Year of the Spider, the title of the sixth album from Oakland favorites Shannon and the Clams, sounds like it could be a commentary on the creepy, crawly year we’ve just lived through. Shannon Shaw, the band’s namesake, bass player and one of the quartet’s main songwriters, told the Express the title has more to do with personal trauma than the pandemic.
“I’ve had a crippling fear of spiders since I was a kid,” Shaw said. “They‘ve been drawn to me since I was a baby. It’s been a nightmare. I’d pick up a cluster of grapes and, if a spider fell out, I’d throw them away. I had to find a way to reframe the things that scare me the most, so I started looking at them as beautiful creatures that control their own ecosystem. The songs on the album are reflections on that power of transformation. It has dark subject matter, but there’s also some uplifting advice on surviving the things we all go through.”
The album contains some of the most sonically adventurous tunes the band has ever put together. Guitarist Cody Blanchard, the band’s other main songwriter; keyboard player and multi-instrumentalist Will Sprott; drummer and instrumental wiz Nate Mahan; and Shaw let their collective creativity run wild. The band’s familiar hybrid, a blend of indie rock, rockabilly, ’60s girl group harmonies, surf music and ’50s radio hits, is still in evidence, but the expansive arrangements contain unexpected delights.
“Sometimes we have a specific sound we wanted for a song,” Blanchard said. “Other times, we don’t know where we were going. Shannon and I are the main writers, so sometimes we come into the studio—or our rehearsal space—and say, ‘This is what I want to hear,’ or ‘I don’t know what to do with this idea.’ We write the core of the songs separately, sending each other little snippets as we’re working on them. Then we get together with the band and mash them out. This time, both of us had songs that were Frankensteined together. You have disparate parts going in different directions, and you smash them up and get something surprising.”
Year Of The Spider is the second collection the band has cut for Easy Eye Sound, the label run by Dan Auerbach (The Black Keys). The record came together smoothly. “It was comfortable for everyone,” Shaw said. “Dan has a lot of instruments, amplifiers, keyboards and equipment everywhere you look. When we made Onion with him, in 2018, it was the first time we recorded in Nashville. We felt like we were in a new world, surrounded by all kinds of gear. It took time to get everyone in the groove. This time, we knew what to expect. The boys [Blanchard, Sprott, Mahan] all play lots of instruments, so they experimented with new sounds. We recorded all day, messing around, trying out ideas and recording everything we did. Dan helped us put those bits and pieces together.”
“Do I Wanna Stay,” a slow, soulful ballad, opens the album with a powerful vocal from Shaw full of longing and unfulfilled desire. It’s a tender examination of loneliness, intensified by Sprott’s despondent organ and Blanchard’s brittle guitar accents. The band jumps in with a stomping beat on “Midnight Wine,” an ironic celebration of self-destruction. Blanchard’s mournful howl is undercut by a bright chorus of “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” A galloping rhythm halfway between surf music and a Spaghetti Western soundtrack gives “Leaves Fall Again” a haunted feel. Shaw and Blanchard’s country harmonies lament the coming of long winter nights without a partner. Blanchard’s eerie guitar solo could have come out of Joe Meek’s “Telstar.”
After finishing the album, the band began preparing for a tour to support it. Then the lockdown happened. “It was hard at first, knowing the record wasn’t coming out and we’d have to cancel the shows we’d planned,” Blanchard said. “Finally, I decided to forget about it and do other stuff. I have a three-year-old, and that took up a lot of time. I’d also been thinking about a line of synthesizers for kids, so I taught myself to design and manufacture them.”
Shaw echoed his sentiments. “It felt like the end of the world. We’ve been on tour constantly the last nine years, nomads living out of suitcases, hardly ever home in Oakland. I moved to my mom’s house in the country and reconnected with myself. I cooked dinners, exercised and taught myself how to play guitar. It’s hard to be quiet, but I started seeing things I never noticed—hummingbirds on my mom’s porch and deer in the fields. I’ve been through a lot of crazy stuff in the last few years, so I had to wrap my mind around my life getting quiet for a while.”