If there were ever a group of unlikely lads who looked set to grab 2018 by the horns and ride it into a booze-infused sunset, then Shame are those lads. The raw and unabashed Londoners have slowly but surely been hammering away at something special over the course of the last three years, with frontman Charlie Steen well on the way to cementing his status as one of vitriolic and all-round mental vocalists. On debut album Songs of Praise (out tomorrow, 12 January), all of the elements which make Shame so outstanding – their unrivalled work ethic and gnarly sonic combinations, to name but two – come together to form a coherently messy whole which may well prove to be one of the best albums of the year. We sat down with guitarist Eddie Green and frontman Steen on a bleak and dreary, alcohol (from both sides, mind)-filled promo day in Amsterdam to discuss the stories behind Songs of Praise, the London scene it was born out of as well as some interesting stories from throughout their, to put it lightly, mental 2017.
Hey guys. How are you doing?
Charlie: We’re doing great, thanks.
Have you had much time to explore the lovely Amsterdam today?
Charlie: Not really, to be honest. We’ve been pretty jet lagged, because we just did a tour of North America, got back into London for eight hours, and then went to Brussels for a press day. Now we’re in Amsterdam, and in a few hours we head off to Berlin for more promo. The body clock is a bit weird.
You’ve had some great shows in the Netherlands lately, Lowlands to name just one example.
Charlie: Lowlands was absolutely sick!
National media even hailed your set as one of the best all weekend.
Charlie: Really?! Because, like, we get tagged in all these things but we can’t understand a word it says. Do you speak Dutch?
Charlie: Awesome. We get tagged in posts which are all in Dutch, French, Spanish and stuff but none of us know what’s going on most of the time. Eddie can speak fluent German and Spanish so you get that, but if it’s in Dutch absolutely none of us know.
Eddie: I kind of understand it if it’s written down, though.
And generally if you speak either Dutch or German, understanding the other language isn’t too difficult I believe.
Eddie: Yeah. I can understand Dutch, but I can’t speak it.
Charlie: I don’t even bother, yeah.
You’ve had a really busy year. How’s it panned out?
Eddie: The festival season was great!
Charlie: We did 47 festivals.
Eddie: Kiko, our tour manager, seriously thinks that we did more festivals than any other band.
I actually read something about that, yeah. I’m pretty sure you played more than anyone!
Charlie: We were at, like, Eurosonic and ended up getting the most bookings out of that. I think we ended up getting eighteen bookings out of that alone, and another fifteen from other showcases we played here and there. There were a lot of highlights.
Eddie: Just going to all these different places to appear at festivals was amazing, you know. I think I’ve probably been to more countries this summer than I have my entire life up until now.
Any specific shows which stood out in particular?
Eddie: Lowlands, as we’d mentioned, was great. It’s always brilliant coming to the Netherlands. We also did one called OFF Festival in Poland, which was my personal highlight of the summer. Glastonbury is absolutely one that you can’t beat.
Charlie: We got to meet Billy Bragg at Glastonbury, which makes sense seeing as he was the one who invited us to play on his stage. We also played this festival in St Tropez in a hotel resort, and we got to stay at the resort for free. We got all this champagne and wine, bread and cheese which was great. Getting to see Iggy Pop was fantastic.
Eddie: Yeah, for sure. We saw him at either Lowlands or at Pukkelpop, I can’t remember which one. Charlie threw up on the stage as we were watching him.
Charlie: Yep. There was a period of two weeks leading up to the end of the summer where I couldn’t digest anything probably, so I would keep throwing up. We played a festival and blagged our way onto the side of the stage where Iggy Pop was playing, and then I just started throwing up about ten metres behind him.
Do you reckon he noticed?
Charlie: He didn’t notice I was throwing up, but he did look.
Eddie: It was the most relaxed throwing up I’d ever seen. Charlie was just standing there with a cigarette and casually throwing up between drags. Iggy Pop is a legend, though, what with the way he still performs and how energetic he still is all these years later. I remember that both times we saw Iggy Pop he got lifted offstage at the end with a limp.
Charlie: But yeah, this throwing up just became so normal for me. There was this one gig where I threw up fifteen times onstage. There have been some insane moments this year, and the best one recently was when we drove into New York seeing the city lights. It was all of our first times going to New York, so we got off the plane and drove in just as the sun was setting. The first time going over that bridge was just insane.
