Amor Vincit Omnia
Love is at the heart of all IDLES do. With everything that's poured into each cacophonous cocktail of noise they ignite and lob out – from razorwire-swaddled battlecries to drums like rampaging rhinos – it might not sound like it, but for the Bristol gang there's one mantra that sits on the throne: all is love.
On last year's long-awaited debut Brutalism, the quintet swaggered into frame with a grazed, white-knuckled fistful of tunes about grief, the NHS, addiction, modern society, shitty Tory policies, and Tories with shit-eating grins. Brash and bolshy and fuelled by built-up emotions bursting out like solar flares, the album chronicled a tremendously difficult series of events that could be seen coming from a considerable distance. The awareness of the inevitable end could never lessen any agony, and the first full-length from IDLES hit hard. It was – as frontman Joe Talbot notes – like concrete. But nothing could ever prepare the band for the 18 months leading to the release of second record Joy As An Act Of Resistance.
Today, when we meet to pore over the events that led to Joy As An Act Of Resistance, he's got an un-oiled, scabbed voice hoarse from going hell for leather at a show the night before. He's also chosen today to quit smoking, cold turkey. His eyes are red from lack of sleep or too much sleep, but he's calm. Every word sparks with life and love.
Upon Brutalism's release in March 2017 cogs went into overdrive and IDLES were absorbed into a machine that spat them into festivals across the world, into sold-out shows up and down the UK, into a new record deal with Partisan, and into the ears of the gamut of global society. In the midst of the chaos, mere months after the release of the album, Talbot and his partner were forced to cope with the loss of their daughter.
“There's a feeling of testosteronal height when you find out you're going to be a father, like you've achieved something... you fucking haven't,” Talbot says. “That's one of the biggest myths about men – that you're suddenly a 'real man' because you've fucking knocked your partner up. You don't have to do any of the work.”
“My partner carried our baby very well,” he continues, “and she worked as a nurse throughout her pregnancy, as I sauntered around the Earth shouting at people in different countries. But my partner went through all the hard stuff – that's strength, physical and emotional strength. I admire her for that. But the idea that suddenly you're a real man cause you can make babies? Utter horseshit.”
Talbot's ideas on gender and masculinity – “there's no real anything in terms of gender... it's all fake,” – charge Joy As An Act Of Resistance to new heights. Like every strand of thought of the album, his ideas on the topic are shaped by a newfound honesty and a place of genuine, Agape-type love for the goodness in humanity. Yes, masculinity is profoundly toxic – but there's a hope for change. At least on an individual level.
“I was very excited about becoming a father – or at least a parent,” Talbot says. “I've always wanted that. To try and encourage another human that's it's okay to be different and weird.”
“I felt very lonely growing up – I had plenty of friends and my parents were wonderful, there was no neglect or anything, no financial strife. I had a wonderful upbringing, but I always felt lonely. It was during counselling, during the making of the album but after my daughter had died, that I really got to realise how little I spoke of my emotions, even though I felt like I was an open book because of my music and my lyrics – I feel like I'm quite blunt because I don't fuck around with words.”
He's certainly not wrong. LP1 bears lines such as “I'm the worst lover you'll ever have,” on closer “Slow Savage”, a song about reconciling himself with that fact he was “a total asshole” to his ex, but on the new album the IDLES frontman beats around the bush even less thanks to an intense bout of soul-searching.
“I wasn't being honest with myself,” Talbot admits. “I had to learn to open up and really look at the past and see what I was carrying. You have a weight of experience on your shoulders, and the more you don't open up about things that have made you feel ugly or made you feel stupid, the more you carry it, and the more you feel ugly and you feel stupid.”
“Before I started counselling I felt like I'd had an easy life. I mean my mum had a stroke when I was 16 that made her disabled – but prior to that my life was kosher,” he continues, chewing faster through a piece of nicotine gum. “But then I realised I had loads of operations on my feet when I was younger, and so I never felt normal, and then because of that I couldn't exercise much so I got heavier and overweight, so I never felt normal, and I had no brothers or sisters, and I never felt normal. I was always internally battling normality.”
Talbot doesn't battle normality now – or he battles it far less, preferring to welcome pitfalls and foibles like lost friends. Welcoming weirdness is an undercurrent throughout Joy As An Act Of Resistance, one that's intrinsically linked to the desire to shed the shackles of traditional masculinity and embrace every single damn thing about the self, for better or worse.
