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March 2018

Interview: Joe Talbot of IDLES




IDLES’ debut album Brutalism is an explosive, visceral catharsis. Named after the Brutalist architecture movement, wherein buildings were rebuilt cheaply with concrete after the destruction and demolition of World War II, the album represents the rebuilding of the band itself. Two years after the release of the Meat EP, the change in IDLES’ sound is as drastic as their change in tone – they are much angrier. In times of political turbulence and uncertainty, IDLES makes unwavering, bold statements with song titles like “White Privilege” and lyrics likes “Men are scared women will laugh in their face / Whereas women are scared it’s their lives men will take.” Despite the didactic nature of the album, deeply personal stories within the lyrics differentiate IDLES from other mindlessly angry punk bands and keeps them from crossing lines into preachiness or self-righteousness. Behind aggressive punk/post-punk drum and bass, Brutalism tackles the ugly with unabashed candor. Based on an encounter between frontman Joe Talbot and a friend, “1049 Gotho” paints a very real, unromanticized vision of depression with the lyricsWon’t someone help me sleep? /There’s no right side of the bed with a body like mine and a mind like mine.” He also writes about the struggle of addiction on the track “Benzocaine,” and lazy conformity in the opener, Heel/Heal.”

Brutalism may not strike the listener as an intimate portrayal of the human experience on the first listen, maybe not even on the second or third. But past the propulsive, raw urgency of the music itself, the album is a passionate testimony of visceral, guttural hurt and emotion.

This week, I was able to speak with Joe Talbot, vocalist and lyricist on the phone in preparation for SXSW. Read the full interview below.

Idles played at SXSW last year, was that your first time at the festival?
Yeah that was our first time in the states, yeah. Just kinda flew over for three days then flew back. It was a bit weird, but cool.

Did you enjoy it?
Yeah of course, it was magic. It’s not the first time I had been to the states, it’s the first time I’d been to Austin. It was the first time to come to America for a few of the boys so that was good. Yeah, it was hectic and it was fun. I like playing no matter where we are so that was great.

So, what are you most excited about for this year’s festival?
Playing. Just getting out there and playing. Its what we’re there for man, getting up in the morning and playing music. I’m sure there’s plenty to see in that, but as long as the shows get done well, that’s all I can hope for.

Any artists you’re looking forward to seeing?
No… ‘cause were fucking busy. I don’t know, there’s like 6 shows in 3 days in Austin so I don’t know how much time were gonna have spare. But we’ve got friends playing there, Life are playing which should be great. Andrew W.K. is apparently playing, that’ll be amazing, I’ve always wanted to see him play I think that’d be fun. I don’t know man, I’m just gonna feel out our days when we get there.

So you guys supported the Foo Fighters at The O2 a few months back, how did that come about?
We heard that they put us on a shortlist of bands to support them, so I told my manager to get a jigsaw puzzle made, do you know what that is? I don’t know if you call It that in America. So yeah, we got a jigsaw puzzle made of our bassist in his pants, you call trousers pants don’t you? In his briefs, his knickers. Holding up a sign saying “Pick IDLES.” We sent them the puzzle, covered up the box, and wrote on the box “If you build it, they will come,” and they liked it, and they picked us, and we built it and they came.

What was it like playing in a venue of that size?
It was cool man, like, if you build it up in your head before you go to a giant venue like that, I think it might swallow you up. But, I was just excited to play and I knew it would be good, like the sound would be amazing. It was cool, it wasn’t a surprise, it was exactly how I thought it was gonna be and it was great. It was surprisingly easy; do you know what I mean? I felt way more at home than I thought I would on a giant stage, not that I expect to play on one again anytime soon, but it was amazing.

Your debut album, Brutalism – is it named after Brutalist architecture?
Yeah. I’m a huge fan of architecture in general, always been an interest of mine and brutalist architecture is probably my favorite category, but it was more the metaphor of where we came from and rebuilding the band and doing it quickly and cheaply. And then it kind of burst the whole idea of how we sound.

Is brutalism common where you’re from? Is that something that influenced your sound as well as just the metaphorical value?
It’s common in Britain, yeah. Obviously the Germans bombed a lot of Europe and Britain, so post-war there was a lot of rebuilding that needed to be done. Society needed to be rebuilt and restructured, so they used concrete as the material that was quick-setting and cheap to use. So there’s a lot of it knocking about, and it serves as a great metaphor for kind of post-punk and punk music. Its got a very strict base, abrupt sound, concrete blocks of noise that are there to help society and rebuild things.

Do you think places and surroundings have a big effect on artists and the music that comes out of a specific area?
Absolutely, yeah. I think it’s the areas and the situation and the sentiment behind your situation. If you look at New York and what was necessary at different points, the jazz movement in New York and then the punk movement later on in New York it was very much a New York sound that also translated to people in London and you know the jazz scene translated to people in Germany and punk translated greatly to the British because there was a time of despair. So yeah, I think your surroundings, if you’re an honest writer–or even if you’re not an honest writer–I don’t think you can escape your psyche and what’s going on around you. That definitely shapes the way I write and the way I think. All over the world in America and in England there’s a real segregation separating the rich and the poor, the right and the left, in your country more so black and whites. You know this is a strange time to be alive and to be a liberal, to be forward-thinking. I think things seem to be going backwards in a lot of places.

