IDLES are the most exciting band in the world right now. Since the British quintet released their addictively caustic debut album Brutalism last year, their notoriety has spread like wildfire. This rapid rise is in no small part due to their reputation as the most essential live band out there. On stage, they play every gig as though it’s simultaneously their first and their last with a level of intensity and excitement which makes the audience as much a part of the show as the band themselves. They’re one of the few bands who are able to capture their brutal punk-tinged music as well on record as they do on stage, hitting like a spike of adrenaline with each and every listen. Despite of and in addition to all of this, it’s the wit of frontman Joe Talbot that really sets them apart from their peers. The effortless wit he shows on renowned lines like “the best way to scare a Tory is to read and get rich” (from Mother) are simultaneously thought-provoking and lusciously vivid. The sort of condensed wisdom you can imagine scrawled across a protest banner. It’s thus no wonder that they’ve created such a loyal and large fan base in such a short time, using aggression as a tool to sing about challenging subjects such as immigration, toxic masculinity and class divides.
With their second album Joy As An Act Of Resistance just once month away from release (at time of interview), I got the chance to catch up with the band ahead their show at Utrecht’s EKKO. From the moment I met frontman Joe Talbot, his air of affable intensity was immediately apparent. Despite the big smile, wide deep-brown eyes and politeness towards me there was a certain aura of fervency which meant that, when he spoke, I listened. During the conversation, the rest of the band came and went, joining in here and there when prompted. Drummer Jon Beavis was absent at the time, having a check-up on an ear problem (he had the all clear by the time of the set itself). Perhaps unsurprisingly though, it was Joe – as the band’s de facto spokesman – who did most of the talking. He had a sort of effortless charm that made you hang onto his every word, and this is what he had to say.
How was Rotterdam last night?
Amazing. Really good crowd.
It was a secret show, right? So was that your doing or the venue’s?
Half secret, half not secret. Half the tickets were sold and then they announced us. It was good, really good. The people there are wonderful, the crowd were great, the venue’s amazing. It’s one of those institutional venues that I always enjoy playing at because it’s established, it’s got history in the community, so you get a lot of supportive people that come and have a good attitude towards the venue and new music, hence why they can do a surprise gig there. I love it, I love all that stuff.
You’ve played The Netherlands a lot for a British band. Is that because you have a particular link with the country or is-
No, not at all. I’ve never been here before, didn’t know anything about Holland.
It’s just worked out that way?
It’s just random.
Dutch crowds have a stereotype of being very reserved and won’t show their appreciation externally. Is that something you’ve noticed or had a problem with?
No, it’s never a problem. We noticed it a few times at the start but we don’t really care. We see it as a privilege to be on stage and be there. We perform honestly, working really hard and enjoying ourselves and that always opens up any audience no matter how stern and cold they act. If you become vulnerable to your audience and enjoy it, they become vulnerable and enjoy it back. It’s not about waiting to be applauded or to be told you’re good, you’ve just got to enjoy the moment and we do. We love our music, we love playing our music and we see touring as a privilege. It took us seven years, or something like that, before we even toured.
(Mark Bowen, guitar, interjects): Yeah.
Seven years before we toured.
Before you toured at all?
Yeah, seven years before we toured. We want to do it right and we want to appreciate our position. We want to feel like we are fulfilling our end of what is a very lucrative deal. We get to travel and have fun, and people spend a bit of money and they have fun. Magic. Fucking magic.
And you’ve been teetotal for a little while now, since February is it?
Yeah, I’ve had four pints in five months.
Is that off the back of touring, or off the back of life?
That’s off the back of alcoholism and being an utter cunt to myself and other people. I now cannot drink alcohol unless I am fully in control of it, which has been twice. Once when I was in Dublin and I wanted to drink Guinness and the other time was when I was DJing and I fancied a beer and then I had a second one three and a half hours later. Then I really wanted a third so now I’m not going to drink until I feel it.
That’s interesting, because I find with discipline behind these things, it’s a lot easier to do the extreme and give something up completely than to compromise and do it occasionally.
