Flat Worms and Shannon Lay Still Want to Find the Joy

The artists talk touring, band dynamics, disappointment, and more.

Will Ivy and Justin Sullivan are two-thirds of the LA-based rock band Flat Worms; Shannon Lay is an also-LA-based singer-songwriter, and a member of Ty Segall’s backing band and formerly the band FEELS. The new Flat Worms record, Witness Marks, is out tomorrow on Drag City, so to celebrate, the three got on a Zoom call to catch up about it. 
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music

Will Ivy: Hello, Shannon!

Shannon Lay: Yo! 

Will: Hello, Justin. 

Justin Sullivan: Hi, Will. My friend and bandmate. 

Will: It’s good to see you, Shannon. It’s been a minute since I’ve seen you out and about, but I’ve been listening to your music leading up to this interview. I really love the new covers album. [Shannon’s Covers Vol. 1 came out on Sub Pop this past April.]

Shannon: Oh, dude, thank you.

Will: Elliott Smith is someone that’s always kind of been with me, but I revisited recently, and the cover of “Angeles” seems like a really good pick. How did you pick the covers?

Shannon: Yeah, it was fun. I think I had just amassed enough at that point — I’ve always loved doing covers during shows, so I was like, I think I have enough to do a whole record. And then to fill it out, I just kind of thought, What could complete this in a way that people who like my music could then discover music that I think they would really like, that influenced the stuff I make? So it was just like a dream mixtape of things that have shaped me. And it’s artists I think that everyone should know about — like if you don’t know about Elliott Smith or Nick Drake or The Velvet Underground, you gotta know these people. It’s essentials. It’s the spice rack. [Laughs.] 

Will: Maybe this rings true for you, but I also think about covers as a way to practice or hone one’s songwriting ability. Are covers something that you already were doing on your own to study song structure, or as a way to practice your own playing?

Shannon: Yeah, totally. I mean, that’s how I learned to play guitar: I just would bring in songs to this guy named Dan in Redondo and he would teach me the songs. It was kind of the best way to emulate and take pieces you like and then find yourself through that. You always have the influences that let you blossom into your own frequency and your own way of saying things. So I love covers. And as someone who opens for bands quite often that have an audience that may not know me, I feel like it’s just a great unifier to have a cover in there, something that everybody knows.

Will: Yeah. I mean, all of us on this call dabbled in some sort of solo exploration — Justin, you do Night Shop. I did try to do a solo thing at one point, and I found it to be kind of a lonely experience. As a band, you have comrades to share the experience with. There’s something about when I’m alone working on music where I’m a little bit lost, where I don’t know where to begin. Whereas when I’m with the band, there’s a context established and there’s a something like a direction, you know? So covers seem like an interesting way, even for myself when I’m alone trying to get started, to get in the zone, so to speak.

Justin: You’ve stumbled on to a very interesting topic, but then at the end there was no question. 

Will: [Laughs.] I guess my question is: Shannon, you’ve been in many bands and you’ve also been solo. How has the experience been for you in both formats?

Shannon: Being in a band, I think, is so essential for just finding out who you are musically and where your comfort zone is, so that you can just blast right through that comfort zone. It taught me so much about how to deal with people, about how to be diplomatic, about how to just have that shared experience of inputs and egos. There’s a lot that goes on when you’re dealing with a band, and especially when you’re starting out, there’s no money, so it’s really out of the goodness of your heart and the love of being together that you’re in this situation. 

At this point, I’m trying to find a new mindset with it, because I think I have a little bit of band trauma where I’m just like, I could never ask that of someone again. [Laughs.] It’s such a big ask. So I would love to come to a place where I’m like, You know what? It’s just really fun to be together and help each other out. And I want to get to a place personally where I can do what so many of my peers have done, where your success becomes your band’s success. I see a lot of artists who are kind of doing their own things, and they might have a band, and it’s such an investment — it’s an investment of your time, of your money, of your fucking patience. So playing solo for me has just been such an easeful route. You know, you don’t have to get any Google Docs going. [Laughs.] 

Justin: I feel like we were on a tour once where we talked about this for, like, hours.

Will: You guys went on a solo tour together.

Shannon: Yeah. It was a while ago now.

Justin: I know, I think it was 2018. But yeah, I think we talked about this at length. What’s really interesting to me doing both is, a bad experience solo is, to me, way deeper on the existential scale of like, Have I ruined my life? It’s just really lonely. Whereas, Will, with us — we had that really bad show on tour last summer, and that was one of my favorite nights of the tour because we just had so much fun with it. When I think of that tour, I actually think of that night in a really positive way.

Will: That’s sort of the camaraderie I was referring to earlier. When you’re together, you can be like, “Well, you win some, you lose some. At least we all agree that this is worth doing.”

