Sat down eating, listening to Steve Lamacq on Radio 6, he’s interviewing a couple of guys from a band but I missed the beginning so I’m not sure who. Me and my partner stop chatting, this is really unusual, interesting, important, their conversation is perceptive, incisive, questioning of accepted norms. Compared to most content on mainstream media it seems like messages from another place. Subversive, thought provoking. Steve Lamacq plays a track by the band- I’ve not heard it before but it’s excellent. He then talks about their tour-seems they’re playing Colchester the next week. They’re called IDLES.
That evening I check them out and realise the intelligent, critiquing, humorous singles ‘Well Done’ and ‘Stendhal Syndrome’ that I’d heard over the last few months are by them. And there are still tickets available for Colchester Art Centre. I buy one.
That weekend their album Brutalism is streamable- brilliant! Cleverly constructed, ferocious catchy punk with vocals/lyrics that remind me how much better Ian Dury could have been if he hadn’t wanted to deliver the aural equivalent of naughty postcards. Brutalism (and the associated videos) remind me a little of Mirror by Gnod in their unflinching, compassionate look at the reality of people’s lives. It engages with death, mental health, the bureaucratic violence of neoliberalism, faith, relationships-in fact pretty much everything important. But it’s done with humour, humility and verve.
In my experience audience numbers are a bit unpredictable at Colchester but on this occasion Essex has obviously got its ear to the musical ground and there is a good crowd with a wide demographic. I’m there early to do an interview and waiting around in the venue post interview and pre gig a young woman wanders in through an open door and starts chatting with me, tells me about her life and how it’s hard to get a job when you’ve no fixed abode, then she’s off again. Somehow an IDLES gig seemed like the right place for the conversation.
Earlier on I’d had the opportunity to meet IDLES’ extremely pleasant members and sit down for an interview with lyricist and lead vocalist Joe Talbot about music, politics and...well loads of stuff really!
How did it go in Bristol last night, were you happy with it?
Joe: Yeah it was amazing, full house, lots of loved ones there, messy, we weren’t messy but it was afterwards! It was wonderful. It felt cathartic, like putting everything to bed I think.
Like the beginning of a new phase?
J: Yeah, definitely. I’m not sure what yet, but it just felt important for some reason.
Could you tell us a little bit about IDLES, you’re from Bristol, how long have you been going roughly?
J: Sixish years.
Has the line up stayed fairly constant through those six years?
J: Well, me and Dev and Bowen have always been in the band but we messed about with drummers at the start, John was the third drummer we tried out, he’s been with us 5 or 6 years and Lee joined after our first rhythm guitarist Andy left.
How does the creative process work? Is there one main songwriter or is it very collaborative?
J: It’s really democratic in a way, someone will come with a bass line or a drumbeat or something and then we’ll build on it, we all write our own parts. We’ll finish the song and then I’ll go away and write the lyrics and melody.
A number of your songs are driven by a social and political concern, how did your politics take shape? One of the things I noticed is you seem to have a very well developed sense of class conflict. Were there any major influences?
J: My parents definitely were a big influence on me when I started thinking politically. I don’t know, it’s a weird one, I think moving from Devon to Bristol and realising that Devon was a bizarre place and I’d never want to go back there. It’s nice to look at in the summer but now I’m living in a multicultural city, very liberal, open minded. Open mindedness is normal there. I was doing some labouring a few summers ago in Sidmouth and we were in a pub after a shift, there was this guy talking about his wife or girlfriend and it was really really sexist, like really archaic. It was like fucking weird! I just realised you don’t get that where I am now, and I don’t miss it. And I think that contrast made me realise how frustrated most people are in their teenage years. There’s a lot of bored young people in Exeter where I grew up, quite a violent place for a middle class town.
So when you moved to Bristol that's when your political consciousness was raised by exposure to other ideas?
J: I was always politically conscious, even at school I was interested in what is fair. As a kid you’re often baffled by hatred, by why people are angry at foreigners, then you start to understand how the media, the Tory government are intertwined and into fear mongering, putting poor people in a corner blaming them for things. When you grow up you start to de-naturalise things, deconstruct the system you are in and understand it, or part of it. I think my Dad is very politically minded and he’s an artist so I grew up discussing things, if you have a dialogue at a young age you start to exercise your political consciousness.
