The wait for Shame’s second album may seem to have lasted longer than it actually has. As they stand on the edge of a huge 2021, we get ready for a record that isn’t supposed to be funny, but…
Words: Jake Hawkes. Photos: Sam Gregg, Sarah Louise Bennett
We’re sitting in a pub garden in Peckham on one of the last mild evenings of 2020, and Shame guitarist Eddie Green is picking at the label on a bottle of alcohol-free beer. “You know in Germany this is marketed as a sports drink,” he grins as he pours it into a glass and tries to avoid getting the resulting foam on his shoes. “A runner finishes a race and has a big stein of the stuff, at least on the adverts.”
As he chats, frontman Charlie Steen turns up, blonde hair and red leather jacket making him pretty hard to miss as he scans the garden looking for our table. Drummer Charlie Forbes isn’t far behind, and the two seat themselves next to Eddie. “Joe Strummer from The Clash ran a marathon in France after like 12 pints once,” Steen says, picking up the thread of Eddie’s conversation. “Few hours in the pub into a 26-mile run, what a man. It was during one of those publicity stunts when they claimed he had vanished off the face of the earth, but really the label had just paid for him to go and have a nice holiday in Paris,” his eyes widen. “Wish we had that kind of money to throw around.”
We’re catching up with the band as they gear up for their re-entry into the world, with new single ‘Alphabet’ just released and a date at Electric Brixton selling out soon afterwards. It’s the first new music in a while – debut album ‘Songs of Praise’ came out in January 2018 and the punishing tour schedule that followed didn’t leave all that much room for writing and recording.
“We were so very tired,” laughs Eddie as he rolls a cigarette. “The thing about this music lark is it’s not all fun and games, and we reached a point of complete mental hammering. We just needed a break. So we took one, as we were bloody well entitled to, if I say so myself.”
“Well, that and we didn’t have any songs written…” Forbes adds with a smile.
“We took the opportunity to live our lives, that’s all,” Eddie continues. “Steen buggered off to Cuba, I went to Berlin on my own and had an… interesting week. The less said about that, the better, though. A truly depraved time.”
“We had a lovely time in Cuba, very relaxing,” enthuses Steen, cutting off Eddie’s descent into depravity. “Me and Sean [Coyle-Smith, Shame’s other guitarist] went over there. No Wi-Fi, no distractions – just a hell of a lot of drinking. Went and saw the boat that Castro came over to Cuba in and listened to Cubans talking shit about America. A real fun time.”
“Doesn’t sound like there’s much of a touring circuit there though, so I can’t say we’ll be going back as a band any time soon,” Eddie says dryly. “But to go back to the big question of where exactly we’ve been these past couple of years, there were a couple of things really. Firstly we kept having to move from space to space after The Queen’s Head [the Brixton pub where Shame formed and rehearsed in as teenagers] closed, which just isn’t very conducive to songwriting.
“Secondly, shit just kept creeping up on us. We’d think that the first album campaign was over with and then someone would tell us we were going back to America for three weeks, and it was just like, ‘Oh, are we? Let’s go back and do that then’. So the obstacles were there, added to the general exhaustion and the by-products of two years of extremely heavy touring which did us in a bit.”
“We just basically said yes to every gig,” says Steen, sipping a pint of Guinness. “We were told we were an amazing live band, and we enjoyed playing live-“
“Yeah and we wanted to actually make some fucking money!” Eddie adds. “The only way to make money as a band is to hammer the touring circuit, the only way.”
“Which is why we’re all millionaires now,” Steen says sarcastically.
“Well no,” replies Eddie. “But it is why now there aren’t any gigs I’ve got to leave here in five minutes to go and work behind the bar at one of my two jobs.”
“I actually got fired from my job the other day, which was nice.” Says Forbes. “Laid off eight staff all at once, and I was one of the lucky few.”
“Wait for the redundancy bloodbath in a month or so,” says Eddie darkly. “No deal Brexit, homelessness, public discontent. Got a good couple of years coming up I reckon.”
“The thing about this music lark is it’s not all fun and games”Eddie Green
This wild oscillation between genuine excitement and gallows humour is Shame’s main form of communication, each band member bouncing off one another so quickly that it’s hard to keep up with what’s sarcasm and what’s serious. Politics bump up against flippant jokes and anecdotes about insults from fans online (“I don’t think abuse is too strong a word for the anger people are throwing our way about releasing an album,” says Forbes, who handles the Twitter account). Throughout it all there’s a sense that they’re just mates in the pub who still can’t believe they’ve managed to hoodwink the world into handing them critical acclaim and a way out of working shit jobs, once they can tour again.
Eddie laughs at the prospect. “Nah, I always expected the acclaim, we were born for it,” he jokes. “Of course it was a surprise, but if anything that only adds to the pressure this time around, because whilst it’s great that we’ve got a built-in fanbase, we have no idea what they’re gonna think. The first album was for people to stumble across and tell us they loved it, this one is more us handing it to people who are there waiting – but they might hate it.”
