Gilbert Baker during an interview with ABC-TV for When We Rise, February 2017 Photo: Tony Taylor
Remembering Gilbert Baker 40 years after revealing the iconic Rainbow Flag, creator Gilbert Baker’s story of pride, poverty, and power
Into the art gallery space where an ABC television cameraman and a freelance photographer awaited his arrival, Gilbert Baker spun through the glass doors of 518 Castro Street a little after noon.
An LGBTQ icon and manic artist, he had been running late for our already rescheduled interview. So late that I questioned if he was giving us the Hollywood runaround. But there he was, frazzled and digging through the pockets of a large black winter coat.
“Sorry to keep you waiting,” he said to me and the two others waiting; but unfortunately, Baker had to go back to West Portal. He had lost his iPhone.
It was February 27, 2017 and Baker was in San Francisco to attend the screening of and do promotion for Dustin Lance Black’s ABC-TV dramatization of Cleve Jones’ memoir, When We Rise, a four-part history saga on LGBTQ liberation.
Baker had also brought along his new “shock art” collection.
A compulsive creative whose résumé includes political ensembles and drag queen performance art, Baker’s most famous work allowed him to live with mostly complete anonymity — for better or worse.
Outside the dimmed gallery space through floor to ceiling windows, the drizzly Tuesday afternoon felt like any other day.
Eventually back at the gallery and out of breath, Baker’s damp, shaggy ashen hair clung to the Rolling Stones: Las Vegas t-shirt he wore. His white sneakers squeaked on the gallery floors.
“What’s a new phone anyway, like $800?” he said, jabbing a finger at the recovered device, wide-eyes darting, sparking.
“I resisted [getting a smartphone]. I stuck with the land line and an answering machine. I finally gave in after the 9/11 thing. Then I got so into my cell phone I got rid of my landline!”
My meeting Gilbert Baker came about suddenly. Tipped off by a mutual buddy who’s in-the-know with 1970s gay-San Francisco facts and friends: The creator of the rainbow flag would be in Castro and I should see about getting a 1-on-1 with him.
Naively, I had never considered the rainbow flag was created by a single person.
Then last year, when shocking news of Baker’s fatal heart attack came less than two months after our interview, the importance of preserving and honoring his story for future LGBTQ generations weighed heavier than gold.
On the 40th anniversary of his historic rainbow unveiling, this is just some of Gilbert Baker’s fantastical life story as he told it that afternoon.
Gilbert Baker in San Francisco promoting a mini-series with ABC-TV, February 2017 Photo: Tony Taylor
KEYS TO THE FLAG FACTORY
Born into a conservative Kansas family, Baker arrived in 1972 San Francisco at age 19 via the U.S. Army. During that time’s social and sexual revolutions, Baker made the City his home, living by taking odd jobs as they came up.
“In 1976 we were just coming out of the bicentennial and that was the first time I appreciated the power of flags,” Baker said. “[They were] on jeans and art. You name it, they made it. We [realized we] needed a symbol. A power thing that can turn into everything.”
Baker called 1978 the moment of logos. “Everyone had a thing, like AT&T, and Harvey [Milk] wanted a logo.”
Many found the Greek letter lambda introduced shortly after the 1969 Stonewall riots by New York graphic designer Tom Doerr, too obscure. And many more were eager to replace the pink triangle that the LGBTQ community had reclaimed from its original use by the Nazis to identify homosexuals.
“Harvey was my friend and he did not know how to sew,” Baker said. “I thought farther than [a logo] and said, ‘We need a flag.’”
During San Francisco’s 1978 Gay Freedom Day Parade, 27-year-old Baker and his friends unfurled the first of two 30 by 60 feet Rainbow Flags to all gathered around the Civic Center flagpole.
“It was a hit immediately,” Baker said.
His active moving about the gallery seemed to generate kinetic energy within Baker himself as well as in those of us around him. Within minutes, it was clear that when Gilbert Baker was in a room, people noticed him.
What advice would you give your 27-year-old self?
Without pause, the vexillographer replied: “Make more money.”
He recalled the instant demand. “‘Please make me one! Please make me one!’’”
