Idles are a rare thing in music these days – a band that has burrowed into the nation’s shared consciousness after almost a decade of cultivating inspiration through industry.
Debut album Brutalism, released last month to universal praise, has been heralded as a sign of the burgeoning erudite counterculture so many have been crying out for flickering into being. Early singles ‘Well Done’ and ‘Mother’ both give eviscerating takes on class baiting Tories, white privilege and the roots of violence against women. And while the band itself sometimes delivers these messages in humorous and irreverent ways, the anger and disillusion that drives them is never far from the surface.
When Gigwise catches up with the band they’re in Scotland on a tour that started last year “to half empty rooms” but now, from the outside at least, has the feel of something more urgent and meaningful.
Despite the appearance to us that everything is changing at dizzying speed, frontman Joe Talbot has a different perspective on the band’s long-arc trajectory.
“Our mentality has always been just to work had, not focus on the bullshit around it and just enjoy ourselves. So it doesn’t feel like it’s taken a long time, it doesn’t feel like this is the right time. It’s all been beautiful. Playing to three people is just as good as playing to 200 people, or however many it is on any given night now. It doesn’t matter to us; we’ve just been having fun. All of it’s good.”
Whereas some may see this prolonged run-up to musical success as a useful apprenticeship, Talbot feels he has “always been ready” to step up when the labels came calling.
“Maybe not on the alcohol and drugs front, but in terms of everything else yeah. We’ve all worked really hard for this and I think as a band we’ve always been ready. The people who are coming to see us now feel like they own us more [because of our history].
“It feels more like a community than if we were just a hype band that just blew up out of nowhere. I trust the people who come to our shows now. There’s a lot of mutual love and trust and people feel like they’re part of us. On stage we don’t feel like we’re any better than people on the floor you know? We built this together. It’s not like the industry has thrown us into the limelight; we’ve all worked hard, including the people paying for tickets to see us. It’s all come as one and that’s what we’ve always wanted in a way; to do it on our own terms with the people that love music.”
Togetherness and solidarity are very important concepts for Idles. Talbot says the political and social themes that have always shone through their music come naturally as “it’s part of who we are as people”.
“It’s what we talk about when we go down the pub. Not all of our songs are political. ‘White Privilege’, it’s part-political but really it’s about me in my first year at uni and what a state I was in – realising that I was wasting other people’s taxes. It’s all about just writing honestly. For us that comes across as political because we’re all politically-minded for different reasons. We’re not all in synch politically but we do all think about things and have well-formed opinions. I’m not going to write about love or pizza because it’s just not in me.”
While Idles are flying the flag for artists on a Quixotic mission to tilt at society’s windmills, the increasingly risk-averse nature of the major labels’ operations and homogenous musical output sees them ploughing a lonely furrow in 2017. And Talbot isn’t entirely happy about it.
“Fuck yes I see a dearth of artists who sing about real issues on the scene now,” he says. “I work in a home for adults with learning disabilities and we have radio 1 on in the kitchen every day. And it’s tripe, it’s disgusting. The machine is working well. It’s always the same, ‘let’s all go out and have a good time. Tonight’s the night. Party, yeah!’
“It’s all over-sexualised songs written for 12-year-olds, it’s a bit weird isn’t it? So Ed Sheeran’s new track, it’s all like I’m in love with your body. It’s shite.” But he doesn’t see the whole scene as a lost cause and has plenty of praise for some of the new bands emerging in 2017. And he believes the country's current woes could at least lead to opportunities for artists who might otherwise have played out their time in the wilderness.
“It's not like there aren't political bands out there but they just haven't been given the time because it's not fashionable. But nowadays people are super pissed off and the big corporates in the music industry are realising that they can't just keep selling the dream to disenfranchised people. It's as clear as fucking day we're being fucked at both ends - the Tories are winning. So people who spend money on records don't want to hear songs about how great life is because it's not. They're realising they need to open the doors to people like us because that's what people want to hear."
He cites Lice, Cabbage and Shame as three bands that are primed to lead this new politically-engaged counterculture. As well as sharing common ground politically, these bands all share a frantic musical energy that cannot be ignored. And that's important. We shouldn't let the politics distract us from the fact that Idles are an immensely powerful rock and roll unit. They play hard, there's snarling and naked aggression that so much music lacks now, and it's a joy. However, the two of the band's two key influences, The National and Radiohead, might not be the first that you associate with this style. Talbot doesn't see it this way though.
"Our sound comes from the five of us meeting in the middle musically. Radiohead are still a big influence, Johnny Greenwood's guitar work is definitely a big influence on us. And there are songs where you can hear we were trying to be The Maccabees, trying to be Radiohead or trying to be The National. But we've found our own sound now. There's actually a rip off of a National beat in one of our songs if you care to find it. But it's all there, from Van Morrison to hip hop and grime. But now we've let go of our influences so it's more of a motor reflex of those sounds rather than an over-attack of them. It takes a long time for an artist to be confident enough just to enjoy doing your own thing when there are so many people who do it better before you."
And now is the time for Idles to be themselves, to let rip with the full force of delivering a powerful message of love and unity through music and to take the world by storm. As Talbot himself says, you feel they've always been ready for this. Now they are match-fit and are being unleashed on a public that is desperate to embrace them, and there's never been a better time for a group of talismanic post-punk heroes to grab the country by the balls and never let go. Idles, your time is now. Now get to work.
Idles will play Download Festival 9 - 11 June