COVER STORY | IDLES Remain In Light and In Love

Joe Talbot and Mark Bowen talk using lighting brilliance to create drama and violence, working with LCD Soundsystem, nourishing confidence into a muscle and their brand new album, TANGK.

Music Features IDLES
COVER STORY | IDLES Remain In Light and In Love

The origins of the fifth and latest album from IDLES can be traced back to last autumn when, at London’s Village Underground in October, a room full of concert-goers gathered to catch a set from an unknown band called Tangk. In the days leading up to it, IDLES were spotted in photos wearing merch brandishing the name of this obscure group, which the internet’s finest gumshoes were able to decode as a ruse drawn-up by the Bristol noiseniks. They played 19 songs, stretching the entire IDLES catalog and debuting two new tracks—“Gratitude” and “Dancer”—for the first time live, ushering in TANGK, a watershed moment for Joe Talbot, Mark Bowen, Adam Devonshire, Lee Kiernan and Jon Beavis named after an onomatopoeia the band coined themselves.

That London gig was space for IDLES to get a first impression of how the new material will fare in live environments. But it wasn’t all copacetic for the five-piece. “It’s tough, hard playing new songs,” Bowen explains, as he and Talbot report from the Partisan Records label office across the pond. “I think we over-egged our capabilities at that point, on playing the new ones. We were putting pressure on ourselves, but that was good. It’s a new beginning, especially for our live show. We feel like we’re in a new era of IDLES. One way of doing that was to represent it as something completely different. We’ve learned valuable lessons and, now, we’re ready for our tour coming up.”

Talbot wasn’t a fan of his performance, uneasy about having to telegraph TANGK songs on a whim for the first time. “I don’t like thinking on stage, because thinking when you’re performing is one of two things—no, three things, really: It’s either a distraction, an insecurity or a problem to solve, technically,” he says. “And any one of those things distracts you from being in the moment. There was a fucking smorgasbord of those three, and I didn’t enjoy it.” But that doesn’t mean the audience didn’t meet the band with the same kind of enthusiasm as always, though. “The crowd was beautiful as always, of course,” Talbot continues.

If you are familiar with IDLES’ work then you are familiar with how, for the last seven years, they have remained, consistently, one of the toughest rock outfits in the world. Their brand of punk is built to test the limits of contemporary chaos, as they’ve interrogated politics on a spectrum ranging from rebuking the Brexit referendum to combatting homophobia. But in-between those convictions exists mass intervals of necessary reflections on addiction, grievances and parenthood. For the last near-decade, IDLES have often grown angry and soft in small batches, led by Talbot’s guttural voice that ruptures like a labyrinth of unrest. On TANGK, he and the band perform an exodus on chaos by setting the gentleness beneath it righteously aglow, turning that anger and softness into a container of hard-fought benevolence.

TANGK marks the first IDLES album since 2021, when they unveiled CRAWLER to much critical-acclaim. It was a thematic deviation from their usual bread-and-butter, as Talbot zeroed in on better-understanding how addiction and fame intersect with small moments of rebirth and offered a Screamin’ Jay Hawkins-influenced swarm of anxiety (“The Beachland Ballroom”), cautionary tales (“Meds”) and punk rock smotherings (“Crawl!”); left-hooks at the chins of performative revolutionaries (“Stockholm Syndrome”) and ego death (“King Snake”). TANGK, on the other hand, tackles freedom and redemption (“Gift Horse”), lovesick prayer (“Grace”) and death softened into joy (“Gratitude”). The album oscillates through textures, putting Bowen and Kiernan’s guitars on pedestals without downplaying the entire band’s collective swagger. A song like “Roy” is, possibly, one of IDLES’ boldest moments yet, as Talbot and co. revel in restraint, sing lovingly about surrender and exorcising self-doubt and dive head-first into a treasure-trove of explosiveness during the song’s cornerstone final act.

