Courtesy of Partisan Records

IDLES on Vulnerability, Toxic Masculinity & Opening a Dialogue With the Other Side

Simultaneously blowing up and offering something vital and relevant to say about the fraught times we’re in is a rare feat, but no record in 2018 has delivered more affecting commentary on The Stuff That Matters—and done so in jubilantly rocking fashion—than IDLES' Joy as an Act of Resistance. Released a month ago, the five-piece Bristol punk band's second album is fiercely principled—setting machismo, nativism, xenophobia, and general selfishness and cruelty squarely in its crosshairs—but it also extends a hand and offers to lend an ear to those on the other side. 

At the moment, IDLES are taking their sweaty, visceral performance of punk empathy down the west coast, in the home stretch of a North American tour that offers nightly proof of the upward trajectory the band is on in this part of the world, having already grabbed their homeland by its throat with their blistering 2017 debut Brutalism. They’re packing houses in increasingly larger venues: in Brooklyn alone, they’ve gone from playing to a modest crowd of 250 at Rough Trade six months ago to 550 at Music Hall of Williamsburg in late September, and when they return next May, it will be at the 1800-capacity barn Brooklyn Steel. They even briefly interrupted their U.S. run to fly home for two days to appear on the BBC’s legendary Later…with Jools Holland, a “boyhood dream” for the band. So yes, times are good for IDLES, but their manifesto is even better. 

“I think we’re in a really positive and grateful place right now,” says lead singer (and the band's principal philosopher) Joe Talbot. “Gratitude is something I’m feeling all the time.” I’m sitting with the singer and his guitarist, the mustachioed human dynamo Mark Bowen, in the basement bar of Music Hall, a few hours before their set, and they’re both remarking on the reception IDLES have gotten in America, particularly since Joy as an Act of Resistance. “I think one element is that we don’t really have any expectations of what it’s gonna be,” says Bowen. “So coming over to the States for a tour, we’re not hoping that this is going to happen, or that’s going to happen. But I think that one of the amazing things that’s happened with this tour is the enthusiasm that people have for what we’re doing in the show. I think people have a hunger for the kind of community and the kind of joyful aspect of the show.” Why that hunger among Americans? “I think over here there’s a lot more people that are like, ‘I’m fucking bored of being told to be happy,’” offers Talbot. “‘I’m bored of being shown this perfect window of a world that doesn't fucking exist.’ They’re like hungry for realism, or just a celebration of imperfection!” 

“There’s an exuberance here,” adds Bowen, “which makes our enthusiasm on stage even more ignited, you know?” That much is fully evident a few hours later. Joined on stage by bassist Adam Devonshire, guitarist Lee Kiernan and drummer Jon Beavis, Talbot spits impassioned lyrics and punches the air like a boxer. Bowen is constantly on the move, hamming it up and strutting like a rooster, and the crowd rages on the Music Hall’s floor, singing along unabashedly with Talbot: “My mother works 15 hours 5 days a week,” from Brutalism’s “Mother,” the ardently feminist standout informed by the death of Talbot’s mom; “Concrete!” “And leather!”, a call-and-response from “Never Fight a Man with a Perm," the Joy track Talbot wrote about his “shame” over the more violent chapters of his youth; and an exultant “Yeah yeah yeah!” chant from the celebration of immigration that is “Danny Nedelko.”  So, they know the words – but do IDLES fans sign on to the sentiment? 

This is a proudly socialist band. “Socialism, to me, is about compassion,” says Bowen. Talbot salutes Britain’s National Health Service every night with “Divide and Conquer,” and the Joy album operates from a place of vulnerability and generosity of spirit -- but the music is still plenty aggressive. Is the message ever lost on those in the crowd – young males, specifically – who’d rather just wild out? “Actually our room is the perfect place for someone like that,” explains Bowen. “Because they’re in a room full of people who want to share that compassion. They want to share the values that we’re expressing. So if someone’s there and they’re raging and their testosterone is fueled and there’s machismo flying out of them, at some point the message that is in the crowd, and the feel that is in that room is gonna get through.” In fact, adds Talbot, IDLES actually want those kind of guys at their shows. “Guys who are fucking oi punk and punching each other in the face, because they’ll see the people around them. Also if we see people that feel uncomfortable, we always ask if the crowd are okay, but by the end, those guys see the lack of machismo on stage, and they see us kiss each other, and the see the compassion in the room as well as the passion. And it’s amalgamated recently into a space a lot more safe than we could have hoped for.” 

And there we are. Talbot’s willingness to engage with the other side, to not merely condemn and ostracize and dismiss. It’s a credo he’s talked about numerous times this year. He’s fond of recounting the fable of the sun and the wind, who make a bet over who can get a man to take off his jacket first. Guess who wins? Moral: persuasive warmth is more effective than forceful assault. “We’d be fucking hypocrites if we said we don’t want those guys at our shows, because that’s the whole point,” the singer insists. “We’re trying to open up a conversation. If we’re having a conversation with the same fucking people that agree with us all the time, nothing is gonna change. Because it’s like a circle jerk of liberals fucking helping each other out. What we need is to spread a compassionate mood, where people that may well disagree listen to each other. It’s important that we don’t just keep preaching to the choir. Like I want – what do you call them here? – Republicans – to disagree with us, and come to our shows, and have conversations.”  

