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Shame are sobering up to normality and coming to grips with the real world

12 January 2021, 11:11

Steen and Green… It rolls off the tongue like the names of your favourite dynamic duos — Mario and Luigi; Batman and Robin; Sam and Frodo.

Of course, whilst Shame's singer and guitarist may sound like superheroes in waiting, the pair have more in common with the likes of Chandler and Joey or perhaps even Patsy and Edina if you consider some of the stories they’d be able to tell you about the last six or so years of touring.

Following the release of debut album Songs of Praise in 2018, the South London band found themselves thrust into a relentless lifestyle change as they stumbled into the dream of any teenager who starts a band — to tour the world with their best friends and have every night become a party. What they didn’t realise is that when the party stops, the silence can be deafening — especially when the rest of the world stops with it.

Drunk Tank Pink is a documentation of the band’s journey out of the wormholes they had descended into once they had to face normality again. “Happiness is only a habit”, Steen says on the pensive and sanguine closer “Station Wagon”. It’s a thought-process that becomes all too familiar when you’ve spent your most influential years chasing high after high and all of a sudden find yourself thrust into a moment of sobriety; contemplating how you might adjust back into the real world.

This form of introspection is littered throughout Drunk Tank Pink. Whilst it may be wrapped up in self-deprecation and despondent humour that is so quintessentially Shame, as well as an underlying sense of controlled chaos where you’re half expecting the rug to be pulled out from your feet at any moment; there’s a foreign nature to such an outspoken band pointing the finger inward.

When I catch up with the duo via Zoom, they each embody elements of this dichotomy in sound. Green is sat beneath a painting of a languidly posed nude female, speaking matter-of-factly and with cohesion, whilst Steen fleets between leaning into the camera and reclining on a sofa; both with fervor and nonchalance. Drunk Tank Pink lyrically feels like tapping into a stream of consciousness that is both meditative, and scattered thought. Speaking to the man behind the words only confirms this feeling.

Shame are challenging themselves to confront their insecurities and deviate from the safety of what people might expect them to do. From the Talking Heads-meets-Hunter S Thompson hues of “Snow Day” to the intricate collage-like soundscape of “Nigel Hitter”, it seems as though Shame have thrown out the rule book on what it means to be a guitar band and have instead been relying on their intuition.

By building the skeletons of the songs in both Steen’s bedroom — which he named ‘The Womb' due to it being entirely pink from floor to ceiling — and guitarist Josh Finerty’s house, the band were able to flesh out the material and be more open about some of the lyrical themes as opposed to cacophonously jamming in a rehearsal room and scrambling to put the pieces together.

What makes Shame stand out from their contemporaries is their ability to make cohesion out of intricate guitar melodies or drum fills that would otherwise feel out of place on its own. Dissect “Born in Luton” and you’ll find that it’s difficult to make sense of individual instrumentation, but when they come together, they fill the voids of their unlikely kin and seamlessly become one animated mass of controlled chaos.

Perhaps that’s the magic of Shame. A series of happenstances, coincidence and goodwill all aligned at the right time to catapult a group of teenagers from South London into a band with cult status. Drunk Tank Pink is more than the sum of its parts. It’s an insight into the hunt for something tangible when you’re trying to discover what it means to be human outside of the confines of your own mind; out of the fantasy world you’ve found yourself thrown into.

BEST FIT: New year, new lockdown... How are you feeling about it all?

EDDIE GREEN: How are we feeling about the new lockdown? I'm wholeheartedly unsurprised and slightly, I don’t know, disheartened, maybe? Such is the modern world!

Is that in the context of having to release an album, or just generally?

GREEN: I mean, it’s not ideal… We already pushed this album back, so we didn't have to release it during lockdown, but fate took a few twists and it is indeed coming out in lockdown… We're trying to make the best of it.

CHARLIE STEEN: I think there was a period of optimism, like Eddie said. We pushed it back so that we could work on music videos and the artwork, but also have the possibility of doing some shows regardless of whether they're socially distanced or not. But as soon as that can't happen, you kind of accept the situation and move forward now that everyone is so used to it.

There is almost no point in dwelling on it because it's all so up in the air and nobody truly knows what's happening at any time...

GREEN: I think it's gotten to the point where you are kind of left with no choice but to be as resourceful as you can with what you're doing, given such limited opportunities.