Justin: Yeah, and you actually shared something with another person. I think if you’re solo and it just feels like it didn’t go over well, it was almost a non-event. And if the band plays a bad show, at least it’s like you connected with each other in this weird, non-verbal way, you know? But at the same time — I think Shannon alluded to this — it’s also nice not having to have a gigantic text thread to send an email. A band is such a crazy thing, and it’s so beautiful, and it’s also so messy and frustrating and all those things, too.

Shannon: Yeah, absolutely.

Will: You touched on diplomacy, too — we call our system of making decisions, “The Wormocracy.”

Shannon: [Laughs.] I love that.

Will: On our new record that’s coming up, I was really thinking about this a lot when I was writing some of the lyrics — especially on a song called “Wolves in Phase” and another one called “See You at the Show.” We’ve been a band for about nine years now, practicing at the same practice space for the whole time. And what’s interesting is showing up to the same space to do the same practice over a period of time while the world sort of changed around us — you know, that whole neighborhood downtown LA is a totally different environment now. It’s been very much discovered and gentrified. There’s coffee shops and restaurants all in walking distance, whereas when we set out in the beginning, it was just the warehouse and, like, one bar. So you and your bandmates go through so many different experiences in living and in your environment together, and there’s something special and powerful about that, I think.

Shannon: Yeah, absolutely. It’s such a unique experience to have with people. Even when you tour with another band, there’s such a forever bond of just being in the trenches like that together.

Will: That’s how we met—

Justin: Oh, that’s true — The Babies and Wet Illustrated did a tour together. So that’s how I met Tim [Hellman, Flat Worms’ bassist] and Will.

Shannon: I love that. On the other side of it, though: I just did a tour overseas for the first time where I had no tour manager and it was just me on trains.

Justin: Oh, yeah I did that.

Shannon: What was interesting is, I thought it would be a really lonely experience. I was kind of preparing for that. And there’s also just something to be said for the power of music — when you travel, there’s kind of a built in crew everywhere that you go. Venues are so hospitable and there’s always going to be people who come there that love and appreciate you, or have never heard of you and are discovering you. It was a really cool experience. And there was only one night where I got kind of down on myself, me being that harsh self-critic and thinking that I didn’t do a good enough job. It’s an interesting aspect of doing this, because you do kind of have to make friends with your saboteur, so to speak.

Justin: Right, right.

Shannon: It’s supposed to be fun. If I could say anything to myself in my 20s, it’s that this is supposed to be a fun experience.

Justin: I love that. I think you’ve always been good at that, Shannon. I think our tour had a lot of comic [moments]. [Laughs.] I mean, one day we’ll tell the full story — it shouldn’t even be for an interview, it should be for a book. But we had a lot of disappointing evenings, one might say, and all I remember about that tour is being  in the car listening to that Golden State Killer book on tape and, like, talking and getting coffee. And that was actually really fun! 

Shannon: Totally!

Justin: The shows are not really what that particular one was about. But I took a lot from you on that tour, because we definitely had some disappointing nights but I never felt like you lost perspective on what it is we’re doing. I thought that was awesome. I’ve always been drawn to people who have that perspective. I still want to find the joy in it, you know?

Shannon: Oh, 100%. 

Will: Your music, Shannon, strikes me as an almost spiritual practice. I was listening to “Awaken and Allow” from Geist yesterday… I don’t know, it seems like you have a very grounded perspective as Justin’s talking about, but also through your music.

Shannon: I love that so much. I think with Geist, it was really the first time I decided that I was just going to do something for me that I liked. I wrote it in the pandemic — which I felt so fortunate to have that inspiration at that moment. I know for a lot of people, it was just kind of a spiral into the void. But I was able to pull this wisdom out of it that felt like it would resonate with a lot of people, and it totally did. It was so cool to see how people responded to it, because I went from that whole, I’m going to prove myself to everybody! I’m going to show them! To like, I’m going to trust myself. I got a new instrument — I got that nylon string guitar, and it was just such a great new friend, and a catalyst to expanding what my message was to people. 

[The record] was seen in a way that I’ve never been seen before, and it felt like people just so thoroughly understood what I was trying to portray. Which is such a gift; people saw things I didn’t even see. I think the thing I’ve heard the most about that record is that it’s a really calming thing to listen to. It’s a very centering experience, and I think we all really needed that at that time. To really have that space, I think, allowed all of this really authentic expression to come through, instead of having to see what everyone else was doing and to try and keep up. I think one of the challenges of being a musician is having this constant access to what everyone else is doing. Doing the doomscroll and comparing yourself and thinking of yourself as a product is a really harsh reality within this vulnerable ass space of creating art. It’s super trippy.

Will: Yeah, definitely. I love how a new instrument or a new piece of gear can sort of unlock a whole new lane of creativity. A friend, Mike Donovan, once told me that new guitars seem to have songs in them that you sort of have to draw out.