The fight-or-engage debate is one that’s divided the left. For many of us, we’re fresh out of solicitousness. We’re at the end of our rope, done playing nice, and it’s give-no-quarter time. I explain to Talbot and Bowen that my brother and I—both big lefties like them—disagree on the question. He is more inclined to hear out our opponents, me not so much, and I posit that may be because he’s straight and I’m gay. “Firstly, I completely understand that,” Talbot replies. “One of the issues I have is that I am a straight white male from the middle classes. So it’s fucking easy for me to say, ‘C’mon guys, let’s all just get along!’ And it’s like, ‘Yeah, you’re not a black lesbian, who’s fucking got it from all ends.’ And I understand that. But my reflections on mindfulness, and the way that I have improved, is by listening more, and by being more vulnerable and open. I think that the best argument that I can give is that at the moment, a lot of the sectarian and hateful thinking comes from both sides. Brexit wouldn’t have occurred if people from the left hadn’t been attacking the right. Trump might not have got in because the right might not have felt so isolated and ignored, because the left is always, ‘Oh you’re just fucking hicks,’ or whatever.”

Within the many themes on Joy as an Act of Resistance, two stand gloriously out: immigration and toxic masculinity. Of the latter, just as Talbot proudly and loudly declared himself a feminist and decried sexual violence on Brutalism, here he takes on what it means to be male. “Don’t cry! Man up! Pipe down!” he shouts on “Samaritans.” No U.K. band since the late, great Wild Beasts has quite so determinedly taken on destructive, indoctrinated notions of masculinity and the toll they take on boys, girls, men and women. “Grow some balls!” Talbot wails in the video, over vintage Mad Men-era footage of boys and men doing what boys and men are “supposed” to do – working out, competing and, of course, fighting. As bombs drops and troops run into battle in the final frames, the singer confrontationally declares, “I kissed a boy and I liked it!” Katy Perry it’s not.  

On the record’s spiky, two-part opener “Colossus,” which has a harrowing video of its own, IDLES upend icons of machismo Evel Knievel, Stone Cold Steve Austin, and the father-son dynamic. Profoundly inspired by author Grayson Perry’s The Descent of Man, at the end of the day, Bowen and Talbot contend that young men need to “let go,” for themselves and for others. “You know, there’s a reason why 95 per cent of violent crime is committed by men in Britain,” says Talbot. “There’s a reason why the biggest killer of men under 45 in the country is suicide—because it’s not natural to not hug, or to show compassion, or to cry. It’s unnatural. It’s inhumane. I mean we are fucking animals, and hugging and kissing and crying, they’re all natural things that we want to do and that we feel great from.”

Meanwhile, Emma Lazarus has to be smiling somewhere over two tracks. On “Great”—directly inspired by Brexit—Talbot at once excoriates “leave” voters, singing “Islam didn’t eat your hamster / Change isn’t a crime,” spells out the song’s title in an exhilarating chorus, and finishes with a pointed reminder: “We’re all in this together.” And then there’s “Danny Nedelko” the LP’s most immediately infectious track, named after Talbot’s real-life friend, a musician and émigré who also stars in the track’s irresistible video. “My blood brother is an immigrant/ A beautiful immigrant,” Talbot sings, as Nedelko goofily dances and pals around with strangers of all colors, shapes and sizes. It’s unassuming, innocent and genuinely heart-tugging. “He was born in Ukraine and he is now a British citizen, and I just linked the idea of using him as an example of why our country’s so great, that he’s been allowed to stay, get his citizenship, and make Bristol a brighter place,” Talbot explains. “And the reason he makes it a brighter place is that he’s unadulterated in his enthusiasm for life. He’s a very enlightening, lovely, vulnerable person. I wanted to be more naïve on the record. I wanted to write about immigration through the eyes of a child, like, ‘He’s my friend, and I love him. Why can’t he stay here?’ That is the exact thing people should be reminded of when they talk about politics, is don’t forget when we talking about groups and blah blah blah—they’re human beings. They cry, and they feel pain, and they feel love. And if you forget that and you dehumanize, the world falls to shit. Danny Nedelko is the perfect example of a human being. And he’s why I love the idea of opening the fucking gates—sensibly, not just to everyone that wants to come to our country, because it’s unrealistic, and not pragmatic—but being open-minded and reminding yourself it doesn’t matter where they’re from, they’re a human being, they deserve equal opportunity. If they don’t, then they’re not as human as you, and that’s fucking bullshit.” 

