IDLES celebrate five years of ‘Brutalism’: “It was a last-ditch attempt”

The Bristol band’s 2017 debut album was the match that lit the UK’s ongoing post-punk revival. Five years on, Joe Talbot and Mark Bowen reflect on the long road IDLES took to get to that pivotal point

When a band release their debut album, they’re considered a ‘new’ band – no matter how long the LP took to arrive. For IDLES, when they finally released 2017’s ‘Brutalism’, an album that followed multiple periods of reinvention and growth for the five-piece, it had been eight years since their formation. When it arrived, though, the band were welcomed with fresh eyes, as frontman Joe Talbot tells NME today: “No-one cares about you until you’ve got an album.”

Forming in Bristol in 2009, IDLES – Talbot, guitarist Mark Bowen, bassist Adam ‘Dev’ Devonshire, drummer Jon Beavis and guitarist Andy Stewart (who was replaced by current member Lee Kiernan in 2015) – looked and sounded very different in their first iteration. On their 2011 self-titled debut EP and its 2012 follow-up ‘Welcome’ they drew from ‘00s indie-rock, with Talbot admitting in retrospect that he was trying to mimic his favourite vocalists, most notably The MaccabeesOrlando Weeks and The Walkmen frontman Hamilton Leithauser. Musically, ‘Idles’ and ‘Welcome’ employed the intricate, criss-crossing guitars of early Foals and the moody soundscapes of Interpol, a far cry from the gruff and raucous punk they’d make their name with half a decade later.

IDLES’ debut album, which is being reissued next month for its fifth anniversary, set the table for the quintet to become one of the most important British bands of the last decade. Off the back of ‘Brutalism’, IDLES have gone on to release three more records that have topped the UK charts, shaped an entire music scene and reintroduced vulnerability into punk music.

“We were always trying to represent our taste in music as a band, rather than who we were as writers,” Bowen reflects while speaking to NME mid-way through IDLES’ Australian tour promoting their 2021 album ‘CRAWLER’. “‘Welcome’ didn’t really sound like what our gigs were like – our gigs were chaotic, raucous and confrontational. There was a joy and enthusiasm that hadn’t yet come to fruition in our recorded material. We were wearing other people’s hats, and it was inevitably crap and not real. The music spoke to us but not about us, so it was never going to speak to anyone else.”

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IDLES
IDLES perform on day one of Reading Festival at Richfield Avenue on August 25, 2017 in Reading (Picture: Burak Cingi/Redferns)

It was on 2016’s ‘Meat’ EP that these two poles of IDLES began to converge, with the writing for ‘Brutalism’ beginning almost immediately after the EP was complete. The initial plan was to piece ‘Meat’ and ‘Anguish’, another EP the band had written, together into a debut album, but they ultimately decided to shelve those plans and work on what would become ‘Brutalism’.

“‘Brutalism’ was a last-ditch attempt for us,” Talbot says. “We didn’t see it as the first of many albums. It was us saying, ‘Fuck it’. I was getting in all sorts of trouble and feeling very lost. I thought to myself: who am I writing for?”

‘Brutalism’ was – and remains – a rallying cry of a record, furious and unrelenting in both its message and its bludgeoning instrumentation. Anchored by a steely and distinctive rhythm section, the dual guitars of Bowen and Kiernan whipped up hurricanes on top of which Talbot finally screamed his truth. From the political satire of ‘Well Done’ to the outrage of ‘Divide & Conquer’ and the personal tragedies of ‘1049 Gotho’ and ‘Mother’, he instantly became a generational lyricist, and a mouthpiece for many who felt unrepresented until that point.

For Talbot, the loss of his mother brought some existential questions into perspective. “When you lose someone like your mother, and have been battling the loss of her for a seven-year period, it was a moment of thinking: ‘Why am I doing this?’ The reason I started the band was because of how much I was excited about new music, but seeing so many ingrates on the stage. I wanted to fuck it all up and set it on fire, and make people feel something.”

The first version of IDLES, the frontman says, saw a gap between his ambition and his output, one which would close up over the next decade and through the release of ‘Brutalism’. To explain it, he uses an analogy about his three-year-old daughter. “I can see her frustrations between her wanting to draw a dog and drawing a dog,” he smiles. “It’s huge. She can’t draw a dog, but I encourage the idea that she’s drawing a dog. I won’t say, ‘That’s not a dog!’. It’s a dog – you made it, it’s your dog.”

With this outlook, Talbot and IDLES swerved away from imitating their heroes and towards inner satisfaction and growth instead. It also took Bowen telling Talbot, as the frontman recalls, that his lyrics were “good, but it’s not you”. “I knew that,” Talbot reflects now about his response. “But sometimes, you don’t want to be told those things.”

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Speaking about what would soon become his signature lyrical voice, with barked mantras and scything social commentary, Talbot adds: “The violence within me wasn’t something I wanted to admit. I didn’t want to admit to being an intimidating human, or to being aggressive: I wanted to be seen as something else. Once I got that out, I realised that with my love comes aggression. I’m a very loving man, and I’m very kind-hearted and gentle-minded. But I’m just violently spirited as well.”

The process of writing ‘Brutalism’, Talbot says, helped him discover and come to terms with these facets of his personality, and accept them enough to imbue the band’s music with a true and genuine voice. “I’d been hiding behind drugs and alcohol, and I didn’t know who I was, so finding my voice was finding me,” he says. “The band allowed me to figure out who I was, not just what I sounded like.”

