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February 2021
Cover Story

Shame: "If you don’t want your ego damaged, don’t start a guitar band"

Every new year starts with the promise of new, exciting things. Shame aren’t hanging about in bringing us one of them, with quite probably the first great album of 2018.
Published: 12:00 am, January 19, 2018
Shame: "If you don’t want your ego damaged, don’t start a guitar band"

Every new year starts with the promise of new, exciting things. Shame aren’t hanging about in bringing us one of them, with quite probably the first great album of 2018.

Words: Jamie Muir. Photos: Sarah Louise Bennett.

[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]It’s a bitterly cold Tuesday morning in South London, and Shame are recovering from a packed 2017, and an even busier end to it, incorporating some of their biggest headline shows to date, a blistering run across the US and a pogoing schedule of European trips. As morning breaks, frontman Charlie Steen and guitarist Eddie Green tell tales of only just returning to the UK late the night before, yet bustle with the rest of the band on adventures and the maddening rush of it all. For a band who, just over a year ago, were taking on sweat-stained pub nights across the capital, it’s an evolution and coming together that means something more, a destined reckoning that could be felt every time they took the stage. Wherever that stage may be.

“Remember that time we took the drum kit on a bus?” recalls guitarist Sean Coyle Smith, cueing raised smiles and laughter between themselves as they gather away from the cold in a local tiled cafe. “We got booked for this riverside festival in Richmond, and all we heard was the festival part of it. We turned up to children and old people in rows of white chairs, and I think we got paid with some cider and some Cumberland sausages.”

“That was so bleak,” continues Eddie, stirring away at the hot drink in front of him with a shake of his head. “The funniest part of that was when a guy came up to us at the side of the stage and said, ‘Look, guys, I’m not going to tell you again. There are kids here - can you please watch your language. There’s storytelling going on in the tent over there’.” This was all while they were playing a song called ‘Gone Fisting’.

“I think we were fined for being too loud as well,” notes frontman Steen. “It’s miraculous really. There were infinite points along the way where we should have stopped and said, ‘What are we doing?’ If we’d been any other age…”

There are many, many other examples that Shame can bring up for playing the weird and the wonderful (supporting folk duos at 7pm, bursting into Glastonbury and playing shows with no amps or working equipment) that has all led them to where they stand today. Thriving with chaos yet with a defining sound behind it all, they’ve taken the punches and never stopped - a burning ambition and a gang mentality that means they can take on anyone. Alongside bassist Josh Finerty and drummer Charlie Forbes, they’ve managed to capture something that many bands search for years to find. All natural, authentic and immediate, Shame’s world doesn’t need to be a beacon of the future, but rooted in the here and now - learning how to deal with it and how we can all get better. Still finding out who they can be, the journey itself to that point is just as important.

“I don’t think any of us set out for anything,” notes Sean. “It was just there as a pipe dream…”

“It’s been a three-year existential crisis,” smiles Steen. “We never had some pivotal moment where we sat down and manufactured an image, or what we’d want to be perceived as or anything. It never happened. We’re sort of still clueless, still creating an idea of what we want to be. I don’t think we know what we want to be; we’re 20.”

Meeting at school, Shame experienced more in their younger years than many. From the beginning it was clear they were onto something different than the rest of their classmates, discovering life’s teenage speed bumps together. Josh was hooked on music from the moment he was given a copy of Sum 41’s ‘All Killer, No Filler’ at the age of three, he and Eddie would chat and listen to Nirvana together, while Eddie and Steen would take in their parents’ rich musical tastes that would go from the 70s right up to the modern day.

While they found a home within each other, that physical manifestation can be traced back to one place in particular: The Queen’s Head. Nestled down the road from Brixton Academy’s looming hall, it flows and spits with an attitude that would become a defining inspiration for everything Shame now represent - subconsciously informing that mentality where every challenge can be overcome, and the spirit it all signifies.

“The first time we went there was me, Forbes and Steen and a couple of our mates,” recalls Eddie, “and we went to see a gig there which was Childhood, King Krule, Jerkcurb and the Fat Whites.”

“Charlie [Forbes]’ dad got us in,” continues Steen, flashing back to a night that lit a fuse in him. “I had no idea of, or interest, in any music that was happening at that moment. I was still laying my head in the 1980s, wasn’t really thinking about the present. That was the first gig where something interesting happened in London with bands for me. You hear of those Iggy Pop and David Bowie gigs that you’d never be able to see. You won’t go see a gig like that, but I never thought I’d be able to see a gig that’s chaotic and in your face and has this type of music where people of our generation are interested. At that gig, that was where it all was in one place.”

