A conversation with the British post-punk band Shame at the festival Europavox in Vienna.
Shame is a fun and easy band to interview. Each of the members expresses his personality in their own charming way, they are polite, lacking any kind of arrogance and are happy to answer any question you throw their way. Sometimes so eagerly and enthusiastically though, that it is hard to afterwards transcribe what they have been saying as they are often talking all at once and are interrupting each other with banter and laughter. They basically carry the interview for you and provide the follow-up questions themselves.
It is about seven o'clock on a particularly cold and gloomy November evening when I sit down with Sean Coyle-Smith (guitar), Josh Finerty (bass) and Charlie Forbes (drums) of Shame before they are going to headline Europavox festival at the WUK in Vienna later that night.
It's their first time playing a show in Vienna. They were supposed to play at the Chelsea club in 2018, but the gig got cancelled and has never been rescheduled. That same year, their debut album Songs of Praise was released, they were hyped as ‘the next big thing from the UK’ (and justifiably so) and are well-loved by a loyal following of fans. Yet, they are still playing fairly small venues and it is hard to understand why they are not super big yet. Aside from their absolutely brilliant music (that is, in my opinion, very much quintessentially post-punk, even though they seem to reject that label) and their charismatic front man who knows how to work a crowd, they always put on intense live shows that are unmatched in their energy by most concerts of bands that are around at the moment. I have seen them live five times now and apart from a performance that was spoiled by a rather reluctant crowd at a bizarre country festival in California, four out of five times it was an experience that left me euphoric for days after. Usually, at their gigs, after 30 seconds into the first song the moshpit starts and doesn’t stop until the last song, people (including the singer himself) are crowdsurfing and the crowd is chanting the band's lyrics in-between songs. It's the kind of energy that made me fall in love with live music in the first place.
I wonder where they take the energy from to do this, to show up night after night and give it a 100% every time. Maybe being friends for a long time and building a sense of "us against the world" around that helps. The lads all met during their primary school days and have grown into adulthood together as a band. They are now in their mid-20s with Charlie - the drummer - being the oldest, he just turned 27 last week.
Sean: "I think it has given us longevity in a sense. Sometimes you see bands who weren't super close before they formed and once you're thrown into the intensity of touring you learn things about people that you probably otherwise wouldn't have figured out. You push each other's buttons and you get on each other's nerves and I think we are lucky in a sense that we had already been getting on each other's nerves for years before that. It is like a big family."
Kulturwoche.at: How do you deal with the process of aging? Do you mind growing older?
“I am still only 13”, Josh whispers and the others start pointing at his head: "We know! Up here maybe" with Sean continuing: "I don't really think about it. The only thing is, I am aggressively going bald and that sucks. People do notice. People are not going to look at a bald person and think 'you're young'."
Sean: "I think what's changed is you get used to a high level of comfort, especially when touring. In the early days we would just go on tour for two weeks with no hotels booked, nowhere to stay and no sleep."
Josh: "And about ten pounds in our bank account."
Sean: "Every night it was like 'where are we going to stay, we have to find someone who can put us up for staying somewhere'. If you would try to get me to do that now? No no no, not happening.”
Josh: "That's because in the beginning you're excited, but after a while it's just your job.”
Charlie: "When you're 18, that's fine, but it's not like that anymore. Sadly."
Sean: "I am very glad that's changed."
The conversation turns back to music and quickly into a discussion about what bands have split up or died that they wish hadn't. "Well ... of course", Sean says, pointing at his Jeff Buckley shirt. Charlie: "The Beatles!" Sean: "Nah, they just put out their latest song!"
Kulturwoche.at: Have you watched that music video?
Everyone: "Yeah, it's crazy!"
Charlie: "I quite like it. It's dumb. But it's funny. Who else died that we like? Who is dead?"
Sean: "Freddy Mercury. George Harrison. John Lennon."
Charlie: "Eva Cassidy, did she die?"
Sean: "She did die, yeah! Of cancer, very tragic."
Charlie: "Sad, she was great."
Sean: "Yeah, she was amazing".
Josh: "Shark Dentist, they don't play anymore".
Sean: “They're dead."
Charlie: "They're not dead. You lived with them."
Sean: "Ah, yeah ... right, they're not dead."
Sean: “What other bands have broken up?"
Josh: "But that's part of what's good about them ... the mystery. If they were less mysterious then they wouldn't be as good".
Charlie: "Maybe. I still think they could have done another album."
Sean: "Who else is broken up where you've just been like 'What?! Why have you done this'?"
Charlie: "Sprain, who have just broken up, who released a really, really crazy album this year and they just broke up straight away”
Sean: "Black Country, New Road to an extent with Isaac leaving. They are still very good, but he is an amazing songwriter."
This goes on for a little longer until I ask them what they like about their own music and making music themselves.
