IDLES: Loud and clear
“You can do it! You can do it! It’s all about the confidence! You’re JOE CAL-FUCKING- ZAGHE!”
Well, if it isn’t Joe Talbot, leading the return charge of IDLES at almost exactly the right moment.
Like many of the songs on the Bristol band’s third album, Ultra Mono, the rusty-riffed Mr Motivator serves as both a rallying cry and an anthem of belonging for IDLES and their fans. They’re a band whose pep talks carry more weight than most; their own path to success wasn’t exactly easy. Formed at university in 2009, Talbot, bassist Adam Devonshire, drummer Jon Beavis, and guitarists Lee Kiernan and Mark Bowen didn’t hit their stride until their 2017 debut Brutalism, a record as invigorating as it was coloured by personal grief. Critics thrilled at its drive, mouth and riffs, and from obscurity, the band found themselves supporting Foo Fighters at the O2 in London. Just over a year later, Joy as an Act of Resistance, an album that explored masculinities both toxic and vulnerable, drop-kicked Brutalism’s momentum up to a Mercury nomination. And while much has been written about ‘AF Gang’, the community that has risen around IDLES’ fandom over the past three years, Ultra Mono now turns the focus to the energy fans give back to the band. On the sour’n’sexy The Lover, Talbot sings: “I ain’t scared no more/ Because my people love me,” while on Grounds, with its slab-heavy rhythm, he asks: “Do you hear that thunder? That’s the sound of strength in numbers!” and bellows “UNIFY!”
© Ashley Bourne
“Everything written for the album came after the title,” Talbot explains over video call from his Bristol home, a calm scene of bright white and soothing cream. “It’s a phrase I coined to sum up what the feeling of this album had to be, which is a unified, concise self; an engine of self-awareness that was progressing and moving forward.” In producing the record, the band tried to clear the way for that engine. They made the songs – which bring together collaborators like Jehnny Beth, David Yow of The Jesus Lizard, Jamie Cullum and Warren Ellis of The Bad Seeds, who pops up on Grounds to yell “Yeah!” – as spare and punchy as possible, calling in JPEGMAFIA and Gucci Mane collaborator Kenny Beats alongside Nick Launay and Adam Greenspan, who worked on Joy as an Act of Resistance.
“It was more about how the songs were written rather than just adding an 808 kick,” says Talbot. “It’s about being conscious of why rock’n’roll doesn’t have the same movement of air that techno, hip-hop and grime have – because there are five people playing different things at the same time. The reason Rick Rubin called himself a ‘reducer’ on Yeezus was because for maximum impact, you need minimum noise. This album was all about a holistic philosophy… a sense of a strong, singular entity that cuts through and spreads our message.”
On occasion, that message seems to have a particularly pointed target. On The Lover, Talbot sings: “You say you don’t like our clichés/ Our sloganeering and our catchphrase,” and on Mr Motivator, he asks knowingly, as if with a look to camera: “How d’you like them clichés?”
It would be hard not to infer a reference to the spat between Talbot and Sleaford Mods’ Jason Williamson, who last February accused IDLES of “appropriating a working-class voice” on tracks like Well Done, and told the Guardian the band was “clichéd, patronising, insulting and mediocre”. Talbot hit back in an interview with the Independent. “This idea that I can’t speak out against austerity or food banks because I’m fortunate enough to be able to feed my child,” he said. “What the fuck is wrong with the guy?”
“Empathy, if practised by the masses, will kill fascism. It doesn’t mean I don’t want to smash things. I’m an artist”
Though Talbot never mentions Williamson by name, either in lyrics or this interview, it’s clear the exchange prompted a lot of thinking. “Not a single thing has ever been mended/ By you standing there and saying you’re offended,” Talbot spits on Grounds. “Go ahead, tell them what I’ve intended.” And yet, the takeaway here isn’t quite just “fuck the haters”.
“Just because someone thinks that I’m appropriating the working classes doesn’t mean their point isn’t a valid one that needs to be spoken about, because it is,” says Talbot. “Class safari happens all the time. I’m not blind to it. I’ve never said I’m working class. I said, ‘I’m council housed and violent’ as a lyric [on I’m Scum] because someone called me a fucking chav. It’s about using your insults as a way of catharsis, making it meaningless by spitting it out.”
It used to be relatively easy to be a political band. Someone might compare you to Bono if you got too big for your boots, but the ability of middle-class white men to speak on social issues went largely unquestioned. Now the scrutiny is more intense. Rightly so, argues Talbot. “As a middle-class white man, being held accountable for the things I say on a big platform is imperative to a healthy conversation,” he says emphatically. “The whole reason there was a rampant, maniacal paedophile and sexual aggression ring in 70s rock music was because no one was being held accountable. Accountability is imperative to healthy democratic progress.”
