Shame frontman Charlie Steen delves into extraordinary new album Drunk Tank Pink

“The main thing about this record is learning to be in my own company and to enjoy being in my own company.”

Drunk Tank Pink, Shame’s eagerly-awaited follow-up to 2018’s thrilling debut Songs of Praise, marks a poignant shift for frontman Charlie Steen.

After a relentless two years touring which saw the south London five-piece practically grow up on the road, Steen was left confronting the psychological toll being in a band had left on him.

Their bases had disappeared, too. The Queens Head pub in Brixton and Dropout Studios in Camberwell – the hubs where Songs of Praise evolved into one of the UK’s stand out indie records of the past decade – were no more by the time Shame had returned home.

And the comfort provided by the familiar noise and hustle bustle at live shows had disappeared as the coronavirus pandemic tightened its grip.

Rather than crumble, the setbacks saw Steen and fellow members Sean Coyle-Smith, Eddie Green, Charlie Forbes and Josh Finerty, refocus and embrace a new approach. Demos began in earnest in Finerty’s bedroom – a new creative lab where they could start experimenting with percussion, synths and melodies.

And for Steen, he threw himself into writing to fill the “silence” left “when all of the music stops”, cocooning himself in a small room painted in a shade of pink used to calm down drunk tank inmates. Here, he wasn’t going to hold back. It was a form of catharsis.

“I think if it was a form of escape, it was a healthy form of escape”, Steen told Daily Star Online. “I think it was a continued confrontation and a continued conversation with myself. Like diary entries. It was incredibly cathartic, useful and necessary for me to, at that time, do that.”

Armed with new songs, tightened and expanded during a writing trip to the Scottish highlands, they enlisted Arctic Monkeys producer James Ford cast his wizardry during recording sessions at La Frette studios in France.

The result is triumphant. If Songs of Praise was the snapshot of a band full of raw, youthful anguish and sarcastic, carefree exuberance channelling the chaos of their must-see live performances, Drunk Tank Pink is the ushering in of artistic maturity – the evolution into masters of their craft built during those hundreds of shows touring across the world.

It retains the raucous vigour of its predecessor but adds ambition and depth, both lyrically and sonically. The chugging guitar lines of powerful opener Alphabet retain break-neck speed throughout, while Water In The Well’s art-rock vibe and the funk-punk of Nigel Hitter could well have been inspired by Coyle-Smith devouring ESG, Talk Talk and Talking Heads during the album's writing process.

Stand out is perhaps its centrepiece, the larger-than-life Snow Day; a five-minute slice of post-punk drama in which Steen tackles themes of the “subconscious and dreams” in a narrative vocal style that builds tension before exploding into a head-spinning crescendo of crashing symbols, angular guitars and brooding backing vocals.

“Without wanting to sound vain or anything, I think there’s a bit more confidence in it now”, says Steen when asked about how far Shame have come since Songs of Praise. “I think everyone’s been playing their instruments for a lot longer now, every night on the trot.

"People are more aware. When you get to this age of 22 or whatever, you are slightly more confident in whatever you’re doing. You’d hope you would be after five years!”

Daily Star Online’s Rory McKeown caught up with Steen at the end of 2020 to talk about Drunk Tank Pink’s creation, what they learned from Songs on Praise, working with James Ford, how to deal with life on tour, hopes of playing Brixton Academy, and the importance of saving independent music venues hit hard by the pandemic.

Hi Charlie. Firstly, how’s the past year been for Shame? How can you sum it up?

“I don’t know how to clearly summarise it. I think unpredictable, of course, and uncertain but also it is what is. It’s what you make it.

“It would be very different if we were speaking from a point of we were going to do this or that. The record was supposed to be out and we were supposed to be playing Brixton Academy. Things like that would have been done by now. But everybody is in the same boat. Everyone’s lost something.

“I think the way of looking at this year is, in my experience of what’s been happening, is survival. Looking at the positives and not getting down on any of the negatives.

“A lot of things have been put into perspective and realising the gratitude and the fortune we had and still have. I think we’re all excited now to be putting it out (the album).”

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Drunk Tank Pink is a triumph. Songs of Praise was a huge debut but this seems like a major creative leap that’s awash with various styles. Tell me about its writing and recording process. How long did you wait after Songs of Praise?

“We toured Songs of Praise heavily. We did a lot of shows. 172 shows a year for two years. We did one the year before we released the record, and the year we released the record we did that amount of shows as well. It feels like a long time because so much has happened, not only in our personal lives but in the world.

“We did a year of full, intensive touring and took almost a sabbatical last year but still playing in places, like Tokyo, Brazil and Iceland. We probably did 72 shows last year while making the record, including going up to Scotland. This year (2020) we would have been releasing it, so it all felt quite natural. But obviously Covid got in the way and forced us to delay it.

“The writing process…how it was different and the changes we made after the Songs of Praise tour? We invested in buying a few mics for Josh’s bedroom. Then we started demoing a lot of ideas there. That was the big change. We were still writing in a live practice place.

