IDLES Won The Battle, Now They’re Ready For The War
One minute's walk from Joe Talbot’s Bristol home is a food bank. These days, he says, the queue regularly snakes all the way back to outside his front door – as people, wearing protective masks and standing at a safe distance from one another, literally risk their lives to try and feed their families. It’s the sort of scene you’d expect in a dystopian film, but this is the increasing reality in communities all over the UK. “It’s savage,” says Joe. “To have people going to charities for food – it’s not government subsidiaries, they’re charities – is dark.”
IDLES’ frontman wrote the song Carcinogenic about these struggles, and how they’re compounded by advertisers telling these same people to eat better, look better, be better – leading to what Joe describes as “a cycle of blame, shame, and oppression”.
“Why are they being pummelled with the idea they’re not good enough?” he asks, shaking his head.
The song Reigns, meanwhile, deals with the polar opposite end of the class spectrum, articulating Joe’s contempt for the concept of the monarchy. Perhaps ‘articulating’ isn’t the right word given that its lyrics, written during a flight to a festival, amount to just two lines: ‘How does it feel to have blue blood coursing through your veins? How does it feel to have shanked the working classes into dust?’
“I just want people to know that the Royal Family as an institution is a c**t,” spits Joe. “But that’s just not as clever a lyric, is it?”
Welcome, then, to Ultra Mono. If IDLES’ previous album, 2018’s Joy As An Act Of Resistance, was the Bristol quintet’s rallying cry, this third album is the logical next step. It’s not the hostile takeover you might expect, though, but something more powerful: a punk rock juggernaut with the aim of disarming the self-doubt of Britain’s broken people. “It’s pretty concise with its messaging,” says Joe. “The whole purpose of it was to be concise: accept oneself in the present and have purpose and power in the now.”
Joe’s something of an expert on this, you see, having given himself just such a course of empowerment during the making of Ultra Mono, though he clearly doesn’t think further explanation is necessary. He’d originally had the idea that all journalists and photographers covering the album would get one question and one photograph each, respectively, though that was quickly nixed by the band’s label, Partisan Records. Even without such restrictions in place, and for all the rousing rhetoric he’ll spout later, Joe starts off as rather hesitant. Sat in the meeting room of an east London hotel, a table of empty cans (of water) attesting to an exhausting schedule of interviews, his initial utterances are piecemeal, and either throwaway silly or deadly serious, making it unclear which line he’d rather follow. His mouth is often in a joyous grin, though paired with intense eyes that give him an air somewhere between Eddie The Eagle and Hunter S. Thompson.
Ahead of Ultra Mono’s release, he’s penned a short essay explaining the themes and thinking behind the third album from his band, completed by guitarists Mark Bowen – who joins Joe today – and Lee Kiernan, bassist Adam Devonshire, and drummer Jon Beavis. The essay, which Joe describes as “a little guide for the hoi polloi”, finds him unleashing such potent admissions as: ‘[Ultra Mono is] a big fuck off ox that carries us through the sludge and doubt and backhanded fuckery, delivering us to all that we love: us/we/you.’
Presumably, K! ventures by way of an icebreaker, this was a way for him to head off at the pass some of the more obvious lines of questioning the band would have to face? Joe nods slowly in reply. After a lengthy silence the words come – and rarely let up from that point onwards.
“Part of the process is being able to vocalise, reimagine and repurpose what we’ve made, because it’s about reflection, isn’t it?” he begins. “It’s like free therapy, only the therapist has an agenda, to tell a story through [our] name. And we’re aware of that, we’re not stupid; it’s part of the game.”
It’s not surprising that Joe should need such an outlet. Not only have IDLES’ three albums, Ultra Mono included, showcased the startling marriage of punk rock and passionate poetry that’s made them the most exciting break-out band in Britain, they’ve all been characterised by traumatic episodes in the singer’s life. During the making of their debut, 2007’s Brutalism, he lost his mother. She suffered a stroke that left her paralysed when Joe was a teenager, with him becoming her chief caregiver after his stepfather’s death. As if that wasn’t painful enough, Joy… examined the grief of losing his daughter during childbirth through the song June: ‘A stillborn was still born / I am a father’.
Ultra Mono, meanwhile, has acted as a vehicle for Joe to process the pressures and insecurities thrust upon him by sudden success while reeling from bruising losses. “[Ultra Mono] came from writing my way out of it,” he explains. “It served as progress out of self-doubt and addiction.”
