Happiness Is All The Rage: Idles’ Joe Talbot On Toxic Masculinity And Vulnerability
Under the hot television lights, Joe Talbot is pacing around at The Maidstone Studio in Kent. With his hair slicked back and black t-shirt tucked into his trousers, he’s a bundle of barely-contained energy, moving with purpose between his bandmates. He’s right in the background, yet still exudes a sense of business as Jools Holland records a piece to camera, introducing the first show of the latest series of the Later… music show. After all, he and his band Idles travelled some 3,490 miles from their U.S. tour to play two songs before a studio audience.
From the opening, discordant notes of their first song, Danny Nedelko, there’s a conspiratorial twinkle in their eyes as they slam into the first verse. Guitarist Lee Kiernan trades riffs with Mark Bowen, and then he’s off. For the briefest of moments, you can practically hear the show’s floor manager jaw drop as the guitarist bounds over to a grand piano and writhes around on its polished lid like a dog with an itchy back. Moments later, Bowen is sat at the piano, tinkling his host’s ivories with all the finesse of a surgeon wearing boxing gloves. It’s barely controlled mayhem which prompts an estate agent called Michael to describe them as “truly appalling” on Twitter.
Later… With Jools Holland, now in its 53rd series, has regularly come under fire from rock fans who believe the show is more comfortable booking cosy MOR singer-songwriters instead of anything with a modicum of volume. You can count the number of bands in our world who’ve graced their studio floor on one hand. But tonight, despite Michael’s angry tweet, Idles provide the most thrilling eight minutes of television for a long time. Even the show’s host admitted he was “thrilled to have that dazzling energy in this room” before making a mental note to have a runner call a French polisher in the morning.
Their second album, Joy As An Act Of Resistance, debuted in the Official Album Chart last month at number five and sold 11,000 copies during its first week. With bookings taking them into September 2019, Idles are a band in demand and they’re not taking one moment of this for granted.
Idles released their debut Brutalism in March 2017, an exhilarating, cathartic album, partly informed by the death of Joe’s mother. Following a paralysing stroke, Joe cared for her for five years until her death, an event which shone a light on his self-destructive tendencies. Her photograph adorns the album cover. Joy As An Act Of Resistance is an altogether different beast, featuring songs inspired by toxic masculinity, gender politics, openness and monumental grief.
We caught up with Joe to find out more.
It’s not often you see bands go near Jools Holland’s piano, let alone climb all over it. Did that stress the floor manager out?
Joe Talbot: They were fine. I think they enjoyed it as much as we did. They booked us for a reason and knew what to expect. We played it graciously and with as much vigour as possible and I expect it was as refreshing for them as it was for us. It was a dream come true and I think you could see that on our faces. I don’t think they’d have cared if we’d shat on the piano.
The energy of the performance was reminiscent of At The Drive-In’s appearance on the show in 2000.
After they played, I remember the look on Robbie Williams’ face as he leaned on the piano. We are that sort of band. We don’t underestimate our audiences and we show gratitude when we play to the best of our ability. It’s a very nice comparison. To be fair, At The Drive-In were the first band to break that wall, whatever that is. We aren’t the first band to do it, but it’s beautiful to be compared to that experience. It was memorable and I hope that we were memorable.
Let’s talk about the new album, then. When did you first notice the phrase ‘Joy As An Act Of Resistance’?
I read it on the internet maybe two and half, three years ago. It stood out because it felt so poignant and true. It was something that rang true in me. It made sense. And I love the way a phrase can be so concise and still so potent. I wanted to look at that as an ethos of living my life that way. It worked. I went into counselling and learned to love myself and be vulnerable. And from that, I wrote an album with the boys. It was something I’d lived first before I made an album.
Did you go into counselling after your daughter Agatha died?
I was in counselling before my daughter died. It definitely helped, that systematic opening up every week was a big part of it. My friends and family and most importantly my fiancee were the biggest reasons for me surviving my daughter’s death. I’d already got to a point where vulnerability was something I was practicing, but it definitely saved my life.
Was it cognitive behaviour therapy?
It wasn’t CBT. I was practicing mindfulness in my own life, but it was straight-forward counselling.
Why do you think men have a problem showing their vulnerable side?
