Strength In Unity: Why IDLES Will Never Give Up The Fight

It’s only at times of great division that we realise quite how much we need each other. Simply ask IDLES – British rock’s breakout success of the past 12 months – for proof.

Strength In Unity: Why IDLES Will Never Give Up The Fight
Header Photo:
Gobinder Jhitta
Live Photo:
Jenn Five

There’s a bittersweet irony in us meeting IDLES on the day that the United Kingdom is supposed to commit to its long-protracted and messy divorce from the European Union. For a band whose key objectives are togetherness and unity, mustering the will to champion those causes on the original ‘leave’ deadline of March 29 feels like a more Herculean task than usual.

Yet almost three years after 51.9 per cent of voters narrowly edged the Brexit referendum on June 23, 2016, British politics finds itself at a disconcerting impasse. That we’re shooting the breeze on all of this on a sunny spring day in Brighton – one of the most inclusive, diverse and liberal areas of the country, where an overwhelming 68.6 per cent majority voted to remain in the EU – only adds to the absurdity. It doesn’t help that vocalist Joe Talbot is ‘hangry’, either.

“Sorry, I’m just really fucking tired,” he offers by way of a needless apology to no-one in particular, explaining why he’s in a bit of a mood. “Thinking about Tories fucking up our country makes me really fucking angry, plus I haven’t eaten in ages.”

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Having heard him spitting feathers on the Bristol band’s songs alone, the hint is very much taken, and so it’s ramen to the rescue. As drummer Jon Beavis and bassist Adam Devonshire prep for tonight’s sold-out show back at the venue, the Dome, Kerrang! treats Joe and guitarists Mark Bowen and Lee Kiernan to some much-needed barbecue tonkotsu in town. While phones are duly checked for updates on what’s going on and everyone struggles to unpick the latest parliamentary woes, exasperation is the prevailing mood around the table.

“No-one wants what [then Prime Minister] Theresa May is fighting for,” the frontman says with a resigned sigh. “The worst part in this is that there’s no certainty in anyone’s future. And the farce is dangerous. People with a complete lack of stability in their lives are dangerous for civilisation. They want to latch on to something and the only certainties are coming from right-wing politics, offering quick solutions that are more often than not xenophobic, nationalist or racist. It’s terrifying, really. There’s nothing to celebrate today. Yes it’s good that Theresa May is not getting what she’s half-heartedly fighting for, but it’s a mess.”

“We sorted the mess out earlier, though,” chirps Belfast-born Bowen, showcasing the best moustache in rock as a cheeky grin stretches across his face. “Lee should be made prime minister (laughs)!”

“If I cut my hair, did some shakas [the ‘hang loose’, thumb up and extended pinky finger hand gesture] and revoked Article 50, everything would be fine,” his fellow six-stringer drolly bats back.

Joe’s evidently not in the form for joking, though. He’s still smarting about the malaise and the root causes that have led the country to the brink of this abyss.

“People were lied to,” he fumes, “and they lapped it up because we were in a double-dip recession and they liked the idea that there was someone to blame – ‘Get rid of them, then we’re fine.’ But it’s never immigrants’ fault. They’re just easy targets because they look and sound different to the ‘indigenous’ people of the country. They’re easy to attack, thanks to the hate that the Daily Mail spew.

“A best-case scenario is that they revoke it,” he adds, assuredly. “The next time a referendum happens, the public needs to be scared into a position where they read up more, and get more facts that don’t come from fucking tabloids. If they knew half of what politicians know, it would terrify most people. And they wouldn’t be running around watching Ant and fucking Dec.”

Alongside similar such oh-so-British pop culture references, these are themes and concerns that echo all through the agitated racket of IDLES’ music, too. Despite marking their decade as a band this year, it was last summer’s outstanding second record, Joy As An Act Of Resistance, that finally saw the quintet make a significant impact – entering at number five in the UK albums chart and building on the fierce foundations established by their equally uncompromising 2017 debut, Brutalism.

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Anyone who’s paid even a smidgen of attention to their breakthrough success over the past 12 months can’t help but have noticed that IDLES are more than a little different to the average rock band. They look different, they sound different and they think differently. They’re smarter than most and they’re self-aware with it, too, often underscoring any potential for coming across as po-faced with goofy photoshoots to match their music’s caustic lyrical barbs. Yet the zeitgeist-capturing rallying cry of their songs has struck a chord with hordes of music lovers desperate for that something different. It’s seen them infiltrate the mainstream with their ideas, incongruously invited to bring the noise on both Later… With Jools Holland and Soccer AM. It’s landed them on the bills of Download and Glastonbury festivals, and helped scoop a nomination for best British Breakthrough Act at the BRIT Awards. Theirs has been a personal struggle made political, offering glimmers of hope and optimism at a time devoid of such qualities – a plea for unity in the midst of a climate rife with division.