The original eight-stripe flags were Baker’s favorite: pink, red, orange, yellow, green, turquoise, blue, and violet. But with high demand came high costs, and stripping down the stripes would allow him to produce flags more quickly.
Within a year, he agreed to drop two colors, pink and turquoise, reducing the flag to the familiar six-band format. Baker also designed a rainbow flag he called New Glory based on the American Flag, replacing the familiar 13 stripes of Old Glory with the eight colors of the first rainbow flag.
“I realized I could not satisfy demand, so I thought, ‘I’ll go to a flag company,’” Baker said.
He walked into Paramount Flag Company, he said, with pink hair, turquoise lamé shoes and “they just died.”
Paramount Flag Co., a major flag manufacturer established in early 1930s San Francisco, operated The Flag Store, a retail space at what was 365 Clementina Street, for about a decade starting in 1979.
“They were in the right place at the right moment,” Baker said. “I never had a job, are you kidding? I got a job thanks to the Rainbow Flag. [The Flag Store] gave me a job doing window displays and that got me into a place where I could do fun stuff, ultimately making friends in the factory.”
Baker said he then went flag crazy.
“I had keys to a flag factory and I learned everything about making flags. I saw the whole business evolve from mom and pop shops to an export of [the] garment industry,” he said.
“The [rainbow] flag industry was complicated,” Baker added. “That thing is going ‘ka-ching, ka-ching.’ It was the demand of the public that improved the flag industry… they recognized the rainbow flag as the symbol.”
Tom Taylor and Baker were fast friends who met as volunteers for the 1981 Gay Day Parade. From the top floor of his three-level SOMA workshop, Taylor recalled their beginnings.
“He loved sewing,” Taylor said of Baker. “I was working at topless bar, Pandora’s Box, and he didn’t have money, so he came to work for me [there] sewing big drapes with sequins.”
In addition to sewing flags and garments, Baker was prominently involved with countless political actions.
For two years, between 1981 and 1983, he was a member of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence as Sister Chanel 2001. Later, at a 1990 Gay Pride celebration, Baker would spray-paint himself as a “Pink Jesus,” a “Martyr for Art” to protest U.S. Senator Jesse Helms’ efforts to defund the National Endowment for the Arts, San Francisco Chronicle reported.
Taylor said Baker designed out of his apartment, adding, “half the time he didn’t have an apartment and was living with Dennis [Peron] or here [at the workshop]. And then he decided umpteen years ago that he had to move on to something bigger.”
In 1987, Paramount Flag closed its doors. Still working odd jobs, Baker called on his inner-artist to make a life decision. The demands of his coveted rainbow flag were not enough to sustain him financially.
“I lived in San Francisco for 25 years and I was starving at the top,” Baker said. With aspirations glitzier than San Francisco, he decided New York was the ticket.
“I had done everything and I had no money. I got tired of it. I would walk down Castro Street and see rainbow dildos and dog collars and I can’t pay my rent. It feels shitty. ‘Gilbert, make me a rainbow this or that’… I’m your rainbow ATM. I can’t sustain it.”
So he just packed up and moved to New York?
“That’s exactly what happened,” Taylor confirmed. “He went off to New York to become a famous person there. I felt like I had to keep my mouth shut because he wasn’t going to be the next Andy Warhol. That would hurt his feelings forever. Being his best friend, I couldn’t possibly say ‘You should stay here.’ Cleve [Jones] was always saying ‘You should tell him to come back here,’ but I couldn’t do that.”
Baker was firm in his decision to leave. “When I moved to New York, it was a conscious thing to make art as a thing that I can sell.”
But San Francisco is where he had truly made his mark.
Tom Taylor inside his workshop, July 2018 Photo: Tony Taylor
The San Francisco Chronicle reported that in 1994 Baker left San Francisco for New York City. That summer, with the help of many friends, Baker crafted a mile-long rainbow flag for the 25th Anniversary of 1969’s Stonewall Riots.
“When he got the job for the mile long flag, I took him to the Bobbin Show,” said Taylor. “Every sewing machine ever made [was] on display.”