Josh: "It is the art form that we decided to do so it is nice to have a bit of an output".
Sean: "It is nice when people seem to like it as well."
Charlie: "We don't get hit with tomatoes on stage anymore which is good. I think we are getting better."
Sean: "Maybe the best part about creating music is ... it is about 99% frustration and 1% going "niiice". And that 1% ... that is pretty good. If it's working it's great, if not it is terrible."
Shame not only have great music, they have great visual art accompanying the music as well. Fun music videos for example, like the one they did for their song Six Pack (with a retro-video-game version of Napoleon and Margaret Thatcher doing a work-out together) and also great album art. Especially the album cover and sleeves of their latest album, Food For Worms, are fantastic. The cover art was created by Canadian artist Marcel Dzama and it fits the record perfectly. It entices you with its surrealistic, dadaistic design. Allegedly Dzama didn’t want to take any money for it and the band paid him in Rough Trade store credit.
"I think that's something we struggle with a little bit though", Sean reckons.
Charlie: "We're not the best at it."
Sean: "It is more in terms of coming up with ideas, I think we tend to struggle sometimes how to convey the music in a visual."
Josh: "Also you got five very different people and five people with very different taste. So coming round to finding something that works for everyone is quite difficult for us, I think. Because if one person took full control of what aesthetic direction we should be going, I don't think it would work. So that's why it was nice to find Marcel, who did this album. We all liked his art and were like 'ok this is great, let's just run with that'."
Sean: "It is nice to have the decision taken out of your hands to be honest. This is usually what works best for us, when we got someone else and can say 'we trust you'."
Josh: "It is super important. Also, it really informs how people receive your album. People are always like 'your second album is so dark, it is your dark album and you are so angry and depressed on this album'. I, a 100%, know and believe that this is purely because of the album cover and how it looks kind of moody. If we made the album cover really neutral, people would have been 'oh, it's your dancy album', because of songs like Nigel Hitter."
Sean: "There is also a lot of sad shit on the album to be fair."
Josh: "Yeah, but it's an even mix, most of our albums are. But yes, I think the album art really changes how people perceive the music."
Sean: "Also, when you do an album cover, it just informs the whole visual aspect of the rest of the campaign. Whatever you pick, you're stuck with. The colour scheme, the logo..."
Charlie: "We're now stuck with the logo we got until we move on to a new album. It's not my favourite Shame logo."
Sean: "I like it. I like the colour themes on this album. I like colour."
Charlie: "I hate colour. To hell with it. No, I’m joking."
Kulturwoche.at: Is it the same with the music and the songwriting process, that you have difficulties finding a common path between five different creative visions?
Sean: "I'd say less so now. During the second album particularly, there was a lot of tension."
Josh: "I guess it is easier when it's an art form where everyone can put their own spin on it. With the album art we can't just all put our own little spin on it. Well maybe we could and that could be fun."
Charlie: "We're all going to design a corner of the next album cover."
Josh: "At least with the music we are able to find a way where we all kind of put a little bit of what we like into it and therefore it's less of a problem."
I ask them how it feels like putting so much effort and so much of yourself into your art and then have people interpret it in their own ways - and not always how it was intended.
Sean: "I kind of like it. I don't know whether Steen likes it, with his lyrics. When he wants to convey one thing and people get another. I suppose it's the same thing as being an author. When you write a book people are going to analyse it in so many different ways. It is interesting when you have created something with a certain intention and then someone comes up with a completely different idea and you're like 'that's way better'. It is interesting to see how it resonates differently with different people."
Josh: "It is hard to know. I did not write the lyrics."
Charlie: "People could interpret your bass lines in a certain way."
Sean: "I don't think it has ever bothered anyone to be honest. There's even been times within the band where we think Steen is saying one thing and he is actually saying something else. That has happened many times."
Josh: "You need to learn not to care, 'cause if you did it would be horrible."
Sean: "The only thing that has ever annoyed me is when people think we are angry people. You get this quite a lot in interviews where they'll start the question with 'so you're all really angry guys' and we're like 'no, we're not'."
Charlie: "We're not angry, we're chillers."
Sean: "That can be frustrating."
Charlie: "I think people just see the live show and then they are like 'wow, these guys are bastards, look at that man, he is shouting and sweating and taking his shirt off! They must be terrible people'. But we're alright ... I think. It's just a show."
Kulturwoche.at: Yeah, people sometimes have very limited empathy and go through life with small horizons.
"Small brains", corrects Josh.
Sean: "Steen gets this a lot where people come up to him after a show and say 'god man, how fucked are you? What drugs are you on?'"
Josh: "Yes, that is actually annoying, when people are like 'How fucked up are you? Do you wanna do some drugs?' and I'm like ... no?!"
