IDLES are the band of the moment in the U.K., where their explosive and powerful music has become one of the soundtracks to a nation in flux. The Bristol-based quintet have reinvented rock, making it feel urgent again and adding a level of sensitivity and necessary self-questioning. IDLES are embracing empathy and mindfulness to find a new 21st century way to behave. A long way from the Trump-rock of the dinosaurs.
It sounds like heavy stuff, but the band’s gigs are joyous affairs, and their albums are life-affirming. Their second album, Joy As An Act Of Resistance, was a big-selling, defining album in the U.K. in 2019. Their new album, Ultra Mono, is their best yet. The production by Nick Launay has honed their sound down to perfection and edited their maelstrom into a defined clarity. Their current direction now leaves space for a new dynamic in the music and lyrics that perfectly capture the claustrophobia of a very confused U.K.
Unfortunately, sticking your neck out like this invites the brickbats. IDLES have attracted some criticism that reminds old-school punk rockers (like your author) of the ridiculous expectation Joe Strummer and the Clash eventually buckled under. Today however, we’re celebrating the rare moment when a band this thrilling and inventive are actually one of the biggest bands in the U.K.
John Robb spoke with IDLES guitarist Mark Bowen about the band’s new music, as well as discussing progress—and transparency—for the future.
The new album sounds great. Nick Launay really captured the sound in a concise, powerful and explosive way.
MARK BOWEN: When we had mixed and mastered Joy, we were listening back to it. It had everything we wanted on it in a songwriting perspective, and the guitars sounded right. But we realized that something was slightly off. It was not quite the thing that we wanted. The sonic marker was not what we wanted.
We talked about this at length, and we listened to other albums like Kanye West and Sunn O))). I was listening to Sleep, who I love, and we were wondering, “Why don’t we sound as big as those bands?” Everything was bigger. A lot came down to having too much going on and absorbing all the frequencies. Our music was too busy and detracting from the overall sound. So we decided to strip everything down. We wrote things around single parts and kept the drums simpler even though Jon [Beavis] is a great drummer.
The lyrics are stripped down as well, reflecting the claustrophobia of Brexit Britain.
That lent itself to the lyric writing as much as the music. Would it be possible to say everything with as few words as possible? In these times, there is too much noise everywhere, from social media to life itself. It sounds like everyone in the world is playing a different song at the same time. We stripped the lyrics down and took out the nuance. For us, the most important thing has to be the driving force of the lyric.
People always say that they wish there was a band like this in the mainstream. And as soon as it happens, they complain.
It’s not a pressure, and we mostly expected it to happen. It almost shows that we are doing the right thing. We intended to make people feel uncomfortable—and not just [U.K. Prime Minister] Boris Johnson and that gang who are people that we certainly disagree with. The idea is to make everyone question themselves.
The recent NME article criticized us rightly for not having enough diversity in our support acts. We talk about inclusiveness and politics, and it is felt that we have to be the bastion or the zenith of that. But we are also a work in progress, and we don’t claim to be perfect. In social media, everything moves so quickly that you can’t latch on to it. You can get drawn into conversations and platforms that you don’t necessarily want to get involved in. We are about slow, considered progress that feeds into this spontaneous thing.
The original criticism of the band not having enough women support bands was completely valid and welcome. It was something we should have been looking at, and we have reacted to that.
As a band, do you have a lot of self-critique?
We are very much a work in progress. We try to deal with toxic masculinity. Each of us has a very strong identification with masculinity, positive and other aspects. There are toxic masculine tropes that weed their way to the surface in the band, and it’s important to recognize that within us. Just because we recognize the problems doesn’t mean that we are cured.
The role of rock music has changed in the last 20 years.
It’s because society has changed so much. Us talking about these issues is a progression that exists because of movements like punk that led to more mainstream conversations about feminism, equality and class. In 2020, identity politics is key, and progression of these topics is key. Rock music has changed in many ways. We have to recognize that it is not the cutting-edge thing anymore.
It interests me that punk, when it came along, was a cultural movement. These days, the internet is the cultural movement, and young people understand it as a new way to understand the world and to throw out the hegemony. I can’t see rock music having that again. Guitar music is not that thing now. Things have moved to different art forms, and music is not where the scene is at the moment. It’s in visual art and video. I’m too old and beyond the age of where people understand. Rock music is more for escapism, more for familiarity.
The way people consume music now is so passive. It was once very active. It required ritual and a process to get it into our heads, and that gave it some importance. You had to buy the record and research the band. The fact that you put the CD and vinyl on and turned up the volume and the EQ all fed into its importance. Conversely, with a band like ours, 90% of the people that bought our record are claiming some kind of ownership over it. And that’s special for us.
Has the pandemic been frustrating?
IDLES are in a privileged position in that 2019 was the year when we did festivals like Glastonbury, and we broke through. This year, we had to look at what we could do in lockdown. We could still release records, and we can still record and rehearse this week but not for much longer. It’s been interesting releasing an album and not touring. It’s a chance for more insight in interviews like this one and self-reflection and introspection, which would be hard to do with interviews on the road.
In a post-pandemic world, where do you fit? Optimistic?
As a socialist, optimism is No. 1. People have had the opportunity to reassess their lives and their relation to work and money and what gives them happiness. People are looking for a sense of community and togetherness and also being in nature more. It’s important being at peace, and people have discovered meditation and mindfulness as coping tools. But the human need for live music is still there. Socially distanced gigs will not be happening in 10 years’ time. An IDLES show will still be an IDLES show.
The new young generation is exciting in their attitudes.
It’s really exciting that they are so in touch with their emotions and feelings and vulnerabilities and identities. That sense of self is really exciting. I’m really enjoying seeing that progress. I have a 1-year-old daughter, and I’m excited about her future from a philosophical viewpoint. Although maybe less excited about the shit show of political and economic and environmental mess she will be left [with]. IDLES value openness, understanding and an open-mindedness. I’m excited about what the youth is going to tell us.
The new IDLES album, Ultra Mono, is released Sept. 25.