Shame: Burning by design

From the pubs of South London to the big leagues, Shame have come a long way. Now with their upcoming release, ‘Food For Worms’, they’re honing their sound, playing with humour and promising there really is a cameo from Phoebe Bridgers. Honest.

From the pubs of South London to the big leagues, Shame have come a long way. Now with their upcoming release, ‘Food For Worms’, they’re honing their sound, playing with humour and promising there really is a cameo from Phoebe Bridgers. Honest.

Words: Jake Hawkes.
Photos: Patrick Gunning.

We’ve come a long way from the days when the new wave of shouty bands were referred to as the ‘South London Scene’. And for good reason: it’s a name that doesn’t exactly stand up to scrutiny when groups from across the UK get in on the action. Post-punk may not be a perfect moniker, but it makes more sense than referring to bands like Fontaines DC as if they come from Streatham.

One band the original name does make sense for are Shame. Growing up in the capital and cutting their teeth in The Queen’s Head, a pub so close to Brixton Academy that you can pretty much see it out the window, South London is in the band’s blood. 

A lot has changed in the years since then, with the five-piece releasing two critically acclaimed albums, one of which hit the Top 10, and playing pretty much every country in the world. One thing that hasn’t changed is that The Queen’s Head still puts on regular live music – something we found out as we sat down there for a chat with frontman Charlie Steen and guitarist Eddie Green and were promptly drowned out by a soundcheck taking place 15ft away.

“God, there’s not a band on, is there?” Charlie says with a grin. “Still, could be the next Shame, I suppose.” We decamp to the beer garden and shiver under a broken patio heater as the mercury hits -1C. Not exactly a glamorous start, but an excuse for Charlie to show off his new Shame scarf, on sale now in all good stores.

The scarf (and the interview) are tied to the band’s upcoming third album ‘Food For Worms’. It’s their most accomplished work yet, mixing the ferocious, snarling hits of their debut ‘Songs of Praise’ with the more meandering and emotionally mature work of follow-up ‘Drunk Tank Pink’.

“It definitely takes from both of the albums that came before,” says Charlie as he rolls a cigarette. “’Songs of Praise’ had these direct melodies, but ‘Drunk Tank Pink’ was a much more musically confident album, so we’ve landed somewhere that combines both aspects, and adds a few more.”

“A lot of it is to do with that confidence,” agrees Eddie. “We had the confidence on this record to appreciate space a little bit more. Particularly on ‘Drunk Tank Pink’, I think we’d see a bit of space in a song and instantly look for ways to fill it, but we’ve realised that actually isn’t necessary. ‘Food for Worms’ is an album where we didn’t overcomplicate things – maybe that’s conditioned by the circumstances under which we wrote it, but for me, it just feels like a completely honest Shame record.”

“Friendship has all the same themes as love or a breakup; it’s just a feeling that doesn’t end as abruptly. Friendship is still romantic”

Charlie Steen

Despite the band’s increased musical confidence, the album wasn’t an easy one to write. After touring album two, Shame found themselves struggling to write and lacking in direction until their management booked them two shows at the Windmill, another iconic Brixton pub which they’ve played “about a hundred times” according to Eddie, who also used to work there pulling pints (long-term and loyal readers may remember that Eddie left our last cover chat early for a shift there – Ed). 

The enforced deadline of an upcoming performance shook the musical cobwebs loose, and what followed was an intense period of work forming the skeleton of album three. “We definitely tweaked stuff after the Windmill show,” says Eddie. “but the pressure allowed us to hone in on how we make a song good, or good to our collective mind anyway. We write, and then we finesse things on stage; it’s always been a big part of what we do. Those shows were the catalyst and helped us work out which songs we wanted on the album, but we didn’t go straight into the studio afterwards. We tinkered, we gave things colour.”

That tinkering included extending ‘Adderall’ beyond its original two-minute length and giving ‘Six-Pack’ a proper ending. “We played those songs and realised they needed to be longer,” explains Eddie. “You just get that immediate feedback playing live – it genuinely feels like co-writing with the crowd.”

This ethos of angling everything towards the live show isn’t surprising from a band who have had a reputation for being phenomenal in concert since their first days as a band. It’s an approach that has seen each of their tours get bigger than the last, but it’s not something Shame have tried to apply to the recording process before. That changed on ‘Food for Worms’, with all of the album being recorded live in the studio save the melancholic and introspective ‘Orchid’.

“Doing a record live is something we’ve wanted to do for a while,” says Eddie. “I think part of that was this romantic view of plugging in, playing a song and fucking off home, but it turns out it’s actually a very, very labour-intensive way of recording, which is probably why nobody else bothers doing it!”

