On the Road with Shame, One Tasteless Live Show at a Time
We hit the road with South London's new favorite misfits as they embark on wrecking America's stages.
Shame can drink in the pubs in South London. Three-fifths of them can't drink here. It’s a Friday night in Echo Park, and inside the scrappy, punk-leaning venue The Echo, tonight’s headliners’ hands are marked with big black X marks. Charlie “Steen” Steen, Sean Coyle-Smith, Eddie Green, Josh Finerty, and Charlie “Forbes” Forbes may be young, but when this lot barges in the door, they take you back to a local boozer in London in the late 90s. Talk is of the Spice Girls (Mel B is allegedly on the guestlist) and Bo Selecta and “crisps” as they head to watch local support act Goon, the project of musician Kenny Becker, whose floors Shame has been crashing on. As a band, the British fivesome have only been to America's East Coast last year for a quick run. They don't have floors guaranteed in each of the unchartered cities ahead of them on their current tour, their most extensive US stint yet. They don’t even have instruments—too expensive to travel with, they say, so they’ve been borrowing those as well. But they do have chutzpah, and an Italian tour manager and former pharmacist called Dr. Kiko, who has an extensive address book.
Which is how, after a few cramped nights on Becker’s floor, Shame found themselves in the more commodious care of AJ Lambert, daughter of Nancy Sinatra, granddaughter of Frank Sinatra. When we all go back to AJ's later for a nightcap, there's indeed a framed photo of Ol' Blue Eyes in the living room with a younger AJ. Tonight she's backstage championing her new adopted sons, who have lit a fire in her because—to AJ—they’re a rare thing. Their handshakes are boyishly sweaty. I haven't held hands that clammy since prom.
Steen—the central figure of Shame, a man who commands attention like a televangelist— struts into the cavernous green room dressed in a Velvet Underground T-shirt and a ridiculous cowboy hat he picked up in Texas at their first SXSW. At 20, with vulpine bone structure and perennially-furrowed brow, he has one of those faces that was born fully adult; like Suggs or Anthony Hopkins, he will never look like a young person. So far, his impression of LA is both cliche and astute for a South Londoner four days into the city’s phantasmagoria: A cross, he says, between a David Cronenberg movie and Brett Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero. He drops cultural references about like crumbs of his brain, but not to seem superior. He's inquisitive, always interrupting to ask more, learn more, gesticulating so fast he has to swallow the foam that forms.
Backstage, Steen reveals that he has removed himself from AJ's, and is living in a West Hollywood dive motel—one of those you wouldn't even store luggage in for a day—with girlfriend Nicola. Nicola is a political science student who dresses like Lily Allen circa 2003, except with a crew cut and an even sharper tongue. She's run away from school for a week armed with a camcorder to capture the band’s traveling tomfoolery. Her feminist perspective is welcomed by the boys at every turn as they take in the sensory overload of their first West Coast road trip. They’ll head up to San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, Chicago, and more, then play a few shows with Protomartyr, and then hit SXSW for a slate of buzzed-about showcases (including Noisey’s). Their final loop after that is via the Bible Belt.
Being Britain’s most bolshy new band doesn't guarantee an easy ride in the States. Back home they don the cover of the NME and The Guardian, and have been talked up from Dover to Calais after the incessant gigging they’ve done around Continental Europe. “At the end of last year we did 47 festivals in three months, over 150 gigs, and five tours, I think?” Steen recalls. Despite building a home reputation as a generationally explosive live act, the USA is a different kettle of fish. Dua Lipa's smashed it here. But Shame are not Dua Lipa. They’re a shambolic rock outfit at a time when shambolic rock’s at its least commercial. They have no idea whether most of the places they're about to visit will give a rat's ass about who they are. Their debut LP Songs Of Praise, released in January on Dead Oceans, is infused with the universal urgency of angry young men, but its lyrics and humor (spanning from the boredom of waiting in a gynaecologist’s office, to the existential frustration of generally never being heard) are British enough to be wrongfully dismissed as novelty; like Mike Skinner was in the mid-2000s. A lot is lost in translation.