Yeah, I had this thing and Lee was really good at illustrating this to me, which is that I go through this cycle of starting out with good intentions. My intentions were, “I’m just going to drink but I’m not going to get too drunk” and then it’d be cool for a couple of weeks and not do any drugs and then I’d be more confident and go, “yeah, no, you’re in a good place now, this is great” and then I’d drink more and make excuses as to why excessive binge drinking is acceptable as an adult. It’s not really, it’s not doing yourself psychologically or physically any good whatsoever. I never have a better time after four pints, it’s just impossible. So I’d get in this cycle and at the end of the cycle would be where I’d do something abhorrent to someone I care about, then I’d go back to the start of the cycle. Never once did I go, “I need to stop drinking”, basically just stop. It was when I was in a really good place and hadn’t done anything wrong, and I was in my kitchen and was really happy, I was looking at my beautiful home and my partner who was asleep after a long 14 hour sleep in the hospital and I realised just how lucky I was. I realised I don’t want to fuck this up ever again.
I found it particularly interesting because it’s something that people close to me have struggled with, so it’s always interesting to talk to people who’ve taken extreme measures to hear what they make of it all. Onto the new album, though, which I heard last week and have been listening to it pretty much on repeat ever since. It must be a relief after the success of Brutalism to have that finished and done. Do you find that you now know where the line is, i.e. know when something’s done, or do you still have that wondering in the back of your mind?
I think I can speak for all three of us in the room that have it our way: it would never fucking finish. I think if you love what you do you can always improve on a product or entity that you’ve made. Whether it’s a song or an album or a painting or whatever. You’re constantly changing and if you are involved in your art and believe in your art, as you evolve, it evolves. I think Kanye West’s idea for The Life Of Pablo was a terrible one because he seems like he has a very short attention span like the three of us do. Actually no, the two of us, he’s got a great attention span (pointing at Lee Kiernan). My point is he’d (Lee) take years perfecting a song meticulously and this guy (pointing at Mark Bowen) would end up writing a Bhangra song until a couple of days later and then it’d be something else. My point is that we have implemented a bunch of things as artists that make us work productively. An album has to have a brief and a theme within which we all work together. Individually we’re all very different and we want to celebrate each other’s differences so to do that in a productive way we give ourselves a palette to work with and we don’t work outside of those lines. What that means is that we all get to flourish in our own devices but with a common theme, as an artist would have a brief for an exhibition.
Does that mean that everyone has their own distinct role within their own instrument?
It’s not just instrumentation, it’s about our personalities as a whole and what we love. What we add to it is flourishing more because we’ve got room to breathe, in our second album more so. Bowen puts it articulately where he says it’s a, “disillusion of the ego”. We write for the part, for the cause as it were, we all fight for the cause in our own artistic way and it works for us, that really works for us. Other restrictions and disillusion of the ego is if I turn around to Lee or Bowen and say, “I don’t like your part, it’s not right for the song” and then I have to explain why in an articulate way. Then it’s done. You can’t be sentimental about your own voice, you have to be collectively, democratically approved as it were.
Does that ever cause problems when you’re trying new things and trying to push yourself beyond what you’ve done before?
No. It helps us move beyond what we’ve done before because our themes will never be, “right, this album is gonna be a folk album”. What it is, is more like a palette and a colour and the thematics of it. So obviously Joy As An Act Of Resistance was quite a lucid idea that we could all play towards. Bowen, Dev & Lee’s tastes are very different from mine and from each others. We are all very different when it comes to taste, and what we’ve learned is to really enjoy touring, playing live and writing, we have to allow each other to breathe. You just do that with a strict kind of formula. The other thing is that we don’t give ourselves more than three takes in the studio and afterwards we have to know when to knock it on the head because there’s always things we’re going to change if we’re allowed to. We don’t allow it because it costs way too much money and we don’t have the time and we don’t have the patience. You know, Bowen’s listened to the album once, I think, is that right?
(Mark Bowen) What, the new one?
(Mark Bowen) Haven’t listened to it yet.
I’ve listened to it twice. Have you listened to it?
