From the back of a tour bus parked in San Antonio, Texas, IDLES know just how lucky they are. When NME speak to the Bristol five-piece in late October, the band are half-way through one of the first full US tours by a British band since the pandemic; a set of shows rescheduled several times due to COVID-19 restrictions. Over the course of the month, the 20 dates on the ‘Beauty From Ashes’ tour take them coast-to-coast for their biggest headline gigs in the States yet.
“It’s the best tour we’ve ever had, for sure,” frontman Joe Talbot says, calmness and satisfaction radiating off him as the band release their fourth album, ‘CRAWLER’ (November 12). “The shows are unreal. Obviously there’s a good energy, and people are feeling great to be out and about. We’re in good stead, and putting everything we have into every show. We’re healthy, happy little boys.”
This time last year, IDLES were releasing their third album ‘Ultra Mono’, a gargantuan doubling-down on their formula of barked social commentary and pummelling instrumentals, which NME called “a blistering attempt to calcify the faithful”. It was an album written for the bigger rooms the band found themselves able to book, but ones they didn’t get to fill until just weeks ago at the start of this rescheduled run.
After the slow-burn success of the band’s 2017 debut album ‘Brutalism’ and the rapturous reception given to second album, 2018’s ‘Joy As An Act Of Resistance’, ‘Ultra Mono’ also saw the band come face to face with the critics and detractors that had previously been drowned out by the universal adulation thrown the band’s way. The album hit the top spot in the UK charts, but dissatisfaction bubbled under, with mixed reviews and a bumpy, terse set of interviews.
“For me, IDLES has always been about subverting expectations,” guitarist Mark Bowen says. With ‘Ultra Mono’, he explains, “we had reached the point where we were starting to put expectations on ourselves in our songwriting and in who we were on stage, who we were in interviews, and what we were getting critical reviews for. We lost the essence of our intentions as a band.”
In their cover interview with NME around the album’s release, Talbot seemed anything but a healthy, happy little boy.
“I was in a really, really bad place, and it wasn’t to do with the band or the interviews,” he says now. “A lot of press around that album, I was going in angry at the world. What I wasn’t doing was being vulnerable. Going in defensive, it’s not going to create a good conversation. I’m holding myself accountable for those misgivings.”
“The band was escalating in a beautiful way, and being given that much responsibility and representation – representing the band and representing my ethos – but at the same time being completely fucking lost and terrified, at one of my lowest points in life, was one too many plates to balance.”
“Now we’ve had the opportunity to play ‘Ultra Mono’ live, those songs are really coming to life,” Bowen says of the album’s growth for both the band and its fanbase. “All those songs really make sense now. The idea of ‘Ultra Mono’ was to make this zenith of IDLES so we could then burn it and move on.” It’s apparent when you listen to the new album, he says. “‘CRAWLER’ makes ‘Ultra Mono’ make more sense.”
“I don’t want to perform ‘Model Village’ live, because I’m not in that place any more. I’m not defensive, I’m not angry” – Joe Talbot
With the intention behind the death of IDLES mk.1 only apparent to outsiders now, was the disconnect that came from the transition hard for the band to swallow?
“Nah, because we’ve learned from that now,” Talbot replies instantly. “The frustration and the alienation made us realise what we were doing wrong. I realised that I needed to start holding myself accountable for my mis-translations in what I wanted to say and what I was actually saying in the songs.
“I don’t want to perform ‘Model Village’ live, because I’m not in that place any more,” he says of one of ‘Ultra Mono’s singles, in which he makes scathing comments against small-town mindsets. Singing of “nine fingered boys”, drunk drivers and “homophobes by the tonne” in the titular village, Talbot lashed out rather than reached out to those he was trying to convert.
“I’m not defensive, I’m not angry. I’m not scared anymore, and I was when I wrote that album,” Talbot says. “There was so much going on around me and I was losing control of our narrative. Instead of being mindful and holding myself accountable, I was fighting.
“We have taken control of that narrative with ‘CRAWLER’,” Talbot adds. “I was in therapy for two years, and it made me realise that I was angry at the wrong people. The critics weren’t the ones that were wrong – I was. It’s beautiful, because now I can see ‘Ultra Mono’ for what it is – an amazing live album, with a few songs where I was really lost.”
A record written and recorded “out of necessity” in lockdown, Bowen tells us, the songwriting for ‘CRAWLER’ saw IDLES become “very separated and insular and introspective”.
