“Politics is something I’m interested in, but I don’t want to be called political and I certainly don’t want to be called punk.” The Mic meets Joe Talbot, frontman of Bristol band IDLES, to talk about the band’s immense recent success, faults in current society and their incredible live show.
February 2017 was a month that many people will have tried to forget. Just a month into his controversial presidency, Donald Trump enacted his nationwide travel ban against Muslim immigrants. The UK was in turmoil over Brexit. Theresa May was struggling to lead an overtly unpopular government filled with party in-fighting. The NHS was fighting to function as a public service and Britain’s mental health services were reaching new lows. Fast-forward twenty months to October 2018 and the situation looks even bleaker. One thing that changed however, is the arrival of a movement. A shift occurred in British music during this period that perhaps nobody could have predicted were it not for the startling situation that we’ve found ourselves in today. People are no longer happy with how the world is being run and there’s one band in particular who have taken this message to the masses. “We want to recognise that our country is fucked, let’s talk about it, but with our own music,” says a relaxed Joe Talbot, frontman of Bristol band IDLES, in a backstage dressing room at Rock City in Nottingham.
In the past twenty months, Talbot and IDLES have released two critically-acclaimed records, tackling issues ranging from toxic masculinity to immigration. Whilst the band’s success might have been recent, it’s been ten-year journey for the five-piece, but this doesn’t seem to faze Talbot. “We don’t look backwards, we don’t focus on how old I am. We don’t focus on how long we’ve been a band, how long this song’s been out, how many records it has sold. What we’re focused on is the day, the challenges that happen. The challenges today are thinking about how to make the live show better, making sure that everyone that pays to come here gets the best show of their fucking life, and preparing to write a better album than ‘Joy As An Act of Resistance’ and ‘Brutalism’ combined.”
Considering debut record ‘Brutalism’ reached #5 in the vinyl chart and follow up ‘Joy As An Act Of Resistance’ reached #1, Joe Talbot’s ambition and drive is remarkable. “Did you know ‘Brutalism’ got to No. 5 in the vinyl chart because of ‘Joy As An Act Of Resistance’?” asks the singer. “Yes, we’ve charted. We didn’t ever speak about charts, not in an ignorant way, we just didn’t consider charting. It’s not like we won’t chart, we’re just genuinely surprised about it.” When questioned about the incredible success of IDLES over the past few years, there’s no doubt as to the reasoning behind it. “[Charting] is a massive indicator of how amazing our audience is,” states Talbot. “It’s because Steve Lamaq started playing us on BBC 6 Music, it’s because BBC 6 Music got behind us, it’s because Huw Stephens got behind us with Annie Mac. It’s because we’ve got an amazing management team, an amazing plugger, but most importantly, because of the Afghan [IDLES’ fanbase] and everyone building a community around our music, supporting each other and building something much bigger than IDLES, which is this community where they feel safe and then when you release an album, they’ll buy four copies and you’ll end up in the charts.”
Talbot is brutally honest that as a band, IDLES would not be where they are now if it were not for the support of fans. “Everything is about the audience,” confirms the frontman. “You can’t have an exchange of art and you can’t be an artist without an audience. It’s not about gratification or feeling like you’re Jesus, I don’t really like that bit. What I like is feeling the crowd, feeling the audience and playing music, getting that exchange of energy and compassion.” In order to make their fans feel as welcome as possible, IDLES, alongside the likes of Cabbage and Shame have been outspoken on the need to protect audiences at gigs. “Everybody should feel safe, in their day to day lives, especially in a crowded room. I don’t go into mosh pits. I don’t need to jump around. Whatever you want to do at a show, just look after your neighbour. Otherwise, you’re being anti-social and anti-social people are c***s.”
Listening to IDLES’ music, you can’t help but admire the way Talbot and co. tackle today’s issues as a whole, but it’s something that’s gathered unwanted attention for Talbot, who states, “What I became wary of was after the first album people were calling me politically charged, calling us a punk band, all this shite. What the media and what record labels and what the radio want to do, is put you in a pigeonhole as a punk band or political. What that does is it means they can sell the idea because when you’re a thing, you’re a commodity. You are a punk band, it’s easy. But there’s a plurality to what we do. We’re not a punk band and we’re not political. Everything you do is political. Buying a loaf of bread is political, where you buy it from and what type, it’s all political. What I wanted to do is normalise the conversation of social issues as a pop song, and not be a punk band.” Talbot’s frustration with being called a punk band is a hard concept to understand at first, given the nature of his lyrics, but with such recognition and such a platform that he’s receiving, perhaps the nature of the band is something completely different.
