The Big Read – Idles: “Music and unity, community, love and mindfulness will help you get over anything”

With next week’s second album ‘Joy As An Act Of Resistance’, Bristol pirate punks Idles have provided a modern manifesto for living based on love, tolerance and mindfulness and informed by personal demons and tragedy. They are also, finds Jordan Bassett, as he joins them in Hebden Bridge, a right laugh.

The Trades Club, Hebden Bridge, August 1, 2018. It’s Yorkshire Day, and I’m a Yorkshireman at home in the county that celebrates itself. Marking the occasion, Idles frontman Joe Talbot prowls the stage, draped in a flag emblazoned with the Yorkshire rose. This goes down well with the sweat-slicked blokes rows on the front row, roaring the name of their home county over and over – and over – again. At one point, Talbot, exuding old-school showmanship, picks out an especially loyalist punter. “Young man”, he purrs in a cut-glass accent that occasionally betrays his Devonshire roots. “What’s the best thing about Yorkshire?”

“Ooh!” the man replies, suddenly flustered. “Erm. Ahh. Uhh. Well – it’s just Yorkshire, in’t it?”

Talbot shakes his head. “No – that’s blind tribalism. Try again.” A playful look dances across his face.

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“Ooh!” the man replies. “Erm. Ahh. Uhh.” He pauses, scratching his beard. “Ah – fish and chips!”

“The people,” Talbot replies solemnly. “The best thing about Yorkshire is the people. Isn’t that right, everybody?”

Cheers tumble towards the stage like a blanket unspooled from the back of the room: “Weeeeeyyyyyy!” Quietly, beneath this heavy roar, the man holds firm: “Fiiiiiish and chiiiiiiiiiiiiips!

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“I wanted to utilise my pain and my experience of trauma as a way of making other people feel like they’re not alone” – Joe Talbot. Photo credit: Ben Bentley

If this exchange is your introduction to Idles, it pretty much sums the band up: playful, deceptively macho, self-aware and – during their incendiary live shows – a really fucking good time. Their second album, ‘Joy As An Act of Resistance’, released at the end this month, draws on punk, hardcore and post-punk, yet binds those often nihilistic sonic elements with deeply compassionate lyrics about toxic masculinity, love, self-love, immigration, Brexit and, on the sneering ‘I’m Scum’, class. It’s a bracing sugar-rush that fizzes with righteous invective. The comedian Stewart Lee called Idles “snowflake oi”, which is the best – and most concise – description you’ll ever read of the Bristol band. For a slightly more verbose summation, see the chorus to ‘I’m Scum’, on which Talbot roars: “THIS SNOWFLAKE’S AN AVALANCHE.

The five-piece, in their late-20s to early 30s, began to work on the album immediately after they finished ‘Brutalism’, their stunning 2016 debut, which met with widespread critical acclaim and immediately established Talbot as an essential – if eccentric – voice in British alternative music. The record buzzed with their trademark, crushing guitar sound and breakneck percussion, taking on the state of the NHS, grief and small-town frustration with unforgettable venom. It also, somehow, managed to name-check celebrity chefs Mary Berry and Rachel Khoo.

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‘Brutalism’ loomed large over the new album. “Lots of songs got scrapped because there was this pressure, which we were carrying but not talking about,” Talbot explains, backstage, a few hours before the Hebden Bridge show. “We were trying to sustain the success of ‘Brutalism’, to basically remake it. So we kind of scrapped all the songs and talked about why we weren’t enjoying writing it.”

Guitarist Mark Bowen, sporting a lush (and often remarked-upon, no doubt) moustache, adds: “The stuff we were writing wasn’t awful, but it didn’t feel right. It didn’t feel honest. It didn’t feel like it would give us any joy, so that’s where the concept of ‘Joy As An Act Of Resistance’ came from. We like to work to – not a manifesto, but a brief. When you’ve got that bit of constraint, it allows you to be automatic. To me, ‘Joy As An Act of ‘Resistance’ means approaching guitar music with a certain amount of levity and a lack of self-consciousness. It’s just about a burst of joy, and I hope that come across on the album.”

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“The biggest gift I’ve ever been given is commitment” – Joe Talbot. Photo credit: Ben Bentley

Idles began to work their way through their creative rut when they talked about the difficulties they faced. The group practises mindfulness, with each member stepping back from any potentially combative situation to consider the issue from the other’s point of view. Bowen and Talbot meditate together. If there’s a key theme that unifies their second album, it’s the belief that masculinity needs to be less defensive, that men need to admit that they are vulnerable. That’s easier said than done when society has always told us the opposite. Did they ever find it embarrassing, or awkward, to be emotional around each other?

