The difficult second album is one of the oldest, hoariest cliches in the music writer’s handbook that is fair weighed down by old, hoary cliches of every stripe. On the other side of the line is the musician’s desire to point out that they have reinvented themselves on their new record, tearing up blueprints and smashing the reset button. You can smell that one from a mile off, too. So, what to make of Shame and their difficult second album Drunk Tank Pink, a record that they say tears up blueprints and smashes the reset button?
Two years on from their cacophonous breakthrough Songs of Praise, a gobby, propulsive missive from the new wave of British post-punk, the London quintet have disassembled their sound and reconstructed it, adding anxious, antic energy and oddball textures to a palette that could skew slightly straightforward on album one. At times, album two is a cacophonous, howling beast, at others it’s a motorik dance party in the vein of David Byrne and his massive suit. Even when it’s in the same ballpark as its predecessor there’s something punchy or off-putting about its delivery. Its finger is always hovering over that reset button.
“With a second record there’s always the reserve of the fact that people already have a built up preconception of you as an artist,” guitarist Eddie Green says. “Any deviation from that comes with an element of risk. It wasn’t so much something we were worried about. I saw it as a freedom. It encouraged us to go a little bit more off-piste, starting with deconstructing the writing process and doing things differently. Obviously there’s risk involved because with any change of direction there’s a significant chance that people aren’t going to like it.”
Shame have been doing this for half a decade or so, moving quickly from being old friends and friends of friends to bandmates and scene mainstays orbiting the febrile creativity and visceral south London grot of the Windmill and the Queen’s Head in Brixton. They were young then. They’re still young now. But their odometers are heavy with digits. Following the release of Songs of Praise in 2018, their impulse to play as many shows as possible was indulged at every turn.
“You’re in the van fucking listening to so much new music all the time”
The band – completed by two Charlies in vocalist Steen and drummer Forbes, plus guitarist Sean Coyle-Smith and bassist Josh Finerty – left behind their little world and toured a lot. Each mile that they ate up taught them something that informed Drunk Tank Pink. “You’re in the van fucking listening to so much new music all the time,” Finerty observes. “Or seeing other bands at festivals,” Green chimes in.
But the main thing these shows illuminated for them was that they had to break out of the rut formed by playing the same songs night after night. Having come to view his guitar as a tool rather than a creative implement, Coyle-Smith went the full Sonic Youth with alternate tunings on Drunk Tank Pink, also taking inspiration from Talking Heads’ punk-adjacent skronk, Talk Talk’s kaleidoscopic pop and the bassy, interlocking six-string workouts of Nigerian highlife. Steen wrote his lyrics in a cupboard at his flat that’s painted Baker-Miller pink, or drunk tank pink – because anecdotally, it’s been observed to calm aggressive behaviour. Kendall Jenner has also pushed it as an appetite suppressant, so there’s that as well. As Shame sought to recalibrate, it worked for Steen.
“It’s definitely a learning process of how to contend with the fact that for x number of months a year your life is this constantly exciting, constantly stimulating thing, and then the other half is the complete opposite,” Green says. “The juxtaposition is something you have to learn to navigate internally. It definitely takes a lot of adjustment and getting used to, to be happy just sitting still in your own company. It feels so alien.”
He adds: “If you spend two years playing the same songs night after night, it makes you hungry for a method of using your instrument differently. For me, I experimented with using the guitar in a more percussive or ambient way, creating noise rather than just playing riffs. Sean went completely down the rabbit hole with tunings. On this record he’s got six, maybe more.”
Setting in stone
Finerty bought a handful of microphones and began documenting the songs in real time, beginning to set Shame’s newest hang ups and musical preoccupations in stone. Where they had previously tested every new song live, here their work was lab grown. “We were pretty much recording things as we were writing them,” Steen expands.
“In comparison to how we wrote Songs of Praise, which was a pretty straightforward five of us in a room jamming kind of approach, it gave us a bit more scope to be more thoughtful about what we were writing, and reflect on individual elements of each song while they were being created. I think that naturally lent itself to a more meticulous process.”
“We’d all wake up at different times depending on who had what to do, and the setting there was pretty conducive to getting immersed in what you were doing”
The challenge then became how to capture these new compositions without diluting their coiled menace and off-kilter melodic sensibilities. Further complicating things was the fact that Drunk Tank Pink was captured at La Frette, a residential studio near Paris. “Our day to day was pretty idyllic,” Green admits. “We’d all wake up at different times depending on who had what to do, and the setting there was pretty conducive to getting immersed in what you were doing. But by the same token you could also just slip off and have a bath and a glass of wine. We were very well looked after. The food was decadent.”
Finerty picks up on that idea of immersion, describing his long stints in the control room as an accidental exercise in working up a state of cabin fever. “I couldn’t imagine recording an album and not having the process be its own thing,” he says. “It just feels so much more natural to throw yourself into something fully. I couldn’t imagine finishing a day, it getting really late, and then getting on the tube home. It feels like your brain is already so anxious and fucking filled with worries about how you’re going to get this to sound as good as you want it to.”
Providing a guiding hand on this occasion was producer James Ford, whose credits include regular collaborations with Arctic Monkeys, Foals and Florence + the Machine. He quickly tuned in to what Shame had in mind and set aside his own plans in order to help bring the record to life one piece at a time. “On the day we arrived I know James wanted to record it with no click, all together and just fucking wail out on it,” Finerty says. “We played a few songs and we were both not tight enough and also wanted to fuck around with them more than we got the opportunity to, which I think was a good thing in the end.”
When it’s in full flow, Drunk Tank Pink is a twitchy, confrontational affair. It might have been wrought with great care and attention, with particular notice reserved for layer upon layer of percussive bells and whistles, but it has an economical sense of purpose. “We were showing James bands like Girl Band and saying, ‘We just want to sound weird’,” he says. “And he was like, ‘Okay, we should record step by step and see if we can do weird shit along the way.’ We’d done the first album like that as well. The two tracks we played together were Human For a Minute and Station Wagon. Forbes played his drums in this large stone corridor in the basement, next to the control room. Having that massive boom was enough. Even with cans on you could hear the energy.”
“We were showing James bands like Girl Band and saying, ‘We just want to sound weird’”
Green leaned heavily on a Telecaster, his live pedals and Ford’s Princeton, while Coyle-Smith split his time between myriad options including a 1964 Strat, Teles kitted out with humbuckers and single coil pickups and a vintage Gibson 125. His amps ranged from silver face Fenders to a Supro Black Magick. They prized a clean base from which to overdub whenever the mood struck, with Finerty doubling many of his thunderous basslines with a Squier VI that is also a go-to for Arctic Monkeys.
“We were like, ‘We’re going to fuck off the reverb on this album,’” Finerty says. “Just cut it out and go straight in dry. I think James got us really into using this Princeton he had with him. We wanted it not to be washed out. We wanted the guitars to be at the front, not hiding behind anything, having both parts there with that really fucking driven bass.”
The next step, under normal circumstances, would be to send these songs hammering into packed rooms on the road in a manner the group’s planned socially distanced tour won’t allow. They’re certainly built for it, from the Parquet Courts-style hookiness of Water in the Well to the squalling mayhem of Snow Day and the one-two of Nigel Hitter and Born in Luton, post-punk tracks that split the difference between hip-shaking wonkiness and itchy, eye-bulging terror. “There’s obviously a concern that if we can’t play these songs live they might fall by the wayside,” Green admits. “It’s just the way of the world at the moment.” Moments pass. Songs like these should last.
Shame’s Drunk Tank Pink is out now through Dead Oceans.