Search The Line of Best Fit
Search The Line of Best Fit
Nici Eberl 20231213 IDLES5

Tender hooligans

05 February 2024, 08:30

After 15 years as a band, IDLES remain true to their blueprint for making music. Mark Bowen and Joe Talbot tell Sophie Leigh Walker why gratitude and confidence remain more important than ever for the band’s creative pulse.

Violent delights may have violent ends, but with the arrival of their fifth record TANGK, IDLES has reached a different kind of conclusion: one of tenderness.

Since the band’s inception, they have railed against the public imagination of their image; Bristol’s beloved sons cut through the noise of the overflowing British post-punk circle pit with a violent spirit, yes, but also with gentle minds.

IDLES, as frontman Joe Talbot has made very clear, are “not a fucking punk band”. They were valorised for their 2017 debut album Brutalism: a state-of-the-nation address which forced us to confront the reflection of Britain which had been fractured by the outcome of the Brexit referendum. Their instruments were inflicted with the threat of a well-sharpened switchblade, swallowing you whole in cyclones of blue-collar vitriol. Here was a country atrophied by its paranoia and the Conservative administration, and IDLES skewered its bitter realities with wit, positivity and rallying spirit.


“The best way to scare a Tory is to read and get rich”, was one such proclamation made by Talbot, their raw-throated hellion. His lyrics, as unambiguous as a kick in the teeth – or, to their detractors, unchallenging, low-hanging fruit – were seemingly destined for the protest banners. When it comes to punk, if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.

But that would only be telling half the story, only a small measure of this band’s intention and capability. IDLES have fought, with white-knuckled determination, not to change your mind (because, as they often underline, they couldn’t give a fuck about that) but to keep pace with themselves in an arm’s race against their own ambition.

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Talbot is a complicated figure. What makes IDLES so compelling, even with their occasional heavy-handedness and directional misfires, is his commitment to honesty. The Welsh-born artist doesn’t just wear his heart on his sleeve – it’s tattooed there. From the beginning, Talbot has found words for his trauma when others would choke on them. As a teenager, his mother had a stroke and was paralysed; following the death of his step-father, he became her primary caretaker until her death four years later.

Brutalism was an exorcism of his grief for the maternal figure he lost twice: once physically, but long before that, to alcoholism. She is the woman depicted on the cover, and for its limited-edition release, hers are the ashes pressed into the vinyl; the foundational relationship in his life around which all others with women have orbited. And Joy as an Act of Resistance’s “June” rings out with the finality of a dirge about the loss of his first daughter Agatha, who was stillborn. It was a song he never planned to share, but he recognised the importance it could hold for grieving parents: “A stillborn but still born / I am a father.” The substance of this band has always been far more nuanced than their surface.


After 2020’s satirical Ultra Mono in which IDLES caricatured themselves in retaliation against their critics (“How d’you like them clichés?”), it marked the definitive end of something, the final word. They doused the idea of IDLES in lighter fluid and consigned the whole thing to inferno. What survived was Crawler, an act of rebirth and transition. It was the first record to substantiate Talbot’s claim that IDLES might not be a punk band, after all.

Rather than mining the world beyond, for the first time, the band looked within themselves. Talbot wrestled with substance abuse, recounting a near-fatal motorcycle crash that proved to be the nadir of his addiction; on "MTT 420 RR", he paints a scene of unflinching violence: “I can see my spinal cord rip high”. And, in turn, he confronts his mother’s own addiction in "The Wheel" and the legacy of intergenerational trauma. But, more than that, it marked a sonic reinvention. The violence wasn’t to be found in its maximalism, but in its selective, devastating detail. Who could forget the portent of the rhythmic jangling of car keys on its opener? The grime-driven "Car Crash" which blares like a smashed-up radio? Or its true outlier, "The Beachland Ballroom", in which Talbot manifests as a soul singer taking us on a bittersweet slow-dance?

It felt like IDLES were on their way to something, and with TANGK, there is a sense of hard-earned arrival. In its 40 minutes, Talbot says the word ‘love’ 29 times, alighting upon an epiphany that is remarkably simple after all that searching: “No god, no king, I said love is the thing.” If they are to fall to any extreme, then let it be the side of softness.