The Bobbin Show was a special exposition devoted to equipment and technology for the sewn products industry.
“[I told Gilbert,] ‘We have to find out how we’re going to make this, we can’t be fooling around with a regular sewing machine.’ That was my part of the whole scheme,” Taylor added.
The two eventually arrived at the machine which would work best, one similar to those used to stitch inseams of Levi’s denim.
Baker, Taylor, and friends spent the next several months constructing a design that would be carried by some 5000 people. The mile-long display along Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue on June 26, 1994 become another pinnacle of LGBTQ history.
“[The rainbow flag] would never work if someone owned it,” Baker said. “The flag is not property, it’s an idea. It’s celebrated by everything. Though I’ve had characters try to weasel their way into copyright, that’s the beauty and power of it: it belongs to everyone.”
As recurring income, Baker maintained a 16-year ongoing sponsorship around the Pride Flag with Absolut Vodka. Because he decided not to trademark or monetize the flag, he lived most of his life on a relatively modest income generated through sales of his fine art and personally sewn flags.
“He was trying to sell all these different artwork series in New York, but it was not working,” Taylor admitted. “New York society, it’s kinda stuffy and he never made it with the guys with the big money. My lover and I wrote lots of little checks [to Gilbert], but it wasn’t enough.”
Baker admitted that, like many, President Donald Trump’s election left him devastated. With all the political discussions about Trump’s similarities to Hitler’s fascist regime, Baker said he started thinking about how to express his frustrations.
“In 1978, the rainbow [flag] was the answer to the pink triangle,” he said. “But the pink triangle comes from Hitler. My parents were from WWII. I know our history, a sad and horrible chapter in our history. We need to educate ourselves. It could happen again.”
The self-proclaimed Seam Master, Baker said, “After 40 years of sewing rainbows, you get tired of sewing rainbows.”
Inside the art gallery, his latest artwork — a recreation of Auschwitz prison pajamas — was hanging on a garment rack nearby.
“It’s not fashion, it’s art,” he said. “I just love those striped pajamas. We [went through] this in the ‘30s. It’s a timely piece with all the crazy shit going on today.
“I didn’t want to make fashion, I want to make art,” he declared. “It will be shocking! I’m renowned for doing shock art.
Baker described the collection as high fashion that you don’t wear.
“You choose not to wear the uniform of the oppressor. No one should wear them, only look at them. They’re empty, perfect, ready and waiting, just like this horror show of a presidency is waiting to do God knows what.”
Later that afternoon, with ABC’s camera crew in tow, Taylor, Baker and his best friend, Jillian Tripp, attended the San Francisco screening of When We Rise. Tripp remembered feeling “like celebrities, people following us with the cameras going into Castro Theater.”
TWO OLD STRIPPERS
Arranged throughout Tom Taylor’s brightly-lit workshop were reams and reams of fabrics secured above draping tables near multiple sewing machines and white sofas. Through any westward facing window was a shining view of Sutro Tower, the 101 central freeway rumbling outside.
Punctuating the expansive space with a peaceful presence was the plush bed on which Baker often slept, its pillows plump and comforters overflowing.
Days after the When We Rise promotions and screenings, Baker and Taylor were brainstorming how they would do an exhibit at San Francisco International Airport (SFO), one which Baker did not yet have approval for, according to Taylor.
“[Gilbert] was standing right there getting ready to leave to go to New York,” Taylor said gesturing across the room. Countless feet of elegant white fabric draped over Taylor’s table where we stood inside his workshop.
“‘We work at Pandora’s Box on Powell Street, come by and see us. We’re up on stage, honey.’” One of them would’ve called to the other.
Taylor laughed at the memory. “It was always our little game,” he said. “This has been going on for 30-something years. [This workshop was] half his home.”
“Look at us, just two old strippers,” Baker would have teased with Taylor before departing to SFO.
Gilbert Baker died peacefully in his sleep on March 31, 2017 at his home in Harlem. He was 65.
Born June 2, 1951, Baker is survived by his mother Patricia Baker, sister Ardonna Baker Cook, and a worldwide LGBTQ community inspired by him and his work.