(Adam Devonshire, bass) Once or twice.
For us it’s like, the benefit of being in a band is the present moment. Today it’s about being in Utrecht, looking at these stunning surroundings that we’re in. It’s one of the most beautiful cities in the world I think. This is one of the best venues I’ve ever played in. The staff, the community aspect of Dutch venues and the attitudes towards new music in Holland. We revel in that, we soak all that up. We write the songs as a point of group therapy and individual therapy and building something that’s greater than us, which is a dialogue, you know?
Speaking of which, I feel that this album is, on the whole, a lot more externally facing, if that makes sense? Has that change come from increased confidence or was it a distinct decision that you actually want to change people’s way of thinking?
My conscious decision is never in the individual songs, but my writing was the same as when these guys were at a point of change as well. We kind of started the first album and I came to the table with an idea for the album which was the dichotomies of the self. It’s about what it is to be a man and the self and the pressures of it from different angles. It was way too confusing and as I thought about my motivations behind the ideas I realised that I was trying to impress. I was trying to seem intelligent which was bullshit and then I came across the phrase Joy As An Act Of Resistance and it immediately clicked for lots of reasons. The trauma I was going through, in addition to the stresses of writing the second album, the second album, which is bullshit. It’s bullshit, it means fucking nothing. It’s not the second album, we’ve written fucking thirty albums. It’s just that no-one’s heard them because they’re shit. My conscious decision was to strip myself bare as much as possible and leave no room to seem intelligent and to be as naïve and vulnerable in my lyrics as possible. That way they can be bulldozed by a journalist if they want, or bulldozed by a fucking bricklayer, it doesn’t matter. Anyone can just bulldoze my lyrics because they’re so simple. There’s no air of complexity to my lyrics on this album because I didn’t want there to be. The whole idea of this album is that it’s a joyous resistance; it’s to enjoy and celebrate ourselves and be vulnerable to our audience. If you open up with humour or vulnerability it’s an inclusive act that invites you into the conversation or the dialogue or whatever it is. The interaction between the art and the reader. That’s all we wanted to do, we wanted to create community. My conscious decision with the lyrics was to be as basic as possible.
You’ve built quite a community around the band. A lot of bands would be envious of the fanbase you have and the lengths they’ll go to. That Facebook group, for example, I can’t think of anything like that in the post-internet generation in terms of loyalty and fanaticism. It makes me think of the fanzine, DIY eras when music wasn’t so readily available. Have you cultivated that or did that just grow naturally?
Nah, that wasn’t us at all. Not at all. I think that’s the beautiful thing about it. It’s like our intentions for the album have been solidified in that group. That’s exactly what we wanted. We wanted to instil a sense that we are not rock stars. We are not important. What we’re doing is just being honest and diegetic to our current state and making art that is as honest and truthful as possible in a way that’s as joyous as possible. The thing that we could have done with the second album was to take ourselves more seriously because we’ve got more pressure on us and being darker and harder.
It’s funny you mention that because I remember the first time I heard Colossus and I thought that was exactly what you’d done until the breakdown.
Yeah, exactly, the point of that song was to have this big cinematic grandiose start to the album so that people go, “what the fuck? They’ve clearly done loads of cocaine and now they think they’re fucking Pink Floyd” and then, of course, you have the opening of the red herring. For us it was about that disillusion of the ego, to make people feel comfortable being themselves and loving themselves, not about us loving us. The only reason we’re on stage is because it’s easier to see what we’re doing and hear what we’re doing. We’re not more important than the audience; in fact, the audience are much more important than us because if we’re playing to no-one then we’re just practising. We wanted to really turn the notion of success and turn the notion of the second album on its head by joyfully resisting the constraints of standardised bands that do second albums. Go against the conventions whilst still using them.
And how does that differ from the first attempt at writing the second album that I understand you ended up scrapping?
