J.oe Talbot, who normally uses his megaphone to stir or alarm, opens Idles’ latest album with a gentle chant and closes it with a comforting hum. This time, he not only acts as a force of nature, but also as an educational tool, and that’s no coincidence. Between the release of the band’s latest album, 2021 top ten hit Crawler, and the new one, titled Tangk, he and lead musician Mark Bowen both became fathers. “When you become a parent, you are responsible for this very vulnerable thing,” Talbot said. “Suddenly you’re responsible for someone else’s well-being and it softens you.” It makes you think more. You become more attentive to your language, more attentive to everything.
Not that Talbot ever ignored his emotions or his motivations. In fact, he and Idles have staked a significant part of their reputation on being one of the most transparent bands in modern music, not to mention one of the most successful. Their previous four albums reached the UK top 10. One of them, Ultra Mono, reached the top spot. The ethos of candor that has guided them through it all is evident in everything from Talbot’s declarative manner of speaking to his willingness to air his personal struggles in the press in the face of the band’s brandishing political views. signs. “I can’t hide who I am,” Talbot said. “And I never felt the need to lie.”
Even, it seems, if that means tackling incredibly difficult topics in his lyrics and interviews. Over the years, Talbot openly dealt with the alcoholism and untimely death of his mother, the stillbirth of his first child, as well as his own heartbreaking struggles with drug addiction. This time, however, he set a limit to his frankness. Before the new album, he and his wife separated. But when asked if that had any effect on his new lyrics, a wall came down. “You absolutely don’t understand this,” he said. “These are people who are not involved in the group, so it’s not fair to include them.”
Talbot was less reluctant, although unwilling, to talk about the new relationship he found, a change that inspired some dizzying lyrics on the new album. “I live in a very beautiful place,” he said. “And I’m very grateful.”
In case you didn’t understand, he titled one song from the album Grateful and another Grace. Together, they serve as emotional pillars for the affectionate tone of the entire album. (During our conversation, Talbot used the word “love” no fewer than 18 times). All of this is not meant to portray the new album as soft or gooey. Along the way, there’s a lot of old fury and aggression, and the love that Talbot speaks of is by no means simplistic. “People might think they understand what a love song is,” he said. “But these songs are my version of love, which in the past was very dark and broken. I learned to explore these emotions, which is why I can be vulnerable on this record.
It’s also partly why his approach to his voice has broadened. “I no longer need to hide behind violence,” he said. “I can be melancholic, melancholic, or flaky and not consider it indulgent. For example, when Nina Simone was the most delicate, there was still a flash of lightning behind her.
These aren’t the only changes made to the new album. For the first time, Idles worked with a major producer, Nigel Godrich, perhaps best known for his long association with Radiohead. “I’ve wanted to do a Nigel Godrich-produced album since I was 13 and heard OK Computer,” said Mark Bowen who, along with Talbot, spoke for the interview from the band’s cramped rehearsal studio in London.
Still, the prospect of actually working with the A-list producer really intimidated them. “We had a lot of respect for music that we considered to be the upper echelon, what we thought was unattainable for us,” Bowen said. “A Radiohead album, or a Portishead album, is for geniuses! There needs to be something we don’t need to create something like that. What we’ve learned is that it’s not that hard to achieve if you work at it. We learned that there are no geniuses.
Bowen, who has always participated in the band’s production, worked alongside Godrich to refine a variety of new textures in the songs. (The album’s title, Tangk, is meant to be an onomatopoeia about the music’s impact). “It was a lot like going to school,” Bowen said. “I learned a lot about tape loops and how it uses distortion, reverb and delay. It’s so old school, and yet it feels new.
At the same time, the album champions the principle of subverting expectations that has served as the band’s mantra since their debut in 2017. Titled Brutalism, the album was a musical hand grenade, filled with jagged riffs, deadly rhythms and Talbot’s voice. who dealt the final blow. “We were very interested in the violence of art,” Talbot said. “Violence in a brushstroke, in a font, in anything. We saw the currency there.