“It involved a lot more conversation rather than getting the ideas immediately in a room,” he adds. “It meant that we could focus a lot more on the songwriting and focus on communication between us as the songwriters. That led to a deeper understanding, a deeper respect and a deeper confidence in each other.”
So enter ‘CRAWLER’ – an ambitious and necessary step forward, based around the journey of Talbot’s struggles with addiction and his subsequent recovery. It’s a record that recalibrates the idea of what IDLES can be, both for their fans and, crucially, for the five members themselves.
“I was distracted by my ego and my fears” – Joe Talbot
“We invigorated each other, and excited each other,” Talbot says. The process allows the band to reflect their varied influences without worrying about stepping too far out of any box; they’ve always recoiled at being called a ‘punk’ band, despite embodying many sonic and spiritual hallmarks of the term.
“I know what Bowen and I love, and what we listen to, and it’s not The Clash,” says the frontman. “Bowen’s most enthused conversations about music are about The Haxan Cloak, Radiohead, SOPHIE or Jon Hopkins. Whereas I come in the room passionately excited about D Double E’s new album, or Kano’s album. The grace of time and space over the last two years has allowed us to reflect on ourselves, and on who we want to be within the songs. Instead of writing an album, we just said, ‘Let’s write the best songs we can.’”
Across ‘CRAWLER’, this varied set of influences finally shine through. The band offer up soulful ballads (‘The Beachland Ballroom’), atmospheric electronic vignettes peppered with acoustic guitars (the fantastic, appropriately-titled ‘Progress’) and a 30-second power-violence track that sees Talbot roar the contents of texts sent to him by his old drug dealer (‘Wizz’).
Funky highlight ‘The New Sensation’, meanwhile, is the rare callback to the sound and spirit of the old IDLES, as Talbot pokes fun at the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, and his infamous, tone-deaf call for artists to consider retraining in other disciplines. Another high point, ‘When The Lights Come On’, is a morose indie-rock tune that sees Talbot’s angry howl swapped for booming baritone vocals, more in line with Nick Cave or The National’s Matt Berninger.
“We’re enjoying each other’s language and individualities a lot more,” says Talbot, “and that’s what IDLES has always been about – supporting people’s individuality and making people feel part of something much bigger than themselves, and that’s what we’re doing now. It’s beautiful, it’s exciting, and it means we’ve got so much more scope to do whatever the fuck we want, because we’re excited and we are inventing.”
The most important step forward made on ‘CRAWLER’ is in the lyricism. Across IDLES’ first three albums, Talbot’s words pined for a more empathetic, vulnerable type of modern man, shouting crystal-clear mantras to be pinned to bedroom walls and ignite overdue conversations from the outside world. “This is why you’ll never see your father cry,” he sang on 2018’s ‘Samaritans’, begging for the stiff upper lip to be replaced with dialogue and emotion.
“I know the album sounds macabre, but that’s how you depict trauma” — Joe Talbot
With this directness, though, came a lack of subtlety, nuance and poetry, says Talbot. The band’s previous albums relied on the instant fist-pumping hit of a scathing one-liner, but ‘CRAWLER’’s stories are ones to sit with and slowly digest. “It’s something I’m really happy with, and something I’ve been talking about doing for years,” he says.
If it’s been in his mind for years, why does he think he didn’t reach this point until now?
“I was distracted by my ego and my fears. The residual feelings came as anger,” he replies. “I bullshitted my way through enough, but it’s now time to challenge myself, set things straight and start again. I took responsibility for my accountability and learned a lot from that. I’m a lot more calm and I don’t get anxious. I was sober for two years. It all just came together.”
On ‘CRAWLER’, Talbot confronts his addiction head on, diving back into the thrall of his darkest days to glean understanding and closure. On the electronic thud of opener ‘MTT 420 RR’, he recalls narrowly avoiding a fatal accident with a motorcyclist – the model of the bike giving the track its name – while he was high. “I can see my spinal cord rip high,” he sings, one of a host of shiver-inducing, deeply powerful images conjured across the album. Second track ‘The Wheel’ takes us back to a 10-year-old Talbot, begging his unconscious mother to stop drinking. Discussing the cyclical nature of addiction, and how these things are passed down among families, the chorus goes: “And so it turns, again and again…”
“Some are old, some are not,” he says bluntly when asked where the tales on the album come from. “It’s traumas from throughout the last 20 years.”