What sources do you draw on in lyric writing? Books, films, your own experiences?
J: My own experiences really, there was a point where I had the luxury of being able to read a lot, I think that’s where my writing grew a lot, subconsciously. I wouldn't say I outwardly tried to write a certain way but you know it’s like when you go to a gallery you get inspired and come away with food for thought. While we were writing the album Brutalism I haven’t had time to read, one of the things that helped me out was a certain bravery, I guess, to be myself that came from Kanye West’s Yeezus album. You don’t have to like him or agree with him, I definitely don’t like the whole materialistic side of what he is but I love his approach to making music, I think it’s great, it’s brave. What Yeezus did to me was inspire me to realise you can do whatever the fuck you want and we should. You only get one chance at doing stuff like this so you might aswell do it your way. His lyrics piss people off and I think that’s what inspired me, it’s just really basic, repetition, Dadaist like, “Hurry up with my damn croissant” and stuff like that on the album. I love it.
But in general I try to..someone used the phrase the other day ‘ kitchen sink lyricism’, being able to frame the normal and make it abnormal, highlighting things.
Has the subject matter you engage with changed over time? Would you say your lyrics have changed?
J: No, my style has developed, it was always there, but I’m more concise now. I get to my point quicker, whether the listener understands me is their problem. The subject matter has always been the same, they’re kind of like vignettes of emotional shit, you know like loss or whatever I’m thinking about. One song’s about my first year at Uni, one’s about bad shit, cheap drugs. But I sometimes try to make that allegorical or use the song to look at the bigger picture around that subject. The demos before our first EP there was a political song on there, a lot about break ups. The subjects haven’t changed but I think I’m a bit more articulate.
So your craft has developed but become more stripped down...
J: I think you’ve got to be confident to be able to do that, to draw an abstract picture rather than spelling it out.
Does that scare you as an artist, to know that you’ve put something out there and because it’s in shorthand it’s open to misunderstanding?
J: Yeah, it has been, I was worried about it a bit. Like ‘Stendhal Syndrome’ I was worried that people would think I don’t like art, and it turns out people do think that! Some people for some reason or other only hear half the verse. But it doesn’t matter, once I realised that you’ve just got to think ‘Fuck it’ you know. How can I put it...expression isn’t the same as education. I don’t want to hinder the creativeness of it, I don’t want it to hinder my expression by trying to spell things out. There’s always going to be stupid people…I was worried about it but I’m not anymore because now it’s been misunderstood I’m OK with that. I still like the song whether people misunderstand it or not.
I read online that you are lyrically interested in how the political/social reconstructs you as an individual, ‘That’s what we’re doing with the album. I’m interested in how politics affects my psyche, my emotions and my role in society. Basically, I don’t want to keep talking about the bastards and focus more on me as a bastard” (1) Is that a prominent theme on the album, the idea of the individual as a social construct?
J: Yeah, and that’s more our second album, what I’d like to do more is explore mental health. There a thing I’m really fascinated by at the moment , how I don’t really trust anyone beyond my friends. I don’t really trust anyone anymore, every one’s lying to us, all the time. The people I’m voting for, the people I’m not voting for, Labour are lying to me, the Guardian is lying to me, The Independent lies to me, people on Facebook, so called liberals lie to me, they’re acting like fascists. Click Baiting, that’s someone’s fucking job to develop fake Facebook profiles. I find that weird. I’m going to have a daughter soon and I think it’s sad that there’s not much romance left anymore, I grew up thinking the world was going to be a magical place, and (now) I don’t think there’s any room for that.
