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​​Transcending Generations, We All Need Independent Venues to Exist: shame Guitarist Sean Coyle-Smith

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Everything creative needs a breathing space and a breeding place and that’s what it offers. Its necessity is unequivocal to everything else.
Charlie Steen, vocalist for shame

Whether an independent venue or a DIY space, places of grassroots growth provide artists and audiences with a sense of optimism. They are the route for people making a living as an artist, and there would be no path without them. Between 2020 and 2021, independent venues faced a wildfire of closures across cities worldwide; some, unfortunately, closed permanently, and some called on local artists to find ways to save their spaces. For instance, Ottobar launched a COVID fundraising campaign in August 2020, and many musicians responded to it. Those included Future Islands, Wye Oak, Butch Dawson, Abdu Ali, Lafayette Gilchrist, Mary Prankster, and Double Dagger, who collectively released a digital compilation album, No Stagediving, to save Ottobar.

shame, the British post-punk band that will perform at Ottobar this Friday, is also famous for supporting indie venues such as the Windmill Brixton, which they regard as home, that also faced a crisis of permanent closure due to COVID in 2020. Along with other bands who share the same love for the eccentric pub/underground music mecca, such as Goat Girl and Folly Group, shame auctioned off goods and services to save the space. Following a stellar show at Ottobar with Snail Mail and Romantic States in 2018—when they released their debut album Songs of Praise and embarked on a series of tours—shame is coming back to Baltimore this week. We took this opportunity to interview guitarist Sean Coyle-Smith to reveal some of their perspectives on songwriting and the significance of independent venues.

 

(L-R) Sean Coyle-Smith, Eddie Green, Charlie Steen, Charlie Forbes and Josh Finerty. Photo by Sam Gregg

shame was formed by Coyle-Smith, lead vocalist Charlie Steen, guitarist Eddie Green, bassist Josh Finerty, and drummer Charlie Forbes when the five members were in their mid-teens in south London and drawn together through mutual friends in the scene, such as members of Goat Girl, Dead Pretties, and HMLTD.

Throughout their music, from the first album to the latest Food for Worms, we see multifaceted representations of shame. Their seemingly defiant stance against rockstar ideals and politics has been encapsulated in the music. The lyrics from Food for Worms are more of this sensibility. Yet, they are still witty, sharp and direct, and they reflect on what they observed and felt about relationships and friendships interpersonally—with the Jim-Morrison charisma of melodically enchanting voice, bright and wonky guitar tune, and beating rhythm to amplify the intensity of intuitiveness driven in their music.

 

Jaddie Fang: In an interview with The Forty-Five last year, you mentioned the importance of an independent performance space, reminding me of the Baltimore punk band Double Dagger, who in their documentary explained that a DIY space allows artists to suck and grow. shame has always been supportive of independent venues. What do you think of the significance of the existence of DIY spaces?

Sean Coyle-Smith: We played a lot of sucky gigs. I think it depends on where you’re from. If you’re from somewhere like us—London—there are so many places to make it less competitive. You could start a band on a Tuesday and get a gig on a Friday, and that’s how it goes. So it gives anyone a chance, I suppose. There’s no gatekeeping, only a couple of very elite venues where the most hyped ones are allowed to play. That’s not the case. And I think maybe some people have that perception of the Windmill, where we played many royal shows. But Tim Perry, who books everything, is so open. You could send him an email with maybe a voice memo track, and he will put you on. That’s how Black Midi got their first show. That’s the beauty of an independent venue: the people who run the venues can be open. It would be a completely different scenario if it was an incredibly money-driven place or somewhere that would only cater to hype.

Also, it’s open to anyone, and it has such a dedicated fan base that goes there every night hoping to see something new and extraordinary. For example, Tim from the Windmill will give the bands 80% of the money from the door, which is unheard of in most venues. So I remember we did a headline show there on a Friday night; we thought if we could get 15 of our friends down to this event we could make “the thing that is happening” on that Friday night, even though they don’t care about the music. And they’re gonna bring a shitload of other people. And then next thing, we had about 150 people in there, and I think Tim gave us like 400 pounds for the show. We were able to use that money to buy some better equipment. I think any new bands that come up anywhere, especially in London, always have a story of a particular place that helped them when needed. So, it’s always a shame when you see those places shutting down. Thankfully that hasn’t happened as much here, or to the Windmill yet.

The uniqueness of the independent art spaces you talked about reminds me of the essence of artist-run space. Is there any cooperatively run arts space in London that is iconic to you? A former art space, The Bell Foundry, and the Copycat Building would be my examples in Baltimore.