So when I ask IDLES what has compelled them to return, guitarist and producer Mark Bowen – the creative foil to Talbot in this partnership; the chaos to his order – meets the question with confusion. “I find that question really bizarre. What do you mean?” It’s absurd to ask about something that, to them, was inevitable. “I’ll tell you why,” Talbot interjects, speaking slowly and with emphasis, as if he is drilling in a truth in your head he discovered long ago. “A lot of people don’t understand the motivation of making art. The reason we started the band, and the reason we kept going when no one was coming to our shows or buying or records, was because we found we had a place in the world and expressing ourselves made us feel like we had purpose beyond our jobs. So, we carried on doing it - without an audience. If you get up in the morning and have something to make, it makes you feel connected to the world. It’s the best thing ever. So why the fuck would you ever want to stop?”

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I wonder if there is still something IDLES strives towards, a pursuit that TANGK was aspiring to satisfy. “Always,” Talbot insists. “If you’re not, you’re fucking dead. You’re not an artist if you haven’t got anything to say. If you don’t, you’re in the wrong business, aren’t you? But the fact is, everyone has got something to say. I’m no more special than someone who hasn’t done anything creative, but I just so happened to have been brought up by an artist [my father] who taught me the importance of expressing yourself and connecting to other people and the world via art and music, making beautiful things and seeing yourself in that reflection. There’s no question that everyone’s capable of making something beautiful, they’ve just got to find themselves in it.”

There’s a natural hostility in IDLES to questions that impose any kind of preconception. Whatever you think, that’s not it. Talbot unintentionally offers an explanation for being so guarded: “This chapter is how we progressed from figuring things out in a very aggressive world – which is the UK press. We got popular after working hard and not being watched, being allowed to make mistakes and learn our craft. Then, suddenly, with Joy we got really popular, and with that comes [the attention of] the UK public, and even worse, the press. And they just push you and pull you in all directions. It’s not very humane.”

The tide of goodwill turned after an unfavourable interview with NME which acted as an inquisition of IDLES in the court of public opinion. Writer Jordan Bassett confronted Talbot about a number of criticisms levied against them: that they failed to include female talent as supports acts on their tour, the accusation made by Bob Vylan that the band had not been vocal enough about the Black Lives Matter movement online, and the complaint from Sleaford Mods’ Jason Williamson that Talbot had been “appropriating a working-class voice”. Being lionised as “saviours as punk” would prove to be a poison chalice: IDLES would always fall short in this game which, regardless of intention or effort, couldn’t be won.

Talbot continues: “At the end of Ultra Mono, we regained control and we used the art and music to burn the effigy that other people created so that we could move on. With that came an acute sense of freedom and success in ourselves. So that was the last chapter: confidence to be who we are. And then, sadly, the pandemic hit and it ruined a lot of people. But it gave us a sense of gratitude; it made us realise just how lucky we were. And then what came artistically, from that gratitude, was a sense of challenge and forcing ourselves to feel uncomfortable in order to find new things within us which were brilliant and vivid.”

"If you think anger is part of this band, you're missing the point."

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The challenge was to write an album of love songs; Talbot describes himself as a painter, a poet, a soul singer. There is an incredible poise and composure to the record, stirring in its restraint. “We know how to write a heavy rock song. We know how to write a post-punk song. It comes as second nature now,” says Bowen. “Whereas writing more reserved, considered music was exciting to us. For TANGK, we wanted to push ourselves. We wanted to sing more. We wanted more melodic information, more harmonic information.”

Talbot was drawn to Aesop’s fable of The Wind and The Sun and its underlying moral which is that if you want someone to take their coat off, you can’t blow – you have to shine, bring warmth rather than aggression. He says, “My challenge was to get the audience to dance - and to unthink, as we do on stage - and how I can achieve that with lyrics. There was a huge sense at the time of wanting to reconnect with the world, our audience, and myself. I was doing that in therapy, but I wanted to bring that out in the music.”

I ask how their relationship with anger has changed; if they’ve discovered that softness, surprisingly, has more strength than what is immovable. Immediately, the mention of anger is met with resistance. “I’m going to cut you off there,” Talbot interrupts. “If you think anger is a part of this band, then you are missing the point,” says Bowen.

Talbot continues: “We wanted to cut through popular culture with a sense of violence, but it's not anger. It’s something we’ve addressed a lot, probably in a Line of Best Fit interview, and it’s not changed. Anger is a secondary emotion, it comes from fear, hunger, fatigue, grief, loss – lots of things. Someone who makes a lot of noise and is aggressive is often being defensive; they’re being defensive because they’re protecting themselves. It’s completely fair that a lot of people, myself included, have a lot to be angry about right now, but it’s about coming at that anger with a sense of patience, empathy and grace in order to make a difference.”