“In this interim period of Joy As An Act Of Resistance, the album and writing it, I came to terms with a lot of stuff. As a parent, before my daughter died, I really found this urge that I was not going to allow my kid to be made to feel like they're the only fucking weirdo on the planet - 'Television' is a good example but the whole album is about relieving yourself of these cultural pressures that make you feel shit, so you buy stuff to make yourself normal and not feel like shit. Because everyone wants to be normal – or, at least, everyone wants to be accepted for who they are – but often you're told who you are isn't right so you become someone else: Man A, Woman A, Man B, Woman B – those are your choices.”
“So this was a real turning point in my life,” Talbot candidly continues, “where I started to really accept who I was and where I'd gone and where I was going. I thought I could try and help other people do that same. Obviously the first album was this real explosive, cathartic rage of grief – I was unapologetic, I didn't care what people thought, and I just wanted to get it out cause I knew that it would be helpful for me.”
“The last time I'd kept in my emotions I became rampant with drugs and alcohol and I was violent towards my friends and my partner, and I was a horrible man,” he says. He stops in his tracks to clarify that he was never violent in the sense he was punching or kicking, but that he was aggressive. “I was a nasty man,” he adds, bluntly. “I never wanted to go back there.”
“I'll make a mistake a few times but you won't catch me doing it forever, and I'm pretty good at accepting fault; sometimes I just think the way to improve is completely wrong. I'd always convince myself that isn't wasn't alcohol that was the problem, but that I was just drinking too much or whatever. The big thing I thought I was doing was being honest – but it turns out I really wasn't being honest at all.”
“But that's where I am now,” Talbot says with quiet relief. “I know I have to be more open with my partner and communicate with her more, my friends and family too, and let them all know where I am emotionally.”
Despite the overwhelming sadness that spawned Joy As An Act Of Resistance, and the knotty, gristly themes of toxic masculinity and societal pressures worming throughout, the album is overtly hopeful. The title is not a misnomer or a joke. Again this is a collection of IDLES songs with roots in the grieving process, but instead of the calculated fury of Brutalism, those feelings are funnelled into a desire for change, positivity, and the warmth of love.
“There was a real joyful part of losing my daughter which came in recovery,” Talbot explains. “Me and my partner spent like two-and-a-half weeks on this very sofa and didn't leave the house. A friend of ours, who also happens to be IDLES' booking agent, brought loads of food in, and two of the parents of our godchildren came in and brought us a food package that all our friends had chipped in on – enough food for two months to live off so we didn't have to leave the house. They knew we needed to recover. That feeling of being carried is one of the best feelings in the world.”
“Later on I had an epiphanal moment – ephinanal? Is that a word? Fuck it, it's a word – that feeling of release and being vulnerable and letting yourself be vulnerable is so relieving and empowering. You know that someone's accepting your faults, and, more importantly, you're accepting your own faults – you're allowing yourself feel sad. It's okay to feel sad. It's okay to be angry. Allow it and be there in the moment; don't try to stop your emotions. If you try to stop them that's where there's a clash or a reaction where you outwardly act like an asshole.”
“It was magic,” he says through a growing smile.
IDLES' debut was sculpted alongside Talbot's mother's declining health, and the music within Brutalism is a kind of proactive preparation for grief that let him rage against malevolent forces and exorcise emotions from his body. Talbot wasn't prepared for the grief that came with the loss of his daughter, calling it a “fucking jackhammer.”
“The grief that I had this time was also very much a part of my life with my partner, who went through a lot more than I did,” he adds. “She carried our baby for nine months, so there's a bigger loss there, because she'd already been a part of this person. I had to be strong for her because I knew what I was going through wasn't as bad, but also because we understood each other so much – we were the only people who understood our pain truly at that point. I had to be more open and more understanding with myself in order to get better for her, and she did the same. She taught me how do it.”
Being open and understanding bled into other areas of his life, with his relationship his own self and with the band and with music. Album numero uno was a “block of noise... it was relentless and it had a ceaseless pace”, but the second time around was going to be whole heap different following the earth-shattering changes that landed in the middle of its creation.
For a start, dynamics found a fresh lease of life on Joy As An Act Of Resistance. Dynamics is a term used broadly here that encompasses all the opposites and contrasts and juxtapositions with IDLES and their music.
“We've never wanted to be one trick ponies, we constantly want to challenge ourselves to stay interesting and interested... we want the darks to be as dark as possible and the lights as light as possible, as someone like Caravaggio would do. The perfect example of that in reality is my daughter's death: the world didn't stop spinning, there were people who would've been crying for us who were still laughing that day. Me and my partner laugh soon after our daughter's death; it's a wonderful thing to do to make someone you love laugh. There will always be lights in the darkest places, for most people.”