The catalyzing idea was that, going into TANGK, IDLES wanted to craft an album that would make people dance and feel the love that we all crave in our lives. Grooves aren’t strangers in the band’s catalog, though. To tap into an album like Joy As An Act of Resistance or Ultra Mono is to let your body writhe to the talismanic hypnosis of songs like “I’m Scum” or “Mr. Motivator.” On TANGK, the itch crops up again on “Dancer” and “Hall & Oates,” but lines like “Collide us as we work it out” and “This snowflake’s an avalanche” don’t evoke separate vibrancies. Even on the latter, when the core harmony is something born out of affection and interpersonal vulnerability, Talbot’s lyrics are a result of the music IDLES makes. The motive is the energy between five people, the token of dancing is not a picture-perfect vision of bodies speaking in tongues in a mosh pit. No, it’s a matter of self-exploration into the vast, infinite riches of love and its graceful, tremendous fixtures of communal spirituality, personal healing and lifelong recovery. Talbot says the word “love” 29 times on the album; even at TANGK’s heaviest, it’s a cache of freudenfreude—or, “joy on joy.” “All is love and love is all,” he chants on “Gift Horse.”; “No god, no king,” Talbot sings later on “Grace.” “I said love is the thing.”

“I was thinking more about the rhythm. Bowen and I were very infatuated with the relationship of groove and pocket and purpose behind beats—and that’s something that I’m always thinking about. The difference between ‘I’m Scum’ and ‘Hall & Oates’ is huge, in terms of the groove,” Talbot explains. “Playing ‘Hall & Oates’ live—and the space that’s created from that beat and instrumentation—is massive. We played it the other night in Paris and we manifested something that we thought of at the start. The same with ‘Gift Horse’—we were concerned with the beat, because that is the lifeblood; rhythm is the thing that connects everyone. Melody and harmony are obviously as important, but that creates a landscape. What the beat does is it creates the marching band that takes you across that landscape. I wanted to get this physical urge from our audience to move and to unthink, like we do on-stage, because that’s what love is. Love is a purpose, and it’s a very infectious and beautiful energy when you allow it in. And, if you can create a fucking heartbeat behind that, then I think you’ve got people by the ankles.”

On CRAWLER, Kenny Beats’ presence was crucial, especially when it came to the band harnessing the intensity of playing in the pocket and orchestrating a colorful chemistry between Beavis’ kick, bass and snare—and how those elements fit together with Bowen and Kiernan’s guitar parts. On TANGK, there was an even greater emphasis on fleshing out the different iterations of each song’s push-and-pull flow, how the attack of tone, rhythm and lyrics can be violent yet give people purpose. “A movement moves and we wanted to create a movement—not a political one, a musical one and an IDLES one. Not a scene. And we did that,” Talbot says. IDLES went sideways for TANGK, determined to create a swing that gestures toward a subtle, collective metamorphosis while urging listeners to not charge forward but to embrace each other—all through the universal resonance of dance.

“Music is a very dexterous tool, and that’s where we’re at,” Talbot continues. “You can’t just keep doing the same things, because you just get bored and the bored are boring. What we want to do is challenge ourselves and create different ways of making people feel the same thing, which is a connection to where you are in that moment. And you can do that in those different ways, so we’re just challenging ourselves and trying new shit. Also, disco is fucking sick.”

Could IDLES have made TANGK seven years ago? Probably not. As Talbot puts it, every album the band makes is a “now album.” They had to make Joy As An Act of Resistance and they had to make Brutalism—and the band pushed themselves to the limits every single time. “Queens”—the opening song from their 2015 EP Meat—was IDLES’ “Big Bang Moment,” where they were experimenting with their sound in a really intentional, formative way. “Bristol was a beautiful place to allow us to make all these mistakes and give us time to do stuff,” Talbot adds. “But it wasn’t until we found that march—that fucking move forward, that violence—that we realized that that’s what gave us our purpose as a collection of five people.