IDLES, Talbot believes, are a lot more confident in their stride and their range of expression. “I think, deep down, a lot of it comes from Bowen and I becoming parents,” he elaborates. After the loss of his stillborn daughter, two years later, he would welcome his second, Freyda, in the Spring of 2020; Bowen has become a father to a baby boy. “When you become a parent, you’re communicating with a person who is very vulnerable: you are their universe, and you’re there to teach them and keep them safe. You have to bring them gently into a world that is very fucking unforgiving. But really, I think it’s about us wanting to keep moving forward. We didn’t want to keep churning out the same shit. There’s nothing interesting about keeping yourself safe in art, ever. There’s this thing that people love to do, especially in the UK, where it’s like, ‘This is you. You are this’ – and it’s not for anyone to tell us who we are. That’s a completely toxic relationship, if we start listening to that bullshit. What we do is respect our audience and treat that dialogue with a sense of vigour and gratitude. Let’s push and pull; let’s challenge each other and keep each other interesting.”

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Talbot’s meditations on love have been influenced by his reading of bell hooks’ All About Love, with this expression as his north star: “I feel our nation is turning away from love … moving into a wilderness of spirit so intense we may never find our way home again. I write of love to bear witness both to the danger in this movement, and to call for a return to love.” He began with one of hooks’ earlier works on feminist theory which was given to him by Bowen’s wife. “So, when I knew she’d written a book entirely about love, I had to read it because, as bell hooks writes, love is not something included in intellectual debate. It’s side-lined when we talk about fighting against oppression, against genocide – but it’s there. It’s beautiful,” he shares. “It kind of articulates a lot of what I’ve been talking about in this band since its birth until now, and we will always talk about the same thing, which is a want and a need to connect to the world.”

He continues: “If you are making loving choices, politically, you are voting left. You are never going to be voting right for anything, or making choices that blame a race or a pocket of society; you will never choose money over community, or choose self-preservation at the expense of others. True left-wing politics comes from a place of love and the facets of love, which are kindness, grace, patience, dedication, commitment and community. I didn’t put two and two together like that, but I’ve always been saying the same thing. We are not a political band; we are looking to the world and connecting with it through empathy for the human condition. Love is a political move - but we’re not activists, we’re musicians. The difference between a musician and an activist is a universe; there’s a lot of dedication and hard work. So yeah, bell hooks is an inspiration: a very astute writer and vibrant human being who has taught me about love, which is a gift, and I am very grateful.”

But TANGK, despite the band’s clarity of purpose, was no easy birth. “I was in a really transgressive period, and I had a lot of stuff to deal with. A lot of changes needed to be made internally, and that was tough, while trying to progress and make changes musically. The writing side of things was very tough. It almost didn’t get made for a week; I’d been way too difficult in the writing process and it created a black cloud in the room. But it was just not happening that week, but the album would’ve happened eventually. Rightfully, sometimes people need to take a break,” he shares, before adding, “… but I’m not very good at taking a break.”

"There’s nothing interesting about keeping yourself safe in art, ever."

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There was a collision of unlikely forces at play behind the curtain who ushered the record to life: close friend, long-term collaborator and celebrated producer Kenny Beats whose fluency in hip-hop and zeitgeist-capturing sounds has guided the likes of Vince Staples, Rico Nasty and FKA Twigs; and Nigel Godrich, the “sixth member” of Radiohead whose production has challenged artists to make career-defining left turns. “They were a sounding board for the experimentation that was necessary for IDLES,” says Bowen. “We expressed to them that we wanted to challenge ourselves. We wanted to have this new information in the band, this new sound. Together, we made something transgressive: I love that word to describe how it felt.”

Godrich has reached a point in his career where he can be selective about his projects. “I rarely, these days, have any sort of desire to work with anyone, to be honest,” he tells me, a few weeks after my conversation with Talbot and Bowen. “But they’re doing it for the right reasons and the right intentions – and they’re really fucking sweet people, which, believe it or not, is a very important thing to me.” He wasn’t, and still isn’t, closely familiar with the lineage of their sound, but after relaunching his beloved live-in-studio music series From The Basement with their performance, he glimpsed the potential for something within them that had, until then, been untapped.