“It’s a lot more chaotic, but it worked out… hopefully,” adds Charlie. “As a continuation of the Windmill gigs, it helped us tighten up the album even more. We went into those gigs playing the songs so roughly, and by the end of them and the recording process, it felt like we had them completely nailed.

“Most guitar bands write their first album in the same way we did this one,” he continues. “You write a song because there’s a gig coming up, and you need something to play at it, or you’ll look stupid. Then you play the song and try to make sure nobody heads to the bar when you’re halfway through.”

“Or in the case of the Windmill, if you aren’t in danger of getting a monitor to the head, then it’s probably not a great track.” laughs Eddie.

“I think also it’s worth remembering that we didn’t know we were going to get an album out of the songs we were writing,” says Charlie. “Anything you write can be dismissed or not work out, so thematically, it’s only cohesive because we did it all in one three-month period. The way I feel in January is different to the way I feel in November, but this is a really clear snapshot of how we all felt in that very condensed timeframe.

“Not to keep contrasting it with ‘Drunk Tank Pink’, but where that album was really insular, this one is based around stories of friendship. Some of my favourite films – ‘Withnail and I’, ‘In Bruges’, they’re written about friendships. Your best friend is your priest and your therapist, and you’re theirs, so that was what I was thinking about at the time and what hopefully comes through on the album. Friendship has all the same themes as love or a breakup; it’s just a feeling that doesn’t end as abruptly. Friendship is still romantic.”

Look, I know people think we’re trying to be clever with this, but Phoebe’s actually just really nice and did us a favour…

Eddie Green

Tales of friendship and openness are a long, long way from Shame’s early material, with their satirical stories of sugar daddies (‘Gold Hole’) and send-ups of the Tory party (‘Visa Vulture’), but expansion and growth is to be expected from a band who hit the spotlight in their late teens and have weathered an entire pandemic together. As for specifically aiming at big topics or wading into politics with intent, they’d rather not.

“I really don’t want to write about anything that becomes clickbait,” says Charlie with a grimace. “At the end of the day, we have to go on stage and sing these songs forever, so it has to have some truth to it and some feeling behind it. I don’t stay up by candlelight with a quill going over my lyrics, but I also don’t want to do things just because I feel like it’s expected.”

To be fair to the band, we’re not sure they could ever be accused of just doing what’s expected. From a live video where a topless Charlie gets greased up between songs to a twelve-hour livestream to promote ‘Drunk Tank Pink’ which devolved into bassist Josh Finerty beatboxing (“the quality did take a dip at that point,” admits Eddie with a smile), they’ve always been a band who are willing to have a bit of Dadaist fun. Case in point: the video to recent single ‘Six-Pack’, which features a low-resolution CGI Napoleon Bonaparte taking steroids and pumping iron to get ready for world domination.

“Ah, Napoleon,” begins Charlie, with the air of someone reminiscing about an old colleague. “We really wanted to focus more on videos for this album run, because it’s something we’ve neglected a bit in the past. The hard part is that it tends to be more atmospheric songs that have better videos, and we aren’t exactly Mount Kimbie. The solution was obviously for Gilbert Bannerman to make us an animated video about Napoleon in the gym. We basically had nothing to do with the planning or execution of that, but it’s one of my favourite music videos.”

‘Six-Pack’ itself is a perfect encapsulation of the way Shame play with humour in their music. An absurdist video and the repeated refrain “now you’ve got a six-pack!” grab your attention immediately, but the lyrics themselves are actually a perfectly aimed smirk at the type of people who may have got a bit too comfortable during the Covid-19 lockdown.

“I wrote that when Covid eased and we were all allowed outside again,” says Charlie. “And most people were so happy to be back out in the world, but obviously, at the start of lockdown, everyone was saying they’d learn to play the flute and speak Arabic and get a six-pack. In your room, you can control what you’re going to eat, when you’re going to sleep, even the weather by using your thermostat. Then you step outside, and you miss your bus, or you step in a puddle. It’s just about that constant need for the delusion of what you could achieve if you stayed in.” 

At the other end of the album’s range is ‘Adderall’, a contemplative exploration of addiction and its impact on those around you. It’s not autobiographical, with Adderall itself standing in for “anything you can lean on as an addiction,” explains Charlie. “There are a couple of people from America that I’ve met who were prescribed Adderall at a young age, and it’s had lasting impacts, so that is a part of it, but it’s not something I’ve experienced myself to any major degree.” Eddie laughs at the last part and casts a glance at Charlie, who grins. “Ok, I do have one experience with it,” he says. “I once took five of them in one night and did six months of art homework in six hours.”

“It’s not marketed as Adderall over here, but it’s a specific type of amphetamine,” explains Eddie. “So basically, Charlie took four grams of speed to do his homework.”

