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'The idea of a rock star is offensive' – meet Shame, Britain's most exciting new band

Young guns of Brixton ... Shame.
Young guns of Brixton ... Shame. Photograph: Holly Whitaker

‘I think the idea of the leather jacket-wearing, womanising, drug-fuelled rock star should be burned,” says Charlie Steen, the 20-year-old singer of Shame, 2018’s angriest, shoutiest young British guitar band.

“Destroyed for ever,” says the 21-year-old drummer, Charlie Forbes. “But at the same time,” adds Sheen, “with a lot of people I’ve grown up loving, like Bowie or Iggy Pop, there’s an attraction to someone who lives a lifestyle you’ll never be able to live, and you couldn’t live, because it’s so dysfunctional and damaging to you as a person. You can almost live your life through them.”

Steen thinks for a moment, then outlines the simple reason why Shame won’t become rock stars. “That lifestyle could only exist because of money. Bands can’t go out now and get a kilo of coke or drive to Las Vegas in a Ferrari. Now it’s get a gram of speed and sit in a Travelodge. That’s the reality of it.”

The notion, however, that this scrappy post-punk band may have to deal with old-school rock stardom isn’t as far-fetched as it seems. They’re as ferocious as their acknowledged inspirations the Fall; even when the guitars aren’t turned up to a jet roar, Steen’s furious sneer gives them urgency (“My voice ain’t the best you’ve heard / And you can choose to hate my words / But do I give a fuck?” he asks on One Rizla). Best of all, though, they have huge, anthemic tunes to go with the anger.

Shame formed when the five members were in their mid-teens and bumped along anonymously for a while, part of a nascent south London scene of bands drawn together through mutual friends that also included HMLTD, Goat Girl and Dead Pretties. Over the past year, all four bands transcended their free-party origins, getting signed, getting acclaimed and forming the nucleus of something that’s been missing in British music for some time: an exciting, youthful guitar scene whose participants are not grimly fixated on securing their slice of the post-Britpop lads-with-lagers crowd.

The scene, they say, was more the result of necessity than anything else: when few of their friends liked guitar bands, those who did would group together. “It was weird to meet people the same age as you who liked the same music,” Steen says. “Lots of people we knew at school were into popping pills and going to techno nights. But then we started meeting these people who were engaged with something we didn’t think existed.”

Shame formed around the Queen’s Head pub in Brixton, the former headquarters of the Fat White Family. Forbes’s dad was a friend of the landlord, who let the young band rehearse in an upstairs room (“Every day,” Forbes says. “Just hop on the bus to the after school club”). There they met assorted luminaries and recidivists of the south London music scene, but managed to avoid the worst excesses of the Fat Whites and their friends, largely through being too young to realise they were hanging around with committed hard drug users (“We were oblivious,” Forbes says).

They stumbled over lucky break after lucky break. Not just getting a free rehearsal space for 15 months, until the Queen’s Head was converted into a gastropub, but meeting people who then gave them studio space, and getting free advice from musicians who had been chewed up and spat out by major labels. What they learned was the importance of keeping as much control as possible over their decisions, which led them to sign to indie imprint Dead Oceans for their debut album, Songs of Praise. They also think the very grime of the Queen’s Head shaped them into being Shame: “I don’t think if we had started in a squeaky clean studio it would have been the same,” Forbes says.

‘We started meeting these people who were engaged with something we didn’t think existed’ ... Shame.
‘We started meeting these people who were engaged with something we didn’t think existed’ ... Shame. Photograph: Holly Whitaker

They are less interested in offering comfort than demanding resolve: “We like to confront those who have committed acts of injustice, by writing snippy songs about them,” Forbes says. Just before last year’s general election they released one such song about the prime minister, Visa Vulture. “With each day the vacuous Mrs May steers our country closer and closer into the darkness and confusion that is Brexit, no doubt securing the best deal for herself and her cronies in the Conservative party,” they wrote on YouTube. “We would like to take this opportunity to humiliate and debase her frankly evil political record even further with this, the world’s worst love song.”

But given they’re still so young – all five members are 20 or 21 – they sometimes haven’t worked out where their principles are taking them. So there’s a mild disagreement between Forbes and Steen over whether they would let their music be used in a TV advert by some particularly awful company.