You also have a song, “Stendhal Syndrome,” that mentions painting and photography. Does visual art have any influence on IDLES?
Massively, yeah. My dad’s an artist so I kind of grew up around that shit. Bowen, one of our guitarists is massively into more violent-looking imagery, like Goya, Dante’s Hell, Francis Bacon, stuff like that. Whereas I’m into more fantastic realism and realism like Lucian Freud, Michaël Borremans is probably my favorite painter, Rachel Whiteread, a British sculptor who famously filled a house with concrete and took the foundations away and the walls away so your left with the inside imprint. Yeah, I mean art is a huge part of our life and our passion, trying to incorporate it into our music, not just lyrically, but with our artwork and our outlook on how we treat things, and treat our writing and everything.

How did you construct the album artwork?
I knew I wanted to create something that was kind of a stand alone, abstract thing that represented the music. And then I wanted the thing that represented the music in the middle of the cover to be housed in a situation that demonstrated what the album was thematically about. So the block in the middle is supposed to be how it sounds, and then the photo of my mother and the construction of where it is and the simplistic, strict, designed poster on the right is supposed to embody the thematics of the album and our approach to music. So I did that in my dad’s studio. He helped me build it, we got a bunch of old flooring from a school and built it, and then I took some photos.

Did you create the album artwork alone?
Apart from my dads help, yes–and my girlfriend’s vagina. My family is very much involved in the art, but yes it was all my vision, I guess you could call it.

Theres obviously quite a few songs on the record that are pretty political – are you trying to start a conversation or is it simply cathartic?
Well, Brutalism is very much a visceral, explosive catharsis where I was getting rid of a lot and the politics kind of served as the purpose behind my grief, which was very personal, and about my mother. Obviously she had nothing to do with politics, but her situation did. So I wanted to start a discussion about something personal that is very important and very relevant at these times where we’re dismantling the inner chest. Something you might not appreciate in your situation, we live in a country where everyone gets healthcare, no matter how poor or their situation. Even if they’re not from this country, they get helped. It’s one of the best things this country has produced, and the right-wing government are destroying it. They’re overworking nurses, underpaying nurses, overpricing medications. It’s driven like a private co, the whole thing from the inside out. We don’t have a democratic process; they’re just doing it on their own without our choosing. So at the moment and for the next probably 50 years we’re battling with a right-wing government that are trying to change for the worse – Brexit is another example. So, my songs aren’t to lecture at all, they’re there just to give a very personal experience that hopefully opens up. I don’t want everyone to agree with me, I want people to listen, enjoy the music and disagree, agree or just dance, it doesn’t really matter.

Notably in the song “1049 Gotho,” you explores themes of depression from some unique angles. What made you want to tackle that subject in your songwriting?
My friend came back from a night out and I was staying on his sofa. He came back and woke me up, it wasn’t too late maybe 1 in the morning, and he was just crying. I wanted to know what was wrong. He said he was just feeling down and felt this from depression, and I unknowingly tried to cheer him up because I thought you could fix that. I thought at the time I could fix depression or someone who was feeling depressed. And he explained depression to me in a way that made it very clear what it was and helped me understand his situation and other people’s. I thought it was really such a poignant and beautiful moment that my friend helped me understand his pain. And I thought, well if he could do it I should try and pass that on, so I tried to write a song about it and just about that experience, really.

Clearly you and the rest of the band are politically and socially conscious, what are your thoughts on the music industry?
Its the same as a lot of other things, the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. There’s not many idiosyncrasies I think to the industry as a whole, I think its very white washed. I don’t mean that literally in race, I mean its just really a mundane collection of music, you don’t even have to look at the mercury music prize or thing like that and see that its contenders are not very interesting. Mainstream radio is just playing the same shit, but I don’t know. I don’t see that a problem for me personally because I’m just working around it. You get what you get, and you make it better or you make it worse by going along with it so I’m trying to not go along with it. On that, I think there’s room there for people to flourish. I think there are certain artists in Britain and around the world are successful, just maybe not in the major radio side of it. But they’re touring and making a living out of it which is great. So, I think its just about not really giving a shit about the industry and just getting on with it, seeing what you can do yourself. I think If you’re an artist you can act as a Trojan horse and do something interesting and get through those walls instead of standing outside the walls throwing pebbles. It is what it is, to me its not of interest because I seem to be doing alright out of it and I’m like a fat old British guy with bad teeth, shit ca writing music about depression and getting in fights.

We’re coming up on the first anniversary of the release of Brutalism – how do you reflect on the album a year later?
I’m glad you mentioned that. It’s actually on International Women’s Day (which is on Thursday) and the anniversary of my mother’s death. How do I reflect on it? I don’t know, I don’t think there’s a time of reflection at the moment just ‘cause I’m working on album two as we speak, and we haven’t finished with album one yet. I think its only good to reflect when you’re finished with something, and Brutalism is not finished in any way. We still got some touring to do out of it and I wanna make it the best we can. So, at the moment, it’s a great journey that were in and I can’t wait to crack on.

What can we expect from album 2?
Same thing but different. Again, I’m amongst it in the moment so I don’t really wanna talk about too much–I wanna get it done automatically without thinking too much about what it is. But, I can tell you that it’s better, and it’s very good.

Watch the music video for “Mother” below

By Jordan Smith

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