Joe Talbot, front man for the British rock ‘n’ roll band, IDLES, has seen some shit. He’s a recovering addict and, in this capacity, looks to empathy as both a tool and a guiding light for progress throughout his life, internally and professionally. Talbot, who started IDLES in 2009, will see the release of his group’s latest LP, Ultra Mono, on September 25th. The album, which features bombastic and brilliant songs like, “War” and “Grounds” is a testament to the power of empathy. On it, IDLES brings their signature musical muscle while also proffering ideas of consent, self-love and recovery. We caught up with Talbot, who was on his way from one interview to the next, to talk about the new record, how empathy shapes his day-to-day life and how music saved him from self-destruction.
How are you, sir?
I’m good, thank you. Not too bad. Just in a taxi.
In a taxi!
I am. I just left a face-to-face interview that involved me talking to Nick Waplington, who’s a British artist, for Huck Magazine. It was very interesting.
I imagine you’re doing a lot of press this week, a lot of phone calls with a lot of strangers. Maybe some you know, but a log of strangers like me.
Exactly. It’s a very fruitful time to meet new people.
That’s a cool attitude. I try to envision what I would be like if I were someone like you receiving calls from strangers asking questions. I don’t know how I would be. So, I appreciate that positive outlook.
Yeah, I mean, it is what you make of it, isn’t it? So, in that sense, I’m not going to lie. I’ve been cagey in some interviews. I’ve been very defensive with some interviews. I’ve been very interested and very uninteresting at times. So, we’ll see how it goes on my end.
Yes, sir. So, let’s begin with a general question. When did you first find music, when did it become important to you as a young person?
I was in the car with my mom and she was playing “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” by Marvin Gaye. And the bass line did things to me that only music can. From then on, I was an avid listener and a lover of music. Especially soul music. The love grew from there on end. It was an infection. It never left. But I was never a proactive musician at all. I was just an avid listener, continued listener. I’d listen on headphones to music most of my young life. I always listened to music at school, in the corridors at school – like, as soon as I left class I was listening to music. I discovered hip-hop when I was about 10. It just never left me.
Not everybody who listens to music so often becomes a musician. So how did you decide to invest your time and energy to the art form?
It was a period of the, like, indie boom of the mid-2000s. I was about 24. I was DJing at a nightclub – I had my own nightclub with a couple of friends, called Bat-Cave. It was surrounded by indie music and the prototypical music that led towards indie. So, post-punk, punk, garage rock and indie evolved. I just got to a point where – there was a gap in my life for bands that looked terrible and sounded amazing. And looked like they were playing for their lives. It’s something I heard a lot about, you know? I heard about bands that used to change your life. You’d come out the room feeling like you’ve been torn apart. And I’d never had that. I was going to shows, seeing a lot of bands that looked good and didn’t feel anything. I wanted to create vibrations and I wanted to create a feeling with live music and that’s why we started the band – Dev, the bassist, and I.
Some time passed before IDLES released your first record. I imagine there was a lot of shedding bad art, bad ideas, bad thoughts. Was that the case and was there a specific breakthrough that led to the 2017 debut record?
What I would say is that it was as far from fluent as you can get, our artistic language was. We were learning and, like, we weren’t in London. We were in Bristol. And Bristol was a very forgiving place. It’s not lethargic by any means. It’s a very vibrant city. But there’s a subdued nature to its scene, which means you’re allowed to make mistakes and change and learn your path and learn your language and that’s where were at. We just took our time because we knew that we wouldn’t make a beautiful album yet. And that we wouldn’t make an album that was at all indicative of fluent in what we were and who we were. We were learning, you know? And we didn’t want to document that and make a statement of that because we weren’t ready for it. And then, I don’t know, we just got to a point where we started writing songs that made us feel how we wanted to make other people feel. Because we are the audience with our music. We are part of that dialogue and we suddenly just had this energy in the room that we knew we could make into a decent mark.
What did it feel like when you found your musical fluency – was it good, exhilarating, scary now that a path was set before you?
It felt right. It felt like ecstasy and fury and violence and life. It’s just life, you know? What art and music are is you projecting your part of the world and what you want to be in the world and what the world is to you to others. To give them a platform to think, feel, dance, fuck, whatever. We suddenly felt like we found our place in the world and we wanted to share it with everyone else. It’s the most vibrant feeling on earth.
You project a very strong demeanor but you also fight for the trodden-upon in your music. When did that become important, a thesis for you and the band?