“When we wrote Songs of Praise we had our base. We had the Queen’s Head in Brixton or we had Dropout Studios in Camberwell. When we came back from touring, those places were gone. It took us a while to find our new spot in London. They were hard to find in our area. Having Josh’s bedroom to go and record ideas means you can be a bit more meticulous. You can look at it in a different way. That’s where stuff percussion came in, then you’re looking at synth and backing vocals, melodies. It allows you to write in a different way.

“I think we wanted to ambitious in the writing but that’s you want to do every time you write, but whether or not you achieve it…(laughs).

"It came naturally. Josh made a good point where, even with Songs of Praise, we play these songs live – it doesn’t necessarily feel like a record. I think one of the amazing things that Dan Foat and Nathan Boddy did, the producers of Songs of Praise, and what James Ford has done with Drunk Tank Pink, is kind of put their own blanket over it and make it an album through the production.”

It saw you cocoon yourself in the so-called womb where you locked yourself away to reflect and write. What was it like getting into that mindset to tackle difficult subjects? You address the psychological toll being in a band took, and a loss of sense of self. You sing about “burning at both ends”. How do you get into that mindset and what’s it like to tackle these subjects as a songwriter?

“At first it was challenging. It’s exposing. The reason it is challenging is because it is exposing. Everyone writes differently. We wrote differently for this record in which the band were aware of the lyrics. Previously we were just playing in pubs. We never had a good PA system. I didn’t even really hear myself until we recorded it!

“The reason it’s challenging is because before anybody else hears them, your bandmates hear them, who are aware of the context of your entire life and all of the experiences you’re talking about and even the people you’re referencing.

“Most people find it hard to talk about their feelings regardless of trying to sing about them. The main thing about this record is learning to be in my own company and to enjoy being in my own company. Through that confronting myself through my self-conscious. There is definitely a tread of vanity or narcism there that some people would call it! It was the only thing I could write about at that time. We’re fortunate for this to have this cathartic and therapeutic vehicle, which I think it is. We might as well harness that and try and use it.

“It was the only stuff I could only write about. It was constantly in my mind.”

You’re quoted as saying “you become very aware of yourself and when all of the music stops you’re left with the silence. And that silence is a lot of what this record is about”. Has Drunk Tank Pink replaced the silence that you’d been experiencing?

“In a way. I think what you want is, which is what touring and going to the pub gives you, escapism. It's distractions. I think when you’re in your bedroom and that period of when you’re in bed and just before going to sleep is the most honest part of the day. There aren’t those distractions or that noise and you’re left with yourself and your thoughts and your regrets or your dreams or this self-analysis.

“I think it wasn’t another distraction. I think if it was a form of escape, it was a healthy form of escape. I think it was a continued confrontation and a continued conversation with myself. Like diary entries. It was incredibly cathartic, useful and necessary for me to, at that time, do that.

“I don’t write the music. My favourite thing is the performance. Playing the shows. When I’m writing the lyrics I’m very aware that I’m going to be singing them in front of people, hopefully, in what ever time that happens. There needs to be a large amount of honesty there in yourself in order for you to be able to give the performance what it needs. Believe in what you’re saying, regardless of what other people think of it.”

You’ve got the powerful opener Alphabet, which opens with the lyric “What you see is what you get”. It’s a real statement of intent. Do you think it sums up who Shame are?

“The next line ‘I still don’t know the alphabet’. I genuinely don’t know the alphabet! That’s the point of that line. Nobody asks about that! The amount of times I’ve had to recite and prove to people that I don’t know the alphabet after doing that lyric.

“It’s embracing these insecurities and flaws, and being proud of them and looking at them in this humorous way. With Alphabet, it was the only way we could start the record. It’s also one of the only songs to have this direct address in it, which is very different to Songs of Praise where the majority of it has direct address. This one felt like it was inviting the listener in.

“I definitely think it’s what it’s about. It’s the reason I take my shirt off when we play live because I was insecure about my weight. It’s a confrontation of yourself again and your insecurities. The exposure of them to gain some kind of control of them.”

How would you say you’ve evolved to the Songs of Praise days to who you are now?

“In the same way anyone changes from the age of 19/20 to 21, 22, 23. In terms of with the band, the same way of a general maturity reflects. You’ll be exposed to more music, more films, more people, which are all such large parts of development. Without wanting to sound vain or anything, I think there’s a bit more confidence in it now. I think everyone’s been playing their instruments for a lot longer now, every night on the trot. People are more aware. When you get to this age of 22 or whatever, you are slightly more confident in whatever you’re doing. You’d hope you would be after five years!”

The confidence comes across on the album. What did James Ford bring to the band and the production? For me there’s a deeper sense to it, the sound in general.

“First of all we’d now experienced doing a record. We’d done our first record. We were bit more aware of going into the studios with the demos we’d been doing. Josh and Sean were more aware of what they wanted to achieve sonically.

