The emergence of a new generation of UK rock bands over the past few years has been exciting, and not just because of the music. Gobby groups like Fat White Family, IDLES, Sleaford Mods, Sorry and their peers give good riffage but they also excel at raising a heartfelt ruckus. Along with the thrilling tunes, they’ve served up some of the best rock star beef since Blur vs Oasis.
Sleaford Mods and IDLES have had it out over class and privilege. Fat White Family and IDLES have, too. It’s got to the point where south London guitar urchins Shame are even teasing about orchestrating some band vs band conflict as a way of generating publicity.
“We’re going to organise some online beef with Sleaford Mods because both our albums are coming out the same day,” deadpans drummer Charlie Forbes, tongue firmly in his cheek. “We’re going to buy ourselves a bit of publicity by swinging insults.”
“I think it’s funny,” he continues, about their peers’ feuding. “They’re really good with their insults. At least Sleaford Mods and Fat White Family are. It’s entertaining to watch from the sidelines. We’re not desperate to get involved.”
The young five-piece brim with cheeky humour in person but Shame’s music is devastatingly serious. They are among the first great scuzz-merchants coughed up by Gen Z, early twentysomethings whose first album, 2018’s Songs of Praise, wrestled with teenage insecurity and youthful frustration. Their music sounds like a filthy-gorgeous hurricane of Fall-style staccato onslaught, Happy Mondays lairiness and the monochrome angst that was a stock in trade of Factory Records producer Martin Hannett.
Their follow-up, Drunk Tank Pink, which is out on Friday, is a more majestic assault: imagine a pale, pinched Shaun Ryder fronting Joy Division with fretboards primed to explode. The guitars are louder, the choruses bigger, and it deals with increasingly adult themes, such as loneliness and trying to establish a sense of individual identity when all you’ve known is the gang mentality of being in a band. As those riffs detonate, you begin to understand why some critics have been moved to hail Shame saviours of guitar music – something the threadbare music press always tries to do whenever a new Brit guitar band emerges from the depths, but here has real cause for attention.
The album is accidentally timely, too. “Although the album was written before quarantine and Covid, it deals with a lot of themes of isolation,” says Forbes. “Given the year we’ve just had, it’s probably going to resonate. Nobody’s not had a time this year where they haven’t felt alone.”
The two Charlies who form the backbone of Shame are a study in contrasts. That seam of tortured alienation running through the project is largely courtesy of frontman Charlie Steen, who is at his flat in Peckham, clear-eyed and gazing earnestly into a Zoom screen. He cuts a very different figure to Forbes, who commandeers both the drum kit and Shame’s lively Twitter account. The latter explains he is “breaking into” a pub at Tulse Hill in order to do this interview (it’s fine– he knows the landlord). And then, just like the indie stars of old, he’s merrily running the rule over rival bands and criticising politicians (as a Labour supporter, he finds Keir Starmer entirely hapless).
“I’ve had so many disciplinary… well, not ‘meetings’. Untold tellings off,” says Forbes of the mischief he has wreaked. “Once I was at home and sent some tweets at Catfish and the Bottlemen, just slagging them off [the actual tweet went simply: “s*** band”] . It got a lot more traction than I thought it would. Steen gets angry because people will come up to him and say, ‘Why are you talking about this?’ And he’s got nothing to do with it. He gets confronted with accusations.”
Shame began in 2014 when the two Charlies, guitarists Eddie Green and Sean Coyle-Smith and bassist Josh Finerty were in their mid-teens. Their base of operations was the gloriously dingy Queen’s Head pub in Brixton (now a vegan gastropub). Forbes’s father was friendly with the landlord so the band were allowed to rehearse in the upstairs function room, and soon they were crossing paths with apocalyptic art-rockers Fat White Family, for whom the Queen’s Head was a spiritual HQ.
A little of Fat White Family’s nihilistic wit rubbed off. Yet, musically and philosophically, Shame stood apart from other south London peers such as Goat Girl and Black Midi. In concert, Steen embraced the cliche of the charismatic frontman. Rather than play it cool, he would prowl the stage with his shirt off, like Iggy Pop auditioning for Skins.
