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Idles: ‘It’s not supposed to be a perpetual party. Unfortunately it has had negative consequences for us’

Mark Bowen on helping frontman Joe Talbot face his demons, changing tack on new album Tangk, and Bob Vylan’s scathing criticism of the band


At home in Belfast, Mark Bowen is enjoying a rare moment of calm. It has been a frantic month for Idles, the British-Irish alternative group acclaimed for their ferocious postpunk sound and searingly honest lyrics. The guitarist and his bandmates are just back from a tour of the United States, where they debuted their new single, Gift Horse, on Jimmy Fallon’s late-night talkshow. Next comes their remarkable new album, Tangk, coproduced by the Radiohead wingman Nigel Godrich.

“I’m a massive, massive Radiohead fan,” says Bowen. He was sceptical about collaborating with a producer who had a hand in classics such as OK Computer and Kid A and is widely considered the unofficial “sixth member” of Radiohead. “Initially, I didn’t want to work with him. Where we’ve gotten to now, being self-producing, we’re kind of exploring things and not relying too much on established producers. I was a little concerned.”

Ultimately, though, he wasn’t so concerned that he was going to turn down the chance to work with Radiohead’s in-house producer (who joined their regular studio foil, Kenny Beats). “I’m a massive Nigel Godrich fan. I knew what he was going to do was going to be incredible.”

Still, there was that initial ambivalence. The feeling was mutual. Godrich wasn’t particularly familiar with Idles – he’d never listened to Brutalism, their debut, from 2017, and a project inspired by their singer Joe Talbot’s fight for sobriety. So when the group told him they wanted to try something new, he was on board. He had no emotional attachment to their music to begin with.

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“He came in and he was, like, ‘Why do you want me here?’ It was about us challenging ourselves, pushing ourselves. Nigel got that right away. He didn’t allow us to be comfortable at any point. He kept challenging us, wouldn’t let us to go back to writing raucous rock songs. He was very much, like, ‘This [switching direction] is what you intended to do – I’m going to force you to do it.’”

Tangk is a departure for Idles. They are best known for sledging riffs and vocals delivered with fury and zeal. That sound has brought considerable acclaim – their album Joy as an Act of Resistance, from 2018, was nominated for the Mercury Prize. With the new LP they take a more subtle approach. Songs have a gentler quality: Pop Pop Pop, for instance, glides on shuffling hip-hop beats while, on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, Gift Horse was a masterclass in menace and restraint.

The theme of Tangk is love – but in a sense that goes beyond romantic connection. Love has lots of potential meanings. It could be a parent’s love for their son or daughter (Bowen and his wife welcomed a second child last year). Or it could refer to the comradeship between bandmates – something Idles have had to think about as they have worked to help Talbot stay on the straight and narrow. Their determination to support their singer extended to instituting a “no alcohol” rule on a tour of the US last year. It benefited the entire party, though the ultimate motivation was helping Talbot keep his demons at bay.

Talbot has always been frank about those struggles. “I’m a recovering alcoholic,” he said in 2018. “I don’t think I could ever do a sober gig. I need at least a pint before a show,” he said later that year about his state of mind before cleaning up. Sobriety has been an ongoing journey, and the rest of Idles have done their best to be there for him.

Talbot needs a no-booze rule “to survive touring and to avoid his addictions”, says Bowen. “His issues around that are that when you’re in a band, there’s access to everything, all the time. If you take away the initial kind of loss of inhibition that comes from those few beers you can have backstage, then it helps that process. Having been someone who shares a hotel room with Joe most of our career, it’s useful for my sleep and my sanity for him to be in a sober state as well. There’s a bit of self-preservation in that.”

Alcohol has caused problems for Idles in the past. With clear heads, they’re in a better position to stay focused.

“That’s one of the big issues with touring: access to alcohol. It’s the spawn of everyone’s troubles – even tensions and relationships within the band. You spend your life travelling to different towns. You’re the most exciting thing to happen in that town that night. Everyone around you, every one that is new and excited, they’re up for a party. And you’re, like, this is Wednesday night for me. It’s not supposed to be a perpetual party. That’s going to run out of steam. We’ve been there when it has run out of steam. And unfortunately it has had negative consequences for us.”

Idles have never shied away from politics. “The best way to scare a Tory is to read and get rich,” Talbot sang on Brutalism; Joy as an Act of Resistance tackled subjects such as Brexit and toxic masculinity. All of this was well intentioned. Nonetheless, they sometimes rubbed people the wrong way – including the Nottingham duo Sleaford Mods, who accused the Idles of “appropriating, to a certain degree, a working-class voice”.