What connects Talbot, Bowen, Beavis, Devonshire and Kiernan together is purpose, and they look for that in their contemporaries, too. “There’s bands that just come about and we all just, immediately, are inspired by their purpose, their drive—the fact that they can create something so new and insular and idiosyncratic, that we’re just completely elevated by that music together,” Talbot notes. “That’s the OHSEES, Gilla Band, Protomartyr. No one can replicate that, and that’s what we’re interested in. And that’s what happened with Meat, we were like ‘Fuck, that’s our thing.’ And that’s why we all suddenly got out of bed in the morning and knew there were 2,000 songs we needed to write.”

I hold a song like “The Beachland Ballroom” close not just because I grew up near Cleveland—and the Beachland Ballroom remains my favorite venue in the world—but because that song, in 2021, felt like the biggest risk IDLES had ever taken as a band, and that Talbot had taken as a vocalist. He did the same on “Car Crash,” too, another CRAWLER cut that evokes affliction tapered by well-timed humor and intimate singing tempered with cataclysmic, nervous sludge; addiction’s center and those on their knees praying and surviving through it. On TANGK, Talbot returns to that place of nuance, vocally, on songs like “A Gospel” and “Grace,” evoking the same kind of warmth he outlined six years ago on “June.”

“The difference between then and now is that, whenever we tried to make music like that before [CRAWLER], it always felt and sounded like we were wearing other people’s hats—that it was inappropriate for us to make that music at that time,” Bowen says. “We hadn’t found our voice within it. I think what we needed to do was have such a firm sense of our identity as artists with the previous albums, that then allowed us to be confident stepping into a different zone and being confident in the fact that it will come across as IDLES rather than come across as us trying to rehash something that has already been created—or come across, even if we’re trying to make something new, like ‘Oh, they’re trying, but it’s not quite working.’”

“The Beachland Ballroom” and “Car Crash” were big moments for IDLES that really instilled in the band that they can do, really, whatever the hell they want. “We can create whatever the fuck we want and it’ll always be IDLES,” Bowen adds. “The big difference on TANGK, from a creative dialogue perspective, is not once did we ask, ‘Is this us?’ We never went, ‘Is this IDLES?’ And we would always do that before. We’d always be like, ‘Eh, this is good, but it’s not really us.’ Whereas now, we’re like, ‘Yeah, it is us and it’s always going to be us. It doesn’t matter, because Mark Bowen, Joe Talbot, Lee Kiernan, Adam Devonshire and Jon Beavis are creating it.’ There is something about the way John hits the snare and those little micro-moments, those things that create pocket. No one can play drums like him. No one can play bass like Dev. No one can play guitar like Lee, and no one can play guitar like me. No one can sing like Joe.” Talbot leans in towards the webcam, takes a pause, smiles. “To be fair, loads of people can sing like me,” he says. “But they can’t pull off these sunglasses.”

CRAWLER was always going to be a shift in IDLES’ career, because the band wrote the album remotely during COVID. The first song Bowen sent to Talbot was “Progress,” and it put Talbot on his ass. “I couldn’t get my head around it, but I love it so much,” he says. “Bowen is a lot more confident than I am, because he’s more accomplished as a musician and, also, he’s just not a fucking fragile little bean. But there’s this thing where you get threatened by something that’s so good and you don’t know what to do with it. You go ‘This is sick, just keep hold of it. It will work, we’ve just gotta get there.’” And get there IDLES did. They took to Paris to record TANGK with only 17 30-second parts with three instruments maximum on them in the chamber. Everything felt like IDLES, everything had potential. That’s where producers Nigel Godrich and Kenny Beats came in, to facilitate the band’s brilliance from fragments to 40 minutes of shared language.

“That’s one of the best things about this album, having those two producers—because we were in a place, creatively, that was probably the most difficult we’ve had, in regards to our differences,” Bowen explains. “I was doggedly pushing experimentation and oddness and all the things that I’ve reduced as we’ve gone on as a band, but I’ve wanted to go back to it. Producers can come in and they just serve the band and they can be like, ‘Whatever the guys want, that’s what they get.’ What Kenny and what Nigel had was they remembered the conversations we had early on—where we were talking about our intentions—and they always served the intention rather than serving us. They didn’t give a fuck whether we were uncomfortable. They didn’t give a fuck whether we were stropping on each other.” “Kenny would be like, ‘Joe, I’ve just heard you do the singing there. You’re better than this shit. Just fucking do it. This is you!’” Talbot adds. “And Nigel would be like, ‘What are you fucking talking about, guys?’ They were like coaches and cheerleaders.”