“Fear leads to panic/ Panic leads to pain/ Pain leads to anger/ Anger leads to hate,” the song declares. If that’s all a little too direct for you—and despite wide acclaim, there have been a handful of writers taking Talbot to task for simplistic sloganeering—I say, desperate times call for directness. And besides, subtlety and detachment wasn’t the point—openness was. “That underpins the album,” says Bowen. “One of the key aspects of the record is laid out plain and bold in the title. So often everyone who is creating a work of art has an instinct to 'play it cool' and try and avoid joyous, happy clichés, that exuberance. Because if you make yourself very vulnerable, you expose yourself to open critique. But that’s what underpins the album – that loss of inhibition.” While earnest vulnerability in certain circles of music is the equivalent of wearing a “Kick Me” sign, IDLES’ new approach has by and large been positively received. “We knew we’d get chewed up,” says Talbot. “But we haven’t been, because people are like, ‘You know what? Fuck it! That is what we need.’ And it’s not preaching. We’re not preaching in any way. What we are doing is laying ourselves bare. This is a reflection on a period in our lives where I needed to become a better person, so I’m just reflecting on the things that I learnt.”

One event more than any other precipitated Talbot’s reset on life, which included giving up alcohol for a period. In June of 2017, he and his partner’s first daughter, Agatha, was stillborn. The trauma of the loss of a child – arguably the toughest blow human existence has to offer – could have broken him and his relationship. But it did neither, and two songs on Joy as an Act of Resistance speak directly to Agatha, “June,” which the band doesn’t play live, and “Television,” a plea to young women not to succumb to commercially proscribed ideas of “beauty.” “I wrote this for my daughter,” he says when intro-ing the song live. “It’s about loving yourself.” 

Talbot would surely make a hell of a dad—though he’s the first to tell you he’s far from perfect. “I don’t want to come across as though I’m trying to be the next Messiah. I am a scumbag! So it’s like I’d better be honest about it.” So honest that he wrote a song about it – Joy’s rollicking “I’m Scum,” in which he brands himself all kinds of words. “Everything in that song is something that I’ve been called. I’ve been called a chav, I’ve been called a snowflake, I’ve been called a soft, lefty cunt, or whatever. I mean someone even dropped the n-bomb on me once, and Dev [band mate Adam Devonshire]! And so that’s me saying, 'Yep, call me what you want. I’m still here.' It’s like that end scene of 8 Mile, of 'Yeah, what else you got?' So it’s just a celebration of all the things people have called me, 'I am a soft lefty, I am a scumbag!'" [laughs] 

In addition to their not-to-be-missed live show, the lefties brought one more manifestation of Joy as an Act of Resistance to Brooklyn with them – an art exhibition showing pieces inspired by each of the songs on the record and featured in the deluxe edition of the vinyl LP. Early, unfinished versions of the tracks were sent out to artistically inclined friends (including Talbot’s dad), who created graphic works, collages, photographs and sculptures that serve as one end of a “dialogue” with IDLES. “The idea of an exhibition and giving our songs to different artists, that’s my idea, but it’s something I got from my father,” the singer explains. “That working class mentality of, if you’re getting paid and people are putting more money into your pocket, you should give back more. With the amount of hours that you’re getting paid – we’re getting two grand an hour. You know, there’s a reason for that, and it’s not just because you’re more famous. That’s bullshit. It’s a lie. That’s not who we are. We’re not interested in gratification. We’re interested in an exchange. Our art and our music is a dialogue, so people give us something and we give them something back.” After one more exhibition in Paris, the Joy artwork will be auctioned off with proceeds going to Samaritans, the U.K. charity providing support to at-risk individuals. 

Along with their friends from Kent, Slaves, and those fine gents from South London, Shame, IDLES figure among a new and inspiring breed of English punk bands that lead with kindness and empathy while sacrificing nothing in terms of ferocity. How we need them now, and how tempting it is to see them in the lineage of great British progressives like Gang Of Four, Manic Street Preachers, Easterhouse and Paul Weller and believe that British punk finally has its socio-political mojo back. But IDLES insist they’re not a “political band,” with Talbot telling The Guardian in June, “I’m not the next fucking Billy Bragg.” He tells me, “I don’t think I’m necessarily ‘right.’ I don’t think that my way is the best way. I just know that I have to do it this way. I’m not here to win a debate. I am here to start a conversation. And I do think that there is a reason for violence working in certain parts of history. The left can’t be passive forever, that’s a fact. I’m not gonna sit there and watch you getting beat up by a homophobe. I will get a bat out, and I’ll fucking cop him. I’ve got no problems with that, because I’m protecting someone I know. But that’s like, last resort shit. What I’m saying is that the reason that Brexit and the Trump Administration have occurred is because of ‘fuck you’ attitudes from both sides.”

Finally, he adds, those conversations have to be two-way streets. “You can invite a staunch Republican into the conversation,” says Talbot. “But if they’re not willing to listen, they need to leave. You can only offer vulnerability, but if they take that vulnerability and they harm you, or harm others or they’re not willing to listen, then it’s not an exchange. It’s not a conversation. That’s just you getting beat. It’s about learning from each other, not an outright open-arm thing where we’re gonna keep getting punished. But the only way change starts is the initiation of a vulnerable exchange.”


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