Shannon: Do you use any new guitars on the record? Your tone is insane. And I’ll take this opportunity to just say: that record is Flat Worms at its finest.

Will: Oh, thank you so much!

Shannon: It is so good. I had the same kind of feeling I got when I first listened to Pink Flag, where it was like, Oh, this is the kind of record where you have to just listen to the whole thing. There’s no skipping. And the guitar tone is off the charts.

Will: Thank you. I’ve been playing the same guitar since I was 16, [a] Gretsch, but I did bring in a new amp that I really love, this Music Man 112 that’s so small. I’ve been lugging around these heavy Twin Reverb amps for years, and this thing is tiny and light but so powerful. There’s a few guitars I’ve used in overdubbing and stuff, but conversely to the point that I just made, no matter what guitar I try other than my main one, I come back to that one and it’s like home to me. I don’t know what it is. I’ve tried to have a road guitar and ultimately it just doesn’t sound the same. So I always go back.

Shannon: It sounded nasty and delicious. It’s perfect.

Will: Thank you. Also, working with Ty [Segall, who produced the record] this time around — because we’ve worked with him on most of our recorded music, but the new studio harmonizer is so great, and his abilities have greatly increased. Working with him was amazing to see how he just keeps getting better and better at recording. Something about where our band is in our development and his progress as an engineer was really great to come back to after working with Steve Albini on Antarctica in Chicago.

Justin: I think the recording experience was really cool, because it was like everything dissipated for two years, and then you all come back and in this time we haven’t seen each other, Ty now has this amazing studio and is even better at what he does. And then for us, we just didn’t play for a year. That was another big difference between the band and solo thing — I was working on my own music every day, but as a band, we really couldn’t get together. So I think that was part of the magic of it too. It was a nice reunion.

Will: Yeah. I would say also that in the course of making the second LP, Antarctica, there was internal stuff that was sort of coming to a head within our band. And it took us a year of not playing, and then a year of sort of just rebuilding our friendships and that trust. So I feel that because we were able to address some of those things, and just come back together and remind ourselves that first, we’re friends and second, we’re working on this project collaboratively, I think the result this time turned out better than Antarctica.

Shannon: Yeah. You can really hear the joy. There’s an eagerness that’s really charming. It’s not overeager, but you can tell you’re all really stoked to be in there. And sonically, it’s a whole new level coming from Ty too, for sure. I think that studio at his old house had a really unique specific sound, and now this one — it just seems like it’s so versatile and the sound is big.

Will: It was really cool too, because when we were recording, it was December and it was rainy and cloudy every day, and they’re in Topanga Canyon, so it was mountain-y and beautiful. It felt like we were like doing a destination recording, but we were in LA.

[Something] I wanted to ask you about, Shannon, is sometimes I think that, even though it may not feel like it at the time, doing something like ceramics when maybe it’s just not coming to you on guitar might then, in a surprising way, influence the other process. Has that happened in any surprising ways for you?

Shannon: Totally. I mean, one of my favorite ways to get lyrics is just leaving the house and interacting with other people and having conversations, and one phrase will spark it, like, Oh, that’s what it’s about! And at the moment — I actually was recently dropped from Sub Pop. They opted out of my third record, so I’m exploring self-releasing my fifth album, which feels so trippy. I happen to be working with Randy Randall from No Age on this next record, and when I told him about Sub Pop, he was like, “Oh, man, this is kind of a cool opportunity. We can really have the freedom to do whatever we want with this.” And I love that this situation occurred at that moment when I did decide to ask for some help, because I think that is something too, where you shouldn’t feel alone in your inspiration. The world is such an inspiring place to be. The people that you know inspire you. And especially being the child of addict parents, I think you tend to take on the responsibility of everything and think that you have to do it all yourself. And it’s so important to ask for help when you’re just feeling alone in everything. 

You know, not to be like this, but — this capitalistic society has been put in place where there’s this illusion of separation that just isn’t there. We are so connected and we need each other. Asking for help can be the most challenging thing in the world, so if you’re feeling blocked creatively — whether you ask yourself for help and go inside and say, what do I need right now?, or you call your friend like, “I’m feeling weird, do you want to go for a walk or get lunch or something?” — use your tools. We all have so many amazing people and new modalities and access to all of these solutions and lovely things. So that’s that’s helped me a lot.

Justin: Beautifully put. I relate so deeply. I was going to say this earlier, but the people I really trust are other artists. That’s who I want to talk to when I’m struggling with this stuff, to see how they’re doing it or ask for help. Those are the only people who have really helped, you know what I mean? And I’ve self-released records. I’m probably going to self-release my next one. It was that thing where, as I just began to do it, then I actually did have people offer to help in different ways.

