Joe Talbot is sitting, nursing a sparkling water, outside a coffee shop around the corner from Bristol’s famous docks. Heavily tattooed and sporting a fetching leopard print shirt, he cuts the kind of shape that might make the Monday morning businessmen and groups of passing school kids on scooters raise a fraction of an eyebrow anyway, but these days the 36-year-old tends to cause more of a stir walking around his adopted hometown.
As we do the city’s rounds, the singer pointing out the battered garage door behind which his band first started rehearsing and The Elbow Rooms - the scene of his old club night, where Joe and bassist Adam ‘Dev’ Devonshire would print up flyers advertising themselves as the official afterparty for whatever happened to be on at the Academy venue down the road, Joe tends to make it a few hundred metres each time before he’s stopped by a nervous body with eyes the size of saucers. “I’m really sorry… I’m a huge fan… Do you mind?”
You could pin his graciousness on each occasion partly down to the ‘all is love’ message that lies at the heart of IDLES, and partly down to the fact that these same streets used to house a very different set of scenes for him. “At the top of Park Street, I woke up at 11am on a Saturday morning unconscious, everything stolen, outside a shop that had been open for two hours. Bottom of Park Street, I had a panic attack at 4am realising my life was in turmoil. I’ve got stories in every part of this city that aren’t good, that are full of awful, awful depressing things - violent and disgusting places,” he explains.
“It was frantic, and desperate, and fuelled by drugs and alcohol. All I wanted to do was numb myself for as long as possible, and every time I’d sober up I’d be hungover and on a comedown and full of dread and anger at the universe for killing my mum. I was just angry at the world and feeling sorry for myself, and numbing and then coming to for a bit and then numbing again for like, 15 years. It was awful but I survived. And that’s because of the people around me - they helped me through it.”
Because while it’s easy to get sucked into the hyperbole - into the media attention that follows IDLES wherever they go these days and the increasingly combative microscope that gets put on a successful band that wear their hearts and their politics on their sleeves - really it’s still this that remains at the core. Helping people through it. Encouragement and tolerance. Realising that the world can serve up all kinds of shit, but a little kindness can go a long, long way.
Going into third album ‘Ultra Mono’ - a record aimed at pushing “self-acceptance; the power of now; presence” - there may be all kinds of playful, joyful moments dotted across the record (you only need listen to first single ‘Mr. Motivator’ to realise that), but the conversation around it is serious, because the message should be taken seriously. Today, Joe speaks earnestly, at length, about “self-care and self-love” because clearly, for a long time, he was largely devoid of both of those things.
“I was nurtured by [the rest of the band] in being allowed the breathing space to fuck up and be a horrible person to myself and to other people. And to be held accountable for my actions but also to be allowed back in the room time and time again,” he explains of their beginnings. “And now I wanna help other people to feel like it’s OK to make mistakes but to learn from them. If everyone thinks and acts like that, then in time it’ll spread to a community of people who can grow together and educate each other on a level. The band is that arena for me. It saved my life.”
“I wanted to change the narrative and make something vibrant and full of life, and we are exactly that.”
— Joe Talbot
When IDLES first began to prick up a wider set of ears in the months following 2017 debut ‘Brutalism’, they’d already been a band for nearly a decade. The opposite of an overnight success story, they’d been through the mill together, emerging out the other side of their twenties with a record that documented a prolonged period of self-discovery and pain, largely centred around the twin traumas the singer had suffered in the preceding years - losing his mother, who he’d moved to Newport to care for following a diagnosis of kidney disease and a stroke that left her paralysed down one side, and then losing his daughter, who was stillborn. “Before ‘Brutalism’, my [vocal] delivery was confused because I was confused, and then on that album it was a discovery of catharsis through music. Like, oh shit, I can get shit out and then it stays there,” he recalls.
The raw, visceral emotion of that record soon began to resonate, and by the time they released second album ‘Joy as an Act of Resistance’ 18 months later, the eyes on IDLES were significantly more notable - an increasingly large group of supporters, including the online AF GANG community spawned as a response to the band’s ethos, willing them on. That album charted at Number Five, gained the quintet - completed by guitarists Mark Bowen and Lee Kiernan, and drummer Jon Beavis - a spot on the Mercury Prize shortlist and headed up end-of-year lists across the board. And yet today, as they prepare to take the next step, Joe seems a little, if not frustrated, then fraught at how the band are now being perceived.
“One thing I really resent is this idea that I have some sort of messiah complex or that I’m virtue signalling,” he begins, within seconds of sitting down. “‘Never Fight a Man With A Perm’ is supposed to be a picture of me at my worst; I used to be a horrible prick and get beaten up for it. So I’m trying to paint a balanced picture of my life - not as an example, but as a window to make people feel comfortable about themselves. So if they think, ‘I feel that as well’ or ‘I’ve done that as well, I make those mistakes’, [then it could help them] to get through it and to learn through my mistakes in public.”
