The Importance of Being IDLES

IDLES frontman Joe Talbot on the message behind the Bristol band’s highly-anticipated second album.

I’m just warning you, I’ve got a back tattoo going on at the moment…

Joe Talbot’s soft voice fizzles through on speakerphone, accompanied by the low buzz of an artist’s gun. It’s a fitting introduction to IDLES’ illustrated frontman, one that starkly juxtaposes the power and fury of his lyrics. “My name is Joe, and I’m a Leo-Virgo Cusp.” I Googled that afterwards.

For Talbot and IDLES co-founder Adam ‘Dev’ Devonshire, listening to music naturally became writing it. “We wanted to write music that was as passionate and compassionate as we were fans. The rest is history. We’re now here, at our second album, as happy as we’ve ever been.” Talbot freely admits the band’s journey has seen a distinct improvement in quality, too. “We weren’t good back in the day. We’ve got where we are because we worked really, really hard and put the hours in.”

Since forming in 2012, the band’s existence has been punctuated by one key event, the release of first album Brutalism in 2017. To say the reception was positive is an understatement: the record became an instant punk classic. Within the confines of its thirteen tracks, Talbot goes from lamenting class divides to exploring depression and harmful self-deprecation, all backed by the vigour and genre-defining flair normally reserved for veteran artists.

“We weren’t good back in the day. We’ve got where we are because we worked really, really hard and put the hours in.”

It’s a turbulent tour de force of inherently political angst that’s also surprisingly focused. The songs aren’t sprawling rants, rather hits of raw energy. A lot of this has to do with Tablot’s striking use of lyrical repetition, hammering home his messages over a whirlwind of gritty guitar riffs and pounding drums. His songwriting technique has evolved over time, thanks to a number of influences. “Repetition I got from grime and hip-hop as a hook,” he recalls. “I didn’t get the bravery to use it until I started watching Stuart Lee’s stand up, and I realised how potent it can be. Obviously, Mark E Smith did it as well. It’s a really weighty way of anchoring in a point, and making the mundane, sinister nature of cyclical behaviour more potent.”

IDLES’ creative process finishes with Talbot’s lyrics. “We all write the music together, and then I go away and listen to the songs until the lyrics come … I write the lyrics, no one else.” Fewer lyrics might suggest a lot of fine-tuning, but Talbot denies this. “No, I don’t do that,” he says. “I listen to the song musically about 200 times, and then just let it come automatically.” That’s an important statement to make – after all, overthinking is what nearly led to the creative death of their second album.

Joy as an Act of Resistance‘s defiant name hides a tumultuous birth, and a journey that took the band three years to complete. “As we were writing the second album we scrapped it because we weren’t enjoying it,” Talbot admits. “We weren’t enjoying writing, and the songs didn’t feel right. [This was] about a year, maybe a year and a half into it.”

After such a drastic creative decision though, both band and music seem to have emerged more focused than ever before. “We just sat down and became mindful of what’s going on, and we realised we we overthinking the writing process. So we went back to the main point, which was that we could resist the pressure of the second album by enjoying ourselves. That’s where the title came from, and we started living it every day.”

That the title has such meaning to the band is profound. It’s a sentiment that recognises how creative expression grows and changes. Too often , artist struggle to escape the trappings of their ‘fanbase’, their own abstract personification of pressure. With Joy, IDLES seem to be speaking directly to their fans. It’s a compassionate message, too. “The main message with Joy is for people to listen to themselves, as a way of becoming more open-minded to build a better society.”

As a musical experience, Joy begins with a hum. New single ‘Colossus’ starts quietly, and in a way shares similarities to Brutalism’s opening track ‘Heel / Heal.’ Both songs grow, morphing into a cascade of sound. It’s the differences between them, though, that demonstrate in microcosm the effects of three years’ work. ‘Colossus’ is a longer, slower burn, starting much more quietly and with less frenzied finale. As an album, in fact, Joy regularly trades Brutalism‘s raw abandon for a noticeable improvement in the crafting of its songs and production values. Instruments seem crisper and better-defined, allowing individual parts to breathe as well as the whole. The variety between tracks is also refreshing, with more softer moments akin to Brutalism‘s ethereal closer ‘Slow Savage.’

