Photography by Alex de Mora
It’s not easy clinging onto the title of the UKs most exciting new band when you’re two albums in, but with their searing new record Drunk Tank Pink south Londoners Shame have done just that. Pushing the post-punk squall laid out on their 2018 debut Songs of Praise into unexpected territory, their new album slams dirty disco into spindly new wave, as produced by the mighty James Ford, complete with an absolutely filthy grin on the faces of everyone involved. We spoke to frontman Charlie Steen about living in a converted nursing home, which Spice Girl is Shame’s biggest fan, breaking into Glastonbury and how playing gigs to nobody is alright, actually.
Apparently Drunk Tank Pink was actually going to be called Death To America…
Death to America with a question mark! That’s very important. So, it’d be Death to America? We had a whiteboard when we were recording the album—we’re really bad with song names and especially the album name—so after we’d had our long lunches and drinks we’d just add more and more names to it. I liked the idea of Death To America? because I liked the idea of how the question mark might make an American border-controller confused.
There’s a track on the new album called “Snow Day” —how would you spend an ideal snow day; by sitting at home watching The Sopranos or getting outside into nature?
That’s so weird, I actually finished The Sopranos last night and had my own celebration with myself and Tony! I cheers-ed a glass to him. It’s almost like the only interactive TV show I know. I watch it and get so drunk and eat so much food to it and have conversations with the characters. There’s such a homely feel [sic] to The Sopranos—it just makes me hungry. They’ve even got a cookbook that my mate sent me. But my ideal snow day would be to go for a walk. I live right next to Nunhead Cemetery and Peckham Rye Park, in South London, so I’ve got two glorious places to go and shed some calories.
Is that what you wrote the song about, walking in your local parks?
We were writing in Scotland, in the middle of nowhere. And we were technically on a mountain—a mountain is 2000 feet and we were at 2001 feet. We used to go on these walks up the mountain every day. One day we got mashed and went up to the top of the mountain. It was really hot when we were going up but then we got caught in a snowstorm. It felt like we were gone for hours and hours, but we were only gone for about 24 minutes.
The song “Great Dog” is Shame’s attempt at being the Beastie Boys – how well do you think you’ve pulled it off?
I think being the Beastie Boys is a feat we’ve yet to accomplish, but it was quite fun trying. That was one of the first songs we wrote and we used to open with it. It was just really fun and we thought the riff was quite funny in itself, doing that warped Americana kind of thing.
That song also features your first ever guitar solo…
That was after quite a few drinks, I came down and I was like, “James, James, James—let me do a solo”. We recently got the stems and there’s so much stuff in there we’d forgotten about, but somewhere in there is my first guitar solo, yes!
Was James Ford always your number one choice to produce the record?
We were halfway through the record and our management just said, James Ford was at the London show at [Kentish Town Forum] – would you be interested in doing a demo? We didn’t really know who he was but then it was quickly made aware to us by our label and management that we should definitely meet up. Then we realized he’d done Gorillaz and Arctic Monkeys and Florence and the Machine and went to his house and saw all his medals. He’s just a sweetheart and an adult, which is nice. We really got on. It was really fortunate because he’s so booked up as a producer that we weren’t scheduled to start recording with him until April last year, but then at the last minute he had an act pull out. We were told eight days before that we were going to La Frette Studios in Paris in January. If that hadn’t happened, we wouldn’t have recorded the album because of Covid.
That Kentish Town Forum show is kind of legendary. Who else was there?
Mel B was there, she was throwing beers off the balcony. Mel B flew into our lives and we’ve never looked back.
As well as the Spice Girls, you’re also mates with Jason Williamson from Sleaford Mods.
I am but we’ve never actually met in real life. We speak a lot on email and Instagram and he’s just really nice and supportive. It’s always quite surprising when you get to know people in a band that you actually really like and they’re just really sound. He’s definitely fucking funny and he definitely works hard. The “Baking Daddy” stuff he’s been doing—it’s a very difficult thing to do something that’s genuinely funny and entertaining in lockdown, so many things feel too forced, but he fucking makes me laugh a lot.
You streamed a big live show from Electric Brixton – what was it like playing to an empty venue?
It was actually fucking great. It was quite weird because it was like using a muscle which you haven’t flexed in a long time but performing is so different to everything else. I had forgotten about the kind of release it gives you and that injection of dopamine that your body gets out of it. It’s like exercise, but I suppose I’d be a lot fitter if it actually was.
And you still get that feeling without a crowd being there?
Yeah, even without a crowd, I have that big an ego! At the beginning of Shame, we played so many gigs to no one, but this was much more entertaining.
Your live shows were quite visceral pre-Covid; you’d lick crowd members and they’d lick you. Do you think you’ll ever be able to do that again?
I think when the vaccination comes, everyone’s gonna be licking each other. I think, that the lick is coming back.
Because you haven’t been able to play in-person gigs to support the album’s release, you’ve been personalizing signed vinyl, with messages to fans. What’s the oddest stuff you were asked to write?
[Eddie Green, band guitarist, pops up out of nowhere]: There was one guy who was 100% on acid and asked us to write about [Head Coach of Tottenham Hotspur] José Mourinho having a bath with a baby giraffe.
With a new album out, Shame would have been a dead cert to play Glastonbury this summer. Are you gutted that it’s been cancelled?
We fucking love that festival. The first time we played, we broke in. We’d just started the band, we would have been 18. We know that if we got in, we’d be allowed to play Strummerville, which is a small hidden-away stage. But we had to break in. We were just like, “fuck it.” It took us 17 hours from start to finish but we managed to. The next year we got invited by Billy Bragg to play Left Field stage which was an honor. It’s just a festival you want to play every single year. It’s so cliché to talk about how amazing it is, because everybody says that it’s the greatest festival in the world, but it really is.
Are you still living in the converted nursing home where you started on Drunk Tank Pink?
We got evicted from there in September last year. Thirty-five people were living there, it was fucking scarring. It was horrible. They evicted us on the first day they legally could.
How did you end up there?
Just before we went to LA we were at a party in South London and someone who already lived there was telling me they had this washing machine room and anyone who could make it into an actual bedroom could live there for really cheap. I was like “ok, wicked.” It was insane, the last two months that I lived there, I paid £140 a month. Living there was a way of getting back some kind of control. When you’re on tour you’ve got four or five other people to think about and your day is quite set out, so you crave privacy and your own space.
You’ve spoken before about how much of a slog touring the debut album was—you were suffering from panic attacks at one point. Did you ever get close to packing the band in?
I think you’re dramatic and a bit hysterical in those moments, but it was never about ending the band. You don’t want it to end, you just want a break. You just want rest. You’re trapped in this Catch-22 of exhaustion. But even if you take a break of just three days, and you’ve done 160 shows before that, you’re going to perform so much better and you’re going to be happy again and enjoy it. @sham