“It’s about empathy, listening, and respect,” Joe offers, feeling somewhat more composed now that he’s got some food in front of him. “I think unity comes from respecting difference, and not apologising for your own. Fundamental anything I find abrasive and antagonistic. Unity comes from a place of almost desperation; of common sense. As someone who I feel has common sense, the left are distracted, scrambling around semantics and attacking each other instead of just going, ‘Actually, there’s a lot more important shit going on right now…’”

On the evening of February 20, IDLES lost out at the BRIT Awards to Glaswegian singer-songwriter, Tom Walker – the latest identikit player in an increasingly oversubscribed market of regular-bloke busker-types, the product of major label desperation to repeat the success of middle-of-the-road warblers like Ed Sheeran and Rag’n’Bone Man. Missing out came as no surprise to the comparatively oddball Bristol band, but little were they prepared for just how disgusted they would feel about the artifice of the ceremony.

“It was one of the weirdest and most vapid experiences of my life,” Joe says with characteristic, no-punches-pulled candour. “I never want to not feel like an outsider at the BRITs. It’s a world of celebrity that is cancerous. It’s opulence in a time of degradation around the country, where people live on food banks. Then there’s this fucking projection of perfection, happiness and joy that is completely obscene. You very much feel like a small fish in a big pond, but that’s where we want to be. We want to change their narrative – be that Trojan Horse – to change them. So it’s important that we were there. Our eyes are more open to that privilege. I never knew that world was like that.

“Just having five middle-aged men there – three of whom are overweight – was a step in the right direction,” he summarises, emboldened at the memory of their mere presence raising disapproving eyebrows. “It goes to show that if a haggard, 34-year-old alcoholic can do it, you can too. But that’s not where we want to stop.”

Before we get on to where they do want to go, it’s worth pausing to reflect on where they’ve come from, such are the contrasting experiences of IDLES in 2019 and IDLES any time in the years preceding this mainstream attention. As the honesty in their songs starkly attests, these are men who have endured untold horrors as they’ve struggled along for the past decade. They’ve played shows for fees of £50 that didn’t even cover petrol costs to and from Bristol. Lee used to work in construction to pay the bills between tours. Bowen used to be a dentist in the capital by day, playing shows by night, then driving back and forth between venues, home and work, feeling perpetually exhausted. For years after his stepfather passed away, Joe used to be the sole carer for his ill mother, until she died in the midst of the band making Brutalism. Before there was any hint of an upturn in their musical fortunes, he and Lee each had their problems with various addictions. Then there was the tragedy of Joe’s first daughter dying during birth, as IDLES began working on Joy As An Act Of Resistance. In a happier turn of events, he and his partner have since welcomed their new daughter into the world and tied the knot. Now, IDLES can even afford to pay themselves a wage from this. All told, life across the past nine months couldn’t be much more contrasting to the hardships this band went through on their way up. And it provides ample cause to reframe those struggles every day.

“Being an addict and coming out the other side,” the frontman begins, “you have that contrast of numbing and then suddenly everything is un-numbed. Life becomes more saturated. And losing my first daughter, having the opportunity and privilege to have a baby now… I know what it is to have an empty nursery, where you must move all this stuff out as you try to piece your life back together. Now I get to fill that room with nappies and toys. And the future’s bright because it was so dark before.

“It’s always the way,” he stoically shrugs. “It’s sad that you need the darkness to really appreciate the light. But I’m fucking lucky; I’m happy, and my partner has given me a new lease of life.”

That’s a theme that threads through Lee’s story, too. The easy-going, self-confessed Kerrang! reader in the ranks discovered his favourite bands within the pages of this magazine growing up, and considers IDLES being on the cover as a “dream come true”. But it wasn’t so long ago that he was living in a waking nightmare. As everyone else around the table cheers with a palate-cleansing round of sake, he opts out, explaining that it’s been seven years and two days exactly since he last touched a drop of alcohol.

“I’ve never loved life more than I do now,” he smiles. “In my past, I did so much: I felt that taking drugs and drinking was my everything. And the moment it stopped – it had to stop – my life got better. When I look back, it was actually a hellhole, and there was nothing for me there. I had no life whatsoever back then. I didn’t ever want to feel; I wanted to die; I hated life.

“I’ve done a lot of work on that over the years,” he continues, rightly feeling proud of his recovery. “I don’t feel like, in public, I’m quite ready to share the reasons why I ended up in those holes. But I’m getting there, and I need to do more to help others, because I had a lot of help building me up and pulling me out. If I think, ‘I’m having a terrible day, I’d love to do a gram, some crack or get drunk,’ I just look back and go, ‘Nah, you’re alright,’ because everything looking forward looks amazing to me.”

In the process of addressing the problems within, IDLES found a way to look outside of themselves and connect to people on a mass scale. “We needed Joy… first,” admits Joe. “We needed it to get out of the fucking shithole that we were in.”

Not that the process was an overnight exercise, or indeed a simple one. They relied on each other as a gang of mates, first and foremost, to form a bond that would eventually become more akin to that of family.

