Since releasing their debut LP, Songs of Praise, back in January, British post-punk quintet Shame have rapidly emerged as one of the most buzzed-about young bands in the world. Words like “angry,” “energetic” and “explosive” have been thrown around in discussions of their music. Paste’s Madison Desler extolled the group’s “tightly-wound, jittery guitars, mile-a-minute hi-hat and exquisite bleakness.” The adjectives don’t really do them justice. A contagious energy courses through Songs of Praise tracks like “Concrete” and “Gold Hole,” but Shame really have to be experienced live—at full volume, and with ringleader Charlie Steen lurking around the stage, smiling, shirtless and dripping with sweat, often balancing the mic stand on his shoulders or crowd surfing while bellowing to devout fans.
Shame’s high-octane, manic stage presence isn’t restricted to Steen. The whole band projects chaos and danger, and there’s always an underlying feeling that the floor is going to cave in beneath the weight of gleeful self-destruction. Bassist Josh Finerty jumps around and convulses like a lunatic, and guitarist Sean Coyle-Smith shreds his guitar while vibrating at maximum speed. You might think that a group of five 20-year-olds from South London who play music with this level of rage would be brash, chauvinistic characters, but perhaps the most pleasant surprise about Shame is their purposeful rejection of the “lad band” stereotype. In an interview before a recent headlining show in Columbus, Ohio, a bespectacled, sweater-clad Steen said he understands why people might have that perception, but he’s adamant about refuting it.
For one thing, his rampant toplessness isn’t borne from a love of Henry Rollins or Anthony Kiedis, but something like the opposite. “I didn’t take my top off because I was some chiseled Greek god,” said Steen. “I took my top off because I was self-conscious about my weight. I was just a chubby stoner and I was always pretty shy about it. And when we could play these gigs I could take my top off and feel freed from judgment, even if it was for just 25 minutes. It was just fucking hilarious to be sweaty and topless on top of a table playing to two people on a Wednesday night before going to school. It all just seemed ridiculous and it seemed like the only time you could do it and not get arrested. Mainly as well, as a person, I just sweat so much.”
Taking a page from Mark E. Smith and post-punk progenitors The Fall, Steen exudes a wry humor, theatricality and the idea of “absurdity becoming reality,” so it’s no wonder that one of the band’s most popular songs is the self-deprecating anthem, “One Rizla,” with its chorus refrain: “I’m not much to look at, and I ain’t much to hear / But if you think I love you, you’ve got the wrong idea.” Then there’s the band’s amusing Pet Sounds-esque album cover, which features the members cradling micro pigs in a sunny English field, further negating their rough image. During performances, Steen often reminds the audience, “Smile! This is entertainment!” But the band also calls out aggression or abuse in the crowd, and they’ve voiced support for organizations like Girls Against that are working to root out sexual harassment and discrimination in the music industry.
“We want to disown any stereotype of what a rock star really is,” said Steen. “We’re 21st-century kids. We’re adapting to what it means to be a band in this time and age. And the fact of the matter is there is an amount of misogyny, exclusion and addiction that revolves around that image.”
Nor do they fit the profile of prosperous young rock stars, despite having scored a top 40 album in the U.K., a few magazine covers and a wave of adoring reviews. If anything, they seem to embody the reality that such a thing barely exists anymore. Steen claimed the band would lose some $20,000 in the next few weeks of touring the U.S., in part because visas for a year cost $1,500 for each of the five band members. In February, Shame released a tour diary-style video for album track “Lampoon” in which the members stumble around America in a small van—scarfing pizza on the run, playing checkers, looking bored, trying to endure long drives from city to city, and finally, playing a high-energy show. Last year, Steen said, the band did four tours, 47 festivals, recorded and produced the album, released three videos, and now they’re trekking across America. “We might as well make every tour a farewell tour, because one of these days it’s going to kill us,” he said. “We’re all really fucking broke. The whole idea of throwing fridges out of hotel rooms and having mad parties and drugs being everywhere, it was probably possible back then because of money.”
There’s a certain irony when globe-trotting older rock stars like Jack White, Bono or Noel Gallagher deliver the familiar stump speech about how guitar music is dead or in need of new blood. The industry, of course, has been more than generous to them over the years. Steen is fully aware that his band isn’t revolutionary, but it is reflective of a new generation that has absorbed a wider range of music and culture, as well as a gloomier outlook on what it means to be in a rock band. “What’s interesting now, and I don’t think it particularly applies to us or maybe it does hopefully, is just the vast amount of music we’re able to reflect on as a generation,” he said. “We’re known as the iPod shuffle generation.”
“You either end up at a penthouse suite hotel room overlooking the entirety of Montreal with a massive fridge full of beer and 20 people who you’ve never met before in a jacuzzi, or you’re sleeping on a floor in fucking Missouri, trying to get as much of the blankets as possible that you have to share with your bandmates.”
Indeed, most music fans nowadays have more eclectic tastes thanks to the sheer accessibility of music from every neglected corner of the globe. “When we were growing up,” said Steen, “you could listen to a rap song and then a rock song and then a classical song and then a jazz song in a row. What happens next is just how our generation chooses to draw these influences that are available to us and interpret it in their own way into guitar music.” So if Bono wants to trash modern rock music, he can have at it.
“If someone wants to remain in their own bubble and someone wants to be comforted by pessimism, then let them get on with it,” Steen said. It may be tough for young guitar bands to book big venues, but there’s no shortage of them. Steen name-dropped fellow London bands like HMLTD (whom Paste featured alongside Shame on our list of 15 New British Bands You Need to Know in 2018), Goat Girl, Sorry, Hotel Lux, Peeping Drexels and Warmduscher as some of his favorites.
Fans who really want to find new rock music have to support independent venues, which have been closing down around the globe. “There definitely is a public need and desire for these things to be kept alive,” Steen said. “We’re very lucky because in London there’s a place called the Windmill in Brixton, which is the cornerstone of our culture.”
There just isn’t much money in rock music anymore, and the measurements for success have changed drastically with the rise of streaming services and download metrics. For a hard-working rock band like Shame, the prospects increasingly look like feast or famine. “It’s interesting to see because you can have millions of plays on your Spotify and still play to only 300 people or you could have tens of thousands of plays but play to a thousand people,” he said. “It’s very hard to gauge where the level of comfort is until you get to a certain stage where you can play fucking Brixton Academy or sell 500,000 records… You either end up at a penthouse suite hotel room overlooking the entirety of Montreal with a massive fridge full of beer and 20 people who you’ve never met before in a jacuzzi, or you’re sleeping on a floor in fucking Missouri, trying to get as much of the blankets as possible that you have to share with your bandmates.”
If Steen and co. manage to drink a glass of water and get a bit of sleep every once in a while, they may just reach the penthouse suite after all.