IDLES have long been close to the heart of Bristol’s live scene, so the city’s chest swelled with pride when their 2017 debut album Brutalism received national acclaim and set them up with a headline European tour, not to mention the small matter of being handpicked by Foo Fighters to support them at their London gig in September, and a support slot with The Prodigy in Madrid last month.
Routinely labeled as a post-punk band, lead singer Joe Talbot would tell you that they’re not interested in punk – what IDLES are interested in is honesty.
‘Punk is a label that makes it marketable for people. If people don’t know us, which most people don’t, they need some kind of binary – we are not a folk band.
punk is not an interesting thing anymore. There are political aspects to the album, and there are political aspects to most of the things in our life
‘I think punk is not an interesting thing anymore. There are political aspects to the album, and there are political aspects to most of the things in our life. I’m definitely not classed as a punk myself. I’m politically minded, but I don’t go to fucking Zara and buy myself a pair of ripped jeans. I’m not interested in labelling myself or living a lifestyle, I’m just being myself. I think Brutalism was for the first time on record us being ourselves.’
I think Brutalism was for the first time on record us being ourselves
Honesty is a motif that prevails throughout everything IDLES do – their live shows, lyrics and studio recordings. The whole of Brutalism was recorded live with a maximum of three takes per track. It’s not touted as a live album and it’s not something easily recognisable on listening, which only speaks to their tightness as a group.
‘We wanted to sound like we do live, because we write for the live experience. The record was a real chore before that. We were trying to capture our sound for a long time, then our producer Paul Frazer – or Space as he calls himself – decided that if you give yourself a restriction and you don’t have time to overthink, or breathe, then you hear and you feel the energy more. It does feel a lot more live, and alive, because of that.’
To follow IDLES is to know IDLES, or at least to feel as though you do
To follow IDLES is to know IDLES, or at least to feel as though you do. On top of deeply personal lyrics (My old man’s a dustman / He’s a sculptor by his trade) and a good chance of exchanging sweat particles with them during a gig, Talbot also personally designs all of their merchandise. The album Brutalism is very ostensibly inspired by the life and death of Talbot’s mother, and so in the most physical way possible, he wanted to symbolise that by having her ashes pressed into 100 vinyl copies of the album, which are available on their online store.
‘It is a very basic, ankle deep, metaphorical gesture. She made that album happen, so I physically put her in the album. We’ve been having discussions about honesty and what honesty is for a long time and, for me, it’s about sacrificing as much as you can to your art.
We’ve been having discussions about honesty and what honesty is for a long time and, for me, it’s about sacrificing as much as you can to your art
‘It’s not all of my mum’s ashes, I spread her ashes in Paris a long time ago, but I kept some aside because I knew I wanted to do something creative with them. That’s what she encouraged in me – to be as daring and interesting and honest as possible.’
Although the album was only released in March, it’s been a working progress for years. During the writing of the album, his mum became sick and passed away, an event that wholly shaped the finished record.
‘She brought me up on her own for much of my life. She worked her arse off, she became ill and died. She couldn’t speak – she was disabled since I was 16 – and so we didn’t have discussions about music because I wasn’t a musician before she had a stroke. It was more her being that inspired the album and me.’
The album cover art features a sculpture built by Talbot’s artist father, which is placed shrine-like beneath a portrait of his mother, representing the full circle of his relationship with her.
‘My dad left my mum when I was six months old, so I thought it would be cool to get my dad involved and come full circle, because I know he had a lot of respect for her. He’s been an amazing father to me – he didn’t abandon me or anything.
The point of interest is to make the album as visceral and honest as possible
‘The point of interest is to make the album as visceral and honest as possible, so my dad couldn’t have been a more appropriate person to get involved with that thing – which is a shrine to my mother and loss and death.’
Despite a year and a half between Brutalism and their last release, IDLES have remained a huge part of the music scene in Bristol and beyond, touring relentlessly and practicing religiously. Initially, IDLES began with Joe and bassist Adam Devonshire in around 2009. Next, they met lead guitarist Mark Bowen through DJing before he joined the band. Then came Jon Beavis on the drums and finally Lee Kiernan on guitar. Eight years on, they are still best friends.
It’s very democratic – which is why we’ve taken so long to get to where we are. Democracy takes a lot longer than fascism, does it not?
‘It’s very democratic – which is why we’ve taken so long to get to where we are. Democracy takes a lot longer than fascism, does it not? When writing, we’ll come to the group with a part and then we’ll all get involved and write our own parts or write each other’s parts until it’s finished. We try and get the songs finished as quickly as possible so we don’t have time to ponder on it too much. And then we throw them in a set to see if they feel good live. The audiences’ reactions mean a lot to us.’