“I always think about things selfishly, like, ‘What would I like to hear?’, Godrich explains. “I see this band, I see them perform, and I see Joe who’s a star. And I started to think, ‘I wish they would…’, in that kind of imaginary way. I thought it would be interesting to see how they would translate if he was a little bit more musical, if he sang more. Has this tone which is really quite amazing. I was talking to Mark and Kenny, and we all agreed it would be a great angle to take - and Joe was on board. The reason I was drawn to do it was because I could see a role I could play; I could see a possible outcome.”

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It was the first time Godrich had worked on a record where not a single word had been written beforehand. It’s how IDLES have always worked: Bowen and the band conjure the sound, dictate its mood and climate, and then Talbot communicates that sound through melody, like beams of light refracting through a prism. Godrich was both astounded and disarmed, he recalls, at the instinctive way in which he would write a song at the microphone, in that very moment. But rising to this new musical approach, at first, didn’t not come easily to Talbot.

“First of all, Joe is the one at the front there who’s having to sing all this stuff,” Godrich points out. “He’s put in a very vulnerable position and he’s the one who has to make it work. I know, for him, that was difficult because I think he puts himself forward with a very aggressive kind of sensitivity on the previous records. In order to kill the toxic masculinity of something, you have to have that masculinity there in order to detoxify it – that’s part of the magic of it all. So then, suddenly, to work without that edge, I felt that he was a bit nervous about it. And rightly so. He’s a sensitive guy, and that’s what makes him such an extraordinary performer.”

"A lot of people in this band are going through stuff you can’t even fathom, so there was a lot on the line with this record."


Talbot reflects, “Bowen and I are huge fans of Nigel and what he’s done, and I came into writing with a lot of weight behind that. I was nervous about performing well - in whatever sense that means to you, it probably will mean that. I wanted to be the best songwriter I could be, and I thought that meant preparing and writing the lyrics before going to the studio, that maybe some of our songs in the past could’ve been better had I spent more time on them instead of writing them at the microphone. But within six months of writing, I realised that’s bullshit. Doing it at the microphone works every time. If a song speaks to us, it has to be from Bowen and it has to be from me – there has to be a sense that the music is from us. There is no way a song would get to the studio if it wasn’t good enough, in our opinion, whatever good means to us… Obviously, some people hate our music - but fuck the King, and fuck all of them.”

It was Kenny Beats, and the understanding he had of Talbot having worked intimately with the band on Ultra Mono and Crawler, who helped him to embrace this new facet of vulnerability. He was present at both their demolition and reinvention. “I mean, we were never not going to make an album with Kenny,” notes Bowen. “I don’t foresee that ever happening. He’s entrenched in the IDLES creative process.”

Kenny reflects on joining Talbot, Bowen and Godrich to write and record in France. “I’m not gonna say that Joe and Mark and the rest of the guys were in a very light state,” he tells me from his studio, The Cave, in Los Angeles. “It was not a simple, easy, fun record to make. A lot of people in this band are going through stuff you can’t even fathom, so there was a lot on the line with this record. When the guys have an idea they feel very strongly about, it’s hard to go, ‘Yeah, that’s amazing. Can you just do it in a totally different way?’ There are moments where Joe will flat-out tell you, whether it’s me or Nigel Godrich, or one of his favourite artists of all time, ‘This is what IDLES do. I’m not changing it.’”

"Joe is the one at the front there who’s having to sing all this stuff – he’s put in a very vulnerable position and he’s the one who has to make it work."


He recalls the recording of “The Beachland Ballroom” on Crawler, which, in his mind, marked a turning point for IDLES. “It was the last day, the last song, and he did it in one take. It’s the most melodic thing in IDLES’ history up to that point, arguably. But he sang this Screamin’ Jay Hawkins kind of ballad, and it was like, ‘Where else can he go?’ Well, there’s a million other places he can go. We saw it – but we only saw it in this one thunderbolt on the last album. I saw him sing ‘The Beachland Ballroom’, fuck up a note and throw the fucking mic and leave and say, ‘What the fuck is this? This is not me’, but it was him. And we heard it back and we were like, ‘This is some of the best of you, what else is there?’”