“That pressure means it would have been easy to just look at the first album, see that people liked it and do it again,” says Forbes.
“That’d be the safe option, but where’s the fun in that?” asks Eddie, finishing his isotonic sports beer. “We started writing and figured out we could do a lot more interesting and innovative stuff than we could first time around, so we ran with that really. It seemed the better choice than trying to make a carbon copy of the first record.”
“And we actually had the chance to do interesting things with this one, too,” stresses Steen. “The first one was written when we were at school, when we had five gigs at the Windmill coming up, and we had to work out what the fuck we were going to play. This time we had more room to breathe and to work out what we were doing.” As he talks, Eddie rolls another cigarette and stands up. “I’ve got to go to work,” he apologises while checking train times on his phone. If there’s one thing to hammer home the precarious position that the music industry is currently in due to COVID-19, it’s a member of a label-signed, critically acclaimed band having to cut album press short to pull pints at a Brixton pub.
Forbes shrugs as Eddie leaves. “It’s been an insane few months,” he says. “Not just the financial side of things, which has been… interesting. But just the lack of gigs in general. Literally, all we’ve done since we were teenagers is play shows and tour. Even two months between tours feels fucking weird, so this is just horrible, absolutely shit.”
Steen nods in agreement. “It’s not been good, but it does make you appreciate what you had. I personally needed a break and was grateful to have that time off, but as lockdown continues and live music seems further and further out of reach, then it does make you wonder what you had and how much I personally didn’t appreciate it at all.
“I remember complaining about shows all the time, and sometimes that was because of our mental state, but a lot of the time it was sheer apathy, which this has shaken us out of. I’m not worried about the future of live performance – it’s an inevitable force, and it will come back. What I am worried bout is bands and venues who won’t or can’t adapt to this situation we’re in, that’s the real tragedy. I think about when we started out, and we got a free practise space, and we could play gigs in pubs for a bit of cash…”
“Even if it’s just 50 quid between you,” Forbes cuts in. “That’s a little something, and it makes you want to keep pushing on. At the moment, why would people spend hours honing their sound and practising when there’s nothing to practice for? Add to that the fact that people have no money at all right now and suddenly fucking around in a room with guitars isn’t a possibility for so many young people who would otherwise be in bands. Not that it hasn’t affected us, we’ve had to delay the album for months because of it.”
“No deal Brexit, homelessness, public discontent. Got a good couple of years coming up I reckon”Eddie Green
That delay ended with the previously mentioned release of ‘Alphabet’ and the subsequent announcement of a homecoming show at Electric Brixton in April next year, which sold out in short order. A few eyebrows could be heard raising at the choice of Electric Brixton over the much larger Brixton Academy, but Steen says it’s not a lack of ambition that forced their hand, but a lack of knowing what the world will look like in six months.
“We initially planned to do the Brixton Academy,” he explains. “Growing up in South London, that was our Mecca. Not Ally Pally or anything like that, Brixton is the one”.
“I’ve been going to shows there since I was about eight years old,” says Forbes.
“It’s almost opposite the Queen’s Head where we started, too,” Steen continues. “So whilst it’s incredible that Electric Brixton sold out, it’s only this fucking pandemic which made us rein it in a bit. We didn’t want all this build-up to what would have been the biggest show of our careers in our eyes, only to have to pull it last minute. We just had to be cautious and admit that we had no idea what was going to happen in the future. But I promise you, we’ll do Brixton Academy soon, and we’ll have the biggest stage show you’ve ever seen. 75 dancers, a marching band, the London Symphony Orchestra, the New York Symphony Orchestra flown in, but only to play the trombone. An army of trombones on stage with us, maybe John Lydon on harmonica to back us up…”
“Did you see Lydon in that fucking MAGA T-shirt?” Forbes asks. “What a fucking loser, what an embarrassment. Still get him on harmonica though, just to teach him a lesson.
“I think we’re definitely glad that we’ve sold out that Electric Brixton date,” he says. “In general I think there was a small voice in our heads saying ‘We haven’t left this too long, have we?”
“It hasn’t even been that long!” Steen protests. “We released an album, played about 178 shows and then a pandemic hit, so we haven’t been sitting around doing nothing. We played a gig this year, we didn’t vanish. There’s nothing we can do about how long it’s all taken, other than to get it rolling again and keep it on track.
“We’re writing now, too, for lack of anything else to do. Although there lies the problem, because every fucker is writing an album now aren’t they – we’ll be flooded. We were allowed a break, but now we’re ready to push forwards again. I spent most of our time off writing in a tiny pink room anyway – ‘the womb’, I call it.” He laughs at our visible confusion, explaining: “I used to live in a nursing home in Peckham, one of those guardianship things where you get cheap rent for living in condemned buildings, basically. I wasn’t there legally…”
Forbes laughs. “You’ve got to print that, it’s very punk rock, people will love it.”