How fully formed were the visions of a final product when you had the second album in mind? Was there an element of spontaneity within it, or did you go into the studio with a plan of what you wanted to do?

GREEN: There were definitely a few bits that were far less formed than others. There's a couple of tracks on the record that really took on a sort of a different shape and energy once we got into the studio. I think the skeleton of it was there before we went into record, but there was there was quite a lot of manipulation done to different songs and different parts of different songs while we were actually there, which was actually quite a fun way to record.

Drunk Tank Pink was recorded at the start of the year, in La Frette Studios, in France. Were there any parallels between the recording process of Songs of Praise and this album?

GREEN: Both times around, we did it in a residential studio. The experience in that regard is a lot more immersive because you're there 24/7. There’s no restriction on when you can and can't access the studio and when you can and can't work, so I guess that was one similarity, but this time around, it all felt a little bit more grandiose in a way because it was in a great big Parisian chateau with a chef and red wine on the go all the time, so it felt a little bit more glamorous than the first record.

What is it about working in an environment where you’ve got a short amount of time to flesh out ideas and record them, that works for you as a band, and are there ever any tensions that arise when you’re on top of each other in that process?

STEEN: We’ve been on top of each other for a long time now…

GREEN: We’re kind of used to that. It wasn't as ‘on top of each other’ as it could have been because the way the whole thing was laid out with this record, and recording it; you could go for a stroll if you wanted to. I'm pretty sure Steen spent most of the first week in the bath. So, it wasn't like we were completely on top of each other all the time — there was a little bit of space — but I think it's natural for some things like that to arise in a recording environment.

STEEN: We got quite a lot accomplished, I feel. When we got there, it was kind of straight into it. The month prior, in December, we’d just spent the whole month just going through the songs, writing the songs, and doing pre-production. So, by the time we went in, because we’d already recorded a record, I think everybody had a bit more of a grip on what they wanted to achieve and how we were going to do it. Like Eddie, said it was more glamorous, which wasn't a great profit for the rest of the year!

GREEN: That didn't particularly aid productivity, but it was a nice little add on!

If most of the recording was done in France, whereabouts were you when you were writing the album since the first one was written during a period of touring…

STEEN: In April 2019, we went up to Scotland through a connection with Makeness, who is an electronic artist, and that was sort of like the catalyst moment for a lot of Drunk Tank Pink. Songs like “Alphabet”, “Snow Day”, and “Great Dog” came from there, and a few other skeletons, but we kind of wrote at The Room Studios in Hither Green, which is amazing, and Super Unison.

"The main summary of the record is just learning to enjoy your own company, which is, as I'm sure a lot of people will know right now, a lot trickier than it sounds." - Charlie Steen

GREEN: A lot of it was demoed at Josh's house, so it was a slightly different way to write because in the past we'd only sort of ever jammed — all five of us in a rehearsal room — whereas this time, we were sort of demoing stuff as we were going along. I think that kind of gave us the chance to be a little bit more thoughtful with the writing process and approach it with more of a production mindset, rather than just jamming out an idea in the traditional sense.

Are there any outside influences on Drunk Tank Pink that the listeners might not expect?

STEEN: I think with this record, and with everything we do, it's always kind of the external characters that we’re based around, always have quite a large influence. Whether that would be Charlie Forbes, our drummer’s dad who's on the front cover of the record; when we did Songs of Praise; or whether it's people like Ben and Gail from when we were up in Scotland — Ben is Acid Dad from the song "Water in the Well". Also, the practice spaces we're in, it’s kind of like the people that you bump into. I think [there are] in terms of, not necessarily musical inspirations, but the places that we have been in. The people that we meet are always quite important for what we’re writing because they keep things interesting.

Thematically, a lot of the album seems to stem from the idea of sustaining yourself when there aren't any distractions to keep yourself busy. Between the first album and now, what would you say is the most insightful thing that you've learned about yourselves?

STEEN: Never trust a happy band! That's a line of Larry Love from Alabama 3. I don't know, I think the main summary of the record is just sort of like learning to enjoy your own company which is, as I'm sure a lot of people will know right now, a lot trickier than it sounds. It’s very easy to build up distractions — especially when you're on the road or when you're off the road, just by going to the pub — I think it’s just that sort of generic thing that happens to you from the age of 19 to 21, or other stages of your life I guess if you’re working out your own identity a bit more.

