Joe Talbot is a changed man. It’d be reasonable to raise an eyebrow as the IDLES frontman taps a nicotine lozenge out of a plastic container while staring longingly at the description of a tomato salad on the specials board of a plush Bristol cafe. He explains that he can’t eat yet today; he’s currently experimenting with fasting to help practice mindfulness and wants to be on top form for a gig in Switzerland, where the band take to the stage at the eye-watering hour of 1am the next morning.
If IDLES are about anything, though, it’s challenging preconceptions. As the five-piece - completed by guitarists Mark Bowen and Lee Kiernan, bassist Adam Devonshire and drummer Jon Beavis - made a rapid, and not to mention long overdue, breakthrough last year, with debut ‘Brutalism’ the sleeper hit of 2017 - half a decade into their tenure as a group - it became apparent almost immediately that they weren’t your average rock band, and Joe far from your average cocksure frontman.
“People see us as these burly blokes on stage spitting and swearing,” he begins. “But I think when they see the interactions [between] us on stage, and our interaction with the audience, they understand that there’s also a vulnerability there, and it’s not all machismo - there’s a lot more to it.”
Spend five minutes in the singer’s company, or see five minutes of their live show, and such rejection of traditional masculine tropes becomes abundantly clear: IDLES are a band intent on changing the narrative of masculinity in rock, and showing how vulnerability can be used as a tool of power.
“It’d be good to change the narrative on masculinity.”
Vulnerability is a word that comes up constantly during conversation with Joe, tied into every thread of chatter around game-changing second album ‘Joy As An Act Of Resistance’. It’s a practice that Joe says has helped him become more caring, accepting and understanding. It also often makes him quite misunderstood.
“A lot of people think it’s sarcasm,” he lays out, talking about the album’s iron-clad centrepiece ‘Love Song’. “I wrote a love song / ‘cause you’re so loveable,” he barks in its first line, before channelling Dirty Dancing’s Baby (and uttering that same word again): “I carried a watermelon / I wanna be vulnerable.”
“It’s easy for a bloke to be sarky about [love],” he says. “But I’m not that guy, and I think it’d be good to change the narrative on masculinity, and love, and manhood. You can just shout ‘I fucking love you’ and mean it.”
While ‘Joy As An Act Of Resistance’ doesn’t deal in sarcasm, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a funny album. While ‘Joy…’ is - at times - a catastrophic, deeply emotional record, it also somehow manages to quote Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore and Woody from Toy Story. Track two is titled ‘Never Fight A Man With A Perm’.
“I use humour as an inclusive tool,” Joe explains, having first wormed his way into hearts and minds while yelling about Mary Berry, Trevor Nelson and the Tarquins of the world on ‘Brutalism’ highlight ‘Well Done’.
“It’s like ‘This is savage, but it’s OK - come into my house, you’re invited’. I think humour’s a really great vehicle for inclusivity. It breaks down barriers. It’s very unpretentious, and again it’s a sign of vulnerability. I used to want to be seen as an intellectual, and a great writer, sign of the times kinda guy. And then I realised it’s fucking bullshit, it’s not how it works. And I like to make people laugh, and that’s honesty. That really came through in ‘Brutalism’ and I found a bravery in humour.”
It also paves a path via which to introduce the more difficult subjects that define this album. ‘Brutalism’ was written in the wake of the death of Joe’s mother, and as the band looked forward towards album two, the frontman and his partner lost their daughter during childbirth. As a result, vulnerability was thrust upon them whether they chose it or not.
“It’s an offering and a gift of our flaws and our imperfections.”
“One of the things that I found when my mum died was that some people find it really hard to talk about death, even when it’s got nothing to do with their life,” Joe looks back. “When it’s your life, and it’s something that you want to be open about, other people don’t want to talk about it. They clam up when you start talking about your dead mother or your dead daughter. But I want to be able to talk about my dead daughter whenever I fucking please. It’s my fucking life, and I need to be able to get it out. It’s healthy.
“So what humour is is an offering. It’s saying ‘This is my life, but there’s a plurality to my emotions’, and I understand that it can be difficult to talk about. So you knock the edges off a little bit, and then I come in with a heavy one and just ruin yer life!” he quips, cracking a grin.
It’s a strikingly open conversation to cultivate from such a personal trauma, but one that’s vital for Joe to both further his personal recovery - which began as “a case of sink or swim” - while lending an outstretched hand to others experiencing the same. It’s a thread that binds ‘Joy As An Act Of Resistance’ together tightly, in an album that doesn’t wallow or ask for sympathy, but finds power in acceptance and community, and sees empathy pouring out of every word.
“Trauma isn’t easy, and life isn’t easy, and I think people appreciate the honesty in our album,” Joe continues. “The world doesn’t stop spinning for any fucker. The bus hits you… you don’t choose when the bus hits you, it just fucking hits you when it feels like it. There’s a randomness to the universe that will not allow for any ego. [The album is] about projecting that, so people are less shocked when it does happen to them. There’s a lack of honesty in popular music and popular television and advertising. People have stretch marks. Peoples’ daughters die. That’s life. It’s about opening that up, not so much for the people that it doesn’t happen to, but so that the people that it does happen to, when they do lose people they love, that they don’t feel shame, and they don’t feel like they’re the only person on the planet that it’s happening to, so they feel safe and not alone. Loneliness is too recurrent in our world, and it’s happening to more people than ever. It doesn’t make sense.”
