Idles frontman Joe Talbot: ‘A lot of the criticism of us was my fault’

The British-Irish bank have been mocked as preachy punks, but they’re ready to move on

Idles are more than just a rock band. Diving kicking and screaming into topics such as toxic masculinity, the lunacy of Brexit and the rise of the far right, the British-Irish punk quintet wear their forthright politics on their sleeves. They are viscerally engaged with the madness of modern life.

That mixture of articulate outrage and scorched earth honesty – often conveyed via jack-hammer guitars and throat-shredding vocals – has made them one of the most acclaimed groups of their generation. It has also painted a target on the forehead of singer Joe Talbot. As adored as they are, Idles and their searing sincerity has rubbed certain people the wrong way.

“A lot of the criticism and a lot of the actual attacks – whether it was well-thought-out or not – was my fault,” says Talbot (37). “I put us in a position with my tone and sometimes my lyrics in which we were misunderstood. Or understood and plain disagreed with.”

Talbot is talking over Zoom from Arizona, where the Idles tour bus is en route to a gig at the 1,500-capacity Marquee Theatre in suburban Phoenix. Seated alongside is Belfast-born guitarist Mark Bowen, a qualified dentist who swapped the mouth mirror for the effects pedal.

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The topic of discussion is the group’s fourth album Crawler, released on November 12th. And yet it it is difficult to talk about the record without touching on controversies that, to their puzzlement and dismay, have dogged Idles across the past several years.

“Feud” is too strong a word for the brouhaha in which Idles have become embroiled. For one thing, feuds require the slanging to rain down from both sides. In the case of the 2 v 1 “beef” between cult indie bands Fat White Family, Sleaford Mods and Idles, the vitriol has flowed almost exclusively in one direction.

“Idles are symptomatic of a general cultural malaise,” Fat White Family’s Lias Saoudi told The Irish Times in April 2019. “I really resent art that purports to be about saving humanity. Art is always about the artist saving himself. As far as I’m concerned, if you can’t see a little bit of dirt on the artist’s soul in what they are doing ... I feel I am being lied to a little.”

Sleaford Mods’ Jason Williamson had gone in even harder on Talbot and his bandmates. In the rock’n’roll equivalent of a Roy Keane tackle, he essentially accused Idles of cosplaying their working-class credentials.

“It turns out they’re not working class,” Williamson told the Guardian in February 2019. “That offended me, because I then held the belief that they were appropriating, to a certain degree, a working-class voice … Music can’t solve political problems. And I think their take on it is cliched, patronising, insulting and mediocre. And that’s why I have a problem with them.”

Straight-up bullying

Idles mention neither Sleaford Mods nor Fat White Family by name during their call from Arizona. Instead, they explain that, during the pandemic, they stepped back and reflected on the swipes taken at them. I tell Talbot that some of the name-calling to which he, in particular, was subjected was simply straight-up bullying. He doesn’t necessarily see it like that.

“Whatever it is, the tone of it, it doesn’t matter,” he says. “Some of the things that were said about us were true. We weren’t willing to listen. and that’s what we’ve got to take away from it. There’s no point on dwelling on other people’s anger. What we can do is move on.”

He concedes, however, that criticism of Idles occasionally went beyond fair comment and strayed into nastiness. “The nature of the internet dislocates people from accountability and allows them a somewhat dangerous soapbox sometimes,” he says.

Talbot isn’t grumbling, though. He feels the media noise forced Idles to change for the better. “It only helped us this time. I’ve got no complaints about what has happened and how it’s happened. I’m very grateful we are out in the world travelling with our best friends, working hard, playing the songs we love with, in our view, the most fluent album yet. And our best album.”

The criticism that Idles seem to have taken on board in particular is the idea they are an “issues” band. They have certainly put their politics out there, whether that be in regard to toxic masculinity (Slow Savage) or resurgent British nationalism (Great).