They are now talking and yelling all together, imitating the people who come up to them after shows: "'HOW FUCKING DRUNK ARE YOU RIGHT NOW??' when we had one beer or are actually sober, 'OH YOU'RE SOOO CRAZYYY! SOOO FUCKED UP!! HOW FUCKING DRUNK ARE YOU MAAAN?? SO FUCKED UUUUUP UP THERE'" until they suddenly stop, burst into laughter, look at me and say: "I think you just unlocked all the anger."
Sean: "That happens to us less than to a band like Viagra Boys. They get people throwing bags of cocaine on stage."
Charlie: "You can make a lot of money out of that."
Sean: "It must be especially annoying for singers. Think of someone like Grian", he says [meaning Grian Chatten, singer of the band Fontaines DC, who often appears very restless on stage and keeps hammering his mic stand into the floor during shows]. "You look at his stage presence and then you see what he is actually like as a person ... I don't know, I think people see the persona and they think that's the whole person, but you can switch it on and off. Maybe some people can't, but you know."
It would have been interesting to know what Steen, the singer of the band, who did not join the interview would have said to this. It is a great pleasure talking to Charlie, Josh and Sean, they are a great bunch to hang out with, are very funny and have a light-hearted approach to conversation. They kind of make you wish they were in your friend group so you could spend hours discussing music trivia. But I didn't know who of the band I'd be speaking to until the very start of the interview and many of my questions were written with Steen in mind, which made me have to improvise and scrap a few of the points I had prepared. I would have loved to hear him talk about his perspective, to hear the answers to all the questions I had to skip and could not ask because they were tailored to Steen and his lyrics.
Whenever I write a portrait about an artist or a band, I try to keep myself in the background and only write about the artist and not make it personal. But there are several musicians that I've always wanted to interview where I knew I wouldn't be able to keep a distance when writing about them. Where I had to make it personal. Shame is one of them.
I resonate a lot with the music of Shame and their lyrics and while I have never talked to Steen, who writes the lyrics, for longer than a few minutes I can tell he's an interesting person. Also him talking about cancelled gigs because of his anxiety and panic attacks, his self-esteem issues and getting picked on by other kids in his teens hits home and is all too relatable for me and presumably many of his fans.
I guess it is very typical for charismatic front men to evoke that kind of feeling in people, especially when their lyrics manage to proclaim very specific and hard-hitting statements which convey universal experiences that almost everyone lives through at some point in their lives. It is magical and one of the reasons I felt drawn to the arts from an early age.
Kulturwoche.at: Do you remember the days when you started as a band? What changed apart from the venue/crowd sizes?
Sean: "We get paid now."
Charlie: "We get older. We are not young men anymore."
Sean: "Just adults."
Charlie: "Sean still can't grow a beard."
Sean: "Not that I ever try."
Charlie: "What has changed for you Josh? Ten years in, what has changed?"
Sean: "He definitely whines more."
Charlie: "He is very precious, like an egg. You must hold him very carefully in your hands."
Josh: "But like ... you know an egg ... when it's forming."
Josh: "No, an egg that is developing."
Charlie: "An embryo?"
Josh: "No, there is a scientific word that I can't remember."
Josh: "No, not poached."
While they debate for a few minutes about what developmental stage of an egg Josh is I keep thinking how different off-stage Josh seems compared to on-stage Josh. Sitting here, on a rickety chair with his big grey-blue puppy eyes that seem shy at first, but widen excitedly when he talks or laughs, he looks a little fragile, but on stage he goes wild. He runs from one end of the stage to the other, throws his bass in the air and catches it while not stopping to play it and has moves that make other bass players look really bland.
Josh: "It's a funny thing. My body always has to go into some sort of hibernation during the day, because my body just knows it has to do quite a lot of ... something ... later. The adrenaline takes over and then you're alright sometimes, but sometimes you get really tired."
I ask them how it feels like playing the same songs over and over again every night, especially when the songs are about sentiments from the past and very personal issues. Do they think it's hard for Steen to scream them into the faces of strangers every night?
Sean: "I think so. I suppose to him it is kind of a snapshot of a time. A certain age and what he was experiencing and what was going on around him."
"He loves thinking about it like that", Charlie adds.
"He's always like 'the first album was when I was from 17-19, the second album was when I was 20-23' and so on" he says, while demonstrating Steen's rigid separation of time spans by pounding his hands on the table.
Sean: "I kind of get where he is coming from. I imagine for him singing some of those songs of the first album which he wrote when he was 16/17 ... like One Rizla was written when he was 16. I don't know if I ever heard him speak about how he feels about that. I think there's definitely been lyrics where he's like 'ahh I wish I wrote that differently', but it's the same with everyone, with some guitar parts you'll be like 'I wish I've done something differently or played it differently', but if you get too bogged down in this it can really drag you down. So I think it's better to just, you know, fuck it. I suppose it's not yours anymore once you put it out into the world. You have to live with that. Just let it go!" (Everyone starts singing 'Let it go')
Sean: "Looking back on some of this when we are old men is going to be interesting. I'm excited for the 60th anniversary tour."