Just before stage, Kiko asks the boys what music they'd like to come out to. Everyone thinks a Friday night floor-filler is guaranteed to get the stoic LA crowds and the music industry reps who they can’t afford to leave unimpressed going. Kiko's choices are: 90s rave anthem "Ebeneezer Goode” by The Shamen, "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?” by Rod Stewart, or a single of their choice by Dutch Europop group The Vengaboys. Green looks stressed, and offers an alternative—Mousse T's one-hit-wonder “Horny '98.” “Everyone's heard that song!” he cries.
“Not here!” Kiko shouts.
“Well then we're educating people. We're sharing the wonders of our side of the world!”
Eddie turns to AJ. “AJ, do you know this song in America? It goes: 'I'm horny! Horny, horny, horny…'” AJ's face is blank and confused. They grab their beers and form an orderly line in the stairwell. Then walk out for their first LA show to the sound of ”Scatman's World.”
The sight of Shame live should terrify every up-and-coming band. From the moment Steen comes on, squeezing his face and his arms, hoarsely roaring every word, then jovially instructing the crowd to, “Enjoy yourselves, people!”, it’s magnetizing. They don't waste any time tearing places apart, and—sure, it’s been done before, but not for a while, and not this witty, merry, and boisterous. When Shame screams at you or stares you down, it’s believable. To borrow a lyric from Steen himself. It’s “relatable, not debatable”.
Opening with the doom-laden “Dust On Trial,” Steen sprays the crowd with beer, like he's watering a flower bed. He crowd surfs immediately. “We’re called Shame and I’m from a city called London. South London to be precise,” he says.
During second song, “Concrete,” Finerty throws himself so violently around his bass that he could do himself serious injury; he broke his leg at a gig in Germany once, and didn't realize until after the show. By the time the band gets to the swirling “Tasteless,” Steen's shirt is gone. Pearls of sweat decorate his back. “You guys are a lot more enthusiastic than the British,” he says, eyes roving around the room.
The crowd shoves each other about in a way Steen knows from experience could get out of hand. He cares about them being able to mosh responsibly, equally. At their recent show back home at London’s 100 Club a woman was groped, and in Green’s words it felt like the tip of an iceberg that they need to start melting. And fast. “We do not tolerate any aggression,” he advises the LA crowd. “If you wanna come forward feel free. We won’t bite. We’re polite.” During their most melodic song, the ballad “Angie,” he makes eye contact with me as if to say, It's going better than expected.
“That's my favorite part,” he explains backstage after, about making eye contact. Steen used to get drunk before going onstage to hide his nerves. He doesn’t do that anymore; these days he prefers to be lucid and completely present. He still gets nerves, of course. “I go to the toilet,” he says of his pre-show ritual. “I always have to go to the toilet.”
The best thing about being onstage, he explains, is that he's not thinking. “No thought process can come close to you,” he says. “People probably achieve that Zen state from meditation, avocados, whatever. I'm aware. I know what I wanna do when we first go on, and what I'm gonna do at the end, but it's the moments in between where you feel untouchable.”
Back onstage, he amps up his bravado for a final, climactic “Gold Hole.” He shakes people's hands. He kisses their cheeks. He talks to the crowd in an unspoken language that defies cultural differences. At the end of the day, like Steen, everyone here is pissed off about something. The singer stands on the palms of his new friends, and walks atop the crowd from the stage to the bar at the end of the room. Nicola looks on at him, her eyes pure love. Steen's charisma is hard to avoid. In high school he was the class jester, once telling a girl at a party that the fastest way to charge an iPhone was to stick it in the microwave for 30 seconds. You can guess what happened next.
8 AM Saturday morning. Kiko is blaring the dub version of “Higher Than The Sun” by Primal Scream while pulling the van into AJ's driveway. Poor Forbes went to bed at 5 AM, and has had minimal shut eye due to Green's snoring. He cannot fathom the journey to San Francisco with the stereo playing so loudly, and DJ Kiko at its helm. Forbes is borderline furious that the splitter van is already as messy as it is. They only picked it up a few days ago, and just from the past days off-tour in LA, it’s already decorated with half-eaten Kettle Chips packets and opened water bottles. This van is their microcosm for the next three weeks. Inside it is young Britain. Shame see America as only Brits can.
