Idles: punching up

After their eagerly awaited third album went to number one, Idles frontman Joe Talbot explains why the language of violence is needed to convey the band’s message of love and empathy

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As befits a group that begin their new album with an ear-splitting blast of visceral punk rock called War, Idles prefer the sledgehammer approach over subtler methods of getting their message across.

“We are a violent act,” confirms frontman Joe Talbot. “We are a violent art form, as Caravaggio is, as Jackson Pollock is, but it’s not all anger. People misconstrue that and I understand why people see it as anger, but we’re just a very passionate band and that passion comes through in violence.”

Anyone who has seen Idles perform live will testify to the intensity of that passion. Onstage the five-piece group are a rallying force of nature, whipping up mosh pits into a ferocious sea of sweaty bodies as Talbot screams his guts out and his bandmates beat seven shades out of their instruments.

On record, they’re just as commanding, channelling feelings of rage, grief and trauma into hard-hitting punk songs that combine raw power with dark humour, political sloganeering and soul.

June, one of the standout songs on the band’s superb second album Joy As An Act Of Resistance, documents Talbot’s anguish following the stillbirth of his daughter. “Baby shoes for sale, never worn,” he cries, paraphrasing Ernest Hemingway’s famous six-word story.

“Touring is one of the hardest things I’ve had to do, but it’s also one of the most beautiful and it will come back.”

Samaritans, from the same album, explores toxic masculinity over searing guitars, bruising bass and Jon Beavis’s crashing drums. The chorus to Mr Motivator, the lead single from their latest LP, sees the singer insert an unnecessary expletive into the surname of former Welsh boxer Joe Calzaghe (“You’re Joe Cal-fucking-Zaghe”) to amplify its defiant battle cry.

“It’s important that we use violence because that’s how you cut through popular culture,” explains Talbot. “Advertising companies are violent. The way our government treats the poor is violent. The language used around gender and populist attitudes towards the oppressed is a very violent thing. We want to counteract that with love and empathy and hope. But we’ve still got to do it with a violent brush stroke, otherwise you get dropped into the ether with the rest of the meek.”

Meek, you may have already gathered, is not an adjective that can easily be applied to Idles. Formed in Bristol a decade ago, the band toiled in obscurity for years before their 2017 debut, Brutalism, introduced them as one of Britain’s most invigorating heavy rock groups.

The following year’s Joy As An Act Of Resistance elevated the group – all aged in their thirties – to unlikely crossover stars, reaching number five in the charts and winning numerous album of the year plaudits, including from Big Issue North. It also saw the band nominated for a Brit Award, although Talbot later dismissed the event as a wasted evening surrounded by cancerous snakes.

Now comes Ultra Mono, the band’s eagerly-anticipated third LP, which tackles themes of inclusivity, class, gender inequality and British nationalism head on and recently became the group’s first UK number one, outselling the rest of the top five combined.

“Ultra Mono is about distillation rather than dilation,” says Talbot, speaking over Zoom from the basement of his father’s house in Cardiff. He describes the record as “everything that we all love” and “apex Idles”.

“We’re trying to get rid of as much of the noise sonically and as much of the noise ideologically as possible, so that our message is concise and our sound is concise and we can be heard in bigger venues and across bigger crowds.”

With more than a hint of pride, he says the album, recorded in Paris last year, is the group’s most divisive work to date. “It’s not going to be as popular as Joy As An Act Of Resistance because it is distilled. It’s Marmite. It’s a very condensed, distilled flavour and we are becoming more and more distilled, which is going to piss people off, but fuck ‘em. They just don’t understand it.”

If that last comment sounds like the clichéd words of an arrogant, out of touch rock star, Talbot comes across as anything but in conversation. Contrary to his ferocious, sweary onstage persona, the 36 year old is polite, considered and engaging (if a little defensive) company, happy to discuss how the band has helped him tackle his own demons, although reluctant to dig over past mistakes he’s made.

“I am our music. It means everything to me. I’ve learned to love and care for myself because of our music,” says the singer, who became a carer for his mother at 16 following the death of his stepfather. He struggled to cope with the responsibility and turned to drink and drugs for escape.

“I don’t tend to go into past shame. I don’t think it’s healthy to openly put that out in the world because people can use it against you… but I know that I was a real piece of shit in my younger years and that’s for me to carry and use as an experience to never do again,” is all that he’ll say on the matter today.

The singer’s mother died when Idles were making their first album and her ashes were pressed into 100 vinyl copies of Brutalism. He says Idles’ music acts as a diary, form of catharsis and therapy for the five band members and their fans. “It’s the sound of our growth and it’s the sound of our struggle.”

The surprise success of the band’s second album, though welcome, brought new pressures. Having existed in a vacuum for much of their existence, suddenly the quintet found themselves burdened by the weight of expectation. Their response was to double down on the angry rhetoric and vertigo-inducing guitar riffs, and bring in American producer Kenny Beats to give their songs some of the abrasive edge heard in modern hip-hop records.

“I grew up on hip-hop. It’s a massive influence on how I write and how I think about music,” explains Talbot, pointing to The Lover – a fierce retort to the band’s critics – as one of the tracks he’s most proud of. “It makes me feel good about myself, which is what the album is about: self-belief.”

Continuing their history of blunt social commentary, the song Model Village savages the insular fishbowl mentality that exists beneath the surface in many an English town and village.

“There’s ugly moments on every album and Model Village is an ugly moment for me. But it was important that I put it out there, knowing that people would take it the wrong way and criticise me for it. The whole point of Ultra Mono is to be accepting of the moment and that’s how I felt that day: I felt vitriol for a country that’s held captive by racism and greed.”

Despite that anger, the singer stresses that the band’s overriding message has always been one of promoting acceptance and positivity. “We’re trying to be cheerleaders for hope and optimism.”

For him personally, that means not dwelling on the current absence of live gigs due to coronavirus. Last year, the band performed close to 200 shows, including playing to 10,000 people at London’s Alexandra Palace. 2020 was supposed to be even busier, although the singer is sanguine about those plans being put on hold.

“I don’t think it’s healthy to think about what could be. There is a loss of freedom and a loss of work, but I don’t miss it. Touring is one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do, but it’s also one of the most beautiful experiences ever and it will come back. One of the things that Idles need to focus on is just how lucky we are to have an audience that’s allowed us to carry on through this time. We need to focus on what we do have, rather than what we don’t.”

Unable to play to fans, the band have kept themselves busy over the past six months, working with artists and filmmakers (Rob French, Michel Gondry) on music videos for Ultra Mono, while Talbot started his own virtual talk show, Balley TV, on YouTube.

Filmed in isolation, guests have included Mike Skinner (The Streets), Nadya Tolokonnikova (Pussy Riot), Kate Tempest and Sharon Van Etten, with conversations ranging from current events to domestic violence to creating music during quarantine.

August also saw Idles live-stream a number of characteristically raucous gigs from an otherwise empty Abbey Road Studios, the first of which culminated in guitarist Mark Bowen smashing his guitar to pieces. Work is now provisionally underway on album number four.

“We’ve got the title and the artwork set. We’re just working on materialising it now and then we’ll start properly writing,” reveals Talbot. In the meantime, his energy is focused on spreading Idles’ core message of self-belief, strength and unity to as wide an audience as possible.

“We just want to show our gratitude to the people that have carried us through all this and give Ultra Mono what it deserves, which is the fucking universe,” he says staring intently into the screen.

Ultra Mono is out now on Partisan Records   

Interact: Responses to Idles: punching up

  • Love song of Idles: punching up - Big Issue North - Love Songs
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