Talbot continues by saying “What is special is that I’m allowed to talk on Radio 6 Music or Radio 1. They’ve opened the door to us because they’re not allowed to ignore us anymore because of the Afghan, because of the people buying the record. Not because they want to let us in the door, because they have to. Too many people are listening to our record. Politics is something I’m interested in, but I don’t want to be called political and I certainly don’t want to be called punk.”
Genre-debate aside, there’s no doubt as to the importance of IDLES’ music. “Samaritans” rips apart the idea of masculinity, highlighting the need for men to embrace being vulnerable. Reflecting on his past, Talbot says, “I went to therapy and changed how I was living my life. I found that through counselling, I wasn’t allowing myself to be vulnerable to my partner or to my friends. I had to change the way I lived my life, being more vulnerable and open. With that came an idea that maybe I was being stoic, like a good man should, and I realised that that was all bullshit. I was also reading The Descent of Man by Grayson Perry, who is one of my favourite artists. He outlines and deconstructs the tropes of masculinity in our society that are a cause for many, many problems in greater society. It all comes down to masculinity, and it’s bullshit.”
Joe Talbot’s ability to open up both his past and his personal life is incredibly admirable. Perhaps the most heart-wrenching moment on the latest record though was “June”, a beautiful moment dedicated to Talbot’s daughter who died stillborn. “It wasn’t a hard track to write, it wrote itself” reflects Talbot. “It’s the only song I’ve ever written before the music. Normally I write after the music, but I wrote it in the shower about three days after she died in labour. It was hard to sing in the studio, the boys hadn’t heard it, they didn’t know what was going on. They didn’t hear it until we recorded the song in the studio. It wasn’t hard to record or write, it was hard to put on the album because at the time I was a bit worried that it was being self-indulgent or people would assume that I was trying to capitalise on something but my friends around me told me to fuck them.”
The interweaving of issues both socially and politically has made IDLES a force to be reckoned with. Now only halfway through a 55-date tour that started in Japan and has been through the US before reaching the UK, the band will then go on to play throughout Europe and then move on to Australia and New Zealand after Christmas. Asked about the tour, Talbot lit up. “It’s been fucking insane. Magic. The audiences have been amazing. It’s better up north, in terms of reception. Northern culture is more open. We’ve kind of driven ourselves to focus on the shows. I’m 34 and you really need to manage your energy levels. If you’ve got to give it everything you’ve got, then you’ve got to sleep during the day, that’s a fact. I don’t normally drink, or do drugs. You’ve just got to focus on the shows and that makes it better. We’re not here to sightsee, we’re here to play music.”
With two commercially successful albums under their belts, the Bristol band are playing the biggest venues they’ve ever played, which is again, down to one factor. “That’s done by the crowd” confirms Talbot. “We are only here because of our audience. There’s no doubt about it, you’re nothing without an audience. As an artist, you’re just masturbating, which is fine, we can make music and stay at home, but I’m infatuated with human interaction and learning about myself and learning about audiences, and changing the world as well as changing the narrative.” Talbot goes on to speak about the dilemma that comes with being the frontman of a band constantly on the road. “You have to sacrifice for the cause” he says. “It’s the best job in the world, you just don’t see your partner but we’re alright, we’re dealing with it. It’s about communication, making sure you don’t hide anything or burrow in your job. We do miss each other but it’s ok, it’s normal to feel sad and angry because we’re not in each other’s company and we love each other. It’s fine.”
As the tour continues to wind on through the UK and into Europe, there’s no doubting that IDLES’ popularity and reputation as a tour de force will continue to soar. For a band that have faced a huge amount of obstacles already, they’ve managed to come out from it all even stronger. Joe Talbot’s presence at first can seem daunting, but his considerate tone and frankness in conversation makes any topic seem approachable. Just don’t call him a punk singer.
Listen to ‘Joy As An Act of Resistance’ on Spotify here.