“We didn’t even watch the Fat Whites that night. I remember - I was a little stoner kid - seeing a naked guy on stage and thinking, ‘Wooaaaaaaahhhh - wanna go McDonald’s?” he laughs. “I don’t think it properly had an impact until we came back to The Queen’s Head…”[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row full_width="stretch_row
[vc_column][vc_single_image image="30297" img_size="full" add_caption="yes" alignment="center
[/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]Josh could feel that impact as soon as he joined the band six months later. “I hadn’t heard of any of those bands. It took me joining this band and saying, ‘Oh, I want to make music like The Stooges’ for the guys to show me Fat Whites and King Krule to see how fucking good it is.”

When talking about The Queen’s Head, Shame erupt into a blend of hilarious stories, genuine disbelief for the situations they found themselves in, and enormous appreciation for the opportunities it provided. There was the tin pot in what became the band’s practice room which, as described by Steen, became a “living creature of unidentifiable liquids and compounds.” There was the time he and Nathan from the Fat White Family went behind the sound desk for the night (“I asked him if he knew what he was doing and he was like ‘Nah, it’s just fun to play with the buttons’, and just saw Ben from Childhood’s mic going up and down”). Or the time they played in drag there at 3am, before having to be at school just a few hours later.

That aura of a different time in London, still surviving and living through its floorboards was something that struck five teenagers whose only insight into such a world had been recordings. Its resonance and importance can’t be diminished, and it became the go-to destination for the band at any moment they could get away. Not so much a retreat, but a hub of individuality and freedom.

“The atmosphere there was really grimy, judgement free,” explains Sean. “Very strange things would happen on a day to day basis. It was a bit of a culture shock almost when we first went there.”

"pull" text="We don't know what we want to be

“It’s only now I realise how weird it must have been, all of us going in there,” notes Eddie. “A lot of the time, once or twice a week, me and Steen would be like, ‘Shall we go Queens?’ Just hanging out with 45-year-old pissheads.”

Steen sees it too. “We thought it was a bit like… off. But we never thought it was that weird that we were 16 or 17 at The Queens Head. We kinda witnessed an end of an era without realising it. That pub, I don’t think anyone in London our age is ever going to see a place like that again - so I guess it influenced us in that way. We have this like freedom which we can only really understand ourselves now. How important it is, and how important The Queens Head was to us.”

While The Queen’s Head may be gone, that ethos continues to ring true. Meeting veterans from bands who’ve done it for over 30 years, their words and advice have laid out the do’s and don’ts on how to navigate as a band. As Steen says, it’s “because of the Queens Head and all the different characters we’d meet, that we kinda knew stuff about the music industry. We knew about who we should involve, and because of the spine we’ve created, we can do this ourselves and sort of save our impending debt wherever possible. We do cut corners financially wherever possible.”

After the years spent under its roof, Shame knew that they had to stick things out - giving themselves time to see where it would all go. As Josh remembers: “[When] we started in our final year of school, it was a case of well, we might as well take a gap year and see how it goes. So we took that gap year, and it was at the end of that year as the band that we decided, ‘Right, we’re not going to university anymore, we’re going to keep going as a band’. It was only two years into it that we could actually think about dropping everything and fully being into it.”[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_video link="
" align="center[/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]What Shame have that’s more than just a sum of their parts, is one of the most incendiary live shows of recent times. Like a flare being lit to full blast, Shame live are a tidal wave of post-punk glory. With Steen prowling the stage, it’s an experience that’s found their reputation reaching far and wide - a freedom that’s bound to have grown from the hub they called home for so long. More than anything, it’s entirely natural.

“I think a lot of the gigs we turned up to play, 90% of other bands wouldn’t play. Would not have agreed to do those shows,” points out Sean, thinking back to those haywire nights that have marked the past three years of their existence. “When we originally started doing shows, it was mainly our friends who didn’t really like our music coming, and then we started seeing the same people at a number of shows who weren’t our friends. And we were like, oh…”

“I’ve never once thought about how to prepare for a gig, it’s just something that never crosses my mind,” states Forbes, with the rest of the guys nodding and agreeing without hesitation.

“It’s organically developed,” elaborates Steen. “The way we performed to three people three times a week, that ideology behind it all hasn’t changed over the years. Every gig is just as important, no matter who you play to - we don’t create any sort of ego we just do the opposite, we try to break down any concept of judgement in play.”

“It makes the show fun doesn’t it?” jumps in Sean. “Obviously it’s nice to play to a lot of people, but if you’re playing to nobody and you play that way, then it’s just going to be even worse. There’s no pressure in that situation, and that’s always our attitude.”