“Yeah, not very smart, some would say,” admits Charlie. “I stayed up all night doing art homework, went straight to school and drank so much tea and coffee that I couldn’t taste anything for a week. My art teacher had scheduled a meeting with me and my mum to discuss how I hadn’t done six months of homework, and she was just flicking through 40 pages of work like ‘….how?’

“But anyway, that isn’t what the song is about, and the important thing is that Phoebe Bridgers did some vocals on it which are so buried that I will give you a thousand pounds if you can hear them.”

Now we at Dork are no Pulitzer-prize-winning journalists (yet), but a band with a reputation for silliness revealing that Absolutely Massive Pop Star Phoebe Bridgers is on their new album but is impossible to hear seems more than a little bit fishy to us. “It’s true!” protests Eddie. “She’s got a performance credit and everything, I promise.” We’re still dubious, but a post-interview credits list is duly emailed to us, and the verdict is in: Shame really did manage to convince Phoebe Bridgers to sing for them.

I don’t stay up by candlelight with a quill going over my lyrics

Charlie Steen

“We’re on the same label as her, so it’s not totally random,” says Eddie. “She was in the same building as us recording some Boygenius stuff, and our producer was like, ‘we could really use another layer to these vocals’, and she agreed instantly. Was in the room for maybe eleven minutes and said it was in a range where she had to sing really quietly, which is why it’s… completely inaudible.”

The deal wasn’t totally one-sided, though. “Josh played tambourine on a Boygenius track in return, so I think he gets a credit for shaking his hand about.” Eddie pauses, before adding. “Look, I know people think we’re trying to be clever with this, but Phoebe’s actually just really nice and did us a favour… plus we’re actually all big shots.” He tries (and fails) to maintain a straight face as he says the last part.

“We went to a party at Phoebe’s mum’s house,” adds Charlie. “We were the only people to get in the pool, which is incredibly British, and Paul Mescal told Eddie to fuck off.”

“He did not!” shouts Eddie, only just stopping short of kicking Charlie under the table.

Parties at Phoebe Bridgers’ house are a pretty big step away from tiny pub shows in London, but with their biggest tour ever planned to support the new album, their showbiz ambitions don’t just stay in their personal lives. “We’re gonna get the cast of Cirque de Soleil up on stage with us to ramp up the live show,” jokes Charlie (well, we think he’s joking). “We’re getting to a point where the tours are getting bigger and bigger, and we want our input to match that. 

“We’ve relied on the live gig being the selling point for a long time, but touring in America with Viagra Boys, it really kicked in that we can’t get complacent. It’s easy to get on stage and do the same thing every night, especially when it’s a long tour and you start to get tired, but it’s those unpredictable moments which are most exciting. I might even play guitar for a couple of songs – not that I think that’ll sell any tickets.”

“This tour is the moment when we’re going to make the show a lot more of something to be a part of. A lot of bands can come on stage and play the hits forever, but we want the spectacle; we want our live output to match the size of the venue.”

The venues this time around might be the biggest indoor gigs the band have ever played, but it’s hard to imagine their festival billings getting any better than 2021’s Wide Awake Festival, a celebration of everything the ‘South London Scene’ had become, held a stone’s throw from the Windmill and with a main stage named after the venue. The headliner? It could only be Shame.

“That was bizarre,” says Eddie, shaking his head. “I assumed it was going to be a boutique festival, then I turned up, and it was fucking enormous – it even had a Ferris wheel!”

“We used to go to that park all the time as kids, so it felt like a real homecoming,” adds Charlie. “I was so nervous on the day, and I barely remember the set, but it was my favourite show I’ve ever done. I just got the bus home afterwards, completely content.”

With bigger shows come longer sets, and by album three, it’s no longer a case of ‘play all the hits, then play everything else’. “The setlist debate before a gig is always a fucking nightmare,” admits Eddie. “And whatever you choose, you won’t be able to please everyone. We recently went back to playing ‘Angie’, which I’ve always loved as a song, and people keep screaming for it at gigs, or commenting ‘why the FUCK didn’t you play ‘Angie’?!’ on our Instagram posts. But we’ve generally been lucky that the songs we’d pick to play are the ones which have resonated with people, and even prior to the new album’s release, people are picking up on songs and loving them, which is gratifying.

“It will be a nightmare in a few years’ time, though – we’re already doing 90-minute sets and not fitting it all in.”

“Oh god, don’t say that!” Charlie cuts in. “People might not come if we play too long. It is a weird one, though; different countries expect different set lengths. The UK doesn’t want us to play for three hours – they’d come over and tell us they had a train to catch or leave halfway through. The last thing you want is for someone to be chatting to you afterwards and say, ‘wow, you played for a long time’. I tell you what, say we only play for four minutes – then people will see anything else as a bonus.”■

Taken from the March 2023 edition of Dork. Shame’s album ‘Food for Worms’ is out 24th February.

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