Nobody expected IDLES to do as well as they have. Their debut 'Brutalism' kicked in the door for a whole wave of post-punk inspired bands, whilst follow-up 'Joy as an Act of Resistance' proved they had the staying power that so many fast-rising, much-hyped bands didn't. But with the element of surprise gone and a global pandemic preventing the band from connecting with their fans in a live capacity, how do IDLES make the same impact as they have before, without falling back on tried and tested methods?
'Ultra Mono' is their attempt to answer that question, whilst still remaining true to their fans and themselves. As we catch up with the singer Joe Talbot and guitarist Mark Bowen (mercifully not wearing his stage uniform of 'just his pants') in a Shoreditch conference room on the hottest day of the entire year, they're reflective about the chain of events that led to a headline slot at Ally Pally.
"Sold that out in half a day, bosh," says Joe, cracking open a can of water (water comes in cans in Shoreditch, apparently). "That was the crowning glory of two very intense years. 190 shows in 2018 and 197 in 2019 – a pretty brutal schedule, and one that didn't leave us much time for writing. So even though we started 'Ultra Mono' as a concept as soon as we finished the last album, life got in the way pretty quickly. I'd say it probably took us about two months to write, all in.
"I'm always trying to be as transparent as possible," he continues, referencing the fact that they're in a very different position as a band to where they were a couple of years ago. "My writing is always about not only our circumstances but also where I am personally at this point. So yeah, if my situation changes, my writing changes. Always the same subject, which is a kind of existential awareness and progression in conflict with circumstance and trauma as a political platform – being aware of your surroundings, being aware of how you fit into the world and how you can progress to be as you as possible.
"With that in mind, 'Ultra Mono' was written at the time when we were reacting against people's reactions. 'Joy' was almost overly self-aware of where we were and where we'd come from, and this was about the battle between being too self-aware and being true to what you actually feel. So that's where the conflict started, but eventually, we came out of it with a sense of purpose and achievement."
"I think sonically these songs fit with where we're playing live now," Bowen adds. "I don't think the new album would necessarily work that well in a small room, but it does, or it should, work well in larger venues where you can make these huge walls of noise without losing everything. We had the option of either becoming U2 with these big wide guitars, or pulling everything in and trying to make it as chaotic and caustic as possible," he grins. "You can guess which one we went for, probably even without hearing the album."
"The violence of tone that we've always gone for needs to be even more impactive and concise in a bigger room," says Joe. "We're trying to create less noise, but more volume. We also have to be more concise lyrically to protect our message. It's easy to think that the bigger the venue the less you have to worry about being considered, but we've found the opposite, to be honest. It was always at the back of our mind that this album absolutely has to sound good in venues with a few thousand people in them, rather than a pub with 25 people there."
Despite planning the album around a completely different live experience than they have before, and despite a lot of pre-album hype about how hip-hop influenced 'Ultra Mono' would be, the end result is still very clearly a collection of IDLES songs. There are no synths or expansive detours into parts unknown, a choice Joe and Bowen acknowledge as a necessary restriction which keeps them grounded, rather than something which chafes.
"It's a conflict we have, definitely," Joe says, quickly adding: "Not for our audience's sake, for our sake. There is never a conversation where we say 'oh we can't write this because our audience won't like it', but everything we do has to be within the lines we've drawn around the theme of the album. So everything about this album stems from the title – ultra mono, the momentary acceptance of the self, I am I. We decided the best way to capture that was to write every song around a single part, with every element of the song fitting, elevating and driving that part. It's a continuation of how strict we are as a band, because the five of us are so different that without these boundaries we'd lose direction pretty quickly.
"Having said that, the album initially started from us thinking about our purpose and relevance to our audience, which isn't a healthy place to be. The more you consider your audience, the less honest and the more contrived you're being. The hardest thing with this album was learning to unthink and unconsider, and that takes practice... and a lot of bad songs along the way."
"I think the other thread we were conscious of was that we wanted this album to sit in the contemporary pantheon in a way that the previous two maybe don't," adds Bowen, leaning forward in his chair. "I want you to listen to a Billie Eilish track, then an IDLES song comes on, and it feels smooth, like they're from the same era. If you do that with Billie Eilish and a track from 'Joy', I don't feel like our track sounds as impactful, as current. So there was definitely a conscious decision to take lessons from people like her. Kanye's 'Yeezus' was also a big driver, not necessarily in the sound itself but in seeing what that album does and how it does it, then doing it ourselves, but with guitars.
