In a world where bigotry has grown and isolation from digital screens amplified, IDLES strive to show love and empathy in the most in-your-face way possible. Fresh off their recent release, Crawler, the English quintet have released a music video for “When The Lights Come On.” The visual was co-directed by vocalist Joe Talbot and guitarist Mark Bowen and follows the release of “The Beachland Ballroom” and “Car Crash.” In honor of the release, here's our story with the band from issue 400.

Two hours prior to the start of his shift, Joe Talbot takes in the calm before the storm. Kicking back, almost horizontal, in the compact backstage area of The Orange Peel, a theater-sized venue in the small inland city of Asheville, North Carolina, the 37-year-old’s naturally taut demeanor offers only the smallest clue as to the promise held by the evening ahead.

As part of their 19-song set, tonight the English, Irish and Welsh quintet IDLES will play “1049 Gotho,” from their debut album, 2017’s Brutalism, to an audience of more than a thousand people. Talbot will sing its lyric — “My friend is so depressed/He wishes he was dead” — with an intensity that often brings him to tears.

The pile-driving energy of it all could power the Tar Heel State, or else it might hurt you. Either way, this is not a drill.

“My job is actually very easy,” the frontman says. “It’s all about what I can see in front of me. I just want to rip out everyone’s fucking throats and spit love down their neck. I’m just like a pig in shit. I don’t think; I just feel, and it’s the best feeling in the world. It’s pure magic.” 

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Bespectacled and tattooed, Talbot is given to emphatic language. “People who knew me from 20 years ago will stand in front of a fucking bus for the fact that I’ve always shown a lot of love,” he says, as if standing in front of a bus is a universally recognized means of verifying truth. In the earlier parts of our interview, the singer looks like he might be two handfuls of trouble.

Expressing regret at “wasting time” writing the odd impersonal song — “I don’t like singing them, and I won’t sing them, so that’s that,” he says — he speaks of his delight at the “narrative-driven” themes of IDLES’ new record, Crawler. Asked to nominate a thematic example, he says, “Right, have you heard the album?”

Yes, of course.

“What, the whole album?”

Yes.

“No,” he says. “I mean, the whole album is the example.”

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Forty-five minutes later, the lasting impression is of a man who is merely determined that his words are not just heard but understood.

There is no waste, no fat, in what Talbot says. Seated beside him in a five-gallon hat that may or may not have once been a prize on a coconut shy at a state fair, lead guitarist Mark Bowen — he trades under the surname alone — is at first easier on the ear, if only in conversation. Instrument in hand, it’s a different matter.

With violent insouciance, back in Britain IDLES have smashed a hole straight through the boundary that nominally keeps groups who make music as excoriating and combustible as theirs separated from a well-mannered mainstream.

Released last fall, the quintet’s third album, Ultra Mono, debuted on the U.K. charts at No. 1. In the United States, its dozen songs peaked at No. 54 on the Billboard 200 — no small beer for a record released on an independent label (Partisan). Garlanded with praise, it was quite the triumph for a band that many listeners, and many music writers, identify as punk.

“I don’t think we’re a punk band,” Talbot says. He sounds somewhat displeased. “We are not in the business of categorizing ourselves because that would only [impact] our ticket sales. We don’t want to push people away who don’t like punk. Secondly, we’re not a punk band because if you listen to our catalog, there’s stuff from all over. Our energy has not been fucking trademarked by a bunch of white men in the ’70s. That’s just not happening.

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That visceral energy that we give out was in the blues before it was in punk. It was in soul before it was in punk. It was in fucking calypso. The energy that we have is a sense of elation and violence and love that was in Caravaggio’s paintings in Malta. Do you know what I mean? It wasn’t canned and invented in 1976. That’s not how it works.”

Talbot’s disavowal is supported by the arrival of Crawler. Whereas Ultra Mono was written during soundchecks to a musical template designed to raise merry hell, its successor addresses the question of whether or not IDLES have the skills required to escape the corner into which they had painted themselves.

With plans for a two-year world tour scotched by airborne pathogens, Talbot and Bowen were required to do their songwriting in the safety of their own homes.

For many months of last year and this, in the United Kingdom, the national lockdown was so severe that its citizens were prohibited from going to the barbers.

The idea that a band might go about their business as a public-facing operation, or be at liberty even, to kick out the jams in their rehearsal space, was for the birds. 

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The results of this change in circumstances can be heard throughout Crawler. The gloriously ominous “Beachland Ballroom,” for one, is a good deal closer to the menace of the Bad Seeds than the flurry of Bad Brains.

The End” might well be a pop song were it not for its creators’ insistence on towing its arrangement, and its melody, into darker waters.

Opening track “MTT 420 RR” ticks over slowly with malevolent syncopation. The 14-song set offers evidence that IDLES are changing form into something that cannot easily be named.

“One of our main goals is to subvert expectations,” Bowen says. “If we align ourselves to a genre or to a tribe, then you’re establishing those expectations… And it’s interesting because our audience in America seems to consist of people from different kinds of tribes. There’s the hardcore contingent. There’s the punk contingent. There’s the heavily tattooed base. There’s the boozy middle-class intelligentsia up in the balcony. There’s a real mix. There’s a real hodgepodge of people.”