“I had to practise mindfulness quite quickly as a reaction to my daughter’s death,” Talbot says, “which meant there was no room for shame or embarrassment. I couldn’t give a fuck what anyone thought by that point. My partner was the one who really encouraged me to be brave and to just openly share. I think a lot of people underestimate the people around them and feel like you’re a burden because people can’t handle your problems, which is bullshit. You friends can handle your shit. You’ve got to share it – and when you do, it’s a big relief.”

Talbot’s daughter, Agatha, was stillborn; ‘June’, a track on the new album, addresses the loss. “Stillborn, but still born,” the frontman sings over shimmering guitar and a funereal drum beat, “I am a father.” Much of the previous album addressed the loss of his mother, who died before it was released. Where on earth does Talbot find the strength to share this kind of pain?

“My mother and daughter are very different subjects for me,” he says. “One was a slow burn over a long time. I invested a lot of time and effort into looking after my mum and she died slowly and she was very ill. There was no surprise there. Obviously, it was fucking savage to lose my mum, but I knew it was coming and the catharsis came out thoughtlessly. My mother’s death wasn’t hard to write about. There was no second guess at all. With my daughter, it was more momentary – as in, the writing’s happening around it and I wanted to do my daughter and partner justice. There was a bit of second guessing there, but as far as being vulnerable about it, that’s because of my partner teaching me that it’s OK to share.”

And it’s the same whether you’re writing a song about it or talking to a stranger like me about it?

“Yeah,” he says. “The outcome is that people learn it is okay to share, and that there is no shame in calling yourself a father without being able to meet your daughter or son. There are so many people out there who probably think they are weird or different because they have lost their child. Because there is a point of loneliness where you think you are the only person in the world grieving at that point. By sharing that experience, I wanted to utilise my pain and my experience of trauma as a way of making other people feel like they’re not alone. That there’s ways of getting through it. And music and unity, community and love and mindfulness are really good ways of getting over anything.”

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“We go home at night content as fuck, because it’s magic. It’s the best feeling in the world” – Joe Talbot. Photo Credit: Ben Bentley

Talbot has been sober since February. He is, he says, “definitely an alcoholic”. Not the kind that wakes up in the morning and opens a bottle of whisky, but the kind who doesn’t know when to stop once he’s started, who becomes a different, more aggressive person with drink. “I’ve ruined so many relationships and nearly ruined our recording process lots of times because of drinking,” he says. “My current partner had to go through a lot – as all my ex-partners did.” Now, he finds the clarity addictive. Having started counselling when his mum died, he stopped drinking after Agatha’s death: “I haven’t fucked anything up for a while, so I wanted to keep that.”

Before ‘Brutalism’ took off, Bowen, who lives in London (and who, somewhat improbably, is also a dentist) would drive to Bristol on a Sunday for a six-hour band practise, only to find that Talbot was hungover, angry, often still drunk. “It felt a very violent situation to be in sometimes,” Bowen says. “I’d drive home and be like, ‘What the fuck was that? Why am I putting myself through this?’ But you’ve gotta help people when they’re like that. You can’t just fucking cut them loose.”

“The biggest gift I’ve ever been given,” says Talbot, “is commitment from my friends and partner.”

Later, at the show, Talbot fashions a sense of unity and community at the sold-out Trades Club. On the venue’s door, a sign reads: “THE TRADES CLUB IS A SAFE SPACE. RACISM HOMOPHOBIA SEXISM NOT TOLERATED HERE.” It’s the perfect place for Idles’ brand of compassionate pirate punk. Talbot punctuates the set with the questions, “Is everybody good? Is everybody safe?”, and does so with more than a twinkle of irony. This is not a deadly serious, dour punk show.

At one point, a kid in a Sainsbury’s uniform ends up onstage, bellowing “FUCK TESCO! UP SAINSO!” into the microphone. The band performs an unseasonal, acapella version of Mariah Carey’s ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’ and the crowd responds with good-natured boos. Two teenagers, a boy and a girl, find themselves on guitar while Bowen gleefully smashes up a cymbal. It looks – and sometimes sounds – chaotic, but the show’s underpinned with the confidence and showmanship of a band that’s worked as hard as Idles have since forming in 2012. “We practise the songs over and over again,” Talbot explains backstage, “so it’s like a motorik function where we don’t have to think about the instruments.”

