Odes To Joy: Idles interview
Joy As An Act Of Resistance has brought the Bristol rebel rousers massive success. Laura Williams encounters our 2018 Album Of The Year winners, Idles.
An overwhelming choice with our panel as Album Of The Year, Joy As An Act Of Resistance has been the record that took Idles to ‘the next level’, barging its way to the upper echelons of the UK album chart and helping the band sell out a series of riotous live dates, with a vast globe-straddling 2019 tour announced as we went to press. We managed to find a small slot in the band’s increasingly hectic diary to speak to frontman Joe Talbot and guitarist Mark Bowen as they prepared to go on stage at a seething SWX in their home city of Bristol. It was to prove a celebratory homecoming for a band who succeeded in cathartically, joyously articulating the disillusion, fear and anger of a nation in 2018.
Idles have been on the road since September for a 60-plus date world tour and, save for a brief pause over Christmas, will have had very few days off by the end of 2018. With momentum gathering behind Joy As An Act Of Resistance since its release at the end of August, there’s been little in the way of a break for the five-piece – what with winning a Q Award and playing a triumphant set on Later… With Jools Holland, yet still finding time to procreate.
“You’ve got to strike while the iron’s hot,” says Bowen, who puts Idles’ new-found success down to a combination of factors: “We’re a band that have understood the artistic language and it’s the first piece of work we’ve done that, at the end of the mastering process, we’ve been completely happy with it. We’ve all felt that way and that’s because we’ve conveyed what we wanted to, and people pick up on that.
“People are bored of the angry and negative response to the shitstorm that has been the world since 2008 and I think that people were ready for this – Joy As An Act Of Resistance. As soon as we heard that idea and thought it through, we knew that it’s something that we needed; that’s our job as artists, to recognise that is what we need and push that out onto the world, and it just so happened that what we needed is also what a lot of other people seem to have needed, too.”
If you’ve ever seen Idles live, you may wonder how they deliver such a high-energy powerful show night in, night out. It’s something we’re pretty perplexed about as we watch their homecoming gig; Joe screaming lyrics into the mic, Bowen doing his signature chicken dancing on stage; Jon Beavis pounding his drums, Lee Kiernan shredding and Adam Devonshire holding it all together on bass.
For many bands, the fuel is drink and drugs, but this bunch reject that cliche in favour of sufficient rest, mindfulness and meditation (for the most part).
“I meditate twice a day,” says Bowen, who is about to become a dad as we speak in Bristol. “If you’re willing to share your emotions you can see it from a more chill place, a more happy place. I do 15-20 mins in the morning and half an hour at night before I go to bed. I use lots of different apps, like Headspace and Insight Timer. I find the guy on Headspace a little bit smug, it kind of sounds like he smiles to himself with his eyes closed, so I try and find some zen masters from somewhere in the world to listen to. I hope it’s having an influence on others, too.”
It certainly is, with his nearest and dearest bandmate Joe laughing: “Bowen waxes lyrical about his mindfulness apps all the time,” quickly adding: “I’m very grateful for that. Honestly, it really is life-changing.”
Bowen continues: “Being around a like-minded group of men has helped a lot. The fact that we’re able to be so honest with each other has led us to break through that kind of masculine barrier that’s created by the everyday and your upbringing.”
Last Night A DJ Saved My Life
It’s not an understatement to say that this band matter. From BBC Radio 6 Music DJ Steve Lamacq, who Joe cites as their “saviour”, advocate and friend, to Black Mirror writer and journalist Charlie Brooker and John Grant, there’s a lot of love for Idles in the world today. Nowhere more so than in the ‘AF Gang’ created around the band. Centred on a warm and welcoming Facebook group with thousands of members, AF Gang is a place where people can not only share their love of Idles but can also turn to people for support – people they may not have met in real life but who are ready and willing to listen. Working under the umbrella of ‘All is Love’, which Idles have commandeered as their own mantra, it’s a space where people can share their fears and hopes and feel not judged but supported. It feels way bigger than your usual music fan club.
But Joe is typically modest about the band’s role in this movement. He says: “The change isn’t our doing. It’s the audience that’s changed and that’s what’s great. The AF Gang stuff, it’s like it’s not to do with us. All we’ve done is written songs and been ourselves – people have been proactive around us and built a community around us and done stuff that’s way more important than Idles, and we’re just a small catalyst in a congregation of people that are just fucking better. They’re just nicer. Cos it’s boring, all that old bullshit behind the mythology of rock ’n’ roll just needs to die. It’s boring. It’s old and it’s not healthy.”
Joe is a self-confessed left-wing feminist. His love for his fiancé Beth and late daughter Agatha: “A stillborn was still born / I am a father” as he sings on the heartbreaking June (a nod to the month in 2017 when he lost his baby girl), shines through. It follows that he’d want to do everything he could to protect his family, something else which shines through. With fellow bandmates all in committed relationships, and against a backdrop of high-profile cases of alleged sexual assault and abusive behaviour towards women in the music industry, Idles want to make sure they are clear on the issue and they have a statement to share with anyone trying to cross a line.
“We’ve never had anyone approaching us and propositioning us but we were worried that, you know, that might happen,” explains Joe. “We wanted to have something there that, should something happen, we know what we said – something respectfully saying we’re in a committed relationship and it’s inappropriate and we’re not at all about that as a band.
“There’s such a lot of bullshit around the old guard of rock ’n’ roll and misogyny and casual this that and the other, and it’s extremely dangerous. We have a certain amount of power, and some musicians and some artists probably use that to their advantage, but we want to make it clear to people that we’re not like that at all. We’re not the slightest bit interested in that bullshit. It’s just not part of our make-up. We’re highly unlikely to get in any sort of difficult position because we all have partners that we love. And we’re old and fat.”