As we pass Grauman's Chinese Theater, Eddie pipes up. “Isn't that from Borat?” The chatter is a tennis match of piss-taking, and they’re desperate to get their hands on some videogames for the entertainment system soon to keep themselves from egging each other on to perform stupid dares. Green, for instance, has to wear nothing but dungarees onstage later as a result of losing a bet. The soundtrack inside – courtesy Kiko's iPod – spans English comic George Formby, Danish popstar Whigfield, and Manchester dance act 808 State, even though Kiko loathes saxophones. “I hate saxophones,” he repeats. “I have huuuuuuge issue with saxophones.”
With salt-and-pepper shoulder-length hair, a taste for furry coats, and a romantic twinkle in his eye—when not shielded by oversized sunglasses—Kiko is a caricature-cum-relic of music biz flamboyance. Steen explains how they found him: “One of our managers used to be in this band called Elastica?” he says, with a question mark that makes you feel 100 years old. Kiko has been around since Britpop's 90s heyday, and is nervous I'm going to print everything he says. He says it anyway. For constant entertainment, the band do inappropriate impressions of his Italian accent to shoot him down when he's name-dropping.
Kiko is, however, their best asset. Before he came on board, Shame were a disaster magnet. An eagle once flew into their vehicle. Another time, they drove through a storm so torrential that a windshield wiper broke. Kiko has provided a lucky streak of seamless touring since joining them one year ago, fathering them while they take their maiden voyages to places he’s seen countless times; earlier in the week, they celebrated their one-year anniversary at a lucha libre match in LA. His extravagance is rubbing off on them too. Their nails are all painted gold, like his. Their version of rock'n'roll, however, is far from glam. They've just returned from Laneways Festival in Australia where, for the first time, they had room service at their hotel. They didn't know it wasn't covered. “We were disillusioned for an evening,” says Steen. “We lived the high life – £30's worth of Mars Bars and crisps.” Green chips in: “I was halfway through a beer when I realized it wasn't paid for. It was a twisty top so I filled it up with water and put it back in the fridge.”
America is a place Steen has been itching to conquer for a while. “I have a massive fetish for it, ” he says. “It's not like going to Italy. Everything is just constant surrealism and absurdity.” He has his reservations about certain places. Oklahoma springs to mind. “You wonder—are they going to understand the humor?” he says. “The preconception might be that we're aggressive or angry. We want there to be more than one emotion to us as a live performance. We're not constantly spitting in people's faces and hurling abuse out of windows 24/7.” You wonder how they feel about the politics of America, of the potential for crowds to take the furious white aggression of their agitated sound the wrong way. “I don't think our shows attract that many dicks,” Forbes says . “We're so outspoken it's pretty hard to get the wrong idea…”
Despite appearances to the contrary, Shame are good boys. The worst of it is the cigarettes. They smoke everywhere, including indoors . As we make our way from LA to San Francisco, they smoke all the way up the I-5, leaning out the windows as America's freeways become their ashtray. The fact that they completed and released Songs of Praise this January, however, is a testament to their rejection of the harder, druggier tropes of rock. The pub where they formed the band—The Queen's Head—wasn't exactly law-abiding, hence allowing the then-16-year-olds to practice in its rooms. Fat White Family, the punk outfit renowned for heroin use and onstage defecation, also practiced there. Steen describes it as being like Cheers, but dangerous. At the Queen's Head you receive only “harmful advice.”
“You know,” he expands, “like telling a 16-year-old before you go onstage, 'Do speed! Take some MD!'” The fact that they could drink a Smirnoff Ice was exciting enough for them. “It was very difficult to know where the line was,” Forbes says. “Hard drug use? Absolutely fine. Smoking a spliff in the practice room? Grounds for eviction.”