“It is massively addictive,” he says of live performance. “It’s also a form of meditation. People might think I sound like an arsehole. This is the truth of it: when it’s a really good show I’m not thinking about what I’m doing. I’m not worried about the criticism that people might be thinking about me – or my general insecurities. I’m feeling nothing. Just pure bliss. That’s the only time in my life I ever have that.”
Those fleeting moments of abandon would begin to exact a toll. In 2017, Shame played 140 shows and 57 festivals in the span of three months. Steen couldn’t go on and that December a German tour was called off. The singer felt it important to honestly address the reasons for the cancellation – to explain that being in a successful band didn’t mean that your mental health wasn’t at risk.
“There’s a reason I’m a lead singer,” he says. “I have the necessity within myself to vocalise my thoughts and opinions. So I was very open to talk about it. I didn’t want to deny it. It was seriously affecting me.”
After two and a half years of near-constant touring, the singer struggled to decompress when Shame went back to civilian life in 2019. His coping mechanism was to go out every night. The more he surrounded himself with people, the starker his loneliness.
“It gets to a point where it’s eight in the morning and you’re at your flat and there are a few random strangers you’ve never met before chatting your ear off,” he says. “And, you’re kind of like, ‘Hmmm… maybe there’s an element of my lifestyle I need to evolve from, for my own sanity’.”
With Shame dominating his life since his teens, he says that he skipped an important part of adolescence – that sense of growing into your skin and understanding the person you are becoming. “We toured a long time and we felt we missed out,” says Steen. “We were like tourists in our own adolescence in a way. When we came back it was with a feeling of restlessness. We’d been on the move so long in new cities and new places meeting new people. And suddenly, you were static.”
He came down to earth with a bang, which formed the basis of Drunk Tank Pink. “You have to separate Shame from yourself – what do I like? What do I want to do?” he says. “Learning to deal with that and learning to enjoy being in the company of yourself is largely what the record is about.”
On a whim, he decided he wanted to sleep in a womb-pink bedroom. To help with the redecorating, he roped in a housemate and his housemate’s dad. Only afterwards did it dawn on him that he may have subliminally been trying to bring some tranquillity to his life. “It wasn’t an intentional thing to calm me down,” he says. “I just wanted a pink room.” He wasn’t aware that Drunk Tank Pink is named for a shade of pink scientifically demonstrated to reduce aggression when painted on prison cell walls – and that’s how the album got its name.
They hope the album will build on the success of Songs of Praise, which breached the UK Top 40 and was followed by a series of sell-out tours. Perhaps it will even earn the group the Mercury nomination some feel their debut deserved. Coronavirus will be one impediment to a group that has built much of their momentum through touring. Another will be Brexit, which they fear will impact negatively on their ability to sustain their considerable audience on the continent. “We benefited from going to Europe early on and just grinding it out in places other than the UK,” says Forbes. “Now you’re not going to be able to do that unless you’ve got the [financial] means to.”
Politics doesn’t feature particularly heavily on the new LP, yet they still feel it is important to speak out – which they do, especially on social media where they have recently criticised the stuttering roll-out of Covid vaccinations and the raw deal artists get from streaming services.
“We’re happy for our politics to be known without necessarily having to write songs about it,” says Forbes. “How many different ways have Sleaford Mods come up with saying, ‘F*** the Tories’. It’s genuinely impressive. I don’t think we’ve got the wit to pull off songs like that. But we’re outspoken. People know how we feel about issues even if it’s not written into a song.”
For now, there’s little sign of a face-off with Sleaford Mods, so they’ll have to settle for some potshots from Sports Team, the shiny, happy indie group from Cambridge who have sniped at them on Twitter. “The worst band!” winces Forbes. “Don’t get me f***ing started on Sports Team, man. It’s different when you’re talking about the Fat Whites and Sleaford Mods. They’re bands with a bit of f***ing credibility.” They agree the present generation of feuding rockstars isn’t in the same league as Guns N’ Roses and Nirvana squaring off backstage at the MTV Awards – but it is, at least, some much-needed entertainment in a harsh world. “We use words on social media – from behind our computer screens,” laughs Steen. “We’re a bit more lightweight.”
Drunk Tank Pink is released on Friday
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