“Life Is Good!” IDLES Interviewed

Their new album, the honesty of live performance, and domestic bliss...

IDLES have never sought out the ordinary. A band who aren’t content to operate in a straight line, their journey has taken the malleable force that is punk rock and blended it with whatever comes into their path. Hailing from Bristol, an awareness of club culture should probably be a given, and it’s come more to the forefront as the band have evolved. New album ‘TANGK’ is out now, and it’s a tour de force – their second consecutive No. 1 in the UK, it found IDLES reaching out to Kenny Beats and Nigel Godrich, each with their own tastes, hues, and personalities.

The result was a many faceted beast. Lead single ‘Dancer’ found room for LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy and Nancy Whang, while live shows fizz between crunching, post-hardcore riffs and ear-splitting electronics. CLASH caught IDLES live at London’s Village Underground last year, and it was an inspiration – the type of show that lives long in the memory.

Earlier this month we caught up with the band’s Joe Talbot and Mark Bowen, still in a post-release haze, as they prepared to go back out on the road once more – this time to North America.

IDLES are about to head back out on the road, how are you feeling?

Mark: Can’t wait! Gonna tear ‘em all a new one.

Joe: I’m always looking forward to the tour. It’s a beautiful thing. But right now. I got some vocals to record in a recording session, and then I’m picking my kids up from school. And I’m gonna do that. I’ve got so much shit to look forward to right now. Life is good!

When CLASH saw you at Village Underground you gave a wonderful speech, Joe, about the position you’re in right now, and the balance you’ve found in life. Has it been difficult to segment your creative life, say, from a home one?

Joe: It’s a thing of sustenance, and you’ve got to maintain it every day. You’ve got to be mindful of the differences. There are things you can do in both worlds to make them work together. It’s a sense of simplicity, but it’s not two people or two lives… it’s one. And when you start to understand that, life gets better. You start doing things on tour for your life at home and for your family, you understand the value of that time. And you do things when you have a family – you seek inspiration, or you just stay healthy, stay fit, whatever it is. There’s a sense of sustenance there for each and it becomes more fluid.

‘TANGK’ has gone down incredibly well with fans, how have you found the material shifting and changing whilst on tour?

Mark: It’s been a very dynamic process. One of the things about translating ‘CRAWLER’ live was asking what IDLES live show should be, what is the essence of that and the interaction with the audience and the interaction with music. And ‘TANGK’ has evolved that. There are lots of moments when we’re very locked in as musicians, and it becomes about the band and what we’re doing. But then there are other parts where it kind of like blossoms and blooms out in the end of the exchange with the audience.

The other thing is that songs from ‘TANGK’… people are dancing. It’s not about the pit. People are actually dancing together. How that dynamic works, and how it translates into your set, is different from country to country. It’s different from Germany to Portugal, for example. It’s about learning that dynamic, and how ‘TANGK’ fits into what the audience needs, and what we want to gain from it. It’s been super fun… and stressful! Stressful, to begin with. I had a lot of work to do. We want to avoid track, so it’s all live… which makes it fucking hard. But it’s one of the greatest privileges of my life. 

Each IDLES record sits in its own creative universe – there’s a world between ‘Brutalism’ for example, and ‘CRAWLER’ – so how do you filter those ideas together into a unified live set?

Mark: I think it’s just about staying true to the initial intentions of the song, and reacting to that as the person that you are now. That means that some things are consistent, and then some things are inconsistent, although not in a negative way. But they evolve and they change and the dynamics change in the songs and in the performance. It’s about staying true to those initial intentions but also staying true to the form that you are now. We perform ‘Mother’ differently every night. ‘Gratitude’ differently every night. it’s just about being open to the process of evolving.

Joe, there must be a lot of pressure on you as a frontman to channel that energy, how do you switch into that space?

Joe: Um… nothing, is the answer. The thing is, there’s no act. If I’m sad, and I’m going onstage sad, you get me when I’m sad. I don’t have a stage name, you know what I mean? If I’m angry, you get me angry. If I’m happy, you get me happy. Like, I’ll use whatever it is – my energy – and everything I give onstage – it comes from gratitude, and the love of the job, and the love of the people, and the love of the music. So like, you just get me, being me at my utmost in the moment. And that helps me be who I am. I’m grateful for all of that, because I’m given an opportunity to do that every night. And every day.

There’s performance and then there’s character performance or like, acting. There is no place in acting for us. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with acting as a musician. There are people who do it amazingly well. But you’ve got to be a good actor to do it. Well, I’m not a good actor. My point is, it’s a therapy. And it’s a beautiful experience for me. I just need to be transparent, and let the music – and the people – build an energy that I get involved in, and then it comes out as a spell.

There’s a huge amount of different colours, techniques and voices on ‘TANGK’, it feels like a very singular record. What was the biggest challenge for the band while making this record?

Joe: The wait between making it and releasing it. I think there was a lot of challenges with working with Nigel, as a writer. I had to overcome the idea of being a passenger at some points in the writing process. But when you let go of your ego, when you become a passenger, you can either look out the window or you can watch the driver. You know, you can still learn by being a passenger. So I learned a lot.

I actually think it’s part two of ‘Crawler’. We learned a lot from that time. And ironically the patience of writing remotely and using that poise and grace of time and space to really challenge yourself… that has given us a hunger to do it more. Challenge isn’t hard, you know. Being uncomfortable just makes you a more well-rounded person. Allowing discomfort and challenging yourself and all that stuff is what I’m excited about. The hardest thing is sitting around waiting for the fucking thing to be heard.

Mark: I mean, that’s what it was about. The goal with this album was to challenge ourselves, to push us to push our limits. It’s more like not allowing yourself to be comfortable. You know, some of it flowed and some of it came easy. It’s not that we were constantly in a state of fucking adrenaline rush fight-or-flight –  fuck, this is awful?! It was more like, this isn’t what we’ve done before but we’re going to carry it out and finish it and meet our goals.

You worked with Magda Archer on a new book bringing together the lyrics of ‘Brutalism’. That much have been a really interesting thing to do, and very gratifying, in a way – to see those words on the written page?

Joe: I was asked if I could think of any artists that I admired that would work for that project and they were the first person that came to mind because I think it works brilliantly with album. And I love their work. So I mean, it’s fucking magic seeing something in print. I love it. I love it. It’s magic.

it wasn’t a good time in my life to be honest… that album, in terms of writing, it wasn’t a pleasant time for us as a band. I was a fucking nightmare. Dev was a nightmare. Jon just sat there in bewilderment at what the fuck was going on. These three monsters screaming at each other all day. One guy left because it couldn’t handle the bullshit and a new guy joined… and he had just given up crack – so he was just happy to be alive! (laughs) It wasn’t pleasant, really. But it was a necessary time. And artistically, it was combustive which meant it was a brilliant time for making music for us. But everything in-between was toxic.

Those memories must put your current situation – with that balance and joy in your life – into real context.

Joe: Every day, I remind myself how lucky I am.

‘TANGK’ is out now.

IDLES are on tour in North America right now. Catch the band at Glastonbury Festival this summer, before a full UK tour – including two nights at London’s Alexandra Palace – in November.

Words: Robin Murray
Photography: Daniel Topete

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