Eddie: That was such a special moment.
Was that a moment where you thought, “fuck, look what we’ve done”.
Charlie: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Eddie: New York is just so visually overwhelming, so we were driving across Brooklyn Bridge in absolute awe.
Charlie: For a British or European band, the significance of getting to play in New York is just massive.
Eddie: There’s all of these milestones which, in comparison, are just arbitrary. Seeing New York was such a big deal for me. Just, like, looking at this enormous metropolis and asking yourself how the fuck you’re capable of doing such a thing. “This stupid band has taken us so far, what the fuck“, haha.
Charlie: Basically that, yeah.
How do the US crowds compare to European and British, in your opinion?
Eddie: American crowds are interesting, because there isn’t really the same kind of intensity as there is with a wild and rowdy English crowd.
Charlie: New York is just like a London crowd.
Eddie: Quite cool people, yeah. But then when you go to the smaller places you get all these people who don’t tend to go to shows, but really appreciate there being live music to go and see. We played in a tiny community in Arden, Delaware with Ought. We opened for them, and it was one of the most enjoyable moments of the tour I think. You’re just in a very small town, and people go and check it out.
Charlie: It’s like starting a band all over again. It felt very similair to when we just started touring for the very first time in the UK, seeing all these new places and people seeing you live for the first time. There are obviously some people who are really big fans, and some who aren’t and think, “oh, whatever“. It felt fun to start again.
Let’s talk Songs of Praise. Have the BBC troubled you at all over the title choice?
Eddie: We sent them a letter asking them if we could do this.
Charlie: Our lawyer called them and they basically said it was okay seeing as the term wasn’t some sort of defamation or slander.
Eddie: And it’s not copyrighted. It’s like calling an album Friends and getting sued by HBO or whatever.
Charlie: They said to us that it was okay to do as long as we weren’t doing it in such a way so as to mock religion. That was the reason it was fine.
Eddie: And you can’t mock religion.
Can you tell me more about the creative process which lead up to the record?
Charlie: Well, there were three years worth of it.
Eddie: All we’ve basically done these last three years is write and tour these songs. I was quite keen to include some of the older songs, and I think we all were to be honest. One Rizla, for example, was one of the first songs that we wrote for the band. It’s now on our latest release, three years down the line. The process leading up to it, like Steen said, was pretty much just three years of writing and three years of touring. It also entailed finding the right people to work with, and also just finding our feet in the studio. We spent so long recording in the typical, scrappy guitar-band way, and it became quite frustrating as it wasn’t really working for us. Then, we went into a studio and took a different approach, one which was quite unorthodox for a guitar band like us to take on.
What’s different about it?
Eddie: What we do, is record everything in a very regimented way. It’s all to a click, very polished and very specific. It’s not something which people generally expect from a slightly thrash-y guitar band like us. We found that this approach gives you so much scope to do things in production which will let you achieve a wildly different tone. It’s how we enjoy working.
And to what extent did the local area and your surroundings at the time play a part in the way the music was shaped?
Charlie: I think a lot of it was down to the pub, The Queen’s Head. That’s where we all formed the band, that was the birth of it. That place was semi-lawless, and it felt more like an establishment which had become some sort of community where no doors were locked. The different people, or characters, there were all extremely eclectic. There had been people who walked through those doors who also had roots in the music industry, such as members of Alabama Free, Stiff Little Fingers, The Ruts. All those people hung out there. You also had the drag queens there, and the alcoholics and crackheads.
Eddie: We were seventeen when we went there, and while other people our age were doing all this normal teenage stuff we were heading to the pub after school to hang out with 45-year-old men. It was weird, but they became our friends and that became our social group. It gave us a different outlook on the band as opposed to how other bands would look at theirs. It kind of shaped our ethos and the way we wanted to do things.
That pub’s now been transformed into a gastropub I heard?
Charlie: Yeah! Simon was the landlord when we were there, and he kind of fled to Norway. I don’t go there anymore, but I have been there in the past since it became a gastropub. It’s just like any old pub in London now, although it’s still different to a place like Wetherspoons where everything is exactly the same. It’s weird to see it now when you consider some of the stuff that’s happened there in the past. It had a great character. There’s also this place in Brixton called The Windmill which had something similair going on, but I don’t think we’ll experience a pub like The Queen’s Head ever again in our lifetime.