Bowen points his guitar to the ceiling and then, in one angular motion, points it to the ground, as though it’s playing him. Talbot regularly talks to the crowd with syrupy sentimentality. It’s half sincere, I think, and half self-parody. “Wow! What a journey!” he beams, bug-eyed, towards the end. Before this, he announces, “It’s a good feeling up here. Is it a good feeling down there? What a lovely union.” There’s something weirdly old-fashioned and almost vaudevillian about it all. This is not just a punk concert; it’s a proper show.

Outside, afterwards, 19-year-old audience member Eve explains Idles’ appeal. “I like how they seem like us,” she says. “They’re not, like, trying to be massive rock stars on the stage. They seem completely normal and they like to have a joke. And also they seem to think Yorkshire’s nice.”

20-year-old Harry, who’s in a local band called Nervous Pills (Talbot gave them a shout-out at the show) says that Idles’ honesty resonates with him: “It’s good to be able to identify the bad points in yourself. That’s what they’re trying to say: there’s none of us perfect – you can’t always be an amazing human being, and there’s always something you won’t be proud of.”

The track ‘Samaritans’, released as a single in July, is the centrepiece of ‘Joy As An Act Of Resistance’. A stomping, defiant rebuttal of toxic masculinity, it sees Talbot batter through traditional masculine tropes – “Man up, sit down / Chin up, pipe down” – before he confesses: “The mask of masculinity is a mask / A mask that’s wearing me.” Then the final blow: “This is why / You never see your father cry.” Like the best of Idles’ work, it’s vital, powerful, potentially life-saving and just really, unbelievably fun to scream along to in the middle of packed, sweaty venue. At the Trades Club, it’s introduced with typical self-effacement, as Talbot says coyly,  “This is a song about men sharing their feelings.” Cue a Carry On look.

That phrase, ‘toxic masculinity’, is absolutely key, he tells me: “I think there’s a new fascination with it because it’s articulated well. Once you’ve got something complex that you can articulate concisely, it allows a conversation that’s fluid, and then your mind works quicker.” He continues: “The thinking behind it is a reaction to the fact that feminism came to be in the forefront of people’s thinking – feminism is necessary because of toxic masculinity. Once feminism enters the public consciousness, you can start looking at the other side of it. ‘What is the cause of all this?’ And then it’s about looking for a solution, to a better future.”

For all this hifalutin talk, though, he often undermines the band’s progressive statements with jokes, and it remains true that Idles are a bunch of noisy dudes with guitars. There’s the faintest remnant of ironic detachment in Talbot’s snarled vocals. How can we be sure that they mean it, man? How do we know Idles haven’t jumped aboard the woke train without buying a ticket?

Talbot smiles. “You don’t. That’s up to you, innit? That’s not up to me. I’m living it – I’m in Idles. It’s up you to decide whether I’m a fake or not. The whole point of this second album is that we’ve realised that as long as we believe in us, that’s the important bit. We go home at night content as fuck, because it’s magic. It’s the best feeling in the world. Everything we do, I’m 100% behind.”

The day before ‘Joy As An Act Of Resistance’ is released, the band will open an art exhibition in London; the work will be inspired by the album, with the proceeds donated to the charity Samaritans. To promote the event, Idles released a YouTube video in which Talbot explains: “As an exchange of vulnerability, we gave our songs to trusted friends to interpret and pull apart as they choose and they gave us the songs back as beautiful pieces of art. Because that’s what this is all about: opening yourselves up to people by looking inwards and celebrating the joys of all your so-called imperfections.” Just like 20-year-old Harry said.

Idles have made one of the best albums of 2018. Maybe the best. They are so necessary, their message so welcome and so long overdue, and yet their music is anything but self-important or po-faced. That ironic detachment is just their sense of humour – a “Trojan horse”, as Talbot puts it – which makes the community that they’ve created so much fun to participate in.

He was talking about Brexit when he delivered the following quote, but you could apply it to every weighty issue Idles write amazing punk songs about: “What I find strange is how many bands are avoiding it. No-one wants to hear about your good night out, you mad cunt.”

Idles’ album ‘Joy As An Act Of Resistance’ is out August 31.

The Joy As An Act Of Resistance Exhibition will be held on the 30th and 31st of Aug at the HM Electric Gallery, 65 Nile Street, London N1 7RD.

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