What is it like having your teenage years immortalised in a record?

GREEN: We were 20/21 when it was released, so I guess those songs are kind of influenced by teenage years... I've never really thought about from it from that viewpoint. It's definitely strange to have such a timestamp on it because it is a pretty youthful record. Maybe we'll look back on it in another five years and cringe, but we’ll see!

STEEN: I think that it is kind of like the changes, do you know what I mean? In both the records, like you said, they're just periods of our adolescence that are kind of documented on wax. I think it's funny, like Eddie says, they're periods of your life that you can reflect on. I don't know about Eddie, but you don’t tend to listen to it. Maybe we will listen to it in five years…

At what point did the title come to you? It feels very fitting to describe ‘The Womb’, but it also seems quite apt for reflecting on the past two years of calming down and sobering up to normal life.

STEEN: That came when we had our first meeting with management at the Rough Trade offices in Notting Hill. I was on the train there, and we'd done the record by this point — we're back in London — and my mum sent me a text of the book she was reading called the Book of Colours. I got there and I read it out; I read out the whole passage on Baker-Miller Pink and then it came up to the bit when in the Midwest of America, it was known as drunk tank pink, from how they painted the drunk tanks Baker-Miller Pink and, you know, all the themes and the fact that it was the same shade of pink, coincidentally, that my bedroom had been, which I'd written a large majority of the lyrics and the themes of subconscious, and the ideology behind Baker-Miller pink just seem to kind of coincidentally just all fit in tandem with the themes the record.

Is there a discussion when it comes to naming an album within the band?

GREEN: It was more than a discussion, it was absolutely unbearable!

STEEN: It went on for months, and months. That was the irony of it. I said: "Drunk tank pink", and Eddie and Callum and Sean were like: “That's amazing.” I think Charlie, maybe as well was like: “That’s great”, and Paul our other manager. Then we went into lockdown, and then two or three weeks went by, then Sean was like: ‘I don't know about that name…’ We had sort of given ourselves a period of time, of lockdown, and we didn't want to release it without any videos or the right artwork. Everyone went back and I think every day for about three weeks, everybody sent like 10 different album name suggestions.

GREEN: What was so frustrating about that is that is when we were like: “Drunk Tank Pink — that's great”, it really felt like a light bulb moment. Then it turned into a fucking three-month debacle of just constant terrible suggestions, so that was an ordeal.

What was the most ridiculous suggestion that was also the closest to coming to fruition?

STEEN: Shame: Reloaded. That was Josh and Forbes.

It almost sounds like a 90s boy band album...

GREEN: I had to phone up our manager and flat out say that I refuse to release a record called Reloaded. I had to be to be very firm on that one.

STEEN: I think I think partly people were kind of inspired by people like Frank Zappa, who had all these funny names, but the thing is about Frank Zappa, and all of those people who do have funny album names, is that they were incredibly prolific. If you’re churning out a record every four months, then you can kind of get away with doing a reloaded because you're just going. We haven't done one in a while…

GREEN: You can't come out after three years and call your fucking album Reloaded — that’s just not how it works! It was a daft idea altogether, and I'm glad it was quashed when it was.

What would you say is the most confrontational song on the album in terms of reflecting over the last couple years?

GREEN: I guess you can measure that in terms of lyrically and instrumentally. I think with songs like, like “Born in Luton” and “Snow Day”, that's probably some of the more experimental stuff we've done — I guess maybe even “Station Wagon” — I think that was maybe the most ambitious one because it is like a really long, drawn out, slightly melancholic affair which is not the sort of thing we'd really forayed into before.

STEEN: Lyrically, one of the most confrontational ones would be “6/1” which I think is like internal conflict.

There’s a lyrical and sonic parallel between “Snow Day” and “Dust on Trial” from Songs of Praise. Are there ever moments where you reference older songs to try and continue the story arc or is it merely natural progression and coincidence?