Steen smiles wryly. “If you don’t want your ego damaged, don’t start a guitar band in 2018.”

Nobody ever told me I would be a singer when I’m older,” states Steen. “Nobody would give you that advice…” returns Eddie.

“Steen?” asks Sean. “Was it your drama teacher who said that singing wasn’t for you?”

The guys trigger into laughter once again, taking swigs of their teas and coffees as they remember back to the road that brought them here. With The Queen’s Head firmly in their bloodstream, the songs began to come together, with many making up the band’s debut album ‘Songs Of Praise’. A record that practically breaks down the door with youthful energy, it’s the perfect document of that jump between teenage life and young adulthood. A startling mix of Nick Cave, The Fall, 80s punk and gritty realities, it’s not only a stunning album but one of the most exciting British debuts of the past decade - giving a new wave of young guitar bands the bar for where to go next.

“We never really thought about it that much,” starts Sean. “We didn’t know what we wanted to sound like when we started.”

“I think that process [of songwriting] has gotten longer and longer, and you get a lot more finicky as time goes on,” continues Josh. “When we started, we wrote like two songs that we then played for two years after that - and we did them in our first practice. It was so quick, just bang bang bang. I think we just wanted to make every song sound as different as possible. That’s our one main thing.”[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row full_width="stretch_row[vc_column][vc_single_image image="30296" img_size="full" add_caption="yes" alignment="center[/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]From start to finish, it’s something Shame achieve with soaring success. Dissecting and gazing at society with a sharp-eye and a mirror, it’s an album that doesn’t systematically goes about being a political statement but rather embraces it with the same importance the world has to. Reflecting their surroundings simply means reflecting the politics going on, and if they have a platform to express their thoughts and enlighten others to explore it too, then that’s exactly what they’ll do. As Steen explains: “We’re not the solution, we’re just trying to understand the problem.”

“Like all the music, the lyrics have come from a period of three years from when we were 17 til 20,” he continues. “All of the stuff that happens to you, whether you’re in a band or not - like in those years of your life you’re exposed to so much, whether that’s characters or music or books or paintings, relationships or whatever. All of these different things can have an impact on it, a lot of the lyrics on the album are about social commentary, some of them are trying to be quite direct, and some are trying to be quite subtle. I don’t think I’ve ever written anything, aside from ‘Visa Vulture’ [a track released last year], which is trying to have a direct message behind it. Me as a person, I’m quite bad at simplifying what I’m trying to say, so it’s a way for me to be able to spray down whatever I’m thinking.”

With the foundation set, there was one jump to make - going from the live force that they’d commanded to crafting a record that showed off the full spectrum of sound they’d worked so tirelessly on. Shame wanted to scrap and shake-up any notion of them simply being “noise”, and the process took a few tries.

“Don’t get it wrong, the first two and a half years of being a band, a massive stress of ours was how we were going to get this done on record and get it sounding good,” leans in Josh. “It took us to find the right guys and even a few different sessions to get where we wanted to be.”

"pull" text="We're not just noise

“We’d done so many recordings,” exhales Sean with a sigh, “because everyone tried to make us sound as we do live, and we just never really liked that - we always wanted there to be some sort of separation.”

“I always thought that we should sound as we do live,” picks up Josh, “but it took us actually trying that to realise it was a bad idea. Recording the album was like the loveliest, most therapeutic, most great experience because we had all those songs locked down - it was just getting them down on paper.”

The band took themselves away to Rockfield Studios, cut away from the world in the midst of wandering countryside in the south of Wales - working with producers Dan Foat and Nathan Boddy on nailing exactly what they wanted Shame’s opening statement on the world to be.

“At Rockfield Studios, you stay in this massive house with eight bedrooms, they feed you every day - at this lush farm, away from everything,” details Sean. “You’d wake up, Forbes would finish his drums, and you’d walk two minutes down to the studio - it’d be a sunny day and green. I wanna go back.”

“The contrast of this though,” dives in Steen. “We were with one of the producers the other day in Toronto, and he was saying to us, and we didn’t realise at the time that ten days to do twelve songs for an album is nothing. So while our producers were ripping their hair out in their rooms, we were outside in the field playing with footballs and that - like our own personal holiday!”

