IDLES: We’re all in this together

© Charlotte Patmore

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IDLES are a five-piece rock band from Bristol, England. Following six years of gigging in relative anonymity their fortunes changed in 2017 with the release of their debut album Brutalism, which won plaudits for its combination of hard-edged punk and raw, progressive lyricism. This year they released a follow-up, Joy as an Act of Resistance, an album which has catapulted them to mainstream attention, eventually climbing to number five in the UK album charts. Yet alongside the critical acclaim and sold-out shows, between the wild Jools Holland appearance and the Charlie Brooker endorsement, something else has been happening. IDLES have found themselves the unlikely centre of a movement.

Brian is 47. He lives in Southend, Essex, with his wife, five kids, three dogs and seven cats. When he reached the door of the working men’s club in east London where IDLES were launching their debut album on a mild March night in 2017, he stopped. He’d stumbled across the band a month earlier on Spotify – an experience he describes as akin to being punched in the face and hugged at the same time – and not long after, seen they’d announced a London date only a 45-minute train ride from his home.

© Charlotte Patmore

But now that he was standing outside, sound rattling the woodwork, he’d lost his nerve. Knowing he’d regret it but powerless to do anything else, Brian turned around and walked away, his insides churning. Anxiety and depression had always been present in his life. Jobs in retail meant he’d worn a mask most of his career – there were staff to manage and customers to serve – but at home he was near-constantly low. In his 40s, his wife eventually suggested he see a doctor, which allowed him to acknowledge his depression and seek medication, but he was still withdrawn.

He made for a pub near the venue and it wasn’t long before he’d drunk his way through two support acts. Emboldened by the glaze of booze, he decided enough was enough. He approached the door of the club again, this time crossing the threshold and sliding through to the back of the crowd. He took it all in: the noise the band were making, the furious singer with sweat-drenched pink hair, the guitarist prowling the stage in his Y-fronts, and the celebration on the faces of the people watching them. “I knew I was watching something special,” he remembers, “or at least, something that meant a lot to me.” His ears were ringing all the way home.

© Charlotte Patmore

“People are saying: I want someone who believes in something on the radio. I want broken men on stage”

I’ve been waiting in the dark of Oxford’s O2 Academy for a while. IDLES’ tour manager has already made a couple of trips between the venue and the bus parked outside to assure me Joe Talbot, the band’s vocalist, is coming. When he eventually emerges he looks sheepish: redolent of the night before, rubbing his eyes and edging towards me. “You’ve caught me on a bad day,” he croaks. “I’m an alcoholic and last night I slipped up.”

Joe is 34. Born in Bristol, he moved to Exeter aged six, a place he still speaks of disparagingly: “You know you live in a shithole when people higher up the hierarchy are hard. The only place that should be true is in prison.” IDLES’ recent success comes at the tail-end of a difficult few years for the singer. Following his mother’s stroke when he was 16, and the subsequent death of his step-father, Joe became her primary carer. It was a situation that left him cut off, trapped in a cycle of “savage behaviour”, substance abuse and unhealthy relationships. She died while the band were recording 2017’s Brutalism, an event that shaped the album in all senses, from the lead track Mother to her photo on the LP’s cover. It marked the beginning of a period of reflection for Joe, setting him on a path towards counselling and ultimately sobriety.

Idles © Charlotte Patmore
From left to right: Mark Bowen, Jon Beavis, Adam Devonshire, Joe Talbot, Lee Kiernan

Yet despite giving up drink at the start of the year, touring has taken its toll. His partner is expecting their second child in March, and while away he feels there’s little he can do to support her. (Their first child, Agatha, died during birth last year and, while he sings defiantly about the tragedy on recent album track June, it’s left him understandably scared about going through something similar again.) Last night, during one of his few nights off on the UK leg of a 55-date tour he cracked and ended up inside most of the pubs in Oxford, he explains, pointing them out as we plough towards the city centre to find somewhere to eat.

“It’s no big deal,” he assures me with a smile when I threaten to get too sympathetic, “going sober is just fucking difficult.”

He asks if I mind if he calls his partner. I tell him it’s fine, and walk alongside while he confesses the night before and scolds himself for bottling it up. My instinct is to move away and give him space but he makes it clear there’s no need, cracking jokes for my benefit between telling her how much she’s missed. As he ends his call we pass a bakery. He darts in and buys us both a Pastéis de Nata (the Portuguese custard tart). “I’m all about my sweet treats,” he grins, handing me a brown paper bag shining with spots of grease.

