IDLES are probably the most relevant band in the UK right now. Fusing visceral punk rock with politically charged and socially aware lyrics, they're the sound of the suburbs fighting back.
Formed in Bristol back in 2010, they've spent the past seven years developing an attitude and sound that stands out from the crowd. Not content to just sit back and tow the line like many of their musical contemporaries, IDLES aren't afraid to address issues ranging from depression ('1049 Gotho'), domestic violence ('Mother'), smalltown mentalities ('Exeter') and the state of the nation (pretty much everything else).
This year saw the five-piece - Joe Talbot (vocals), Mark Bowen (guitar), Lee Kiernan (guitar), Dev Devonshire (bass) and Jon Beavis (drums) - release their long awaited debut LP Brutalism to a wave of critical acclaim. While the band's live show has fast become the most unmissable of its kind anywhere on these shores right now.
DiS caught up with singer Talbot and guitarist Bowen before their recent set at Download Festival.
You’re playing a lot of festivals this summer. Do you tailor the sets differently depending on where you’re playing compared to the setlist at a normal IDLES headline show?
Joe Talbot: No. I think we’ve learned that you should never underestimate your audience. If you underestimate or overestimate what they expect you can easily end up losing them altogether. What we aim to do is play a set that fits the time frame whether that’s 25 minutes or 45 minutes. Just pick the best songs for that. Obviously, if we were still playing songs like ‘26/27’we’d probably omit them from the set but at the same time, we don’t want to over think it. We’d rather just play what we can and enjoy it.
Mark Bowen: I prefer playing shorter sets at festivals anyway because you can put more into it.
JT: It’s because he’s fucking lazy that’s why!
It’s been an incredible year for IDLES so far. Ever since the album came out in January you’ve amassed a wealth of critical acclaim. Did you expect such an overwhelmingly positive response?
JT: No. We’ve been continuously overwhelmed by the response. We made that album at a time where our popularity had pretty much withered locally. We’d always been warned by other bands that come from Bristol not to get too big for our boots; if you do become a big fish in a small pond don’t get carried away by it because you’ll end up being wankers. So we didn’t and were fully aware that the band would only be big in Bristol. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; Bristol’s the best place on earth in my eyes. It was more about the fact we’d got to the point where we’d had enough of each other and our music. We didn’t know why? So we scrapped everything we were doing, started writing the album and got a new lease of life. By the time the album was finished we were super happy and confident, but at the same time had no barometer of popularity to go by. We didn’t have a fucking clue where we were and we didn’t give a shit cos we’d just made this amazing album. For us at least. We didn’t mind if everyone else hated it because at least for us we’d finally made an album. We just wanted to go out live and tour it, so that’s what we did. We did a tour in November and if 50 people turned up to one of the shows that was amazing to us. If we could play shows outside of Bristol and get that many people turn up we were hi-fiving each other’s dicks! Bearing in mind at that point no one had heard the album. So then we went out on tour at the start of this year, the week after it came out, and we were playing sold out shows all over the UK. Even our PR and booking agent couldn’t believe what was going on!
Everything you sing about is so relevant. No other band has captured the zeitgeist so succinctly in recent years except maybe Sleaford Mods
JT: Thank you. I hope that we’ve always been relevant. It’s the actual tone of the guys behind me that’s made us sound more relevant. If you listen to ‘Thieves’ off the first EP it’s the same as what we’re doing now. Slagging off politicians. I’m not happy with the coalition, not happy with what’s going on. Six years later I’m still singing about the same shit. It’s just now I’ve got better at how I do it. I also think we’re hungrier now than we were back then. We’re more focused about what we’re doing.
Why do you think it’s taken so long for people outside of Bristol to take notice of the band?
JT: Because we weren’t good enough.
