Joe Talbot moves darkly through the room. The IDLES frontman’s bandmates are in high spirits during their NME cover shoot in a plush east London studio, taking it in turns for individual portrait shots, clutching shiny silver balloons that spell out their moniker. Beardy bassist Adam ‘Dev’ Devonshire grins maniacally through the letter ‘D’ and wiry guitarist Lee Kiernan shimmies to Sheryl Crow’s feel-good hit ‘Soak Up The Sun’.
Talbot, meanwhile, barely cracks a smile all afternoon.
It’s no wonder that the rest of the Bristol punks seem to be loving life, at least. The release of their explosive third album, ‘Ultra Mono’, is imminent. It would be an understatement to say it’s ‘highly anticipated’: predecessor ‘Joy As An Act of Resistance’ was an instant classic, receiving the full five-star treatment from NME, an incendiary modern punk behemoth that destroyed received wisdom about class, immigration, Brexit and toxic masculinity with pitiless mechanical precision and a rare sense of humour. The new album deals with the fall-out of being hailed as the voices of your generation: it is tightly wound and paranoid, insular and defiant, the lyric “I am I” threaded throughout.
IDLES stans, dubbed the AF Gang, adore the band for their unembarrassed political sermonising, though this has won them detractors, too – not least Jason Williamson of post-punk duo Sleaford Mods, who accused Talbot of “appropriating a working-class voice”. NME has gleaned from the band’s publicist that it’s probably best not to mention this to Talbot, who was hurt by the accusation. Unfortunately this message doesn’t quite reach our photographer, who attempts to inject a bit of levity into a group shot.
“So,” she says to the five IDLES before her, all brandishing balloons and gurning for the camera. “How does it feel to have the biggest band feud since Blur and Oasis?”
You half expect one of the balloons to pop as the pressure in the room contracts.
“…You know,” she adds cheerily, “because of the Sleaford Mods thing?”
After what feels like a very long silence, Talbot replies through gritted teeth: “It wasn’t a feud; it was one man being a cunt… And it was only the NME that reported it, anyway.” He says something else less than complimentary, which I don’t quite catch, and concludes that NME “is full of fucking sofa adverts”.
Only too late do I remember that those ads are actually based on your browser history, and think to ask one of the most compelling frontmen in the world if he’s recently been in the market for soft furnishings.
A couple of days later, I meet Talbot and amiable guitarist Mark Bowen at The Hoxton hotel around the corner, expecting something of a showdown. Instead the singer is all smiles, making a jokey apology for the “fucking sofa adverts” crack. Whatever the reason for his changed demeanour, I open with a nice, soft line of questioning – though it’s not long before he steers the conversation back to Sleaford Mods.
‘Joy As An Act Of Resistance’ was built around its titular mantra. Was there a similar starting point this time?
“Everything was built around ‘Ultra Mono’,” says Talbot, who is now wearing a pair of comically oversized spectacles, “in the sense of self-acceptance and being present in the moment and unified. It’s the most concise we’ve ever been because of that [approach].”
“It’s deliberately concise,” adds the flamboyantly moustachioed Bowen. “The mantra behind it is to be as concise as possible, to distil IDLES down to the most IDLES that IDLES can be.”
“’Ultra Mono’ is the best rock album ever made” – Joe Talbot
And why was that important?
“Because we came from a period of so much noise,” says Talbot. “Success with positive reviews, with negative reviews and bigger rooms to play in, more people hearing our message. It was important that we reconsolidate and be present. That’s really hard to do when you have a lot of exterior noise coming at you.”
Hang on, though – ‘Joy…’ was universally acclaimed, wasn’t it?
“It’s more about, you know, certain… it’s just not about reviews. Obviously there was some negative stuff.”
Talbot peers sardonically over his spectacles. “I mean, you know.”