"'Ultra Mono' has subverted the idea that we're a nostalgic band far more successfully than our other albums have. I would say 'Grounds' is a hip-hop song, I would say 'Reigns' is an electro or techno song, but both have rock instrumentation – if nothing else, we're pushing ourselves to not stagnate, to not stand still. We also didn't have the time to rehearse like we used to, what with me and Joe both having children, which contributes to the album sounding very momentary.
"A lot of Joe's lyrics were written in the studio, and a lot of the songs were written a couple of days before we recorded them. That means when you're listening to the album, that's the first time any of us in the band are hearing it in its entirety – and that's important for us. The album says something honest and of the moment. That also ties into us sticking with guitars. There's something 'visceral', to use that horrible word," he says, pulling a face. "Something visceral about physically playing an instrument that synthesizers just lack for me."
"It's just part of our language," explains Joe. "The challenge isn't guitars, it's how you use them. It's just like a paintbrush, look at the difference between Pollock and Caravaggio – that's how I feel about guitars, the possibilities are endless. The limitations that we set ourselves make us flourish, so the challenge excites me more than anything else. If we remove those limitations then we'll just be kids in a candy shop with no idea where to start, and in the end, we'll just make ourselves sick. Plus we want there to be a specific IDLES sound, so even if Bowen and I decided to make a synth album, we're sure as fuck not doing it as IDLES, because that wouldn't make any sense."
The IDLES sound isn't just about which instruments the band play, though. A large part of their identity as a band hinges on their openly social and political ideals, something which continues to be the case on the new album. "I would say we're more aligned as a band than ever," says Bowen. "Because we live in each other's pockets and we've had so much time to discuss things amongst ourselves, we've really evolved together, both politically and socially."
Joe nods in agreement whilst chewing a free biscuit and trying not to get crumbs all over the table. "We've always been left-wing, obviously. I'll be voting Labour until the ideals I love have any political clout, because they're the most closely aligned people to my views that have any chance of getting into a position where they can make real change. But having said that, we aren't a party-political band, we're a group of humanists. It's all about the human condition from the perspective of empathy, which is the antithesis of right-wing politics. From that perspective, we're trying to normalize politics as the culmination of individual choices that you make.
"There's a reason why people in certain contexts are angry and scared and lean towards right-wing politics, because they're given lies as answers to how to change their circumstances and told who they can blame. So we're just trying to open the conversation from the other end, from a human perspective with empathy and compassion. We want to show that it isn't black and white, and people on both sides saying 'eurgh, you're stupid' doesn't help, because the human condition is very fluid. Setting binaries of good and evil just means people don't want to be on the wrong side, so they align themselves with what others around them are doing to feel comfortable.
"I've made loads of mistakes and been an absolutely horrible cunt in the past, and if life was a binary, I'd still be that person. But instead, I've had the opportunity to explore how to sustain a sense of sanity and joy, to create a safe place to feel different, which is a deeply political act. I'd do the Steve Coogan thing and get out there for Labour if they asked, but I am absolutely not going to put it in our songs, because that's not what we're about as a band.
"I think that can be seen at our shows, as well. As we've grown as a band the crowds have become more aware of the people around them, as well as more mixed in terms of gender, race, everything really. I like to think people are more conscientious than they were in the past and have more respect for each other. There's still loads of room to improve obviously, but I think that's true of any group of people, it becomes a living mass of its own.
"Our show at Alexandra Palace was the first time we've had more than a handful of complaints, specifically about men at the show." He says, referencing the criticism the band faced after reports of a less than caring crowd in places. "So our response was to go and write a song about it ('Ne Touche Pas Moi'), because it isn't acceptable, and we don't want anyone at our shows to think it is. But no matter how good we get at this kind of thing, a crowd is a living organism and can create chaos very easily. One person can trip on a bag and fall into someone else, and suddenly there's a whole lot of pushing and shoving going on. We're the masters of the ceremony so we need to be as on it as we can be, but I do think our track record is pretty good.
He pauses, finding the right words. "As a band, we like showing compassion and allowing people to feel safe and look after each other, but we're going to do that through empathy, rather than beating the shit out of someone for stepping out of line." He flashes a smile and adds: "I'd say that sums us up pretty well."
Taken from the October issue of Dork. IDLES' album 'Ultra Mono' is out now.
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