“I know the album sounds macabre, but that’s how you depict trauma. The idea is that all of that reflection is a beautiful thing. To be able to reflect, and to have the privilege of time and affording to have a therapist and an audience that will come back to see us when the pandemic stopped – all these things are a beautiful privilege. My gratitude is there throughout. It’s there with vigour, and challenging myself to become a more fluent writer.”
Completing the album’s narrative arc, triumphant closer ‘The End’ sees Talbot sing a line that has become integral to IDLES’ fourth age and was slapped across billboards in the lead up to the announcement of ‘CRAWLER’. Finally coming to terms with all the things that have held him back, while also seeing their value in shaping him as a human, he sings: “In spite of it all, life is beautiful,” as if sung with the last breaths he’ll ever take.
“There are moments right now on this tour where we are the best band in the world” – Mark Bowen
In order to create ‘CRAWLER’’s diverse sonic portrait, IDLES called in Kenny Beats (who contributed additional production on ‘Ultra Mono’) to work alongside Bowen. “Taking the decision to produce with Kenny meant that I had the confidence to go through with ideas,” the guitarist says, “and Kenny was really good at supporting me through all of these decisions. It felt like the first time we were able to translate an idea across exactly how it was in my head. It was a joy to do.”
Bowen pinpoints a number of moments that best define this change of approach. ‘Progress’ stemmed from an instrumental Bowen sent to Talbot, and after being unable to translate the magic of the demo into a shiny final product, the phone recording itself made the final cut. Then there’s ‘Car Crash’ – an industrial hammerblow of a track – featuring a drum sound created by pressing a beat onto an acetate disc, which then slowly disintegrates and degrades as it spins on a record player.
“You can imagine this microcosm of joy, spending time there with Kenny Beats and our team,” says Bowen of the band’s time at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios, just outside Bath. “We’re privileged, and not entitled in any sense of that word. We fucking know how lucky we are. It was without doubt the best experience recording an album that we could have had.”
In the coming months, IDLES will headline four nights at London’s O2 Academy in Brixton, support The Strokes at New York City’s Barclay’s Center on New Year’s Eve and then hit the festival circuit with bigger slots than ever. After keeping their heads down amid the years of toil that followed the release and whirlwind that followed ‘Brutalism’, has the pandemic allowed the band to slow down and reassess their ambitions?
“We always had a plan,” Talbot says, “even when we were playing to five people in 100-cap rooms. Arenas just don’t appeal to me, but do I want to headline festivals? 100 per cent.”
“‘CRAWLER’ makes ‘Ultra Mono’ make more sense” – Mark Bowen
“I feel like we’re getting better all the time,” Bowen adds. “We’re going from strength to strength. ‘CRAWLER’ is our best album, and we love every aspect of it.”
Until ‘Joy As An Act Of Resistance’ came out, the foundations of IDLES’ growing success came from painting their ascent as a victory for the underdog. Since ‘Ultra Mono’ went to Number One, the word holds no relevance for the band anymore. Asked if it’s been difficult for them to admit they’re no longer hard-up and swimming against the tide, Talbot replies with a wink: “You’re always going to be the underdog if you set your sights on bigger things, right?”
For Talbot, IDLES needed to “move on” in order to “try and equal the energy that our crowds give us”.
“‘Ultra Mono’ was a caricature of who we were, and we wrote that caricature intentionally to kill it,” he says. “We had to challenge ourselves and get out of our comfort zone. To stay interested, we have to keep pushing each other – us and the audience.”
For a band to carry out such a killing, what was missing in the first place?
“The new,” Talbot replies, before repeating the phrase a few more times. “I wanted to be more than what we were becoming.”
Now able to “tour relentlessly and stay happy,” a zen Talbot concludes, “We’re the healthiest we’ve ever been,” pointing first to his head, then his chest. But despite all the peace, love and understanding, there’s still a fighting spirit that drives IDLES. “There are moments right now on this tour where we are the best band in the world,” Bowen says, to instant scoffs from the frontman. “I’m gonna say it, mate!” Bowen hits back straight away. “We’re the best band in the world. If anyone wants to argue, come and see a show.”
Come on down, IDLES will still be here. This time, survival is an act of resistance, and living well is the best revenge.
IDLES’ new album ‘CRAWLER’ is out now.