"It's The Momentary Acceptance Of Yourself" Clash Meets IDLES
IDLES are on an ongoing mission to engage and absorb with passionate ambition. An undertaking that has lasted a decade so far, the activity looks set to reach beyond the foreseeable future.
“We want to entertain as much as possible, as honestly as possible. We’re not just doing stuff for the sake of it. We’re doing it in our own language”, frontman Joe Talbot tells Clash.” Let our audience know when we are releasing, so there’s less uncertainty. It’s an inclusivity we’re talking about and how to embody that as a business.”
If there is one thing the IDLES talisman feels certain about, then it is the safety in persevering with something he feels strongly about. Even when things don’t seem to make a difference, it is important to continue. Even when no one else gives a toss, the fact that you chose to continue could end up being the differentiating factor.
At the point when success finally came, it was more astounding than surprising, “We were doing it for ten years, if it was to surprise me then I’d have to be ignorant to miss what was going on”, he argues. “You understand your environment, the beauty of our relationship with our audiences is that they built our careers. We weren’t built by a record label, we weren’t built by the industry, the journalists telling us we were the best thing since sliced bread.”
“No one started to write about us until ‘Brutalism’ came out, because no one writes anything unless you’re really good, which we weren’t”, he continues. “It was a natural growth, I think by the time ‘Joy As An Act of Resistance’ came out we were ready to be popular. We were ready to play to bigger audiences. It’s a craft, you’ve gotta learn it before you can learn your art. We were ready.”
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For a long period they just kept at it. If fairly isolated, they existed outside the mainstream. Learning the hard way, they gained a deeper understanding of how isolation feels than some of their peers. But the feeling stretches further than a lack of industry involvement, according to the singer, it also relates to isolation caused by addiction. “It’s the house our audience built. It’s that sense of reason why I started the band”, he explains. “There was a feeling of isolation in the sense of alcoholism and drug abuse. For a long time I felt like I was on my own - isolated. I needed to build a network around me to feel safe and loved.”
“A house that made me feel safe to be myself and feel that it’s ok to be different and make mistakes”, he declares. ”Our confidence has grown, the progress is bigger and more productive. AF Gang on Facebook and us as a network of people is a place where we feel safe. That’s what we try and do now with everything we make, it has to be an inclusive space, an arena to fuck about in and be ourselves.”
It is a well-known fact that the Bristol band play a gigantic part in reinventing the live environment for other bands and industry. The aforementioned house or community recently found itself on the receiving end of three Lock-In Sessions live-streamed directly from Abbey Road. An immense undertaking, the project represented technical and production challenges.
The idea came about to give the community something novel and exhilarating in return for loyalty in challenging times of Covid. A premise based on the idea of addressing the essence of the relationship with fans. “We built our audience and our audience built us by word of mouth just from playing shows and getting better, with that slow incremental growth like in size of audience”, he states. “We got to make loads of mistakes and learn our language as we went along.”
IDLES’ third album ‘Ultra Mono’ is a gargantuan, orchestral melting pot, a dramatic playout of sonics. Confident and self-assured, lofty ideas are tackled throughout the extravaganza. As anticipated, it represents another huge leap forward, a genuine step up in songwriting and production. Celebratory in spirit, it has community at heart with numerous collaborators and guests including Nick Launay, Adam Greenspan, Kenny Beats, Jehnny Beth, David Yow, Jamie Cullum to name a few.
“It’s the momentary acceptance of yourself”, he describes. “You learn to speak for yourself, forgive yourself and love yourself and that will give you the confidence to listen, love, empathise with others. Community in the cosmopolitan sense is to have the confidence to empathise, accept difference and not change people to your modus or narrative. It’s the inclusivity we’re coming from, it’s to understand that you’re a tiny speck in something much bigger and that gives you the confidence for empathy, which is the essence of anti-fascism. We wanted to try and represent that in our sound.”
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The band wanted the cover artwork to be an embodiment of the album. A holistic sound that smashes every listener in the face with beautiful sounds, “We wanted to create space and depth”, the frontman enthuses. “Soft in messaging, but there’s a power in there and a presence that’s what the artwork is supposed to be. The inventor of contrast, the darkest dark and lightest light create that space. It’s a violent thing in itself, the imagery is impactful and striking.”
Album themes and messages signify ‘a next step’ in the journey to becoming better, more complete as a person. Focusing specifically on self-acceptance, there are gigantic lessons to be learnt, lessons which the band leader felt on his own body.
“That comes throughout the record”, he reflects. “Most of it is about me ramping myself up to believe in myself. I know that I’m worth more than someone else’s summary and that the music is a dialogue. I just need to accept that I’m not anything but me in this moment.”
This record sees the band express themselves freely and play to their strengths. It is the voicing of five committed individuals, and there is an underlying question about how the sound of an assured self is made.
