Different Person: The Evolution Of Shame

How friendship and a desire for fresh challenges fuel their new album...

From the sweat and the mystery of some of South London’s most intriguing stages, few bands emerge with the calibre and eminence than post-punk quintet Shame. Formed during their teenage years using Brixton pub The Queen’s Head as a rehearsal space, the band quickly made strides towards the destination of success. 2018 debut album ‘Songs of Praise’ received endless, and well deserved, critical acclaim from the music world, but the band did not stop there; their follow up, ‘Drunk Tank Pink’, saw them innovating and experimenting more than ever, branching away from their roots into a jazz-tinted, art-punk sound. A bold approach for the sophomore, Shame really did refuse to play it safe – and pulled it off expertly. 

Out now, third album ‘Food For Worms’ sees Shame taking a live, raw approach, minimising recording takes to ensure the music was the most exposed and open it has ever been. It is a sharp parallel, almost equidistant, to the lyrical themes delivered by frontman Charlie Steen throughout the album. “We knew we wanted to do a live album. Tried on the first one, we didn’t have enough time; tried on the second and we simply weren’t tight enough. And then with this one Flood [producer] was down, and we finally wanted to actually do it. And it’s fucking hard. It’s a lot more chaotic, than the usual methodical way of recording.” 

Recording live, in theory, should be easier and faster than the standard part-by-part approach, but one tiny slip up can send an entire take into the bin. It involves a more focussed approach, a true team effort; every member working in sync, cogs in the Shame machine. It is also something that takes time to perfect, as much of the ability comes not from the performances themselves, but from the priceless chemistry created from so many years of being a band. And for Shame, they are a band who have been together for quite some time, and with ‘Food for Worms’ they really have a powerful hindsight over their formative years. 

“I think it’s so strange to have, you know, songs you wrote the lyrics to when you were like seventeen or eighteen years old. What you were saying before, with each album it sort of stamps where we are. I mean, it’s quite weird for us, you know. That first line of ‘Orchid’: we were tourists in adolescence”, Charlie Steen, the band’s frontman, muses via Zoom from his London flat. That opening lyric of ‘Orchid’ is a perfect appraisal of the record; carefully analysing their formative years through a newfound lens, one that is only attainable when one has been doing this for so long.

This new record takes a step away from some of the scrappier, post-punk aesthetics and sensibilities of Shame’s previous efforts and remoulds their distinct sound into something fresh, new and quite simply, grown. “We’re pretty chilled out now, though. We’re twenty-five now, sort of a bit more ‘mature’. Sort of feel like veterans, or something like that.” 

Change and growth are at the core of ‘Food For Worms’. The title itself is easy to read as morbid or death-orientated, but to Shame it marks rebirth, regrowth and regeneration. Whether it’s recording live as a band, or introducing guest vocals, this third LP has seen the biggest shift. A chance encounter with Dead Oceans labelmate and indie royalty Phoebe Bridgers led to an exchange in goods; Phoebe would sing backing vocals on a track, and Charlie [Forbes] would contribute some tambourine to a (yet unreleased) boygenius track. And posing the prospect of collaboration is something they aren’t opposed to. “I think we would collaborate. I don’t think we’re closing off any possibilities, I mean there’s a lot of cool people that are always collaborating, like sleaford mods or Mount Kimbie. I think even having friends around when we were writing some of the initial ideas was really nice. You need to freshen things up sometimes.” 

Collaboration, or ‘freshening things up’, can often speed up a songwriting process, removing blockages as ideas will be thrown around left right and centre. But having complete tracks written before a session can be rare; after all, making a record is an incredibly time-dependent challenge. Despite Shame usually being a finished-before-studio type band, stunning album closer ‘All The People’ took the longest for the band to finish, as it was one of the few occasions Shame hadn’t completed the writing before taking it to the studio. “In the end we just used one complete live take, with no overdubs. It was one of the first times we’d played it all together, live.” The ‘live’, organic and visceral quality of ‘Food For Worms’ is one of the factors that completes the magnificence of the record. It’s rugged, raw, the band, especially Steen, having their guard completely down. “We’ve never had something so vulnerable on an album.”

