Joe Talbot is sleep-deprived. When I get the IDLES lead vocalist on the phone, he tells me as much. Just a few days earlier the band was in the midst of a tour of the United States when they were tapped for a performance on Later… with Jools Holland back in the UK – an experience he describes as a real dream and “a wonderful moment in my life that I’ll never forget.” The band tore through performances of two songs from their latest album, Joy As An Act of Resistance (out now on Partisan Records), throwing themselves across the stage, rolling around the tops of pianos, and mangling their guitars with furious riffs. Talbot prowls the stage, thrusting his fists in the air and bouncing up and down as he shouts the words to “Danny Nedelko”: “My blood brother is an immigrant. A beautiful immigrant.” It’s hard not to take his lyrics in the context of Brexit, a bold and fearless move to make on one of Britain’s most popular music programs. After the performance, the band quickly flew back to the U.S. to continue their current tour.
The Bristol-punks are in the middle of a bona fide “moment,” earning rave reviews for their record and leaving behind sweaty venues in their wake. The gnarled, room-rattling bass tones mixed with Talbot’s emphatic shouts and lyricism are pummeling in exciting new ways (a personal favorite moment is when he yells, “I’m a heathen from Eton on a bag of Michael Keaton" on "Never Fight A Man With A Perm" ). But the life lived to get to this batch of music put Talbot through some of his hardest moments. His mother, whom he also served as a caretaker for, passed away just as IDLES released their debut Brutalism. In the time since he’s overcome addiction only for he and his partner to face devastating lost as their daughter Agatha was stillborn. Rather than relent to his world shattering around him, Talbot crafted an album in celebration of life and equality. It’s a testament, he describes, to his therapy and willingness to be vulnerable.
In our short conversation, Talbot is understandably tired, but he never sounds defeated. His voice raises passionately when we talk about damning politics and quells to a warm understanding when we talk about the philosophy of being a “better person.” Talbot and his bandmates don’t sound like the type of band you’d want to doubt on their records, and the same sentiment is shared with how Talbot expresses his willingness to do good. I think Talbot explains it best when he declares at the end of our call, “I'd like to get to a place where I am the Dalai fucking Lama.” How could you not believe him?
KEXP: You experienced some intense hardships in the past year, yet you made an album with “Joy” right in the title. What made you want to process these events in your life and grief in such a way?
Joe Talbot: I was in therapy for a while before my daughter died. One of the main points of my therapy was that I wasn't being vulnerable enough and opening up enough. So there's a process I was going through already and the changes that I made in my life due to vulnerability and opening myself was life changing – life-saving, I'd say, really. The main point of our album was to change the narrative, change the cycles of our lives. If you have cyclical behavior, you need to change something for it to change completely. We wanted to do that with our music and through changing our paths in behavior as people. That's where we're at now. We wanted to improve as people to improve as artists to improve as a band and in doing so I feel we have changed our narrative. I think people were expecting us to be this kind of like angry, brick throwing band, you know, not wanting to improve anything – just complain about it. We wanted to change that course and I think we have. It feels good, it feels right.
What about being vulnerable do you think has changed you? How has that helped you change for the better?
It's affected me in every way. I'm way less defensive now 'cause I know more about myself cause I've projected myself onto the people I trust. Conversations are more lucid, more honest. I know more about myself and know more about my partner. I know more about my friends and I know more about me. And that knowledge makes you feel more confident and safe in changing, which gave me the confidence to stop drinking and confidence to be more honest in our music and things like that.
You're very honest on the record. Was it hard for you to be so open? Was the writing process difficult?
Yeah, absolutely. The thing that I found hardest to do with the band and with our audience now is the action of being naive. Naive in my lyrics and stuff. Just keeping it as basic as possible, as raw and kind of primal as possible with the concepts that we were touching. 'Cause it opens you up to a kind of criticism in all sorts of angles. The result is that you feel freer and I feel like I've said a lot and I feel lighter because of it. It feels good. The hardest part was naivety, I guess. Almost childlike lyrics, but it works. It works for me. I definitely felt some sort of catharsis there. The music was also very simplistic. We gave each other room to breathe musically and it feels like a primal record and humane record, which we're really happy with.
I love the sound of the record. I feel like that heavy sound has been inaccurately – not just with your band, but also with other bands – associated with a certain idea of masculinity or "testosterone-inducing" or something. Your music takes such a firm stance against that type of behavior. Was it a conscious step for the band to re-contextualize that sound or that aesthetic?
Yeah, it was very important for us to do that. Obviously, as individuals, we're all men. We're all white. So there are patterns of behavior that come from our social upbringing as far as our parents and to our communities and to our country. There's cultural patterns there that have shaped our consciousness. But we're aware of them and we're mindful of it and the processes we went through before we wrote this album of mindfulness and discussion [of] things that we've always been wary of, like machismo.
