you need to break into more?

CB: One of our biggest markets is the L.A. area. A lot of young kids there, and a lot of really high energy kids out there. Some really great shows. Europe has been slow for us because we’ve worked with so many different booking agents. I don’t know – we just keep changing, but I think we’re trying to do some of the bigger festivals in Europe to get our name out there. In Europe, I’ve definitely noticed in the Netherlands people are very stiff as an audience. They’re very cool and friendly, but as an audience they’re very stiff. No dancers. I love the U.K. a lot, which most bands don’t like for some reason. We do well there, and I really like the people; they’re really rowdy.

It’s been interesting touring with Dan Auerbach because our audience is generally very rowdy and unruly, and Dan’s audience, who didn’t know our material also, was very pleasant and mild mannered, so that was kind of fun.

RR: How were your first few shows with his audience?

CB: They loved it. It was a really different vibe. New Orleans is a very rowdy place, which I love.

NM: Florida too. There’s something about that hot weather, you just want to have a good time.

RR: How do you feel your shows differ from a festival set like today at Panorama and your normal touring shows?

CB: They’re shorter at festivals. It probably sounds better when we’re touring because we do a normal soundcheck. We’re not as close to the audience at festivals; there’s more an energetic distance so it doesn’t feel as intimate. I feel like we play pretty much the same. We usually do an hour to an hour and fifteen minute set on our normal tours so festivals are just a little shorter.

RR: I was talking to a couple of your fans after your set, and asked them if they had anything they’d want me to ask you, so their question was: “If you guys all live so far apart from one another, how does your songwriting and recording process work?”

CB: We each usually make demos at home then meet up for a week or less and rehearse. Usually if we have a show, we meet a few days early. The last record, we met in Oakland and rehearsed a bit then met in Seattle and recorded demos of the songs at a friend’s house with the full band. I feel like next time, going into Auerbach’s studio, we can come less prepared. I feel like we were pretty well prepared last time, but I feel like we could show up and fuck around more. Everything seemed rushed at a different studio before that, so I was going into it like, “We’ve got to be ready with each song,” but it’s tough because stuff is expensive. Playing the songs as a group is also SO different from the recording process.The end product of recording with Dan is different. The things that end up on top are so different from what was originally on top of the recording.

RR: Are there any elements of your sound or show that you feel like you’d want to add? Maybe a new light rig, psychedelic images, new instruments?

NM: I think we all have plenty of ideas (laughs).

CB: I used to think about that stuff all the time, then I started realizing that the return of investment on energy is pretty low. I think people are happy with a very human show or experience. But if we had tons of money… we’ve had tons of weird ideas.

RR: What’s your weirdest?

CB: I used to want to do weird sketches on stage and crazy costumes; hire our own lighting person and do our own spotlights. I used to want to do weird inflatable creatures and shit on stage. I made some animatronic, weird monster one time for our record release show three years ago. I just took old toys that are motorized and moved around, but put different things on the outside so they looked totally different. I put real animal fur and fake eyeballs on them; that was cool. That shit is just a lot of extra effort and takes up a lot of space, and we want to focus on the music. We’ve been trying to keep it really efficient. Lately, I’ve been less ambitious with stage elements and more focused on our sound.

RR: What are your big plans for 2019?

CB: I’ll bet we record next year. I think I’ll be ready. I think it’ll be a faster turnaround because when we recorded our last album, Dan’s label wasn’t quite ready for records to come out, so we had to wait a year. I think we’ll record. I would like to.

NM: Hopefully we go and visit Australia.

CB: Yeah, we were talking about trying to go to Australia or Japan, we’ve just never had a good connection. We’d love to do either of those. We’re heading to Mexico City later in the year, and I would love to go to South America and Central America. I feel like that audience would love it also. We’ve met a few bands from there, like big bands, and they always say, “You’ve got to come down.” Hopefully we’ll get a chance.