The Highland roots of their fantastic new album…

Though 2021 may not be heralding a return to some form of normality just yet, we can always find comfort in the joy of new music, and noisy Brixton quintet shame are poised to wrap us all up in their sonic embrace with the arrival of their sophomore LP, ‘Drunk Tank Pink’.

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Having burst onto the scene in 2018 with their storming debut ‘Songs Of Praise’, the band quickly garnered a fearsome reputation for their live shows (remember those?) as they sang with a humorous sneer about politics, perverts and their own insecurities. Now three years on, the five young men have taken a bold creative leap to explore new possibilities with their work. So much so, there’s moments that will have you second guessing whether you’re listening to the same band.

“I don’t think there was a conscious decision to change sound… I think it just happened naturally. With ‘Songs Of Praise’, our mentality was to write every song as differently from the last and throw in as many curveballs as we could. I think that approach continued with this album.” These are the thoughts of bassist Josh Finerty, who at the time of our chat was waiting anxiously at home for a Covid-19 test result as Tier 4 restrictions were brought in throughout London. Meanwhile, in another bedroom across the capital, frontman Charlie Steen looked much more relaxed sporting chic Zoom call apparel – nothing but a vest and scruffy hairdo.

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Like all of us, shame have had to adapt to the restrictions that the global pandemic has imposed upon our lives this year. Josh mentions, “I remember in 2019 we were taking a year off just to focus on writing and we were fucking stoked to be staying in all year trying to write an album, you know. Then just as we approached the end of that and we were ready to get back out, we got hit with another year long sabbatical – or two years, whatever.”

Charlie, however, has turned to the music of a few curious artists to see him through these troublesome times. “During the initial lockdown period, I listened to a lot of Nick Cave. With him it’s quite nice because you can just listen through his records and they flow quite easily. Now, I’ve gotten more into Hank Williams (laughs).”

Cowboy hat now adorned, Charlie went on to describe how a trip to the Scottish Highlands provided a pivotal moment in the writing process for their new album. “A lot of people I’ve spoken to think this album was recorded and written during lockdown but we went up (to Scotland) last April and I think that was sort of the momentum moment where we started getting into a good flow of writing. We got songs like ‘Great Dog’, ‘Snow Day’, and ‘Alphabet’ written while we were up there.”

“I think we were about 45 mins from Edinburgh and the footage of where we were is actually on the video for ‘Snow Day’ and it’s also on the back of the record if you have it on vinyl. It was a connection through an artist called Makeness who’s Scottish, and his dad, Ben, and his dad’s partner, Gail, who live up in the Highlands.”

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It’s safe to imagine that this seclusion would seemingly offer the band some peace from the hubbub of London, right? Well, maybe not.

“So, we decided to go up there and it turned into this unexpected frenzy of characters. Ben’s nickname is Acid Dad from our song ‘Water In The Well’ and it was just a funny Scottish community that was so far away from anything else. Their neighbours would come round late at night and play the double bass, the viola, the cello, the fiddle and stuff like that. It was mad.”

The influence of raucous, post-punk stalwarts such as The Fall permeated throughout shame’s debut ‘Songs of Praise’. Their follow-up however portrays only brief glimpses of such influences, and instead exudes the polyrhythmic intricacies of David Byrne’s Talking Heads. “I’m actually in my girlfriend’s room and I’ve got him on the wall at the moment,” mentions Josh. “I don’t know if (the album) would blow him away… he seems nice though.”

Josh goes on to add that the band’s more meticulous approach to their writing process for ‘Drunk Tank Pink’ could explain how the songs turned out much differently to the predecessors featured on their debut.

“When we started writing the album, we decided to invest in getting a few microphones. That was really important to our writing process because it allowed us, for the first time, to be able to build up a song on a computer and deconstruct it layer by layer. It allowed us to be able to think about a song more meticulously without having to thrash it all out in a room together. Sometimes it makes the track a little busier but by the end it’s more of a polished product in a way. I think that was maybe the biggest difference in our approach to writing.”

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Arctic Monkeys producer James Ford worked with shame to record their new record in the grandeur surroundings of Paris’ La Frette studios, which has welcomed the likes of IDLES in recent years. Ford was instrumental in forming ‘Drunk Tank Pink’ into a cohesive entity, according to Josh, and in doing so, he thwarted the band’s worries when they arrived with their myriad of ideas.

“Before we went in, I remember there was a collective worry between us where we thought, ‘these songs don’t sound cohesive… we’ve got a bunch of different fucking songs that sound really fucking different. How are we gonna make an album that makes sense on record?’ But I think ‘Drunk Tank Pink’ sounds like ‘Drunk Tank Pink’ because of James Ford. It just has that sound of being all recorded in the same place and done in the same way. Then by the end of it we were like ‘shit, it sounds like an album now.’”

The band’s sophomore album title takes its name from a particular psychological experiment. In the early 80s, psychologists daubed jail cells with a shade of pink called Baker-Miller Pink, aka Drunk Tank Pink, and discovered that the colour calmed aggressive prisoners. “A lot of the lyrics for the album were written in this bedroom I had in an old nursing home in Peckham and the room was entirely that same shade of pink, coincidentally.”

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Though Charlie may not have been a real-life prisoner, this enchanted shade of pink allowed him to look inward and find a form of emancipation from his inner demons as he fought through an intense bout of waking fever dreams caused by his struggles with psychosis. “A lot of the themes on this record are about the subconscious and dreams and confronting yourself by getting used to your own company. I think it’s a very internal record so I’m sure it might resonate with some people.”

A UK-wide run of socially distanced live shows are set to take place in February this year, in fitting with shame’s confident demeanour as a band. “I think we’re just gonna embrace it,” mentions Charlie. And though a table and chair setup may feel worlds away from the sweaty closeness of a mosh pit, they don’t seem phased by this unfamiliar live prospect. “Personally, I’m really fucking excited about it. It will be a sort of new show in itself and maybe a new challenge. I don’t think this will last forever and at the very least, these shows will be reflective of what’s going on in the world right now and could be interesting to tell people about in years to come.”

It’s also important to mention that although 2020 may have been immensely tough, it’s not been all doom and gloom. Community fundraising efforts to help live music venues such as The Windmill in Brixton, a venue particularly close to shame’s hearts, have exhibited the sheer love and generosity of people which has provided light among the darkness that the pandemic has brought upon the country’s live music sector.

“It’s one silver lining to this whole pandemic that people have shown that they want to put their money where their mouth is and support what they care about,” mentioned Josh aptly. Charlie also noted, “There’s obviously been little to no support from the government but it is amazing to see so many people coming out to support these venues. The importance of them speaks for itself if they have the community rallying and gathering together.”

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Finally, just before the pair returned to the all too familiar surroundings of their own four walls, we asked them for some guru-like advice with the dawn of the new year approaching. Charlie, as ever, was to the point: “Don’t be fucking hard on yourself. If you’re not reading a book a day and just wanna lie in bed and watch Netflix for 12 hours straight then that’s fucking fine… everyone else is doing it anyway.”

Their sound may have altered, but their offbeat humour remains.

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‘Drunk Tank Pink’ will be released on January 15th via Dead Oceans.

Words: Jamie Wilde
Photography: Rachel Lipsitz

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