“We really wanted to compel the listener to engage with the album,” Talbot continues. “We wanted them to go on that journey. It wasn't my idea, but I really liked the idea of putting 'June' right in the middle because that's how death works – it doesn't wait around for the end of your story, it comes in wherever the fuck it wants to.”
“'Samaritans' just had to be the next song because it's part of the rebuild – it's the point after she died that I had to discover a way of seeing myself on how to improve, and that was opening up about my emotions. I thought for years that I'd been so strong because I'd kept myself poised, and I'd not cried, but after my daughter's death I cried every day. And it was the best feeling. My partner and I could cry together. It's the best feeling in the world to have that connection; obviously those feelings are the worst but 'Samaritans' was about what comes after – the moment to change and look inside and get better.”
This meticulous planning of tracklists and narrative cohesion is not a new tactic for IDLES, who've found a groove working to a brief they set themselves – the members don't strut into the process blind, finding it a more rewarding exercise to define confines and test the limits. Tracks such as “Gram Rock” and “Love Song” may sound slapdash, but the explosions are controlled.
"I feel like using popular culture is an easy and astute way of making people question things they've normalised that aren't necessarily natural.”
An early edition of Joy As An Act Of Resistance, which was started almost as soon as Brutalism was finished, was canned when IDLES realised they'd strayed from their own formula – instead of adhering to their brief, they'd been mostly responding to the positive reception of their debut and were “trying to scramble together stuff to please other people.”
“But it's part of a wider issue of what you can become when you're in this industry. You have to be mindful and remind yourself of who you actually are, and be honest about that. So for the third IDLES album – okay, let's stick to second album because we're still just writing the third at the moment – but the second album, it's very important that we scrap those songs where we were writing for the second album like it was our second album because it was our second album.”
“It just got to a point,” Talbot admits, “like with the first album, where we sat back and just asked 'what the fuck are we doing?' It wasn't us; we're not that band. So we scrapped a bunch of songs and started again. We did keep a couple – like “Rottweiler” and “Alcohol”, although that didn't make it on the album because there's a line from a Disney film from it...”
After a slew of Brutalism cuts cannily namechecked big cultural figures to expert effect – such as Bake Off alum Mary Berry and radio DJ Trevor Nelson (“Well Done”), BBC presenter/chef Rachel Khoo (“Rachel Khoo”), and photographer Richard Billingham and artists Francis Bacon and Mark Rothko (“Stendhal Syndrome”) – Talbot and the rest of the IDLES crew have amped up the tactic.
Joy As An Act Of Resistance's first offering – “Colossus” – nods to famed daredevil Evel Knieval, wrestling icons Stone Cold Steve Austin and Ted DiBiase (The Million Dollar Man), gangster Reggie Kray, Jesus Christ, and silver screen legend Fred Astaire. The pop culture references don't stop there, with Love Island, Mo Farah, Malala Yousafzai, Freddie Mercury, Pavement, Tom Hiddleston's stylist, Dirty Dancing, Ernest Hemingway (ish), Katy Perry, and Nancy Sinatra – and Solomon Burke, if you include the cover of the soul star's “Cry To Me” at the end – all rammed through IDLES' twisted machine as well.
“It's definitely something I picked up on from hip-hop,” Talbot says. “I see it as sampling – it's just what's done in hip-hop all the time and it's what I grew up on. I think it's a really interesting way of highlighting poignancy by using something that's readily available in popular culture and regurgitating it and flipping it on its head and turning to give it a completely new meaning.”
To take one of the more noticeable examples: on “Samaritans”, IDLES' most overt takedown of toxic masculinity to date, Katy Perry's breakout pop smash “I Kissed A Girl” gets churned into new shapes.
“The 'I kissed a boy and I liked it...' line – the original, at the time, was quite big...” Talbot says (he's not wrong). “But really women are sexualised all the time, and objectified by men who enjoy that girl-on-girl action bullshit. I thought it'd be more challenging to use 'I kissed a boy...' and see what reaction it got and see what discussions it could start. I think it's a point where male sexuality is quite binary, or it's perceived as binary, and bisexual men probably still make people feel more uncomfortable than bisexual women do. I think that's down to strict masculinity within pop culture. The sexualised man is standardised.”
“I thought I'd open up the idea of being sexual, or kissing another man... why is that only sexual with straight men? Or gay men or bisexual men? Why can't I kiss my mate, or my dad? Well I can, and I do, but you know what I mean. I feel like using popular culture is an easy and astute way of making people question things they've normalised that aren't necessarily natural.”