The morning Baker was found dead by friends, Taylor left him a voice message. In preparation of the SFO exhibit, they were having flame proof flags made and samples were being shipped to Baker’s home.
Taylor recalled the message: “Oh girl, this little flag looks shitty. I think we’re gonna have to find some other way to do it. I don’t know what we’re gonna do, there’s not much time left.”
After news of his passing, Baker’s longtime friend and cannabis activist, the late Dennis Peron, said Baker died happy.
The then 71-year-old added, “I talked to him often. He was one of my best friends. He didn’t like New York. His home was here. He was a San Franciscan.”
The Chronicle reported that Baker’s final years were spent traveling the world to attend different gay pride celebrations, where he was lauded as a community icon.
“The first time I saw [Gilbert], my mouth was hanging open and I wanted to run away with him somewhere,” Tripp said. “He was insane. He had such a voice and I’m gobsmacked.”
Tripp was at home when she received the news of Baker’s passing. Inside a FedEx envelope on her coffee table were money orders from Baker and one sheet of paper that read: Jillian, Thank you.
Where do you think Gilbert is now?
“I don’t know,” she proclaimed. “Sometimes I think, ‘Are you in the moon? The stars? Where are you because I need you; selfishly.’”
When a group of friends privately sprinkled some of Baker’s ashes into the Bay, Tripp said she “literally wanted to jump in the water. I would do anything to be with him again.”
To commemorate the rainbow flag’s 40th anniversary at SFO, Taylor contributed a sewing machine Baker used and one flag recreated for When We Rise.
“Unfortunately with gay history, all there is is pictures and matchbooks. It’s not big [physical] things,” Taylor said.
In the fall of 2019, the Baker Collection will be exhibited by the GLBT Historical Society at its museum in the Castro, Chronicle reported. The plan is for the exhibition, which will examine Baker’s life as a fine artist, fashion designer and the creator of the Pride flag, to coincide with the planned release of his memoir.
“Gilbert was just Gilbert. You accept him the way life is,” Taylor said. “A flighty queen who wanted to go in drag. But when it came to get jobs done, she knew how to put me and everybody else in place and get going. It’s what you have to do.“
Tony Taylor is an editor, reporter, photographer and international queer forum moderator living in San Francisco. theothertonytaylor.com
A contingent carrying rainbow flags march along Market Street during the San Francisco Pride Parade, June 2018
Oroville Dam Spillway Photo Courtesy: Sierra Club SF Bay
To dam or not to dam?
As summer approaches and the winter rains become a distant memory, we are reminded once again that much of California is a desert. Newspapers editorialize about how to plan for future droughts. Sooner or later someone declares that California must build more dams. And yet those same newspapers featured terrifying photos of a large dam spillway failing and outlined the enormous costs involved not only if the dam fails but also if it just needs repairs.
To learn the dam facts (sorry), I contacted Sierra Club California Water Committee Co-chair Charlotte Allen. Allen became interested in water issues after reading “Cadillac Desert” in 1986. She found water policy to be fascinating - analyzing big systems, figuring out how they work, and applying environmental principles to improve the systems. Allen met her biggest challenge when she waded into researching California’s water system - the largest engineered water system in the world.
Allen is dubious about building more dams to prepare for drought. Dams are not environmentally beneficial; in fact, they often destroy stream ecology. Reservoirs lose a lot of water to evaporation, which will increase as world temperatures rise. Dams can fail if there is too much rain or if there are structural problems. If a dam fails, the potential for destruction downstream is enormous.
Allen concluded that, rather than dams, the answer lies in solutions such as water conservation, recycling waste water, increasing agricultural conservation, and banking today’s rain for future drought years.
Yes, water can be banked! Just as you put your hard-earned dollars into a savings account for a rainy day, water can be stored underground and withdrawn on a ‘dry’ day.
How is water banked? “Spread and sink,” says Allen. Let the water flow slowly over permeable soil and the water will soak into the underground aquifers. It will be waiting for you when you need it.
