“I’m not a fucking martyr.”
Joe Talbot, frontman of the Bristol-based post-punk band IDLES, isn’t interested in appointing himself a spokesperson of the people. The music that he and his band make—a tense and explosive form of protest delivered with both absurdist humor and deeply personal vulnerability—doesn’t exist to prop up political candidates. Which doesn’t mean that he’s not above taking the piss out of the political right; “The best way to scare a Tory is to read and get rich,” he chants on “Mother,” the standout single from the band’s debut album Brutalism.
For IDLES, the personal is very much political, and vice versa. The self-released Brutalism was a DIY success story, building up a cult fan-base through word of mouth and an accessible balance of aggressive music with wit and vulnerability. It’s an ass-kicker of a record, and one with its share of quotable one-liners—though some genuine grief lies at the heart of it. “Mother,” ostensibly a statement of feminism, was inspired by Talbot’s own mother, who died shortly before the album was released.
IDLES’ new album, Joy as an Act of Resistance., likewise catalyzes lived experiences into occasionally acerbic and often hilarious statements about the world around them. Talbot, guitarists Mark Bowen and Lee Kiernan, bassist Adam Devonshire, and drummer Jon Beavis sound like they’re having the time of their lives, even when taking bigots to task or opening up about heavier, more heartbreaking experiences. The album title itself is a good summary of what drives IDLES—they’re not moralizing, but helping to win people over to a more open-minded way of thinking through compassionate yet furious anthems, spiked with a potent dose of biting humor.
“I just have an interest in life,” Talbot says over the phone from the UK’s Bestival. “I love music and I love playing music, so I’m not going to not have fun doing it. Humor is a very inclusive vehicle to have a discussion about savage issues. I’m not trying to lecture people—I’m trying to open dialogues.”
“Humor is a very inclusive vehicle to have a discussion about savage issues. I’m not trying to lecture people—I’m trying to open dialogues.”
Joy as an Act of Resistance. is as good-natured and warm-hearted as heavy, aggressive music gets, its twelve tracks putting a clever and fun spin on topics ranging from toxic male behavior (“Samaritans”) to immigration (“Danny Nedelko”). And Talbot’s never afraid to let absurdity take over, as when he indulges in a bit of chest-puffery in “Colossus”—“I put homophobes in coffins…I’m like Evel Knievel, I break bones for my people”—or the parade of insults in “Never Fight a Man with a Perm”: “You look like a walking thyroid, you’re not a man you’re a gland, you’re one big neck with sausage hands.”
Just as with the making of Brutalism, however, the shadows of some much heavier life experiences hang heavy over Joy. Both Kiernan and Talbot have been open about their experiences with addiction, with Talbot himself having stopped drinking cold turkey at the beginning of 2018. And during the process of making the album, Talbot and his partner were preparing to be parents. Their daughter died during childbirth, and that anguish is echoed in the heartbreaking track “June”: “Baby shoes for sale / Never worn.”
In order to move forward as a band as well as to become the people that they wanted to be, IDLES needed to address their own personal struggles, whether that meant therapy or acknowledging their own addictive behaviors.
“We had to improve as people,” he says. “And when we improve as people we improve as artists. And when we improve as artists we improve as makers of the album. Joy is really, necessarily a political move as much as it is a spiritual one. That then improves the infrastructures of communities and societies. But it was more a matter of looking inward and enjoying what we had and learning to love ourselves.”
Talbot says that everything he sings about ties back to his own personal experiences, which makes the act of performing IDLES’ songs highly cathartic. And the band’s loud, violent music itself is, likewise, intensely cathartic. But what Talbot doesn’t want is for that to be confused with belligerence or hyper-masculinity. That’s yet another toxic societal norm that IDLES intend to take down.
“Part of this album is a resistance against the narrative of macho rock ’n’ roll and codpieces. There’s a real strength to vulnerability that can be passionate and violent, but also compassionate and beautiful.”
“I think that’s a misconception that our violent tone is an angry tone,” he says. “It’s a passionate tone. Violence is just a color that shades passion. We don’t want to change our own dialect and our own tone, because we love it so much. It gets people’s attention and there’s an immediacy to it that shows how much we love what we do and all we experience. The whole other part of this album is a resistance against machismo and the tired, archaic narrative of macho rock ’n’ roll and codpieces. There’s a real strength to vulnerability that can be passionate and violent, but also compassionate and beautiful.”
IDLES are a political band, but their politics seem to boil down to some pretty simple principles: 1) Self-improvement and 2) advocating to make life better for individuals in order to make life better for everyone. Which would explain why they’re not interested in getting wrapped up in campaigning or endorsing candidates. As Talbot puts it, empathy and compassion are ideas that shouldn’t be taken advantage of by people in power.
“The discourse of politics treats people like they’re stupid and tries to intellectualize grand schemes and says, ‘Don’t worry, vote for us, we’ll sort this,’” Talbot says. “And really, most massive issues in society come down to whether or not you want to treat people the way you want to be treated. It’s human welfare. It’s pretty basic. You’re only here once. You’ve got to do what you love with good intentions.” FL