In the belly of the O2 Arena, past the multiple hotdog stands and bars touting warm glasses of Pinot Grigio for a tenner a pop, a man in a floral shirt clutching a bottle of Buckfast is shouting an ode to his late mother. The song, itself entitled ‘Mother’, deals in issues of political angst and class-based toil, and of how his own parent would “drink herself into oblivion and work too many hours to make me happy, when all she had to do was spend more time at home.” It climaxes in a righteous declaration - “The best way to scare a Tory is to read and get rich” - but even that isn’t as simple as it sounds. “Maybe the worst thing you can do to a Tory is earn loads of money and be learned and have a good point, but my mum was intelligent and she worked too much and she ended up dying, so it’s a criticism of that as well,” says Joe Talbot – the Buckie-swigging singer of incendiary Bristol punks Idles and the man in question. “It’s supposed to all be open-ended. I want to start a conversation.”
It’s but one moment in a series of moments that could stretch the breadth of the arena why the quintet are an ill fit in a corporate enormodome such as this. They’re here tonight, as handpicked supports to the Foo Fighters no less, through a combination of hard work and humour – two other traits the band also possess in spades. After finding out they’d been shortlisted for the spot, Idles decided to take matters into their own hands. “I got our manager to get a jigsaw puzzle made of our bassist in his pants holding up a card saying ‘Pick Idles’ and we covered the box up with a thing that said ‘If you build it, they will come’. So they did, and we did. Now we’re here,” says Joe. But though they’re here by merit, there’s something deliciously subversive about this move. Like a Trojan horse infiltrating the midst of the masses, Idles are too raw, too outspoken, too goddamn angry to curtsey politely for the nice men in suits, so instead they deliver the most blisteringly honest and visceral half hour that the O2’s likely seen in years. And if there’s one thing Joe knows a thing or two about, it’s the crippling power of those gut-punch emotions.
“I think people are bored of seeing pretty people that aren’t saying anything”
Back at the start of the decade, Joe Talbot wasn’t in a good place. Having grown up in Exeter – the kind of classic, mid-sized place where the established culture revolves around “the whole town being thrown out of the pub or club at half one in the morning into a bottle neck on the streets and then getting in a fight” - he’d moved to Bristol but wound up in the same, self-destructive habits. “I grew up very angry and remorseful and sad and there’s a lot of stuff I bottled up for a long time that was channelled into drugs and alcohol and violence,” he begins, fiddling with a vanilla pudding-flavoured vape, looking out of place at one of the venue’s many nondescript restaurant chains. “Actually, in the opposite order really: Violence; drugs; alcohol.”
At this point he’d already met all of the people that would go on to form Idles alongside him. Bassist Dev was an old friend from Exeter, who Joe began DJing and running a club night with. Through that, they met mustachioed guitarist Bowen. Guitarist Lee – now totally sober – was a pal who he knew from “getting fucked all day”, while drummer John was a friend of a friend. After running their night for a while, Dev and Joe, who’d never previously expressed any interest in getting into music, decided to start a band with the age-old impetus of feeling like they could do it better than the people around them. And gradually it became an alternative sort of catharsis to another set of nights on the piss. “I started the band and [life] started to become easier because I realised I was just killing myself. Losing friends and making enemies and getting arrested and all sorts of shit that was unnecessary and caustic,” he explains. “It’s carcinogenic behaviour, y’know? It doesn’t do anyone any good to fuck yourself over, so I realised that music was a good way of channeling my confusion and my regrets, my love, my hate. Trying to get it out in a positive way.”
“The really visceral part of my brain is the creative part.”
When Idles first started out, releasing their first EP ‘Welcome’ back in 2012, they were a largely different proposition to the streamlined, aggressive onslaught that characterises recent debut album ‘Brutalism’ – the blistering sleeper hit, released in March this year, that’s begun to turn Idles into 2017’s most important breakthrough band. Originally a post-punk outfit obviously indebted to their influences (The Fall, Gang of Four etc), Joe compares the transition to “having stabilisers and then pulling wheelies by the end”. In the middle, however, there was a trifecta of situations that brewed into a game-changing perfect storm. Firstly, their original guitarist left the band and was replaced by Lee. Newly sober, he spurred them on to “not drag him through our mud; to not do that to another person.” Joe’s mother also passed away. Having cared for her for five years, the resulting emotions and change in lifestyle (“it was a massive weight off my shoulders,” he admits) and mentality “exploded into an album”. His girlfriend too, had begun to question his behaviour to an increasing degree. “There was a point when she said, I cannot be with you anymore, you’re a fucking cunt,” he says. “And I was like, trust me, I know I am, but I know I will fix this.” Tragically, the pair later lost their daughter, which pushed him to smarten up even further. “I wanted to make sure I started living my life respectably,” he nods. “In a sense I am a father now, even though I’m not, and it’s either drink myself to death or start respecting myself.”
And so out came ‘Brutalism’: an album that takes all this rage and hurt and pain and fear and distills them into one searing discourse. It’s a record that draws on these raw feelings and expresses them playfully and sardonically because that, as Joe states, is how he is. “I became more in need of becoming more aggressive and sarcastic and funny and angry because I was becoming more and more impatient with it,” he begins. With the band? “No, with life. Just like: fuck off. Everything can just fuck off.” He takes a drag on his pudding vape. “So that’s what it ended up being. It was a need to be more honest; I think we were just trying to please everyone else [before], but when we started having fun with it - literally taking the piss - then it worked.”
Undoubtedly ‘Brutalism’ does work completely. It’s direct and it doesn’t fuck about, whether in the sarcastic lambasting of the Tarquins of the world in ‘Well Done’ or the fraught, anxious rattle of ‘1049 Gotho’’s dealings with depression and mental health. “I hope I’m an eloquent person but I don’t necessarily want our songs to be that eloquent because the really visceral part of my brain is the creative part,” Joe enthuses. “I’m never going to be Caravaggio or Morrissey; my creative part has no patience.” But it’s also beautifully human – a record that just about keeps it together for people who might be just about holding it together too. “I think people are bored of escapism, bored of seeing pretty people that aren’t saying anything. I got bored of it,” he says. “I’m interested in a congregation of people that are all a bit pained that can celebrate each others’ company and make things a bit easier.”
Dave Grohl’s on board. It’s about time you were too.
Idles’ debut album ‘Brutalism’ is out now.
Idles are one of the acts involved in the European Talent Exchange Programme. For more information on ETEP, and the artists and festivals involved, head to etep.nl.
Photos: Lindsay Melbourne.
Taken from the October 2017 issue of DIY, out now. Subscribe below and read online here.