Will: I sometimes think that people think of being a musician or being an artist as somehow being selfish — or, some people do. But what really strikes me about art is that, ideas and creative expressions all have value to everyone, and that’s why there will always be space for them. And so, as much as an artist, you need to reach out and ask people for help with every aspect of music — which involves so many people — I think that the scenes around music, the art itself, that’s produced by bands and musicians and artists is helpful to the listener or the observer to get them through difficult periods in their life and offers help.

Justin: For sure.

Will: We live in a country that completely undervalues art, but I think that ultimately, it’s such a human necessity to have that exchange of being vulnerable and sharing so that someone can receive it and relate to it. And, I don’t know, I always just believe that art has endless value for that reason.

Justin: Yeah. It just feels like such a chaotic time in terms of the arts, music or other fields, especially in this city. And I’ve really been grateful to have always had experience with a DIY framework — which to me not only means being able to do things yourself, but actually work within a community. I think one thing the three of us are really connected with is, we’ve always found ways to make stuff with our friends or our community. I think now more than ever, when it feels like everyone’s confused and a little freaked out — but the people who are the most confused or freaked out is more on the industry side of stuff. It makes that area of things a little less trustworthy to me, because I’m just like, Well, no one knows what’s going on. I know what’s always worked for me, which is just to make stuff with my friends.

Shannon: Totally. It’s an interesting climate, because you look at the film industry right now and how they’re doing this mass strike — the music industry doesn’t have that. We don’t have that foundation of organization and support. But I think what creates within it for us is this ability to individually create our own success and our own rules and to ask ourselves, what do I want? What are my values within my profession? There’s all these individual tiny worlds that I think are now having to really come together because the label model isn’t what everyone needs. Sub Pop ended up opting out of my record because we put so much into the first two and then there was no return for either of us. The model didn’t work for me, you know what I mean? I fully appreciate the opportunity and the confidence that that whole era imbued in me, but at the same time, I’m really excited about the possibility of tailoring things to what I need at the moment. It being the Wild West is kind of a blessing in disguise. You can rewrite the rules.

Justin: I agree. Especially when your perspective is like, Cool, I know I’m going to make music, so let’s see how to do it now. Sometimes when you’re at a show or you’re just talking to people — look, I love complaining a little, but there’s a certain level of negativity where I’m like, “Well, cool. What are you going to do? Stop?” 

Can I share the story of the Dallas show, Shannon? It’s a positive story.

Shannon: OK. 

Justin: We played a show in Dallas — I think it was probably a venue that held 600 people. And I played to four people, in a room that held 600 people, which is a pretty psychedelic experience. And a few more people had arrived by the time Shannon played, but what I loved was that Shannon invited the entire audience onto the stage and played the show. We all just kind of sat in a circle on the stage and transformed the situation into something that was memorable and [a way] we could all connect with each other. I thought that was so cool and beautiful and underscores a lot of what you’re saying now. The postscript, too, is we were like, “Certainly tomorrow night will be better.” And then we drove 10 hours to Nashville, and again, I played to four people in Nashville. [Laughs.] I was like, “Crazy, we did it back to back.” But that was the night where I was like, Shannon fucking rules. I just so appreciated your ability to make something of anything, even a night like that. 

Shannon: I remember even one of the kids, I was like, “You want to play a song? Come on.” [Laughs.] There’s strength in numbers for sure, but also I’m so obsessed with intimacy and how beautiful an experience can be if you’re connected with each person in the room. It’s such an amazing phenomena. Every scale of music is magical. 

I was actually at a dinner last night where we were talking about how you put something out and you have these expectations, and all you can do is look at the fucking streaming numbers that they are constantly sending you and be disappointed. There’s a natural trajectory of like, Oh, it’s not enough. And what is enough? There’s that whole conversation. But I also think that even if one person is touched at a show or by a song you put out, that should matter. At the end, you really have to do it for you, because it is a insane environment out there to be putting out music. I mean, what is it, like 800,000 new songs on Spotify every week? But even with that fact, not every song has been written! Even with that many songs coming out, we all have our unique perspective to put on this, and it’s just the coolest thing. Music, to me, is just one of the coolest forms of art. It’s so inclusive and unique and it’s just a beautiful way to come together. Especially since COVID, shows just feel like a miracle to me. I’m like, This is love concentrated into its purest form. We are creating what we need all around the world in those little rooms. 

Justin: Well said.

Will: I think that’s a beautiful note to end on. We so appreciate what you make and who you are in this scene of ours, so thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us, Shannon.

Shannon: Everyone should be so stoked for this next Flat Worms record. It’s going to blow your fucking mind.

Will Ivy, Justin Sullivan, and Tim Hellman are Flat Worms, a rock band based in LA. Their latest record, Witness Marks, is out September 22, 2023 on Drag City.