Idles On Creating Positive Punk in a Climate of Fear
Bristol punks IDLES' new album breaks down nationalism, toxic masculinity, immigration and class inequality – but frontman Joe Talbot doesn't intend to be sucked into a shouting match
Punk has been characterised as an intrinsically anti-establishment enterprise since its inception, but a handful of exceptional artists have felt compelled to reinvigorate that spirit over decades. Dissonant hardcore pioneers Fugazi did it when they released Repeater in 1990, as did Swedish experimentalists Refused when they flipped the script on 1998's The Shape of Punk to Come. Equally, IDLES' debut Brutalism felt like the short, sharp shock the scene needed when it was released last year, expressing feelings of anger and disillusionment with society using the explicit language of class warfare. In an era of rife inequality, societal polarisation and political injustice, the only surprising aspect of the record is it took so long in coming.
Shamelessly irreverent vocals, ferocious riffs and an engine-like rhythm section make for a style that suggests the five-piece have had a solid education in both hardcore and art rock, but frontman Joe Talbot is adamant that the band's ethos comes from concrete experiences rather than some romanticised ideology. As he puts it to The Skinny, "I don't really care about the punk scene at all. But I don't mind being called a protest band. It is a protest of sorts, isn't it? It's a protest against popularised ideas of what it is to be normal and good.
"We don't look like your average rock band or act like one. I live by protest so there's something subversive about being loving and open-minded in this day and age – especially in pop music. I can't be preoccupied with what people perceive us as. If people want to call us punk or whatever, I don't care. As long as we're working truthfully, call us what you want, but I think there's protest in our nature. Even being a band outside of London is subversive these days."
Hailing from Bristol, IDLES formed in 2012 but threw out much of the early album material they had in order to better reflect the real-life pressures they faced as individuals. By contrast, the band started work on the upcoming follow-up Joy as an Act of Resistance almost immediately after Brutalism's release, a signal of their greater sense of purpose. Addressing themes of "toxic masculinity, nationalism, immigration and class inequality," it's an album even more informed by the environment it's been written in than its predecessor. At a glance, the title might seem odd given the band's propensity to bellow and thrash out, but Talbot sees it as a declaration of radical intent.
"The phrase was poignant to me when I first saw it. All around the world, there's a lot of polarisation of ideologies and right-wing parties getting more and more popular. Now's the time to resist, yes, but a lot of the narratives floating about with resistance are negative. We're violent and our music has that tone, but we want to spread something that's positive and listen to each other. I'm a lot more conscious about that now. I carry anger within me but it's from a point of circumstance.
"For a long time, I was angry at the universe about things that had happened to me. But that was stupid because I'm unimportant. What matters is that people feel disillusioned – there's this sense of loss in Europe and America and my side are calling people ugly, stupid and racist while the right take advantage. Some are racist, of course, but some want to make a change. We want to challenge the passion we have through angry music, allow people to breathe and look within. When you regroup, you love yourself and are more open to other people's ideas."
The fact IDLES describes themselves as "passionate rather than angry" is telling – the band balance brains and brawn, but their music also has heart. Last year, Talbot dispelled the narrative that the band want to revive a tradition of po-faced British rock stretching back to the eighties by bluntly stating: "We're not a post punk band." If anything, their sardonic lyrics and chaotic song structures more closely resemble British post-hardcore revivalists from the early-2000s such as Mclusky and Million Dead.
"One of the narratives I'd love to change is that real pretentious gripe a lot of artists have that 'derivative' is a dirty word," says Talbot. "The second album kicks more against this idea and celebrates our derivative nature. We're openly a product of different things we love. Kanye West's Yeezus was a big influence on the first record. Weirdly, there's a lot of garage influences on this new one. Our bassist loves Mclusky. We like Interpol and the Sex Pistols. Grime music and jungle is a big thing. There's loads that we love. We're not about hearing the new Radiohead album and thinking, 'let's sound like that;' it's about breathing and allowing whatever happens – you absorb what you love."
The band's expansive sonic palette is reflected in their recruitment of Space, whose credits include everyone from Jamie Lenman to Wilko Johnson to The Prodigy, for production duties. Hearing the album's second single Danny Nedelko, this makes eminent sense – basslines rumble and guitars ring menacingly, but the mix gives precedence to Talbot himself as he loutishly squalls in the manner of John Lydon. But what's most significant is what he's squalling about: his solidarity with immigrants who he regards as 'blood brothers,' and the value of community.
Those judging by his appearance or demeanour might find that surprising or subversive, but it's a fitting representation of how IDLES view punk. Positivity and self-love in the face of struggle defines their position on making art and, by extension, how the entire world should operate. Talbot describes Brutalism as "relentlessly honest" but argues that the band's "success" had "encouraged others to be honest with themselves" and that "it is that bravery to freely express yourself that so terrifies the tyrants." It's perhaps also why he talks about the band's audiences with the kind of veneration one might reserve for a religious congregation.
"We have a bucket list for the audiences we want to play in front of," says Talbot. "We were always told Paris, Hull and Glasgow were the three best audiences. We played G2 in Glasgow last year and it was unbelievable – it didn't let us down. We were looking forward to playing at the ABC this time around, but that fucking fire means we won't be so it'll be at the QMU. My dad went to the Glasgow School of Art so that really caught me. Still, we love our music and our touring and where we've got to so we're not going to sit around.
"Hopefully our sound has developed this time. We're enjoying our instruments and enjoying each other. Our ethos is to make music that's as honest as possible. We're very mindful of our surroundings and we run through empathy. We're constantly thinking about the welfare of the people we care about, not just ours but humans in general. We're mindful of what's going on about us at the moment and hope to always be as long as we're astute with our musical language. So much art – radio, magazines and TV – has popularised ideas that are dangerous for children and the livelihood of the marginalised. We can't get bogged down by the lack of progression – we've just got to do it ourselves."