Throughout, ‘Songs Of Praise’ continues to surprise and entice - a record that vibrates with passion yet underpinned by glorious hooks and ripping variety. ‘One Rizla’ for example, delivers a bold wink of shimmering pop immediacy (“It was the first song we wrote and finished entirely, and it’s sort-of mostly untouched from then to now on the album,” points out Steen). ‘Dust On Trial’ is a brazen chest-out command to the attention of spiralling, chilling guitars and prowling delivery, while singles like ‘Concrete’, ‘The Lick’, ‘Tasteless’ and ‘Gold Hole’ all plant the flag firmly in the ground with their flairs and rawness. Then there’s album closer ‘Angie’, unlike anything else heard before it, it builds from isolation into a grandstand ending that touches on romance and loss in devastating fashion.

“When we went into the studio it was nowhere near as long,” remembers Sean. “It was about four and a half minutes, and we were like, if we’re going to put this on the record, then we need to make it the song it should be. It’s a bit epic, I don’t really like that word, but it is.”

“We wrote that song at the Queen’s Head. We used to play it live,” continues Steen, “and then it got tucked away for a while. Dan and Nathan were the guys who sat us down and said that they wanted it to be on the album and work on it after hearing it at a practice we did before. They were the ones who pushed it in. I wrote about eight pages of lyrics to it, and we were adding bits as we were in there at the studio, even on the day of recording itself.”

What’s left is a record that’s bound to find a home in many a record collection. One that takes risks, that rips open honesty and makes you look inwards. For a band who embraced generations past and found themselves at home with those decades older than them, it sounds purely of the times we live in now. An era that may have passed, becoming one of the future. That moment where people can hear it and take it in for their own must be a daunting moment?

“It hasn’t crossed my mind how I’d like or how I think people are going to interpret the album, to be honest,” contemplates Steen. “It’s more for us to get together a collection of moments of the band in the timeframe we’ve had. We could have delayed it and tried to write two more songs, look at it from a commercial viewpoint or something, but we thought that it would lose that honesty and this album is us.”

“Amateurism for £11 on vinyl, if you will,” he smirks again.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row full_width="stretch_row[vc_column][vc_single_image image="30295" img_size="full" add_caption="yes" alignment="center[/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]The thought of ‘Songs Of Praise’ being out in the world strikes a chord with Sean. “I want people to listen to it and see that we can write songs. We’re not just noise - which is what I think it would have been if we had recorded it as if it’s a live show. We’re not a shock-rock band.”

For all the intense, visceral and potency of their live shows - Shame are ultimately a band of five mates, buzzing with excitement that the music they’ve created and the countless nights of trailing up and down the country with instruments in tow, is reaching a level where appreciation is now flowing in their direction. They’ve taken those experiences and glimpses into different worlds, and poured them not only into ‘Songs Of Praise’ but into themselves. It’s why they sit at such a moment, becoming that band but with a focus on being something more vital. If you’d have told them that they’d be here back when they first rode into The Queen’s Head, there’s a part of them that would find it maddening - but another part that would have felt confident they’d be here all along. Satisfied and confident but written with the hard work that’s got them to this moment.

“I think it’s been individual moments that show like, the highlights of surrealism,” lays out Steen, thinking back and turning to his bandmates to recall those pinch-yourself moments telepathically. “Like when we drove into New York for the first time; when we played on Le Grand Journal [a French TV show which usually features the likes of Eminem, Metallica and Taylor Swift]. Those sort of like checkpoints of absurdity, going from above The Queen’s Head in Brixton with a drum kit made of gaffa tape and no amps. Finishing most of the songs we’d been writing in that room with no microphone, in a studio in Wales. It’s satisfying and confusing at the same time.

“But we do know that nobody is going to care about the band as much as we do, that’s the truth. We’re aware of that, that’s not bringing ourselves down - it’s not pessimism but realism.”

As the band finish their drinks, they start to think about ambition. Where they can go from here, with a landmark debut album under their belts and a whole world to play with. “Making more music,” states Sean.

“Writing another good album, I want to write more music and don’t want to stop,” comes Josh.

“Brixton Academy,” lays out Forbes.

“You guys are boring,” chimes in Eddie. “I wanna buy a boat.” The laughs ring out once again.

“I think one day if we could have a holiday,” follows up Steen, “that’d be good.”

The band pile out of the cafe, all stopping to say thanks to the owners and bringing back their mugs. As they stroll up to the train station, they pop into a local pub-garden that they’ve spent many a night downing pints and learning more from the characters that surround them. Suddenly they hear a familiar voice…


“Denniisssss,” they all reply in unison. “What are you up to Dennis?” asks Josh.

“Ahh not much,” the figure replies. “Just syphoning some diesel.”

Steen turns back. “He’s one of the characters from The Queen’s Head, what a guy. We see people everywhere now.”

Shame are about to see a lot more people, the sound of an era welcoming in their own. That holiday is going to have to wait.


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