Stendhal Syndrome: Idles Interviewed

After years of struggling with their sound, Bristol's Idles found purpose in the brutal, dirty, humanity of grief. Frontman Joe Talbot discusses identity, art, society and smashing Jeremy Hunt's head

Photography courtesy Henry Calvert

It took Idles a long time to rip the overwrought fat away and just release the album they wanted to. On their debut LP Brutalism from March of this year the Bristol five-piece, fronted by the caustic Joe Talbot, tore themselves from the post punk shackles they had been too tentative to cast off previously. Since, they have been packing out venues across the UK and beyond with their sweaty and acrid live shows reminiscent at points of The Jesus Lizard or The Dead Kennedys. On the day of our phone-call, Talbot and co. are in Nantes, camped in a complex kitted with table football and air hockey, waiting out the hours ahead of their show. Throughout the call the rest of the band – guitarists Mark Bowen and Lee Kiernan, bassist Adam Devonshire and drummer Jon Beavis – can be heard scrapping and arguing in the background, like young dogs: yappy – all teeth.

When asked how it feels to finally get the result they had been looking for, Talbot shrugs, full of phlegm, down the line: "This isn’t actually the result we wanted necessarily. All we wanted was to release this album and crack on with the second one. It stopped being about ‘being successful’ a while ago and just became an album we needed to make for ourselves. This is all just an amazing bonus. We’re like pigs in shit at the moment."

That personal intent and the need to make Brutalism the album that it is permeates the record. Talbot’s howled lyrics are stark, unabashedly angry and refreshingly unadorned amid the grating instrumentation. Their 2012 debut EP WELCOME now feels like it came from an entirely different band; Talbot’s vocals strained in a quest for accessible melody while noodly guitars and by-the-numbers bass lines made it all seem little more than a drop in the stagnant last-days-of-indie pool. 2015’s follow-up MEAT was certainly an improvement, but it is only now on Brutalism that Idles have found themselves able to just say what it is they want to say.

An album born out of personal grief, anger and frustration, Brutalism is a product of catharsis and re-invigoration. As the band’s initial reserve of energy dwindled and dwindled, they found themselves on the verge of giving up or worse, compromising their work in the hope of success. Despondence and internal conflict culminated when Talbot’s mother died following a long illness. From the ashes of grief and loss a newly purposed Idles arose with Brutalism: cold, immediate and abrupt as the architecture that inspired its title.

Idles are fixated on the championing of the ugly, the normal, and the uncelebrated. And they could not give less of a shit if you think they’re riding the Sleaford Mods shaped wave of popular punk thank you very goddam much.

You have spoken about how Brutalism is in many respects an elegy for your mother, with a photo of her featuring on the cover and in the video for the ‘Mother’ itself. What impact did her death directly have on the band that made her so central to the album?

Joe Talbot: When we started work on the album I was really struggling with my mother’s illness. When she died there was a huge shift in my life where I realised that these catastrophic events can ultimately give you a greater clarity. You’re suddenly able to see all the bullshit you’ve been dragging along with you throughout a period of time, you start being able to get rid of the people who were dragging you back with their negativity and selfishness.

That period for the band was so difficult because we were dragging so much pointless shit behind us, doing that terrified-band thing of thinking that because we were in our late 20s we either had to write a radio hit or just give up because no one was biting and no one gave a shit. We even wrote a song that we thought would make us more popular because it was a bit poppy, but it was so shit and we couldn’t do it to ourselves. But that’s how desperate we were. At some point after my mum died we all met and asked ourselves what the fuck we were doing. We had to start again.

Were you apprehensive about having that very personal iconography at the forefront of a release?

JT: Not at all. I didn’t think many people would listen anyway. We had no preconceptions or concerns about how it would be received. I just wanted to put my mum on the cover. I wanted to put her in the video. I didn’t give a fuck about being coy about it or what it was about. I had no embarrassment about people thinking I was some twat who was obsessed with his mum.

If people didn’t scratch the surface of the album’s origins, they could be inclined to accuse Idles of being insincere. They might suggest that your change in sound was actually a way of cashing in on in the growing popularity of bands like Sleaford Mods or Slaves. Is that something that concerns you or has occurred to you?

JT: It would be easy to assume that we had thought to ourselves, "Oh punk is cool, let’s change our sound, quick." But if you actually did some research you’d know that we recorded this album two years ago, and our second EP over three years ago. We haven’t just jumped on some bandwagon. We just held on to the album until we had the money so we could actually release it.

People can think that if they want to think that. I don’t mind. Fuck it. It’d be the same as someone bumping into me in the street and thinking I’m an asshole. I’m not going to lose anything if that person thinks I’m an asshole, they haven’t spoken to me, they don’t know me. If you get caught up in what people are going to label you as then you’re going to get chewed up and spat out. No one gives a shit anyway. People can enjoy it or not.

So what would you say to those who would label you as derivative?

JT: Look, fucking everything is derivative. Unless you invent new instruments and have never even listened to music before you’re going to be deriving what you do from something. I’m not scared of saying who inspired me to make music but there’s a lot more interesting ones than the ones people throw at us. To say we jumped on some bandwagon is just fucking lazy. But I’m too fat and old to give a shit about what some fucking prick on the Internet has to say about us being derivative.

If we’re talking about influence though, I’d sooner look to bands like SUUNS, METZ, Protomartyr, Holograms or Ice Age. Deep down there is stuff that you fall in love with and it will never leave you’re brain. That doesn’t mean you’re jumping on a bandwagon.

