When I called IDLES frontman Joe Talbot, I could hear a few seconds of guitar fuzz and laughter before he found a quiet place to speak – and while I had no way of knowing its source, I realized I instantly imagined it was the rest of the band, picturing Adam Devonshire, Mark Bowen, Lee Kiernan, and Jon Beavis in the background. There’s something about the Bristol punks’ musical synergy that makes you want to see them together all the time; as if their very proximity will send sparks flying and quickly explode into more infectious hooks and inventive songwriting. Satisfyingly, I found out it was really the case. “We’re working on album three,” Talbot told me. I suppressed a squeal as he determined his location. “We’re in – where are we? Let’s have a look. We’re in Eastside Music Supply in Tennessee, looking at pedals. Because we’re working on where to move forward musically at the moment. So yeah, we’re just going to work on album three now. We’ve got a song in the bag,” Talbot teased. “We are all together. I’m not going to buy anything, I don’t need any pedals,” he said in a funny tone, as if the errand had turned boisterous and he didn’t mind sneaking away.
Just months after the release of Joy as an Act of Resistance, a groundbreaking record in both its subject matter and reception – which they recorded right after they put out their impressive debut album, Brutalism – knowing IDLES have more music in the works already is really a treat. With so many cool moments to scrutinize on both albums, I couldn’t wait to learn more about their songwriting process, and wondered if Talbot was thinking of ideas all the time. “Musically, yes,” he said. “I don’t ever think about lyrics, ever. I don’t write anything down. I don’t think about lyrics until I’ve sat in front of the song after it’s complete. But musically, I’m always thinking of drum beats, guitar lines and stuff.” As we discussed the wild ending to “Colossus” and how the band had written it on the spot, Talbot shed more light on their collaborative process. “We always write instrumentation democratically. Always. We write it together, write each other’s parts, and then I’ll go away and write the lyrics, once I’ve listened to the song like 100-200 times. I just write the lyrics down in one sitting, and try to do it as automatically as possible, which is why lines like ‘I’ve drained my body full of pins’ just come out,” he said, noting that it’s a metaphor for self-harm. “I don’t think about it. It means a lot to me, but it’s idiosyncratic to that very line. I don’t go around using those phrases all the time, but I think it’s supposed to be illustrative and confusing at the same time.”
Talbot, who openly sings “I want to be vulnerable” on the track “Love Song,” embraced that very quality when we discussed how it shapes his songwriting. “The vulnerability came from counseling; therapy as you call it. I was in therapy for a long time, and that was the main issue with me,” Talbot explained, “that I wasn’t making myself vulnerable to my partner or to my friends in the band. And I just needed to make a change, because my behavior was quite cyclical, and my life wasn’t improving – outwardly, in my opinion – but myself as a person; I wasn’t improving. I was still treating myself like a piece of shit. And I just wanted to learn more and work hard on improving, so my counselor taught me that I needed to be more vulnerable and open up, and then I utilized that in all my walks of life, and it came out in the music. And we [the band] talked about it, and then we all started becoming more vulnerable and more mindful, and talking about how we feel, and how we want to move forward more. It’s a wonderful offering, to have a more lucid and honest conversation with people. I think within that, there’s a lot more trust in our music now, and things feel more final, and interesting, and honest.”
As one would guess from hearing his lyrics, Talbot often replied to questions just as poetically. His description of the band’s day-to-day life was as vivid as a painting. “We’ve gotten really good at spending time together, obviously. We’re very excitable, and we make each other laugh all the time. We respect each other’s space. We talk about food a lot. We are constantly being horrible to each other in a loving way. And we’re all living the same dream, so we’re constantly experiencing these things…and you know, it’s a dream come true. So we’re just constantly smiling, and making each other laugh – as long as I get sleep. If I don’t get sleep, I’m a real piece of shit and everyone leaves me alone,” he said, sounding like he was grinning. I was eager to know if they often discussed ideas for songs or their new album when they’re on the road together. “Not all the time. Sometimes. But you’ve got to focus, and you’ve got to be mindful of what you’re doing on that day. So at the moment, we’ve got loads of shows, so we’re respectful of that and just…make that count, you know? Make every show count, and make everything we do count. So, we’ve just got to keep our heads in what we’re doing that day. But when we get time off, we’re always talking about music.”
Fresh in my mind was the ecstatic cheering, singing, and thrashing of their obsessed crowd in Brooklyn the week before we spoke. Their Music Hall of Williamsburg show was one of the best and most intense we’d seen all year, and it was amazing to hear it felt just as good from Joe’s place on the stage. “It was magic,” said Talbot. “I think the weight of it was, my father was there, our label was there – so basically, our friends were there – and it just felt like a home show to us. We love it in Brooklyn, and everything seemed to align that night. I don’t want to think about it too much,” he said lightheartedly, as if it were a fragile balance of elements. “I’m not sure why, but it just felt right. It was magic. All of the shows have been good in America so far.” Their fiery performance in Brooklyn came up again later on, and he divulged an awesome tidbit about how he’d rank that particular show.