With their increasing popularity - one which has seen them sell out London’s 10,000-capacity Alexandra Palace last year in less than 10 minutes and is currently putting them in talks for future festival headline slots - comes an increasing number of new adopters and opinions. As Joe notes, “The algorithms are spreading us further now, so more people are gonna disagree with us”. Everyone’s a critic, and the flip-side to wider success is a wider exposure to that criticism - some that he accepts, some that seems a harder pill to swallow.
“Being called out by [London band] Bob Vylan for not speaking out [about the Black Lives Matter movement] quick enough was fair. I’m not the oppressed, so I don’t know what it’s like to be in an industry that uses your culture to make billions of pounds and doesn’t give you a fucking cent. That must be frustrating,” he explains. “If I was Bob Vylan, I would be fucking livid that suddenly all these self-righteous bands are using it to virtue signal, but we’ve not done that. We were getting organised, and we raised money for a charitable organisation that are trying to survive racism because we do care and now we’re on a platform where we can [help]. We’ve been talking about civil rights from the start of our band; we are very clear on the fact that we are privileged and we use our privilege for other people’s benefit.”
When Sleaford Mods’ singer Jason Williamson accused the band of “appropriating a working class voice” (“I don’t believe their stance on this. I don’t like them at all,” he told the Guardian), the sting was evidently more irritating however. “Jason from Sleaford Mods, I’ve never disagreed with him. I mean he did threaten to come to our show with a bat, but he’s misguided in aiming it at us. I’ve said ‘I’m council house and violent’ in ‘I’m Scum’, because that was something that I was called and that song was about insults that were thrown at me. I was called a chav, and the point of the song was me taking insults and throwing them back into the world so I can leave them behind. Now I get called posh all the time. Nice one,” Joe chuckles, wryly. “It feels really disarming and infuriating for the world to be told what my intentions are by other musicians, but I can’t control what they think and what they say. They’ve got shit to be angry about and they just don’t like us, but neither does my auntie.”
For every group of people that draw solace and strength from the band’s overt positive messaging, there are others that see it as performative. For every gig the band play where their shout-along bon mots are roared back in a swelling display of sweaty unity, there are people who eye-roll that IDLES’ lyrics are nothing more than sloganeering (“The album’s supposed to be one big slogan, you dickhead!” groans the singer. “We’re surrounded by Brexit; we’re fighting slogans with slogans. We’re trying to unify and you can’t do that by being convoluted and murky. This isn’t an essay in the Quietus, this is CBeebies for humanists.”). Counter-productive as it may seem to pick apart a band who’ve always tried hard to be a force for good during this most dark of times, Joe accepts that that’s just the way it is.
“It’s the nature of the Left,” he shrugs. “The Left is self-critical. We don’t just go, ‘Oh it’s them over there, let’s burn their house down’. You question yourself and others and that’s why the Left is stagnant at the moment, because there’s a lot of stone-throwing and it’s not going forward. Utopia is a bus ride away; the Right have bought the bus and we’re still trying to decide what to call the bus.”
“I feel like this country’s turning into a racist little village based on some weird tabloid-preserved idea that never existed, and I wanna burn it to the ground.”
— Joe Talbot
It’s to their credit then, that on ‘Ultra Mono’, the band haven’t risen to the bait, but doubled down on their stance. Yes, there are moments when they clock the criticisms with a wink (both ‘The Lover’ and ‘Mr. Motivator’ make reference to their so-called “cliches”), and ones where the fighting spirit shines through, but even then, there’s a positive punchline. “Anger’s gonna come out, but it’s how you process it. So on ‘Model Village’, the message is clear - I fucking hate nationalism and I feel like this country’s turning into a racist little village with a grandiose, romanticised version of what the empire was, not based on mass murder but based on some sort of weird tabloid-preserved idea that never existed. And I wanna burn it to the ground,” Joe explains. “But burning it to the ground is only going to be done through ideology, through empathy, through organisation and education, and that’s what we’re about. And I have to start with the message that what we’re doing now [as a country] isn’t working.”
‘Doing’ is an important word in the language of IDLES’ third album. A record hugely indebted to the cognitive behavioural therapy that the singer has been undertaking in recent years, and the notion of taking practical steps in order to combat ingrained and destructive patterns, it’s one that builds on the ideas they’ve been shouting about for years and says there’s no time like the present.
