‘We were heading down the path of second album syndrome, so we scrapped all the songs and started again’ IDLES frontman Joe Talbot tells me, nine months since our last conversation and on the brink of releasing their second LP, Joy as an Act of Resistance.
‘I was trying to over intellectualise our art because I didn’t want to be seen as this “Oi punk, stupid twat” from Bristol, shouting at people. Then I realised that I was carrying the shame from where I’d come from and feeling embarrassed about being vulnerable. That’s bullshit and not what I’m about, so I scrapped all the lyrics and we started again.
Instead, we wrote an album based on self-belief and loving yourself
‘Instead, we wrote an album based on self-belief and loving yourself. We went the opposite way and tried to write songs that were really naive and simple and obvious. I wanted to make it as easy as possible for critics to tear me apart.’
The DIY post-punk band have been endeared to the hearts of Bristol for many years, but with the release of their debut album Brutalism last year came a series of milestones that set them apart as one of the most important breakthrough acts of 2017.
It’s not been a quick or easy ride for IDLES, who formed in 2009 in Bristol with Joe and bassist Adam Devonshire, before lead guitarist Mark Bowen, drummer Jon Beavis and rhythm guitarist Andy S (replaced by Lee Kiernan in 2014) completed the group. Their debut EP Welcome didn’t arrive until three years later, and the personal and musical journeys they’ve been on since are monumental.
IDLES’ sincerity in having open, frank and honest conversations has earned them listeners around the world
IDLES’ sincerity in having open, frank and honest conversations has earned them listeners around the world. By proxy, their success has also helped shine a light on Bristol’s live scene. Having only really received national attention for electronic styles like trip hop, drum and bass, dubstep and now grime, Bristol is finally on the grid for guitar-based music. As well as generally turning heads in this direction, IDLES are bringing local punk group Heavy Lungs with them on their UK tour this autumn.
‘The attitudes of the people in Bristol had a big part to play in our development as a band early on, who we are as people and what our message is. I don’t think we’d have been able to develop at the pace that we’ve chosen anywhere else. We were surrounded by open-minded musicians that were doing their own thing and sounding nothing like us, but celebrated our music.
Even though we were terrible live, we were going somewhere and we loved what we did
‘All of the promoters in Bristol were really supportive of us from the start too, because they were our friends. Even though we were terrible live, we were going somewhere and we loved what we did. We turned up early and we were polite and we were passionate – and that’s currency in our city.
‘If you’re passionate about what you do and you’re a good person and you work hard, people appreciate that here. They don’t see that as you being a try hard or whatever. Bristol is a beautiful place because of the people.’
In the past year, IDLES have completed largely-sold out UK, US and Canada tours, as well as being handpicked by Foo Fighters to support them at the O2 Arena. Praise has come in reams from tastemakers across the country, but more surprisingly for IDLES, they received coverage in all major national media from Vice to The Guardian, an industry that had previously ignored them, says Joe.
People are terrified of taking any sort of risk, but if you keep your head down and stick to what you love and get better at it, there will be a time when they can’t ignore it
‘The really boring, lazy people in media that are terrified of upsetting their bosses, who just want to make money, now can’t ignore the larger crowds that we’re bringing in because of our hard work. The more tickets you sell live, the more people are interested, the more people can’t ignore you. People are terrified of taking any sort of risk, but if you keep your head down and stick to what you love and get better at it, there will be a time when they can’t ignore it.’
Brutalism is an abrasive ode to the life and death of Joe’s mother, who he helped care for since she had a stroke when he was just 16. It’s an unapologetically angry statement that takes open swipes at the Tories, religion, traditional education and the zombification that comes part and parcel with much of today’s popular culture.
These are still the issues that drive IDLES’ music, but their new album Joy as an Act of Resistance takes a different tack, choosing positivity and love as a vehicle to spread their message. Although like their first album, Joy as an Act of Resistance was shaped hugely by personal trauma – the loss of Joe’s daughter who died during labour last June.
like their first album, Joy as an Act of Resistance was shaped hugely by personal trauma
‘It’s the next chapter and it’s about a reactionary point in our life. One to the death of my daughter and also a death of that part of our career, where we were getting lots of positive feedback from the first album’ Joe says.
‘Joy as an Act of Resistance is about self-belief, it’s about improvement through looking at all your faults, rebuilding on them, and not carrying shame with you. It’s about getting to a point where you can be vulnerable with your audience as a point of moving forward and having confidence in yourself and your community. It’s about building a better and stronger community through open-mindedness and togetherness, inclusivity, being kind to your adversaries and listening to what they have to say instead of calling them stupid or racist or worse. It’s about building something positive from a very, very, very negative time.