Those twin adversaries, which are rarely if ever mutually exclusive, gained strength as Joe’s fear of impending fatherhood grew (he missed IDLES winning Best British Breakthrough Act at the 2019 Kerrang! Awards in order to be at the birth of his daughter, now aged one). “My relapse was an amalgamation of not wanting to be a terrible father and being watched by more people than before. To me those people weren’t thinking ‘Wow, these songs are great!’, but instead, ‘I want that fat one in the middle to make a mistake.’ It felt like being a caged animal, touring in a zoo, so I drank and did drugs and got myself into a spot of turmoil.”
Thankfully, Joe was able to re-embrace the sobriety he’d relapsed out of, bringing with him self-belief, love and empathy in the process – qualities that would help with an album that exhibits the distilled essence of IDLES: big, bold and brash, easy to digest but impossible to forget.
Joe has more reason than most to be suspicious of the intentions of others. It’s well documented that IDLES have received criticism from some quarters, including other musicians. Jason Williamson, frontman of Nottingham punk duo Sleaford Mods has been particularly vocal, suggesting IDLES are guilty of “appropriating a working class voice”.
The singer certainly has no doubt about his privilege today, emerging from a period in which people close to him have been profoundly affected by the outbreak of COVID-19. “This situation didn’t put me in a state of panic. I had an income coming in. People are still buying our T-shirts, thank God, and we had time to make more music, spend time with our families and each other.”
He does, however, remember how those barbs hurt, even if he’s inoculated himself against their poison. “You feel dishevelled and bruised, but then you realise that it doesn’t matter. [Ultra Mono] was about thinking you could worry the stuff from the past and worry about what people will say in the future, or you could just learn how to be, stop carrying it with you and needing to numb yourself because it’s so exhausting.”
Mark Bowen has a massive moustache. His facial foliage is so substantial, in fact, that it may be responsible for the softness of the Northern Irishman’s voice, acting as a dampener. Before becoming a musician, Bowen, as everyone knows him, worked as a dentist, plying his toothy trade in prisons.
IDLES’ guitarist has a markedly different vibe to Joe, which he acknowledges, alongside the duo’s status as “the strongest creative input in the band”.
“Joe and I are almost the opposite person,” says Bowen of the yin-yang dynamic he shares with a man with whom he occasionally has a cheeky snog onstage. “Through the last couple of albums we’ve grown in confidence so that I understand what Joe is striving for, and I understand his strengths and weaknesses. His strengths tend to be my weaknesses, his weaknesses tend to be my strengths.”
So you complete one another?
“In terms of Carl Jung, we’re the golden couple,” says Joe, referring to the Swiss psychiatrist’s suggestion that ‘the meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances: if there is a reaction, both are transformed’.
Listen to Joe discuss finding confidence in who he is and what he stands for
Both men began a transformative experience a couple of years ago, on a lengthy drive to a gig in Blackpool, when they discussed the new album for the first time. “[Joe] floated the idea of this engine, and he even used the words ‘Ultra Mono’,” recalls Bowen. “It was about making things more singular, narrowing things down, which was a philosophy that fed into the sonics. Developing that sonic palette shaped the lyrics into blunt instruments.”
Joe’s turn of phrase is chief among the strengths Bowen referred to earlier, taking the opportunity to wax lyrical about his bandmate’s gift when the singer steps outside to take an urgent call. “His ability is mind-blowing,” beams Bowen. “Seven of the songs on this record were written in the vocal booth. Sometimes you don’t have time to get used to it, so it’s a bit like, ‘Oh, fuck, is that good or is that terrible?’”
Ultra Mono’s third track Mr Motivator is a case in point, featuring as it does the lyrics, ‘Like Flava Flav in the club riding on the back of John Wayne / Like David Attenborough clubbing seal clubbers with LeBron James,’ which look ridiculous written down, but pop when Joe’s growling them. “Some of the songs were fucking hilarious in the studio,” laughs Bowen. “[Joe] seems to feeds off that and keep going.”
The lean deliciousness of Joe’s words means they stick in the mind, though they’ve stuck in the craw, too, of those who see them as zeitgeist zingers that oversimplify and sloganeer. “We are clichéd and sloganeering: that’s the point,” concedes Joe, returning to the room. “We use the most naïve and humane concepts and we use them with vigour, because we believe them. People need reminding because the dilution of left-wing politics is the pompousness and the procrastination of pedants. More and more people are deciding what to call the bus, instead of just getting on the fucking bus!”
