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IDLES: The rise and rise of Britain's unlikely rock heroes

Turning anger into art has made IDLES one of the biggest bands in the country. For frontman Joe Talbot, it's meant navigating the road to sobriety more than once. As they release their fourth album, the iconoclastic Crawler, he and guitarist Mark Bowen reflect on life at the top, and keeping your head when all around are losing theirs…

IDLES: The rise and rise of Britain's unlikely rock heroes
Words:
Paul Brannigan
Photos:
Tom Ham

On the evening of December 7, 2019, IDLES frontman Joe Talbot stood stock still on a stage erected in the Great Hall of London’s beautiful Alexandra Palace, and gazed upon 9,000 exultant faces illuminated by the venue’s house lights; a passionate, partisan, engaged community united in ‘The People’s Palace’ to celebrate and participate in his band’s biggest UK headline show to date.

“This is terrifying and confusing,” the singer said quietly, addressing himself as much as anyone else, “but it feels right…”

A decade into their career, sucked into the spotlight by the success of their open-hearted, fiercely humanist second album, Joy As An Act Of Resistance, IDLES had arrived.

Pointedly passing up the opportunity to sign off with a grand-standing crowd pleaser – “If you wanted to hear [2017 single] Well Done you should have come to see us four years ago,” Joe chided one persistent heckler – the quintet elected to close out the penultimate show of their extensive 16-month touring cycle by debuting a new song, Danke, one of three freshly-minted compositions featured on the setlist taped to the stage-front wedge monitors, and earmarked for inclusion on album number three.

As with Grounds and War, the brace of then-still-unreleased singles-in-waiting performed earlier in the evening, Danke sounded huge. It's a brutally direct, propulsive, streamlined anti-anthem specifically tailored to bleed into every cubic centimetre of the nation’s most capacious concert halls, the arena-scale venues the upwardly-mobile West Country collective confidently expected to fill when embarking upon the next act of their sonic odyssey.

Already enthusiastically engaged in mapping out the unit’s future-gazing campaign strategy, IDLES’ creative co-pilots Joe Talbot and Mark Bowen envisaged returning in 2020 with the most unapologetically confrontational, brash and brutally visceral set of songs they had yet authored for the band; a compacted, concentrated, mainstream-tilting distillation of the impassioned punk rock sound that proved so bracing on their 2017 debut album Brutalism and its more celebrated, better-amplified successor. After which, the group – completed by metal-loving guitarist Lee Kiernan, bassist Adam Devonshire and drummer Jon Beavis – were unanimous in their determination to gleefully torch their beloved creation, wipe its history, and then begin their grand adventure anew, unencumbered by expectations, obligations or road maps previously unfurled.

And so on the evening of October 2, as it was revealed that Ultra Mono, the third IDLES studio collection, had entered the Official UK Album Chart at Number One, the nation’s new favourite rock band could be found in their Bristol rehearsal room metaphorically shredding the musical blueprints which had served them so well, not an uncorked champagne bottle in sight. With Joe and Mark’s forensically detailed 2020 playbook long-since discarded as the COVID-19 pandemic brought anxiety, uncertainty and a steeply mounting death toll to the planet, IDLES, like the rest of us, were grounded. Crucially, however, the five musicians were not locked in stasis, as empty gig diaries meant they now had unprecedented opportunities for deadline-free creative exploration. As days melted into weeks into months, IDLES repeatedly tore down and re-built the machine, eyes fixed firmly on new horizons, biding their time for their comeback.

"I realised that I’ve been weakening myself, and stopping myself from being the best version of myself, for 20 years..."

Joe Talbot

For the band’s often tightly-wound frontman, the past 18 months have proved revelatory. Having spent much of the past five years calling out all manner of pricks and punishers, Joe found that the unnatural calm which accompanied lockdown offered him space and time for introspection, for recalibration and renewal.

The most significant new development in the singer’s life was the birth of his daughter, Frida, in the spring of 2020, but there was also another unfamiliar presence in the family home: a sober, in-therapy, present-in-the-moment Joe Talbot. Long aware that he had addiction issues, the singer was always well practised in the delivery of excuses explaining why right now just wasn’t the right time to seek help and confront his demons: his moment of clarity came in a New York restaurant in October 2019 when a pissed-up American friend leaned across the table and unwittingly delivered a low-key jolt to his senses.

