“To think that three or four years ago, when we were all 16 or 17, we didn’t have a microphone or even a drum kit and we were playing all the same songs over and over in the Queen’s Head in Brixton and it was all a bit shambolic. And now we’re playing on the same stage as Nick Cave? That’s really fucking funny to us.”
Shame’s Charlie Steen and his bandmates may find it funny, but Shame’s memorable set on the main stage of new London-based festival All Points East earlier this month - a stage which also hosted the likes of Courtney Barnett, Patti Smith and Nick Cave that day - is a testament to how hard the South Londoners have worked in the past couple of years.
We speak to Charlie as he prepares for Shame’s 104th show of 2018 in a Norwegian town that Steen either “can’t remember or can’t pronounce” the name of. Stavanger was the not-so-difficult-to-pronounce but equally unheard-of city, the 80th they’ve gigged in this year (at the time of interviewing anyway).
Shame have been relentlessly gigging in those four years since they first formed as “a joke”, one which has “gone too far”, says Steen. They had already built up a steady following in the UK (a “secret” gig in The Black Lion at 2017’s Great Escape festival was shut down due to overcrowding) but the release of their debut album ‘Songs Of Praise’ in January has seen them be labelled as “the hottest band in Britain” by the likes of The Guardian.
That sort of non-stop touring is known to have possible knock-on effects on mental health, and being in Norway during the summer, when it’s hard to know whether it’s night or day, can’t help. Steen agrees but admits that festival season is slightly easier.
“To be fair, we’ve just had an 8 day break in London. Our festival season has us in London for a week, away for a week, and so on, so it’s quite nice when you have a rest between shows.
“Although, I don’t really rest in London, I was caning it for a week straight before we came here. But, you know, seeing your friends and doing all the things that make you feel human again, even just for a day or two, is a massive relief.”
Shame’s festival season brings them to Ireland next week for Body & Soul, a gig Steen says they can’t wait for.
“I can’t wait for that festival, we all love Ireland. Our last show in Whelan’s was great. The first time we played there [Whelan’s] was 2 and a bit years ago supporting Fat White Family.
“We said then that we always wanted to come back so to sell it out was a real surreal moment. The Irish crowd are very intelligent, there's such an incredible history of creativity that stems from Ireland which has gained such respect from everyone I know. So to have that welcoming from an Irish crowd was fucking amazing.”
This year’s Body & Soul sees Fever Ray curating the main stage on the first day, with FAKA, Fatima Al Qadri and Olol Dreijer joining her. It’s the first time a stage at any Irish festival has been curated by a female artist.
“Really!? I didn’t know that, that’s nuts! That’s fucking amazing!” enthuses Steen upon hearing this, before submitting to the realisation that the “balance between the realism of how that hasn’t happened before and the joy that it is happening” is weird. “You know, it’s like the referendum you just had, that feeling of ‘how has this not happened already?’”
The referendum to repeal the 8th Amendment of the Irish constitution and to end the illegal status of abortion in Ireland was a hugely divisive, polarising issue in the country and also one that Shame, despite their nationality, were very vocal about.
From telling fans to register and vote yes from the stage at Whelan’s, to several posts across their social media, it’s clear that Shame were keen to use any voice they have to bring about the right result.
“Well, firstly, Seán our guitarist, his mum is Irish and has a lot of family in Dublin, while my surrogate Nan is from Ireland too. I think it was such an important thing to happen and I think this whole generation were so confused that in this time it was taking so long to go through.
“Also, Eddie, our other guitarist lives in an area of London where a lot of women who come to London for abortions stay in hostels, so it’s something he personally sees a lot of.
“It was a massive step forward and was something we felt needed to be discussed. We can’t understand the complexities behind every political situation in every part of the world but Ireland is very close to us and yeah, it was a fucking historic moment.”
(“We do referendums much better than you do,” GoldenPlec mocks)
“Yeah, you fucking do, this and the marriage equality, that’s right. I remember Brexit very clearly. We all broke into Glastonbury that year and at like 8am, having been up all night, we see someone walking around with a sign saying we’d left. It was a pretty quick way to get sober.”
Staying on politics, the pressure that’s now on Theresa May, a dear friend of Shame (more on that later), to act and try push through some legislation to allow women in Northern Ireland access to abortion also is brought up and Steen is equally passionate in his response.
“Everything has an effect, especially political situations, the butterfly effect. Everyone looks to the world to see what’s happening and what progression is being made. At the end of the day, I’m not a politician, I don’t know a thing. All I know is that, from our point of view, it’s not about a conclusion, it’s about a conversation.”
In 2017, Shame released a tongue-in-cheek ode to British Prime Minister Theresa May called Visa Vulture (listen above). It was a bit of a laugh on their behalf, although with a serious message underneath the humour. The band expected the song to fade away and be forgotten after a while, however, in early May an article appeared in The Sun “newspaper” by its executive editor Dan Wootton.
“A blundering trade minister has given a taxpayer-funded grant to a punk band with an explicit song which attacks Theresa May,” the article, titled “PM’s Daft Punk. Minister gives Govt grant to anti-Tory band’, said.
Steen says the band wasn’t approached for comment at any stage and said that, while they found it funny at first, that the fact Wootton had inferred that if you’re a band who doesn’t support the conservative party then you shouldn’t be given funding is a ludicrous to say.
“It said grants range from 5-50k, but we were given £18k for our tour of America, which was costing us £20,000 so we actually lost £2,000 anyway. But yeah, to have The Sun slagging you off, that was the moment we knew we’d made it.
“None of us have flats, we can’t afford to rent in London, we’re all just scraping by. Nobody buys fucking records, there’s no money in the music industry unless you’re Ed Sheeran or Rihanna. So yeah, what the Sun wrote was hilarious.”
Speaking of selling records, Shame’s debut album ‘Songs of Praise’ is hotly tipped to feature on many end-of-year lists come to December, but the band are already planning album number two, admitting they’ve two songs written.
“We’ve got two songs at the moment that we’re happy with, but all we’re doing at the moment is gigging pretty much until the end of the year. After that we’re taking four months off to write and try get something recorded.
We don’t have an idea of what direction it will go in, but we didn’t with the first album either. We don’t really thing in that way. If we like it we like it, if we don’t we don’t but we do have to agree on everything, it’s very democratic. Split everything and agree on everything.”
Talk switches back to the Dublin gig they played back in March, followed by an all-nighter and pretty much all-the-next dayer of a piss up with Fontaines DC and The Murder Capital, which even the thought of makes our livers recoil in pain.
“This is what I’m saying, Dublin is wonderful, when we go there, everyone wants to chat with you and everyone wants a good time.”
As GoldenPlec finishes writing this interview in The Five Bells in New Cross, South London, Charlie Steen coincidentally walks in the door on one of his “days off” (they've just flown in from Russia that day). Fontaines DC are on the bill that night. Caning it again. Long may it last.
Interview carried out by Stephen Byrne