What did they learn from Fat White Family? “What not to do,” Coyle Smith says. Similarly indebted to dystopian bands like The Fall, Shame are an evolved Fat Whites. They write better hooks. They actually want to stick around for life. Fat Whites are incredibly visceral and grotesque, but not joyous. The five boys laugh. “That's so accurate,” Steen says. “There's a connection between us because of the chaotic performance, because I take my top off, whatever,” says Steen. Steen's not going to take a shit onstage any time soon, then? Forbes interrupts. “It has been talked about. Not shitting—pissing. Josh almost pissed onstage once into a cup, but he was foiled by security.”
Steen remembers that night at Brighton's Great Escape. “We weren't allowed to finish because security were beating up the crowd. I got thrown out in my pants in the rain mid-song. I said, 'You know you can't hit guys and girls at a gig?' And the security guy replied, 'Who the fuck do you think you are? Kurt Cobain?'”
Arriving in San Francisco to no soundcheck, we kill time backstage at Brick & Mortar Music Hall, a small corridor of a bar. The boys haven’t been given a slot to soundcheck for tonight, which is worrying considering they’re borrowing the opening band’s gear. Throughout Shame’s existence, they’ve ventured into unfamiliar places without a map. With no role models to look up to, Forbes is the only one who sheepishly suggests that he took some cues from the paltry “indie” NME scene of five years ago. The likes of scenester groups Peace and Swim Deep were bands he admired. Steen, on the other hand, loves raving space cowboys The KLF. He brings up their 1998 book “The Manual” several times. When asked why, he replies: “Humor.”
Shame consider themselves members of their own “South London Collective,” or “SLC,” as Forbes calls it. His only tattoo is a stick-and-poke done by one of the members of Goat Girl on the night they released Songs Of Praise. Goat Girl is the latest signing to Rough Trade, and a band Shame used to put on at their own club night, Chimney Shitters. Shame were booking such female-fronted bands at the age of 16, bands who are now hyped on their own merit. They flinch, however, at being sired “fucking white knights” of their scene.
“When we put on these nights, we weren't aware of the music industry and the inequality that exists,” Steen says. “I did drama with [Goat Girl frontwoman] Lottie in school. Goat Girl's Soundcloud was amazing, so we invited them.” The quartet Sorry is their favorite of all London's new acts. “We played the Old Blue Last with them and asked if they wanted to play one of our shows,” Steen says. “I did a year of Fine Art with [lead singer] Asha. At the time it was just about putting on music we liked with people our age.”
The lack of equality on festival line-up upsets them, particularly given the wealth of female-led bands they champion and know to be as good, if not better, than their male counterparts. “You can have an inclusive lineup without having to have a Kings Of Leon bullshit headliner,” Green says. As conversation turns to “Gold Hole”—a track Steen wrote at the age of 17—Nicola looks expectantly at him for a responsible explanation. She's clearly an enormous influence on his widened 'woke' perspective. "Gold Hole" is the story of a sugar daddy and a girl. The song is tongue-in-cheek but in this post-Weinstein climate it's a tad jarring. “Since writing that I've started reading books Nicola gave me. I talk to people in those situations. It's easier for me to talk about it now but at the time it was simply an observation.”
It's encouraging that Steen already has an awareness of his own limitations. That he sees his work as conversation starters, and not as conclusions. Onstage, his performance feels refreshing and revolutionary but he's the first to admit it's not a reinvention. “I stole Method Man's move which he stole from Iggy Pop,” he says. “What we're doing isn't original. It's derivative. But we can listen to David Bowie and Patti Smith and we'll never live through it. For us, seeing bands like Goat Girl or Sorry is an opportunity to experience it. As a generation it does feel new.” For Steen, it's passion that's timeless. He references Nina Simone's passion. He watches her on YouTube. “But I'm not comparing myself to Nina Simone,” he laughs.
With ten minutes till showtime, Kiko walks into the dressing room playing Shania Twain's "That Don't Impress Me Much" off his iPhone. Steen decides to stay dressed in the pajamas he's been wearing since we picked him up from his motel this morning. The five lads rush out onto the stage like horses fleeing their stables. It's another belter of a show, and there are more free beers afterwards to bundle into the van. America is within their grasp, and Shame is unafraid to stand before it, warts-and-all.
Eve Barlow is a writer based in LA. Follow her on Twitter.