By Geoffrey Rowlands
Being labelled as punk rockers is not something which is particularly appreciated by IDLES. The Bristol-based quintet firmly believe there is rather more to their music than the generally accepted image of British punk bands. The validity of this viewpoint is clearly evident in the songs on their UK top five sophomore album, Joy as an Act of Resistance.
“I don’t think there are many traditional punk rock bands whose songs cover the wide range of subject matter you hear on our new album,” affirmed singer and frontman Joe Talbot. “We deliberately attempted to be vulnerable to our audience and encourage vulnerability in others.
“We have stripped back the songs and lyrics to our bare flesh to allow each other to breathe, to celebrate our differences and to act as an ode to communities and the individuals who forge them. Without our community, we’d be nothing.”
Although the band may not care for their punk rock tag, it is difficult to fit them neatly into any other category. IDLES are certainly not a pop group.
“We actually wrote a song that we thought might make us more popular because it was a bit poppy,” Joe recalled. “This was a few years ago before we released our debut album. That was how desperate we were to become successful. But we thought the song was so bad. Even though there were very few people interested in us at that time, we just didn’t want to play the song. We couldn’t do it to ourselves.”
This was during a period when Joe, bassist Adam ‘Dev’ Devonshire, drummer Jon Beavis and guitarists Mark Bowen and Lee Kiernan actually considered giving up on their band. They had released a couple of not particularly well-received EPs and seemed to be going nowhere.
“It took us a long time to become productive,” Joe admitted. “Dev and I had met at college in Exeter. We started hosting club nights in Bristol. We tried to do something a bit more interesting than your standard indie night. Somewhere along the way, we decided to start a band. We didn’t really know what we were doing. We were terrible for a long time.”
It was a cataclysmic event in Joe’s life which set IDLES on the road to success.
“Everything stemmed from the illness and eventual death of my mum. I was a mess. I was furious that she was dying. I felt so much anger and misery. I was drowning in drugs, anything to try to ease the pain of watching my mum die.
“My anger was distancing me from the band. We weren’t getting on even though I loved being with them. The time came when I realised we had to start afresh and we started working on the songs which would make up our first album, Brutalism.
“I was still really struggling at this point but writing the songs was a catharsis for me. The whole writing process made it cathartic for everyone because we became a unit again. The album helped us to solidify our personal bond.”
A photograph of Joe’s mother adorned the cover of Brutalism. It is accompanied by a sculpture made by Joe and his father.
“We made it out of old parquet flooring from a school that was being torn down. The idea was to take something which had been demolished and turn it into something beautiful. It’s supposed to be like a headstone for my mum. The whole album is meant to sound like a big, car park-sized headstone.”
The album is rather more than a headstone for Joe’s mother. IDLES had a run of 100 vinyl copies made which contained some ashes from her cremation pressed into the record. These were sold from the band’s online store.
“I just felt it was appropriate. My mum was the album. That’s why her photograph was on the cover. The whole process of creating Brutalism was based around losing my mum. I wasn’t afraid or ashamed to lay my grief out there in raw form. It seemed right to have her ashes effectively become part of the album she inspired.”
Surprisingly, the album title had nothing to do with Joe’s mother.
“It was brutal that I lost her far too early but the title actually comes from the style of architecture which was prevalent after World War II. I’m fascinated by architecture. It’s what I like looking at and reading about. I became obsessed with brutalist architecture, something fast and quick which helps a community whose homes and cities have been destroyed.”
There is more introspection in the songs on Joy as an Act of Resistance. One track deals with the death in childbirth of Joe’s daughter.
“My grief about this doesn’t dominate the new album. But I couldn’t remove my personal emotion from other songs which have completely different subject matter. We were actually going on tour three weeks after my daughter’s death. I had to almost become a different person when we were performing. I’m also now practising Mindfulness. I started this meditation before my daughter died and it helped loads in my trying to get through what happened.”
Having written a number of songs for the new album, IDLES decided to scrap all but two. They created every other track during an intense four-month period of work.
“We didn’t feel like the scrapped songs were good enough. We’d also moved on as a band and as individuals. The new album represents who we are at this time. Not so much the songs themselves but our performance of them is all about celebrating your flaws. It’s an exercise in honesty.”
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