Elsewhere on the album, “Never Fight A Man With A Perm” stands out as another moment tackling masculine identities and the idea of 'man', although squished through a filter of humour and blood. It's genuinely one of the funniest musical moments IDLES have put out into the world, and although very violent, it feels like there are sexually frustrated undertones as Talbot growls through descriptions of muscular men and licks his symbolic lips for the fracas ahead.
“This album is definitely more about self, the man, and the male perspective. That in itself is sexualised – or at least sexually loaded. If you look at impotence of male achievement and male expression there's a real tension in 'locker room banter' and you see groups of men groping... there's a real, sexual tension,” he muses. “The relationship between sexual tension and violence in men is huge and apparent, so I'm sure a lot of men will recognise it – though I'm sure they won't say it out loud. That song definitely could be interpreted that way, although it's something I'd not thought of before – but that's probably just down to my own male impotence.”
Talbot pauses to think, before adding: “Every song is written with an automated process there; I listen to the music as many times as possible and then just write it all in one go. With that in mind there's lots in the songs that are right and real and true to what I mean... but I just don't know I mean it.”
There's little room for anything acutely about sex in IDLES' lasagne-layered odes of grief and politics. Love is a central theme throughout all that they do – that much is obvious – but the band rarely dip into anything verging on carnal, and their paeans to love are so much much more innocent and sincere. Romance trumps fucking; generally, anyway.
“The sexuality stuff in my writing would certainly be undertones because I wouldn't make it overt. I think, often, 'sexy' things are unsexy. It's just not what I'm into,” Talbot explains.
“My sexuality isn't something usually at the forefront of my imagination – it hardly ever is – because I've always had a healthy understanding of sex and a loving, consensual sex life since I've been sexually active. I've never suppressed anything. My parents made me feel very comfortable in being able to live any sexual fantasies I wished, so long as they were consensual. There's probably a lot of subliminal shit there because I don't discuss it a lot. I don't ever feel like I've had to hide it, so I kind of do... because I feel like it's there all the time. My sexuality is something I enjoy and it always has been; it's not something I've ever been told to suppress because my parents had a very healthy outlook on it, which is great. I'm very grateful for that.”
Arguably the lack of sex on Brutalism and Joy As An Act Of Resistance makes the moments where these things do spring up all the more pronounced. Again it comes back to the use of contrasts to elevate elements to certain heights – whether it's the music, humour, sadness, or sex, contrasts are everywhere.
Contrasts are also considerably pronounced in the audiences IDLES find themselves performing to at shows across the world. It's a really diverse mix of people that gravitates towards the music they put out, and whether those people are into heavy, guitar-based music or not becomes something of a moot point: the honesty showcased by these five individuals in their music and on stage transcends cliques and genres.
“I have tried to be mindful of that because it's important to me that we don't lose sight of where we're going,” Talbot says. “To not lose sight you have to reflect on your actions and the results of that: I don't go on the internet anymore, I don't go on Facebook or Twitter, because I don't think it's a fair representation. Of course I get sent things and I see screenshots from my mates, stuff like, 'have you seen that tattoo of your face on that guy's leg?!'”
Talbot beams, before saying that it's “a weird fucking feeling” to have that happen.
“Some people might try to play that cool and brush it aside,” he continues, “but I sat down with Bowen and my partner and I explained how I found it such a beautiful thing. But, at the same time, what does that make me? What does that person see me as? I wouldn't ever get a tattoo of someone unless they had longevity – I mean, I could be a right fucking cunt. I could be a BRIT School band in disguise just trying to cash in. I almost got a Kings Of Leon tattoo after their second album! I thought they were the best band in the world, and then album three comes along and I was so relieved I didn't get that tattoo. Half the album was fucking tosh, and after that they just sounded like U2 playing Christmas Carols.”
“Look at my tattoos,” he says, jabbing to various parts of his body. “Allen Ginsberg, dead, love his work, Biggie Smalls, dead, love his work, Bill Murray, not dead, love his work, my cat, dead, John O'Sullivan, dead, Otis Redding, dead, Frida Kahlo, dead. I know where they are and they've not let me down, and they're not gonna come out and do something awful.”
He goes on to say that he'll be getting in touch with the inked-up fan to “say how grateful I am, and that it's brave and funny and that I get it.” In the grand scheme of things it seems like a small gesture to be fixated on, but it also shows just how grounded that Talbot, and presumably the rest of the band, remains.
“This is a real privilege!” he adds, excitedly. “That someone has put my face on their body for the rest of their life... that's a big deal!”
Although Talbot has drifted away from the online environment, his bandmates are certainly plugged in. IDLES' web presence is fun, engaging, and inclusive – but they're not above noticing the potential pitfalls it brings.
