NME Big Read: The Shame Game

Shame may well be the best band in the UK. Though they despise rock clichés, the acclaimed group is leading a vital, emerging UK guitar scene

The Gallaghers swagger into the clammy submarine of a venue that is London’s iconic 100 Club.

Squint and it could be 1994, with a joyous racket tumbling from the hyped guitar band onstage. Come back into focus and you’ll see that it is in fact Liam’s sons Gene and Lennon. The band is Shame, the London post-punk five-piece whose debut, ‘Songs Of Praise’, was the first album this year to receive NME’s five-star treatment.

Appearing to have stepped from the panels of Viz, frontman Charlie Steen snarls, “Come on, enjoy yourselves, London – smile,” while Shame churn out their thunderous concoction of Fall-style riffs and hoarse backing vocals. If everyone in the audience looks like they’re in a band, it’s because most of them are: HMLTD, Sorry and The Big Moon have all turned out to see their pals. Steen concludes the show with the nagging refrain, “Shame, Shame, Shame – that’s the name,” proving he’s no stranger to iconoclasm and drama.

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When NME meets Steen, drummer Charlie Forbes, guitarists Sean Coyle-Smith and Eddie Green and bassist Josh Finerty at a London café the following day, the stereo is pumping out – appropriately enough – Oasis’ ‘Some Might Say’. Did they realise that there were a couple of Gallagher brothers in the audience? “Yeah,” laughs Coyle-Smith. “My mum was like, ‘Did you see that Liam Gallagher from Oasis is here?’ I was like, ‘Mum, Liam Gallagher’s not 19 – that’s his son.’”

More important, of course, are the bands Shame have forged something of a south London scene with. Brixton dive bar the Windmill serves as the groups’ shared stomping ground, and Steen describes last night’s mass migration to central London as “like a reunion”. Asked if he’s bothered about the 100 Club’s place in punk legend, Coyle-Smith replies, “Back when the Sex Pistols were playing it [in 1976], it was just a s**t club. It’s a bit different now, going to this place with all this grandiose [reputation].”

Shame NME Big Read
Photo Credit: Dean Chalkley

Shame formed in a similarly scuzzy Brixton pub – The Queen’s Head, formerly home to Fat White Family. They met through school and college, but credit the boozer – a spit-and-sawdust carnival of hedonism where the then 17-year-olds could rehearse – with enabling them to become Shame. As might be expected, given their history, their conversation is jokey, breathless and overlapping, and never more so than when they’re recalling their salad days at The Queen’s Head.

There was the memorable drag night. “It was four in the morning and the place was rammed,” Coyle-Smith recalls. “The landlord was dancing on the bar and went like that (mimes lifting his dress) and was wearing no underwear.” For clarity, he adds: “He got out his c**k and his balls.”

There was the day that one of the Fat Whites’ beds caught fire and another when a man banged a big bag of asbestos on the bar. “One thing you’re not supposed to do with asbestos is disturb it,” Coyle-Smith notes sagely. “It releases the poisons and s**t and you die.”

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Shame NME Big Read
Photo Credit: Dean Chalkley

Shame lived to tell the tale, though The Queen’s Head became a gastropub in 2015. “[In its heyday] it was like you were always walking into the middle of something when you walked in there,” Steen says. “When it closed down, everyone was left stranded.” Forbes adds, “It felt like we were back to square one. It was like, ‘Where do we go and what do we do now?’”

The answer, of course, is the Windmill. Shame agree the scene is at least tangentially politicised in the sense that it’s a youth movement emerging as a reaction to the mainstream. “It does go hand in hand with [the fact that] in the last election there was a much larger youth turnout,” says Finerty. “I think that’s because of people getting more involved with politics and people speaking their opinions. A lot of young artists did speak out for Jeremy Corbyn. We’re all f**ked right now, and that’s definitely a catalyst for being more outspoken and political.”

Shame broadly support the Labour leader and admire the #grime4corbyn movement. “A youthful voice is becoming more prominent,” Steen proclaims. “Bands have a lot more to say. We’re living in a very exciting time for music and might just not realise the importance of it at the moment.”

Shame NME Big Read
Photo Credit: Dean Chalkley

Coyle-Smith believes that the Queen’s Head “gave us an old-school mindset”. Perhaps that’s why Shame sometimes feel like a political band from the Thatcher era (they once sold posters that read, “If you vote Tory you’re a c**t”, and in 2017 recorded the non-album track ‘Visa Vulture’, a protest against Theresa May’s record as Home Secretary). For all this, though, ‘Songs Of Praise’ is as playful, lyrically, as the album’s authors are in person (not least when the track ‘The Lick’ lightly pokes fun at NME). Shame gigged relentlessly last year – another example of their old-school mentality – and days after their NME interview will launch their upcoming Australian tour, followed by American shows and, eventually, UK dates in April. It’s perhaps this pressure that causes the afternoon’s sole moment of tension.

Steen is saying he wants to slow down a little when it comes to touring, as 2017’s relentless schedule caused him to end the year with a series of panic attacks, a fact he’s brought up in previous interviews. Looking at the table, Coyle-Smith says, “Don’t talk about that,” which leads Steen to flare up, “What do you mean, stop talking about that?”