“It was nothing catastrophic,” the singer clarifies. “He just kinda drunkenly said to me that I’m much better when I’m sober. It was just the way he told me, it made me realise that I am. I realised that I’ve been weakening myself, and stopping myself from being the best version of myself, for 20 years, through fear and anger. It was just a quiet conversation, with one person, utterly shitted, and I just listened. A quiet word in the ear at the perfect time when you need it most can be very impactful. It’s unfortunate that I didn’t have it sooner, but I’m just grateful to be here.”

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It arrives cloaked in darkness, desolate and pregnant with dread. Calling to mind the unnerving, bleakly atmospheric introduction to Angel, track one, side one on fellow Bristol act Massive Attack’s superb 1998 album Mezzanine, MTT 420 RR opens with a pulsing synth line and a single, repetitive, chiming guitar note, before an emotionless Joe Talbot blankly intones ‘It was February, I was cold and I was high.’ An account of a perilous encounter with a speeding motorcyclist, serving as a melancholic meditation on the fine margins separating life from death, and featuring the striking lyric ‘I can see my spinal cord swing high’, it’s a haunting vision of a dazed, bruised and traumatised figure crawling from the twisted wreckage of a high-speed collision, barely capable of discerning whether they’re in this world or the next. But if the simple act of survival offers a sense of hope amid the horror, it’s soon overshadowed by an escalating sense of foreboding as Joe robotically repeats the lyric ‘Are you ready for the storm?’ As a metaphor for a year largely characterised by a muted but omnipresent sense of anxiety, it’s painfully on the nose.

It may pivot around his 15-to-20-year struggle with substance abuse, addiction, trauma and grief, but Joe is insistent that Crawler, the new IDLES album, is a release suffused with hope and light and joy and redemption. Granted, there’s not a huge amount of levity in the harrowing Car Crash, an unflinching account of a near-death experience inspired by the singer’s memories of crashing a car while high – ‘raw flesh on the bottom of a footwell floor’ – or in The Wheel, a deeply personal reflection on the cyclical nature of addiction with Joe recalling his younger self tearfully pleading with his mother to stop drinking before her self-administered poison killed her. But there’s black humour here too: the frantic Wizz, built around a rapid-fire rhythm track calling to mind the image of a wired coke fiend’s credit card chopping joylessly through a mound of white powder, features the vocalist singing lyrics – ‘Peruvian flake! Pink Champagne!’ – cribbed from actual text messages from his former drug dealer. There’s nods to Motown and soul, a burst of powerviolence, an off-kilter dance track inspired by Chancellor Of The Exchequer Rishi Sunak, and all manner of unsettling synth rumbles and fractured beats (a nod to fellow Bristol artists Portishead). There’s even – whisper it – the suggestion of a happy ending for even the most tortured and troubled souls, with the key lyric on closing track The End insisting that, ‘In spite of it all, life is beautiful.’ It may not be quite as poetic as Oscar Wilde’s celebrated line, ‘We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars,’ but signing out on a bold and brilliant piece of art heavily loaded with images of violence, self-destruction, torn flesh and punctured dreams, it’s a most welcome shard of light.

Sharply shooting down any suggestion that the album’s title may have been subconsciously inspired by the joy found in observing his one-year-old daughter literally finding her feet and developing a personality all her own during his enforced break from IDLES’ heavy touring schedule – “It has absolutely nothing to do with my daughter crawling around” he states icily – Joe concedes that Crawler does carry more than one meaning.

“What it’s supposed to be is different angles or perspectives on triumph,” he reveals, “and healing from trauma or addiction or grief or just a sense of loss, which I think most people right now in the world are coming back from: a loss of control, a loss of a job, loss of income, loss of security… there’s so many things that people have felt like they’ve lost over the last two years, and that’s just what I was writing about at the time, because I was reflecting. I was in privileged position where I could reflect over the past 20 years of my life and start writing some introspective songs that were telling a story that helped me understand where I’ve come from and where I am.”

