When IDLES began in 2009, singer Joe Talbot recalls that not even their then-manager got the name right. "We were Idols, Ideals, the Idols. We were put on the wrong posters. Everything you can imagine was wrong for about a year and a half."
But the Welsh-born singer and his band bided their time. After forming IDLES with bassist Adam Devonshire in Bristol, England, "We were very patient with people mistreating us, underestimating us, giving us terrible advice, not paying us, slagging us off," Talbot says. "We'll just look at those minor misgivings or micro-aggressions as something that later on we can look back on and really appreciate as what we went through to get to where we are now, which I think is a place of success."
Indeed, IDLES — rounded out by lead guitarist Mark Bowen, rhythm guitarist Lee Kiernan and drummer Jon Beavis — are huge in their native U.K. IDLES 2020 LP Ultra Mono debuted at No. 1 on the UK charts, and No. 1 on Billboard Emerging Artists chart. The Guardian raved, "Like no other British rock band of their generation, IDLES offer a sense of resilient belonging, rendering pain fertile and ugliness majestic."
Possessed of a punk rock energy intensity and sensibility, with unsettling musicality in songs like "The Wheel," IDLES' acerbic songs run from intensely personal (the caretaking and death of Talbot's mother informed Brutalism) to pointed social commentary ("Model Village"). Talbot’s vocals are upfront and Brit-accented, especially vehement on songs like the pointed, toxic masculinity-bashing "Never Fight a Man With a Perm," which has garnered nearly 26 million Spotify streams.
Although the band has done nine U.S. tours, IDLES' popularity in the States lags slightly behind that of the U.K. Yet since the release of their latest LP, 2021’s Crawler, IDLES worship is growing. The noisy songs of controlled chaos are driven by Talbot’s powerful vibe, of which he’s quick to clarify: "People mistake that my energy is anger."
The singer, whose witty, smart and oft-idiosyncratic and iconoclastic approach is seen in some of his tattoos — a chair, Biggie Smalls, Frida Kahlo on his left hand, Bill Murray’s face and the word "pops" on his neck because his dad hates neck tattoos — chatted with GRAMMY.com in the midst of IDLES ’ recent U.S. tour, which wrapped Sept. 17 at New Jersey’s Sea.Hear. Now. festival. A sold-out tour of New Zealand and Australia kicks off October 27.
IDLES seem to be in a great place career-wise. You’ve won prizes and been nominated for Brit Award, the Mercury Prize, and more. What quantifies success to you?
Progress. I think progress to me sounds and looks like the exploration of the self in a way where you're beautifully comfortable and uncomfortable at the same time as an artist. Success is emotional maturity. And success is a loyalty with the people around you and your community or audience.
Loyalty from an audience perspective comes from them trusting you and being genuine, because you love what you do. And we do. We're very grateful that we're able to come back after the pandemic and do this with so many wonderful people with open arms and open minds.
You can't ignore the money side, that would be ignorant and I think kind of bad taste not to accept that. Being able to pay my bills and build a future for my daughter by playing music is a beautiful thing. Emotionally and monetarily, we can't ask for anything more. We're just in a beautiful dream. And we will keep working as hard as we can. As long as you'll allow us in your venues, we will be there.
You actually have a song inspired by an American venue in Ohio, "Beachland Ballroom." IDLES are known for musical urgency and immediacy but "Beachland Ballroom" is a musical departure.
I grew up with soul music. I’ve been trying to write a soul song for a long time. Like, I've got Otis Redding tattooed on my arm and it’s something that I love. When we started as a band, I was very angry. But I was also self-pitying, and cyclical with my drug and alcohol addiction and blamed everyone else. That's what happens, you know?
But I love where soul took me, so I'd always try and throw [it] in, but I wasn't ready for it vocally and psychologically. I wasn't ready for soul music and to do it properly…to write beautiful poetry I think you need to be immersed in it, not yourself. That sounds weird, but I wanted to write something beautiful. And that's how it sounded.
Another now-iconic American thing is Coachella, and you played there this year. Was it what you expected?
