It’s a Wednesday afternoon, and all five members of Shame are perched on a bed in a house named after a cat called Mercurio. It’s their tour manager Kiko’s east London place, and Mercurio—who’s no longer with us—was his pet. Photos of Mercurio adorn the walls, Kiko’s right arm is emblazoned with a Mercurio tattoo and both Kiko’s shoes and phone case share a matching design displaying Mercurio’s furry little face. “As soon as we started this band, the characters who seemed to gravitate towards us…” says singer Charlie Steen, his voice trailing off. “People you can’t imagine. Peculiar but lovely.” People like Kiko who, as a glance around would confirm, is indeed a character.
Shame’s proximity to relative eccentrics has granted them one of the luckiest ascents to a record deal since Kelly Osbourne magically ended up on the same label as her dad in the early 00s. The south London five-piece, all in their early twenties, have had so many free passes—from rehearsal spaces and advice—that they’ve already “exceeded our quota” of good fortune, as guitarist Sean Coyle Smith puts it. The Queen’s Head pub in Brixton, which housed a squat upstairs once home to Fat White Family, was like their wonky afterschool “paradise” (Steen’s word choice) as teenagers.
There, musicians who’d been screwed over would give them both equipment and anecdotes. “We got an insight into the music industry before we’d even entered it,” says drummer Charlie Forbes, whose dad was best mates with the Queen’s Head landlord, giving them access whenever they needed it. They’d spend days in school, before discovering the brawny, cocksure and politically brazen sound they’d later come to trial. Out stepped a song like “One Rizla,” Steen’s lyrics summing up the wild-eyed brattiness of those first months: “My nails ain't manicured, My voice ain't the best you've heard / And you can choose to hate my words, But do I give a fuck.”
The once disheveled pub, which closed in 2015 to become a gentrified, craft beer-friendly version of its former self, had no strict opening or closing hours. It would host lock-ins, oddballs and drifting visitors they’d never see again. “You finished college, you’d walk down the street, you’d go in there and it was like walking into some dystopia,” Forbes remembers. Like a concerned parent, I ask if the Queen’s Head was a bad influence on five impressionable teenagers, who all attended the same south London school at the time.
They burst out laughing. Steen, perched on the edge of Kiko’s mattress in a navy blue jumpsuit, comes close to falling off. “It’s a very reasonable question!” replies bassist Josh Finerty, the band’s most bubbly and laidback member, as he struggles to stifle his giggling. Guitarist Eddie Green, slightly more straight-faced, does concede that, “if we’d been slightly older, it would be a different story. We would have been sucked in.” Ignorance was bliss, claims Forbes. Strangers would walk past, “and you’re like, ‘Oh, they must be having a nice chat in there! A chopping board and a razor blade, what have they been up to?’” Some of the squat residents repeated a mantra to the boys then: “‘Don’t ever try heroin’,” Green recalls, eyes widening, like he’s dishing out the same advice to a new pack of youngsters. “‘Don’t ever think about fucking doing it.’ And this would be coming from people who would then go into the next room to fucking smoke it.”
They found an unlikely early fan in Rumer, the once Atlantic-signed pop star who’d had two top 5 albums. At the Queen’s Head, she heard a scrappy demo of “One Rizla” and decided to give them a free drum kit and microphone. Before, they were relying on knackered, taped-together kit borrowed from the Fat Whites. Down the road, the owner of Dropout Studios in southeast London’s Camberwell let the band rehearse for free. Another gesture of goodwill notched up, if you’re keeping count. Forbes, laughing, admits that bands would be fucked if they started out hoping to rely on the generosity Shame found. Steen agrees—new bands have to foot huge bills and take giant risks, whereas Shame owe countless favours. “The trust these people had in us doesn’t seem to exist with other bands.”
They consistently put these acts of kindness down to flukes, not the fact that they might actually be good. Anyone who’s witnessed the band live will think otherwise. Steen, considered in conversation, loses all inhibition on stage. He pogoes on the spot and eyeballs any disinterested member of the audience he can find, tearing off sweaty clothes as his band members bounce off the walls in the background. Unlike their musical Fat Whites ancestors, it’s never designed to provoke outrage or disgust. Steen doesn’t strip to his bare bits just to get a reaction. Old fogies might see Shame as a welcome return to the “good old days,” but they’re more than a straightforward, angry punk homage. And if that wasn’t clear from their live shows, it’s blatant on debut album Songs of Praise.