Shame NME Big Read
Photo Credit: Dean Chalkley

Coyle-Smith: “I just mean… In every interview.”

Steen: “In every interview? Talking about something that happened to me last month? Like my mental health that meant for us to cancel that tour and come back and you’re saying –”

Coyle-Smith: “I know; the same thing happened to me.”

Steen: “I know, but then talk about it.”

It’s natural Coyle-Smith and Steen should have the occasional bust-up; they’ve been close since primary school, after all. What’s clear, though, is that Steen sometimes veers into more heavyweight conversation before he’s drawn back into the rest of Shame’s japes. He often looks at the Dictaphone when he speaks, as though it’s inhaling his words like that thing in Ghostbusters that collects ghosts. When the interview wraps up, Steen quietly approaches NME to arrange a separate follow-up chat. “Can you call me tomorrow? Or maybe we can meet up?” Perhaps he has a few things to exorcise.

An enormous, bear-like German Shepherd called Lucky lopes up and down the roof of the building as NME approaches the Windmill, the venue for the rendezvous. Daylight is unkind to the club’s interior, which appears to be adorned with a thin layer of ectoplasm. A blackboard reveals that, sure enough, south London faves Hotel Lux, Sorry and Goat Girl will continue to champion the scene that gave us Shame. When Steen shuffles in, followed closely by bandmate Green, he mutters with a sly grin, “Eddie’s come to babysit me. He’s come to make sure I don’t say anything stupid.”

Green and Steen chat with a grizzled promoter called Tim, who fishes out two contraband cans of lager he confiscated from teenagers the other night. Shame have played countless gigs at the Windmill, most of which concluded with Steen shirtless, which he attributes to self-consciousness about his body image. “The first time I got onstage was the first time I felt freed from any criticism,” he explains. “I could dismiss any thoughts of humiliation and was able to find empowerment in that. There’s just one fragment of time in your day where you’re untouchable. That builds your confidence as a person.”

Shame NME Big Read
Photo Credit: Dean Chalkley

Steen is more considered than he was in the group interview. He’s aware that some onlookers might mislabel Shame as lunkhead lads – and is determined to prove otherwise. “That experience of liberation from critique is the environment we try to create in our live performance,” he says. “That’s why the energy from the crowd is so important at our gigs – it’s not just about us when we’re onstage.”

There was a punch-up at an early Shame show and Steen now says firmly, “Anyone who’s bringing such aggression and harassment to one of our shows isn’t welcome. It’s supposed to be a safe space, an environment where everyone that wants to be involved can get involved. Anyone who wants to disturb that is completely unjust. That is never something we’ve wanted or condoned – I don’t want anyone to fall or be hurt or harassed in the crowd. That’s everything we want to avoid and it’s disgraceful that it happened in the first place. We want to do everything we can to prevent that from happening again.”

Shame NME Big Read
Photo Credit: Dean Chalkley

He then voices support for Girls Against, the activists dedicated to eradicating sexual harassment at shows. “We are part of a completely new generation addressing issues that should have been addressed at the beginning of pop culture and should never have arisen in the first place,” he says. “I think that [at punk shows in general] there may be some intimidation that comes from male aggression and that’s something that we want to dissolve so everyone can be involved.”

And what of his own wellbeing? Steen gently downplays his previous remark about anxiety, though uses the opportunity to make a point about mental health stigma in society at large. “Any band that has to endure the mental strain of sleep deprivation and constant moving will experience that,” he says. “We gigged and gigged until it broke us – and it eventually broke my mind. This must be one of the only professions in the world where you’ll be shivering in the corner, you’ve thrown up 12 times in one day and you’re basically on the verge of tears – and then a promoter pokes you in the chest and says, “Go onstage, monkey, go onstage.’” He continues, “One in four people that you meet have anxiety. It’s a prominent issue, and a situation that needs to be addressed.”

In illustrating the issue, Steen mentions a scene in the Oasis documentary Supersonic where Noel Gallagher snorts dismissively of bassist Paul McGuigan’s anxiety, “Nervous exhaustion? What’s that – being in a band?” Things were different in the ’90s, a truth emphasised when 20-year-old Steen speaks thoughtfully on a range of social issues. In many ways, Shame are an average bunch of lads, but Steen’s desire to publicly explore social concerns indicates a sensitivity that sets them apart. He sometimes runs out of steam when talking about the heavy stuff – perhaps that’s why he drafted Eddie in as support – but, as he points out, “We’re only 20 years old so we’re still learning a lot about ourselves.”

As that 100 Club show proved, Shame retain the energy of each youth guitar movement before them – Britpop via punk via post-punk – and bring it into focus for 2018. Perhaps in 20 years, Steen’s kids will swan into the Windmill to hear whichever new band is making a similarly joyous racket.

New gen: Meet Shame’s pals in the south London scene

sorry

Combining brittle hip-hop with lilting grunge melodies.
Essential track: ‘Drag King’

HMLTD

Droog-like dudes who make music-hall punk, dressed like vaudevillian gang members.
Essential track: ‘To The Door’

hotel lux

Nick Cave-esque psychobilly wrong ’uns.
Essential track: ‘The Last Hangman’

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