The book I read, The Descent of Man [by Grayson Perry], which I read during the making of this album, was a really concise version of what we’re talking about right now. 95 per cent of violent crimes are committed by men. Suicide is the biggest killer of men under 45. We live in an overpopulated country, an overpopulated world, so isolation should be a thing of the past. Even when you said men are scared of showing their vulnerable side, that language, if you think about it, is wrong. It’s not our vulnerable side we’re not showing, it’s us. There’s no vulnerable side and brave side. Vulnerability is a vehicle of showing who you truly are. What we do is hide parts of ourselves that we don’t like because we’re told not to like them by society. The more you learn to love yourself, who you are, your entirety, and listen to yourself long enough, you become confident enough to show all of yourself. You become more confident in listening to other people; they’ll be vulnerable to you and its a more lucid and fair conversation going on between different people.
How long after the release of Brutalism did you begin to work on the next album?
We started writing straight away but we eventually scrapped the songs because we weren’t feeling them. We chucked a lot of songs out. We realised we weren’t happy with the writing process, so we started again.
When did the writing sessions start to feel right, then?
I can’t give you an exact date or anything, but we just got to a point where we were frustrated and realised we were trying to sustain that idea of gratitude and success from the first album. We weren’t used to reading reviews or having so much feedback. It started to eat us up a bit, I think. We realised we needed to go back to writing songs for us and listen to each other more. And Joy As An Act of Resistance came in as an idea and we realised we could change our narrative and listen to ourselves more as a way of opening up and making a change forever.
Let’s talk about the opening song Colossus and the lyric, ‘I am my father’s son, his shadow weighs a tonne.’ Do you think all men feel a pressure to live up to the expectations of their father?
My father has always been supportive about anything I do, as long as I’m happy and not harming anyone else. He’s an artist and understands and taught me, really, how to work hard in something you love. He’s taught me a lot about creating in general. He’s a very patient man, so it’s not like I felt any daunting pressure to be a man. It’s the idea of success and how I see success; he gets up every morning and does something he loves. That is success really, no matter what you get paid. That’s the dream. No matter how supportive and open-minded my father would be, there’s always some notion that I needed to live up to his successes, even though he’s super supportive. It goes beyond my father. The ideas and expectations of fatherhood is that there’s a whole history, a long line of inherited impetus in not succeeding as a man that comes from the middle ages and beyond. It’s an interesting take on pressure and how isolated I felt, because I felt like I wasn’t succeeding as a person and a man.
You decided to stop drinking in February. What led to that?
I’m not a very nice person sometimes. There was some real cyclical behaviour going on in my life where I constantly kept letting myself and other people down because of alcohol, or because I wasn’t happy. I was masking that and numbing it with alcohol. I needed to get to a place where I was lucid and learn more about myself in order to move forward. I couldn’t do that drunk or hungover.
How do you feel now?
I’m drinking beer again, but not like I was. I got to a point where I was scared of alcohol, I guess you’d say, where I thought it was like the key to opening up this beast – and it’s nonsense, for me, anyway. For Lee, the other guy in our band, he’s an alcoholic, he’s a different kind of alcoholic. He cannot touch alcohol and I can completely understand that. For me, it was about being in control and learning about myself. Now I’m in a place where I feel I can [drink] every now and again. I think I’ve got a bit too comfortable, so I’ll stop again. I very much appreciate sobriety; it’s the best thing I’ve ever done. It was a massive relief knowing that I could quit alcohol. I didn’t think I ever could. Now I can see the benefits and rewards of it. It makes it all the more worthwhile.
On Never Fight A Man With A Perm, you paint a vivid picture of small-town pub violence.
I wanted to add a different part of the palette to where I was and where I was going, reflecting on the darker points of my history. I used to be a real piece of shit and I used to be surrounded by that sort of behaviour, violent behaviour that was through boredom. I was surrounded by these really angry men and I wanted to reflect on how ludicrous it was. It was also to give people a bit of advice and never start a fight with a man with a perm. I’ll tell you that for nothing (laughs). I wanted to portray the imperfect side of me, because I hate that idea people think I’m trying to come across as perfect; this messiah-like figure who’s like, ‘Hey guys, let’s all be nice to each other… life can be better if you just be nice’. That would be nice, but the reality is that life is savage. It’s just a reflection on the ugliest part of my personality. It’s from the past and it’ll stay in the past. The more I remind myself of who I was or where I was from, the less likely I am to go back to that.