Everything’s been commodifed…
J: Exactly. I went into a shop the other day with my girlfriend, she was trying on a pair of whatevers, and there was this whole display of feminist stuff, and it’s good that people are aware of feminism, but horrible fat fingered pricks have taken it and sold it back to us. ‘Feminism’s cool now, let’s sell it to them’, it’s like that with everything, we’re not safe. And I think that’s going to take a toll on people, it dehumanises people because everybody wants to be loved, same reason I worry about being misunderstood in my songs is that you want to be loved, you want to be heard. Everything is so quick, there is a perpetual motion in the air, nothing is stopping and I think that’s going to dislocate out children. I own shit, I’m not like Gandhi but you can still recognise the ridiculousness of it and I’m interested in that at the moment. All my songs are catharsis, I feel personally- not all musicians should- that I have a responsibility to myself to explore what I sing about. You might not get that from listening to a song I’ve written...when I started to write songs I really wanted to be verbose, I really wanted to be like Nick Cave or like Leonard Cohen, not that I’m a massive fan of his, but I realised that’s not me, I’m not that guy. I’m blunt, I’m like a blunt object. I realised that’s what I enjoy most, being blunt, summing things up.
Youve been compared to Sleaford Mods, in term of lyrics writing and subject matter but I’d put you alongside Gnod who said this about their last album Mirror that it was ‘a reaction to the results of the recent UK election and also some shit that was happening to us and our friends during that period. Lyrically it deals with mental health issues and how things like social media are a vehicle for our split personalities and egos - that and being under the thumb of forces and power structures we can't really fully understand, or even if we understand them we feel helpless to change the situation. This album won't change the situation or start any revolutions but it felt good for us to write some music to let the rage out" (2).
Does that pretty much parallel the concerns and contexts that lay behind the creation of Brutalism? Does ring bells for you?
J: Massively, yeah. Thats cool, especially the mental health stuff, I’m working on that for the second album, it’s about one person being four things so it’s funny that they are talking about split personalities, that’s interesting. It’s commonplace in the world we’re in to be confused, like I said ‘Who the fuck are you going to turn to?’ Even Jeremy Corbyn is throwing in some curve balls. I don’t know what’s going on. I certainly don’t like the television or Facebook. Brutalism is similar to what they (Gnod) are saying, the allegory is there but it’s true, it’s like a big car park to hold all of our shit that we were going through at the time, a big concrete block of sound. It was supposed to sound like a big block of concrete, relentless all the way through, big, brash, but like all the car parks, churches, shopping centres, underpasses they’re all there to rebuild society, to help society. It was the modernist approach to rebuild Britain when it got totalled-post war y’know. We know it’s not a perfect album, we know it’s not the best album in the world but it’s perfect for us, we achieved it. It helped us as a band, we’re a lot happier now, I got a lot off my chest. I’m really happy with it, I’m surprised it’s as popular as it is and well received.
The video to ‘Mother’ really communicates to me the sense of impotent love and frustration and trauma of caring for someone you love who is going through a time of extreme illness, I thought it was extraordinarily brave to transform that experience into art-did you find it helpful or difficult or cathartic?
J: Massively cathartic, I’m not a shy person, I’m very confident. I thought I was OK and then when you start writing these things you realise you weren’t OK and you’re not OK but you’re a little bit better because you’ve written it out.
I read a post on your Facebook page from someone who had lost her husband and who wrote, after a Radio 6 interview I think, that she ‘like(d) your view on grief and death’ (3)- people are obviously being helped, touched by your honesty and authenticity...that must be encouraging?
J: That would be nice, wouldn’t it. Yeah, it’s lovely when shit like that happens, that’s why you do it, isn’t it. It’s weird, they’re just songs you know what I mean. I’m not saying that songs haven’t changed my life but when they’re your songs… you don’t put yourself in the same bracket as all the other bands you grew up with so you don’t really expect that shit to happen. It’s amazing.
In that song you talk about the amount of hours she had to work a day, a week-you embed your Mum in a social/political context
J: Yeah, she worked herself to death man, she was an alcoholic. This song is almost like a mythology “She worked 17 hours, 7 days a week” she did, she was a mother she never stopped working. She was working 14 hour days though, they were long days but the idea was exaggeration and then the realisation that it wasn’t actually exaggeration, she never stopped.
And there is a repeated refrain where you say “The best way to scare a Tory is to read and get rich”-is that the idea of empowering yourself?
