Published Jul 04, 2018"What doesn't kill you makes you stronger. Apart from polio."
If there's one thing that Charlie Steen and his bandmates in Shame have learned throughout the course of their relentless touring schedule, it's resilience. Formed four years ago while they were all still in school, the South London fivesome are brazenly forging their path in an unforgiving industry. Shame's debut album, Songs of Praise, was written over the span of three years and dropped in January to a rush of critical acclaim.
"One side was all the sort of things that you go through in that period of late teenagehood — entering your first serious relationship, getting crappy jobs, having to endure going to school and doing exams," is how Steen describes the record to Exclaim! "Then the other side was the complete abnormality that we were surrounded by through being in a band and starting at the Queens Head in Brixton and just playing constant gigs and meeting the type of people that we were, it seemed, to unfortunately naturally gravitate towards."
The Queens Head — the pub/creative hub where Shame first began to craft their raucous, no-holds-barred brand of punk — offered them an inside look during their early stages at the pessimistic yet realistic aspects of being in a band.
"We were involved in the arse end of the industry, if I may," says Steen. "We were 17, and me and [guitarist] Eddie would finish school and then walk down the road to Brixton and drink with 50-year-olds. It was definitely a bit out of normal, but it definitely did force us to grow up in one sense."
Scrutinizing what was going on around him became the catalyst for Steen's poignant and sharp lyricism. "When we started the band, I'd never been in love and I always sort of hated the idea of writing a love song that was more traditional," he says. "I was more interested in being inspired from listening to a lot of people like Mark E. Smith, Nick Cave and Shane MacGowan, sort of observing what is around you — different subcultures, different types of people, and that was what fascinated me and still does fascinate me. It will never be a crime to observe, will it? It's just pure..."
With Shame's sophomore followup set to "probably be reflective of a lot more personal experiences," Steen is open to switching things up — as long as he stays true to himself. "We're not looking towards the end of the band, but I think, you know, in order to survive, you have to adapt, don't you? The music might change, what we choose to do might change, but we're always gonna be what we want to hear and what we'd want to listen to."
Being frank is a trait that Steen upholds, whether it's reflected in his songwriting ("I don't write any of the music — I'm not a musician and I don't try to put my foot in a shoe that doesn't fit") or in his day-to-day life. Towards the end of 2017, amidst gigging across the globe, the frontman suffered crippling panic attacks. "I spoke about it because I never thought about a problem. I never considered the idea of not speaking about it," he says. "There's no point in trying to hide it. It's something that affects me and it's something that's personal. And I'm not gonna try and hide those things and then sing incredibly personal things every fucking night on tour — it'd be hypocritical."
When asked if he thinks that the music industry is currently facing a mental health crisis, Steen confidently answers without hesitation. "Without a fucking doubt, there's a mental health disposition. In the music industry, it almost seems like a necessity to be mentally fucking ill. I mean, the amount of people that I'm surrounded with, with mental health issues, is insane.
"I think at this age that I'm at, which is 20 — or, you know, it could go on for a lifetime — you're in a constant identity crisis. You're all surrounded by a lot of different, like pressures, and especially being in a band. My panic attacks, they come from nervous exhaustion, so when we're gigging too much or when I didn't get enough sleep or I'm going out and caning it too much or whatever, that's when they sort of appear."
Come December, the band will take a four-month break to focus on writing new material. "We can move out and finally be socially acceptable human beings!" Steen declares.
As a young band who are still cutting their teeth, Shame maintain a gracious yet pragmatic attitude. They aren't bitter or jaded, but they have a seasoned edge to them that's reminiscent of artists with more years.
"Well, we are British," Steen remarks cheekily. "We don't have much room for optimism."
Songs of Praise is out now on Dead Oceans.