Idles singer Joe Talbot: ‘Conor McGregor is an inspiration. There’s a severe vulnerability to him’
Joe Talbot on teaming up with Jamie Cullum, working wih heroes and living in this angry age
Idles: ‘A sense of isolation and disillusionment and anger has been brewing across everyone’s psyche’
Idles singer Joe Talbot is psyched about the imminent release of their third album. Ultra Mono features prescient lyrics that will be lapped up by their intensely loyal fanbase, who have already secured every ticket going for their two-night stand in Vicar Street next May.
Ultra Mono also features an unusual cast of eye-catching guests, including Warren Ellis, violinist extraordinaire with Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds and The Dirty Three; Jehnny Beth of Savages; Jesus Lizard singer David Yow; and, most surprisingly of all, jazz-pop singer, pianist and radio presenter Jamie Cullum.
“We didn’t at any point think that we needed piano during the process, but when Jamie offered his services we couldn’t turn him down,” Talbot says of the unlikely collaboration. “He’s amazing and works really hard for what he loves, and I’m a big fan of his radio show.
“The rest was all happenstance after we recorded the album. Warren Ellis turned up at the studio and surprised us. I was telling Jehnny Beth about a song called Ne Touche Pas Moi. She laughed and told me it was incorrect French. I asked her to jump on the chorus to add more depth to it and present a female perspective on the subject of personal space.”
What would Joe’s younger self have thought about working with such an illustrious cast?
“Everyone dreams of working with their heroes,” he answers. “I’ve always had a plan with our manager and we’ve always stuck to it. If you stick to your plan and you work hard at it, it can come into fruition. We kept our head down as a band to work for those things and we were lucky enough and in a privileged position. It’s a beautiful thing you’ve got to appreciate and embrace when it happens.”
Idles rose to prominence on the back of the success of their second album, Joy as an Act of Resistance (2018), following the release of their acclaimed and promising debut, Brutalism (2017), even though they’ve been a going concern since forming in Bristol in 2009. Their career trajectory wasn’t as spectacularly swift as their friends and label mates Fontaines DC.
“Our exponential growth as a band was very slow so we’ve had time to learn and embrace it,” says Talbot. “Fontaines were thrust into touring with less time to get used to it. For us, we had many years of slowly and incrementally building.”
Idles won acclaim for their honesty and willingness to tackle the difficult issues of depression, toxic masculinity, immigration, class and the death of Talbot’s stillborn daughter. “Brutalism and Joy as an Act of Resistance were all about the time we were in and how we were surviving,” says Talbot. “I used the lyrics as a means for existential growth, being mindful and as a form of therapy. We live healthily, and I’ve been sober for over a year now. All sorts of positive things have come from the progress of therapy.”
Talbot pauses when asked if he feels happier after getting these three albums out of his system.
“I’m not one to lie in interviews, so no. And that’s not down to Covid or not down to the band. In the context of therapy and exponential growth, I’m in a much more peaceful and self-aware place, which has allowed me time to grow out of turmoil. On a day when I’m not feeling great, it’s very hard to say I’m happier, but I’m definitely much more grounded than I was before.
“Music has been a huge part of my progress and the process of getting a message out there. I’m using music as a form of catharsis. Any criticism that used to get me now tends to wash over me more. Not always, but mostly.”
Idles have garnered a formidable live reputation. “We’ve been a hard-working band for the entirety of our existence,” Talbot says. “To put it in context, we did our last shows in London and Bristol in December and we scheduled three months off. We were going to start touring again in March, so we knew we needed a break after 192 shows that year and 197 the year before.
“We didn’t need that break after all because of lockdown, but hindsight is a beautiful thing. When isolation started, we realigned our unit and used quarantine to our benefit to maintain a connection with our audience and progress as artists. We took time off, but I kept on doing Q&As and DJing. It’s also given me an opportunity to spend more time with my daughter, which is a beautiful thing. We’re extremely grateful.”
For the benefit of the rest of us who think it’s only rock’n’roll, what is such intensive touring actually like? “I can only speak from my perspective,” says Talbot. “Everyone is different, but I know people who shouldn’t tour, full stop. There’s been times in my life when I shouldn’t have toured, and I didn’t at times. Now we love touring because we’ve slowly learnt how to do it properly.”
On recent single Mr Motivator, Talbot presents a series of hilarious vignettes in the lyrics, shoehorning Conor McGregor, Delia Smith, Tracey Emin and The Fall into one song.
“They’re all pieces of me,” he states. “I’m a huge Tracey Emin fan. She is one of the best artists of our generation. Conor McGregor is an inspiration. He says a lot of things that I don’t necessarily agree with, but in terms of his work ethic and his reaction to defeat is one of my favourite things about him in terms of his character and as an athlete. I love his fighting style and I’m a huge boxing fan. I appreciate him as an athlete and I love his transparency. There is a severe vulnerability to him. His bravado is entertaining.”
Talbot enjoys this magpie approach. “I’m a huge hip-hop fan so I use popular culture references in my lyrics,” he says. “People can relate to it on different levels. It can also piss people off, which I like. People think that references to popular culture cheapens the art, but high culture and low culture is like the class system in that it’s just bullshit. I wanted to end that debate with my own declaration of love for what I do and how we do it.”
Hip-hop inspired Ultra Mono both lyrically and sonically. “About six songs into this album, I wanted it to be more distilled,” he says. “I was overthinking and wanting to please and all those other things that are detrimental to creative thinking. I decided not to write any more songs conventionally and I wrote the rest of the album in the vocal booth.
“This way of working made me grab pockets of thought out of my head. Kill Them with Kindness was written around that specific theme. I knew A Hymn was going to be a new religious vibe and talk about consumerism. I didn’t necessarily know what I was going to say, but I knew what I was going to talk about.”
As these islands teeter towards an increasingly turbulent Brexit, Talbot sees the tumult of modern times as the product of a perfect storm.
“A sense of isolation and disillusionment and anger has been brewing across everyone’s psyche,” he says. “Not just mine, or the middle classes, or the British or the Irish. The meta-narratives have been stewing and becoming more and more chaotic, and that creates more fear and leads to more and more reactionary behaviour and mass populism. It’s terrifying because the masses tend to make very, very rash and detrimental decisions.”
Ultimately, Talbot hopes their music offers a balm for uncertain times.
“The message of Idles is that you are not alone. This is what I’m doing to survive and progress, not ‘You should do this, that or the other.’ We allow people to see us on an open platform and to feel that they’re safe and loved for their differences. I’m extremely grateful to the audience for allowing us to carry on what we’ve been doing, and I’m very grateful for being here.”
Ultra Mono is out this Friday. Idles play Vicar Street, Dublin, next May 16th and 17th