There are a couple of places, like a commune in Peckham called Rising Sun Collective. The place used to be a pub, and they’ve converted it into an artist collective and housing co-op for maybe 15 people, and they have an amazing studio in the basement. They’ve been putting on great events there and art installations. We filmed our Tiny Desk (Home) Concert in their living room during COVID. The landlord was trying to evict them, and they had a whole campaign to save the Rising Sun Collective. I’m pretty out of the loop with the current scene, to be honest, but that is the main place I can think of in South London.

Photo of the band by Pooneh Ghana
Photo of the band by Pooneh Ghana.
I don’t know if I’d necessarily describe us as punk. To be a true punk in the purest sense of the word you have to be very dedicated to it. I think we all have very left-wing-leaning ideals. When you naturally grow up in a country like this, you would have a healthy mistrust of the establishment and authority.
Sean Coyle-Smith

I would like to echo what Forbes said in The Forty-Five interview, which is, “Young people have it fucking hard these days.” Do you feel depressed about living in your city as a young generation nowadays?

I came from an average household and grew up in a two-bedroom flat, so I didn’t have much money, but I wasn’t poor either. But I think it’s a struggle living in London, especially for most people. The housing crisis is crazy here. I suppose it is almost like New-York kind of level, but there is just less of a renting culture here. I think the idea of ever being able to buy your own property one day is almost out of the question for most people who aren’t earning six-figure salaries. When you’re in the creative industry, whether being an artist or a musician, everyone migrates to other cities or countries because of the realistic possibilities of living in London. Being able to afford and live comfortably is almost slim to none. And obviously, the government isn’t doing anything to help this at all. Some people are even struggling to pay their electricity bills, and paying a mortgage on top of that or renting is also forcing people and small businesses out.

Now there are so many areas that have completely lost their soul, at least to me. The areas are filled with young rich people who buy up all the properties. I’m trying to save up, but I don’t know if there’s a possibility. It’s making me fall out of love with London because I have to ask myself: Can I actually realistically see myself living here and having a family in 10 years? Probably not. I’m actually lucky because I’m Irish and have a European passport; I can go and live elsewhere. Whereas post-Brexit, most English people are trapped in this country now.

Speaking of going abroad, shame performed at Ottobar in 2018 before the pandemic with Snail Mail and Romantic States. Do you have any thoughts on the city of Baltimore?

It was always one of those places I wanted to go, mainly because of, like, Nina Simone, etc… I remember we did that Snail Mail show, and there was a crazy storm coming in, but we had to get to New York the next day. We were all freaking out and thought, “How are we gonna be able to do this drive?” However, we managed it. I really like Baltimore, and I think it has a lot of soul and character.

After the first album’s release, Steen once said in an interview with the Guardian that “the idea of a rock star is offensive.” I think that is the idea of being a punk. Do you think of yourself as a punk? As shame has become more famous, has your thinking on writing music or the idea of life changed in any way?

I don’t know if I’d necessarily describe us as punk. To be a true punk in the purest sense of the word you have to be very dedicated to it. I think we all have very left-wing-leaning ideals. When you naturally grow up in a country like this, you would have a healthy mistrust of the establishment and authority. I think Steen was right about the whole idea of this sex-craze-drug-adult-maniac rockstar, and it’s like the glorification of what all those fuckers were doing back in the sixties and the seventies. It’s weird that people almost fetishize and dream about leading that lifestyle. I think some people are looking to recreate these things or the resurgence of these things in that era rather than just appreciating where we’ve come to as a society morally.

Who do you see that you think are real punks? 

That’s tough to answer because I think most artists nowadays try to be bland. They try to fit into all the camps. There are definitely people out there who are highly politicized. Bands like Idles would be one name that I could think of. I know them personally, that they genuinely care about the things they talk about. Many of these people are genuinely doing good things in the community and are passionate about these sorts of things. It always slightly annoys me when you see people online immediately dismissing someone’s opinion because they’re a musician. But they’re not just performing monkeys; they’re humans with ideas and morals. If you have a platform, you’re perfectly within your right to use that and voice your opinion. There are a lot of artists in America, but I’m just drawing a complete blank right now. [laughs]

Photo by Pooneh Ghana
...all the stuff they say about album cycles is so true. Your first album's easy because you're writing all this music with the intention that no one will hear it.
Sean Coyle-Smith

From the first album, Songs of Praise, to Drunk Tank Pink, to the latest Food for Worms, the music of shame seems to show your post-adolescent rage, self-identity and introspection, and thoughts for friendship. Drummer Charlie Forbes also said in an interview with NME about the process of writing the second album, “We were trying to be too clever.” Do you think you were being extra cautious about songwriting?