That doesn’t mean it’s always easy to hear. I’d intended to ask how the sarcastic portrait of parochial attitudes in rural England on Model Village squares with Talbot’s assertion in interviews that “empathy and openness are the only things that are going to overcome fascism”. But someone else got there first. “Someone wrote an article about Model Village saying that I’m inciting tribalism by giving, in a very black-and-white, cut-and-shut way, my opinions on growing up in Devon,” says Talbot. “You take this opinion piece on that song and I go, ‘Yeah, that is a dangerous thing I’m doing by just going “fucking gammon!’” but, you know, I’m not a politician. I’m a human being that grew up in a very violent, boring place full of frustrations. I’m not appropriating something I didn’t live in. I’m allowed to talk about it, but I’m very grateful that there are journalists out there questioning my art because it means I go away and think about what I’m doing.” He pauses. “It doesn’t mean the song isn’t fucking sick, because it is.”
© Ashley Bourne
The question of who gets to speak about what, and the best way to go about it – when is empathy most useful, and when is anger – is something many are wrestling with right now. “I wrote [Model Village] when Brexit came through,” Talbot continues. “You look at the demographics of who voted Leave and there’s a class war going on in this country – and the poor are losing massively. There’s also an ideological class war going on in the tabloid press. You need to cut through that, and I can’t lie, I’m fucking angry. I hate England right now. I fucking hate it. But I don’t hate the people and I don’t hate their stories.”
“Empathy, if practised by the masses, will kill fascism. That’s a fact. It doesn’t mean I don’t want to smash things up. I’m an artist. I’m frustrated but I’m also optimistic and I know that our community and art is one of love and empathy.”
If Ultra Mono seeks to draw power from that community, it doesn’t mean Talbot wants to shut out criticism. He wants to listen, be better, and to keep trying to do good. On Ne Touche Pas Moi, a duet with Jehnny Beth, he’s doing very well indeed. Written after Talbot heard of female fans being groped at the band’s Alexandra Palace shows last year, and partly inspired by Kathleen Hanna, it’s a rampant rejection of the notion that progressive means censorious and joy-killing. “I wanted to write a song about respecting personal space,” continues Talbot, “and, obviously, have a female vocal on it to add that counter-perspective to mine, which is: I just want to be respected and left alone at any show.”
They’re fine words, and it’s a fine song, but since #MeToo there has been more focus on how feminist principles are put into practice. After being criticised for booking all-male supports for their 2019 tour for Joy as an Act of Resistance, IDLES had been hoping to get female support acts that inspired them for their 2020 tour. “We’ve always had that conversation and we’re trying harder to be more representative,” says Talbot. Coronavirus threw a temporary spanner in the works, but late in September, after our interview, IDLES announced an all-female supporting line-up for their 2021 tour, including the likes of Beth, Cate Le Bon, Anna Calvi and Big Joanie.
There’s been discussion recently around the idea of bands signing up to an inclusivity clause whereby they’ll only play festivals that have a 50/50 gender split. Put on the spot, Talbot isn’t sure it’s a path he’d take. “What if it was 55/45 and the line-up was amazing?” he asks. “I’m not going to sit here and say unless it’s 50/50 we’re not going to play. We’ll definitely look to play fairer festivals but it’s down to the bookers. All these people sat at their keyboards talking about fairness are still getting our music for free and asking us to cancel gigs because there’s not enough of a fair demographic being represented, but half of our income has disappeared because of downloading and now the other half of our income has disappeared because of a pandemic.” He rocks back and forth up to the webcam as he answers, folding his arms. The question seems to have rattled him; he comes back to it, asking me if I feel that, as a woman, it would work. “Our booking agent is a woman. I know it’s very much within her remit to think about these things, but it’s a discussion I’ll have with her because it’s an important one.”
© Ashley Bourne
It’s heartening that he’s honest instead of glib, and grappling with the idea. At the end of the interview, he returns to the theme to clarify his thoughts. “We’re not going to miss out on money if we say no to a festival, because there are other festivals. It’s more just the notion of committing to saying no. I think any less than 60/40 and you’re being lazy, but there just might be some festivals where it’s not 50/50, but it’s still a fair representation.”
I’m quite certain that he will have that conversation with his booking agent, even though the idea of festivals seems semi-mythical right now. Talbot is relatively upbeat about releasing a new album without a tour. “We’re one of the few lucky bands that have a loyal audience and a platform in which we can pay ourselves and get our stuff out there and people are listening.” As to the rest of the world as it returns to whatever normal is now, he’s still hopeful about the possibility of change, despite the current “clusterfuck”.
And with their people behind them, IDLES are pushing on: thoughtful, accountable, but not paralysed by self-doubt. The title of Ultra Mono, I belatedly realise, is about cutting out unhelpful background noise both in the music and in the mind. “Exactly,” says Talbot. “Cutting out the noise of the past and the noise of the future and just being as present and impactful as possible.”
Photography: Ashley Bourne
IDLES will play at Clifton Downs, Bristol, on 3 September 2021