IDLES talk love, self-reflection and their fifth album 'TANGK'

Interview Letting Off Steam: IDLES

Featuring love songs, crooning and production credits from Nigel Godrich, ‘TANGK’ is perhaps IDLES’ biggest curveball yet. For LP5, say Joe Talbot and Mark Bowen, they just wanted “to be the sun”.

“We were very much in love.” These are Joe Talbot’s words when asked what his first impression of Mark Bowen was. The two have been making music together as part of IDLES for nearly sixteen years, and have been friends for almost exactly as long. “We met at a bar called The Tube,” explains Joe. “I went there, and Bowen got naked and danced on the stage, and occasionally DJed. Correct?” The guitarist laughs - the laugh of someone hearing a well-worn story for the umpteenth time. “Yeah, that was the main thing I did that night.”

The pair have the kind of relaxed, self-deprecating and occasionally spiky rapport that immediately marks them out as very old friends. They also share the unique viewpoint of two people that have ridden a very tumultuous, very successful ride to rock’s major leagues: a journey which has seen them take in a UK Number One album, a Mercury Prize shortlisting, storming performances at Glastonbury and across the stages of the world - essentially, everything they set out to do after meeting in that bar. They piece together a vague recollection of the night: a lock-in, an after-party, a techno DJ they were hosting in Bristol. “Then we realised we were both looking to start a band,” Joe grins. “The rest, as they say, is a fucking mess.”

Talbot and Bowen are in the middle of promoting fifth album ‘TANGK’, which marks the latest in a series of side-steps away from the joyously shambolic sound that IDLES burst into public consciousness with back in 2017. The muscular basslines and sandpaper guitars are still there, but these days they sit alongside tape loops and synth lines. Most prominently of all, Talbot’s trademark snarl (a cross between Mark E Smith’s yelps and a West Country drawl) has been replaced by an almost-delicate croon. We first heard moments of this on their previous LP, ‘CRAWLER’, but the band felt they had further to go, and hadn’t fully committed to their pivot away from – in Bowen’s words – “the standard formula of a guitar-based band.”

“‘Crawler’ had really given us an impetus to go further,” he explains. “It felt like unfinished business – we’d started [tracks] like ‘Progress’, or ‘MTT 420 RR’, where we had a more deft approach, and we hadn’t quite nailed it. So we approached that line with this album again in places, and used our experience with the last album to sew those things up.” He pauses to think. “Having the production inform the writing process, rather than what has happened previously with IDLES, which is the writing informing the production. I think what we ended up with on ‘TANGK’ is much more accomplished.”

Talbot agrees, although he doesn’t just put their new sound down to changes in writing practice – for him, the story of ‘TANGK’ is very much the story of his friendship and collaboration with Bowen. “We are very much opposites; we are not the same, in any way,” he says. “I’ve had to change, because the music that I make is very simple and block-like, [whereas] Bowen likes to fit many different facets into one song.” He smiles. “That’s what’s kept us afloat, our combustive nature, because we’ve managed to collide in a way that works. I’m learning more from Bowen than he is from me, I expect, but there’s a constant forward motion.”

IDLES talk love, self-reflection and their fifth album 'TANGK'

“What’s kept us afloat is our combustive nature, because we’ve managed to collide in a way that works.”

— Joe Talbot

Talbot thinks this way of working owes its origins to the pandemic. ‘Crawler’ was written during the tail-end of the lockdowns, largely remotely. “We were extracted from the practice room,” he nods, “and we then had to build a new relationship – over Zoom, basically. We learned a new creative dialect. We had time to write ideas, and send them to each other, and that’s what came about: this sense of transgression through poise, and calm, and introspection. No fear of what it’s going to sound like live; we weren’t playing live, so that wasn’t in our consciousness like it was before.”

Bowen has a succinct metaphor for their relationship, both in and out of work. “If Joe was only my friend, he wouldn’t be my friend any more – he’d be a guy I see at weddings. And if he was only my colleague, he wouldn’t be my colleague any more, I would have quit the band. But he’s neither of those things, he’s literally my brother,” he says, with a twinkle in his eye. “We can’t get rid of each other now, it runs too deep.”

The two musicians weren’t the only people involved in the writing process, though. This time round, IDLES invited producer Nigel Godrich (Radiohead, Pavement, Beck) to push them in new directions, in addition to co-production from Kenny Beats and Bowen himself. Given the band have referenced several of Godrich’s roster as influences before - including quoting a line from a Pavement track on ‘Danny Nedelko’ - are they big fans?