“Well, the obvious thing that NME have written about,” he sighs, going on to explain that the supposed Mods ‘feud’ epitomises “the worst part of the internet for me”. But wasn’t it just a bit of fun – bands slagging each other off in the music press, as they have done for decades? “The only reason it got my back up,” he replies, “is because it’s like I was being represented as someone pretending to be working-class, which I’ve never done. And it devalues our message, as a collective of people, which is about inclusivity and egalitarian politics.
“With this album, instead of clamming up and becoming defensive, I’ve gone, ‘No, I need to be concise and clear in my message, which is: there is a class war and the working classes are being chewed up and spat out by the one per cent. There are food banks in this country. There is a complete disregard for human welfare.”
Certainly ‘Ultra Mono’ bristles with righteous indignation, disgusted lyrics about the ruling classes fused together with sinewy guitar riffs and electronic glitches. We kick off with the piledriving ‘War’ and its rallying cry “This means war!”, before Talbot tears through austerity (‘Carcinogenic’), entitled elites (‘Reigns’) and the ruinous effect that these factors have on your mental health (‘Anxiety’). It is a record of two halves, dealing equally with the haters, who are dispatched on the astonishing ‘Grounds’ with the merciless lyric: “Not a single thing has ever been mended / By you standing there and saying you’re offended.”
Because, yes, IDLES have had their critics beyond Jason Williamson. Or, as Talbot puts it: “Loads of people don’t fucking like us.”
On ‘Mother’, one of the band’s first truly great songs, from their 2017 debut ‘Brutalism’, Talbot paraphrases author Margaret Atwood: “Men are scared women will laugh in their face / Whereas women are scared it’s their lives men will take.” On last year’s live album ‘A Beautiful Thing…’, recorded at Le Bataclan in Paris, he introduces the song by roaring, “I am… a feminist!” So critics on social media were disappointed to note that IDLES booked three male-fronted bands (Fontaines D.C., LIFE and Crows) to support them on tour last year, rather than showcase female talent.
“It’s fair,” Talbot says of the criticism. “Of course it is. You can’t respond to [the critics] like, ‘You’re wrong – how dare you?’ It’s a conversation to be had. We haven’t had enough of a mix of people who are representative of the whole demographic of what we’re about. Absolutely.”
He insists that IDLES approached female and female-fronted acts, including South Shields post-punk Nadine Shah (“We couldn’t afford her”), and in the end booked those who were available for the tour. This, he argues, is part of the wider issue that there are statistically fewer female bands than male bands (in 2017, a Guardian report estimated that more than two-thirds of the music acts performing in the UK that year were male-only). For change to occur, Talbot says, we need to unpick societal norms.
“It comes with Government legislation,” he says, “and getting a fairer demographic into music in the first place. That doesn’t mean I want to eradicate any sort of responsibility… [but] any cultural shift comes with representation and education. To inspire young black women to be punk musicians, they need to be included in the messaging and welcomed into the culture. Hopefully young black girls will listen to IDLES and feel welcome in our community. As white men we’re normalised [within punk culture] but we understand now and we’re re-educating ourselves – and our audience – that integration and celebration of difference is key to happiness.”
“It’s a work-in-progress and we are working on it, I would say,” Bowen concludes softly.
“We want to further equality through our art” – Mark Bowen
That’s not the end of the criticism, though. In July, at the height of the renewed momentum around Black Lives Matter, NME interviewed the punk musician Bob Vylan, who complained that IDLES – of whom he was a fan – had not been vocal enough about the movement on social media. “Protests are happening around the world,” he said, “and you have an album coming out and a fanbase of, let’s face it, majority white men, but you keep your mouth shut to sell your album.”
Bowen jumps in immediately: “So we’ve got to the Black Lives Matter thing. When the issue was becoming more advanced, with the [police] murder of George Floyd and the [resulting] protests that were taking place around the world, there was a huge canvassing online by artists about Black Lives Matter. And in anything that we do, we want to be considered and for it to be IDLES. And that means we’re not reactionary.