Eddie: I do think, though, that the end of The Queen’s Head came at the right time.
I just want to shift the focus onto Songs of Praise’s lyrical direction. Tell me about some of the stories which shaped the songs.
Charlie: We’ve been a band since we were seventeen, and we’re twenty now. Over the course of that time period, the amount of music, books and artistic outlets I’ve been exposed to has influenced how I write. It’s mainly social commentary, some of it’s political but the rest of it is very personal to myself. I got very good advice very early on, which was just to keep on writing and keep on reading. I have about six notebooks full of ideas, and hopefully I can expand on that. Everything has been written about before, and that’s sort of the challenge you have to overcome.
And do the rest of the band have a say in the lyrical direction?
Charlie: I’m the sole songwriter, but if anyone else in the band proposes anything strongly then I’ll probably look at it and change it if need be. The same goes vice versa; I leave the music to the musicians and stick to the lyrics myself.
When you really got going on Songs of Praise, did you have a particular end goal which you set out to achieve in a particular capacity?
Charlie: An album, haha.
Eddie: We’d written those songs over such a long period of time that we never really thought about it in the context of a whole album until it was really time to do so. That was the point where we started thinking about the production. We’d make a record of songs which had character, and each song has its own particular vibe. The production technique that we applied allowed us to make it work in the context of a whole record. Had we recorded it in a different way then it might have not worked. There’s lots of ups and downs, but the one constant is the production value which levels it all out.
Right. What about the scene back in London, what’s it like nowadays?
Eddie: It’s really great.
Charlie: It’s very strong, so many fucking brilliant bands.
Eddie: It’s a good place in London at the moment as there isn’t a shortage of decent venues. Venue promoters in London work extremely hard to put on bills that work, so one thing that’s really frustrating for new bands is when you get put on a completely random bill where each band is completely different. Nobody really benefits from that; the promoter doesn’t win, and nor do the crowds or the bands involved. In London you’ve got places like The Windmill in Brixton where the promoter works really hard to scout out new bands and put on nights that are enjoyable for everyone. That’s set a precedent for how London venues are operating, or how they should operate.
Charlie: The best thing about bands in London at the moment is that, unlike with previous generations, every band is quite individual in their sound and in what they want to say. And that’s despite the grouping of a, quote unquote, “scene”. Everyone has a different sound, whereas various scenes which have emerged in the past in London have all sounded quite similair. Bands like Palma Violets, Peace and Swim Deep for example. They’re all very nice bands though, don’t get me wrong.
Eddie: Swim Deep are so nice! They are absolutely the best blokes.
Charlie: I think that’s the difference in the music scene at home right now. There’s no abundance of good music.
What’s standing out to you at the moment?
Charlie: I don’t know, to be honest. We’ve seen all of these bands so many times, so they’ve kind of become close friends now. It’s quite incestuous in a way, because Eddie and I went to the same school as Lottie from Goat Girl, and I went to Camberwell for a year of fine art with Asha from Sorry. I think all the bands are good in their own individual way; I really like Goat Girl, and I also love Sorry.
Eddie: There’s no shortage of really great new bands, and we were a part of it. Now there’s all these other bands emerging who are doing it just like we did a couple of years ago. It’s really great to see it happen like this, especially after what had been such a stagnant period for music. It’s good to see things coming up again.
Charlie: Being in London specifically is the best part, because there is so much going on and there’s so much great music around right now. I know that there are now new bands emerging who I still have to check out. There’s a band called Black Midi who have only ever played like, what, five gigs?
Eddie: You won’t have heard of them, but you will. Also another band called Treeboy & Ark, who are based up in Leeds. Do you know Hookworms?
Eddie: So, MJ from Hookworms produced their EP and it’s fucking incredible.
Charlie: There’s the Peeping Drexels as well. And these are all new. Bands like Goat Girl and Sorry have been going for so long, or at least it feels like so long.
Brilliant. Thanks a lot for your time guys, and best of luck!
Eddie: Thanks mate!
Songs of Praise is out tomorrow (12 January).