Exactly what IDLES’ American audience is getting from the band is a fascinating question. At his most observational, on songs such as “Model Village” — “Homophobes by the ton in the village/A lot of overpriced drugs in the village/A lot of half-pint thugs in the village” — Talbot writes about a kind of Brexit-flavored England that is most clearly recognizable to the English.

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The band are based in Bristol, a port city in the southwest of the country that saw a statue of the slave trader Edward Colston dumped into a river during last year’s Black Lives Matter protests. 

On the eve of the Civil War, the city of Asheville had a prevalence of slavers in the state. It might just be, then, that focusing on superficial regional differences is a false economy. 

“I think Britain and the USA have beautiful fucking energy right now because people are coming out of lockdown,” Talbot says. “We’re in privileged areas of the country — mainly in the [state] capitals and the bigger cities — and we live in Bristol [a small city in the west of England]. We’re privileged, and we’re seeing a great side of humanity right now because we’re getting out and about. But if you went to the fucking darkest parts of the disillusioned pockets… that’s a different vibe altogether.

If you’ve got the internet as your window, it’s never going to be a beautiful horizon, is it? It’s just going to be people trying to convince themselves that they’re not terrified.”

In a decision that “really saved my fucking life,” Talbot absented himself from social media in 2021. “It’s a dangerous, dangerous place,” he says.

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No stranger to other forms of danger, without being asked, the singer speaks of his decision to give up drugs, smoking and, for a time at least, alcohol. On the road in North America, he says he’s started drinking again, but these days, exercise is his one serious addiction.

At home in Bristol, he cycles every day; out on tour, he takes an afternoon constitutional. In a frankly terrifying proposition, he’s learned how to box. In a bar in Washington, D.C., he thought his hands had grown on account of pint glasses being 20% smaller than their British equivalent. 

“I almost died through neglect of myself, and I needed to hold myself accountable for that to my wife, my friends and the [band] and the people I sing to,” he says. “To hold myself accountable, I had to go through with a therapist and compartmentalize everything and put it in order so I could understand my own story, and the sequential incremental fucking spiral that I put myself in and nearly died from. Because of that, we’ve got a much more coherent, a much more brilliant and definitely a much more honest album.” 

It’s still bracing stuff. Whereas on IDLES’ second album, Joy As An Act Of Resistance, Talbot sang about the stillborn birth of his first child — “Baby shoes for sale: never worn” went the unbearably poignant refrain of “June” — on “The Wheel,” from Crawler, he recalls the time when, as a 12-year-old, he begged his alcoholic mother to stop drinking.

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Asked if he would write this kind of material if his mom was still alive, he answers, “Yes. Yes.” The sentences resound like the crack of a whip. “She was an absolute fucking beast,” he says. “Very enigmatic. Very charismatic. Very strong. Brought me up. Showed me what love can be in a strong way. Came from a really shitty place and made something amazing of herself in the face of adversity.”

Maybe that’s where he gets it from.

Tonight in Asheville, IDLES will perform before an audience that is obliged by state law to wear masks. At the start of the week, the band did the same over two nights at the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C. Under these circumstances, Bowen has been required to reevaluate his habit of plunging into the crowd while playing his guitar.

“What if wearing a mask was the thing that allowed someone to come to the show in the first place?” he asks. “What if that’s the thing that makes them feel comfortable? They might not want someone who’s been traveling around the country suddenly screaming in their face.”

Maybe not. But in striding steadily toward the light, the true purpose of IDLES is revealed. Never mind the enforced isolationism that gave birth to Crawler. The quintet’s job is to make the world as real, and as vibrant, as possible; to remove it from the loneliness of a computer screen, or a cellphone, or the anonymity of the darkest corners of the internet.

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More than anything else, the band are peddling hope; it’s coming at you at full crank, and it’s way up in your grill, but they’re peddling it all the same. They hope that you’ll emerge from your home and join them in the fleshpots to experience the sounds, the sights, the smells and the amazement of being alive. This is the deal; the terms are non-negotiable.

As Talbot sings on the new album, “In spite of it all, life is beautiful.”

“What’s that word that means organs?” Bowen asks his bandmate. 

A second’s pause. “Organic?”

“No.” Another second’s pause. “Well, that too, but I mean visceral! For me, it was always about visceral energy and expression. But [lockdown] fundamentally changed my relationship with what we are as a band, what we are as creators, and now it’s transforming the live show… There was a whole arc of struggle in coming to terms with how fragile things were. And then there was enlightenment, which is the place we’re in now.”

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Outside the dressing room, the sound of drums and guitars fills the stage. The Orange Peel is about to open its doors.

“Our motive, the band’s ethos, is to make people feel like they’re not alone,” Talbot says. “I think that’s why people come to our shows and listen to our music. We offer love, and we want to be loved. There’re a million other things that you can be honest and vigorous about, and you’ll be successful as an artist. But our remit is to prevent people from feeling like they’re out there on their own.”

Watch the new video for “When The Lights Come On” below.