Danny Nedelko is a pro-immigrant anthem. It’s come at a time when the likes of Brexit has emboldened people to spew out racist comments with little to no consequence.
It’s not really hard if you think about it. They’ve been given a soapbox and a confidence, because there’s political and socio, and mostly economic unrest. People panic and they want to look after their future and their children’s future. And when people are panicked, it gives right wing political parties and newspapers the opportunity to use that fear for their benefit. To blame immigrants and to blame the poor and working classes, it’s what they’ve done throughout history – scapegoat and attack people who are in that situation. It’ll always happen and it’s up to other people to remind the scared masses that immigrants are a mass of individuals who have families, hopes and dreams, work ethics and beautiful cultures and interesting ideas. The more you remind people of the individuals, the less likely they are to group them altogether and hate them for something they’re not. But it’ll always happen, man. People are fucking scumbags. You have to remind people to be compassionate and hold a mirror up – no matter how different someone is, there’s a lot of fundamental similarities. The humane aspect of this debate is the most important one, for me.
On a live YouTube clip, you introduce Samaritans as a song about “a mental illness called masculinity”. What’s the biggest problem?
It’s a conversation that’s been opened up in my life that’s so interesting. Ninety-five per cent of violent crime is committed by men; that’s something to be aware of. Male emotional impotence is definitely the cause of violence and violent decisions. It’s as simple as that. We need to start changing the narrative because it’s been normalised so much. You have to look at that. Why is that happening? It goes way beyond that as well. A lot of the problems on planet earth comes from men acting out. It’s crazy that you still can’t share your true self because that would be emasculating is fucking insane. It’s harmful and dangerous to our society and to me and the people I care about. I just wanted to talk about it. It’s like putting the monster under the bed. It’s not healthy.
The monster will always be there in the morning.
Yes, it will. Being vulnerable, I feel, is a very courageous act and a lot braver than lying to yourself and hiding the deepest pains.
On Television, you rail against the media and society’s pressure on women to uphold standards of beauty. What were you aiming for with that song?
Women are attacked constantly with tropes of femininity. It’s savage. That’s the point. I read recently that someone was criticising me for what I was saying in Television was said so many times before by people like Beyoncé. My point was, yes, it has been said before by Beyoncé, a model millionaire who looks amazing wearing a bin bag. I was born with club feet, was overweight, alcoholic, balding, awful teeth, and eczema. I think it’s a lot more authentic and relevant for someone like me to say it, because I’ve been told by proxy of awful advertising and articles in all these horrific magazines and newspapers, that I’m ugly and not worthwhile throughout my life at different points. Using the tone of our music and the person I am, to tell myself – as one of those people – to love themselves for who they are and not for what you want to be. I hope that it’s cheered someone up and made them think, ‘Fuck it, I’m not going to look in the mirror today.’
Photo: Tom Ham
As part of the release of the album, you curated an art exhibition. How long did that take to put together?
I gave everyone a deadline and it took maybe four, five months. Everyone did it pretty quick. The process of getting it all framed and catalogued and getting an exhibition space took a while. We made some money for charity, too.
Did the resulting artwork make you consider your lyrics differently?
Not really, they were similar to how I’d envisaged, but I tend not to deconstruct my own lyrics after I’ve written them. I just leave them be. I try not to go backwards, ever.
Now with a Top 5 album, how has that altered the next 12 months for Idles?
We’re on tour until December and have three months of writing and then we’re back on tour. I don’t how it’s changed things, because we’ve been so fucking busy. I don’t know if it’s changed at all. I hope it has. The one thing it has changed is our optimism. It’s made me feel like there’s a lot of people who’ll go out of their way to support us, which is the best feeling in the world. That’s one thing I’ll take from that.
Your UK tour has completely sold out. How would you describe a typical Idles show for those who’ve not had the chance to see you yet?
Magic. It’s powerful. The audience and us together make something great. I love it and it’s a great feeling. What we’re trying to do is create a safe space. Hopefully the way we treat each other on stage encourages people. We’ve never had to kick anyone out. It’s what we’re aiming for.
Joy As An Act Of Resistance is out now. The band tour the UK until October 29.
Words: Simon Young
Photos unless credited: Lindsay Melbourne