It was exactly as I expected, because I've been there as a punter with my [ex] girlfriend. In 2011 we went for a road trip, four weeks around California. We stopped off at Coachella because Kanye West was performing his My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which at the time, and is, one of the best albums ever. It was just when selfies had taken off. So there's a lot of people taking selfies, which was very bizarre to me at the time. This is how old I am!
European festivals are very different affairs. We like to get filthy and in the U.K., we expect mud and to not shower for five days. It's very debauched.It feels very good, but it doesn't look great. That's what I love about Glastonbury and Reading and all the festivals that I grew up on: you leave the mirror at the door and you go and you forget and let go and you enjoy the music and you embrace the people around you. And you learn something about what it is to be part of the universe with music and energy. Coachella is just a different kettle of fish. But playing it is amazing.
In 2011, the band had been together a couple years. Did you think 'someday I'll play here?'
I never had any expectations of playing anywhere. We were f—king terrible.
Well, lots of terrible people play Coachella.
Yeah, I know. I saw them! No, I didn't [think I’d ever play Coachella] at the time, I was too busy figuring out what we should sound like and how to improve. We were just writing and writing and writing because we knew we weren't there yet. We hadn't found our true voice.
I never knew what to expect from them from the North American market if I'm honest. A key to our success is that we haven't paid attention to our peers. We've kept our heads down and worked as hard as possible. And I've made sure I'm the hardest-working man in every room I've been in in terms of band and music.
America vs. the U.K. is definitely a thing when it comes to both press and success for a British band.
I won't speak for American press because I don't know it well enough. And since I've been being interviewed by North American journalists, it's been a period where I stopped reading because it doesn't help.
The thing about the U.K. is a very small island built on an empire that's like a network of problematic ideologies to make other people feel small. If it was a person, it would be a very short pigeon-chested, angry, balding man with pink skin, screaming at the sun. As an island, I think there's a very defensive nature that comes from our class system. It's both built, built on ideology and built on power struggles, and it's built on oppression. But it's all ideological. It's based in finance. But the reason it's sustained is with language and press.
Now with that, no matter what press, what the journalist is writing about, they're part of that. And as soon as you get to a certain place where you're successful — monetarily, popularity, anything like that — they want to squash you because they feel threatened or feel you don't deserve it, because you're not good enough. Because they think they know what good is and you don't.
To follow that, you had some criticism leveled at you in the U.K. about the ideas in the song "Model Village," and I read that you are no longer playing it live.
I was just offered a new perspective in a quite close-minded article, to be fair, they were wrong. But it made me question it.
They were wrong because the song was misread as what they were pissed off about, that wasn't what I was saying. But I realized, ‘oh, now's not the time to perform this song, because it is divisive, and it is aggressive in its tone.’ And there's a lot of disillusionment in our country based on class. And if people think I'm having a go at the working classes in that song, they're f—king stupid.
But yeah, I stopped that because of an article and I realized, you know, there's a line, I don't want I have to constantly defend a song that I know isn't what it is cut out to be. The only person whose fault that is, is mine. Obviously, my writing wasn't clear enough. And with that comes some real problematic ….
Thank you for clarifying. For me, there's nothing worse than being misconstrued. That said, I appreciate your take on not wanting to add to the burden of a misunderstanding.
I would never apologize for the song, nor would I delete it from the internet or take it off an album. I just don't want to perform it at the moment. It’s not a forever thing. I just think the conversation around the working classes in our country at the moment is a very disturbing one. And I don't want to add to that fire.
Let’s end with "The End," which ends Crawler. Lyrics include, "…act like a dick in spite of it all life is beautiful." Is that about you?
Sometimes. I mean, I'm up and down. I can be a real piece of work. And I struggled with addiction, and I've been graced with some beautiful people that helped me in recovery. And yeah, life is recovery now. So once you've got in the deep end, and you've nearly lost everything a few times you realize what's important, and you stay mindful of that and grateful and you just keep working on it.
I'm in a very wonderful place, and I feel very safe. I feel I'm part of something much bigger than myself, which is something I started the band for; I started the band to feel like I'm not alone. And I don't. And that's the only thing I can ask for, as an addict and someone who's got a lot of love to give, is that I feel safe and not alone to give.
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