J: Yeah, but it’s also when you realise that the person I’m singing about died from trying so hard. Maybe life is too short at the same time, so it is kind of like a mantra but at the same time it’s dangerous, resentment is dangerous. It’s growing that song, it’s changing in my head. It changes meaning to me, you don’t stop grieving, it just changes. Parents are quite mythical aren’t they, everyone always talks about that time in their life where suddenly you see your parent’s fallibility and you realise they’re not unbreakable.
Because of that the mythology changes. As I get older and become a parent I’m sure that song and my Mum, who she is and was, will change.
In ‘Well Done’ you seem to point out how our aspirations are prescribed and rendered formulaic by society around us, as though our ability to be creative and expansive has been appropriated and returned to us in forms that conform to the capitalist system’s requirements? Like, the coopting and impoverishing of our hopes and creativity? Is that what you were hoping to convey?
J: Yeah, in part. One of the things that really frustrates me the most is the bear baiting of the underclass, like Jeremy Kyle, and the ‘Get a job, there’s jobs out there, just get a job’. The benefit system changing, putting on a stranglehold, bleeding people dry. That sort of thing you know, it was about that really, those sort of expectations. All that normative shit. There’s a lot of things in there because it’s so loose.
The song and the video to ‘Divide and Conquer’ on youtube you commented, “the disemboweling of the NHS” (3)-did that come out of a personal experience?
J: Yeah, I was in and out of hospital for a long time with my old Dear, she had dialysis three times a week, she got ill, her kidneys packed in. I had club feet when I was born, I had eleven operations on my feet till I was eight-so I’ve been in and out of hospital a lot. It was in Newport, it’s a dilapidated town, it’s sad, this half derelict high street, ‘Cash for Gold’ shops and charity shops. I just can’t understand how (the government) are getting away with it. It’s fucking mental.
The video is very clever, very powerful-portraying the bureaucratic violence in physical form. Were you trying to alert people to what’s going on?
J: Yeah, that’s exactly it. I try to do that with all my videos, to try and have a visual representation that sums up some point of the song.
Picasso wrote about art washing away the dust of everyday life from the soul. Is that something you would aim for with your music, that it would wake people up? Alert them to the economics of class war, would you say your music a commentary on what’s going on or an act of resistance to it?
J: Commentary, but commentary is resistance. I want to discuss things, have a dialogue with people, no right wing, no left. I just want to open up the discourse, dialogue with people. Make some sort of change even if it’s just for me, in my life. So it’s a commentary, that’s where we start. With us it’s often humorous, not ‘I want to change the world’ but ‘What the fucks going on!’
The song ‘Stendhal Syndrome’ is a reference to the physical symptoms experienced when coming into contact with the sublime, the transformatory (4) especially in art. Have you seen the film ‘Oblivion’? The main character is brought to a higher degree of self consciousness and sensitivity, humanity, by being exposed to the arts. Your song seems to deal with the converse of that, people closing down interaction and dialogue and avoiding the possibility of transformation. Is that what you were aiming at? And as an artist do you find it frustrating when you put something out there and people aren’t prepared to engage?
J: Yeah, what I wanted to do with that song was.. Obviously people who get me, get what I’m saying, enjoy it as a song. Or people who are the other person, the one who doesn’t get it, the “I could do that” bullshit, the song holds a mirror up to their face. Obviously it is frustrating but I guess we don’t really have audiences who don’t get it though. The other thing with our music is you don’t really have to get it to enjoy it, some people couldn’t give a shit, but that’s fine. There is no right or wrong way to read art, personally I walk through exhibitions quite quickly, I walk all the way through it and then I go back and do it again. I don’t like to take my time. I don’t walk slowly, I don’t stare at something for ages. I sit down occasionally when something really blows me away.
There’s not a right way or a wrong way to enjoy art, I can take whatever the fuck I want from it and so can everyone else. So it would be nice if people got it, it’s already been misconstrued, but I’m over it.
I was really interested in your song ‘Faith in the City’ because punk bands don’t normally engage with issues of faith and spirituality. It seems a thoughtful look at the role of faith in life and the way it helps people cope with illness and deprivation rather than lifting them out of the struggles-is that what you were getting at?