Kulturwoche.at: You could split up and then do a huge reunion tour.
Charlie: "We are not going to split up, we're going to stay together forever. The oldest band ever."
Sean: "We're going to slowly lower our output, like maybe an album every ten years. I want us to still be writing music in our 80s. If we're still alive. Come on guys, if we're still alive when we're 81 we got to get into the studio and record an album."
Charlie: "One of us will definitively have died, so we could do a Beatles music video where everyone who's dead can get CGI'd in. It's probably going to be me."
Sean: "You think?"
Charlie: "Yeah, I have diabetes, so I'll be the first to go."
Josh: "I don't know about that."
Charlie: "Who do you think is going to come before me? You?"
Josh: "No, I'm a survivor."
Charlie: "Yeah, you'll be the last to die."
Sean: "I can imagine Eddy [guitarist, who was absent during the interview] getting so annoyed one day that he just disappears."
Josh: "Or explodes. No, not an explosion, just click and he's gone."
Sean: "Just a spontaneous combustion into nothingness."
Josh: "It will be like he was never there!"
Charlie: "He's just going to fade from all the photographs."
Kulturwoche.at: What's your favourite Fontaines DC song?
Sean: “I like Sha Sha Sha. Or Roman Holiday, of the new album."
Charlie: "You Said".
(They start singing "I did you a favouuur")
Kulturwoche.at: Yeah, Sha Sha Sha is cool and I like Jackie Down The Line a lot. And I think No from the second album is very underrated.
Sean: "Yes! I Love You is great as well."
Charlie: "They got some bangers."
When I, two hours after the interview, head into the venue and walk towards the bar to get a beer, I bump into Steen, the singer of Shame. I start talking to him and tell him that I just interviewed his band mates and that I wish he'd been there too to answer some of my questions. He explains that he’s been very tired the whole day from all the touring and past interviews.
But he's happy to talk now. He'd even be willing to record an interview, though I then figure that's asking for too much, but I suggest he answers a couple of questions for me in my notebook instead, handwritten. "Oldschool, but okay", he says and starts scribbling.
It is obviously not the same as having an in-depth, hour-long conversation, but it gives a little glimpse into Steen's personality, that is, as his bandmates have said before, far from the aggressive, angry enfant terrible that some people paint him to be, but instead incredibly polite and accommodating and sweet.
He tackles the question that I propose him - the first ones that come to my mind of which some are relevant and some not so much - with my half-broken pen that's almost out of ink while looking up the spelling of words on his phone; "I'm dyslexic", he explains and after a while he hands me back my notebook.
Excerpts of what he's written as answers:
Do you care about how people perceive you and your music? How people project their own experience onto you and your songs?
Steen: I think sometimes the message gets lost, but that's on me. People can think whatever they want, they'll probably find greater meanings in their own fiction.
What's your favourite childhood memory?
Steen: Watching a documentary on Keith Haring with my mom.
More than another two hours later, at around 11:30 pm, Shame come onstage at WUK. Having just seen them in Prague a few days prior, I expected the crowd in Vienna to be way less into it, first because it was a festival and not their own headline show and also because Viennese crowds can be a little reserved sometimes. But the opposite is true. The room is full of die-hard fans who know all the lyrics, mosh extensively and cheer towards the band as if they were a football team during world cup.
Later on during the concert Steen will assure the crowd that tonight's show in Vienna was the best show they've ever played and while I've heard bands use this line excessively in every city, Steen seems to mean it (i've also never heard them say that to another crowd before). The next day my clothes will still be damp and drenched in sweat and my shoes will reek of the beer that was spilled over them in the moshpit.
When I leave the venue at about half past midnight I have to think of a conversation from the interview before. I told Shame how I always used to travel to shows in other cities and countries and then just sleep outside or at a train station, because I didn't have any money for a hotel. When I was leaving after the interview and jokingly complained that I'm too old for a 11:30 pm stage time Charlie replied: "At least you don't have to sleep at a train station anymore." While this is true for tonight, I keep thinking though that Shame are the kind of band that would make me do that again. They are a band that - maybe together with Fontaines DC - sparked something inside of me that I haven't felt since I was a teenager, when I was cutting out articles and photos of the NME to put them up in collages on my wall and getting genuinely and obsessively excited about new music. I understood when Shame said before that they want to keep doing this for the rest of their lives - I do too. //
Text und Interview with the band Shame: Christina Masarei
Fotos: Holly Whitaker, Pooneh Ghana, Sam Gregg