“No chance,” Forbes says. “No chance.” Then Steen recalls the Fat Whites turning down £100,000 from easyJet. “They wanted to use Whitest Boy on the Beach. Lias [Saoudi, the Fat Whites’ singer] said the biggest mistake of his life was not taking the hundred grand. But until we have to make that decision …”

Forbes interrupts, surprised that Steen is deciding band policy on his own. “Oh no, there’s no way.”

“Not with Primark or something,” Steen says. “But I’m not going to exclude everything. I would find it funny to have tequila flavour Bud Light playing one of our songs.”

The pair keep taking extreme positions, then realising they have to pull back from them, that their principles are racing away from practicality. When asked how they will respond when their crowd starts to include the beered-up geezers who tend to follow popular and boisterous guitar bands, Forbes says: “If I ever looked down from the stage and saw that, I would probably quit.”

Steen interrupts: “We wanna get rid and dissolve …” Forbe interrupts back: “Dissolve is too nice a word. Incinerate.”

And then Steen realises that suggesting pre-emptive incineration of their fans is, perhaps, a bit much. “We’re not going to discriminate against any person who comes to our show unless they do something unjust. But we don’t want to project any image of laddish behaviour. I’ve spoken to girls who feel that if they go into the pit they are going to get knocked about by older guys. And when that happens, you have to make a point to the crowd. We don’t want to stop anyone having fun, but we don’t want anyone to be hurt or harassed in any way.”

Their instinct for confrontation might make that a tightrope act. In one French TV appearance Steen, dressed in a T-shirt reading “Je suis Calais”, strutted across the presenters’ table and licked an audience member’s face – pick the wrong person for that, and he might well find himself called out on social media for the very things Forbes says the band want to avoid.

Charlie Steen of Shame, performing at Kendal Calling festival in July 2017.
Charlie Steen of Shame, performing at Kendal Calling festival in July 2017. Photograph: Visionhaus/Corbis via Getty Images

It’s oddly charming listening to a band working out what they think as they go along. For all the apparent certainties of Songs of Praise, for all their reputation for provocation – and the thrilling, tumbling rush of their music – they are very well aware of the limitations of being a rock band and of how damaging to mind and body it could be.

Last month, as Shame finished their year with a jaunt around Germany as a support slot, Steen had to call a stop to things. He was getting panic attacks; he wasn’t digesting his food; he was vomiting 15 times a day. “In that month we toured America, Canada, I did eight press days in Europe and London, played a show in Paris and then went on tour in Germany. Sitting in a van in the pitch black, and you’re in Hanover surrounded by snow and nothing else, and there’s only indistinguishable meat available … it can get you down.”

Over the next 12 months, Shame will take Songs of Praise around the world, to more and more people who will force them to confront their self-image as the band who are against things, whatever things happen to be on their minds. A band this exciting aren’t going to be allowed to sit still for long – in the weeks before they go to Australia at the end of January they are writing for their second album, because there will be no chance once the touring begins. They had better get used to the idea of more cans, more pitch black and even more indistinguishable meat, and not just in Hanover.

So might they become rock stars after all? Forbes suggests the very notion is “quite incredibly dated”, and Steen chips in. “Offensive as well, in a lot of ways. It will be a white male, skinny, perfect hair, who sleeps with women daily.”

That’s your principled position – but wouldn’t you really like to be rock stars, given the chance? “I’d just like a house with a pool table,” Steen says.

“I guess I’d like to have the power of a rock star, and I could exercise it a couple of nights a year,” Forbes suggests.

OK, imagine it’s 30 years from now. Would you rather be the next Bono or the bloke in the corner at the office Christmas party telling the kids that you used to be in a band and you were getting pretty big for a while?

“Just be Bono, but be less of an arsehole,” Forbes reckons. “You don’t want to be that guy at the Christmas party. If Shame doesn’t work out we’ll never talk about it again. ‘Music? Don’t know anything about it. Never heard of it.’”

Songs of Praise is released on Dead Oceans on 12 January.

This article titled "'The idea of a rock star is offensive' – meet Shame, Britain's most exciting new band" was written by Michael Hann, for The Guardian on Friday 12 January 2018 06.00am

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