There’s nothing quite like laying your eyes on New York City for the first time. And Shame, the buzzed-about post-punk quintet from another great place, London, instinctively knew last month that their first trip here would be so special that they arrived in the city a few days before their debut US tour was set to begin.
“We could have saved money and come in the day of the show,” explains guitarist Sean Coyle-Smith. “Or we could come in three days early and stay in an Airbnb in Brooklyn. But we’re only gonna get to do this once.”
Adds vocalist Charlie Steen: “You can’t buy seeing New York for the first time. Coming over that bridge in the van, there’s nothing like it.”
And there’s also nothing in current music quite like Shame. While they may mine familiar touchstones — a flicker of Parquet Courts here, the dry delivery of Slint and Beck there, shades of The Fall or The Clash, and echoes of Gang of Four on recent single “Concrete” — they’ve got witty, melodic, fiery and addictive vibe that is all their own. Shame’s debut album drops in less than a month titled Songs Of Praise, and it should earn them heaps of praise. The fivesome (Steen, Coyle-Smith, guitarist Eddie Green, bassist Josh Finerty and drummer Charlie Forbes) is a ragtag group of South Londoners, most of whom only a few years ago could barely play their instruments, have emerged as the UK’s most exhilarating new band.
Despite being newcomers, Shame’s first two New York shows made them feel as true New York City staples. First, they played a packed-out debut at Brooklyn indie mainstay Baby’s All Right — at which a feral Steen waded into a crowd of 250 that included label heads and noteworthy Brooklyn musicians (most of whom were seeing Shame for the first time) — and a truly mental late-night appearance at Home Sweet Home in Manhattan’s Lower East Side neighborhood.
“I think New York was kind of as we expected, if not better than expected,” Coyle-Smith says. “We kinda knew that places like Philadelphia were gonna bring us back down to earth a little bit. ‘Cause we know that most of the places in America, no one’s gonna have heard of us. But I think we all quite like that, because it reminds us of the early days in England, where it’s almost like starting again.” The “early days” he’s talking about were only three years ago.
Seeing Shame live evokes thrills similar to those that Danish punks Iceage — or later, London’s Savages and Dublin’s Girl Band — triggered. What those groups share, in addition to tight players, is one captivating, charismatic front person. Shame have that in spades in the form of singer-poet-provocateur Charlie Steen — who, like the rakish actor with whom he nearly shares a name, is “winning,” with all eyes on him from the moment he takes the stage.
“Welcome to the show, ladies and gentlemen,” he quips. “We’re semi-professionals on our way to being classed as true professionals. And we hope you enjoy every moment, and each step of the way.” Before you know it, he’s stripped off his button-down shirt and tie, like a junior businessman on a bender, and is growling the woozy couplet, “I like you better when you’re not around”, from the song “Tasteless.” Once a self-described “chubby stoner”, Steen’s a natural performer — “an actor,” in bandmate Coyle-Smith’s words.
He’s also got a knack for self-deprecation. On the sparkling, tuneful single “One Rizla,” the oldest track on Songs Of Praise, Steen cops to an empty wallet, yellow teeth, “broke” shoes and unmanicured nails, and proclaims, over a chiming riff, “I ain’t much to look at, and I ain’t much to hear.” That’s where he’d be wrong. “That song was basically me turning insecurity into strength. And almost sort of maybe creating this sort of on-stage persona as well, where I don’t care what anyone thinks, because in this one moment, in this one song, you have a moment of feeling untouchable.”
Five days after that first New York show and on the even of their second, Steen and Coyle-Smith are seated in a leathered, bookshelf-lined Brooklyn bar. The band spent the in between the Gotham gigs playing shows in Philly and D.C, and managed to fit in a quick sightseeing tour of the nation’s capital. Coyle-Smith’s impressions: “The Lincoln Memorial, where Martin Luther King spoke? Seeing that was amazing. But The White House was smaller than I expected.” (No doubt to the chagrin of the size-obsessed President Trump.)