IDLES
IDLES (Picture: Tom Ham / Press)

Talbot’s memory is hazy, but he believes the first song he wrote for ‘Brutalism’ was ‘Mother’, which remains one of the band’s most popular songs to this day. Regardless of precise chronology, the track can be seen as a vital turning point in the band’s development.

The furious, barnstorming ‘Mother’ saw Talbot ruminate on his mother’s life and death, with the band behind him anchored by a pulverising rhythm section that became a hallmark of what the band would become. “The best way to scare a Tory is to read and get rich,” Talbot roars on the track, the kind of catchy and uncompromising slogan that he’d write tons more of in the following years and one that is now inked onto fans’ bodies and posted on bedroom walls. It was the kind of mantra that IDLES’ subsequent success was built upon, and a pillar of Talbot’s songwriting. “It was the first time that we collectively found our voice as a band, and that I’d found my voice too,” he says.

Writing at their shared rehearsal space in Bristol, the songs that would make up ‘Brutalism’ followed ‘Mother’ quickly and urgently. “We were on a roll, especially lyrically,” Talbot remembers. “I’d figured out how to let go, rather than actively trying to write. I was just letting myself do what I do.”

After ‘Brutalism’ was recorded inside a week in London with producer Space, the band – still yet to find a significant audience despite their personal breakthroughs – shopped it around to various labels with no joy. “It always felt like it wasn’t right,” Bowen says. “No-one was interested.” In the end, the album was released by the band’s own label, Balley Records.

Far from an overnight success, ‘Brutalism’ found its audience slowly and organically during 2017, helped hugely by the band’s reputable and chaotic live show. Alongside ‘Mother’, they lashed out at the privatisation of the NHS on the booming ‘Divide & Conquer’, told stories of struggling friends (‘1049 Gotho’), took aim at the comfy middle-classes on the quotable ‘Well Done’, presenting a fast and frenetic brand of punk that – finally – felt all their own.

As well as pivotal shows at London’s MOTH Club and Reading & Leeds, the band also supported Foo Fighters at The O2 in London after winning a competition Dave Grohl and co. launched to find their support band. To stand out, Talbot created a jigsaw puzzle featuring bassist Dev in his pants with a sign saying: “Pick IDLES.” As the singer told NME before the gig: “I just built the box and wrote, ‘If you build it they will come’ on it. And they fucking did.”

“They are everything you want Foo Fighters to be,” Bowen beams. “That group are some of the most charismatic, lovely, interested, interesting people I’ve ever met. It’s mind-blowing how ‘Dave Grohl’ Dave Grohl is – he’s exactly like everything you’ve ever read or seen about him. Taylor [Hawkins] too, what a wonderful, wonderful guy. We weren’t the biggest choice they could have made for that slot, so it meant a lot.”

IDLES
IDLES (Picture: Tom Ham . Press)

IDLES toured relentlessly and, in 2018, released their second album ‘Joy As An Act Of Resistance’, which was largely written before the release of ‘Brutalism’ and turbo-charged the band’s success. With commentaries on toxic masculinity (‘Samaritans’) and the discourse around immigration (‘Danny Nedelko’), the band’s voice and reach got wider and wider to the point where their third album, 2020’s ‘Ultra Mono’, topped the UK charts. Everything that followed is indebted to ‘Brutalism’, though, and the raw and difficult period of self-discovery that saw IDLES reinvent themselves and become the band they needed to be.

Though they appear hesitant to admit it, the emergence of IDLES has also provided a figurehead for the post-punk revival that continues to sweep the UK. Talbot instead cites such US bands as METZ and Preoccupations (then called Viet Cong) as the trailblazers for what followed, and says the current wave of next-generation bands – Dry Cleaning, Yard Act and others – are “nothing to do with” the breakthrough of IDLES, despite his personal enjoyment of them. “I think we popularised certain things,” the frontman adds. “But largely, we stayed in our own little bubble.”

Comparisons to Fontaines D.C. also irk the frontman (“we’re completely different bands”). But the two bands, alongside a handful of others including Shame, became a core group of acts that felt like a movement, defining the musical adolescence of many new fans as well as the re-emergence of others. Though borrowing from old ideas, the post-punk revival that IDLES spearheaded felt brilliantly new in its energy and ideas, and was the first taster of this type of music for many in their teens. For older men who were there first time around – and who make up a large proportion of IDLES’ fanbase – it was a glorious return to the spirit of their youth, and a reason to be engaged with music again.

“I definitely hope that my energy and my love for what I do, and my love for our audience, was infectious,” Talbot says. “As a band, our dedication was to show empathy, love and vigour, and to not pretend that you don’t care, but showing just how much you do care. I hope that was an inspiration to other bands and started something. I know there are other artists doing that now too, especially Self Esteem. I hope we’re in part helping new bands do that and feel that.”

Though it might not have felt like it at the time, IDLES now feel thankful for their first seven years as a band, when they were toiling away on the toilet circuit pre-’Brutalism’ and honing their sound and vibe. “If no-one’s paying attention, you can make mistakes and learn the craft,” Talbot says of those early years. “I think that’s why we’re so good now. We played to so many half-empty rooms, and instead of having an attitude of [packing it in], we tried to really earn people’s respect. [By the time of ‘Brutalism’] we felt new as well, and had a real renaissance.”

One thing that was never in doubt or down to luck, though, was Talbot’s belief that his band would make it. “I was never going to do anything else,” he says firmly. “IDLES were going to succeed and I was going to drive it there. Whoever jumped ship, I couldn’t give a fuck – I was going to make it work. I knew we’d get to where we are now. I didn’t know how long it would take, but I knew that I was going to make it happen.”

IDLES will reissue ‘Brutalism’ on December 9

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