I think it’s funny because all the stuff they say about album cycles is so true. Your first album’s easy because you’re writing all this music with the intention that no one will hear it. And you do it over while you’re playing gigs and learning how to compart yourself in the industry or whatever. And then you continue to the second album; I think it is kind of easy to become too conceptualized in a sense. Or maybe the music you’re listening to and became so obsessive over it that you think I want to sound like this. You maybe push it a bit too hard, and it becomes slightly overthought. I think previously, we’d be in a situation where we’d have ideas and immediately pigeonhole ourselves and say, “This doesn’t sound like us,” or question ourselves like, “Is this gonna work for us?”

And this time, we went with the ethos of “if it sounds good, let’s just do it.” We didn’t put too much conscious effort into sounding like anything. I think, which I find weird as an artist, people want a coherent album. Whereas for me personally, my favorite albums have always been incoherent. People are just writing whatever they want and being influenced by many different things. If I listen to an album, I don’t just want to hear the same kind of song ten times. I want to hear people putting their toes off the line or dipping their feet in the water of something else. And I think we’ve always liked being eclectic in our songwriting, where we like to throw curve balls, mix things up, and not allow ourselves to be defined as a specific genre. We just wanna do whatever we want.

The vocal part of Charlie Steen has also changed significantly from the first album to the latest Food for Worms, with more melodic singing. Compared with the earlier shame, it seems to soften vocally in a way. Do you think Steen made any conscious changes in how he interpreted songs?

When we first started, the band was not particularly musical—you know, he was a fantastic writer—but he had never really played instruments. So I think it always would end up being a scenario where we’d come up with all the music first, and then he’d have to fit himself into that afterward. We wanted to avoid that on this latest album, and I think we wanted the vocals to take center stage, which would be the opposite of when the music fits itself around what he’s doing. I think that allowed him to come out of his shell vocally in the sense of not just doing spoken word or his trademark of shouting over the top and singing more.

He also discovered that playing an instrument while singing would help him create better melodies and go along with the music a bit more like he wrote the baseline on “Adderall (End of the Line)” and “Burning by Design.” So that lent the songs a new kind of dynamic vocally. I was writing a lot of vocal stuff as well, Steen and I would work very closely together where I’d play something on the acoustic guitar, and then I’d have some melodies and some lyrics, and we’d build a song from that. I’d say this album was effortless—no arguing or dramas—and it was easy.

Do you think shame has attained some musical fluency? Would it be scary or exhilarating for you when it happens?

I don’t know. Honestly, we feel like old timers now, like being in our late twenties and feeling so weird. I hope that our music is influencing people. I don’t know if it is, but I hope so. Getting famous is definitely not something I’ve ever fantasized about, but it’s definitely crossed my mind when we go to certain places and see genuinely famous people, like backstage at festivals. And I think the whole idea makes me think that would probably be my worst nightmare, which is why I’m happy I’m not the frontman. That would be exhausting. It seems like some people love it and then also hate it at the same time.

Speaking of writing music, I’ve always felt your guitar sounds are characteristic, which has crystal brightness. Are you intentionally making the sound with a certain style for the band?

That’s definitely something Eddie and I have always liked when it comes to guitars. It kind of cuts through to the point. That’s the beauty of having two guitar players in a band. If you form a perfect relationship and synergy, you can create great textures and a wall of sounds. We are so in tune with each other now that if someone’s playing rhythm, the other will automatically be playing leads. It’s almost like a symbiotic relationship. I think as the guitar plays, you become very stubborn because you want everything to sound like it always does live. It’s quite hard to change that sometimes. On this album, I started mainly playing acoustic guitar and certain things that influenced guitar sound, such as the live album, MTV Unplugged in New York, by Nirvana.

I love how that sounds with a kind of rawness and the liveness of it and how Kurt Cobain picked up acoustic sounds. That was a significant influence on me, like Bruce Springsteen and Jeff Buckley, when it comes to guitar work. Their albums are just so fantastic. Let alone the amazing vocals, and it’s just how crisp and beautiful everything sounds. I think that’s what you strive for being a guitar player.

 

shame plays the Ottobar this Friday, May 12th with special guest Been Stellar (Doors at 8, show at 9).

Tickets are available through the Ottobar’s website. 

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