Speaking on his passion for soul singing, Talbot shares: “It makes anguish approachable. It creates an open dialogue. It’s called ‘soul music’ because it speaks to everyone, and the concept of a soul is something that is within all of us, whether we believe it or not. What I’ve always wanted to do with our music is not just to connect with people, but feel connected, because I’m only here once. The universality of soul music is something that has touched me more than any other genre of music in my life, it’s part of my vocabulary: it connected me with my mother, and it’s something that now connects me to the world. There are so many practices within it which are so hard to master, so Bowen and I are in that conversation forever: how to be as universal as possible without being clichéd, or using cliché as a tool to create new boundaries. It sounds impossible, but it’s possible to be ourselves within a genre that comes from a very different place. The fact is, this music speaks to me, and I want to speak to people.”

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And so Talbot, on TANGK, manifests in distinct characters in the way he commands his vocals. “Pop Pop Pop”, built on a dislocating tape loop and distorted chord shapes, speaks to the ear with hip-hop’s vocabulary – a down-the-middle blend of Godrich and Kenny Beats' influence; Talbot channels the delivery found in garage and jungle. “There’s not a single big, gnarly, distorted guitar riff, or anything, but it feels massive,” Kenny says. “The idea of being able to get big without having to just get loud was what TANGK was all about. As powerful as that song is, it’s also this really slow, gorgeous thing. And that’s something that all my favourite music does: there’s water and there’s rocks. It’s the best of both worlds.”

But the track Talbot was truly nervous about – the only track he was nervous about – was “A Gospel”. It’s a quietly devastating, simple piano ballad, his voice in a gentle falsetto. “I was nervous about it, and rightfully so, because Bowen wrote it and recorded it in his own voice on his phone. I felt like a bit of a peeping tom with that track. It’s an intimate moment for him that he recorded; you could hear his kid in the background playing around, and that meant something to him. It was something I was gifted as a listener, rather than something we worked on together. There was no conversation. It wasn’t like I needed to sing on a piano – it wasn’t that. I was doing this for him as a friend rather than a musician, and I didn’t want to fuck it up. It sounded like a dream I used to have about an ex I’d meet up with secretly in a field and apologise to her. That’s where the song started for me, but I’m pretty sure that’s not what Bowen was thinking when he made this.”

He draws attention to their polarities as people as artists. “The interesting thing about our personalities on record is I’m very sentimental, and Bowen is not – is the best way I can describe it,” he explains. “There’s a universality and an emotion to that song that I recognise,” Bowen contributes. “I’m there to nurture and support it. The way I deal with things in my music is so much more abstract, which is why I don’t think I could write lyrics – it’s so untenable to me, what the emotion is that I’m trying to express. I don’t really like to name it and present it. I just feel it every night. It’s about unthinking for me.”

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The dynamic between Talbot and Bowen is so personal and unique that they, and their collaborators, liken it to a shared language. “They have some type of weird, twin-like understanding where only they know they’re not mad at each other,” shares Kenny Beats. “You might look at a conversation from the outside perspective and be like, ‘Oh, this isn’t going to sort itself out. This is not good’. But they have a real collaborative pact that it feels as if they’d set in stone the first day they wrote a song together: Bowen is going to be Bowen, and Joe is going to be Joe – at the same damn time.” Outward influence, or consideration for how the fans or critics are going to receive the music, never enters the conversation. “It’s life or death for them,” he says. “That’s how seriously they take it. You never for a moment question if you’re working with real art, or with real artists, when you’re in the room with IDLES.”

The producer remembers the day that TANGK crossed the finish line: “You could see this thing wash over everybody where we each realised, ‘This is it. This is what we hoped for: the uncomfortable stuff that we were scared to push through, the new direction we dreamed of, we found our way through. We made it. And everyone is alive.”

Every few weeks, Kenny Beats texts Talbot and Bowen to remind them of what the four of them accomplished. “To be able to look around a room of people you respect, to hold each other’s hands and give each other hugs and say, ‘This is the best work we’ve done at this age in our lives as fucking talented people, that’s what it was all about.”

At the end of our conversation, Godrich also confesses, “I didn’t really want to do any interviews about this. It’s nice to retain an air of mystery sometimes, but these boys deserve everything that I hope is going to come to them.”

On the other side of it all, Bowen feels that the legacy of this record is the way it has fortified that irreplicable magic between himself and Talbot. “I learned a lot about myself and my relationship with Joe as co-writers, co-authors and co-creators. We’re such different people, but we have similar goals; it’s about how you communicate that purpose that we serve for each other. It’s an incredible album, better than anything we’ve ever done - and there is still so much further to go.” I offer Talbot the opportunity to offer his final thoughts, but he declines. Nothing has been left unsaid.

TANGK is released on 16 February via Partisan Records

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