Charlie Steen is a character, ripped straight from the pages of an Irvine Welsh novel without the Scottish dialect. He exudes a particular ferocity and scrappiness best exemplified by British punk. Within a few short years, his band Shame captured the slow boil of working-class anger and adolescent loneliness which catapulted them into the messiahs of a new era of rock music. Then, the pandemic happened.
Within the imposing walls of La Frette Studios in France were this group of young men recording their hotly anticipated sophomore album with James Ford, known best for his work producing for the likes of Arctic Monkeys, Florence and the Machine, and The Gorillaz. As the world outside struggled to grasp the magnitude of what would eventually upend the music industry that Shame was just getting used to, they were busy crafting Drunk Tank Pink, a deconstruction of vulnerability and isolation that became far more fitting than they expected.
If their debut album Songs of Praise was about growing pains and politics, Drunk Tank Pink is the result of having to sit with those feelings of confusion, anger, and sadness. “I didn’t want to write a self-indulgent record,” Steen confesses, “but it was all I could write about at that time. Writing is my therapy; it’s cathartic for me. That wasn’t necessarily the reason before.”
Despite the overwhelming amount of press labeling them as political punk darlings early in their career, the band tried their best to push back against those titles, not wanting to accept any honorifics they felt they didn’t deserve. Even in the case of the title “rockstar,” Steen said that title should be “burned” because it represented a lifestyle that’s not nearly as attainable now, one of coke binges and traveling the world in a beat-up van. He refers to the band’s anthemic power punk debut as “external, with a lot more observations and characters” in comparison to the more internal, introspective follow-up that succeeded two years of touring.
In that period, combined with the already lower drinking age outside of the United States, Shame began drinking far more than before to cope with the rigorous touring schedule and newfound stardom. He fondly remembers his infamous fake I.D., labeled with the alias “Dean Charleston,” that he took with him on their first North American tour. It worked in 27 states. By the time he returned home, this newfound cycle of music became clear: write an album, tour and do press, return home, rinse and repeat.
“I was escaping the company of myself. I’m trying to do anything I could to avoid being on my own,” said Steen. Thus, the writing began out of the need to confront this discomfort. “The most honest part of anyone’s day is that period from when they’re in bed to when they fall asleep, and you’re left with that time to reflect and regret and analyze,” he said. “It’s just you. Obviously things like drinking help to delete that situation.”
The result was a period of ironic voluntary isolation, within the confines of a closet where Steen wrote the foundations of the band’s latest effort. Named after a sickeningly vibrant pink reminiscent of the chalky cough medicine of most childhoods that is slathered on the walls of psychiatric facilities and prisons alike for its purported calming effects, Drunk Tank Pink is a magnifying glass on the discomfort of one’s psyche. Rife with repetition that sounds more like personal calming mantras than pub chants, there is an underlying anxiety to the record that peers through even the most booming guitar licks. This is a result of Steen’s identity crisis after the success of their debut. “I was still learning to separate my profession in Shame from my own identity and work out who I was,” he said.
Tracks such as “6/1” feature Steen’s painful, yet powerful, simplification of the human psyche with the opening line: ”I represent everything that I hate / Yet I’m the person I always dreamt I would become.” The band’s lens widens on Drunk Tank Pink not only lyrically, but sonically. Whether it’s the tight post-punk percussion and echoey guitars on “Nigel Hitter” and “Snow Day” or the jangly blues-inspired “Great Dog,” this record sports a refined maturity that does not normally come from such young talent.
However, within my two-hour conversation with Steen, it was easy to forget his age. He’s reminiscent of Charles Bukowski, remarking on himself with the same self-deprecation and mulling over the minutiae of life in the most captivating ways. He shares his book collection with me with a twinkle in his eye, caressing the covers of the James Baldwin and Paul Auster novels he pores over. His words are imbued with poetry references and author quotes delivered with a warm humility. Onstage, however, Steen is one for theatrics, remarking that, “Performing is my main role in the band, where I am most comfortable.” With his toothy smile and sweat-drenched clothing, his live presence contrasts the man blanketed in darkness with a cup of tea brewing over a last-minute Zoom conversation.
With the pressures of fame, international tours, and the whole world looking toward you to save a genre from assumed darkness, it’s difficult to find a panic switch. Thrust into the spotlight at the tail end of their formative years, Shame has finally begun to unravel the web of insecurity, expectations, and bad habits that comes from the intensity of the musician lifestyle. For Steen however, it’s nothing a Baldwin book, a cup of tea, and a nauseatingly pink closet can’t fix.