“We’re not going to, all of a sudden, start canvassing stuff. We didn’t want to silence black voices; it was important we did things in the right way. There was a lot of virtue-signalling and we wanted to make sure that anything we contributed was going to be [helpful]. A friend of mine works for Black Lives Matter and we had a conversation about how to deal with it appropriately online. That meant we didn’t post something on the day George Floyd was murdered. We didn’t post something the day after.”
Instead, in time, Talbot, who is also a visual artist, designed a T-shirt bearing IDLES’ long-time slogan ‘No One Is An Island’. The band sold the shirt on their website, raising around £36,000 for Black Lives Matter in the process. Are we too quick to assume the worst of and criticise each other online?
“Yeah,” says Talbot. “My first go-to reaction with all of these issues is to have conversations with people I care about. It’s thinking, ‘How can we be a part of the conversation in a productive and beautiful way?’ And that’s not to just be like, “Yeah!” on Instagram. That doesn’t make sense to me. It devalues everything we do as a band.”
What bothers Talbot the most, it seems, is not being criticised, but his critics assuming that they can second-guess his motives. As he sneers on ‘Grounds’: “Go ahead – tell ‘em what I’ve intended.” Today he points out that IDLES have always championed equality, and says of their music and message: “If you don’t like it, don’t fucking listen. If you are upset that we posted something too late, that’s fine. It doesn’t mean what you think it means.
“I’m not gonna go, ‘Oh, yeah – that was my motive.’ I’m accepting myself, which means I suddenly don’t need to worry what everyone else thinks of us.”
IDLES wrote ‘Ultra Mono’ in Bristol in just two weeks, then decamped to Le Frette Studios on the outskirts of Paris (where Arctic Monkeys recorded parts of the rather more sedate ‘Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino’, indie fact fans). They had toured ‘Joy…’ relentlessly; Talbot estimates that they played “more than 190” shows between its August 2018 release and the end of the following year. And the seemingly inevitable rock’n’roll clichés ensued.
“There was a deterioration,” Bowen explains of the band who used to meditate and practise mindfulness together. “We lost our way… It was new to us, touring for that length of time, and we kind of isolated ourselves. We fell into cyclical behaviours that were wrong – drinking and waking up at five o’clock in the evening to soundcheck with a beer. There is a numbing that… you know, there is a reason it happens to rock bands.”
Talbot adds that bassist Dev didn’t provide his distinctive, euphoric backing vocals on the record because “he sounded terrible singing – touring didn’t help… a lot of smoking and a lot of gak”. Talbot, a recovering alcoholic, had been sober for eight months, but relapsed in the middle of the Australian leg of the tour last January: “I was like, ‘Oh, I think I’ll have a whiskey in this lovely whiskey bar…’ Fast-forward a few months and I’m like… without going into details, I relapsed really, really badly. You know, it was a bunch of stuff. But I’ve been sober 10 months now.”
When I interviewed the band about the second album, in Hebden Bridge, west Yorkshire in 2018, Talbot exuded the eerie calm of a man who has thrown himself into sobriety with the same gusto with which he once threw himself into drink. He appears less zen today, though it’s by nature a more combative interview. The singer spent those ‘Joy…’ interviews talking with bracing openness about the death of his mother and the death of his stillborn daughter, whom he immortalised on the shimmering ‘June’.
He seemed like an expert in processing loss, but points out today that “being open about” grief in that context “is a one-sided thing”. The result, he says, was that the grief and the “guilt” caught up with him on tour. In the end, he concluded: “I needed to be kinder to myself, and realise that shame and guilt don’t have a place in this house. You’ve got to hold yourself accountable for the things you’ve done and the mistakes you’ve made. But also you’ve got to give yourself a break and move on.
“You’ve got to accept yourself for everything you are. This is what ‘Ultra Mono’ was. It was the start of coming out of it and being like, ‘I need to write something that’s going to help me through this.’”