One example of “spread and sink” is the Yolo Bypass. You may have driven to Sacramento on Interstate 80, passing over a long causeway that looks out over usually dry fields. The Yolo Bypass was created in the early 1930’s as a flood plain to protect Sacramento and the surrounding areas when water rushes out of the Sierras and down to the Bay. An unplanned benefit of the bypass is that the water spreads out over the open land and slowly soaks into the soil, replenishing the aquifer below. The Yolo Bypass also provides habitat for hundreds of species throughout the year. Birds literally flock to it. It has become a major habitat area both for resting and nesting along the Pacific Flyway.
But how much water can we really store with water banking? Amazingly, a lot! Right now, above-ground water storage in California is only 50 million acre feet. (An acre foot is one acre of water, one foot deep, or 326,000 gallons.) California needs storage exceeding an additional 50 million acre feet. In other words, we need what we have now -- more than doubled! There is nowhere in the state to build enough dams to meet this need. But estimates of available groundwater storage range from 850 million acre feet to as much as 1.3 billion acre feet!
To achieve this storage, in addition to bypasses, water can be encouraged to percolate into aquifers by restoring mountain meadows, creating levee set-backs, and getting rid of the concrete in river channels.
These ‘spread and sink’ methods can replenish the groundwater basins better than dams, provide more habitat than dams, save more water than new dams, cost less to build than new dams, and are cheaper and easier to maintain than dams. And last, but certainly not least, they avoid the danger of having a dam collapse and flood out your town.
There is an additional benefit with encouraging groundwater storage. Much of California’s existing ground water is suffering from over-pumping. Over-exploitation of groundwater can result in devastating impacts such as salt-water intrusion into the groundwater and even compaction and eventual collapse of the aquifer in which it is stored. Both conditions are irreversible.
Farmers in the Central Valley, who depend completely on groundwater, are experimenting with groundwater recharge. For example, almond farmers are flooding their fields in the winter; the trees don’t seem to mind, and the depletion of the groundwater can be slowed down and, hopefully, eventually reversed.
Both the State and the various groups who need California’s water recognize the problems and are working to come up with new solutions -- without dams. But there is still a lot to do!
What you can do:
To learn about the range of water issues - including groundwater banking - and what you can do to make sure that all Californians can count on a safe and reliable water future, contact Allen at the Sierra Club California CNRCC (soon to be renamed CalConsCom) website:
Yolo Bypass - California Department of Fish and Wildlife website
Oroville Dam Spillway - Sierra Club California website
No Human Is "Illegal” parades through San Francisco Pride, June 2018.
After weeks of heartbreaking news involving the Trump administration’s immigration strategy of childhood separations and zero tolerance at the southern U.S. border, a jubilant afternoon in San Francisco reminded thousands of people there’s hope - and strength - in numbers.
Themed “Generations of Strength,” San Francisco’s 48th annual Pride parade celebrated with confetti, sequins, and countless political statements Sunday, June 24.
More than one million people attended the parade that began near the Embarcadero at 10:30 a.m. and lasted about six hours, according to CBS5, which live-streamed the event. Over 240 contingents paraded along Market Street spilling into the Civic Center Pride festival.
Dykes on Bikes led the procession of floats, groups, and other participants, including a shiny appearance by the Golden State Warriors’ newest NBA championship trophy.
Robust contingents for politicians included Mayor-elect London Breed; District 8 Supervisor-elect Rafael Mandelman; California gubernatorial candidate Gavin Newsom, the state’s lieutenant governor; California Senator Kamala Harris (D); House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco); and gay state Senator Scott Wiener.
Local organizations included Cheer SF, Glide Memorial Church, Bay Area Furries & Friends, and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.
As one of the Pride parade judges who honored the LGBTQ+ youth leading the campaign to end America’s gun violence epidemic, Sister Merry Peter offered an emailed statement after the weekend’s festivities.
“It was a wonderful parade full of joy, energy, and resistance showing that our communities are united, ready to fight for our rights and the rights of others,” Sister Merry said. “’Generations of Strength’ reminds us we have faced oppression before and that when we come together in common cause, we are unstoppable.