“We're really mindful of young women messaging us – we've not had a single inappropriate message, to my knowledge – but we wanna make sure we're not one of those fucking bands that ever takes advantage of their point of power,” Talbot affirms. “When there's people looking up to you, especially young men and women, and it can be worryingly easy to take advantage of that power. We've put a system in place that where if anyone ever does send us an inappropriate message we have a response written up explaining that we don't condone that behaviour and we're not that kind of band – as in, we've all got partners and we're not interested in that shit. We'll screenshot it and end the conversation. It's scary. It's scary on both sides.”
"I wanted to use my political leaning to be as apolitical as possible and encourage everyone that the main crux of politics is humanity."
The position of power IDLES find themselves in – and are so uncommonly aware of – might not be a enormous one. At this juncture of their careers they're not stadium-trotting titans, though perhaps that's in the cards if they stay on their current path, but even so, there's already an uneven power dynamic between them and the people they interact with. For a band so keen to keep both feet firmly planted on the ground it's a tricky topic – but it comes with advantages when they want to get a message across.
As well as trying to deflate the notions fluttering around toxic masculinity, Joy As An Act Of Resistance is unapologetically political. Talbot is laser-guided in his aims for these messages, and rather than prodding those on the right-hand side of the spectrum, he's trying to open up his loving arms – and he wants us all to do the same.
“It's a much more political act to show myself up to someone who wants to learn from my opposition,” he explains. “I realised early on that people were latching onto my political lyrics on the first album. I had to not just write to please people on this second album – like, I could've just gone down the route of 'wahey, fuck the Tories!' – but that's not who I am. I realised that I didn't want people to latch onto our music as a way of hating.”
The ongoing political landscape is scarred on all sides, with every angle catapulting projectiles at every other. Talbot says, with a degree of surprise, that many of his “'normal', admirable left-wing friends” began leaping onto the bandwagon, hurling insults and attacks at those who disagreed with their outlook on life.
“I am left wing,” he states, dampening any ideas of otherwise. “I am very socialist minded in the sense that I truly wish I could sacrifice my wealth – when I say 'my wealth' I don't mean give up my house or anything, but I am more than willing to pay considerably more tax and all the things the government should be subsidising for children of all wage gaps, all races, all socio-economic and socio-political areas, in all areas of the country. Things like housing and diet and fucking education. The health service. Equal opportunity is my main agenda.”
“With that in mind,” Talbot tracks back, “I saw a lot of people slinging mud – left, right, and centre. Obviously from the right, but suddenly more apparently from the left. To understand things as a humanist, as someone from the left, you need to be open to everyone's opinion. I don't mean you have to sit there and listen to every individual person, but you need to understand the context of where the people who voted Brexit are coming from: they wanted change. A lot of those people were deprived of the opportunity to work for a living or have access to housing – lots of things that the government stripped them of. The government then 'intelligently' used the tabloids to blame the whole thing on all immigrants. It's what right-wing politicians do all over the world and have done forever.”
The entire argument Talbot presents is steeped in love – love of all humanity – and empathy. It's noble to a fault, and though it's from a place of privilege to be able to not fight for your life on a daily basis, he's aware that he occupies a fortunate space in society.
“I wanted to use my platform,” he begins, “and the fact I have slightly more than the average number of people in my audience, as a way of putting out that idea. Using the discourse of open mindedness instead of the discourse of us vs. them. That sectarian thinking is what's encouraged Brexit. I wanted to use my political leaning to be as apolitical as possible and encourage everyone that the main crux of politics is humanity. To remind people of the person behind the policy.”
“Maybe these people just want a decent fucking future for their children, and they think the best way to do it is to minimise the amount of brown people that are in their town, because that's what the papers have been telling them for every single day of the past 20 years of their lives. They're not going to know any different. We need to have dialogue.”
“It's a lot harder for people to accept plurality and multi-culturalism,” he adds, chewing through more nicotine gum, with a slight sense of frustration. “It's easier, whether we're talking about gender politics or race politics, to just group people together. I wanted to remind people that every group is just a bunch of individuals.”
Some might argue that a sympathy for all – including those on the right of the divide – is misplaced or unwarranted given the natural privilege they tend to be blessed with. When it's a constant struggle to survive for many in the LGBT+ community, or if simply not having the 'right' skin or following the 'right' god can get you attacked in the street – is every person deserving of the same level of respect even if there's no chance they'd give it back? Could a lack of condemnation be misconstrued as a blessing?