J: Most definitely, yeah. It was at a time when my Uncle was dying of cancer and he was a deacon (role in a church) and he was at peace, and I like that, it was amazing. I’m not religious but I appreciate faith, I’ve got a lot of time for it. A lot of people knock it, it’s easy to slag off, but what’s the point, you’re just slagging something off, you should look into it more before you knock it. Obviously, like everything else, if you put it in the wrong hands…
So does spirituality generally interest you, because I noticed God and Jesus got a fair few mentions on your album..?
J: Well, it’s also metaphorical and allegorical, you know when you’re on your own you look up to the sky, when you’re in trouble. It’s not necessarily looking for God, it’s just like ”Fuck, what do I do”, you know what I mean? There’s lots of that, I never considered religion but it was considered on the album, I never considered religion but it’s everywhere. It’s an interesting one, I’m not a very spiritual person. I think friends and being happy is important to me. That is spiritual, to want to be happy.
There is a book ‘Inventing the Future’ by Srnicek and Williams, they say in it that political change often has to be preceded by cultural change (5)- can you see that happening with the emergence of bands like yourselves, Cabbage, Sleaford Mods, Gnod? Books like Russell Brand’s ‘Revolution, films like ‘The Hunger Games’ and ‘Elysium’..do you see cracks starting to appear in that neoliberals right’s cultural dominance?
J: Yeah, I think people are getting pissed off with it, aren’t they? I think neoliberalism has...at the end of the 90s people got fed up with rappers showing off how much money they had so they turned away from hip hop, the rappers stopped making such lavish, expensive videos, hip hop writers became more conscious and started to write more political stuff. People are starting to ask “What’s going on? We’re bored of this shit, we’re tired of being lied to. I want my fucking money back.” It (neoliberalism) is excessive. I worry that a lot of this political stuff is fashionable, I don’t want to be a flash in the pan. We didn’t jump on a bandwagon, We’ve always been doing this. It’s more palatable now because they’re more concerned about where their money is going as well, so we’re of more interest now. The other thing is, like Cabbage as well, who are a really good band, we’ve got room to grow, we’re not going to stop being political, and we’re not just a political band, we’re not Billy Bragg! People are more politically aware, people are talking about it more in pubs, and it is more important than ever to be aware I think. Whether it lasts, we’ll see.
IDLES sound has changed quite a bit, I listened to Welcome and compared to Brutalism it seems like you have become more direct and more forceful musically, is that due to changes in the internal dynamics of the band or different external influences?
J: I think for the first however long, Welcome included, you’ve got to find your voice and your collective voice as a band and to find your collective voice is hard because there is five of you, and when you’re not confident and not sure of yourself and when you haven’t found your voice you look to other things, you look for help. What’s good around you, you learn from that. So it took us a long time to find our own voice.
In Relational Aesthetics the art is completed by the participation of others-would you say IDLES find their fullest expression live?
J: Yeah, most definitely. The kind of music we write translates best in the flesh, that isn’t to say the records not great but for me, I like tangible things, I like to be in it, immersive, I love it. Your audience are there, there is sort of a dialogue, you’re reacting to them and they’re reacting to you, I like that. It’s the best thing in the world.
What bands and writers have you been enjoying lately?
J: Less Win, Cabbage, Spectres new album-really good. Scarlet Rascal and Lice, who were playing with us at Bristol, they’re both amazing bands. John who supported us last night were amazing. Plattenbau, Berlin band, they’re really good. There’s good music about at the moment. And the book I’m about to read, which will tie in with the second album, is The Descent of Man by Grayson Perry about the roles of manhood and mental health within that.
Big thanks to IDLES and Joe for interview.
(1) Haley, D.(2017) ‘ IDLES – The Bristol punk band for the age of social collapse and Kanye West’ Loud and Quiet. http://www.loudandquiet.com/interview/idles-the-bristol-punk-band-for-the-age-of-social-collapse-and-kanye-west/
(3) https://www.facebook.com/idlesband/ March 1 2017
(5) Srnicek, N. and Williams, A. (2015) ‘Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work’ Verso. London and Brooklyn, NY.