“I was told if I could build myself a room I could live there,” Steen continues. “So I made this bedroom out of this tiny closet and painted the walls and ceiling pink. I was in my mum’s stomach for ten months, so I called it ‘the womb’. I’ve been evicted from the womb now actually, but that’s where I wrote most of this album.”
“I spent most of our time off writing in a tiny pink room – ‘the womb’, I call it”Charlie Steen
Talk of writing the album turns to their hopes when it finally sees the light of day. While ‘Songs of Praise’ received acclaim across the board, it only tickled the Top 40, peaking at No.32. “At the time, getting a Top 40 was a massive deal,” says Steen. “We were told throughout the campaign that to get into the Top 40 would be great, but that was before any of the other bands that we were mates with released a record. Since then the playing field has changed completely, and now it isn’t ‘can you get into the Top 40’, it’s ‘can you get into the Top 5’. That’s the reality of the situation, which might be a bit intimidating, but it’s a great thing to have, and it’s great to see the audience for this kind of music opening up.
“Having said that, you spend all this time worrying about chart positions, and then you look and realise that ‘Rumours’ by Fleetwood Mac is still in the Top 20 or whatever. It’s like, ‘oh for fuck’s sake’, you know?”
What Shame are too modest to say is that they blazed a trail for more than a few of those Top 5 albums, and it could be argued that the expanding audience for punk and post-punk influenced bands in the UK started with the release of their debut. Steen shrugs at the possibility. “There are bands other than us doing this stuff, and they’re succeeding on their own merits,” he says.
“Like IDLES,” Forbes offers as an example. “Obviously we’re very different bands, but they’ve got balls to go for it and commit to being a band. When we say we quit jobs to be in a band we mean working in pubs, they were dentists and shit like that. It takes a lot of guts to quit a job you spent years training for to tour tiny venues and hope you can make a living at it.”
“It’s not like we’re all in competition, either,” adds Steen. “Fontaines are doing really well, but we’re good mates with them, so that’s great to see. Grian actually called me after hearing the new album and told me how much he loved it, which was nice. He also told me it was really funny, and I remember being like, ‘is it?’ I don’t think I meant for it to be funny, but I keep hearing that from people. I took the lyrics quite seriously, but I think that I’m always so fixated on the mundane and making that extraordinary that the contrast there has a lot of humour in it. Humour is a big part of how we function as a band, but I didn’t go into it trying to take the piss out of anything or trying to give the commentary that I was on the first one. It’s a rock and a hard place, trying not to be too serious, but also not too flippant.”
“A lot of it comes down to that British mentality,” he continues. “We know what we want to do, and we know we don’t want to play stripped-back sets at pubs for the next 30 years, but we also want to maintain the elements that come with that, part of which is humour. We’re naturally self-deprecating, but I think that’s such a British thing, to do something you love and then take the piss out of it and talk it down.”
“We do also hate ourselves, so that helps,” grins Forbes.
“The first record definitely has more of that humour and that commentary in it, because I was 17 when I wrote most of it,” says Steen, rolling yet another cigarette. “The new album is much more personal because I’d been through a load of that shit that you think is so cliché to write about until it happens to you. Heartbreak is something you think you’ll never write about, then it happens to you, and suddenly there aren’t enough words to dedicate to it. Also with more political stuff, I think it’s best not to foreground it in the music, because what’s the point? It’d be funnier if a guitar band in 2020 wasn’t left-wing, they’d definitely get a lot more articles written about them.”
One place where the band’s politics do get foregrounded is on their Twitter account, where anti-tory tweets often outnumber band promotion. One recent example saw the band state: “said it before and will say it again unequivocally – if you voted tory, do not listen to our music. Have a look in the mirror and ask yourself how you became such a selfish individual.”
Forbes laughs as he’s reminded of the tweet. “Yeah, I do often get into trouble for tweets like that. My thinking is that even though we don’t want to write overtly political songs, we still want people to know our beliefs and where we stand on issues, so why not tweet about it? My mum works at St George’s [hospital], so obviously, a lot of it is quite close to me as well.”
“I don’t really understand Twitter,” says Steen. “I just go on Instagram because it has pictures. But of course we’re left-wing, and we have to make that obvious because for it to not be obvious is a problem and a dilemma as far as we’re concerned. But I don’t think that’s necessarily very interesting – I remember saying a while back that we should out ourselves as a Lib Dem band. The only Liberal Democrats in town, I think that would be the most hilarious move a band could make, just outing themselves as centrists.” He pauses as someone tries to get his attention – a fan has spotted him and worked up the courage to come and tell him how great Shame are. Forbes grins. “Stick that in the write-up, it makes us look popular!”
Well wishes duly accepted and drinks finish, the remaining members of Shame start to work out their next moves for the night. Asked if they’re still hang out as much and are as good friends as they were before the band got big, Forbes shakes his head. “It’s gone way beyond that now. I think of us more like cogs in a machine, a good machine though – like a really nice oven.”
Taken from the November issue of Dork. Shame’s second album is coming very soon indeed.