We were overcomplicated, we were all playing for ourselves and trying to achieve success. If you want to succeed, you either beg for success and you beg for notoriety, or you just have confidence in whatever success you already have and not reflect in that success by trying to mimic it. You just understand that you succeeded because of who you are and what you’ve done and celebrate that and just enjoy yourself and let yourself breathe. We realised that with the first album we were all kind of playing a bit too much and then the first attempt at the second album we were carrying that on. We realised that we were all a bit panicked, scrambling around. When you panic, you just play your instrument and I just started singing. We took a breather, sat back and listened to what each other’s ideas sounded like.
Do you ever think about the ease of recreating something live when you’re actually writing?
We write for the concept of playing it live, I know Bowen feels this way. When albums were invented in the sixties, they were just catalogues of people’s music. Then the late 60s, 70s era they really latched onto the idea that you can really curate the number of songs and take the listener on a journey for that amount of vinyl. We love that idea, we love art, we love exhibitions and we talk passionately about certain exhibitions and why we don’t like them and why we do like them, so we feel like this is a good excuse for us to exhibit our passion.
The album has evolved partly from the restriction of what you can fit on vinyl, whereas that doesn’t exist as the sole means of creating and distributing music anymore.
Yeah, but I think that’s a playful convention that we can use to challenge our artistic language. If you accept certain conventions and use them to the best of your ability, it makes your artistic language more astute because you’re not thinking about your artistic language, you’re thinking about the challenge and you become more fluent in it. It’s like learning French, the best thing to do is move to France, and then you pick up the language. If you want to flourish in your own artistic expressions, the best thing to do is take a boundary and see how you can fit in that and change it. I don’t know what we’d do next, after the third album, as we might not be as interested in making another album the way we’ve made it now. We might set a new challenge, do a double LP and piss a lot of people off.
(Mark Bowen) Jesus.
Well, we just think that’s a joyful resistance. People are like, “you can do whatever you want now” and we’re just like, “yeah” or we can just make a fucking amazing album and use those restrictions and conventions to make something ‘IDLES’.
So coming back to the album itself, one question which first came to mind was the significance of Danny Nedelko as a personification of pro-immigration?
It’s the personification of immigration, not pro-immigration in my eyes. All the allegories that I use are supposed to be really simplified.
But he himself, he as a person.
Yeah, he’s a human being, he’s a British citizen who was born in Ukraine. I promised I’d write a song about him, he promised he’d write a song about me in his band Heavy Lungs. I don’t just like to write, “I like chocolate”. I like to go, “I like chocolate, but why?”. That’s a more interesting interaction for people. It’s not just like, “Oh, Joe likes chocolate”, but he’s talking about why he likes chocolate. Why do I like chocolate? That’s a more interesting dialogue. I really want chocolate right now, which is why I’m going down that angle.
Danny Nedelko was kind of the anchor of the album, that joy as an act of resistance. We are in a time of polarised politics and we wanted to resist the expectation of us as left-wing voters and left-wing thinkers. We wanted to resist the convention of people from the left attacking people from the right, or attacking people who voted for Brexit by saying “you’re stupid” or “you’re a racist” because that’s the way Brexit happened. It’s because of this push and pull where it’s us and them, but it’s all us. We are all us. My vote affects everyone in this country, not just my mates on Facebook who don’t like Theresa May. I wanted to write a loving joyous song about a person who is an immigrant in our country. I think that is a much more productive and positive discourse. When talking about political issues, it’s to remind the people who you’re talking to about the most important aspect of these issues, which is the people that it affects or the people that it’s about, or the individual. It’s easy talking about ‘those immigrants’ but fuck me, the number of people that are walked past and it won’t be noticed. White South African immigrants won’t be noticed unless they speak. It’s about reminding people of the humane aspect of it which is: Treat people how you want to be treated basically. Without sounding like a pious cunt.
Which should be obvious, right?
Yeah. So that song was really the epitome of the album. It was us being as simplistic and vulnerable as possible and me just opening up about my opinion, which isn’t an attack on who I disagree with but instead opening a new dialogue starting with a positive which is “I love my friends who are immigrants”. What are you going to get back from that? Someone might say, “I fucking hate immigrants”. “But do you know my friend? How has my friend affected your life?” Do you get what I mean?