That embracing of imperfection, a consistent IDLES theme, crops up on ‘Ne Touche Pas Moi’, a collaboration with French musician Jehnny Beth of the post-punk band Savages. Talbot wrote the song’s lyrics, which deal with sexual consent, and showed them to Beth, who told him: “’That’s not how you say “don’t touch me” in French.’” Rather than change the lyrics, though, she opted to “‘say the wrong French’” as it’s “’more honest’”.
“We distilled IDLES down to the most IDLES that IDLES can be” – Mark Bowen
Beth was part of a coterie of musicians who dropped in and out of Le Frette Studios during the recording of ‘Ultra Mono’. Bowen describes these co-conspirators as “other pieces of IDLES… the musical community that IDLES have built around themselves.” This roll-call includes The Bad Seeds’ Warren Ellis, who delivers a single but perfectly timed “Hey!” on ‘Grounds’, and – somewhat improbably – schmaltzcore don Jamie Cullum, who plays the elegiac piano intro to the otherwise muscular ‘Kill Em With Kindness’; the AF Gang is a broad church.
The album was partly overseen by American knob-twiddler Kenny Beats, who, having worked with rappers such as Rico Nasty and Denzel Curry, is probably the coolest hip-hop producer on the planet. When NME interviewed Beats back in March, he described IDLES as “the most important band in the world”. An animated Bowen evokes the hip-hop crispness that the producer brought to the record – it’s evident, for example, in the vacuum-packed drums that open the gargantuan ‘The Lover’ – with a series of untypeable thrumming sounds, while Talbot deadpans that the result is “the best rock album ever made”.
“Do you know what, though?” says Bowen, more seriously. “That’s the album; the album is self-belief. We’ve gone into this going, ‘We are going to make the best rock album ever made’”.
That hip-hop influence, Talbot explains, fed into ‘Ultra Mono’’s modus operandi of community, open-heartedness and self-actualisation: “A massive part of our record was the inclusion of the guttural and visceral nature of hip-hop – that holistic philosophy of self-acceptance and being united. We wanted it to sound like strength, and to use hip-hop as a sound of empowerment and beautiful violence.”
The album serves as a bullet-proof riposte to haters, while reaffirming the values that the band have espoused from their inception. Did IDLES not anticipate the flak they’ve received, though? If you make yourself visible – by, for example, walking the red carpet at the BRIT Awards, as Talbot and the gang did last year – you invite both acclaim and criticism, right?
“I think the Brit Awards thing was misguided,” says Talbot. “We wanted to be, like, the Trojan horse. But you’re not. You go there and it’s a complete waste of time. It’s absolutely vapid. You can’t change a narrative that doesn’t exist; there’s no narrative to the Brit Awards. It’s record labels, famous people and people who want to be famous doing cocaine at the O2 Arena. It was just a waste of an evening for us.”
More generally, though, given their outspokenness and the perceived implication that if you speak out about social issues, you have to get everything right, surely they expected to get slagged off…
“Hip-hop has a holistic philosophy of self-acceptance and being united” – Joe Talbot
“The album is a response to that,” says Bowen. “We’re saying that isn’t important. What is important are the issues we’re discussing and using our music and lyrics as a tool for inclusivity and compassion.” He picks out those defiant lyrics to ‘Grounds’. “That is a response to all the controversies you’ve brought up. We’re still talking about feminism, race, class and inequality, because we don’t want those problems. We want equality and to further those things in whatever way we can – through our art.”
“Our art is a projection of who we truly are,” adds Talbot. “We’re not just acting. It’s not a script: it’s real. It’s like, we’ve built our house, and if you don’t believe us – cool, there’s fucking loads of other houses, do you know what I mean?”
It’s perhaps no wonder that Talbot seemed pissed off at the photoshoot, knowing he’d have to spend interviews like this defending every progressive statement he’s ever made. With ‘Ultra Mono’, though, IDLES have regrouped and made their defining record. Next year they’ll take it on tour throughout Europe, the UK and Ireland (supports not yet announced). But for now, at least, let’s hope that Joe Talbot’s enjoying his new sofa.
IDLES’ ‘Ultra Mono’ is out September 25