Joy, pain and the revolution: Inside IDLES' brilliant new album

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When Bristol post-punks IDLES released their debut album Brutalism in March 2017, the band quickly realised their luck might be on the turn. After five years of toil in the nation's pubs and dive bars, the album was picked up by new music champion Steve Lamacq, and as a result, catapulted into the public domain. The album, a viscerally honest takedown of the pressures of modern life, resonated with audiences in a way few new bands manage. Cut to a year-and-a-half later, and the band are on the cusp of releasing highly anticipated second album Joy As An Act Of Resistance, and embarking on an autumn tour which will see them fill prestigious venues everywhere from Japan to London's Forum. 

But the band's rising profile brought with it its own familiar pressures. “We finished writing Brutalism three years ago, then we started the second album immediately,” IDLES vocalist and lyricist Joe Talbot tells Louder when we meet in the sunny garden of Fender's north London lounge. “But with the album and its publicity came more of a reflection on us as an artist. We started thinking about ourselves differently for the first time, because when you get reviews and people spend money on you, you become a commodity. We started thinking about IDLES as a product and that was a real negative thing, we didn't enjoy that.”

This manifested in what Talbot describes as him "scrambling for words and scrambling for notions that fit where I was". The band – completed by guitarists Mark Bowen and Lee Kiernan, bassist Adam 'Dev' Devonshire and drummer Jon Beavis – began to struggle. "We didn't realise at the time, but we were writing songs and it was like the wind was knocked out of us a bit. We weren’t enjoying the new stuff we were writing and we didn't really understand why. Then we just fucked it off – we scrapped loads of songs and went back to the drawing board and Joy As An Act Of Resistance happened very quickly as a resistance to the pressures. We realised that the reason why we weren't producing good music was because we weren't enjoying ourselves, or celebrating ourselves, or writing for ourselves. As a form of resistance, we just decided to not care about it anymore.”

“Second album syndrome is very much an obvious thing when you look at it,” he adds. “You've got one album that's 10, 20 years in the making. Then suddenly, you don't have an ethereal window into the universe, you have a mirror, because you've got all these reflections of what your art's done to people. And when you have a reflection, it's a lot harder to see through it.”

Overcoming second album syndrome wasn’t the only thing to shape the album. As IDLES began work on the record, Talbot suffered a profound personal tragedy which threw his concerns about the band into sharp perspective. “My daughter died, which had a massive effect on me as a person, and us as a band, and me as an artist,” he says. “It all came to a head. I don't know if you understand trauma, but it cuts out a lot of the bullshit, sorts the wheat from the chaff. I ended up not really worrying too much about the criticism again. It really grounded us. Not just my daughter's death, but everything. We had a renaissance of joy.”

JAAAOR isn’t the first IDLES album to be written in the wake of loss – Brutalism was written as a direct response to Talbot’s grief at losing his mother. But now, Talbot moves beyond the initial pain of trauma towards emotional recovery. He wants to explore the various ways we have of surviving pain, but also the beauty and joy which can be uncovered by grief. “The first album was a real tool for catharsis,” he says. “That was more of a reactionary, explosive grief, where I just automatically wrote the album as a way of helping me get through my mother's death. But my partner and my friends and my family were what helped me get through the initial trauma of my daughter's death. I had to change as a person, and really look within [myself] to be vulnerable, outwardly.

“When I was on the path of overcoming the trauma, I realised that I wasn't as honest and open as I thought I was," he adds. "I was a lot more closed and defensive when it came to self-improvement and being open about my emotions than I thought I was. So what I did was write an album that was sprawling and automatic, but in a time of recovery. The second album is about looking inwardly and utilising your friends as a slow fix for the rest of your life through trauma. You either sink or swim, but there's buoyancy aids all around you and sometimes you just need to be reminded of that.”

To be joyful isn't always necessarily just to be happy, but to enjoy or celebrate all the broken parts of yourself.