“All I can do is be honest to myself and true to my opinions, cause they're only opinions,” Talbot explains. “Nothing I say is fact. I am left wing and will openly say I will vote Labour until a better option comes in, or a stronger left – that's left left and not central left – comes in. I think that if people misconstrue that because I'm not obvious enough in my lyrics, that's fine, I don't give a fuck.”
“It's the way I write and the way I'm gonna write,” he continues “I'm not gonna hurt anyone... I might piss someone off, someone who's impatient with liberalism or neoliberals. I'm not fucking neoliberal – or maybe I am and I just don't know it? I've got an Apple Mac so I might be a fucking hypocrite. – but I'm aiming for a left future, and to be truly left you have to accept that other people's opinions are just as important as yours, because they are and they're just opinions.”
“I have friends who are right wing. They're not racist. I wouldn't be friends with a racist. But I have a friend who's Libertarian, who I think voted Conservative, but he wants exactly the same results as me – he just wants to get there a different way. He doesn't want less, he wants equal opportunity for all races and genders, but he feels there's a better political route to that goal than mine. That doesn't make him a lesser person. That's what I'm going for.”
On the face of it, it's an admirable act – time will tell if IDLES can pull off what countless people have tried to do for years without success, but the ambition for change is certainly there. The love is there.
“I noticed that there's an enthusiasm for a certain kind of hatred from the first album, and I wanted to get away from that. I think I did it fairly. But I'm not going to apologise or worry about it,” Talbot says. “I'll just make another album. Or do a John Lewis Christmas ad.”
(For the record, IDLES' choice of cover would be Mariah Carey's “All I Want For Christmas Is You” or “Song Of Winter” by Françoise Hardy – “it's a banger,” Talbot explains.)
In the midst of this political open-mindedness and acerbic takedowns of toxic masculinity there is a crimson streak of violence throughout IDLES' music – there always has been. While decrying the state of political discourse in the UK and the belligerent attitude of men everywhere, it's jarring to hear such a cavalcade of violence on Joy As An Act Of Resistance – especially as mindless violence is a cruel symptom of both targets.
But a particularly pertinent line in “Television” – 'If someone spoke to you the way you talk to you / I'd put their teeth through,' – sums up just how clear these juxtapositions are on the LP. Does it not undercut the rest of the hard work?
“Absolutely not,” Talbot says firmly. “It's is something I say to my partner all the time – and something I would've said to my daughter. I have a humour of violence. For one, us as a band, utilise and celebrate the tone of violence all the time. I love it and I embrace it. I think it's a great vehicle for poignancy and embracing the audience by the fucking ankles and dragging them into our world. Violence is important to me as an artist. Look at violence as a tone, as Caravaggio did – his scenes were always seemingly violent because of the chiaroscuro of shading. The darks would be pitch black and the whites were blindingly bright, and everything in between was lit up.”
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was an Italian artist who painted some of the most important works of the Baroque era. He was also a rampant criminal and received a death sentence for murdering a man during a bar fight.
“My point is that in his art he was also violent,” continues Talbot. “I think Rothko is a good example of violence as well – he used violent blues. Violence isn't just the thud of a fist in a skull; you can use violent language in your bass and your drums and your guitars. It can sound violent. It's a way of engaging with an audience, especially an audience that exists in a time that is so very violent. And these are violent times. Pornography is violent. The news is violent. Newspapers are violent and their language is violent. Pop music is violent. Everything is as violent as can be, and we're obsessed with a violent barrage of violence.”
“So we wanted to strike through that,” he adds. “To cut through and sever the arteries of popular culture, you need to be violent. And I won't stop doing that because I love it. I think violence is a beautiful tone. It's a vehicle which has carried us well, for now. David Thomas Broughton, a folk singer: violent. Richard Dawson, an amazing artist (the folk singer): also violent. Those performances, if you ever see them play, they will penetrate your memory for the rest of your life. Feist's last album was violent. Because I love violence, I seek it out – and those artists would stand out to me over other singer/songwriters.”
"Rock 'n' roll is machismo... it's a bunch of codpieces and bullshit ideologies driven by bloated egos and cocaine."
On other tracks, where the violence is much more literal, Talbot and the rest of the band remain lucid on the whys and hows of their music.
“'Colossus' is violent sounding but it's about the onslaught of the idea of successive manhood, and me realising that I don't have to do that kind of thing,” Talbot says. “My father never put it on me; he was always a very open and loving man and would've accepted anything I did. He encouraged me to be true to myself. So I realised it was societal bullshit! The second half of the song was me taking off the ropes – or the mask of masculinity – and smashing it up. It's about deconstructing.”