If there was a time in Bristol where the many of the larger stages were reserved for electronic acts, it’s certainly the case no longer. At least some of this shift can be credited to acts like IDLES that have helped close the gap between different musical styles. While the end result could be crudely called guitar music, IDLES embrace the whole sonic spectrum with influences coming from far and wide. In fact, one of the bigger influences on Brutalism was Kanye’s Yeezus.
While the end result could be crudely called guitar music, IDLES embrace the whole sonic spectrum
Their 2005 Meat EP received remixes from Slint’s David Pajo and The Vaccines’ Pete Robertson, as well as getting the electronic treatment from alt-J’s Thom Sonny Green and Bristol trio Sly One on a follow up Meta EP.
‘Bristol as a community celebrates each other’s differences, so there was never any tension between genres. We always played with electronic acts and a lot of people like Howling Owl, for example, embrace guitar music and electronic music at the same time.
‘If you look at the lineup for Simple Things, there’s quite a mixed bag of interest. There’s always going to be an air of excitement in Bristol, because people like to stay naive and subversive at the same time, which is cool.
‘Yeezus was a massive influence on Brutalism, because there was a real bravery to it. There were blocks of sound that then just cut out and things felt like they were cut and paste together. We were sounding like that already, but we thought that was a bad thing. Then we realised that you can’t want to sound like someone else, you’ve just got to do what you enjoy and are good at. Yeezus came about at the perfect time to show us that bravery is fun.
Yeezus was a massive influence on Brutalism, because there was a real bravery to it
‘I love all sorts of music. I DJ’d hip hop, garage and grime for a long time. I grew up on hip hop. Lyrics and vocal attack and intonation is a big point of interest when it comes to hip hop for me. I think rappers do their lyrics a lot of justice. And I can’t sing, so that’s kind of convenient for me – I can just shout stuff.’
Joe took the opportunity to showcase some of these mixed influences when he was asked to fill in for Steve Lamacq on his BBC Radio 6 Recommends show this summer, where young South London grime artist DeeJillz shared the hour with Nadine Shah and The KLF. Joe also gave a noticeable nod to the Bristol scene with tracks from St Pierre Snake Invasion, LICE and Taos Humm.
‘I also played a Spectres song but they cut it out! I viewed it as a platform for me to play bands that I know and love, who might not necessarily get played. There’s no point in me playing songs by artists who are getting played on BBC 6 anyway.
‘I know that the bands are amazing and I knew they’d be loved by listeners, so I thought I’d use that vehicle to push people that I care about. But I wouldn’t do it if they were shit. I genuinely think they’re amazing bands, so why not? It’s what BBC Radio 6 is all about, isn’t it?’
It’s hard not to feel excited by the buzz surrounding IDLES. The news that they had been personally chosen by Foo Fighters to support them at their London show felt strangely like an accolade to the people who had supported them since their Welcome EP in 2012.
It’s hard not to feel excited by the buzz surrounding IDLES
After hearing that they’d been shortlisted for the opportunity, the band decided to send Foo Fighters a jigsaw puzzle with an image of bass player Adam in his pants, saying ‘pick IDLES’. They covered up the image on the front and wrote ‘if you build it, they will come.’ And they did.
‘It was a real pleasant surprise, because I was expecting to get chewed up and spat out by this big industry, in an industrial building and feel like a piece of shit. But what actually happened is that it was a really warm reception. Foo Fighters’ fans were really warm and understanding and appreciated that we were just five lads from Bristol.’
On the topic of ‘making it’ as a band, Joe is humble. Which holds them – and fans – in good stead for their next album and the years to come.
‘I think we’ll have made it when we make a really, fucking amazing album’. What that entails? ‘Fuck knows. If I knew, we’d have made it by now. There are things I want to do – I want to play Jools Holland, I want to play on the Park Stage at Glastonbury, I want to tour the world and I want to be a father…
The best part of being in a band is the doing. It’s like a therapy that never gets old
‘I don’t think people ever make it. If you think you’ve made it, then you’d probably be miserable. Also, if you become obsessed with making it, you’re in the wrong job. The best part of being in a band is the doing. It’s like a therapy that never gets old and it’s really truthful. It’s a beautiful experience most of the time and you get to hang out with people you care about.’
From the outside looking in, at least two of those dreams seem within a few years’ reach. Especially given the fact that their second album will be hitting shelves this spring, while the eyes of the world are already fixed on them.
The really important thing for the second album was to not think too much, because when you do, you end up writing for other people
‘The really important thing for the second album was to not think too much, because when you do, you end up writing for other people. We’re doing pre-production at the moment, but it’s nearly done. It will definitely sound like an IDLES album – we’re not writing any pop songs!’
Asked whether he had any closing words, the lad from Bristol says: ‘I’d like to say hello to my girlfriend Beth, and that I love her – can you put that in?’
Words: Rachel Morris
Photos: Ania Shrimpton