“This [album] was a reaction to ‘Joy as an Act of Resistance’. Like, fuck, we’re suddenly being watched by so many more people, playing in bigger rooms – how can we be apex IDLES? How can I be apex me?” he questions. “And for us, that’s through clarity and being concise musically, so every millimetre of our album is IDLES, is ‘Ultra Mono’ - that [meaning] self acceptance, the power of now, and distilling everything you are into as finite a point as possible.”
Helmed by Joe and Bowen (“He meditates and practices mindfulness and understands therapy; I obviously have been in therapy a long time, so we got the concept”) and recorded in France’s La Frette studios alongside hip hop producer Kenny Beats, the distillation came out in two ways. Lyrically, for the most part of the record, Joe would go into the vocal booth with a title and a topic but no concrete plan; whatever came out in the heat of the moment made the record. “There was a risk, but none of them ended up being anything other than perfect, because it was in the moment. That was the point of it,” he shrugs. “It’s accepting yourself; not worrying about what other people were gonna think, even if it’s ugly. Self-acceptance is not all about being poised and saying what people want you to say, it’s about saying how you fucking feel. That’s what you say to your therapist - it’s not successful therapy if you lie to your therapist.”
Musically, meanwhile, IDLES began acutely streamlining everything, aiming to make the most hard-hitting, vibrant sounds they could - ones that could justify the increasingly large spaces they had started to fill. “Our records before, sound-wise, probably are lost on the radio - they probably wouldn’t stand up against a Billie Eilish track, or a Taylor Swift track, or a Kanye track,” Joe explains. “It’s a holistic thing with sound - heavy, powerful and unified. And to me that translates as hip hop: a kick, a snare and one person fucking screaming with a concise message. Hip hop’s a very impactful thing; grime’s a very impactful genre. It’s infectious and powerful. Orchestras - when a section of eight string players are all playing the same thing at the same time, it sounds like unity. There’s no noise there, it’s just impact. And we wanted to make that on a record.”
From the battering ram of ‘War’ that knocks down the doors at the beginning of the album, to the whooping thump of ‘Kill Them With Kindness’ and cacophonous closer ‘Danke’ - already a live favourite - ‘Ultra Mono’ succeeds in their mission to make something direct and vital. But more than that, it shows a band absolutely ready to step up and wrangle the most out of the situation. There’s an active seizing of opportunity that comes from acknowledging your position and creating something designed to use it to its full potential - be that via messaging or inciting the most uproarious mosh pit in the field. If ‘Ultra Mono’ is about living in the now, then IDLES undoubtedly know that their time IS now, and they’re not about to throw it away.
Is he surprised at everything that’s happened to the band, we ask the singer, as he casts an eye around the streets he’s roamed for so many years? “No. We’re sick. We’re one of the best live bands on earth, so of course we’re popular,” he replies without hesitation. “We fucking work so hard at our live energy and the love we have for it is so strong, of course people are gonna wanna get involved in it, cos I wanna get involved in it. It’s what was missing with the music I DJed; within five years, it was bloated and vapid and shit, just a bunch of fucking models looking good and sounding bored. Who wants to pay money to see that? So I wanted to change the narrative and make something vibrant and full of life, and we are exactly that.
“‘Ultra Mono’ is ready for festival headlines. Big boy sounds, innit?” he winks. “Our ambition is to be the best live band in the world. Record-wise, it’s to write the best songs and for them to sound as good as they can. And we’ve still got a way to go for both, but our ambition is to keep trying, and it’s a beautiful dialogue that we’ve built with our audience, this sense of community...”
Coming from the mouth of someone else, you could chalk it up as bravado, but with Joe Talbot you can’t help but feel like he’s earned it - not just the critical acclaim and the legions of fans (although IDLES have surely paid their dues for those, too), but the right to feel proud of everything he’s achieved. Because in spite of what any of their detractors might say, IDLES are the good guys in this situation, and we could all do with the good guys winning right now.
“I think it means more to me because we haven’t had it easy,” Joe nods. “My life is a journey. I cried on the stage at Glastonbury because of everything that I’d gone through to get there, and everything that I’d survived to get there. That’s what that crying was. Looking out and everyone singing ‘Danny Nedelko’ back at me and knowing what we’d been through as friends to get to that point.
“I’m lucky to be alive, not just to be a successful musician. I’m very, very fucking grateful, and that’s why I’m not shy about saying we’re amazing. We’re fucking amazing. I’m an amazing part of an amazing thing, which is IDLES. And we worked hard, so it’s not arrogance. I don’t think I’m better than anyone else, but I am fucking great just to be alive.”
‘Ultra Mono’ is out 25th September via Partisan.
As featured in the September 2020 issue of DIY, out now.
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