STEEN: I've been thinking about that more recently. “Dust on Trial” was the last song we wrote for Songs of Praise, and the lyrics for that kind of do lead on to this record. I think there are definitely things that you can draw on. “Human, For a Minute” was the first song we wrote after Songs of Praise and I guess that was a bit of a blueprint, lyrically for what Drunk Tank Pink was gonna be. I think it does lead on a bit more and in “Snow Day” as well, it's sort of like, that's an opportunity, because it's a longer song, you've got more of an opportunity to expand. “Dust on Trial” is quite sort of succinct; it's shorter; it's a sort of difference of what you can get across in eight sentences in comparison to 34, you know what I mean? Drunk Tank Pink as an album, on a whole, apart from “Alphabet” it's definitely a bit more exaggerated in comparison to Songs of Praise is may be looking for that one line that you could repeat, whereas this one is slightly different, it sort of trails off. But yeah, I think everything is linked and everything you do in your life will lead on, unless something in your life drastically changes.

GREEN: I think instrumentally it was definitely more of a natural progression, because we were so keen to branch out as much as possible, in a way that basically, I just didn't even think about Songs of Praise when it came to writing parts of this record. I think we were very keen to not have too much of a direct affinity between the two in terms of style.

It’s interesting when you’ve had a two-year break and the time to reflect on things as, if you’re not too attached to something, there’s more freedom to try something different. Do you ever get the fear of making the wrong move?

GREEN: People already had a preconception of what we sounded like, and in most people's heads we still sound like Songs of Praise, so there's obviously a bit of trepidation involved in any change in direction. It’s never going to be the sort of thing you do without any worry whatsoever, but I think I'd be more worried if we tried to put out a carbon copy of Songs of Praise because I feel like what people really want when they hear a second album, is some kind of some kind of progression or at least a deviation from what's come before. If we'd been less ambitious, I'd be more nervous about what people would think of it.

It's better to challenge yourself and play it safe just to please others...

STEEN: I think people have this sort of misconception that there was a formula to Songs of Praise. They were just genuine just the first songs that we wrote, and then these are the next ones, but like Eddie said, we wanted to do something different, but it still kind of felt quite natural to just follow up.

Obviously, you'd been sitting on the songs for a little while. Do they feel more pertinent now than they were when you first wrote and recorded them?

STEEN: We've been practising them recently… When you release a record, and you're able to tour it, you're kind of able to keep living it. When you're in a room playing together, you sort of gain back a different sense of the song. When you're listening to it; you've heard it before, but when you play it live, there will always be something slightly different about it depending on the room.

GREEN: When we've been rehearsing the songs live, recently, for me, every time we do that, the songs tend to take on something new. Which I think is quite nice, because what was so vastly different from this record to the last is that we'd hardly played any of the songs live, even in a practice room before we recorded them — barely any of them we'd ever played live, so they take on a different energy every time you play them live because it does take a while to figure it out and do it justice live. They take on a different meaning quite frequently when we play them. I think because there was — purely technically speaking — quite a lot of work to be done to get these songs live ready, because of how they sound on record, that that in itself is a journey in figuring stuff out and sonically crafting it to be as good as it can.

"There’s so much going on in the world and at this time you kind of feel like there's a lot more important things that need to be at the forefront instead of Shame's new record." - Charlie Steen

“Human, for a Minute” showcases a new density in the instrumentation. It feels more polished which into a maturity in the sound and becoming more prolific in what you do, but it also feels like there may be more of the producer’s personality involved…

GREEN: That's well spotted. To be fair, as Steen said, that was the first song we wrote after Songs of Praise and it was one that we had actually played live countless times on tour over the over two years or so — it was very different before we went into Paris to do it. In this instance, we started to track it as it was in its former state, and James Ford, the producer, pretty much straight away was like: “This doesn't work. There's something there, but this doesn't feel like a song that should be on this record.” That was kind of a cool experience; allowing yourself to be produced in the conventional sense of the word. From the get go of tracking that song, he was pretty adamant that there was definitely something good there but it wasn't in the form that it was, so we spent a bit of time rehashing it and I think it's now pretty much at half the speed it was and we were trying out different instrumentation. It was quite liberating to just really allow yourself to be directed by somebody who really knows what they're talking about.

Thematically, are Shame now writing love songs or or is it a tribute to finding your purpose and being able to make a career out of music?

GREEN: I don’t really feel like they’re love songs; they’re more just about heartbreak but that’s sort of in the internal thing of I guess. I didn't really ever want to write about that, and then it happened — it’s what's on your mind all the time, so it's kind of unavoidable that you're going to end up writing about it. If this job could be one thing, one of its main functions is that it's cathartic. It's your own form of expression and way of dealing with, and understanding things. It was just a way of just being honest, I guess. Whether or not it worked, it was all I could think about, so it was what I was gonna write about for one period.