Yeah, I do get what you mean, and it’s interesting that you mention Brexit as well, which is probably the most polarising thing of my lifetime for British people.
And put a unifying, positive, let’s-move-forward with getting something done for the greater good attitude.
There’s still a little bit of a barbed tone though.
Well yeah, but that’s my tone. I’m not a happy-go-lucky human being, that’s just not how I work. I love humour and I think these guys will back me up when I say I’m a very loving person but I’m also a real piece of shit when I want to be. As in, I’ve got a really bad temper and a short attention span. I’ve got no patience. That thing of people misconstruing us as a punk band or the conventions of what a rock’n’roll band are or the most common misconception is that because our violent tone is there that we’re an angry band. What I want to be able to do is challenge people as listeners contrasting our violent tone with loving messages. The tone is nothing but a tone. It’s an inflexion on our art which is cutting through the bullshit. Cutting through the pop and the populous of what you hear on the radio all the time and using that as a vehicle to create a more potent message which people are more likely to remember. Again with that we just wanted to say something positive and go against the conventions of a leftie punk band.
Do you find that the physical responses you get from your audience, mostly male, is a contrast of the messages you’re exploring lyrically? I mean, I guess it’s inevitable.
Yeah, it is because obviously men and young boys are surrounded by those cultural and linguistic leanings towards strength, force, anger and violence. Don’t show your weaknesses, be strong. Weaknesses are noted as being open and vulnerable and crying and touching things softly and wearing softer colours and all sorts of bullshit. With our tone, there are going to be a lot of men that affiliate with that but hopefully what that does is it opens the door to them and then they hear our messages and see our demeanour on stage and they start to change their perception, even if it’s just a little bit. To go, “maybe everything isn’t so black and white with IDLES, they do kiss each other on stage”. Things that they might not expect, which is good. It’s just challenging people’s popularised ideologies that are problematic. Like yesterday in Rotterdam I encouraged the women in the room to get involved in the mosh area because it was male-heavy which is just a bit tragic, especially when you’re singing songs like Samaritans or Mother (even more so). There’s a real dichotomy there, but it’s not about excluding anyone. I see our music like a Trojan Horse. You can be a real anti-band and throw stands at the city walls all day and not penetrate anyone’s ideologies. If you’ve got a mohawk, no-one is going to listen to you within a lot of other realms outside of the kind of alt-left because of the way you dress. If you dress how you want to dress and not conform to obvious bullshit then you can penetrate the walls of people’s ideologies and maybe change their minds on things or at least see that there’s a plurality of perspectives there. You can do that through art by using conventions and then just flipping it on its head a little bit.
The imagery in Never Fight A Man With A Perm is very vivid. I was wondering if it referred to a specific person or a character who resembles that type of person.
It was written from my perspective when I was a young teenager. I was very angry, bored and lost as a lot of young men are in Devon. It’s supposed to be a really ugly depiction of what I was then. Yes, it is about a specific man, yeah. I won’t mention him because it’s unfair, he could be a really lovely chap now. It’s about me going around and thinking that it’s important to be hard and fight, drink loads of booze and be a cunt to people. It was an ugly period. I wanted to lay that bare on the record and show how much of a prick I used to be. In part catharsis and self-reflection and in part self-improvement. It’s looking back at times like that which really remind me of why I shouldn’t drink.
The album’s centrepiece, June, focuses on a very traumatic experience that you went through, with a minimal, grungy musical accompaniment. You talking about being very honest, open and trying to connect with people, but with a subject matter like that, was it difficult to put that into music?
No. My daughter dying was the hard bit. My partner and I spent weeks teaching each other how to deal with it. Before my daughter died I thought I was really an honest and free person that was very open to being vulnerable, but I wasn’t. I didn’t realise how little I talked about my emotions until I had to. I realised after my daughter died that it was really important that I talked about my emotions because it was either that or turn to numbing myself so that I didn’t have to think about these things. I spent a lot of time with my partner talking and being very open about how I felt and obviously how I was hurting. That’s what really helped me change and become a better person. Again, that’s another theme of the album. Love myself, enjoy myself and embrace sadness. Embrace anger as an acceptance in order to move on productively and build on the present. That’s the hard bit. Now is a celebration of succeeding in that. I’m not lying when I say I want to be as honest as possible. I’m not going to write about things that aren’t important to me. It just doesn’t make sense in my head.