JT: I don’t think we were good enough. It took us a long time to find each other and also accept what we’re not good at. That’s what bands don’t do at the start. Focus on what they’re shit at rather than what they’re good at. It’s like me wearing a big collared shirt. It would look shit on me because I’m short and stumpy. It would just look weird. Whereas if I was two feet taller it would look great. A big collar just doesn’t work on me. And there were certain things we were doing in our music that made it unnecessarily bloated. When you find what you’re good at and all start doing it, everything’s great. The point is realising all the other stuff you were doing wasn’t as good. Not that we didn’t love the songs we released, but there are about 200 songs recorded that we haven’t released. They’re all on my iPod, shitloads of songs that really aren’t very good. At the time we were confused, we were trying to find our feet. We mimicked other things around us because we were looking for inspiration. We weren’t doing it for ourselves. But then once we realised what we were good at we found our rhythm and ended up inspiring ourselves. We’re constantly surprised by our popularity because we never expected anything; once you get past a certain age and you’ve been doing music for a certain amount of time you learn not to expect anything because most of the time it only ends in disappointment. Whereas if you don’t expect anything you can end up getting a really big surprise.
What inspires your songs? There seems to be an autobiographical side to many of them.
JT: Definitely. They’re pretty much all autobiographical. For example, a song like ‘Rachel Khoo’ is just whimsical abstraction about a summer I had where I kind of went off on one on drugs and lost my mind but still wanted that life of being in an apartment with my girlfriend in Paris. Except you’re not going to get that by boshing all your money you’ve worked 15 hours a week for on coke. That’s how the world works. So it’s kind of looking back on that summer and going: "What were you thinking?" I wasted so much money and time when I could have been doing something great. Laughing at myself. But in a really abstract way that people won’t really get unless I sit down and explain it to them. Some are more distant than others.
MB: While they are kind of autobiographical a lot are about shared experiences so people will get what we’re talking about. It’s not completely personal. It’s not like Bon Iver or somebody like that.
JT: It’s not Orwellian is it or anything that profound, but at the same time it’s almost that. It’s personal but also obvious. There’s a degree of ignorance in my lyrics because the anger is aimed at me. People find comfort in the fact that we’ve been given a platform on a big scale. This guy who walks funny and he’s fat and balding and depressed and hates this government. And thank fuck. Because we’re all bored of looking at Top Shop models. What are we looking at? The world's going to shit. I've said it before. It's a cyclical thing. The economy rises and all music videos get bigger and more lavish. Cocaine's out on the table and everyone's having a good time. But then everyone kind of gets a bit bloated. The content gets bloated and it all becomes a bit pointless until the rest of society who aren't rich decides their bored of looking at this shit now. They don't care how rich you are and then bands like us become popular. People want to hear the truth because that's more relevant. We've stayed there doing what we do throughout.
Do you think the growing popularity of bands like yourselves, Sleaford Mods, and LIFE is a reflection of the times we're living in?
JT: 100% yeah. If you look at Ken Loach's popularity there's a dip where people forget. They don't want the kitchen sink because everything's sunny. But then it comes round and you want to touch back to reality again. I remember going to Spillers in Bristol around the time Austerity Dogs came out and asking the guy behind the counter if he had anything British and shouty. I just wanted to hear something new and angry. So he said I've just got just thing for you, which was Austerity Dogs by Sleaford Mods. I remember listening to it for the first time and phoning our bassist Dev who was in Cardiff and saying, "You've got to hear this fucking band!" And I put on 'My Jampandy' with its "He's a wanker!" lyric and Dev was screaming, "This is the best song I've ever heard!" We just sat in his room drinking and listening to that record and I fell in love with it. I was in need of something like that and they were there. They started that shit. I do resent people that just clump all of us together, only because it bastardises the fact that we're all really different bands. Content wise we're the same but the styles are very different. I love the fact we're called political. I know it would make my father and mother if she was alive proud that our songs have some conscious content. But at the same time it's fucking boring to just be a political band. We're more than that. It's about the music as well and LIFE are more than that too. Sleaford Mods are also far more than just the content. That music is fucking tribal. The bravery of just having a guy on stage pressing a button is amazing. Content's vital but if its just about that you end up being on a soapbox.
What comes first when you're writing? The music or the lyrics?
JT: We always write the music first. Then I go away on my own and write on top of it. We all write together, sometimes I'll come with ideas first, other times Bowen or Dev will have theirs. They'll write a song in its entirety, or try to, and then I'll go away and write some lyrics so we can finish it off.
What are you doing for the rest of this year once all the festivals are out of the way?
JT: We're off to Germany in November. After that I don't know but I'd expect we'll be touring again in the early part of next year.