Bowen laughs. “I’d actually forgotten he’d done the Pavement album, and I went to see them with him! But yeah, massive fans – I approached Nigel at Glastonbury in like 2008 and fanboyed over him.” Godrich hosted the band on his From The Basement live series last year meaning, presumably, that he was an admirer of IDLES too. “One thing that is very clear,” Mark smirks, “from having conversations with Nigel, is that he is not a fan of IDLES. I think he’s probably less of a fan now than when he was setting off. He was like, ‘I don’t know the band, I don’t know any of your work…”

To be clear though, both men see this as a good thing. “The important thing was that it was a new perspective on our potential,” explains Talbot. “To have someone who was willing to work with us, and take a risk. That forced us to really move forward.” Bowen nods: “I mean, it’s Nigel Godrich. But also, he famously works with bands when they want to take left turns: Beck, The Divine Comedy, Travis. All those bands had huge preconceived notions about what they are, and they’ve made albums with Nigel that are the exact opposite of what people think they should be, and that’s given them the impetus through the rest of their careers to just transgress, and transgress, and transgress.”

He stops to think. “What I thought Nigel was going to do was help tether us to IDLES - push us on these boundaries, but keep us on a sound footing. What actually happened was [he] had the exact opposite effect, in that all the barriers disappeared. There was no perimeter on this album at all.” His bandmate nods: “[In the past] there were certain songs that we walked away from like, ‘That’ll do’. Whereas these songs are accomplished, in our perspective, because they feel complete. And completion is when it feels, in essence, like IDLES. And then we can leave it.”

IDLES talk love, self-reflection and their fifth album 'TANGK' IDLES talk love, self-reflection and their fifth album 'TANGK'

“Humanely, there is no room for a monarchy, if you believe in love and empathy. Full stop.” - Joe Talbot

On ‘TANGK’, Talbot continued with the same writing strategy he’s employed on IDLES’ previous two albums - not preparing any lyrics in advance of recording; turning up at the microphone and seeing what happens. Is it not a terrifying way to work? “It became scary because of the weight of this album,” he says. “I intended to write the whole album before we got to the studio because I was [thinking], ‘You’re working with Nigel Godrich, this is a very important album, you should work on these before’, forgetting that all my best work is written at the microphone.”

It’s a stance that flies in the face of received wisdom about rock lyrics – the antithesis of Leonard Cohen writing 80 possible verses for ‘Hallelujah’. “There’s a confidence thing,” he explains. “You have this sense of high culture, [that] you’ve got to sit there and pretend to be Nick Cave, nine-to-five it. And that’s not me, that’s not who I am. Now it’s not scary at all, it’s the most liberating feeling. I’m never going to write lyrics before the booth again.” But, although Talbot knew that he wouldn’t write anything in advance, he did know the album’s subject matter well ahead of time. “I said very early on, ‘I can only write about love right now in my life, that’s all I’m interested in writing about’. And Bowen said, ‘OK, I trust you.’”

In light of this, it feels remiss not to mention Talbot’s snarl of “Fuck the king!” on ‘Gift Horse’ – one of many furious references to the monarchy throughout ‘TANGK’. How does that fit into his framework of writing love songs? “The idea of compassion is the antithesis of occupation and monarchy. Humanely, there is no room for a monarchy, if you believe in love and empathy. Full stop.” Talbot’s new focus on empathy also feels slightly at odds with some of the band’s older tracks, such as ‘Model Village’ and ‘Never Fight A Man With A Perm’ - tracks that feature working class stereotypes as their antagonists. He bridles at the suggestion. “That’s for you to decide. I was writing about getting my head kicked in, because I was an obnoxious prick to the men who beat me as a teenager. I can tell you that song was written in hindsight; maybe if I learned to show some respect to strangers, I wouldn’t have gotten my ass handed to me.”

Talbot takes a moment to collate his thoughts before hitting what, for IDLES, is the biggest change on ‘TANGK’. “It’s self-reflection, and all our music is about the progression of self. It’s a different tone, yes – hence the reference of the fable of the wind and the sun,” he says, referencing Aesop’s fable in which the sun’s gentle warmth triumphs over the wind’s bluster, nodded to in the album’s liner notes. “We’re trying to be the sun for once. Same moral, different tune.”

‘TANGK’ is out 16th February via Partisan.

Tags: IDLES, From The Magazine, Features, Interviews

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