IDLES: Brutal, Honest Truth

© Naomi Wood

Words by:

Joe Talbot’s obsession is about to bear fruit. “Every day for the last seven years I’ve woken up and thought about IDLES,” the frontman tells me with conviction (though later in our conversation he confesses, “I don’t get excited, I just get ecstatic about shit”). For the Bristol band and their highly-charged lead singer, the next six months will see them reach bigger audiences than ever, and emotions are high.

We’re on home turf in a bar called The Mother’s Ruin, an alternative drinking spot that has hosted more than a few IDLES ‘moments’ over the years. “I once got punched in the face outside,” Talbot remembers. “It was after insulting a guy’s dad after the landlord bet I couldn’t drink the entire slops bucket. I did.”

IDLES have long been regarded as one of the city’s best live bands, and now they’re finally set to embark on their first ever UK tour. Our conversation partly feels like a sendoff for an act whose next few months will be a validation of seven years’ work. And despite the coming and going of various fads or trends over the years, IDLES have always stuck to their guns with their raw, intense punk sound. “I was constantly getting told guitar music is dying and getting told you’re pissing in the wind,” Talbot admits. “At times I felt like the sad guy in the corner being like ‘it’s still there, it’s still there.

“What I think we’ve done and what I’ve tried to instill in the other guys is not to worry about what every other cunt is doing,” he continues. “Don’t worry about people going ‘Come on man, it’s time to get a job.’ Get your fucking boots ready and get tight as fuck for the next gig and when that’s done write another song instead of worrying about the big picture. Build up momentum. That patience and that passion to go song-by-song means we haven’t been distracted and I think that’s one of the reasons why we’ve done it for so long without any gratification. It comes down to our reception live. That’s not a lie. People love our live shows.”

Recently, all efforts have been focused on making their live sets as tight as possible. Having had material ready for a debut LP for two years, they’ve ensured that it’s still brimming with intensity in preparation for the long-awaited release of their aptly titled album Brutalism. The album was recorded live, with only a maximum of three takes allowed for each track to encourage rawness and urgency. Both in his lyricism and tone, Talbot has developed a distinctive sense of sardonic punk humour, confronting the topic of class on Well Done and Stendhal Syndrome. ‘Why don’t you win a medal?/ Even Tarquin’s wins a medal/ Mary Berry’s got a medal/So why don’t you get a medal?’ he growls on the former, screaming: ‘Have you seen that painting what Rothko did?/ Looks like it was painted by a two year old kid’ on the latter.

The band’s lead guitarist Mark Bowen joins us at the table. He’s driven six hours from London for their rehearsal, and he’ll be returning later tonight. As he explains in his soft Irish accent, “Everything about [the album], from the songwriting process to the way we recorded the songs, are straight down the line brutalism. Basically it’s Joe’s interpretation of brutalism versus our interpretation, as we write all the music first.”

The concept of brutalism – beyond its overbearing architectural type – has formed the conceptual blueprint for the music, and it’s been illustrated in other ways by Talbot’s delivery. His frustration and aggression has re-imagined brutalism with powerful effect on the record, most of all on the track Mother. Having lived in Newport while caring for his ill mother for five years, until her death in 2015, the song condenses the emotion of these years into a bruising, soul-baring barrage. Accompanied by a video in which Talbot smashes a table of china while overlooked by a monochrome picture of his young mother, the track and video tell a thousand unknown stories of uncountable emotions. The image also forms part of the album’s cover art.

“My parents broke up when I was a kid and the album is to do with the roles of women in my life,” Talbot tells me. “It’s also to do with the role my mum played pre and postmortem and also about progression and grief as a theme and eventual rebuilding. The sculpture for the cover was built with my dad in his studio to resemble a brutalist structure and also a headstone. I love that photo of my mum as my dad took it. It is like catharsis to go back to the only other person I could rely on in that situation, which was my dad, as he was the only other person who knew my mum as well as I did. We built something together and it’s the cover. That’s it. It’s very powerful stuff.”

© Naomi Wood

The ability to succinctly address themes as visceral and complex as these shows the emotional solidarity and increasing maturity of the band. Other members Lee Kieran (Guitar), Jon Beavis (Drums) and Adam Devonshire (Bass) have also committed to a certain work ethic to get them to this point, as emphasised by Bowen’s long day in his car. Though his mood is far from lethargic. “It’s a rub your hands moment, what we’re about to do on this tour,” he says. “We’ve been working our arse off.” Talbot couldn’t be more in agreement. “If someone turns up late to practice or hungover now then I’m like, ‘I’m working my ass off for you with getting everything split equally, so work with me. Don’t be a cunt.’ As soon as your future is invested in your mates, and my passion is invested in them, why not be like ‘Don’t be a cunt? Come on, pull your socks up. I’m on the line here as well.’”

Having first been exposed to IDLES in their early days, back then there was a shambolic nature to their behaviour. There was a certain self-fulfilling prophecy of what IDLES imagined being in a rock band should be like and watching them get to the level at which they now find themselves has been a long – and at times frustrating – process. “In the early days we had a misguided vision of what it is to be a band,” Talbot admits. “Go out, get fucked, blah blah blah… Three-day-long benders were a constant, every week for four or five years. Me and Dev [Adam] were in a really bad way, but keeping each other going. I was a fucking nightmare. I was going through so much shit and I was carrying so much shit and then my mum died and then [there] was nothing there. It literally felt like there was a weight gone which was cool. I was carrying so much anger.”

“I was constantly getting told guitar music is dying. What we’ve learned is not to worry about what every other cunt is doing”

Bowen’s reflection on the situation is frank. “I don’t think five years ago we could have gone on tour with him. Almost right up to about three-quarters of the way through the writing process of this album he was a fucking nightmare. Hugely argumentative and the worst prick in the world on a hangover. We just had to say to him, don’t show up if you’re hungover, just fuck off. There used to be points like every three months where we’d be in rehearsal and everyone would end up storming out.”

Coming out the other side of the battle, a rich creative streak has emerged as well as a realisation: the success you’d like to taste or the experiences you crave don’t always go hand in hand with reckless hedonism. Alongside the release of Brutalism and the debut UK tour, IDLES have upcoming gigs at SXSW, support slots for The Maccabees’ final shows, as well as bookings at Reading and Leeds, Download and a number of European festivals. No one in the band, least of all their lead singer, wants to fuck this chance up.

“I always think if you’ve got a mountain to climb, you don’t look at the mountain, you draw a map and get the right boots.” Boots bought. Let’s get climbing.

Brutalism is released 10 March. IDLES appear at Bilbao BBK, Spain, 6-8 July.

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