“I know this is a cliché, but the moment my daughter was born, my perspective on the world completely changed. And a lot of that is just not giving a fuck what other people think.”
When we meet, Mark Bowen – who goes by his surname – is dressed like a scruffy 21st-century dandy. From Belfast, he’s a dentist by trade, but is perhaps better known for his side-hustle as a sprightly guitarist in the current UK breakthrough band: Bristol five piece, IDLES.
His bandmate, the very-tattooed and very-intense Welsh frontman, Joe Talbot, agrees with him: “You know when you’re pissed and then your mate starts vomiting? And you feel like you’ve sobered up because you’ve got this person to look after? It’s like that – you’ve got this person who you and your partner are completely responsible and accountable for.”
We’re discussing the significance of each of them recently becoming parents, while sitting outside a pub in Shoreditch (a half pint for Bowen, a non-alcoholic beer for Joe). Golden hour is setting in, and the sunlight is giving everything a glow that briefly makes it feel like we’re back in the Before Times, as the two bandmates bounce off of one another.
“I think a lot of mine and Joe’s back and forth is because we’re almost exactly the opposite person,” laughs Bowen.
IDLES’ third album, Ultra Mono, released on the 25th of September, showcases the band finally feeling comfortable to do what they want: “I think we questioned ourselves too much, worrying about what an IDLES song is ‘meant’ to sound like,” Talbot explains. “This album is us not doing that anymore.”
Formed in Bristol in 2009, IDLES’ first EP came out in 2012. Their growth from passable indie band to this current incarnation, inspired as much by hip-hop and techno as they are by rock (“being the band we wanted to hear”, as Joe puts it), has been slow and organic. Their debut album, 2017’s Brutalism, found acclaim, but it was their second LP, 2018’s Joy As An Act of Resistance, that saw them suddenly catapulted into the need-to-knows. They were on pretty much every end of year list, nominated for a BRIT and got the coveted nod on the Mercury Prize shortlist.
Sonically, Ultra Mono is a more expansive affair than any IDLES release so far – a vaster sound to match a vaster crowd, aided in part by post-production from rap producer du jour, Kenny Beats (who slid into the group’s DMs after watching their Tiny Desk). They also recently collaborated with Mike Skinner on the title track of the Streets’ latest tape, None Of Us Are Getting Out of This Life Alive. Though they consistently assert that they are “not a very cool band” throughout our time together, a casual onlooker might disagree.
Suffice it to say, all this makes them a prime target for typical music media backlash – the kind that would understandably make artists frustrated with what other people think of them. “I don’t think they’ve turned their backs on us as much as I thought they would, but it’s British culture, isn’t it?” says Talbot. “You get nominated for a Mercury and people want to slag you off.” But, as they’ve been explaining, they have bigger concerns now than whether or not they’re liked by what Joe calls “pseudo-intellectual rags”.
Sure, their bars can be a little clunky and earnest (“The first time I hear some of Joe’s lyrics I cringe,” Bowen laughs), but ultimately their simplicity is part of the appeal. “I think, for intellects, it’s quite uncomfortable to admit they like childish art forms,” says Joe, with a shrug, when we talk about why places like Pitchfork and the Quietus seem less taken with IDLES.
“Obviously, our music has a lot of subtext, but we’re trying to be as transparent and naive as possible, as an allowance for our audience to feel like they can be vulnerable themselves. For people to think, ‘Yeah, I’ve been through that,’ and to feel safe in being themselves.”
One of the most striking things about IDLES is this capacity for vulnerability. Their first two records were rooted in grief and addiction, with Brutalism coming after the death of Talbot’s mother, for whom he had been the primary carer during the last few years of her life. Follow-up Joy followed the birth of Joe and his partner’s stillborn daughter, Agatha.
There is catharsis to be found on these records. Again, talking about parenthood, Joe describes a release from the numbness he had previously sought via drugs and alcohol: “Suddenly I don’t want to not feel – because I’ve got someone who makes me feel amazing.”
Ultra Mono, then, is the album that finds IDLES in a healing space. Kind of.