“It was my favorite show of the year. Well, there were three shows that have absolutely blown my mind this year, and New York was one,” revealed Talbot, noting that the other two were Toronto and Primavera. “The crowds are always special. It’s more like the energy, and the moment. You can’t predict it or control it. Every now and again, something just clicks, and everything becomes heightened and special, and you don’t know why. And it may not happen very often, but when it does, you just embrace it.” Remembering how heavy it felt when we witnessed it in Brooklyn, I wondered if they ever had the same feeling in the studio. “There are moments of it,” said Talbot. “I mean, I don’t particularly like being in the studio. I like being live; I like playing live. But every now and again, we get into playing the songs, you know? The songs are great. We fucking love them, and playing them for the record is really exciting. But you know, there’s no one there sweating all over your stuff, so it’s a different environment, but it is good. We love it, truly.”
I was also dying to know his feelings on IDLES’ recent Jools Holland performance, a noteworthy moment for the band in which they really wowed and sounded fantastic. “I was grateful,” said Talbot appreciatively. “It was a dream of mine to be on that show for a long time, so, for me, it was just a feeling of gratitude. I mean, I’m grateful for a lot at the moment, to be honest. Because we’re doing what we love, we’re traveling the world, meeting lots of wonderful people, doing lots of interesting things. All of it’s a dream, but Jools Holland, with my fiancé and my father there watching was a dream of mine; a dream come true. Apart from that, I wasn’t thinking; I was just doing. It felt right. It felt like I should be there, and it felt like the band should be there. It was a stunning event for me.” We took a moment to appreciate what a tough time they’d given the camera guys, IDLES having performed all over the stage. “They had their work cut out for them, but they enjoyed it,” he laughed. “They don’t get to run about so often.”
Digging into their latest album, I couldn’t resist discussing “Gram Rock,” a rager of a song that has become somewhat of a rarity live, and one we were lucky to hear in Brooklyn. “I love playing that one. It’s a bit ridiculous, but we enjoy it,” said Talbot. Having read (via NPR) about how it was a concept song, in which they said “yes” to every idea proposed musically, I wanted to know what that looked like in action. “We were in a practice room in Heidelberg in Germany on tour. And we had a day off in Germany, so we just took that practice room in the venue we played the night before, and spent the day writing a song,” he recalled. “We got a couple hours into it, and we just realized we’d said ‘yes’ to a few ideas, and normally, we’d cut each other down with a few reasons as to why. But it’s like we were on cocaine and just saying yes to everything. And then I thought we should actually write a song where we just say yes to everything, and they were like ‘…yeah!’” Talbot laughed. ‘And then we wrote the song. And then I went away and wrote lyrics about two hedge fund bankers doing cocaine at a funeral.”
Having witnessed fans’ ferocious response to songs from Joy as an Act of Resistance, I wondered if its success was at all influencing how they approach their new music. “It hasn’t changed the way I write songs,” Talbot said thoughtfully. “But it wouldn’t be. I think it’s important to work really hard to not allow gratification to affect your work, because, I don’t know…I just think it just becomes dishonest. But it’s been enlightening, the positivity that we’ve gotten – and it’s not 100% positive – but a lot of the positive reactions we’ve gotten are just very surprising, and it’s a wonderful surprise, because we live in a very cynical world. People are often automatically an established critic and just say whatever they want, because they have the tool of the internet to drag people down without any repercussions. So obviously, as an act of vulnerability, we were expecting a lot of people to fucking stamp on our stuff. We didn’t get that. A couple of people did, but fuck them, you know?” Talbot laughed. “In general, it’s just an eye-opening idea that there’s a lot of people out there who are craving positivity and craving community, and wanting to look after each other a bit more, which is great.”
If you ask Joe his favorite thing about IDLES’ fan base, his response is a humble one. “It’s the fact that there are fans. I guess because we don’t necessarily look the part, and we’re not doing anything new,” he said. “We’re just coming at it from an angle of compassion, and doing it with hard work. It’s something that people dream about, and we’re just trying to do something that we feel was missing in our lives – like, bands that really give a shit, and just play horrible music with a beautiful message. I think it takes a certain kind of patient, compassionate person to really understand it. So I think that’s it. I think we just draw empathetic scumbags to the table, and it feels great, you know? I’m in love with it. It’s a really strange bunch of people that seems to have congregated around us, and it feels good; it feels right. I think we wanted to make this record in light of what we were receiving from the first record – which was a certain expectation to be like, this angry man band. And it was exactly what we’re not. So we wanted to explain that, and portray a different side to what we are – who we truly are – and build something more important than a mosh pit. We wanted to build a community, and I think it’s happening.”
Being that he’s such a force of positive energy, and has coped with a lot of loss and pain, I was curious to know if Talbot had any advice for someone going through a struggle. “Seek help, and don’t feel you’re a burden or embarrassed to seek help. But seek help. Find someone that you trust to talk to, and try to be as vulnerable, honest, and open as possible, and you’ll probably learn a lot about yourself in a short amount of time, and feel that there’s a weight off your back. And love yourself,” he added warmly, as the song “Television” goes. Before we got off the phone, in a tone that was arrestingly sincere, Joe Talbot said three words that describe IDLES perfectly. “Lots of love.”
Article: Olivia Isenhart
Photos: Shayne Hanley