“I feel like my diction and my tone and my timbre... everything is violent. That's me, in real life,” he confesses. “I'm blunt. I am a jackhammer and I don't fuck around. I like to look people in the eye and I like to make people laugh. I don't like scaring people, but my humour is violent – I've got a way about me that demands attention, and not because I want attention all the time, but because I want attention all the time. I don't demand it. I just am it. I'm an abrasive, little man.”
And scathingly honest, apparently.
“As are all my songs, right?,” he snaps back. “'I'm Scum' is about me! It's because these come from a point in my life where I have had to reflect on myself to improve. I had to get the horrible little corners of my psyche out, and these were not from a time I was proud of – I'm not really proud of anything – but it was a crappy time in my life. I behaved abysmally, and I brought that with me when I came to Bristol. I was a real cunt at times.”
Following a series of serious life changes – plus the addition of a newfound honesty and love-centric mindset – Talbot is in a place where he can reflect with precision.
“[The album is] all about opening up and being vulnerable, and if people hear the songs and can hear that I'm opening myself up and being vulnerable and letting go of the bags of my past, in order to enlighten myself and be happy and loving and enjoy myself... they might get it. They might go 'y'know what? There must be something I'm doing wrong,' and accepting that. Loving themselves and moving forwards. People might be less of a dick when they drink.”
Awakening that kind of reaction is a tall order, but every tiny detail in the album has been crafted to a defined set of goals – a benefit of working to a brief – with an enormous amount of subversion in place to force people to think in new ways. Politics, masculinity, and violence are all turned topsy-turvy for effect, but even the vehicle of punk is subverted – it's traditionally an angry, viscious, masculine artform, but IDLES make it anything but.
“It's all mindful and picked out,” explains Talbot. “Subversion is a perfect word. For instance, the context of 'punk' and all that crap that goes with it – it's a very machismo-driven sphere. Rock 'n' roll is machismo... it's a bunch of codpieces and bullshit ideologies driven by bloated egos and cocaine. We get called a punk band all the time; this album is an awareness of that.”
“I'm not arguing that we don't sound like a punk band,” he admits, “but I always want to see the band as a Trojan Horse. We use the concepts and the rulebooks, without sounding too dulcet about it, and all these hegemonic ideologies that drive all these things. I think when masses of people all behave in the same way, that's a really sinister thing. Something more sinister is going on. I want to be that Trojan Horse that gets in there and uses what surrounds us but subverts it and turns it on its head. You cannot break a city by throwing stones at the walls. You have to get inside the walls first.”
Talbot's visibly animated at the prospect of this subterfuge. The gameplan is coming along nicely, it seems.
“I want to break down the idea of the rock star, but I need to get under that bridge, get into that horse, and break through to the other side. I want to do that with masculinity because I am to the naked eye, the layman, a bloke. I'm wide-framed, stumpy, and aggressive, but my aggression is full of love. Full of compassion and self-acceptance. Full of open-mindedness. I am aggressively loving; I am not aggressively angry. I am full of joy. I think that throws people off at first. I think it's interesting to use those constraints instead of fighting against them, because no one will listen if you do that.”
Combined with the overflowing love that's evident throughout almost everything IDLES do, it's a potent brew. With Joy As An Act Of Resistance it really feels like everything is falling into place for the band: they have targets, they have strategies, they have the right attitude, and they have each other. Brutalism was big, but Joy As An Act Of Resistance could be massive.
“We celebrate as five individuals,” explains Talbot. “We all have very different tastes in music, food, everything, but we love each other. It took so long to write our first album because we were fighting against that – not celebrating each other's individuality, but trying to come in with concise, generic music that we can get on the radio with... we were trying to sound like Interpol, or the Maccabees, or this or that.”
“It's lyrically not, but the rest – I can confess that we were all over the place,” Talbot laughs. “We had songs that sounded like Arcade Fire... we were a fucking mess. I haven't listened to it in a long time, but I enjoyed it at the time. I loved it – and those four songs on that EP were four of maybe 250 songs we wrote that were mostly fucking shit. But we were learning! We were enjoying it as we went along and I don't regret that period at all. It was magic. But we were scrabbling to all be this one thing, and it's taken us a while to realise that we're not that. There's a joy in our plurality now, and I can do what I want, Lee does what he wants, Bowen does what he wants, Jon does what he wants, and Dev does what he wants. We're all just fucking enjoying what we're doing as us and individually.”
“But it goes back to what I was saying about there being a real sinister edge to everyone doing the same thing,” he points out, “which is why I'm constantly questioning conformity by looking or sounding like one thing but delivering a totally contrasting message. That's what I believe in – not your typical this or your typical that. I think all those things encourage an open ear. I think you can hear that we love what we're doing, and I think there's a raw energy to us live because we're all doing something we really love. It's obviously a huge privilege, and we understand that because we've been trying to do it for so long and we're finally here. You can't hide that fucking joy.”
