‘We’ve Always Utilized Violence as Part of Our Discourse,’ Idles RagesPosted by Mike Schumacher
Joe Talbot, the lead singer of Idles, comes to a happy realization near the end of the band’s impending fourth album, Crawler. “Life is beautiful,” the 37-year-old cries despite everything.
It’s an apt ending for a band that have overcome personal tragedy and childhood trauma, and in just four years secured their status as the face of British post-punk. Talbot raged about rape culture (“Sexual violence doesn’t start and end with rape / It starts in our books and behind our school gates,” he cries on fan favorite Mother), NHS funding, and white privilege on their debut album, Brutalism.
Its follow-up Joy As an Act of Resistance swiped at toxic masculinity via similarly boiling songs and pushed its makers to No 5 in the UK album chart. Ultra Mono, a more varied whirlwind of synths, keyboards, and hummed vocals, did even better last year, reaching No. 1.
Talbot quips over Zoom, “That was a quiet week.” It’s a rare moment of levity from a generally serious speaker. “It didn’t demonstrate that we were a great band; it demonstrated that we have a great audience.
We’ve been welcomed into a caring group that has helped us grow to the point where we can put No 1 under lockdown. It is their achievement, not ours.”
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Even if everything appears to be going swimmingly in Idles’ world, pain preceded their rise, as their new album vividly demonstrates. Crawler is their first push into actual storytelling, as earlier albums were lyrically “broad strokes” observations of socio-political turmoil.
Talbot says, “Normally, I’m more of a painter.” “I visualize ideas and present them to an audience; this album has a stronger narrative.”
Crawler chronicles the story of the singer’s 15-year battle with substance abuse. Talbot was born in 1984, the son of an artist father and an Inland Revenue worker mother.
His parents divorced when he was a child. He recalls wailing on his knees at the age of ten, begging his mother to quit drinking.
He started using narcotics at the age of 12, after her non-fatal heart attack. (He won’t tell which substances they are because he wants to be able to fly.) She had a stroke four years later, and after his stepfather died, Talbot became his mother’s caregiver until she died, too, while Idles was working on Brutalism.
Talbot’s substance consumption reached a bottom when he crashed his car while high. He argues, “It should have been a turning point,” but it wasn’t. The story of Crawler begins with that collision. Over the creeping synths of opener MTT 420 RR, Talbot sings grimly, “I can see my spinal cord rip high.”
“A car crash is a violent image and we’ve always used violence – whether it’s the violence of joy, the violence of love or the violence of grief – as a part of our vocabulary as musicians,” he continues. “It’s critical that people understand the unglamorous, violent nature of the cycle of alcoholism or drug abuse,” says the author.
For Talbot, the crash had existential ramifications, making him reassess his life’s path. So, appropriately, the second tune The Wheel – a return to Idles’ core swaggering punk – flashes back to the cycle that started his addictions: the path from begging his mother to stop taking chemicals to using them himself barely two years later.
The song repeats, “And so it turns, again and again…”
Despite the personal story at its core, Crawler incorporates the political tirades that have defined Idles. The New Sensation is a subversive dance number that emphasizes the powerful reactions that music can elicit (“Shake it to the snare and get down to the kick / Shake your tiny tooshie like you don’t give a shit”), and it’s self-described as a reaction to Rishi Sunak, despite never mentioning him directly. “If [professional musicians] can’t earn enough money to live, is your message to them: ‘You’re going to have to get another job,’” ITN asked the chancellor in October 2020, in the midst of the pandemic.
“I can’t pretend that everyone can do exactly the same job they did at the start of this crisis,” Sunak answered.
Despite the fact that he wrote a song about him, Talbot appears curiously detached from the politician. “I wouldn’t have much to say to Rishi if he were in front of me; I’d have a lot of questions,” he says.
“The source of this country’s unrest is political, and I’m not a politician. I’m not here to speak with Rishi Sunak. He’s a lot smarter than me. He’d come out on top. It’s not about me vs. him; it’s about us vs. them.”
For some, such ambiguous stances can be Idles’ undoing. Sleaford Mods vocalist Jason Williamson called the band’s politics “cliched, patronizing, insulting, and mediocre” in February 2019, while Fat White Family chimed in five days later, saying, “The last thing our increasingly puritanical culture needs right now is a bunch of self-neutralizing middle-class boobs telling us to be nice to immigrants.”
“I’m not virtue signaling,” Talbot said in an interview with the Observer. “This is what I believe in,” I say. He now prefers to stay away from feuds entirely. All he has to say is, “I love everything and I am nothing.”
Despite everything, life is beautiful. Three years after the couple’s first child was stillborn, a sober Talbot and his wife welcomed a daughter in April 2020.
As the year 2021 dawned brightly, the singer and his bandmates worked alone to create Crawler, the most diverse record possible. It required being cut off from the rest of the world for the band to realize that “we can do whatever we want!” as Talbot put it.
“Not one of Moses Sumney, Thom Yorke, or Nick Cave has ever stood still long enough to be classified as anything other than who they are. Idiosyncrasy is what they are.
That’s what we intended to do with Ultra Mono: make an effigy of what we’d made so we could burn it and go on.”
Following Crawler, Idles will return to their aim of “being the best live band on the planet,” according to Talbot. He isn’t lacking in ambition.
And after 15 years of stumbling his way back to health, he’s ready to sprint to the top.
Thanks to Matt Mills at The Guardian whose reporting provided the original basis for this story.
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