It’s designed to throw off ‘five angry London lads’ expectations. Steen expresses all-out rage, but he also sounds heartfelt and sentimental. And even when he is angry, he’s poised with a knowing wink. The album artwork—the group cradling three cute piglets—renders that in visual form. “We shot the most wholesome photo possible,” says Steen, with a smirk. As for the music itself, nuance and dynamism kick out at every turn. Closing track “Angie”—a seven-minute “twisted love story,” according to Steen—builds from one spacious, solitary guitar line into a tragic story of unrequited love and suicide, finding strange euphoria in such dark subject matter. It left producer Dan Foat in tears. On it, Steen wanted to make something like “Where the Wild Rivers Grow” by Nick Cave, or “In Every Dream Home a Heartache” by Roxy Music, and largely succeeds.
Elsewhere on the album, guitars have space to roam, rather than sticking to ear-splitting rigidity, as on the 100mph, fidgety “Lampoon.” Steen’s vocal, never rooted to the spot, glues everything together. He’s sarcastic and full of spite on “The Lick,” rolling his eyes and repeating a chant of being “relatable not debatable / relatable not debatable.” It’s the sound of a bright, buzzing young band, unafraid to make mistakes.
If the album represents a watershed moment, a time when we can finally put the ‘guitar music sucks’ jibes to bed, it’s been brewing elsewhere in the capital too. In south London alone, they’re joined by the dark, anxiety-ridden pop of Sorry, the sarcasm-laced fury of Goat Girl and the glam ambition of HMLTD. These bands all played Shame’s old club night, the charmingly named Chimney Shitters. Yet when Shame’s infamous live shows first caught attention, Steen admits they were anxious to make the most of it: “You’re so eager. So worried. Because you want to present something and you think an opportunity might slip.” Thankfully, they had the chewed up, spat out residents of the Queen’s Head to give them fair warning. “The Fat Whites had a manager, and halfway through our stay, he tried to majorly fuck them,” remembers Coyle Smith. “We saw it first hand.”
That’s not to say Shame are old heads. Not even close. They’re still raw and wide-eyed, and even beginning to think the good luck’s run dry. On their first tour, within ten minutes of hitting the road, their van door fell off. More recently, a giant bird of prey flew straight into their windscreen on the German Autobahn, wiping out a £600 deposit. “I’m sitting in the middle of the van and I see this black dot on the horizon,” Forbes remembers, “and it starts getting bigger and bigger.” His eyes narrow like he’s focusing on the mysterious object. “‘What the fuck is that?’ BOOF. A massive eagle. Blood and feathers everywhere!” “There is no limit to our lows,” jokes Steen.
They also seem slightly uncomfortable when I mention politics, or the idea that they might be boxed in as a solely political band. It’s not that they don’t share the same ideals as most young, broke twenty-somethings, but the way they express politics can sometimes appear hamfisted, a bit Billy Bragg preaching to the converted. Take the artwork for 2017 track “Visa Vulture,” with its vampiric Theresa May—turns out it came to be because “We had one hour to come up with something, because Spotify had a legal issue with the previous artwork,” Steen says. Coyle Smith argues that it’s impossible for bands not to reflect their surroundings, which in itself is inherently political. Without naming names, he shows distaste for “fucking middle of the road indie bands that are fucking playing stadium-sized shows, who won’t show support for what they believe in”. Steen agrees. “You can’t avoid politics. As a person, you will have your own politics. It’s just about whether you share them or not.”
“We’ve had people tweet us like, ‘I was absolutely loving the music until I saw you were a bunch of loony lefty crybabies!’ Fuck off,” Green recounts, laughing. Forbes gives an astute, sarcastic impression of the kind of ignorant comments they see: “‘You’re not an MP! You play the guitar!’,” to which Green adds, grimacing slightly in annoyance: “Those are the kind of people you don’t want to like your music. Those people want a blank fucking slate of sludge. Everyone should be allowed to speak about it, regardless of if you’re politically well versed or if you know fuck all. People tell us to stay in our lane—fuck off. Just fuck off.”
Songs of Praise isn’t devoid of social commentary, but it’s more a reflection of Shame’s bizarre last three years. There’s awareness and disgust that the vulnerable get screwed, and the most well-off coast along, but again, that’s due to the things they saw and the lessons they learned in the Queen’s Head. “We experienced something that I don’t think anyone else in London is ever gonna experience again,” claims Steen. He’s probably right. How else can a new band afford to practice non-stop for two years without paying a penny?
“If Eddie had called me up like, ‘Josh, we’re starting a band! You just have to put down £20’ I’d be like, ‘Fuck off’,” jokes Finerty. Starting a band involves “paying a fuckload of money to fund a pipe dream,” says Coyle Smith. Instead, these five wound up in the same space, surrounded by opportunities being dropped politely at their feet, and worked out how to write and play with what they were gifted. When asked what they’d do if being in Shame stopped being fun, they almost all agree: “If it stops being fun then we’ll fuck it off. Start a new band.” Except Steen, who shuffles slightly, shakes his head and says: “Oh no, no way. Never start a new band.” Too much effort. Besides, they wouldn’t get so lucky again.