“There’s a randomness to the universe that will not allow for any ego.”
The album’s second side begins with ‘Samaritans’, which takes aim at toxic masculinity. Across the track, every dreaded phrase that each teenage boy has had barked at them is recounted by Joe. “Man up”; “Grow some balls”; “Don’t cry”. It’s a thread that works its way through the whole album.
“I am my father’s son / His shadow weighs a ton,” he sings menacingly in cacophonous opener ‘Colossus’ before bellowing its refrain over and over as the track turns from a menacing slow-burner into an unhinged punk thrash: “I don’t wanna be your man.”
“It’s amazing isn’t it, the trope of masculinity,” Joe ponders, exhaling into a half sigh, half chuckle. “It engulfs our psyche without us knowing. A bunch of unspoken rules that we live by, that are really dangerous a lot of the time.” It’s a point touched upon on ‘Brutalism’ but hammered home throughout album two.
It’s something he came across when he first started reading Grayson Perry’s ‘The Descent Of Man’ - a book that dives deep into the male psyche, and the ingrained behaviours taught through childhood - which was gifted to him by his partner as writing for ‘Joy…’ began (a present without any implications or ulterior motives, he insists, laughing). The read helped him “understand the articulation of those problems, and the problematic nature of men trying to live up to an idea of manhood that doesn’t exist”.
“It’s not hard for us,” he responds matter-of-factly, to the insinuation that it might be harder to get such points of view across as five men in a punk band, who yell their way through energetic, often aggressive live shows. “It’s probably harder for the audience. All we’ve done is unlearned a few things. We’ve unlearned how to talk about things in certain ways, and how to see things, and act out positive changes in our lives, and to be more vulnerable to each other. We communicate so much better about our emotions and so forth, and that trickles down to all sorts of other things in our lives; we see the roles of our friends and families and partners differently, and more importantly we see our own roles differently.
“As long as we stay healthy and we’re mindful of who we are, who we want to be, and the relationship between us as people and us as projections of men on stage in a rock band, we can change that narrative, but we’ve got to keep working hard.”
Such an aesthetic has somewhat inevitably seen instances of crowd members acting out the kinds of impotent male rage that the band are working explicitly against; Joe recounts a certain Milton Keynes gig that saw a rowdy crowd “exercising their male privilege” to the soundtrack of a ‘Brutalism’ track concerning the death of Joe’s mother, and the prevalence of sexual violence by men - “but that’s fine,” he asserts. “That’s gonna happen, because we are men, and we do appeal to the frustrations of manhood, it’s just we’re addressing the frustrations of manhood by abolishing masculinity. It’s just going to take a long time, because it’s entrenched in people’s psyche. But we don’t wanna oust anyone; we wanna encourage everyone to come to our shows, and change people’s hearts and minds slowly.”
“IDLES is an ear as well as a mouth.”
The idea of perfection doesn’t exist on ‘Joy As An Act Of Resistance’. From the ‘right’ way to be a modern man, to the pressures placed on people by the media to look, act or talk a certain way, to the complicated, convoluted process of grieving, it’s an album that welcomes imperfections, and turns them into strengths.
“The point of the album isn’t to say ‘look how perfect I am, you can achieve this’ - it’s about saying ‘look how flawed I am, but also look how much I’m achieving through my flaws, and how much I love myself, and how much I’m learning about myself by exploring that’,” Joe hammers home. “Through opening that up to the audience, they find a confidence in themselves because they see our flaws, not our perfections. I’ll always want more from myself, but I’m learning to love myself because of where I am. Because of counselling, because of my partner, because of my friends and family, and because of the record.”
It’s a point that anchors ‘Television’. “If someone talked to you the way you do to you, I’d put their teeth through / Love yourself,” Joe demands in its intro. Rather than serving as a call to cast aside personal dissatisfactions, it’s an outstretched hand to join him in embracing flaws, and making the growing community that little bit stronger.
“Without that audience I’m nothing,” he notes, embracing the band’s greater platform that’s come with success, while also holding tight to the honesty and openness that drew so many fans to them in the first place. “You’ve really got to remind yourself that you’re only as good as your audience are, and what we’re building - and what the audience have built, more importantly - is a really beautiful relationship, where we’ve got this place of safety where we can all be vulnerable to each other. But my vulnerability is only as important as the listener will allow, and this second album is about that.
“It’s about a dissolution of ego, it’s an offering and a gift of our flaws and our imperfections to the audience, so they can reflect that back, and give us their imperfections and flaws as a growth. We don’t wanna be seen as rockstars or any of that shit; what I hope is that we create a community and people feel like the message that we make is as important from a listener as it is the artist. IDLES is an ear as well as a mouth.”
What this quite remarkable album does is turn a personal tragedy into a tool for change, a second album from a band as open, giving and - yes - vulnerable as you’ll find. “What the album is about is not my daughter,” he states. “It’s about grief, and how amazing the transition [after] losing my daughter [was], and how amazing my partner and my friends were at helping me get over my imperfections, enjoy myself and learn to live again.”
Joe Talbot is a changed man.
‘Joy As An Act Of Resistance’ is out 31st August via Partisan. DIY
IDLES play Electric Fields (30th August - 1st September) where DIY is an official media partner. Tickets are on sale now. Visit diymag.com/presents for more information.