“It came from wearing our influences on our sleeve… just having fun, playing, being playful. Internally, as we practiced Joy as an Act of Resistance, it meant that we could listen to ourselves and know when to shut up and allow each other to play. That’s where the depth comes from.” And, if Joy can be broken apart into its musical influences, Talbot doesn’t care. “We found that a lot of artists don’t like being called derivative, and we thought we’d resist that ‘want’ to not be derivative by enjoying what we love and writing whatever the fuck we wanted to write.”

There’s also an inspiring narrative behind the album’s first single. In a decision that feels close to IDLES’ core beliefs, ‘Samaritans’ was named after the Samaritans charity. “I was just going to put the phone number of the charity, but then I thought calling it Samaritans would be better because it opens up the discussion about why it’s called that,” Talbot reveals. “I wanted to give money to charity to represent what the album is: a celebration and reflection of just how fortunate I am that I’ve got friends and family that will listen to me and carry me through the trauma. That’s what Samaritans is, it’s a charity that replaces that for people who don’t have someone to talk to, which I think is fundamental. [The charity] has saved a few of my friend’s lives and I’ll be grateful forever. I just wanted to give them something back.”

Talbot is clearly proud of IDLES’ sophomore effort, but hesitates to raise one album above the other. “I think it is better in terms of writing, but they’re both as good as each other as children of mine.” I ask if they represent different times and different challenges in his life. “Exactly, yeah.” He also sees Joy as a “more well-rounded narrative arc”, a journey that lends itself nicely to a full play in one sitting.

Now that Joy is finished, the band can’t wait to get touring again. Talbot is looking ahead to a string of dates that will take them all over the world. “We’ve been working a lot, practicing, getting the second album right live, and we’re really excited. We’re playing Japan, America, all over Europe. It’s gonna be stunning. Can’t wait.” Of IDLES’ international fans, he has nothing but good things to say. “They’re loyal, more fun. Less obsessed with kudos, more obsessed with new music. They’re better cooks, and apart from that they’re very much like we are: enthusiastic and loving.”

First though, there are some obligations to fulfil on these shores. Throughout the end of August and early September, the band are playing across the country in intimate gigs at record stores. One of these is at Sheffield’s very own Record Junkee, located next to the Moor Market. Doors will open at 12 midday, and tickets can be purchased online with a vinyl of the album. “It’s just a way for us to get out there and meet the people that are buying our album and making our release more special” Talbot says, then chuckles dryly. “Also the manager likes working us to the bone for no money, so it’s a great opportunity for him to do that as well. Shoutout to Marco, the sick bastard.”

“The main message with Joy is for people to listen to themselves, as a way of becoming more open-minded to build a better society.”

Alongside the tour dates was a two-day exhibition at the end of August promoting the album’s deluxe edition. The event, hosted at London’s HM Electrics Gallery, showed artwork inspired by each of the album’s tracks. On top of this, all proceeds went to the Samaritans. “I wanted to make a [proper] deluxe version and not just call it that,” he says. “So I got lots of people involved, gave our songs out as an act of vulnerability to interpret and leave with something beautiful, which is what the album’s all about.”

It’s clear that IDLES have grown a lot in the last few years. Their musical focus was already clear, but Joy suggests new purpose moving forwards, new ways to improve  and effect positive change outside of their music. Brutalism showed a desire to stake a claim as post-punk pioneers, while their newer music shows a desire to explore, to iterate and to give back. As Talbot said, passion and compassion. It’s a mixture that makes it hard to dislike IDLES. For both them and their fans, there’s undoubtedly an exciting future ahead.

But where does Talbot see the band heading next? How will IDLES look in three years’ time? “I dunno, we never think that far ahead,” he admits. “To be the best at your craft, you have to think realistically and work in increments of realistic improvements. We’ve got a long way to go, and I think we need to focus on the next couple of months and and after that we’ll change and focus on the next couple of months after that and so on. But we’ve got to stay realistic, you know?”

Taking every day as it comes, then? “Exactly.”

Quickfire Questions

Touring vs studio? Touring.

Favourite place in the UK apart from Sheffield? Bristol.

Best gig, no matter how small or big? 2018, Primavera festival.

Band to watch for the future? Heavy Lungs.

Band you’re enjoying currently? Crows.

Food/drink to enjoy while listening to Joy? A single vanilla macaroon. Not more than one, make sure it’s just one. Savour it. One bite per song.

Best place to get a tattoo? Iain Sellar’s tattoo shop in Bristol.

What’s the design of your back tattoo? That’s for you to find out, mate. See you at the Sheffield gig and I’ll take my top off for you.

The album is out now.

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