With brash but meditative music and lyrics like “I wanna be loved, everybody does”, plus a nod to Daniel Johnston’s beautiful “True Love Will Find You in the End” on frenzied album closer “Danke”, to me everything about Ultra Mono reverberates with the stormy but transformative power of love. Joe is quick to make a distinction: “It’s not about externalising it and thinking about who loves you – it’s about understanding that insecurity of not having enough self-worth inside to feel like you’re enough.”
It comes back to that idea of not really caring what anyone else thinks anymore, and instead placing value in ourselves and our communities. That said, there is one question that can still make IDLES a little touchy: the idea of authenticity.
“Someone called us ‘false idols’,” says Bowen, “and I get that it’s an easy joke, but it kind of gets my back up. There’s a fucking whole plethora of things that you can slag us off for – slag us off for being overly-sentimental! – but the idea that we’re ‘false’? That doesn’t sit right with me.”
It’s hard, of course, not to be a little sceptical when a group of five white cis men are positioned as some kind of sociopolitical saviours. With traditional music press desperate for guitar music to mean something, IDLES have become poster boys for “vital”, “political” art, with tracks that unpick toxic masculinity, deride Tory privatisation of the NHS and immigration policy, and also dissect whiteness. At the same time, they have been called out for being middle-class, for potentially stoking the idea that British villages are rife with privilege, and for not explicitly backing the Labour Party in last year’s General Election.
I wonder aloud if there’s ever a worry that their politics and allyship might seem performative or cynical, and ask whether there’s a danger of taking up too much space in certain conversations. I reference a lyric on “Grounds” (“so I raise my pink fist and say ‘Black is beautiful’”), as well as Talbot giving an interview to Kerrang! about Black Lives Matter and the importance of Britain owning up to its history.
“I’m not virtue signalling, nor am I saying I’ve been through it,” says Joe, who is standing at this point. “It’s a bizarre place when you feel guilty for speaking your mind – it’s me saying, ‘This is what I’m about. What are you about?’ I’ve never said anything I don’t mean, so I’m not going to spend time worrying about it.”
Bowen jumps in: “I think it’s interesting how controversial compassion seems to be. Our instrument is a blunt tool, so unfortunately it can lack a bit of nuance – but that’s the whole fucking point. I think the internet has led us to this thing where everyone’s kind of tripping over themselves – and while, on the left, we’re all arguing about this, the people who are in solidarity with each other are the fucking fascists taking over the government and the media. It’s important to talk about, but I think people need to be a bit more forgiving.”
The internet isn’t all bad, though. IDLES have a fan community of over 30,000 people on Facebook – the AF Gang. It’s a forum for people to talk about the band, but also to share other music they like and, notably, discuss their personal highs and lows, celebrating good news and also disclosing struggles with mental health and addiction, offering one another virtual support.
In the group, ahead of this interview I’m inundated with messages from people who want to share just how much IDLES and this community means to them. There’s someone who met their partner through the AF Gang; a trans man who first felt comfortable socially transitioning among the IDLES fandom; a Black woman in Toronto who had previously felt isolated at rock shows, who tells me at length how welcomed she feels at their concerts; a white woman in Exeter who was alone shielding in lockdown for her 70th birthday, who says she received hundreds of messages from strangers in the group celebrating with her. Everyone emphasises to me how nurtured they feel within the IDLES fandom.
“People talk about our authenticity, but it’s like... you can’t prove that. It’s just bullshit,” says Joe. “Either you listen to our album and you like us, or you don’t.”
He has a point: it doesn’t really matter whether people think IDLES mean it or not, because the AF Gang and its ethos speaks for itself. Maybe this album will be too sentimental or simple for you, maybe the band’s politics will seem grating, but for tens of thousands of people Ultra Mono is going to mean the world. IDLES got Joe Talbot through a tough few years, and now the band’s fan community do the same for each other – which is undeniably a beautiful thing.
As Joe puts it: “You decide, are we worth anything to you, or are we not? But I know we’re worth a lot.”