Sitting alongside his friend, Mark Bowen nods in agreement. The newly-acquired cowboy hat perched atop the guitarist’s head is the sole visual clue to IDLES’ current location: the guitarist would be inviting all manner of smart-arsed comments adopting this ruggedly macho look in his native Belfast, but in Austin, Texas, it’s practically mandatory – a respectful act of cultural appropriation guaranteeing the visiting rock star warm smiles and nods of approval on the city sidewalks.

Every date on band’s U.S. tour is sold out, and having performed last week to 6,000 fans across two nights at New York’s Terminal 5 club, in a matter of hours, the guitarist and vocalist will be giving the sell-out crowd at the 2,100 capacity Stubb’s BBQ amphitheatre their first exposure to prime cuts from Ultra Mono and Crawler. Though the news has yet to register in their facial expressions, the pair profess to be beyond excited at the prospect.

"Crawler is supposed to be is different angles or perspectives on triumph”

Joe Talbot

Long-time friends as well as bandmates – “I think we were best mates within 20 minutes of meeting each other, but we are almost exactly the opposite person, in every aspect of our lives,” says Mark, known to all simply as ‘Bowen’ – the pair share a degree of caution when faced with representatives of the Fourth Estate, but clearly recognise the value of their promotional schedule: when our transatlantic Zoom connection drops for the fourth or fifth time in the opening 10 minutes of our scheduled hour-long conversation, Joe offers up his mobile phone number instead so that we may continue the interview uninterrupted. It’s a small, gracious gesture, but one indicative of the singer’s commitment to laying bare the ideas and intentions underpinning his art. Both men use the word “rebirth” in reference to the significance of Crawler, and their pride in their latest work, co-produced by Mark alongside American hip-hop producer Kenny Beats, is as tangible as it is entirely understandable.

With the benefit of hindsight and distance, Joe is of the opinion that the bullishly one-dimensional and relentless attack-mode ferocity of Ultra Mono “translated badly as a home listening device.” That it hit Number One, says Mark, downplaying the achievement, was “all about the community that’s been built around us, all down to our label and our fans”. Arguably a compendium of great singles rather than a great album, per se, Ultra Mono can be seen to share a spiritual kinship with Metallica’s punishing fourth album …And Justice For All, in that it represents what might be considered the band’s trademark sound pushed to the nth degree. Indeed, speaking to MOJO magazine in August, the vocalist posited his belief that Ultra Mono was consciously crafted as “a caricature of what people thought of us”.

“We wanted to kind of twist that up, and then burn that effigy so we could start Crawler,” he explained.

Today, Joe is disarmingly honest in acknowledging that some of the negative notices the band received last time out – largely revolving around criticisms that his well-intentioned, heartfelt but occasionally sledgehammer-subtle lyrics calling out societal failings lacked nuance – may have some merit.

“I feel like a lot of the criticism that I got for Ultra Mono and a lot of the criticism I got for Joy… is fair,” he graciously concedes. “It’s a perspective on my songwriting, and I learned that I was just being defensive. Instead of turning around and storming off, throwing my toys out of the pram, I decided to like, look at what I was responsible for, and hold myself accountable for the songs I’ve written. And it’s a beautiful thing, I’m excited about where I’m at. Everything that’s happened over the past two years has allowed me the grace and time to improve, both in [my] personal, and in music, life.”

With no disrespect intended to the three band members not present on the call today, Crawler is emphatically the Mark And Joe Show, the pair having, individually or in partnership, written all 14 songs on the album. So perfectly formed is Crawler, that it’s something of a shock to hear that it was their second run at following up Ultra Mono: they’d actually written half of an entirely different album – largely motorik post-punk, apparently – provisionally titled Meditations, before Joe hit on the Crawler concept and discarded almost everything the group had committed to tape.

“Me and Joe kinda pulled ahead of the others in understanding where we were with the concept, and what or roles were going to be,” Mark explains. “We had to take this leading role in the songwriting and the production and the recording, which does mean that there are some songs that the other guys don’t play on. But we’re ever-evolving, and learning as musicians, and sometimes the best thing you can do is not play, and give space to other people to push where they’re going creatively.”

