Photo by Ania Shrimpton
Since the release of last year’s debut album Brutalism, Bristol’s IDLES have been a hell of a ride. It’s one which has seen them critically acclaimed and considered to be one of the most important bands in Britain. With a busy summer ahead and a wildly anticipated second album on the horizon, I was lucky enough to catch up with the band’s eloquent and refreshingly honest front-man, Joe Talbot.
Last year saw you play the O2 supporting the Foo Fighters and now you’re playing small venues in cities such as Plymouth, Southend and Ramsgate. I’m guessing the answer is pretty obvious, but how does it compare?
We were a support band when we played the O2, it wasn’t our stage – that was the Foo Fighters stage. This is our headline tour so we’ve got to do what we’re supposed to do, which is good venues that are catering to smaller communities and trying to translate our art to a proper audience and this is what we’re doing.
How was the experience of playing in front of twenty thousand people at the O2? I’ve been to large gigs where nobody’s watching the support band because they’re all at the bar.
We must have had at least twelve thousand people that turned up early to see us. The floor was definitely full but the rafters weren’t. It was great, pretty magic. A piece of piss. You enjoy it no matter where you play if you like your music, it doesn’t matter. The crowd were really receptive and warm, it was very cool. If it had been a tough crowd, it would have been a different animal all together but it was great.
I was listening to Welcome EP again the other day and wondering what happened in the five-year gap between that and Brutalism as there was a huge difference in your sound. What do you think caused the change?
Honesty, I think we were trying to be bands that we loved instead of just being ourselves and it took us a while to find who we were as a group. If you write songs democratically, there’s no idiosyncrasy there as there’s five idiosyncrasies that are all trying to sync together. It takes longer to learn your language as a unit and so we’ve become more fluid and more fluent in our own language. I lost my mum, and I lost a lot of patience with the world which ultimately made me not care about what the world thought a lot more. That made me write what I felt instead of what I thought I should say. I believed everything I said before though. Even before Welcome, I was writing about the same things I write about now; politics and cunts, it’s all there but I just deliver it all in my own sardonic way.
Is it the case that you were trying too hard to please people?
Absolutely, in fact I’m still trying to please people but in our sphere with the people that we love. Honesty is the key to our friendships. I sifted out all of the cunts in a period where I realised that certain people drag you down and you drag yourself down if you carry on with bullshit. If you sift out the bullshit then there’s a weight that’s lifted off your shoulders and you start meeting honest people and so life becomes more fruitful. That’s what happened with our art and that’s what happened with our music and we have built a fan base on non-performative performance so we try and project ourselves as truly as possible in a very calculated and rehearsed way. The music is precise but the message and the delivery is as honest as possible. I’m not ashamed of the early music at all; it was well intentioned, misguided music.
I’ve always associated your music with the questioning of conventions. A number of tracks on Brutalism relate to social and political subjects. Do you think that’s something that’s unavoidable when writing or is it a choice you make?
That’s a good question. I think it’s unavoidable in life. I think politics is the founding infrastructure of human safety. If you think about it, the price of a loaf of bread is a law that’s passed that can either make someone starve or feed their family. With that in mind, everything that we do in life is political but in a time where there’s no fucking money floating about in a capitalist society, politics is very much in people’s minds. The language of politics, laws that are passed, referendums, the price of medicines sold to our NHS, the way councils treat the homeless are all life or death choices. What we see is more apparent in popular culture but it’s always unavoidable, it’s just more palatable for people trying to sell records because people want to talk about it more on the streets and in pubs.
So is it the case that if these themes aren’t being brought in to the subject matter of songs currently being released, this then comes back around to the point of trying to please an audience?
I’m always going to write about things like that because that’s what I talk about. So, I’m not going to stop talking about gender politics, how important the NHS is because these things affect our lives.
With these subjects being brought into your music, is it that you’re venting or is it you trying to make people more aware?
When I have conversations, some of it is definitely venting – the emotional delivery of my lyrics are the venting aspect. Our music is a violent delivery because that’s a really good way of portraying the importance of things. Violent doesn’t mean angry, it can mean sad, it can mean happy, it can mean beauty or whatever you want it to mean. The other side of it is exploration. I want to open up conversation with our audience and our friends and family because that’s how things progress.
During the making of Brutalism, there were a lot of personal things going on for you. Did making the album become a cathartic experience for you?
The whole album became a way of dealing with it all. The band became a way of escaping. I had a very cyclical life at the time and the band was a safe place to go and feel productive and it helped a lot. It’s probably even more so for the second album. The band have helped save my life on a number of occasions.
On the subject of the second album, I’ve heard it’s finished?
Yeah it’s done. Our end of the bargain is finished but you can’t print the release date yet as they’ll be really pissed off...
I’ve read that Grayson Perry’s recent book was a big influence on the second album?
On some of it yeah, more so on my psyche I guess. It helped me articulate what I already thought. Toxic masculinity is a heavy subject at the moment. It’s more that it helped me understand how I saw myself already. I was uneasy with certain things – I remember twenty years ago when I first started wearing pink, I was around sixteen. People were always laughing at me. I remember wearing skinny jeans for the first time in Exeter. I remember seeing a band wearing them and thinking they looked fucking cool. I was blown away by these younger lads wearing women’s jeans and thinking how awesome they looked. I remember people pointing and laughing, and now all the cunts that were laughing at them are looking for the skinniest jeans with the biggest rips.
