This creative leap, in part, was sparked by the band’s recent crash back down to earth, having spent their entire adult life on the road. It stems from their beginnings as wide-eyed teenagers, cutting their teeth in the pubs and small venues of South London, to becoming the most celebrated new band in Britain, catapulted by the success of their breakthrough debut album.
Readjusting to a new normal back home with - for the first time since the band’s formation - no live shows on the horizon, frontman Charlie Steen attempted to party his way out of psychosis. “When you’re exposed to all of that for the first time you think you’re fucking indestructible,” he notes. “After a few years you reach a point where you realise everyone needs a bath and a good night’s sleep sometimes.”
An intense bout of waking fever-dreams convinced Steen that self medicating his demons wasn’t a very healthy plan of action and it was probably time to stop and take a look inward. “You become very aware of yourself and when all of the music stops, you’re left with the silence,” reflects Steen. “And that silence is a lot of what this record is about.”
In a room (well, more of a cupboard that used to house a washing machine until it was lugged outside and replaced with a bed) painted in a shade of pink used to calm down drunk tank inmates, Steen cocooned himself away to reflect and write. In the room dubbed ‘the womb’ - through the prism of his own surrealistic dreams - he addressed the psychological toll life in the band had taken on him. The disintegration of his relationship, the loss of a sense of self and the growing identity crisis both the band and an entire generation were feeling.
“The common theme when I was catching up with my mates was this identity crisis everyone was having,” reflects Steen. “No one knows what the fuck is going on.”
“It didn’t matter that we’d just come back off tour thinking, 'How do we deal with reality!?’” agrees guitarist Sean Coyle-Smith. “I had mates that were working in a pub and they were also like, ‘How do I deal with reality!?’ Everyone was going through it.”
Coyle-Smith took a different tac to Steen and barricaded himself in his bedroom. Barely leaving the house and instead obsessively deconstructing his very approach to playing and making music, he picked apart the threads of the music he was devouring (Talking Heads, Nigerian High Life, the dry funk of ESG, Talk Talk…) and created work infused with panic and crackling intensity.
“For this album I was so bored of playing guitar,” he recalls, “the thought of even playing it was mind-numbing. So I started to write and experiment in all these alternative tunings and not write or play in a conventional ‘rock’ way.”
The genius of Drunk Tank Pink is how Steen’s lyrical themes dovetail with the music. Opener Alphabet dissects the premise of performance over a siren call of nervous, jerking guitars, its chorus thrown out like a beer bottle across a mosh pit. Nigel Hitter, meanwhile, turns the mundanity of routine into something spectacular via a disjointed jigsaw of syncopated rhythms and broken-wristed punk funk. The result is an enormous expansion of shame’s sonic arsenal.
Release: January 15, 2021, Dead Oceans/Inertia
Words: Dead Oceans