“I wanted to improve my life as an alcoholic drug addict. I wanted to come out of this horrible black cloud and be a better human being,” the vocalist says of his own salvation. “That meant that these guys had to talk to me, and my partner had to tell me that I was being a dick – to myself and to my friends. Our perseverance brought us together. If we’d given up, it would have made us resent the situation and each other. In the middle of our career, we’d hate each other. I was a piece of shit, a lot of the time. And we were all best mates before we started. The hard times tested our friendships, but now we’re brothers.”

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That support network still helps, as does their collective determination to stay on track, but it remains a challenge. The last time they came off a three-month stint on the road, the exhaustion left Joe feeling “broken” and the experience forced a re-examination of what they were doing and how they were doing it, ahead of another busy period this year.

“We fell into unhealthy behaviour and unhealthy attitudes,” Bowen admits. “Now we’ve had time for self-reflection, we’ve made a conscious decision that we’re going to monitor our relationship with alcohol, to exercise every day, to eat healthfully, and improve our mindset moving forward.”

Despite being in the midst of their biggest UK tour yet, entering into the final straits promoting Joy As An Act Of Resistance, IDLES have already begun moving forward and started working on album three. They have seven songs in the bag (“Six of them, I fucking love!” Lee enthuses), which they’ve whittled down from 18. They’ve already settled on a title, they’ve written a manifesto, and in the past two weeks the process has reached “critical mass” as they’ve grown to collectively understand how the record should shape up. As things stand they’re set to record it in September, but remain tight-lipped on too many specifics, lest they spoil the surprise. Joe does draw the curtain back a touch, however, offering the briefest of glimpses at where the band’s heads are at as they embark upon the creative process once more.

“On the second album, joy was the combative tool,” he explains. “That wasn’t to break things – it was to build something new, using positivity, compassion and empathy. We still have joy, we still have brutalism, we’ve come from explosive catharsis and we’ve come through self-reflection. Now it comes to a point of execution. We must execute our practices, and try to build something beautiful. It’s so freeing to give yourself a title, a shape and a colour…”

“That ties us beautifully back to what we were talking about earlier with Brexit,” Bowen reckons. “There’s no consensus, there’s no meta narratives, and there’s no understanding of what Brexit means. No-one has built the ship of Brexit yet – so it’s not free to move forward and progress.”

“It does tie in,” nods Joe, agreeing with his bandmate before taking the piss out him for trying to write this piece on our behalf. “It’s always diegetic to what we are at that point. As a band, we’re always conscious of what’s going on around us. We will always be on the pulse, because we are concerned with our surroundings and the welfare of our loved ones. And our enemies. That sounds like a dramatic word, but I do have enemies – there are people that I fucking hate. Understand that I don’t want any harm to them – I just fucking hate them.”

It’s important not to misconstrue the blunt force of his words, however. Sure, he’ll drop a few casual C-bombs, and often sounds like a man possessed of the kind of temper that’s best not tested, but it’s all love in IDLES’ world. This is a band, after all, who wrote the song Samaritans about toxic masculinity (sample lyric: ‘The mask of masculinity is a mask... that’s wearing me’), inspired by Grayson Perry’s book, The Descent Of Man, which led to the frontman becoming an ambassador for the titular charity.

“I’ve cried a lot recently at gigs,” he admits, as if to illustrate the point. “Because it’s the most overwhelming feeling. It’s an energy. It’s not, ‘We’ve done this.’ It’s something the audience gives you, where people sing songs back to you and it’s this unison. I had it in Paris, I had it in London and I had it in Bristol. It’s like I’m overwhelmed by love.”

There’s evidence of that love and compassion in the music influencing IDLES’ audience, too, many of whom now feel empowered enough to share their own harrowing stories of struggle and survival using the #AFGang hashtag across social media.

“The #AFGang – which is not us – is a community built around other people being proactive,” Joe explains. “I’ve got messages from people saying that they’ve come out to their parents because of our music, or that they were depressed or suicidal. It’s saved peoples lives, literally. One person was going to kill themselves, they cried for help and someone came, and that’s something that we have enabled with the message in our music.”

Far from preaching to the converted or sending their ideas into an echo chamber, IDLES insist they are bearing firsthand witness to real change in the world.

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“Our music has definitely changed people’s perspectives and I won’t apologise for saying that,” the frontman proudly states. “I don’t think it’s arrogant. I think it’s fucking beautiful. And it’s the one thing I want my children to take from this. What we’ve done as a group of privileged men is used our privilege for the benefit of others. That’s a magical thing; it helps me sleep well at night.

“I’m not a poser, this isn’t bullshit,” he reiterates, acutely aware that some might wilfully misinterpret his passion for something more egotistical. “We’ve changed lives, because we’ve been positive. And we stuck to that knowing that some people wouldn’t understand it. The bravery of our audiences to come out and be part of something much bigger than us is overwhelming. We can entertain, make people laugh and change the world, even if just a tiny bit. We owe it to the world to make it a better place. We’re not pious, but we can actually spark conversations.

“This is me on half a beer,” he finishes, laughing as he checks himself from getting carried away for a second. “Can you imagine me on seven? I just turn into a horrible, antagonistic prick.”

Never change, Joe.

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