I don’t think I’m special in feeling like I’m not as good as everyone else
‘I went into counselling, before my daughter died actually, but it obviously helped me through a lot. One of the main things I learned from counselling was that I was very lonely. Not because I didn’t have good friends and family supporting me, but because I felt like I was imperfect and rubbish and I wasn’t like everyone else – and I think a lot of people feel like that. I don’t think I’m special in feeling like I’m not as good as everyone else.
‘People are scared to open up and I realised as soon as I started sharing my problems and my emotions with people I care about, who care for me, that the world became a brighter place and it alleviated a lot of weight off my shoulders.
‘We want our music to be as honest and open as possible. So with that in mind, the perfect way of showing that vulnerability and honesty is by talking about what’s actually happened to me, and using that as an allegorical and almost meditative tool to allow people to feel vulnerable when listening to our album and open up themselves.’
We want our music to be as honest and open as possible
The full album is due for release on 31 August, with a few singles releases to tide us over until then. The first track we heard from the album was Colossus in May, a song that grapples with the idea of toxic masculinity – a theme that informs the whole album, Joe says.
Beginning in a low rumble with lyrics such as ‘I am my father’s son, his shadow weighs a tonne’, the song builds to crescendo then fades to silence at around four minutes, before crashing back in at a frenzied yet optimistic pace with Joe’s empowered shouts of ‘I don’t want to be your man’ and ‘I’m like Fred Astaire, I dance like I don’t care’.
Joe explains: ‘I wanted to explore my femininity because I think it’s a serious problem in our society. A book that really helped me understand the systematics of that was The Descent of Man by Grayson Perry. That was a big influence on this album – the biggest for me. It encouraged me to talk about things in a certain way.’
This theme carries over to the album artwork, an old photo that Joe came across on Instagram’s Awkward Family Photos thread, with the word ‘Joy’ slapped on top in gold glitter script font.
I wanted to explore my femininity because I think it’s a serious problem in our society
‘I had a different cover set up’ Joe says. ‘I took a photo of my father, which is now on the back, but I saw this photo and fell in love. I thought, “This is what our album looks like, that’s our front cover.” I showed it to the boys and they agreed and so our manger figured out how we could get permission to use it. Some guy had been going through his attic and found a bunch of photos his grandfather had taken at his great uncle’s wedding. I think it sums up the problem of masculinity – a bunch of impotent men fighting at a beautiful occasion. It also sums up our sound quite nicely, which is messy and aggressive, but smart – and trying hard.
it sums up the problem of masculinity – a bunch of impotent men fighting at a beautiful occasion
‘Gold glitter is beautiful, or I love it at least, and I wanted to celebrate that and not feel ashamed that it isn’t cool. I love gold glitter and I love pink and I love flowers. It’s also a metaphor for criticisms that we are derivative or old hack and just throwing glitter on shit. It’s saying “yeah, we are”. That’s the idea of IDLES – the lazy idolising of something that already exists. I used to put IDLES on photos of other people, or IDLES on other bands when we were supporting them. Everything is put on stuff for a reason in our band and gold glitter has a lot to do with a lot.’
The second single from the album is the uplifting, pro-immigration track Danny Nedelko. Released in June, the song takes its name from Ukrainian immigrant and close friend of the band, who also stars in the music video.
Uplifting riffs and urgent drum beats accompany Joe’s simplistic, no-fucking-around lyrics, which name check Freddie Mercury against a Nigerian mother of three, a polish butcher against Mo Farah, before launching into the anthemic chorus: ‘Fear leads to panic, panic leads to pain, pain leads to anger, anger leads to hate’.
Although IDLES have taken an adjusted view to writing for their second album, the recording process follows the brilliant example of Brutalism, which was recorded live and in no more than three takes. IDLES write wholly for the live experience and so the result is the best snapshot of their live energy on record. By being restrictive, it stops them from over thinking anything and allows the true IDLES spirit to come through.
IDLES write wholly for the live experience and so the result is the best snapshot of their live energy on record
‘Most of the songs were done in one or two takes’ says Joe. ‘We were well rehearsed and ready to go. No fluff, no fucking around. Studio time is boring, you just want to get in there and smash the songs out and really enjoy the songs and enjoy the music. It was great and it works for us.
‘I think it’s a better album, it’s more poised, it’s more accomplished musically; lyrically, it’s more astute. I think it’s better to listen to and a more concise as a piece of art.
‘But then again, I haven’t listened to Brutalism since it came out, so I don’t know. I think the point is to always be mindful, be present and let go of the past. I love Brutalism, I love Welcome, I love Meat, I love Joy as an Act of Resistance – it’s my favourite, because it’s the newest. But I’m on album three now and I’m not interested in that kind of thinking now. I’d rather just smash album three and make that the best album we’ve ever made, which we are doing and it will be.’
Photos by Lindsay Melbourne, Ania Shrimpton, Tom Ham