“So many signs called out the scandal of taking children from their families and the border, said Black Lives Matter, spoke up for trans rights and women’s health, and to end gun violence, especially violence targeted at LGBTQ+ youth and youth of color,” Sister Merry continued.
Thousands of crafted signs made statements of love and political action. A scant few included: “More nice, less ICE,” “No Human Is Illegal,” “Families belong together,” and “It was never about cake,” calling out the Colorado battle over a baker’s refusal to make a same-sex wedding cake, citing freedom of religious and artistic expression. (The U.S. Supreme Court earlier this month ruled in favor of the baker, citing hostility on the part of a Colorado commission.)
In reference to opposing male circumcision, a man donning white pants with a faux blood-stained groin area held the sign “His Body, His Choice.”
San Francisco Pride is one of the largest events in California and first-time spectator Alexandra Covington, 34, traveled from Los Angeles to celebrate.
Covington, who identifies as a straight ally, said while the Pride parade “is founded on queerness, that’s only a starting point.
“Right now, people need to feel good about themselves and their community because there are so many reasons to lose faith,” Covington continued. “Sometimes, with politics, you think that everybody’s corrupt, but when it comes down to the people level, people are wonderful.”
A contingent carrying international flags, particularly Mexico at the moment of the interview, was met with chants from the crowd. “Mexico! Mexico! Mexico!” began a group behind Covington. The parade participants shouted back as they continued along Market Street, “Mexico! Mexico!”
Covington became emotional.
“There have been several times where I started getting teary eyed and I wanted to start crying right now,” she said. “That’s Pride in the face of oppression. There’s so much negativity, and pride is just pure positivity.”
Since the late Gilbert Baker - and his friends Lynn Segerblom and the late James McNamara - first unfurled the rainbow flag 40 years ago during San Francisco Pride, countless corporations have put their spin on the iconic LGBTQ symbol.
This year, Nordstrom, Macy’s, Twitter, Facebook, Google, Uber and a multitude of other big businesses sent floats and festival flare through the parade.
Apple’s contingent, complete with gay CEO Tim Cook, was estimated to have nearly 1,000 participants and Kaiser Permanente, too, was “1000-plus strong” according to Twitter.
Cheering along the parade route with a vibrant purple Levi’s balloon more than twice her size was 7-year-old Aalyah, who shared why Pride was important to her.
“I like how [the] sponsors and stores [are places] you can go to to buy stuff that can support you and what you’re going through,” the Hayward resident, who did not give her last name, said, adding an experience she had with a classmate recently.
“[Pride] is inspiring to me because when we’re celebrating the holiday at school, my friend was talking about gay and trans,” Aalyah said. “I have two aunts who are gay, and she has two uncles who are gay. Other people make fun of us for it, but not everyone bullies people who are gay and trans.”
Santa Clara resident Jacob Gillaspie, 17, described the parade as “intense.”
“I’m pansexual and feel amazing,” Gillaspie said. “It’s great that [Pride] brings us all together. The Trump administration is bringing us apart. Growing up in Gen Z with all the LGBTQ support, it’s great to come to this. I’m going to the Navy soon in Illinois and they’re not super out there with Pride yet.”
As one of the top five biggest crowds in America, San Francisco Pride is the sole LGBTQ event with the top rank in any state, according to Genfare.com. New York City’s New Year’s Eve celebration in Times Square is the most attended event in America with more than two million annual attendees.
Jim Gebbie, 76, has lived in San Francisco since 1970 and imagines he’s been to “at least half” of the Pride [celebrations].
“I went to the first one in 1972,” said the gay Diamond Heights resident, shouting over enthusiastic onlookers. Sylvester’s classic “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” blasted through the speakers of a passing contingent.
According to Wikipedia, there was a small gathering in 1970, but a parade has been held annually since 1972.
“When same-sex marriage was accepted there was a huge turnout, too. Since Trump has been so anti-gay, the LGBT community has to stick together,” Gebbie added. “This, too, shall pass.”
Photo: Glen Rose Photography
Donning cat-winged eyeliner and a blonde beehive swirled atop her head, sultry voiced Oakland-native Shannon Shaw is having a great year.