Ashes To Ashes
Idles have embraced vinyl, creating some pretty special records in recent years. The first pressing of the band’s debut album Brutalism, released on Balley Records in 2017, sold out within days. As did the 100x £100 special-edition records, which actually included some of Joe’s mum’s ashes thanks to specialist company AndVinyly.
“I spread her ashes in Paris and I kept half because I wanted to do something creative with it, as she would have wanted,” explains Joe, “The conversation came up about deluxe vinyl and I thought, ‘How can you make Brutalism more deluxe? Because it’s brutality and it’s about pragmatic bolshy products, it’s clumsy and beautiful and practical and I thought I’d just physically put my mum in the vinyl. The album’s written around my mum’s death, what more appropriate statement could there be than physically putting my mum in the vinyl as she was in the album already, and then spread the grief and spread her around the world.”
“My mum loved music on a very innocent level and enjoyed music to dance to, which is where I get that from,” he adds. “She was a big Simply Red fan. I actually love Simply Red now because of her.”
The deluxe vinyl version of Joy As a An Act Of Resistance includes a series of art cards, designed by different people associated with the band. The bold, gold glittery border on the record has been enthusiastically commandeered by a small army of fans as a frame for their social media avatars, embracing the notion of Joy As An Act Of Resistance.
Joe says: “Everything we do, sonically, visually, everything around our art forms part of our artistic language. Vinyl is a good vehicle to challenge the artist to express themselves fully in a way that interacts with the audience on a new platform. To my mind, it’s one of the last bastions of mindful consumerism. It’s like people buy it because there’s thought processes that have gone into it by the artist.
“You want people to pay money for something that you’ve worked on. It’s not like, ‘I want someone to buy my album but I want them to spend a little bit more so I’ll just throw in a fucking sticker’. It’s about you using your artistic language to make something seriously beautiful out of the narrative that you’re working on and, in turn, to create a stronger bond with the audience. And I think that we’ve succeeded in doing that, twice.”
He continues: “I don’t listen to vinyl myself because I know that once I’ve started I wouldn’t stop and I’d have to get some sort of Ikea shelf for my records. But I love it.”
While Joe has very little vinyl (other than 1/100 of Brutalism with his mother’s ashes in), Bowen is a big record collector and long-time vinyl lover with a small system in his living room. He says: “I still use streaming services and stuff like that – so I reserve it for albums I’m really into. I had this problem when I started buying vinyl again; I used to DJ and I’ve also got loads of vinyl at home, but I started buying this really weird electronic avant-garde weird Glenn Branca-style guitar stuff, but it’s not really very good for listening to in your living room when you’re doing the ironing, so I started to reserve that for cool 60s garage rock stuff because whenever I listen to vinyl it’s normally on Saturday evening when I’m getting cosy, so I try and curate it that way; rather than picking stuff I usually listen to, because the stuff I listen to in the van is like really weird anxiety-inducing stuff, which isn’t necessarily something you want from a piece of vinyl.”
Bowen says he always tries to visit record shops on tour. “Normally, someone will mention if there’s a really good one near where we’re playing and we’ll go and have a look, but I’m not really good at all that cratedigging stuff. I’ve got lots of friends who are really into it, but I always get a little bit confused and overwhelmed by it. I like to go in and know what I want from the outset. I’ve got a little list on my phone; so if I’ve heard a track by an obscure band I’ll have it on my phone so that I’ll go in and I’ll literally look for that and if it’s not there then I don’t look any more. I just get really confused looking through.”
As 2019 progresses, Idles’ focus will shift from touring to recording – meaning less record shopping anyway. “We’re in the mindset of the third album now,” reveals Bowen who is looking forward to a few weeks off in December for the birth of his child. “We’ve got the idea, we’ve got the brief, so it’s just about putting that across. We’re going to be writing lots in that down period early next year. This year has been completely mind-blowing, but you’ve got to keep it fresh, keep the momentum going.”
Mark Bowen’s Top 5 Records
The Idles guitarist takes his pick
The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars
“A lot of the vinyl I own, I have on a one-sided long-term loan from my mother and father. This is my mum’s. David Bowie’s presence looms large in our house. I listen to this most regularly; other albums I go through phases with, but as soon as that drum beat kicks in on Five Years it’s like discovering a new album every time.”
“I got this for my wife for her birthday. It’s one side of vinyl – 17 minutes of joyous, melancholic bliss. My wife has musical obsessions when she will just play a song or an album constantly on repeat. This album reminds me of her, we would just be in the house alone and you would hear this come on, it would get to the end then she would lift the needle and start again from the beginning. She didn’t even have to flip the vinyl.”
“The thing I find really interesting about vinyl is its limitations on place and context. I went through a period of listening to challenging music that would make me feel very uneasy; I would listen in my car or on my phone when moving about. I enjoyed the immediate extreme emotional reaction I would have to the music. Initially, the reaction is a negative one of anxiety and unease, but this turns to catharsis. I enjoyed the experience so much on this album I deemed it worthy of a vinyl purchase. However, because I have such a situational association with my vinyl playing, it has only had one airing when I did the ironing, this is not conducive to ironing!”
PETER COOK AND DUDLEY MOORE
Derek And Clive Live
“Joe got me this for my 30th birthday. Hilarious, incredible and bizarre that this black waxy plasticy thing has this absurd rant on it.”
Reworks Volume 1
“Erol Alkan is one of my all-time heroes. I have a lot of techno and house from the 90s and early 2000s, but around the time I went to uni I took it more seriously; it’s how Joe and I met. My wife got me this for Christmas last year. It is a beautiful object, I treasure it.”
Read more: The Top 100 Albums of 2018