There is some of that on Crawler. The New Sensation lampoons British chancellor Rishi Sunak’s suggestion during the pandemic that artists should consider a different career. In general, however, the lyrics have steered towards the diaristic.

The focus is no longer the class war in Britain or the state of modern masculinity. Rather than looking outward Talbot has pivoted towards the personal. He sings about the death of his mother (he was her carer after she suffered a stroke), his years of drug and alcohol addiction and the loss in childbirth of his daughter.

“Within the first 10 seconds of listening to Crawler you can tell this is a new band,” says Bowen. “There’s been a rebirth, a renaissance.”

Symphony of drills

If that makes Crawler sound like Idles’ upbeat record, rest assured that is not the case. With slamming guitar and a rhythm section that goes off like a symphony of drills, the five-piece continue to raise a tumult. The difference is that now that onslaught is paired with lyrics that delve into the specifics of Talbot’s life.

“I can see my spinal cord rip high,” he intones on opening track MTT 420 RR. The horrific imagery draws from an incident in which Talbot crashed a car while high (nearly hitting the motorbike after which the song is named). Later, he confronts his troubled relationship with his mother, an alcoholic whose drinking drove him into using substances at age 12. And about the stillbirth of his daughter, Agatha, in 2017 (he and his wife today have an 18-month-old baby girl).

“The pandemic allowed me the time to use the introspection and to hold myself to account for where I was and the mistakes I’d made,” he says. “I’ve also forgiven myself moving forward. Part of my process in the band is being open. But it’s important for me as an artist to challenge my medium. I’m fit as a butcher’s dog [psychologically] and that’s because I’ve been working on it.”

Crawler is a record that contains multitudes. There are glimmerings of krautrock in the dystopian throb of MTT 420 RR and of old-school student disco indie in the Pixies-do-Joy Division When the Lights Come On. Talbot even conjures the soul crooner within on The Beachland Ballroom, a Valentine to grass-roots touring named after a favourite Cleveland venue.

That is in telling contrast to last year’s Ultra Mono, a somewhat one-note LP that sounded like Idles pastiching Idles and which, after an initial splash (it topped the UK charts and peaked at No 3 in Ireland) vanished without a trace. It was not nominated for any awards – where its 2019 predecessor, Joy as an Act of Resistance was shortlisted for the Mercury Music Prize – and failed to make very many end-of-year lists.

“With Ultra Mono we had decided to create this caricature of the band,” says Bowen. “We played up to the identity of Idles. We hammed up to an extent what Idles songs were. That was intentional. That was so we wouldn’t go back there.”

Preachy punks

The idea was essentially to double-down on the caricature of Idles as preachy punks. This they achieved with issue-heavy tracks such as Mr Motivator, a hymn to the power of protest, and Model Village, an on-the-nose evisceration of English provincialism.

“The songs on Ultra Mono are a bit of a defensive response to [the attacks]. We weren’t in a great place. It was a kind of a ‘nah-nah-nah-nah’. It’s quite obnoxious. That’s kind of the point,” says Bowen.

“Crawler avoids all that. There were lots of valuable lessons learned in the writing of Ultra Mono. Crawler is kind of a rebirth. It rejects everything Idles was. Idles is dead … long live Idles. That’s the purpose behind Crawler.”

One peculiar aspect of the Sleaford Mods v Idles rumpus has been its intersection with the English obsession with class. One of the criticisms of Talbot was that because he is from a middle-class background (his mother worked for Inland Revenue in Exeter) he somehow shouldn’t talk about working -class issues. This is largely incomprehensible to Irish people and Mark Bowen reports he was as baffled as the rest of us.

“It’s something I’ve always enjoyed when being around English people,” he says. “Whenever you’re Irish, they can’t quite place you. Are you working class? Are you middle class? What’s going on here? Who is this Irish person? The English are obsessed with it. You’ve just got to let them scrap about it themselves.”

Crawler is released on November 12th. Idles play Vicar Street, Dublin, on January 24th, 25th and 26th