While Kenny Beats has made a living working with artists like Freddie Gibbs, Vince Staples, Rico Nasty, and Denzel Curry, he’s been with IDLES since Ultra Mono. And his propensity for hip-hop and tape loop distortion is ever-present on a TANGK song like “Pop Pop Pop,” as Talbot ditches the punk snarl for a jungle delivery that doesn’t rely on huge riffs. Rather, the track builds through programming, crackling backbeats and industrial negative space. It’s IDLES tackling trip-hop and letting the song live like a seance on their own sonic history. Godrich has had a hand in producing, engineering and mixing some of the most formative, transcendent and monolithic rock records of the last 30 years, including Radiohead’s OK Computer, Pavement’s Terror Twilight and Beck’s Sea Change. He’s selective about what projects he takes nowadays, only having worked on four albums since 2020—which speaks largely, I’d argue, to just how momentous an album like TANGK might become over the next five, 10 years. You can hear his influence from the first moment the needle drops on “IDEA 01,” as piano loops and sparse drums conjure some serious Radiohead allusions.

And IDLES put Godrich through their IDLES-shaped ringer, too, with their longtime process of sketching out a song’s tone and lyrics in realtime at the studio—a spontaneous, emotive string of gestures that, on the surface, might flirt with chaos more than precision, but it is widely the opposite. The result is, quite possibly, the best project Godrich has worked on since A Moon Shaped Pool—and a collaborative partnership not unlike that of Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood rests right in the center of it, in the symbiosis of light and dark shared by Talbot and Bowen.

Talbot points to his and Bowen’s approaches to art—and how what they both look for in art is quite contrasting—as crucial representation of their opposite vocabularies and complexities. Bowen’s favorite painting is David Alfaro Siqueiros’ Collective Suicide, while Talbot enjoys the work of Rauschenberg. “[Collective Suicide], to me, is chaotic and it’s grotesque. It’s messy and ugly, but Bowen loves it,” Talbot says. “This grotesque brilliance that’s so subversive and pushes you to places where you have to empathize with a monster. [Rauschenberg] is very collagy, putting things in and placing them on the thing. It’s very human, sticking things on. There’s a physicality to it and it’s bolshy and brilliant in its own way but very different.”

It’s a dynamic that speaks, largely, to how IDLES operates. Talbot likes things to be simple and laid out in front of him, and he prefers messages to be succinct and songs to have a sense of order in his brain. “CRAWLER was brilliant for that, [Bowen and I] really liked each other’s languages,” he continues. “But with [TANGK], we were like, ‘I want to make people dance.’ And Bowen was like ‘I want to make people dance, and oddly.’ And I’m like ‘What the fuck are we going to do?’ But we got there. Now we know that we need to spend hundreds of thousands of pounds on two genius producers.” “The only way we can make good albums these days is if we’re breastfed by two genius creators,” Bowen cuts in.

But Godrich and Kenny Beats’ presence in the studio was crucial in allowing IDLES to get to a place of confidence, though Talbot is hesitant to use that word specifically. “I think confidence is misconstrued sometimes,” he says. “What it is, confidence, is the balance of things and its purpose. But confidence comes from what we want, and we’ve set ourselves the cognitive tools in order to get any-fucking-where. We don’t know how to get there yet, but we’ve set ourselves a cognitive map, compass, whatever you want to say. And our fuel is passion, audience, producers.”

Lead single “Dancer” immediately introduced this iteration of IDLES to the rest of the world. They made it clear, immediately, that they want you to get up and fucking groove. As Talbot sings on the track, “I give myself to you, as long as you move on the floor.” To help spread that message of movement, IDLES enlisted LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy and Nancy Whang to sing the “collide us as we work it out” harmonies and fill out their rhapsodic post-punk murmur about a rapturous romance with a shouting into the darkness that generously echoes back. “We’re all massive LCD fans,” Bowen says. “Dev’s got ‘DFA’ tattooed on his wrist. ‘Tribulations’ was a big moment for me, moving to Bristol. I heard it at a club and I was like, ‘What the fuck?’”