(picks up a lemon)
Why would I write about lemons? I don’t like lemons. They’re all – well, actually I do. Lemonade. Fuck me.
(notices mould on the lemon)
That’s definitely gone. (throws lemon into the bin).
It’s the only way I can write because any other way I write I become stagnant. It feels like I’m lying. It’s a really good tool. The whole point of the album is to be vulnerable and instil that vulnerability in us. What’s happening now and what we were talking about earlier is that hundreds of people in the AF-Gang have found the confidence in themselves to be vulnerable to other people and to share things that are just as dramatic if not more than what we’ve been through.
Which is pretty amazing.
It’s a beautiful thing. It’s not about June as a song. I spoke to Bowen and Lee about this. I didn’t really want it on the album. Not because it was too personal but because I thought it was too indulgent. I think that’s the word I used, isn’t it?
(Bowen & Kiernan) Yeah
I was a bit embarrassed, but then I realised that’s the point of the album. It’s to be vulnerable and to know that people behind closed doors might be like “alright mate, we get it, your daughter died”. It has very simplistic and basic lyrics, but I realised that the whole point of the album is to be vulnerable in places that you might find a bit embarrassing. One of the worst things that men do is that they carry shame or feel that they’re a burden. They’re embarrassed by opening up about their emotions, like that’s a sign of weakness. It’s not. Strength is in numbers. Sharing is what’s going to make this situation more doable.
There’s a line at the end of Gram Rock that’s been playing on my mind a bit. “My boy fucked Tom Hiddleston’s stylist”. I know the subject matter of the song is cocaine, but it’s more lyrically abstract than a lot of the other tracks on the album. Then that line comes up and I ask myself “Is that in character?”. It’s a properly detestable outburst, have I misconstrued the meaning?
You haven’t at all, it’s grotesque. I don’t know anyone who’s slept with Tom Hiddleston’s stylist.
It’s such a- the tone, every time I hear it I’m like “fuck man, no”.
It’s horrible, isn’t it.
It’s an imagined Dadaist scenario of two hedge fund city boys at a funeral off their face on coke.
That makes more sense.
Yeah it does. I was worried Tom Hiddleston’s stylist might end up in some sort of divorce scenario.
Well, I take it someone in the band likes Pavement with that “I know him, and he does” line in Danny Nedelko.
I know him and he is.
Yeah, and it did remind me a bit of that bit on Range Life where Malkmus sang “out on tour with the Smashing Pumpkins, nature kids, yeah they don’t have no function” in the way that they ended up having to address that in interview after interview, media trying to find out what they had against the Smashing Pumpkins. Then years later Malkmus was like, “I wish I’d never fucking written that line”. Apparently, the original intention was to see if the press would grab onto it out of context, and they did, but it worked a bit too well.
Really? Yeah, no, you’re the first person to mention it actually. I think people take my lyrics a little less seriously than other songwriters and I really like the idea that people are a bit uneasy about my lyrics in that they don’t know whether I’m telling the truth or not. It makes them think more. I don’t want to be a comfortable writer, I want to challenge people and I keep stuff like that in there because it makes me vulnerable to criticism and it makes the listener uneasy. They work out what’s real, what’s my voice, what’s not. There’s nothing easy about life, and there’s nothing easy about our art. It’s not supposed to be easy. It’s supposed to challenge and make people think and more importantly, make people discuss life and what’s important.
And what’s next for you guys now? You’ve got a long time of touring ahead of you.
After our lawsuit with Tom Hiddleston, we might have to get real jobs. I dunno. Album 3, we’re on album 3 now, we’re just writing it.
Straight into it?
Fuck me. Nice.
Joy As An Act of Resistance comes out this week Friday, 31 August, via Partisan Records. Catch the band on tour across Europe this November.