Joe formed IDLES in 2011 with Exeter friend and bassist Adam Devonshire (Dev), while the pair were living in Bristol. By 2014 the line-up was completed by Lee Kiernan and Mark Bowen on guitar, and Jon Beavis on drums. To begin with the band had to fight to be heard. Years of badly paid gigs, punctuated by two overlooked EPs and backdropped by personal struggle, hardened them into an underdog mentality. So when the success of Brutalism suddenly elevated their status to “Britain’s most necessary band” (according to a review in the Guardian), they were left with a problem. Having spent so long being ignored, they approached writing their second record in the uncomfortable position of being liked.

“We tried to sustain that gratitude by writing songs for the critics that liked us,” Joe explains of their first attempts at writing new material post-Brutalism. He’s sitting across from me in a branch of Wagamama now, having just placed an impressive hangover order. “The lyrics weren’t honest, they were forced. We were pandering to our own egos, instead of fighting again.”

The band put a halt on proceedings and decided to talk. The conversation started about music but soon became one about mindfulness and changing their lives for the better. Inspired by Grayson Perry’s The Descent of Man, Joe found himself thinking about masculinity, compounded by revelations he was making about himself during counselling. “That’s where Joy… came from,” he says. “It’s a step forward in terms of being more aware of your surroundings.”

Where Brutalism pitted them in a struggle against the world, Joy as an Act of Resistance pairs the same frenzied instrumentation with a positive call to arms. On Television, against the backdrop of clomping bass and Jon Beavis’ motorik drums, Joe demands their audience love themselves in spite of media standards of beauty, while Samaritans finds him tearing off the “mask of masculinity” that keeps men from crying. “Man up!/ Sit down!/ Chin up!/ Pipe down!,” he bellows against a chorus of wailing guitars. “I like that denaturalising of masculine tropes,” he later tells me, “because they don’t make any fucking sense.”

Then there’s Danny Nedelko, a post-Brexit love-song to immigration, named after a 25-year-old friend of the band who came to the UK around a decade ago from the Ukraine. The song’s triumphant chant has turned its namesake into something of a cult figure among IDLES fans – he also appears in the video for the track and his band, Heavy Lungs, supported IDLES across their UK dates. When we speak over the phone, Danny tells me he listened to the song for the first time alone in his bedroom through headphones shortly after it was finished, and was moved, almost to tears, by the experience. “Of course I know the song isn’t just about me, it’s about immigration, but hearing those words… it was a beautiful moment in time.”

Towards the end of GREAT, the album’s appraisal of Britain’s right wing suburban hinterlands, Joe howls the words “we’re all in this together”. It’s a far cry from High School Musical, coming off more like a death sentence for 66 million divided people, stuck on an island together. It’s typical of his perspective on Joy: scathing but complicit. IDLES are part of the mess.

Lindsay, 37, is a music photographer who lives in Sheffield. She’d played in bands herself for years, until she lost her confidence and swapped her bass for a camera. She first saw IDLES the same night Brian did, when she was sent to shoot them for a magazine. It’s a night she says changed her life. She went on to watch and take pictures of them roughly once a week for the rest of the year. “They couldn’t get rid of me,” she laughs.

The more shows she went to, the more Lindsay began to notice the same faces in the crowd. She started adding them on Facebook, messaging to see who would be at which show and suggesting meetups beforehand. When the band played in Bermondsey, Lindsay met Louise. She remembers that within 30 seconds the pair had shared intimate details about their lives with each other. They talked about having met other IDLES fans who’d done the same thing. “We knew we needed to bring these people into one place, and that’s where the idea for the Facebook group started.”

© Charlotte Patmore

The AF Gang – pronounced aff-gang, named for the abbreviation of “as fuck” that used to adorn the band’s kick-drum – started with around 100 members. In the beginning the group would swap photos from gigs and organise pre-show drinks, yet quickly the conversation developed into something else. “I think people were just like: this is such a refreshing group of people,” Lindsays recalls. “People started becoming a lot more open, saying everything was really shit but that IDLES had made it better. They wanted to talk about their depression, their anxiety and how this is helping.”

At the time of writing, roughly 18 months after it was first created, the private group has just over 12,000 members. While it’s officially a fan community, in practice it functions as a support network. Between posts about the band, people detail how IDLES and the community have helped them overcome anxiety, relieve anger issues, or carried them through nervous breakdowns. There are stories of bereavement, struggles with medication, or bad days at work, alongside the good news: the births, graduations, the new jobs and marriages, all shared with a collective of thousands who respond with guidance and support.

