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.”
As featured in the September 2020 issue of DIY, out now.