“With that in mind, our live performance engulfs any sort of ego. There's a dissolution of ego on this album where we're enjoying ourselves and enjoying each other, and everyone's invited. I think musically we've gone pop, we've gone darker, we've just done whatever the fuck we want, but we've done that for the journey and the album as a whole. I think that plurality and enjoyment of doing whatever the fuck you want... it's what people need. It's relieving. Everyone's being told to act, dress, think, eat, drink, vote in a specific way, and if you don't do it that way you are not part of us. That is horrendously inhumane, and not what humanity is about. We're fucking grazing nomads that go around and meet new people and experience new cultures and eat new things; we don't stay in one spot, as an old species. It's not in our nature. What is in our nature is to build a community of people that tolerate new things, new food, and new plains. When you're told you can't do that you latch onto your pack and stay within them to feel safe and accepted.”
And that sense of community is being built – or has indeed already been built – very close to home for IDLES. Their eclectic, multi-faceted fanbase is a place of love and welcoming.
“I think one of the things to understand about our fanbase is that, from my perspective, I just want to encourage people to discuss and open up new ideas with each other,” Talbot says. “That's what I want my music to do. I want one individual to realise that it's okay to look at their own faults and to love each other for who they are and not want to be accepted by society for that. We don't need to lean on society for that – you can accept yourself, and you can feel less defensive about trying to protect yourself from all the shit. So you're opening yourself up, becoming vulnerable and opening up to new ideas. I think it's happening, in places.”
“Certainly people are building a community of not-likeminded people... our crowds are fucking random, but they're open-minded and they all enjoy it together. You don't have to be cool, or young, or punk... if you come to our shows thinking you have to be a 'cool young punk' then you'll get there and realise half the songs aren't punk, the band are not fucking cool, and they're certainly not young! It opens you up. We've made sure we were really contrived about this in order to not be contrived – again, using something and flipping it on our head. We realised for our audiences to really enjoy themselves they'd have to take steed from us. We can't go on being 'cool' and we had to make sure we embarrass ourselves and be as free as possible – and that means dancing arrhythmically and everything else.”
To drive the point home, Talbot pauses to recall an Otis Redding documentary he watched that featured a segment with a journalist was saying how bad a dancer Otis Redding was.
“It cut to a montage of him dancing at his shows, and he is awful! But there's no way any cunt in that crowd could've held him back. No way. He loved his music and he worked relentlessly hard, but when he got on stage he was completely engulfed by his own joy. That transcends through audiences and through his music, and I realised that we as a band have to get to that point where we are purely enjoying ourselves and that the audience can see that we don't give a fuck what we look like.”
“I never used to wear shorts,” Talbot says, diving headfirst into a new tangent to hammer the point home again, “but I started wearing shorts on stage – I hate my legs, I hate my feet, but fuck that! It doesn't matter what I look like! Imagine if you hate your body and you go to the swimming pool, and you're like 'I'm not getting in', but all your mates are yelling 'go on!' and just jumping in and making fools of themselves... you're gonna get in the pool. You're gonna have a good time.”
“It's all about normalising the abnormalities of life and the body... what we see as 'abnormal' is what 95% of the fucking population sees every day. Everyone's got something weird. Everyone's got a part of their body they fucking hate. Even the models and athletes that get rammed down our throats, they've probably got stuff they hate and that they're embarrassed about. Carrying shame is unhealthy. We wanted to get that energy as a constant with our gigs. We're not there yet. I'm still self-conscious. We'll get there.”
It's fascinating to be watching IDLES, a mishmash of loves and inspirations, drawn from different corners and emerging from myriad personal battles, on such a rapid ascendency. For all their personal contrasts, they remain carefully cohesive in their plan of attack: exploit contrasts, provoke thought, and shower with love.
Joy As An Act Of Resistance is a violent album, striking into the gut of 21st century politics and providing an antidote to toxic masculinity through ceaseless subversion. IDLES are the architects of a new brand of punk that has no time for hate; love is the order of the day as they attempt to do battle with some of the biggest issues facing modern society.
Joe Talbot admits he was a “nasty little man” in the past – and still an “abrasive, little man” in the present – but he's changed over the years, buffeted by grief and a desire to do and be better, and he knows that real change can happen if there's love in your heart.
And at the root of all IDLES do is love. Love for the other, love for each other, love for the self, love for the idea that men can change, love for the idea that political discourse can change, love for all change, and love for all.
For IDLES, all is love.