Performing is a way of confronting the uncomfortable feelings and vulnerable thought processes in a more physical, cathartic way, but do you worry that when you finally get to tour this album, that you will be kind of thrust back into the headspace and the experiences that you went through after Songs of Praise?

GREEN: I'm not sure. I feel like at this point, we're just going to be so grateful to even be on the road. I think that in itself is going to be overwhelmingly positive because it’s been so long, and we're basically releasing an album that we might not get to tour for another year. When that does eventually come back, we're just going to be more grateful than anything.

STEEN:I think it is kind of being a bit worried about, you know, not doing it for so long. We’ve done a live performance which should be coming out to people who order the record, but that took a minute to remember, what you sort of [need to do]. You know, it’s been a while, so we’re just worried about being rusty but looking forward to it. Also, when you're performing live, the first few times perform a song, you’re kind of working out until you get to a stage where it just becomes second nature — that's when you can kind of think about it more and act more on instinct.

You delayed the album’s release amidst the first lockdown, and during that time there were punk bands who to proclaimed to be political, yet fell silent at the wrong times. Shame are quite an outspoken band and are not afraid to call things out. In the last year or so, did you ever feel a pressure to do more, or even less, in terms of letting people have a platform and a voice.

STEEN: There’s so much going on in the world and at this time you kind of feel like there's a lot more important things that need to be at the forefront instead of Shame's new record, you know — surprise, fucking surprise. I think in that period of time, we always are vocal, but there is definitely a time to step back and support but not trying to do it with a falsity; a secret agenda. If you're genuine about something, then you will want to support it and bring it to another platform without trying to make it about you or maybe you can from your own experience, but without trying to anything take away from the forefront of what's actually going on.

Are you still inspired by the London scene or do you feel like there may become a time where it gets a bit convoluted?

STEEN: It's weird now because when we started, there really weren’t many guitar bands around. And now, fucking hell, there’s a lethal injection of them. For musicians and stuff like that, it's great, because it's good to have a semi form of a challenge. You want to stand out more; you can take some of that inspiration and people might be doing new things that can lead you on to a different thing. New music, if it is good, is always gonna be important.

GREEN: I think it's become more inspiring, particularly in London, over the last two years or so. Tons of more eclectic stuff has come out, and it seems like it's always getting more ambitious.

Have you made sense of how everything seemed to be happening at the right time for you back at the start, and how it has snowballed into being able to make a career out of music?

STEEN: I think every step leads to the next and when we started out, it was all baby steps, wasn't it — especially for us — there wasn't one day where we were signed and then we had the record; it didn’t feel like it was quick. It would be things like playing the windmill; then selling out the windmill; then you play outside of London; you play in Europe; you play in America, and then you do your record — it’s sort of those gradual stages. You can have your aspirations, which I guess for us would be to play and sell out Brixton Academy, but in order to get there, there's a million things you have to do beforehand.

That’s one of the really tragic things at the moment is that so many bands who are starting out and musicians starting out, or anyone creative — whether the actors or just in that general realm — it was already hard enough, and now it's become near impossible. Without all of those places that are now under serious threat, we wouldn't really be where we are, without a doubt. We've been very fortunate with support. The thing that I always think about is that the generosity of people has always been quite surprising.

Being prolific on a live circuit has so much to do with that. You’ve just announced an EU tour despite the announcement of the government rejecting the free touring visas, so it's an incredibly lucky situation to be in. How optimistic are you about the regeneration of the live scene and the ability to tour the new album?

STEEN: I think like Eddie said earlier, everybody's going to be so desperate to fucking do it, but it will be a gradual process. When it comes back, everybody is just going to be out every day hugging each other; kissing each other, do you know what I mean? Just wanting to do as much as possible — even though we're in a recession — it’s that parallel between the 1920’s you know? It was a recession then, but you know, I put on cologne before I go to fucking Tesco nowadays, can you imagine what its gonna be like when you can go to a gig! Everyone’s gonna have a whole new perception and understanding of going out and going to gigs and playing. They're all the hurdles, and all the difficulties that we are inevitably going to have to face with touring and stuff like that but for the moment, we’ll let the other people on our team worry about that!

Drunk Tank Pink is out on 15 January via Dead Oceans
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