Both men value the importance of the idiosyncratic and the subversive in what they do, too, as reflected by Ultra Mono’s unusual roster of guests, which doubles as a fuck you to haters who’d question their decisions.
Ask Joe and Bowen to identify the artists they see as kindred spirits and they come up short on musicians, selecting instead Mexican painter Frida Kahlo and British author Roald Dahl. Both are name-checked by the track Mr Motivator, with Joe identifying their work as exhibiting a joy and beauty that encourages vulnerability. The latter, the man who wrote Matilda and Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, actually has a tenuous link to Ultra Mono. His granddaughter is writer and former model Sophie Dahl, whose husband Jamie Cullum makes a rather surprising appearance playing piano on the track Kill Them With Kindness, which Joe describes as both “a palette cleanser” and “a clash of culture”.
IDLES met Jamie at last year’s Mercury Music Prize when the band was shortlisted and he was on the judging panel. “I was a kitchen porter for two years and we only listened to Radio 2, which he has a show on,” says Joe of why he was keen to say hello to the diminutive musician and DJ. “I [went] over as a fan, not of his music but his show and the way he presents himself in the public eye. The inclusion of Jamie personifies what we’re about, which is the idea that kudos is cancer. Kudos, to me, is Stockholm syndrome; the route of all success is working hard for what you love, and he does that. I want to be surrounded by Jamie Cullums, not the naysayers.
The strangeness of Jamie’s appearance on Kill Them With Kindness is exaggerated by his appearing alongside David Yow, who also contributes to the tracks War, Anxiety, and The Lover. The Jesus Lizard frontman initially made contact with Bowen via Facebook.
“He wrote: ‘Hi, my name is David Yow – I’m from the singing group The Jesus Lizard,’ which was weird,” recalls Bowen, who, somewhat coincidentally, was listening to his hero’s former band Scratch Acid when he got the message. “He turned up at our show in LA being exactly what you might expect: funny, energetic, kind, and so interested.”
Keeping listeners interested, meanwhile, not just in the content of Ultra Mono’s songs but in the way they’re presented, led IDLES to recruit the help of Kenny Beats. Famed for his work with the likes of rappers Vince Staples and Gucci Mane, Kenny was chosen to provide production programming on the album, which basically meant giving the drums the clout synonymous with hip-hop. They needed to kick listeners in the ears, so IDLES could go toe-to-toe with pristine productions from Billie Eilish and Kanye West on radio and streaming platforms, so the band’s message couldn’t be ignored.
"It's a bizarre life,” reflects Joe of whether he’s reluctant to return to the spotlight that’s burned him so badly (when coronavirus allows it, of course). “I travel around and shout at people for a living. Of course it’s going to be weird if your currency is warm lagers and you’re an alcoholic. That’s hard, so you’ve got to give yourself a break.”
Being more forgiving, kinder and loving to himself has, Joe says, left him feeling “lighter” – untethered from doubt and unencumbered by fear. This reveals something of a dichotomy, though, between the inward calm of Joe’s attitude and the outward ire of his music, which raises two big questions. Firstly, given that Ultra Mono opens with the track War, if this is a ‘battle’ for the soul of a country with divisions widening by the day, what does victory actually look like?
“Peace,” whispers Joe. “I hated myself [before] and I was scared and drinking and doing drugs, things I didn’t want to ever go back to. So it was about coming to and realising that empathy with oneself and empathy with others will kill fascism, outwardly, and fascism towards [oneself]. For me to win, personally, is to be at peace without any distractions of anything to do. I don’t have to distract myself with anything, I can just be.”
Joe discusses the multi-faceted influences behind IDLES’ sound
Secondly, then: given that Joe signed off the aforementioned essay he issued ahead of Ultra Mono’s release with the words ‘All is love’, does he really think love is enough to bring about this peace he so desires?
“I think it truly is,” he offers with a smile. “But the concept of love really has to come back to oneself: you have to learn to be patient with yourself, empathise with yourself and love yourself to truly love others.”
“Obviously I love my daughter, he loves his daughter and I love him,” continues Joe, placing a tattooed hand on Bowen’s arm. “And that’s a beautiful thing. But people who love their children still kill themselves. So yes, I think love is all and all is love. This album is about being at conflict with all the noise in life. It’s unrealistic to think you can be like that all the time.”
He pauses, cocking his head.
“That’s what I want to win,” he smiles, appreciating the relative silence in the street outside.
“And to headline the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury.”
Ultra Mono is released on September 25 via Partisan Records.
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