It’s worth pausing for a second here to consider IDLES’ status as they return with what is the most cohesive, sonically daring and emotionally-wrenching album in their catalogue. In America, their profile has risen to the point where they got to perform lead-off single The Beachland Ballroom on top-rated late night talk show Jimmy Kimmel Live!, and on New Year’s Eve, they’ll close out 2021 onstage at the 19,000-capacity Barclay Center in New York as main support to local heroes The Strokes. Back on home soil, 2022 will commence with the quintet playing four sold-out nights at London’s 5,000-capacity O2 Academy Brixton, before going nationwide on a trek that features three sell-out shows in Dublin, three sell-out shows in Glasgow and three sell-out shows in Manchester. These are remarkable numbers for any band, never mind a band marketed as punk: for reference, the last English punk band to play four sold out shows at the Academy on Brixton (five, actually) was the Sex Pistols, raking in another tidy wodge of filthy lucre in 2007 as part of their 30th anniversary celebration of Never Mind The Bollocks.

Ask Joe Talbot if he’s at all surprised by the level of success IDLES have already attained and the line briefly goes silent before the singer responds with just one word: “No.”

Really? Not at all? This was all part of a 10 Year Plan?

“It’s entirely intentional,” Mark interjects. “We’re working our arses off to do it, like…”

“It’s been a clear spike in numbers over the past three years,” Joe concedes, “but we’ve been working towards this point for 12 [years]. We’ve worked through that meticulously, and we’ve been mindful of every step, so we’re here because we’re here. We’ve got a brilliant team around us, we’ve got an amazing booking agent, we’ve got an amazing manager, we’ve got an amazing label, and more importantly, we’ve got an amazing audience.

“Outsiders have been surprised by our success,” he says somewhat pointedly, “but we’re not: we’ve worked it, we know what we’re doing, we’ve been mindfully writing music that we love, that we wanna hear, and we wanna go and see, and it’s great.

“We will definitely get bigger, I know that for a fact,” Joe adds. “But, you know, if someone said this is [the] plateau, and I’d stay here for the rest of my life, touring the world with my best friends, and writing beautiful music together, then I’d die happy.”

You view IDLES as a life-long commitment, Joe?

“There’d be something seriously wrong with me if I didn’t want to do this until I’m dead,” comes the instant reply. “Music is everything.”

"It’s not about money, or accolades, or adulation, it’s about going out and thrashing about on your guitar with your mates"

Mark Bowen

“It’s an incredible privilege to be able to do what we do, and it’s for us,” adds Mark. “We go out onstage every night for us, it’s not about money, or accolades, or adulation, it’s about going out and thrashing about on your guitar with your mates.


“Lockdown taught us all to be very grat eful and gave us a new gratitude towards being able to tour the world and perform live as working musicians. A lot of our friends didn’t have the privilege of being in the position that we were in: we always knew we’d be coming back. There’s a renewed hunger and appetite both for the live shows and for the message of the band, there’s a renewed vigour for the sentiments that we express onstage and want to share with our audience.”

“We’re living the dream,” Joe says simply.

“It is a dream,” his bandmate agrees. “But it’s important to soak this in, to be present in the moment. There’s no point in getting excited about something that’s ahead of you, when you’ve got something equally as incredible happening in two hours’ time. I’m not thinking about Brixton, I’m not thinking about New Year’s Eve, I’m not thinking about playing big festival slots, I’m thinking about playing to a Texan crowd for the first time in two years.”

One thing is clear: re-energised, remoulded and reborn, IDLES in 2021 are ready for whatever lies ahead.

“We are changing the world, our world, and some other people’s worlds, song by song, and show by show,” says Joe quietly. “Nick Cave said something brilliant recently, about how it’s very easy in a place of isolation to look at the internet and see the world through this very blinkered window, and come out of it feeling that everyone is your enemy, and everyone is evil. But really everyone has similar wants and needs, and everyone has similar insecurities, and everyone wants to be loved: and the more open that conversation is between different people, the better our future. Every show changes us, because we get more and more exhilarated by what’s being built around us. That’s a beautiful thing.”

Crawler is out now via Partisan.

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