“We were in the La Frette Studios in Paris, which is this staggeringly beautiful chateau with incredible people. I think he (Ford) brought a sense of ease to everything. There were never really any arguments. He always said ‘just try it’. He’s an unbelievably talented musician who can play everything and he’s also a laugh. He’s a very calming presence. He’s been doing this for so long. He’s done so many records. You can tell. There’s not much stress and he’s good company to be around. This willingness to try things, you know it’s either going to be a mistake or something positive, but at least you’ve had a go instead of arguing about whether or not you should try something for half an hour, which is very prone to happen.”

Do you think you’ve learned a lot from this process that you will take forward?

“We didn’t do a carbon copy of Songs of Praise and we won’t do a carbon copy of Drunk Tank Pink. It’s stamps of our adolescence, documenting Shame. We generally seem to play whatever we like the sound of. We’ve had the privilege of being opened up to different instruments and ways of recording, that will carry on.

“We’re in a recession and everyone’s strapped for cash. The way in which we write again, I’m interested to see how it comes. We’ve been doing a lot of writing this year as well. It sounds quite eclectic.”

Snow Day is one of the album’s stand out tracks. It has a real sense of tension over an anxious, narrative-esque vocal style before exploding into this incredible, marching-esque cacophony. You have the angular funk-punk of Nigel Hitter, while the absorbing Human, for a Minute slows down the pace. What was it like tackling these different styles and sounds?

“I think Josh and Sean would be the best to ask! (laughs). I might have been in the bath or having a drink. Whatever they did worked though!

“You know what songs you’ve got to get down. When you’re recording it you envelope yourself in whatever song you’ve chosen to focus on in that particular time. It’s only in the period after that you start looking at the track listing or how they all flow. Human, for a Minute was the one James Ford had the biggest influence on.

“Things can just happen when it’s there. If it works in that moment, you keep feeding with it. There is a thought of time pressure, restraints and whether you’re going to get it done on time but you just use whatever sounds best.”

Do you have an idea of how you want the album to be at the beginning? Or does it evolve in the process?

“I still don’t know what I want it to be! It’s so weird with this break and not touring yet. You’ve constantly got a comparison. How it sounds like and how it sounds on record. Now we’ve only just got it on record for the meantime.

“We never visualise what we want it to be and want it to sound. It happens organically over a period of time. A lot of it is open to interpretation, whatever someone wants to make of it.”

I know Sean was listening to the likes of ESG, Talk Talk and Talking Heads for inspiration. Do you share the same music taste?

“We all share the same music taste but in terms of what we’re listening to at any given moment, it varies. When we were doing Songs of Praise, we were touring constantly. We were in a van together so you’d usually have whatever’s been played through the radio of the aux. Because last year we weren’t touring so frantically, I think everyone had their own space a bit. It all varies what people get into, the same way any group of five people will vary in their taste. It all comes together.”

How did you cope with life on the road? How do you cope with the intensity being on the road constantly?

“A lot of it is not coping. We’ve all had panic attacks and the breakdowns, that side of touring, and general exhaustion. But I do wonder whether if that would have just happened in life regardless. The period of touring accelerates it because everything is so quick. It’s weird because we went from school into doing that. I guess at that age regardless, everything was new. 'We have six hours in Paris, wicked! Let’s drink as much as we possibly can.' That kind of attitude, which I think it’s quite normal anyway. You’re kind of on holiday. Naturally you just learn your limits a bit.

“I’m saying all this and I know I’m going to be a complete hypocrite if touring starts up again. It’s going to be like it was at square one when you’re going to want to take advantage of everything all the time (laughs).

“When you start out you don’t have the privileges or luxuries you might do after doing it for years, like having a day off when you’re touring. Three days on, one day off, makes a big difference. I really like sleep. I kind of worked that out after a year or two.”

That takes me onto the places like the Windmill in Brixton and the smaller venues around the country. The lifeblood of the scene. How important is it that the scene carries on when this is all over?

“I think if places like the Windmill and other independent venues aren’t there when this is over, it’s not worth carrying on at all. I think without them, what is there? I want to think positively about it but I don’t want the Windmill to ever go. I think it gives far more to a large community than any f***ing office block does. Instead of making a new statue of someone, they should do some funding. It’s a living statue, The Windmill. It’s important.

“As we’ve seen from the large amount of support that hasn’t come from the government but the community itself, it speaks for itself, how many people that are trying to do whatever they can in a hard period for everyone to save this venue, and all these others.

“That’s why we wanted to do the independent venue tour in February. I’m talking about the Windmill because it’s close to our hearts, we grew up going there and played there countless of times, but I’m sure there are others around the country and the world that are equally important to their communities. If we can make it through this year, we can make it through anything!”

What are your hopes looking ahead for Shame? What would you like to see happen in 2021?

“Our own goal is to play and sell out Brixton Academy. Just touring again. I love touring in America. Just human interaction and spontaneity that can only exist through going out and being with people, the surprises that comes from that. I think the newfound appreciation every living person’s going to have for everything, and the mass burning of masks in the street.”

Shame’s Drunk Tank Pink is out on January 15 via Dead Oceans

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