Jon Harper, who played drums in IDLES from 2009 through 2011 and also had stints in bands like the Cooper Temple Clause and Cansei de Ser Sexy, taught Talbot, Bowen and Devonshire certain etiquettes to abide by while continuing on as a touring band. “He’d be like, ‘Always remember the sound engineer’s name, turn up on time—if not early—clean up after yourselves,’” Talbot says. “These things are set in us anyway, from our parents. But we went in with that work ethic, where we’re like, ‘We’re going to treat everyone with respect,’ because it doesn’t take the band to make the show, it takes the whole thing—including the audience—to make something happen.”

Talbot name-drops bands they have done arena support for, like Foo Fighters and Pearl Jam, and notes how everyone in those touring parties—from the bass player to the second systems tech—is on the same platform and is valued the same. “I went in with a sense of absolute respect for our audience knowing—as an audience member—the only reason I started the band is because I wanted to feel something as I did from certain bands, including LCD Soundsystem,” he continues. “The more we grow, the more we treat our business as an opportunity to change people’s fucking lives. And I mean that within the family and, obviously, outward.”

IDLES and LCD Soundsystem shared a bill on the Re:SET traveling musical festival last summer and, on one of their off days, went out for tacos and then decamped to the latter’s studio in New York City to lay down the vocals. “I wrote the harmony and the melody with LCD in mind—and the Pixies—with this loud falsetto, male front melody and then a lackluster harmony just behind that,” Talbot says. “And we were on top of that, so I was like, ‘Well, you can always just ask.’ This was quite early on in the tour, but we already had a sense that they were fucking incredible humans. Not just musically but as people, what we experienced with them on tour was their sense of identity, something that we admire so much and you see quite rarely in musicians. And the fact that they’re nice about everything, as well. They were like, ‘Absolutely, come to our studio.’” “They knew they were on the precipice of greatness,” Bowen adds. “It’s the best thing they’ve done.”

Talbot tells me a story about going to Reading years ago and daydreaming about a band of Queens of the Stone Age’s caliber turning up at a 500-cap room before the festival, similar to how the Strokes pulled the same move by performing as Venison in Camden in 2010. “I was like ‘Fuck, my God. Can you imagine being there?’” he says. “And I remember saying to my friend at the time—I wasn’t involved in music at all, I was only a fan—‘If I was in a band, I would do those things.’ Can you imagine? It would change your life forever. And now, we’re at a place where we can change people’s lives forever. And LCD have never forgotten that spirit. We’ve never forgotten that spirit. And long live the people that don’t, because it is such a beautiful feeling when you do. I think the only way a band and musician don’t do that is when there’s an insidious management machine that chews you up and turns you into something you weren’t when you started this.”

There’s a striking intentionality in the way Talbot approaches healing on IDLES albums. It’s all about documenting personal growth, and the narratives he charts come from his fascination with behavior and how it’s projected. Everything before CRAWLER was pragmatic and bemoaned infrastructures and the causality of society and how the human condition affects or is affected by that—because that’s how you begin setting a foundation for healing. IDLES’ first album, Brutalism, was a headstone dedicated to Talbot’s mother—who died in 2015, years after becoming paralyzed from a stroke. The record wove itself into a tapestry of grief, death and alcoholism into this all-consuming portrait of a maternal figure gone and her son left wading through the vacancies.

A year later, Talbot sang about another boundless loss on Joy as an Act of Resistance: his and his ex-wife’s first daughter, Agatha, who was stillborn. “I needed to start looking at what I do have instead of what I don’t,” Talbot tells me, succinctly, about the album’s motivations, which relished in finding glimmers in the wake of heartbreak and its tonal finality (resurrected in the Hemingway-conjuring line “baby shoes for sale, never worn”). Those two records mirrored each other, as IDLES laid their cards on the table and assumed a role of storytellers whose music never settled for the kind of surface-level one-dimensionality that punk music in the last 10, 15 years sometimes lapses into. It’s never been just about noise.