Exactly, I remember wearing Nirvana t-shirts and jeans with holes in the knees when I was at school twenty years ago and people would take the piss. Now, the people that laughed are buying that stuff from Primark. What do you think has changed?
I think what it is with masculinity is that it restricts you in the idea that you can only express yourself within a status quo. Whenever you get outside of it, you realise that it’s fine to be yourself – “ridicule is nothing to be scared of”, and that lyric is such a cool statement. When you release yourself out of the restrictions of what it is to be a man or what it is to be cool, you’re suddenly free to just relax and enjoy whatever it is you want to enjoy. It’s as simple as that really!
So the book The Descent of Man helped you realise that then?
Yeah absolutely, it also illustrates a lot of the really fucking dangerous behaviours and choices that are made as a whole society based on impotence and impotent male rage. It’s such a cool book.
On the subject of books, your track ‘Mother’ has a line from Margaret Atwood. Is literature important to you or was it that line specifically that resonated?
Absolutely, she’s fucking cool. A really weighty writer, an interesting and strong person. I was brought up by a very strong and hard-working mother so I have an infinity to that.
I noticed Courtney Barnett has used that line in her song ‘Nameless Faceless’ too. What do you think makes it so relatable?
I think what I find makes it so impressive is where people sum up a very complex issue with very few words. It is possible to be so concise but people like to inflate and over-complicate things but, when you look at it, it’s normally the very basis, the most simple thing that’s the problem. I think with feminism and that movement, after reading The Descent of Man, the problem quite clearly lies with men. Obviously, that comes down to a lot of political decisions – getting rid of youth centres, not allowing younger people to have somewhere to congregate and have a good time so they end up hanging around the streets. What are they going to do? They end up packed in high rises like animals and given nothing but shit for being poor.
So the violence becomes their way of venting?
Exactly. Because as men, you’re not meant to express yourself in ways that are artistic or ‘flowery’ and you’re not allowed to cry. So if men give each other room to breathe and express themselves how they want, to vent in ways that aren’t aggressive, then maybe there would be fewer problems. Treating poor people with respect and giving them opportunities to do things would be a great start.
I heard you on Steve Lamacq’s show during small venue week where you seemed to make a point of moving the spotlight on to smaller venues and local music scenes. Is it harder for bands to ‘make it’ if they are from smaller, less glamourous cities?
I think it’s about how you work it. Yes, it is harder, I think in Devon and Cornwall especially. You’ve got to try and treat the game of monetary success with an air of professionalism if you want to succeed. You’ve also got to travel to London to be seen but that doesn’t mean you have to suck any dicks, proverbially. I think the importance of being yourself and exploring where you’re from is great. I don’t agree with borders and I’m not a nationalist; I’m not proud to be from Devon, I’m not proud to be from Bristol – I love parts of everywhere I’ve been and I try to be as honest about myself as possible. It is much harder down here but I think the key is to not sit around and think about it. Just fucking work hard. A lot of shit London bands get where they are because it’s situational and there’s not a big competition in their area which is very apparent when you hear what comes out. To be fair I can’t remember a huge number of good bands coming out of Devon.
Do you think it also comes down to the subject of venues too? We have maybe three decent venues in Plymouth and Exeter probably have the same. Is it a case that there aren’t good venues for bands to play?
Maybe, but have you seen lots of good amazing Plymouth bands playing at the biggest venues in Plymouth? If not, then it’s not a matter of lack of venues. I think you need to not focus on the fact that you’re on the back foot and just get on with it. Not on a get on your bike kind of attitude, but I’ve been in the belly of the beast as far as the industry is concerned and they don’t give a fuck about you so you’ve just got to treat yourself with respect, treat your art with respect and work harder.
Other than Lice, your support for the current tour, should we be keeping an eye on any bands from the region?
Yeah, there’s loads at the moment. Heavy Lungs, Spectres, Housewives. There are so many from Bristol at the moment. We have a lot of good venues in Bristol and a lot of good people that want to see music. It is all circumstantial, when people have the facility to explore new music, they have a better attitude.
You’ve previously been quoted as saying that “Devon is a bizarre place and I never want to go back there”. What in particular was it you didn’t like?
The lack of facilities. There are a lot of bored young angry men in Exeter and it’s shit. The lack of diversity and the lack of fresh ideas. It all comes down to the same thing – a lack of opportunities for new ideas and new people to develop and experience creativity and what that leads to is everyone piling out of clubs at the same time and kicking the shit out of each other. I haven’t been in a fight since I left Devon! It’s weird, my best friends from down here are great but I just associate this part of the country with frustration and boredom because I didn’t realise how frustrated and bored I was until I left and everyone fighting at the end of a night out isn’t normal. A city like Bristol has the facilities to avoid all of the cunts, it’s not like they’re not there but you can go where they’re not. Places like The Cavern in Exeter and The Hub in Plymouth are great but you can’t keep going to the same place every week, it doesn’t matter how good they are. London has some massive opportunities but I wouldn’t want to bring kids up there! I don’t hate Devon, I just hate what I was in Devon and that’s why I don’t want to go back to. Devon is a stunning place and it’s got some great people but there’s always the opportunity to be better. Exeter was my place, I grew up there but when I left I just thought it was really weird and couldn’t work out why I put up with a lot of the shitty people.