Joe Talbot

To understand that is to understand how an album created in the wake of something so dark can simultaneously be so joyful. It’s a concise celebration of the many ways being human can be painful and wonderful, often at the same time. Opener Colossus’ claustrophobic, prickly noise-rock soon gives way to a rollocking punk-rock stomper, while lead single Danny Nedelko is a gleaming celebration of Britain’s immigrants and the idea that accepting each other’s differences will ultimately nourish us all. Only on the starkly brutal June is the passing of Talbot's daughter, Agatha, tackled directly. Its climax comes with its haunting refrain: ‘Baby shoes, for sale, never worn’. The album is a true reflection of life’s light and shade. 

“I wanted to use the album as an example of using pain and trauma, but channelling them using self-reflection and vulnerability as a tool for improvement,” says Talbot. “It's a new kind of grief for me. I had to improve. I had to cut out alcohol and drugs, and I had to be vulnerable to my partner. I wanted to use the album as an expression of that, and an expression of how if you learn to love yourself, you can build much more beautiful relationships. 

“Things like beauty and joy are perceived and portrayed in the popular media as perfections, but there's a real joy and beauty in grief, ugliness and things that people don't necessarily get to see in magazines and on television," he adds. "People are learning to hate themselves because they don't fit in that box, so I think we just want to try to change that narrative and reflect a truer depiction of what it is to be normal and happy. 

“Once you learn that no one is really normal, you might feel more comfortable in loving yourself, and that's the true enjoyment of what it is to be. Loving yourself is about accepting sadness and anger and all the things people are taught to bottle up. To be joyful isn't always necessarily just to be happy, but to enjoy or celebrate all the broken parts of yourself.”

Talbot frequently mentions the support from his partner, family and friends – and its vital role in his recovery – throughout our talk. It was from this that the album’s central idea grew. Through his experiences, Talbot realised that support of a community is essential to a stable, secure existence; that feeling able to lean on others when you need to leads to more fulfilled people. In turn, more fulfilled people leads to a healthier society. It’s been on his mind, particularly in Britain’s post-Brexit years. 

“I was in counselling, and one of the first real epiphanies I had was that I felt so alone all my life,” explains Talbot. “I didn't realise I felt alone all my life because I have such wonderful friends and family, so I didn't really understand why. I had to de-naturalise my settings to figure out why I felt so alone, and I realised it was because I didn't have a strictly ‘normal’ narrative in my upbringing. So, I kept that to myself, and I kept a lot of my emotions and my feelings within myself, because I thought [if I didn’t] I’d be caught out as this abnormal thing.”

“When I did realise that it's bullshit – that I wouldn't be a burden on my friends if I just shared my true emotions or my real feelings – there was a sudden release of weight off my back. I suddenly felt a lot lighter because I was sharing what was inside, and that does really enlighten you. You become a lighter being, it's a relief and a release.”

“When you become lighter with the release of all these negative energies, you suddenly feel like you're safe within a community of people who are willing to listen and carry that weight with you. What happens when you feel safe within a community is that you become less defensive with your ideologies. You take off the armour you've carried for so long because you feel safer. Then, with open-minded ideologies and the safety of your own community, you’re more likely to act openly to new things and new ideas – such as immigration; all sorts of crazy things that the left like to push on people," he adds with a wry smile.

"The more inhumane we're treated, the more defensive we become and the more narrow minded and hateful and scared we become… and the more likely we are to vote for Brexit. I think if we're allowed the time to be listened to for five minutes every day by our loved ones, we'll feel safer. People are becoming more defensive and selfish and angry because they're being stripped of their dignity and choice and opportunity. 

"At the moment everything's a bit off kilter opportunity-wise, so support networks in general are fucked, because right-wing governments don't do that. They strip equality and make it very imbalanced, and that puts people in a tight corner financially. So when people are strapped for cash and have to work loads, they [become] stressed and scared for their future financially, and they make panicked decisions like Brexit. Which is fucking mental. But community's all about celebrating the individual with a collective sense of open-mindedness that can change the world.”

While Talbot used Brutalism to reflect on his relationships with women and women’s issues more broadly, on JAAAOR he turns his attention inwards to tackle his own struggles with masculinity and its affect on the male psyche. “The first album was about reactionary catharsis and a quick fix. I was exploring my mother and women and my life and how they were affected by my behaviour," he says.

