How to 'Ruin Xmas': Shannon & the Clams issue a punky take on the holiday classics

Shannon and the Clams are the gaudy red tinsel of Christmas spirit. The members of this Oakland garage-pop trio are discussing kitschy holiday music in their van on the long drive between New Orleans and Austin — a timely topic, given the recent release of their own Christmas seven-inch. Over the phone, they mention an affinity for Phil Spector's 1963 compilation A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector, along with that Hawaiian holiday song in the National Lampoon classic, Christmas Vacation.

“I hate when people act like they are too cool for dumb stuff like holidays,” guitarist Cody Blanchard says. “I have tons of Christmas clothes and weird Santas around my house.”

Hence the band's own holiday exploits. Last year, singer-bassist Shannon Shaw decided the trio should cover her favorite Christmas song, Mariah Carey's “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” as a present for friends. Those friends loved the CD-R so much that the group laid down more holiday songs this year for a proper record, released late last month by Oakland indie 1-2-3-4 Go! Records. The seven-inch, Shannon and the Clams Ruin Christmas, includes fuzzy, punk-infused covers of “Blue Christmas,” “Mele Kalikimaka,” and, naturally, “All I Want for Christmas Is You.”

As on past Clams releases, Shaw and Blanchard share vocal responsibilities. Blanchard's technical surf guitar skills shine through buzzsaw feedback and Shaw's smooth Danelectro bass lines, all of which are bolstered by heavy hits from drummer Ian Amberson. While Blanchard croons convincingly, her tough-yet-sweet voice truly takes charge of the worn-in Christmas lyrics, delivering them with a startlingly raw force.

Shaw is the kind of adult who young, weird girls strive to be. She's stunning like a bad buxom girl out of John Waters' Cry-Baby, with a voluminous pouf of bleached-blond hair. Her vocal pipes shift from dreamy, aching doo-wop to searing hard-edged punk within a verse — which can make for inspired listening. “We've had a lot of couples tell us they bang each other to our music and it makes them superhorny,” she says.

Shannon and the Clams formed in the summer of 2007 in a house dubbed the Fanny Shack in northwest Oakland, right below a BART overpass. Amberson and Blanchard lived there together after moving to the Bay Area from Idaho and Oregon, respectively. The group first bonded over a shared love of Phil Spector and old-school doo-wop, but the members also enjoy writing classic punk songs. The band blends the two styles to get its sound — a frequent occurrence now, thanks to trash doo-wop acts like King Khan & BBQ Show. But Blanchard says some groups just don't get the mix right. “There a lot of people that really want to emulate that '60s [sound], but because they come from a punk background they end up dumbing it down and simplifying it,” he says. “They don't spend the time to do all the intricate, cool, subtle stuff that makes those old songs great.” With 2009's I Wanna Go Home, Shannon and the Clams proved their ability to maintain this tricky balance. The album sounds like the Shangri-La's met X and made a sun-worshiping surfer love child. 

In the years since forming, Shannon and the Clams have wrongly been described as “queercore,” whatever that means. “People think we're gay all the time, or that we're a gay activist band,” Blanchard laughs. “Probably because we have so many gay buddies and play so many gay-centric events.” For the record, no one in the band is gay, but Shaw is also in San Francisco band Hunx & His Punx, which Blanchard describes as a “a really gay band.”

Anyway, nothing the band members do for the holidays now can match the awkwardness of their childhood ones. Shaw, who comes from a religious background, may have the weirdest story. When she was a kid in Napa, she used to tour veterans' homes with her Mormon group to sing Christmas carols — but the children were never met with tears of joy or warm embraces. “We got kicked out of every room because they didn't like Mormon kids,” she says. “They were terrifying and scary old veterans.” So for this ex-Mormon, singing those dorky holiday songs to a bunch of punk kids isn't too hard.

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