They also saw a use in it, namely to counter the predominant voices in Britain at the time. “We wanted to use our violence to stop violence in advertising, in popular media and in journalism, to create an oppositional debate,” Talbot said.
The topics the group wrestled with along the way ranged from white privilege and Brexit to immigration and class, with a special boost reserved for the crueler aspects of traditional masculinity. In fact, since Henry Rollins’ early work, no band has used hyper-masculine sounds and images primarily as a means to combat those very things. Perhaps inevitably, all of this has provoked a backlash, with musicians like Jason Williamson of Sleaford Mods and members of Fat White Family publicly questioning Talbot’s sincerity and depth on the topics he discusses. “This is aimed at me because I’m a big mouth,” Talbot said.
But the result affected the group as a whole, leading some to attempt to categorize Idles as a political group. When asked what he thought of that description, Talbot initially responded bluntly, “no comment.” However, a beat later, he began a commentary that lasted a full 10 minutes. “People want to own us and tell us who we are,” he said vehemently. “I have always wanted to write about empathy and communion as tools to fight against the fascist government we are under. I don’t see this as political. I consider this humane. I despise our government. I fucking hate them! I hate every lie that comes out of their fucking horrible mouths. And I hope they are crushed in the next general election.”
Although Bowen had a more tempered response, it was nonetheless resolute. “Our political dynamics are so integral to who we are as a people that the notion that something is not politics is anathema to us,” he said. “It’s a big part of who we are.”
An equal part is about the intention behind their protest. Although the new album’s lyrics place more emphasis on love and support amid calls for change, Talbot insists those emotions have been at the heart of his message all along. “I always came with compassion, with introspection and love,” he said. “And I always talked about being grateful.”
The difference this time is that his tone reflects these feelings more often. The song Pop Pop Pop embodies change. His words take up a term that has recently gained popularity in the press: “Freudenfreude”. Essentially, the term means to enjoy someone else’s success, as opposed to the classic word “schadenfreude”, which means to delight in someone else’s suffering. “‘Schadenfreude’ is such a pathetic thing,” Talbot said. “There’s a lot of that in the British press and in British culture. It’s in the class system and I hate it. Right now, many people feel unsafe and unheard, which turns them into very sadistic and mean people. You give them something like the Internet, the tabloid press and the major newspapers and they can turn into vindictive egos in the attack.
Another song on the album meant to counter the cruelty of culture has a title that was clearly chosen long before a recent, high-profile pop culture story broke. Titled Hall & Oates, the song means celebrating the power of friendship. “My ex and I used to joke that when you make love for the first time, the next morning it’s like the birds are singing and Hall & Oates is playing,” Talbot said. “I like the idea that friendship is the same as making love.”
The bitter trials between Daryl Hall and John Oates have now made them anything but models for this sentiment. But for Bowen and Talbot, the public’s shocked reaction to the news only proves how used the duo was to negotiating such things. “They broke the magic,” Talbot said. “And it’s true that they should do it. They are two human beings who should separate if they want to.
In contrast, the members of Idles have never felt more in sync or motivated. In just over six years, they have recorded five major works and toured furiously, with a planned tour set to engulf most of this year with dates spanning multiple continents. There is a reason for their persistence. “You’re a little worried that if you leave, you won’t be able to get it back,” Bowen said. “You have to keep working.”
The fruits of that labor were clearly present in their minds the day we spoke, excited by the interview setting. “When we started writing songs in this room, we dreamed about it,” Bowen said.
While the results have made Talbot more grateful than ever, there is something underlying them. “Gratitude is understanding your privilege and rewarding it with hard work,” he said. “But for us, working hard doesn’t mean writing the same shit every day. It means transgressing and getting uncomfortable creatively in order to create something that is hopefully even more brilliant.