Talk turns to how Shame went from being childhood friends and amateur musicians at best (bassist Finerty, taught as a jazz drummer, is the only band member with formal training) to — in only three years — a truly compelling, must-see live act.
“We basically started this band because our drummer Charlie’s dad was best mates with the landlord of the Queen’s Head [a once- notoriously seedy Brixton pub which birthed, among others, Fat White Family],” explains Steen. “And this guy said, ‘If Charlie wants to do any drumming or whatever, he can come down.’ And we were 17, at a massive party in Streatham after our last AS [high school exams in England], and we were all fucked. And we were like, ‘Well why don’t we just go down to this pub and do it?’”
So began the Shame journey: Forbes learned the drums with just a snare and hi-hat, Coyle-Smith traded in his favored acoustic guitar for an electric, and the band’s practice space at the Queen’s Head was so sparse that in their early days, Steen didn’t even have a mic — “I just had to cup my hand,” he recalls.
The venue also proved a brutal crucible in which Shame honed their chops. “I think if you’re wanting to start a band and take it seriously, it’s quite a self-conscious thing to do, cause obviously you’re exposing yourself to criticism from your friends, the idea that you might be shit or whatever,” says Steen. “But going into the Queen’s Head, we were in this environment where criticism was constant, but in the best way. It kind of toughened us up a bit, to learn that it’s all about proving other people wrong, and proving yourself right.”
They proved themselves right with early songs like “One Rizla,” “The Lick” and “Gold Hole,” and even as word-of-mouth built and labels were sniffing around by 2016, Shame crucially took their time, to become as sharp a band as possible. There were countless local gigs, many thankless, but all instructive. “Nothing has ever been rushed,” explains Coyle-Smith. “I think it’s been a gradual understanding of what we can and can’t do — I mean we’re still amateurs, in our eyes. The only way to ever achieve success is to constantly feel like you’re on the brink of failure.”
Beyond the pummeling rhythms, wiry, winding guitars, and Steen’s spoke-sung-shouted vocals, equally worthy of kudos is Shame’s willingness to get topical. This is a ferocious band to be sure, but as the cover photo of Songs Of Praise, in which Shame are holding baby pigs, suggests, it’s a ferocity of kindness, justice and fair play. On early standout “The Lick,” Steen, in a wry spoken word vocal, savages the herd mentality in culture and the popular taste for music that’s “relatable, not debatable.”
Shame have no problem getting debatable, and in fact, the newer tracks on Songs Of Praise skew more socio-political than ever. Youthful uncertainty is mined on “Concrete,” on which Steen shares call-and-response vocals with Finerty. “Do you feel alone?” begins Steen. “Well sometimes I do,” replies the bassist. “Dust On Trial,” Shame’s crashing album opener, seeks companionship in a dystopian world: “Will you walk this land with me?” And on the spindly, propulsive “Friction” Steen pointedly asks, “Do you help the helpless?/ Do you give them any time?” He doesn’t berate, but he’s also not afraid to provoke.
Shame’s most explicitly political turn to date was a musically mellower one-off. On the tongue-deeply-in-cheek “Visa Vulture,” released last February, the band takes on border-securing Theresa May, imploring the PM to “please let me stay, one more day,” complete with a video that juxtaposes a hillside tea party with news footage of May at her xenophobic, homophobic worst. The boys have no qualms about going there.
“We have always wanted to have control and understanding and authority over whatever we’re doing and whatever we’re presenting to the public and presenting as our image,” says Steen. “So with something like the idea of keeping it ‘safe’ with ‘Visa Vulture’ or any of the other songs we’ve had, we never thought twice about it, because why should we?”
Nor are they shy about commenting on this country and the rise of a certain troublingly narcissistic man-child. “The fact that someone like Donald Trump got elected,” offers Coyle-Smith, “I think it’s really kind of exposed the western world for kind of the farce that it is. Because up until now, it’s all kind of played out like, ‘We’re the good guys, and we police the world,’ you know. But once you’ve elected, quite literally, a reality TV star as president of the most economically and militarily powerful country in the world, it’s so ludicrous that it kind of perfectly sums up the times we live in. The fact that two world leaders could wipe out all of humanity just by hurling personal insults at one another on Twitter…it’s almost like something out of an X-Files or something.”