“We just looked at what was around us”, he contemplates. “We looked at what evokes that, the impact, the presence and the sound of bass, the violence of post-punk and create that as a holistic sound; the sound of an orchestra. The process of elimination, which is to reduce the things going wrong on a record. The more noise there is, the less volume you have because you only have a certain amount of compression of frequencies for impact.”
“One snare can be louder than five white man thrashing around on their instruments”, he continues. “We took the practices of techno, Wagner, Kanye etc. where that distillation of sound for impact really works. We wanted to be as concise as possible and as IDLES as possible. Instead of convolution and questioning ourselves, trying to play everything at the same time, which shows a lack of confidence, confidence is knowing when to shut the fuck up.”
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He has previously spoken out against attempts to tag them as punk, but what could be construed as prima donna tactics hide an echt modesty in respect of privilege. Tackling, and ultimately reflecting, views of fairness and equality, the truth becomes straightforward when it gets filtered through Talbot’s perspective.
“White men don’t own subversive music”, he states matter-of-factly. “There was blues and soul music, it’s all subversive, all counter-active towards hegemonic fascists. There’s reggae, there’s calypso. This is not subversive guitar music, it isn’t punk. Punk didn’t invent anti-establishment, it was going on way before that.”
True statement and fair point, the refusal to accept tagging definitely comes across on ‘Ultra Mono’. Perhaps, resonating more with music of black origin than guitar music, it certainly is a balanced match. And a persuasive display of immersive sound complexity is created from a band, who according to their leader, are creating a “new wall of sound.”
His love of jungle, grime and techno is undisputed and combined with strands of music from the rest of IDLES – Mark Bowen, Lee Kiernan, Adam Devonshire and Jon Beavis – a non-conformist cocktail is served. Billie Eilish inspired them in the sense that they want this record to stand up against any global releases playing on radio and other platforms.
Song number two, the insistent beat-led ‘Grounds’, is probably his favourite. Growing up he took artistic inspiration from hip hop, it was an influence. “I look up to and get inspiration from Biggie Smalls, Kanye West more than I do from Jello Biafra or Ian Curtis. I’ve learnt my cadence from it. I see myself more as a blank instrument, as a percussive tool, than I do a singer. It’s what I listened to for so long.”
The spontaneous energy that fuels the lyrics throughout point to themes of substance. Captured in free moments during recordings, they are the product of immediate writing in the vocal booth, adding an original, personal touch. “Whaching! That’s the sound of the sword going in” is a poignant example extracted from opening track ‘War’. Unveiling itself as his most “unthought” lyric, it is a snapshot of Talbot at his freest and most spontaneous.
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“It’s about the start of self-conflict; inner conflict. It sums up the record and the start of the journey of ‘Ultra Mono’ perfectly”, he considers. “You’re unthinking, letting yourself go, it might sound silly and non-sensical, but it has the most purpose to me. That lyric is the start of my inner conflict and belief in myself to love myself. It also sounds like a Wu-tang lyric.” - If the reality of heading up the UK’s most glorious band sensation doesn’t comprise enough intensity, the singer’s therapy sessions continue. Do in-depth conversations in and outside the band never get to him? The temptation to approach some things with lightness and superficiality must presents itself at times?
“No, what’s exhausting and intense is not exercising the demons”, he clarifies. “I’ve found that the less transparent I was being in life not on record was the worst I was becoming to myself through drugs, alcohol, relationships, decision-making and communication. I’m an introverted processer, it’s important that I spend time on my own, but I need to get it out. I wasn’t getting it out.”
For Talbot music represents a cathartic, therapeutic way approach to life, there is a need to talk, and after a couple of years it becomes important to set out boundaries. The song ‘Grounds’ gets to grips with this topic. It is a helpful process. “It’s a real commitment when you say things on record, there’s a conviction. I can speak to my therapist for an hour. It’s a dialogue, I’m probed by a therapist. Whereas, performing live or on record, I probe myself, I have no room to then explain myself further.”
“The dialogue is there. The reaction to my words is a physical and chemical reaction, there’s an electricity. What I say in the room is very final. It changes all the time, but you need to be committed and truthful”, he adds. “If you lie you’ll end up living that lie for ages, which isn’t healthy. That’s the commitment. I sleep well at night because ultimately it’s about being as concise, transparent as possible. I don’t go in questioning, I’m just in that moment.”
This tricky year is naturally about external awareness as well. “This period has made me realise how lucky I am, and how lucky we are. No one I know has died. I have a roof over my head, I’ve got a job that’s allowed income during this time.”
“I’m just grateful”, he decides. “I can see how bad it has got for other people. I show my gratitude by working hard, getting much done and being in connection with our audience. It’s been a healthy lesson, I understand that not everyone is as privileged as I am.”
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'Ultra Mono' will be released on September 25th.
Words: Susan Hansen
Photo Credit: Rachel Lipsitz
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