“For this record, I didn’t want to be up all night by candlelight with my quill, forever pacing up and down, fretting the perfect syllable. I didn’t want that. What I’d like to try and be good at is simplicity. Whatever you say in the moment, what comes out hasn’t been edited by yourself. It hasn’t immediately been criticised; it’s not filtered.” The ‘simple’ approach Steen strove for while writing shines through, the pretence and overthinking eliminated by a ‘sing what comes to mind’ approach while crafting the tracks. “I don’t wanna write for anyone apart from me. Because I’m not gonna be able to please everybody”.

When there is such a harsh and focussed lens on a band as established and renown as Shame, stripping things back to shatter overanalysing has played out to have been the right decision. Honesty and reality can often be few and far between within the post punk sphere, but finding inspiration from your own world, rather than a wider political and social stage, can prove to be an unadulterated and supportive catharsis. 

The bulk of Steen and the band’s lyricism throughout ‘Food for Worms’ is commentary on friendships, fuelled by a love of cinema and literature, forming observations on his own life. Taking moments, lessons, from other art mediums and disciplines can discreetly find its way into songwriting, whether it be subconscious or not. Withnail & I, one of Steen’s all-time favourite films, explores adulthood, responsibility and, of course, friendship head on, all themes blossoming as the record progresses. 

“There are so many films about friendships. More recently ‘The Banshees of Inisherin’, or ‘Withnail and I’, so many books as well. But there aren’t that many songs. Some of these films, these stories about friendships, are more romantic than any other films out there.” Though cinema wasn’t the only precursor and inspiration for the record; “I’m influenced a lot by books. I try and read as much as I can. I was reading an amazing book, Lonesome Dove. It’s one of the best things I’ve read, and it’s all about that again, friendship.” The phrase ‘lonesome dove’, especially in the context of the novel, explores the idea of peace while alone. A difficult ideology to garner, but one many had to traverse post-pandemic, the re-evaluating of your life, friends and surroundings. 

Friendship systems are so important, regardless of who you are or what you are doing, but they’re especially vital when one is living the hundred-mile-an-hour lifestyle of the music industry. But for Steen and co., they’d be lost without this system, though they never consciously planned to write an album about their friends – though an almost butterfly effect type scenario happened a few years ago. “Your friends are the people who remind you of who you are. But it wasn’t a conscious effort to write about them, I don’t think so. It was in the back of my mind when we played in Greece a long time ago. This guy was talking about a song, but it was written about a best friend. It’s weird – we were talking about you never hear songs about that. It’s always a partner, or a breakup, or somebody completely random.”

‘Food For Worms’ came with several firsts: obviously, the lyrical themes are a departure from Shame’s usual commentary, and then there is the use of collaboration, or the recording process itself. But this time around, Charlie played instruments on the record, something he’d not done before – and it looks like he’ll be doing it live. “I’ve been enjoying a very minor musical involvement. When we came back after tour, I’d grab a guitar or bass, bring it back to my flat. Just coming up with quick ideas. Then in the studio, what would happen was, say for the first song we started writing, ‘Adderall’, I was playing the bass. Usually, the band do the music, then I come in. So, I’m used to having to improvise quite quickly. It was a lot easier when I was playing, you control the tempo, you control how much is going on (to a degree).”

“When you’re just singing with a microphone, you’re quite naked. Prone to overthinking. When playing at home, it just feels more relaxed; it’s about two things instead of just one. I’m enjoying it. Hopefully I’m gonna be playing live on ‘All The People’, playing guitar live for the first time ever. It’ll be pretty shit for the first people coming to the first few shows, then hopefully it’ll get better.” 

‘Food For Worms’ is out now.

Words: James Mellen
Photography: Rachel Lipsitz

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