Shannon & the Clams, the doo-wop garage-punk quartet in which Shaw is vocalist and bassist, released their latest LP, Onion, back in February, and are scheduled to tour on Onion all summer. Shannon also recorded her first solo album, Shannon In Nashville, which came out in June. Both albums were recorded on Dan Auerbach’s label, Easy Eye Sound.
In addition to performing at Outside Lands 2018, Shannon & the Clams will also play a Night Show for the festival at Rickshaw Stop (155 Fell St., SF) on Saturday, August 11th.
Shannon Shaw chatted to Castro Courier about Onion, Shannon In Nashville, Hunx and His Punx, working with Dan Auerbach, and more.
Wendy: It was just announced that Shannon & the Clams have added an Outside Lands’ Night Show date, at the Rickshaw Stop, aside from your OSL 2018 set on Friday in the park. Your hometown of Oakland is such a big part of the band’s identity; how do feel about playing the festival, which of course isn’t in Oakland, but close to home in SF?
Shannon: I’m really excited about it; it’s definitely an honor. It’s so cool that I can see Janet Jackson [who headlines OSL on Sunday, August 12th]. It’s nice to get some acknowledgment from a big festival that takes place in the city. We love San Francisco; we probably play San Francisco more than Oakland these days. I’m really glad we get to play the Saturday [night] show also, because playing a huge stage at a festival is so different than a more intimate [club] show.
Wendy: You had a lot of big news this year, because Shannon & the Clams’ Onion came out, and you also had your first solo LP, Shannon In Nashville, released. You recorded both in Nashville actually, because you signed with Dan Auerbach. How did that come about?
Shannon: Dan, lucky for us, was a Clams fan. He was responsible for getting us to play at a really fun festival in Australia, and if that festival hadn’t happened, we would never have been able to afford getting out there. I always wanted to meet him and to thank him for that. We ended up finally meeting; he invited me to come see The Arcs at The Fillmore. I went to see them play and was totally impressed. I loved it and I felt really comfortable with Dan. Shortly after that, he invited me to come record a solo album. I hadn’t thought seriously about doing a solo record, and he mentioned, “We’ve gotta get the Clams out here too,” and he was really excited to launch Easy Eye [Sound]. Everything he’s putting out on is so good; I love his recordings. His La Luz recordings are so good; his Sonny Smith album is awesome; his Robert Finley stuff [too]. It was easy to hear what he does with production, and want to be a part of it. It was only natural to do the Clams as well, because he loves the Clams, and the Clams love him.
Wendy: How was the recording experience different in Nashville, from what you’ve been used to in the Bay? You’ve recorded at Tiny Telephone here.
Shannon: Tiny Telephone is awesome; Sonny did a great job producing that record. It was really different. We’re out of our hometown; we’re all the way in Nashville. Every day it felt like we were suiting up to go work our asses off. We’re kinda used to bedroom recordings; when Cody [Blanchard] recorded our first three albums, we would do it slowly, carefully, in his bedroom. It was really different being in this big beautiful studio, but at the same time it was vintage gear, amazing, perfectly sounding vintage gear. Dan and Alan, Alan is the engineer, have everything plugged in and set up. The way Dan’s mind works is 100 miles an hour; he has so many ideas, and can just look at the big picture and suddenly get an idea of what needs to go on this album. Because the gear’s already set up, you’re not wasting any time. We got to do a lot of playing around. Nate [Mahan], our drummer, is a multi-instrumentalist who can play anything, and he’s a gearhead, so I think he especially had a really great time looking at stuff and trying stuff out.
Wendy: What did you think of Nashville? Of course, you’ve been there before on tour.
Shannon: Yeah, we’ve been there a ton, and the truth is we didn’t have any time to do anything. We were working really hard all the time. We had one day off. Two of the boys were sick, so me and Will [Sprott] went on an adventure to the Country Music Hall of Fame, and it was awesome.
Wendy: Onion is Shannon & the Clams’ first release since 2015, and its songs are very personally meaningful to both you and Cody, who wrote the record. It’s about your own inner lives, and it’s also about the Ghost Ship fire, about the multiple losses to the artistic community. There are a couple of songs, like “Backstreets,” about Oakland’s Ghost Ship. What does Onion mean to you as an album, and how does it feel to tour on it?