In fact, the volume of posts is so relentless – averaging as many as 500 a day – the group’s five moderators now have a full-time task approving them, and in many cases not (there are strict rules around ticket selling, and situations that are considered too sensitive are filtered and referred to professionals). Brian, who is an admin on the page along with Lindsay, tells me he’d put 25 hours into reviewing posts the previous week.

“People started becoming a lot more open, saying everything was really shit but that IDLES has made it better. They wanted to talk about their depression, their anxiety and how this is helping”

For his part, Joe finds it all hard to believe. It was an early UK tour when he first realised people were travelling long distances to see the band, and since then he’s tried to cultivate as personal a relationship with their fans as possible – throughout our time together he regularly stops to talk to fans, many he knows by name. He doesn’t read the AF Gang group regularly, part of a wholesale decision to stay away from social media, but is shown all of the most powerful stories that are shared on the group.

He is most comfortable thinking of the band as a catalyst for a following which has now escalated into something bigger than them, strongly countering any notion of being a figurehead. He started the band for the same reason Lindsay started the group, he tells me, to be part of something greater, to not feel alone. “It’s a community of people, who are jaded by being made to feel shit,” he continues. “People are saying: this is boring now. I want someone who believes in something on the radio, I want broken men on stage. I don’t want good-looking clothes horses from London, I want chubby fuckers from Bristol.”

He’s got a point. For an emergent act IDLES are unusually rough around the edges: all over 30, with unruly beards and their fair share of balding scalps – discounting guitarist Lee Kiernan that is, whose hair falls reliably in front of his face as he thrusts himself around during every set. Onstage they often descend into orchestrated chaos, Dev’s towering figure see-sawing over his bass while Mark Bowen roves and writhes, wandering into the crowd and playing his guitar like he’s trying to escape it. At their centre Joe commands his audience completely – “All the women to the front,” he directed the crowd at a recent London show, only for rows of men to part like a shoal of fish. It’s unruly and inclusive: a safe space for complete release. “You could be in IDLES,” as he later puts it to me, “it’s easy, we’re shit.”

Connie, 20, first saw IDLES in Cardiff in 2017. She’d come straight from work so had little choice but to end up in front of the stage in her coat and scarf, negotiating a massive bag. When their set finished she didn’t know what to do with herself. Crushed against the barrier, dripping in sweat, she need to gather her thoughts. For so long getting out of bed had felt like an effort, yet suddenly she felt inspired, motivated. She left before the other bands on the bill, heading straight home to buy Brutalism, a t-shirt, and tickets for their next show in Bristol.

“They [IDLES] have inspired me to go out and do things,” she tells me, “I used to be painfully shy, would never talk to anyone. Now I put myself out there and make an effort.” She reads the AF Gang group everyday – she credits it with giving her the courage to move out of her parents’ place, and gifting her a best friend. With the help of the community she now runs a blog focused on mental health in the music industry, My Big Mental Head, which is regularly updated with posts about gigs and interviews with bands. ‘IDLES Chant’, a weekly column, gives AF Gang members the opportunity to write at length, unedited, about how the band has touched their lives. “When I was in London I had a lady who wrote one of those posts come up to me,” Connie says. “She told me she’d never been able to speak about those things before. It felt like a burden had been taken off her because she had a platform to speak out about it.”

© Charlotte Patmore

We hear a lot about the UK’s patriotic left-behind: the ones who voted for Brexit, want strong borders and less political correctness. But the left-behind are also the lonely; the single parents who used to drink in punk-friendly pubs but can no longer find the energy to leave the house; the ex-New Romantics forced to care for elderly parents; the low-income left-wingers fed up of being told their tolerance makes them middle-class; anyone over 50 living in a culture that’s barely interested in anyone past their 30th birthday; the teenagers confined to their bedrooms by months-long waiting lists for therapy. Consciously or not, IDLES have found an audience who have been on the outside looking in for longer than they can remember. Now this audience have found each other. It’s love in times of austerity.

On our way back to the venue Joe calls his partner again. This time the conversation is lighter and calmer. They are getting married in February – she proposed totally unexpectedly during a recent holiday to Paris – so are now organising the nuptials, long-distance. It’s evening now, the temperature has dropped and our pace is brisk. As Joe passes, occasional faces of varying ages and hair colours stop and smile, or wave, many of them sporting IDLES t-shirts or badges. His mind is on other things, however. “I want a Vicky sponge and a really chocolatey chocolate cake,” he purrs down the phone, this time seemingly forgetting I’m there.

Photography: Charlotte Patmore
Photography Assistants: Ruth Kilpatrick & Leila Afghan

Joy as an Act of Resistance is out now via Partisan

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