South London punks Shame experienced the sort of whirlwind rise that is all too common for young bands. Full of chaotic energy and character-driven songwriting, their 2018 debut, Songs of Praise, catapulted the then-teenagers to near-universal acclaim the strength of biting but exuberant tracks like "Tasteless," and "One Rizla"—the first song the band ever wrote. They also toured extensively; during one stretch, frontman Charlie Steen estimates, they played "172 shows a year for two years," which left them exhausted and disoriented as they returned home to write follow-up Drunk Tank Pink.
That amount of traveling, performing, and being away from home often breaks young bands, especially when the road feels more like home than not. "When the touring wasn't there anymore, I had to figure out who I was," says Steen to VICE over the phone. Part of that process involved finding a place of his own back home in London, where Steen ended up living in a defunct nursing home, converting a washing machine room into a bedroom. He painted the walls pink, stocked his bookshelf with classic literature he'd never read before, and started writing the lyrics for what would become Shame's second album.
Scrapping the straightforward post-punk of their debut for knottier and more adventurous material that evokes Talking Heads and XTC, it's a considerable leap forward for the group, subverting expectations while retaining its predecessor's satisfying immediacy. It's also more introspective than anything the band has recorded before. As Steen snarls on the sprawling LP highlight "Snow Day," They say don't live in the past / And I don't / I live deep within myself / Just like everyone else." VICE called Steen up to ask him about three things that inspired the record's creation. Hint: One was a household appliance.
Bonfire of the Vanities, by Tom Wolfe (1987)
VICE: Why did you pick this?
Charlie Steen: I picked this book because it's quite a good starting point to Drunk Tank Pink. When we finished touring Songs of Praise, we came back to London, and I'd moved into an old nursing home in Peckham with [Shame guitarist] Sean Coyle-Smith's cousin. We lived in the old rec room, and there was a washing machine room. There was a condition that if I could make this washing machine room a livable bedroom, I could stay there. That's where I wrote a lot of the lyrics to Drunk Tank Pink. I was moving into a new place, and I wanted to get a load of classic authors for my bookshelf that I hadn't read before, like Oscar Wilde, James Baldwin, and obviously Tom Wolfe.
What was it like reading it for the first time?
I read it after the tour, when Sean and I went on holiday to Cuba. Sean has a family friend, [Desmond] who was a Reuters photographer and lived there with his wife Gloria and son Michael, who is only a year or two younger than us. Tragically, two weeks before we left, Desmond had a heart attack and passed away. It was so sad. We arrived and stayed with Gloria and Michael. It was almost like a coming-of-age film, the way we both got along with Michael, developed this really close bond, and spent time learning about his dad. For the trip, I brought Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities.
When we were there, there wasn't really any wi-fi. There are obviously so many differences between English and Cuban culture: Nobody spoke English, and the power cuts and stuff like that. So me and Sean were never on our phones, which immediately just gave this beautiful pace to life. I just felt like I was living in our parents' generation.
With this pandemic, I find it increasingly difficult to read, because I think about what's going on in the news or [on] Instagram. But there, I could just fully escape into this book. Every word was a joy, and it's such an important and thematic book as well. In it, there's [this white man who works on] Wall Street [who is having an affair and] runs over and kills a black man in a working class neighborhood and tries to get away with it. There are all these characters: You've got the black preacher, you've got the English journalist, you've got the Italian-American lawyer, and it's just so beautifully written. You can see all these people's faults, lusts, desires, and greed, but they're all focused on different angles thanks to class, identity, and everything in between. I remember a line in it where Wolfe is talking about the Wall Street character as a "Master of The Universe." It was such an interesting thing for Wolfe to keep bringing up, because the character's life collapses and erodes gradually throughout the novel. It's funny and exposes hypocrisy so clearly.
How it relates to our music is that when we wrote Songs of Praise, I was still in school and was more focused on characters; I don't think I had a real sense of my own identity. This record is very internal, where much of it is talking about myself and my own internal conflict. With all the touring from the first record, there was sort of this character I had created for being on stage, and when the touring wasn't there anymore, I had to figure out who I was. Reading this was quite a good starting point to the journey to writing Drunk Tank Pink.
I assume choosing salsa dancing had to do with this trip to Cuba.
Yeah—I'm notoriously the worst dancer. I have no fucking rhythm at all. And when we were in Cuba, we used to go to a club called Fábrica [de Arte Cubano] every weekend, and it was fucking great. We made friends with a lot of such beautiful-inside-and-out people, and because no one really spoke English, suddenly physicality became quite important. At Fábrica, I'd get a drink called The Zombie, which was one-third vodka, one-third rum, and one-third orange juice—and then they pour absinthe over the top of it to make it turn green. After one of those, you're a professional fucking dancer.
I never felt comfortable dancing—maybe it was a quite awkward British thing, but in Cuba, it was so hot, the booze was so cheap, and the people were so friendly, it was different. Gloria, the woman we were staying with, was a salsa dancer, and she tried to show me some moves.
Out of all the things you could've picked, why this?
Because the physicality and communication aspect of it was like a performance. When we've gone from all this touring, and then we would watch people who could dance so beautifully, it was like they brought something from the stage into the bar. Obviously, when we were writing the record, salsa dancing wasn't at the forefront of our minds, but I am of the strong belief that everything links: performance, physicality, communication, conviction, and also joy—bliss. Salsa feels like the courting moments, the flirt, and I'm a sucker for all of that stuff—there's a song about that on the record. Cuba was a place that was very open in its forms of romance. It felt like anything could happen.
A Washing Machine
You mentioned that you lived in an old nursing home. How did that happen?
After touring Songs of Praise extensively, I thought I would return home, move out of my parents' place, and have enough disposable income to get my own place. I didn't have enough money, as getting your own flat in London is more expensive than I realized. In the U.K. we have guardianships, where if a property developer buys a building—let's say, an elementary school—and they want to turn it into offices, but it doesn't make sense to do it just then, they'll lend it out to agencies so people will come and live in there for a cheap price until it was demolished. They're basically called guardians because they just make sure people don't break in and steal stuff. So Sean's cousin was a guardian at this old nursing home called Somerville, which was this wide-open space.
And your room was the washing machine room?
When I first saw it, it was this closet covered in a fucking three-year gather-up of dust, dirt, and residue from people who had parties there, as well as these industrial-sized washing machines. I called up our drummer Charlie's dad, Lennon, whose face is on the cover of Drunk Tank Pink [and] is a painter and decorator. They turned up with hammers and saws and took out the washing machines in a matter of minutes. When they removed the washing machines, a pipe burst, and it ended up flooding. We blocked up the pipe [and] sanded down the walls, which was a huge endeavor and a perfect project and coping mechanism to take on after so much touring. We built a shelf, a structure for the mattress, and we painted the walls and the ceiling "Lipgloss" pink—or at least, that is what it said on the paint tub.
I also picked the washing machine because when the washing machine was removed from my bedroom, it went outside my bedroom window, where there was a mini garden area, and became the communal washing machine. Bear in mind, there were 35 people in the building, so the machine was running all the time. I became so familiar with the washing machine; even just from the sounds and the vibration against the brick wall that separated us, I'd be able to tell what part of the cycle it would be.
I wrote a large majority of the lyrics there. I wrote a line there [that] I didn't end up using: "Outside my room is a washing machine / Sometimes its cycles slip into my dreams." A lot of people [had] their conversations by the washing machine. You'd be watching something on Netflix and hear these conversations going on. This machine is forever running. It was just such a weird thing to have outside your bedroom.