All the band still have day jobs. That seems to be quite common within the music industry nowadays unless you reach a certain level.
JT: Let's put it into perspective. If we got signed to say, Rough Trade and they gave us a £250,000 advance. We've got to pay that back. And they'd take 50% of everything. That's a standard contract. If we got offered a deal like that we wouldn't know how we'd be able to recoup that amount of money. Bands in this country don't get paid fuck all to perform live so what are we gonna do? Take a £250,000 loan from a bunch of old cokeheads in London and then have chronic panic attacks every time a bill comes through? It's really expensive to tour. We built this on our own without any funding to a point where we can pay for everything and come back after the summer with a profit so we can pay for the second album. Constantly breaking even. Maybe if we were to get a big loan from a record label we wouldn't need day jobs for a couple of years? I don't know. We do things our way because we don't want that leaning over us. I'm not very good at borrowing money. We're too absent minded. We just wanted to work our asses off and build this ourselves. I'm not going to pretend we're bigger than a label and just set to do this from a DIY perspective; we did really want help but didn't know how to go about it. We had to work so much harder than if we were on a label but at the same time, we don't have to give anyone 50% of what we worked so damn hard for.
What advice would you give to new bands just starting out?
JT: Create an idea you all believe in and stick to it. Obviously you can adapt it but make sure you're all on the same page. It's like a manifesto. Some artists are out there who are such beautiful performers. Character actors, which is a talent in itself, whereas I think we're more on the method acting side. I can't write stories about things that haven't happened to me. It has to be autobiographical because my imagination has withered due to expensive shit drugs. For us as a band it was about creating an idea and then building it. Building an image around it and sticking to it. Have a brief to work towards, work your arse off and get rid of any dead weights. If someone isn't pulling their weight tell them to pull their socks up because it's all of your futures not just one person. Don't do cocaine. Treat your music with some respect. Don't pay attention to what everyone else around you is doing.
In terms of writing new material, will the result of the General Election and subsequent coalition between the Conservative and DUP parties have any influence on what you do?
JT: No. It's too confusing. I'm absolutely flabbergasted by the result. I genuinely thought it was going to be a Tory landslide. Because last time I thought we had a chance it ended up being a Tory landslide. All I see is what's in front of me on a computer screen and those algorithms are cunts. I'm still trying to get my head around the idea that this country isn't full of racists. I'm really chuffed. The youth of this country are doing something really magical. What I don't understand is how people have been smoke-screened into thinking the problems that have been caused by the Tories are going to be fixed by the Tories; Thatcherite Britain, privatising the fuck out of Britain. Letting corporations buy all of our pubs for instance. It's all owned by enterprise so the price of our beer is £4.50 a pint or something ridiculous like that because of the right to buy. And people forget all of these things. Everything gets watered down until its about getting the immigrants out. What the fuck are they talking about? So this election result has sent out a message even though Labour didn't get in. People are sick of the tabloids lying through their teeth. It's not like all of the UKIP voters have suddenly become Labour. It's just all of the teenagers in those constituencies full of old UKIP voters are now old enough to vote. They're bored of those old cunts. They realise the need to stop what's happening and rightly so. All these people who'll be dead in 15 years have just fucked us. They'll be laughing in their graves when they see the prices in IKEA. Trust me.
Are there any new bands you'd recommend Drowned In Sound and its readers should check out?
JT: I've been listening to a Danish band called Less Win. They've been around since at least 2014 so aren't strictly new, but they have a new album out this year called GREAT which is amazing. LIFE who we were talking about earlier are great.
MB: Diät are great.
JT: Sex Swing we're all massive fans of. Arrows Of Love are an amazing band. Taos Humm from Bristol are incredible. Spectres as well. They're not new but everything should still go and check them out. There's a lot of great stuff happening in Bristol that we're not aligned with as well. Team Love for example. It's a great place to be. When Howling Owl came along it kicked everyone up the arse really. I think we had a lot to do with motivating people to work harder. We weren't very good but we played a lot of gigs and supported lots of bands. It got everyone motivated to work together. We had loads of amazing bands play and also come and watch. Plattenbau from Berlin are great too.
For more information on IDLES, visit their official website.