When The Shrimp Go Marching In

A remarkable musical collaboration unfolds at Creative Clay.

click to enlarge NAME THAT TUNE: Mark sings his version of a Dixieland standard. - Max Linsky
Max Linsky
NAME THAT TUNE: Mark sings his version of a Dixieland standard.

'"WheN The Saints Go Marching In,'" Mark says, sliding a pair of black headphones over his ears. "I'd like to sing 'When the Saints Go Marching In.'"

This is not on the docket for today. Nowhere in Shrimp Attack, an upcoming album produced by musician and visual artist Stuart Hyatt, does the score call for a Dixieland standard. Hyatt has only a few hours to record the member artists at Creative Clay, a St. Pete non-profit that provides an artistic outlet for developmentally challenged adults, and Mark is one of 15 supposed to take the mic. There's no time for Saints, right?

"OK Mark, go ahead," Hyatt says without a trace of sarcasm. Mark puts his hands on the headphones, listens for the beat, and wails the first few lines. "That was great," Hyatt says when the singing stops. Mark looks over the recording equipment at Hyatt, whose eyes are open wide. "Let's try it again ... but this time, how about saying shrimp instead of saints?"

Mark nods.

"O when the shrimp, go marching in..."

Shrimp Attack is a two-part project. On Nov. 18, an installation will be unveiled at Eckerd College. An Eckerd alum himself, Hyatt and several current students are in the process of building 400 three-foot shrimp out of dryer hoses and tinfoil. The silvery shellfish, each one unique, will be arranged in military formation outside the campus' visual arts building, some of them on an adjacent lake. Think D-Day, but with shrimp instead of soldiers.

And filling the air that night will be the sound of Shrimp Attack, the album, which Hyatt has come to record at Creative Clay on this Friday. The record tells the story — "An epic battle of good versus evil," as Hyatt calls it — of the shrimp army coming after the human race. "The alpha-species is taking things for granted," Hyatt says. "And here are the underappreciated shrimp. It's the rise of the proletariat." As of now, Hyatt's not sure how the story will end. "We're making it up as we go along," he says.

It's that first word — we — that's important.

Creative Clay's member artists, who suffer from a host of mental, physical and emotional disabilities, typically spend their days painting, sculpting and drawing in the Central Avenue studio, often producing pieces good enough to be sold to collectors. But the paint has been put away — today, it's all about Shrimp Attack.

In the back studio, member artists design album covers. Each cardboard square is unique and handmade, and aside from picking the colors (silver and black, to go with the dryer-hose shrimp), Hyatt has given each artist the freedom to do what they wish. He's busy enough as it is.

Dressed in black, Hyatt sits behind his silver Mac laptop in Creative Clay's well-lit front room and flips through a notebook filled with the sketches of Shrimp Attack tunes. Hyatt, who lives in Indianapolis, was here once before, a few weeks earlier, and most of his notes came from that session. Though he is putting the music together, Hyatt is adamant that Shrimp Attack is a group project. The Eckerd students, many of whom are fulfilling a community service requirement, are helping with the installation and the album covers.

Hyatt's former Bay area bandmates (he lived in St. Pete for 18 months after graduating in 1997) are playing on the record. And the members of Creative Clay are lending their voices, and their ideas, to the storytelling.

"I look at it as this massive collaboration by everyone," Hyatt says between sessions. "Who wrote it and recorded it really doesn't matter — it's all part of the same thing."

One by one, Hyatt brings up the 15 member artists here today (there are 41 in total), and has each don a pair of headphones and sidle up to a silver microphone. He plays to each person's strength. One man just hums; a deep, guttural sound that Hyatt will later loop and run with a piano line. Another doesn't want to do anything but repeat words fed to him, so Hyatt makes him a narrator, guiding him through a portion of the storytelling. Any moment that could be a hiccup, that could be frustrating, turns into an opportunity. Mark's tune — "When the Shrimp Come Marching In" — will be worked into the battle song.

Hyatt, a boyish-looking 30-year-old, has been combining visual art and music in projects for the last eight years. Though he's never worked with developmentally challenged people before, the relationships come naturally — you can actually see the artists glow as he applauds their work.

"They really respond well to Stuart," says Julie Leazott, Creative Clay's program manager. "He has this amazing way of making them feel really special and important."

That "way" is treating them with respect. Hyatt is not just here because it's the nice thing to do (although all album proceeds will go to Creative Clay). He's here to make a record and says these folks have talent. "I don't want this to be a community service project," Hyatt says. "I want this to be an amazing, moving piece of music."

And there's the kicker. It might still be in the early stages, but Shrimp Attack actually sounds, well, really good. (To hear a sample track, go to weeklyplanet.com.) Part indie-rock, part chanting, part orchestral suite, the music flows from upbeat to dire (one song, the idea of a member artist, is called "In The House of Dead Bodies").

"Anything Stuart does won't fail," says Joe Terrana, a former bandmate who's playing piano on Shrimp Attack. "It's not gonna be some avant-garde thing that you can't grasp."

Toward the end of the session, member artist Kim Spivey sits down across from Hyatt. Spivey has an almost Buddha-esque presence as Hyatt explains the song they're going to work on. It's a call and answer; Hyatt's done it with every person he's recorded. Kim's part is to sing "I miss you."

Though she has sold four paintings since she joined Creative Clay a year ago, Spivey's never been recorded before, never heard herself sing. Sitting close to the mic, she watches Hyatt raise his hand and point to her. Softly, the words float out.

"I miss you," she sings, holding the note on you for several seconds — a perfect middle C. Hyatt instantly makes her the lead on the song, and has her repeat it several more times before taking off his headphones and playing it, with the beat, over the speakers so the rest of Creative Clay can hear Kim sing.

It sounds fantastic.

"Whaddya think?" Hyatt asks his new star.

Spivey looks back at him, her cheeks turning red.


The shrimp will attack for one night only, Nov. 18, at Eckerd College. Albums are $20, dryer hose shrimp are $5.

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