Shannon: When we’ve played those songs that are about Ghost Ship fire, it’s a mixture of being cathartic, and [wanting to be sure they’re perfect]. I want to play everything as well as possible, but those songs, I just wanna get them exactly right. “Backstreets” was really hard to record; we had to really edit it down. It’s really emotional. “Don’t Close Your Eyes” is the one I wrote [about Ghost Ship], and I want to get that one just right. I mess up lyrics all the time, but wanna get those exactly right, ‘cause they’re really important, and they’re songs that have a message. I want to make sure that we do them justice.
Wendy: You just recently released Shannon In Nashville, with so many great songs on it, like “Broke My Own” and “Freddies ‘n’ Teddies.” The videos have been great too, so much fun. Tell me about what it was like to record on your own, because you’ve been with Shannon & the Clams, and also Hunx and His Punx, but this was your first time solo. This time, all the focus was on you. What was that like for you and what was your aesthetic going in?
Shannon: It was cool! I was really nervous and out of my element. It was weird, ‘cause I’m playing with all these famous session players that have played on all my favorite albums. I didn’t know how the songs would turn out because Dan just told me to bring a few that we could record, and then we were supposed to do the rest of them together as co-writes. I’ve never co-written with someone I didn’t know before; I definitely liked Dan, but didn’t know what it would be like to record with him or record with the session guys, or write with the session guys. I just kept feeling unprepared, even though I really was preparing as much as I could. Dan was like, “Just come out! Why are you so nervous?” That was kind of funny, but it took me a little bit to get comfortable. When I got comfortable, magic definitely started to happen.
Wendy: Your videos always have such great costumes, like “Freddies ‘n’ Teddies,” has the giant teddies in it. Obviously costumes and dressing up are really important to you.
Shannon: I’m definitely an artist and I really see the value in putting on a show. You go to see a show because you want to have a visual, visceral, physical experience. [With] costumes for me, I can’t go to a store and find clothes I want because I have a weird shape and I’m plus-sized. I can’t just go buy clothes and like them; I have to do so much trying on lots and lots of combinations of stuff, and altering things, and reappropriating certain pieces to be something else. My apron and suspenders - that’s how I make a party dress. I can’t go to a store and buy a party dress, but I can make my own.
As for music videos, album art, all of the visual aspects of any musical project I’m in, I really want to have my hands into every aspect. On some music videos, those are collaborative ideas. I try to work with local artists or people that I know and trust, and I know that they understand [my] aesthetic. Ryan Browne, who did “Broke My Own” and “Cryin’ My Eyes Out” understands me; he understands my sense of humor and my taste. He’s so talented. He had the idea for “Cryin’ My Eyes Out,” and just knew we could pull it off. For “Broke My Own,” we looked at a lot of videos that I love from the ‘60s, [those] weird, robotic girl groups, where everyone looks the same, but not. Hannah Lew directed the “Freddies ‘n’ Teddies” video; she’s really creative. That teddy bear band, that’s an actual band. They’re called the Teddy Bear Orchestra. The guy [J-Bot] used to have a band called Captured! By Robots, and he’s this brilliant robotics man. He built every single one of those and programmed each of them to actually be playing those instruments. He does performances with this band, but it’s kinda like metal, so I think it was funny for him to do a song like this.
Wendy: You play bass in [San Francisco punk band] Hunx and His Punx, and Hunx and His Punx just played a reunion set at Burger Boogaloo, a festival you’ve played many times with Shannon & the Clams. Of course, John Waters hosts Burger Boogaloo. How was the reunion?
Shannon: It was so good. It was really fun to play with everyone again. We had a former guitar player, who was in the Punkettes, Michelle Santamaria, as a special guest to play a few songs with us. It was so nice. Seth [Bogart] is an amazing artist now [he has a solo career], and he’s trying to focus more on that, but I was really glad that he took the time and let us do a reunion, ‘cause it is meaningful to everybody, and super fun.
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