How does the post punk label sit with you?

JT: We’re not a post punk band. I guess we have that motorik, engine-like drive in the rhythm section that some post punk bands have but we have plenty of songs that aren’t like that at all. ‘Well Done’ to me felt like trying to write a grime song.

We’ve just been finishing our second album and there’s a lot more garage rock on there, a bit of glam too. It’s a bit sad to lump yourself into a genre though. It makes people feel safe before they go and listen to you, which is helpful in some ways I guess but it’d be a bit tragic to just put yourself into a box like that. It’s not what art is supposed to be about.

How have people been responding to the album and to shows? Has it changed the way you feel about it?

JT: Catharsis was the key word for us this album and it’s something I’m really enjoying sharing now with audiences – audiences who aren’t just my mates like they were before. It’s amazing to see that catharsis come back at you. You meet people afterwards and they’re just like: "Yeah! I hate my dad!" or whatever. It’s weird to play somewhere like Derby and for people give you more than you’ve ever gotten anywhere else.

It’s kind of scary now actually because for the second album I need to switch off from all that. I don’t want to think too much about what I’m writing or about how people will interpret it. I didn’t overthink what I was writing for the first one. I just wrote it. If I overthink it, it becomes shit.

That bluntness and immediacy ties in a lot with the idea of brutalism itself I suppose. How did the rawness of brutalist architecture and art feed into how the album was made?

JT: I’ve always really enjoyed art on a superficial level. I did film studies in college and if anything it made me love film less. In learning so much about it, it denaturalised this wonderful art form for me because all I could focus on was the mechanics. I found myself always just talking shop about films rather than just talking about how magic it is.

I just really admired the raw, block like, cubic sticking of things together of brutalism. There’s no shame in not being musically gifted enough to make everything flow like a wonderful story like on Astral Weeks. I always see our music in terms of blocks of varying sizes. And in that same way I was laying myself and my grief out there in a raw form because the way I grieve is blunt and abrupt. If I’m sad, I’m going to cry and I’m not ashamed of that or of showing my emotions for what they are.

And there’s the block sculpture on the cover of the record next to the photo of your mother . . .

JT: My dad and I made that sculpture out of old parquet flooring from a school that was torn down. The whole idea was to take something that had been demolished and turn into something beautiful like a block. It’s supposed to be like a headstone. The whole album is meant to sound like a big concrete car park sized headstone.

What do you think makes it so effective and resonant with people?

JT: It’s a clumsy album. But people want that. People want honesty and honesty doesn’t come from the machine, it doesn’t come from Ed Sheeran. There’s a coyness from artists like that that doesn’t speak to anything real.

They want something more representative of themselves…

JT: There’s no room for people like us in the mainstream media. There’s no room for normal, ugly people on the TV. You have to be beautiful. I’ve got eczema on my face and I’m never going to be on the cover of some fucking big magazine unless I’m photoshopped to have my wrinkles and skin condition and nicotine stained teeth fixed.

And that’s why people got so excited about Protomartyr and Sleaford Mods. They’re these a-typical frontmen that people like me can get excited about. They’re so much more interesting and talented than I am but they’re coming from the same place. These people are so exciting and so normal.

People are fucking bored with the same narratives. And it’s not like we’re really any different – we’re all relatively young, white, middle class men, and I’ll never apologise for that – but we can still want to inspire middle-aged mums and dads who don’t get talked about to come out of the woodwork and be heard. It’s all so fucking stale otherwise.

So you want to give a platform to people who aren’t celebrated.

JT: I just want to keep being honest and try to create some kind of discourse. You want people to feel like part of a community or family, to feel a part of something.

It sort of ties in with my other work too. I’ve been a support worker with adults with learning disabilities for the past seven months. I help out these two guys; helping them do their shopping, bringing them to the pub (they don’t drink). What you learn is how unique and amazing all these people that others ignore are. I can’t imagine what their world would be like without the support they get.

You must feel passionate about people being marginalised from healthcare because of cuts to the NHS then?

JT: Just knowing those guys, and knowing how much the NHS did for my mother makes me so appreciative of what they do. My mum had a major stroke when I was 16 that paralysed her right side. She was unable to communicate for about two years and was in a rehabilitative hospital. I’m so appreciative of the NHS because I actually managed to get at least some of her back after some time. Without the NHS she would have been left in corner to rot. I feel genuine violence toward those who would try to take that away from anyone. I would happily smash Jeremy Hunt’s head in with my bare hands. Those people are scumbags and they don’t give a shit about people.

But look, it’s only by talking about all this bullshit that we are going to change the cycle. I’m finding it harder and harder to believe in anything because all the belief systems are fucked. I’m not going to try and point a finger and attack someone, but through our band I’m trying to look at myself and at least put up my own hands and admit that I’m full of shit. When you own up to your own shit you can start talking about how we can all change this together.

So these are things you’re obviously hoping to explore on album number two?

JT: I want it to focus on mental health and explore the introverted fear that’s so rampant in people now. I want it to look at ideas of what masculinity is and think about my relationship with my father.

It’s important to let negative energy go and it gets harder and harder to manage that when we’re constantly being bombarded with stories that seem so fucking unreal. I want whatever we do to be harsh and real.

Idles will be playing in support of The Maccabees at Alexandra Palace tonight, Friday and Saturday (June 29 – July 1). They will be touring Europe with a string of UK dates through the rest of the summer with more details available here. The band will also play Bristol’s Simple Things on October 21. Get tickets for that here

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