But with the second album came a deeper level of introspection and a number of realisations. “With self-reflection and self-improvement came looking at myself and looking at myself as a man, as a father – without child, but as a father – and self-improvement,” says Talbot. “I read The Descent Of Man by Grayson Perry and there’s a real lucidity to that book that makes it easy to understand masculinity. I realised, ‘Yeah, what a load of shit,’ and how unhealthy and dangerous it is. How simple things such as 'Don't cry’ – one comment to a three or four year old – can turn into so many things; so many bad decisions, so much shame that you carry because of things you feel. It’s fucking dangerous.

Giving sexuality and gender identities rules is dangerous, it's inhumane. The human spirit doesn't work that way.

Joe Talbot

“I’ve always questioned masculinity and I've always found it strange why, when I say I love flowers and I'm really interested in floristry, people look at me like I'm a maniac. And sexuality – from a young age I was encouraged that sexuality is not a linear thing. I felt comfortable with my own sexuality, but as I grew up I realised how many of my friends didn’t. It's something that I'm now exploring and appreciating and celebrating. My understanding of masculinity [is that it’s] a fucking bullshit cloak of crap that's made up by other people who probably hate themselves. That’s it – it doesn't exist. There is genitalia; beyond that, it's made up. Giving sexuality and gender identities rules is dangerous, it's inhumane. The human spirit doesn't work that way.”

Consciously or not, JAAAOR’s focus on the masculine is reflected musically. More tightly-coiled and muscular than its predecessor, Talbot also strips his lyrics back to focus on simplicity and naivety. Songs like I’m Scum straight-forwardly tackle feelings that arise from people repeatedly being told they’re “stupid and unimportant”, while Gram Rock and single Samaritans examine the uglier side of masculinity's bravado. “Life is shit and sometimes I want to smash someone's fucking face in,” Talbot says. “It's about going, 'I want to smash that guy's face in, but I'm not going to, because I want to be a better person'. I want to be relatable and talk about the mundanity – the beauty of mundanity – but also try and project something that goes towards a better future and self-improvement.”

While not defining themselves as a “political band” – though plenty would argue against that assessment – there’s no doubting that current social discourse has shaped the album’s deeply personal journey. But politics, Talbot points out, is always deeply personal. “Politics is an allegory. It’s nothing more than big systems for one person's individual safety and welfare. That's it; that’s all politics is,” he says. “It sounds big and scary to some people because they're told they're stupid and unimportant. But politics is just – ‘If you vote for them, you're fucked. If you vote for them, you're fucked'. 

"Politics is only really the ins and outs of human welfare. But it's denaturalised, dehumanised to this point where it's almost like this science – it's not fucking science, it's how much my pint of lager costs, and how long my mum gets to stay in hospital before she dies, what medication I get for my eczema, where my children can go to school, where an immigrant gets put in housing, how well homeless people are treated. But it's all really down to each individual person being reminded of the individual and their welfare.

“We’re at a point where I've had a really turbulent time emotionally, in my relationships and my life, and I’m starting to understand that there's a real fragility to my sanity and my well-being. I've had to really change the way I live my life to survive as a person. But then how is that affected by all the stuff that's going on around me? I just feel that people need to be reminded of the importance of the humanity of politics, which is everything.”

IDLES aren’t a band who dwell in the past; they don’t even like to linger in the present for too long, confirming to Louder that work has already begun on album number three. But Talbot is reflective when asked about his hopes for JAAAOR. “I hope it encourages people to love themselves and not be beaten down by the bullshit we're fucking thrown all the time,” he says. “I hope that by seeing my vulnerability it will encourage other people that it's okay to be ‘ugly’. I went in trying to be as naive and simple as possible, and I think it helped me get rid of the idea that I want to be loved. Because it's about the listener getting something from it themselves, not about me and my ego. It's about them loving themselves and enjoying that.” 

“It's been the worst year of my life, but the best thing feeling like I can lean on my friends and lean on the crowds and audiences who've been so lovely and wonderful and open in telling us their stories, because it's a dialogue,” he concludes. “We want to bring it in and start a new thing, and we feel like it's happening. It’s been the most beautiful feeling in the world.”

Joy As An Act Of Resistance is released on 31 August via Partisan Records and is available for pre-order now. The band head out on tour in September – check out the full dates now.