Being a band, you are responsible in some sort of way for your audience and their safety. I find acts of machismo grotesque and violent and antisocial and not welcoming. And when you speak to us as individuals, we're most of the time compassionate and loving and not in need of protecting this idea of machismo or strength or aggression. I am an angry man and I do have insecurities and I act out in them in shitty ways sometimes. I'm not perfect, but I want to improve and I want to deglove from the expectations of what it is to be a bloke and things like that. So we're mindful of it and it's something we wanted to change.
We as a band, as a collective people, are interested in changing the narratives for the greater good of the populous. We're not in it to just write a song about going out and having a good time because life's way too interesting to downplay it like that. With us as responsible men, as responsible people, we need to question and explore our behaviors as men and musicians for the greater good – which is basically to not "act like a man," but to act like a person. A good person.
You've been upfront about your politics and your beliefs, but you don't call IDLES a political band. You've said you "wouldn't tell people how to vote." Do you feel like music has a role to play in politics or addressing the world around them?
We're all very politically minded. The reason I don't want to be called a political band is because it excludes you from being a musical band. It also excludes music from politics as a complete relationship. Everything artistic is political. You're singing about flowers, in some way it's political. If you're ignoring Brexit and not singing about it, that's a political act in itself. Creative thinking and the arts, in general, is a very, very important vehicle for the change. Or just vehicle for expression and talking about the world around you. So, are we a political band in the sense that "do we think about politics and sing about it?" Yes. Are we a political band? No. We're a band. That's it.
The more people see politics as this intangible, overcomplicated beast, the less likely they are to be proactive in who they vote for and think politically. Everything is political and the more you segregate that as a concept, the harder it is for people to get involved with politics because they think it's just for rich white men. That's why I don't want to be called a political band. But yes, we're very mindful of the changes that are happening. Britain is going through one of the worst changes that's ever happened in its history. I mean, that's probably dramatic – there's probably some savage shit that happened back in the 1600s but you get my drift. In modern history, Brexit is one of the worst things that could happen to us. A bit like your Trump fiasco.
You've talked a bit about before too that when you play shows you look out in the crowd and it's mostly white men. Do you feel a particular responsibility to address these topics with that audience?
Yeah... I don't feel like I'm a social worker or anything. I don't have to worry about it too much. I feel I'm responsible for my actions, so I'm just gonna be as mindful as possible. I'm responsible for [myself]. Can't control the other boys in the band, what they do and say is their business. As a group, we're like-minded and we tend to agree more than we disagree. So we're moving in the same direction for now and that's a beautiful thing.
Our audiences are expanding, they're not just white men nowadays. People have said, "Wouldn't you rather there were more black women?" for instance. Well, absolutely, we'd like all sorts of people to come to our shows and they'd be welcomed with open arms. But the message that we're getting...what I'd want more... the person I'd most want to come to our shows right now is a sexist, racist Trump supporter. Maybe then we might change their mind a bit. Preaching to the choir is all fair and well on the Facebook-sphere, but to be a really responsible person, you'd want the antithesis of everything you believe in to be at your shows. To start a new dialogue and to maybe help and change someone's heart and mind. That doesn't come from patting all the lefties on the back. We've got to start from the opposition.
What's it been like playing these songs live?
It's been magic. It's always good. It's what we're about – playing live. It's what I love doing. Feels good, feels right. The rest of it's cool, but there's nothing better than the energy and the feeling of being in a room full of people and playing music. The experience and the exchange.
Especially with this album, in particular, we've talked about how emotional and open the songs are. You've talked about the writing being cathartic, but is there a different kind of catharsis when you're in a room with people singing these lyrics, talking about the real trauma that you've gone through?
I think there's a feeling of... You feel safer. It's the same as the act of falling backward and being caught. It feels right.
You covered Solomon Burke's "Cry To Me" on the album. I'm curious what drew you to that song?
It's actually one of my favorite songs. I love it. I grew up on soul music and blues and hip-hop, really. It's one of my favorite songs of all time. It's one of my favorite films, Dirty Dancing, I'm not gonna lie. I kind of managed to weave it into our album. I kind of thought up the instrumentation interpretation in my head. I kind of sang the way I wanted the guitars and bass to sound to [guitarist Mark Bowen] and he was like, "Yes, amazing. Let's do it."
You've mentioned that this album is an extension of topics of grief that you also talked about on your first record, but this time you were approaching it also with the mind to be a better person. We've talked a little bit about that too. I'm curious, what do you think it looks like to be a better person? What does that look like practically? Any revelations you've had while working on this album and touring behind it?
Being a better person, for me, is looking after yourself with the people around you in mind. So, your country people, your community, your family, and your friends. How you can live your life to its fullest, working hard for something you love, and allowing other people equal opportunity to do the same. However you can. In good and good mind.
I mean, that would be the perfect world. I'm not quite there yet. I can still be a real piece of shit to myself and others, but definitely a lot better. I'd like to get to a place where I am the Dalai fucking Lama.
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