Painting: Shannon Shaw
Design: Perry Shall
Year Of The Spider
Available August 20, 2021
Photo: Kristin Cofer
“I am terrified of spiders,” says Shannon Shaw. “My mom always told me that they’re drawn to me. Like, they would drop down and dangle in my face as a baby, or they’d get in my bed.”
But the powerhouse singer-bassist of retro-rock band Shannon and the Clams had bigger fears when she went to an astrologer two years ago. Shaw was at an emotional tipping point — willing to try anything — because everything she loved was falling apart.
“It felt like the end of an era,” Shaw said, which began to unravel in 2016 with the tragic Ghost Ship warehouse fire in the Clams’ DIY community in Oakland. In 2018, the California wildfires in Napa almost caused her parents to evacuate their homes. In 2019, a lurking intruder drove Shaw out of the beloved apartment she’d lived in for 14 years. And then, right as her band was getting invited on big tours with bands like Greta Van Fleet and the Black Keys, her father was diagnosed with cancer.
“The idea of leaving my family was agonizing — it was torture,” Shaw says. The astrologer told her to summon Durga when she felt powerless, a Hindu goddess who holds a weapon in each of her eight arms. Shaw immediately saw the connection. “The symbolism of the spider made a full turn in an interesting way,” she said. “I was getting protection from the thing I feared the most.” Plus, she said with a laugh, “Spiders destroy the bullshit bugs. Like mosquitoes. Who needs ‘em?”
Year of the Spider, the band’s sixth studio album, rages against death and disease with the power of a thousand angry Ronettes. The opening track “Do I Wanna Stay” is a slow tango between Shaw and an alluring piano line (Will Sprott). When Shaw rasps “I dream at night,” she sounds like Brenda Lee whittled into a shiv. “Godstone” tells the story of a surreal underwater experience. “All of My Cryin,’” “Mary Don’t Go,” and “Year of the Spider,” all pulse with elegance and punk ferocity. On a Clams record, you always get both.
That duality comes from the decade-long creative partnership between Shaw and the Clams’ guitarist Cody Blanchard. In “I Need You Bad,” their voices lock into bewitching minor chords. “It’s like a zipper when we sing together,” Shaw said, “I think we have a blood harmony, though we’re not related.” Bands that do have blood harmonies — the Everly Brothers, the BeeGees — are major musical touchstones for them. But unlike their forebears, Shaw and Blanchard are close friends. They live 15 minutes away from each other and when both are in town, will rehearse in the goat shed turned recording studio that Blanchard built in his yard.
Blanchard mixed Spider at Dan Auerbach’s Easy Eye Sound Studios the same week tornadoes devastated parts of Nashville right before the COVID-19 shutdowns in early 2020. He also wrote and sings lead on roughly half the songs on Spider. His songs, like “Flowers Will Return” and “In the Hills, In the Pines,” have swelling pop arrangements and a mysteriously sparse falsetto, reminiscent of bands like the Hollies and the Association.
As a songwriter, Blanchard said he can get neurotic, so he tried Dolly Parton’s trick of writing songs from another person’s point of view. It worked, yielding Spider’s darkest songs: the howling “Crawl,” which has a roiling hard-rock guitar (“that was really fun — just a classic, rippin’ ‘70s guitar solo”) and “Midnight Wine,” a thundering baroque-pop number that was inspired by friends and people in the Oakland arts community who died of drug overdoses over the last few years.
“I was thinking specifically of the feeling of alienation,” said Blanchard. “Where it feels like nothing in society works for you. The only thing that makes sense is to get fucked up to the point where you don’t care if you die or not because life is too difficult and bleak.”
Spider ends with the slinky Motown-esque, “Vanishing.” Shaws dons her spiritual spider armor once more, singing directly and poignantly to her father (who is doing well, she said.) At first, Shaw wondered if the lyrics were too personal to put on the record.
“It’s very emotional, very tender,” she said. “I also had these ideas that made no sense, like having the weird call-and-response, but we made it work so it was one of those songs that gave me the chance to grow.”