Still, as stupefyingly dark as these times can seem, Shame hold out optimism for what’s ahead. “I believe that as history proves, only in a time that is so radical, so obscene, that something will be created from it,” Steen offers. “I think there will be some kind of light, something you can cling onto that will come out of it.”
— shame (@shamebanduk) November 15, 2017
Coyle-Smith was encouraged by England’s solidarity in the wake of repeated tragedies this year—attacks in London and Manchester, and the horrific Grenfell tower fire. “Everyone comes together, and says, ‘things need to change,’” he says. Youth voter turnout is up in their country, and Steen feels it’s time for a fundamental rethink in the way politics works. “I believe that in London, a new party needs to be created that will reflect our generation,” he continues. “Because Labour was founded on trade unions and inequality. And at the moment, trade unions don’t run the country as they did when they were founded. Inequality still definitely occurs, but people are acknowledging it more. So what in my mind needs to happen is a new party needs to be created that can reflect our generation in the means that we require, which will probably take about 10, 15, 20 years. Because all of these parties, Conservative, Labour, they are from a very different generation.”
Shame’s second New York gig was several times more unhinged than its first. The band didn’t take the stage until after 1am — on a Wednesday — in the Lower East Side’s small subterranean bar Home Sweet Home, preceded by a techno DJ. Things could easily have gone sideways, but once again, Steen and his mates owned their surroundings and things got properly turnt. “This is like London on crack!” the singer declared. There was an older gent in tights down front who provided some interpretive dancing, a ceiling so low that at one point Steen accidentally knocked a disco ball from its moorings, and a videographer in the middle of the crowded floor. After ripping through the likes of “Dust On Trial,” “Tasteless,” “Friction” and the short-and-sweet “Lampoon,” Steen climbed on a fan’s shoulders — and promptly fell off. “That’s actually the first time I’ve ever fallen off anyone’s shoulders. So maybe you New Yorkers aren’t really that great!” he gibed, adding, “I’m joking! You’re brilliant! You’re wonderful!”
It’s been a memorable year for Shame, and they’re only getting started. They recorded their first album, an experience which Coyle-Smith says “opened the world up” for the band. “Up until that point we never really had the freedom to experiment that much with music.” And apart from dealing with the pesky American drinking age — some band members are still only 20 — their first tour of the northeast US was a definite 2017 highlight, one they’ll expand on in February and March with a coast-to-coast trek of the States. They’re well aware how tough a nut to crack the America can be: “We’ve had so many English bands say, ‘Oh America will crush your soul, when you’re like, playing to no one,’” says Coyle-Smith. “But for us it’s all exciting.”
“We can look at it in a more optimistic way than other people,” Steen adds. “New York was something quite unexpected for me. You know, we had 250 people in that room, which was fucking amazing. And then you go to Philadelphia and there’s sort of 20 or 30 people, go to Washington, DC, and that’s still fucking amazing. And I don’t think about how big it is. I more think about the idea of creating something where there is a consistency of touring and playing and putting out records, and it all expands to where something that we as individuals have created can go as far as America. I’ve always been quite fixated on the idea of coming to America, because I know how hard it is, and I know how unrealistic it is, and that is, in my personal opinion, that’s the best thing you could do.”
These days, with the old Queen’s Head having been gentrified into a gastropub, the band’s mecca is the Windmill in Brixton — “the cornerstone of culture in London at the moment”, Steen says — but soon Shame’s footprint will be global. If there is any justice — and whoever said there was in music — this band will be exponentially more known a year from now. It all begins with an album. As Steen reminded the crowd with his parting words at Home Sweet Home: “Our album Songs Of Praise comes out in January! Don’t buy it, don’t buy it. Find a friend that has it and download it, like 21st Century kids. Enjoy yourself, New York!”
Songs Of Praise is out January 12th via Dead Oceans.