The last three IDLES albums—Ultra Mono, CRAWLER and TANGK—now arrive like a triptych of reclamation and healing. While Ultra Mono lambasted the critics who levied the band as practitioners of cliché, the emotional undercurrent of the project rested heavily on the intersection of capitalism, mental health and toxic masculinity under the guise of critiquing art for corporate gain—and IDLES turned themselves into caricatures to get their point across. It was then where Talbot began healing openly and outwardly in the world, a gesture that was met with resentment. “And I completely understand why,” he admits. “I was doing therapy, and therapy got to a point where I could start practicing what I’ve been told and learn [about] myself. The healing had already started, but there’s a lot of work to be done with self-healing. It can’t just be like ‘Hey, just appreciate what you have! There are people dying.’ Accountability, setting boundaries—they’re all pragmatic things that you need to set in place in order to see yourself truly.”

“Then, when you can see yourself truly, you can start openly talking about your traumas and your grievances. ‘I’m sorry that I fucking made you feel that way.’ ‘I’m sorry that I put you through that.’ ‘I’m sorry I put myself through that. I was alone, I was scared.’ ‘Hey, let’s move on,’” Talbot continues. “This is now why I think I’m so obsessed with poetry and storytelling—because I can. Without these very restrictive emotions or reactions to the things that are happening to me and happening because of me, I can see the causality and I can see my accountability. And now, I can just release and and write poetry freely without worrying about what some fucking silly prick with a keyboard things—or, what I’m scared of. I can just put it out there. I’m just ready to heal and, now, it’s about something else. It’s about building up connections with people and a future for my child.”

TANGK posits a worthwhile future, one built on love and on tenderness and one that has begun painting lines on the highway of wherever IDLES go next. “All is love” has been a mantra that has followed the band for six, seven years now, and they’ve finally made good on those three words five albums in. Talbot, Bowen, Beavis, Kiernan and Devonshire have embraced the vast malleability of affection, how it can be not just for ourselves but for those around us. On TANGK, tracks like “Jungle” and “Hall & Oates” mangle themselves in clever, menacing, hardcore-conjuring riffs and sopping wet, deep-bellied percussion. When Talbot lays himself on the line on a song like closer “A Gospel,” where his falsetto takes center stage, it changes the importance of their hard-nosed punk legacy now that their discography must contend with conversations that boast a wider multitude of vibrant, imaginative, multifaceted songs. Their anger has given way to love. Well, they’re still angry, as we all are, but the tougher, snarling moments become more precious by proxy—and IDLES employ the art of chiaroscuro, tonal contrasts in art, to make sense of that balance.

“Caravaggio’s depth—using black and white in a painting to create drama and violence—we’ve been attempting that and succeeding from the start but, obviously, your perspective widens as you make more music,” Talbot concludes. “When we made ‘Slow Savage’ on [Brutalism], we were like ‘This is the most mellow ballad we’ve ever had.’ And then, listening back [to me singing] ‘It was dark and cold!,’ I’m like, ‘Fuck me.’ I thought it was delicate, but it wasn’t. But that’s how you learn perspective. We were very delicate with [‘A Gospel’], that sincerity there came from a sense of respect. It’s always our intentions for depth and creating a narrative arc and now, live, our sets are going to be so much more brilliant—in the sense of lighting brilliance. Our darkest darks, like ‘War’ or ‘Car Crash,’ are going to be so much more impactful coming after songs like ‘A Gospel’ and ‘IDEA 01’—because that’s how you do it. That’s how you create dynamic. It’s like expecting people to respect your boundaries when you haven’t spoken of them. We’re creating these parameters for drama and art, and we’re fucking winning. Fuck the king.”

Matt Mitchell reports as Paste‘s music editor from their home in Columbus, Ohio.

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