From the start. Our first demos were about the coalition and my addiction and my kind of turmoil and how that intertwined with how I thought of politics and how I thought about the world. It’s always been what I learn from art and film. I studied film at university and philosophy in film and how artists indicate pathways and personal experience towards the meta-narratives and the infrastructures of where you are, you know? The best way I can describe it is, like, the architecture of the buildings in a city are overlooked but they shape and mold how you think about who you are and where you are in the world. Art, in general, and music, in general, these are, like the monoliths of human existence. They are overlooked. But really they are everything, to me and to you. They are, like, the platform on which we all exist. It’s just you can’t see or feel it. I think, you know, we have always tried to be as transparent as possible to make it an existential trip, you know?
Have you always been empathetic in this way? If not, where does your sense of empathy come from?
No. I wasn’t empathetic. For a long time, I was a real piece of work. I was an addict and a real nightmare to be around. And I was a nightmare to myself. And starting the band and being in the band saved my life. That’s why empathy has become the tool of my own progression and the building blocks of all the relationships I have now, with myself as well as everyone else. That’s why I keep it apparent in my art and my lyrics. Because it’s my gratitude towards what empathy has done for my life and where I am in the world. Now, it’s looking towards with the later art and later music, it’s about books like Eckhart Tolle’s book, The Power of Now. Where it’s a pragmatism towards empathy and how you can be present and use empathy as a tool to understand who you are as much as who everyone else is. Because you can never, you understand, control anyone else’s behavior or thought patterns. You can only ever control your own. But empathy really helps, I think, to have a positive and concrete stance in your own progression.
Does your music make you feel good? Does it make you feel catharsis? Does it make you feel better?
It makes me feel. Like, it’s the thing in life that makes me present. It’s the best feeling in the world. Performing music and writing music is like – was just talking to Nick about this. It’s like the process of music, the process of art is the existence of who I am and my – it makes me feel whole. It makes me feel brilliant and it makes me feel bright and it makes me feel love and it makes me feel everything. That is where I am in the world. It’s like a fucking – it’s a cycle, man. It’s the best fucking thing, for sure.
What was the writing and recording process for the new record, Ultra Mono?
We start every album the same. So, we start with a title and a thesis, in a way, of what the album means. It always comes from where I’m at in my life and how to materialize that and express it in a fluent way, or as concise a way as possible. Because, you know, it’s popular culture. It’s not anything, you know, intellectual. I don’t want it to seem like its pseudo-intellectual where I’m dislocating myself from the audience. I want the audience to know that I am the audience and that it’s as much of a mirror as a window to where we are. It’s a mirror for me, you know? So, it starts off with the title. So, I started with Ultra Mono and then talked to the boys about it. And it just became that sense of presence and mindfulness and self-assurance and holistic philosophy where you are just in the present. So, yeah, it starts with that. And then [guitarist] Bowen and I would talk about the philosophy of what Ultra Mono is and then theorize and materialize how we will make the sounds of Ultra Mono. Like a momentary acceptance of the self, how does that sound? And where did you get that from, you know? That came from the idea to have, like, holistic presence in sound, we’d write every song around one single part and anything added to that song how to propel or exemplify or drive or magnify or contrast that single part. For every song written on this record. Then, you know, we pulled ideas from, like, techno and hip-hop and Wagner and all these different approaches to what kind of unity sounds like. The unified self – how can you make that a thing? So, yeah, that’s where the album went. And it took a while but as soon as we all managed to get in the same room together, it ran pretty quick. Then it was all completely written in a couple of months before we recorded in September.
I really enjoy hearing you talk about process. So, thank you. Let me ask as my final question, is there a story you’ve heard from a fan or audience member about how your music has helped them that you would like to share?
It’s a hard thing to say without it sounding cheap. There’s been lots of people that have contacted me, personally, through Instagram, or whatever. And, obviously, I’ve met loads of people along the way in person who have thought to share their story. But, to be honest, the most important story of all is that I saved my own life with the music. And I’ve tried to document as we’ve gone along. That’s why on every album there are songs about me being a real piece of shit to people. And, like, putting that out there so that people don’t feel isolated in imperfection. Because it’s rife – advertising companies and popular culture in general is about perfection, especially in Northern America. It’s the sense of – I felt isolated because I was looking at bands that looked amazing and cool. You know, that sense of cool that I would never have. And I wanted to build a platform in which I could feel safe and loved and beautiful and powerful. And I have. That’s what the music was for. And I hoped that other people would feel the same sense of security and love that I did from my music. That’s as far as I go with it, for sure.
Photo by Tom Gallo