They took these and other comments on board. Talbot told The Irish Times in 2021, “A lot of the criticism and a lot of the actual attacks – whether it was well-thought-out or not – was my fault. I put us in a position with my tone and sometimes my lyrics in which we were misunderstood.”

Nonetheless, flak has continued to come their way. Last November, on stage in Dublin, they were condemned by the London punk/hip-hop duo Bob Vylan, who accused Idles of failing to live up to their political ideals with regard to Palestine. Ironically, Bob Vylan lumped Idles in with Sleaford Mods, Bowen and company’s old frenemies, who had walked off at a show in Madrid when someone threw a Palestine flag at their feet.

“It’s a cowardly f**king thing,” Bob Vylan’s singer (confusingly named Bobby Vylan) said from the stage at Whelan’s. “So f**k Idles, f**k Sleaford Mods and f**k every single one of those f**king apolitical bands that don’t want to f**king speak up when there’s something a little bit iffy, a little bit touchy, a little bit sensitive [because they’ve] got a f**king bullshit album to sell.”

Bowen takes a moment to consider his response.

“My question around that is: when have we not? We have always been pro-Palestine,” says Bowen. “We have always been speaking about Palestine and the genocide that is currently occurring there. Two things I say to that. Does he want us to go on social media and post stuff? It seems a bit crass to be sharing videos from someone else while promoting your album. We don’t shy away from it. We do talk about it regularly and have done so whenever we are performing shows. At the time we weren’t performing shows or doing any interviews. We were at home. And so it’s, like, Do you want us to..? So whatever, I don’t care about that.”

The other problem is social media, according to Bowen. It drives apart people who should be natural allies.

Idles are “clearly on the same side as Bob Vylan on many, many, many subjects. What happens is people on the left, as we are, and I’m assuming Bob is ... one of the issues that we had is that everyone keeps fighting amongst ourselves. We’re not the enemy. Bob’s not the enemy of us. He’s on the same side as us. Full power, full support to him. Great that he’s speaking out on those issues. Fantastic. I don’t give a f**k whether he’s doing more or less than anyone else. We’re all on the same team.”

Such infighting ultimately only serves the right, he feels. Virtue signalling, leftist hypocrisy, champagne socialism – all are constructs of the enemy.

“Concepts such as ‘virtue signalling’ ... All that stuff has been created by the opposite side; it’s created by right-wing people. The idea of virtue signalling is to make the left and people who are concerned about compassion ... be worried ... ‘Well, you can’t speak on that because of X, Y and Z.’ All I’m saying is: let’s be nice, let’s love each other, let’s look after the oppressed, and let’s look after everyone. I’m very cynical about that. I think social media has been used very, very cleverly by the hegemony and right-wing to make everyone ... shit themselves.”

Bowen met Talbot when they were studying in Bristol, where they founded Idles. But he and his wife are both from Belfast, and two years ago they decided to move back. Because Idles are an established band, they have the luxury of not having to live in one another’s pockets. Bowen is also excited to be back at a time when Irish music is booming.

“Sprints are great,” he says, referring to the tuneful Dublin indie band. “There is definitely a big thing happening in Ireland. There has always been a great heritage of Irish music in the rock and pop space. The UK, especially, has always taken it relatively seriously. I think it’s become more so in recent times. What I enjoy is the Irishness of it all. It all starts with [the Dublin postpunks] Gilla Band. They made something that was completely new. When you listen to the first album, I don’t think I’ve heard a band that sounds like this before. They’ve spawned the idea that you don’t need to rely on UK or American culture to inform our culture. We’ve got such a strong heritage in music that we can spontaneously create stuff that is informed by ourselves.”

He also cites Fontaines DC, who were up for the Mercury alongside Idles in 2019.

“Obviously, the wild success of Fontaines has opened the door for a lot of people. They’re pulling everyone in, which is fantastic. And then – a very different kind of music – you’ve got Lankum and John Francis Flynn, who are taking Irish traditional music, Irish folk music, and are pushing the boundaries of what that means. John Francis Flynn’s album from last year [Look Over the Wall See the Sky] is one of my favourites. It’s got the experimentalism with regards to folk of things like The Gloaming or even elements of Sunn O))) or experimental electronic bands. But there’s a real sense of humour to what he does which feels very “us”. I identify with it.”

Tangk is released by Partisan Records