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Interview with Idles singer Joe Talbot  

18 - 10 - 2023, London, Partisan Records office

"Tangk", the fifth album from the Bristol quintet Idles, brings some notable changes. First off, Kenny Beats and guitarist Mark Bowen, co-producers of their last  LP, "Crawler",  this time round are splitting production responsibility with Nigel Godrich, the man who has helped to shape the sound of Radiohead from early on in their career. As was to be expected with these new arrangements, Idles' sound has become much more varied, experimenting with new textures and dynamics, including a much more restrained approach to singing by Joe Talbot. The previous night, Idles have played a "small" gig in front of 700 fans and friends at London's Village  Underground. Joe is unhappy about the performance: unsatisfactory sound, he says, and a  stage that was too "small" for a band used to arenas and green fields nowadays.

Q: All these years that you’ve been going, how many prime ministers have you outlived?

Joe Talbot: Outlived, erm, oof, well - Gordon Brown was the first. Six. All cunts. The one I hate most is Boris Johnson. He’s a very nasty piece of work. Openly racist. He’s the epitome of British politics. He’s the exact person who should be prime minister in our country right now. He’s exactly what our country looks like. Cronyism, which is an English word for corruption. Basically the upper classes in this country are a very small minority of people who are from a different planet from most people in this country. In terms of culture and economics, it’s unfathomable how different it is. They are grotesquely ignorant to reality and to what people are going through on a day-to-day basis in the working classes. He is a cartoon of a human being, a human disgrace. And they’ll always get into power because they’re all in a small society that help each other through, they call it networking. But I don’t want this to become a depressing thing. But I hate all of them. I hate what they stand for, I don’t know them as a person. But I’m assuming I’d hate them. Despise all of them.

Q: To my mind, Johnson embodies a very British trait, that of a love of improvisation aka bullshitting in every situation. You say something that suits your agenda of the moment, like Johnson before Brexit, and you think of the consequences later. It can be a good thing in a creative context, but as an integral part of politics I'd say it's deeply suspect and dangerous.

J: Mhm. I don’t know any more, man. I think British politics has adopted strategies and cultures from politics all over the world. All detrimental to peoples’ mental and physical helps. We’ve taken from American politics, Russian politics, that idea of chaos. And people just want peace now. They want a reality, and they don’t care what that reality is. They’re just desperate for some stability. That idea that they can put a message on the side of a bus saying that they’re gonna spend x amount of money on the NHS, and then immediately, within hours of getting in, they take it back. That to me is insane. But I’m desperate for reality now.  I’m not gonna, like, succumb to some sort of lunacy. I’d rather have Keir Starmer, and that’s not saying much. He’s not a great leader, he’s far from left wing, but he’ll do – for now. And it’s not a sense of apathy but it’s a sense of – I want peace and relief.

Q: And that’s what this album is about?

J: No.

Q: No?

J: No. This album is way more important than politics. Politics is the super-ego, and art is the ego, and love is the id. I think I want to reconnect myself with the universe and start again. It’s got nothing to do with political policies. I know what’s right and what’s wrong in my heart. I know how I sleep well at night. And I wanna connect with people again. Connect with a sense of being a tiny thing and a huge thing. And I wanna make people dance and feel. I do not have any other intention than to make love happen.

Q: Does that differ from what you set out to do with the first four albums?

 J: No. it’s exactly the same. But I’m in a new chapter – I’m writing poetry and stories, and I am just in a different phase on my artistic journey. I’m not interested in dancing through anyone’s hoops. I’m just interested in what I wanna do. And at the moment that’s writing about love. I’ve always written about love. My political songs are love songs. They are want for empathy, they’re a want for people to connect with the songs and see something human in what I’m saying. Whether they do or not is their fucking problem. It’s always about love, fear and hunger. That’s what art is. I’ve always been transparent, and I’ve always been as visceral as I can be. Sometimes I compartmentalise things to put into a song, structure it, so it’s a few steps away from my inner self – but it’s all honesty. And at the moment I’m just not interested in doing anything but poetry.

Q: With a view of publishing it? And the stories?

J: Well, yeah, it’s a record, innit.

Q: You talking of poetry and stories makes me think of books, not so much records.

J: No - I don’t know. I haven’t thought about that. I’d like to – I’d love to write poetry. But for the page  it is different than for the record. It’s all poetry, but it’s the difference between ballet and break-dancing. A different form for a different venue. If I’d write poetry for a book, it would be for a book.

Q: Is it mostly the rhythms that are different?

J: Maybe not. My rhythm patterns – I don’t have a typical rhythm. I always change that. More like, reading is different to listening. It’s a different relationship we have, to see what’s on the page. I can decide how many spaces are between the words. There’s a visual aspect to it. I think that’s important. Typeface is important. Colour of paper. If I do something I control everything. Everything you see in Idles is visually controlled by me. I do all the design for a reason. I care about that. So writing poetry would be something I’d consider.

Q: How does the band take that? That you control everything?

J: I control everything visually. And if they’re not happy with the passenger seat they can take the ??? and see how it goes. They know I’m a better driver. So I enjoy it.

Q:  What was your favourite poetry 10 years ago?

J: How old am I now, 39. So, 29. Sylvia Plath, “Oh, Colossus”.

Q: Did you ever have a Kerouac/Ginsberg phase?

J: I’m still in that phase! That whole seeing things in a naïve way – well, Rothko is naïve, but that naivety is a gift. If you are able to start something and you’re naïve, that’s a gift. You might outgrow that naivety, but I think it’s beautiful. (…) The best retrospective I've ever seen was the Lucien Freud one. In the really early paintings you see the journey of their mind. I’ve got a 4 year old kid, and her drawings, I’ve seen her develop, she understands form without being taught, her choice of colours is insane.

Q: Your musical language, how do you go about that as a band?

J: It starts with a conversation between me and Bowen. Then we go our separate ways, make up some stuff, some ideas, and then we come back to the room with the boys and then we will direct it and see how it goes. But it always starts with a landscape and a theme and a palette. And I’ll have the title of the album and a theme and we’ll work around it.

Q: Where did the spelling of Tangk spring from?

J: I’ve done a series of things with a.n.g.k. – angk. I’m fascinated with onomatopoeias. I think it’s a very visceral part of any language. I like onomatopoeias, and looking at different languages. Even how cats miaow, it’s different in different languages. But I like that, cause – they’re all right. Almost a physiology behind that., That’s what I want from my music, that it has a visceral nature to it, a feeling. And this album is about feeling. I started that album by telling Bowen I wanted people to dance, wanted them to feel, I don’t want them to think, I want them to be on this basic level, a connection that’s physiological. That’s where the title came from. Been working on onomatopoeias in different ways for a long time. I had a zine called Cank, gank, a guitar sound. So Tangk, I wanted it to be a vessel like a tangk, and powerful, like tangk, and about love – when you change the spelling it makes it one step removed from the word that already exists, but has a connection but also has something new. I’ve coined a word but I have also stolen it. Which is what Idles is all about. It’s about the manifest of feeling, absorbing everything and making something fresh.

Q: The association I have with it is the word Ankst, Gorky’s Cygotic Mynci had an album with that title. Do you remember that band?

J: Ah, cool. I’ll have to look it up…Welsh music is often peculiar. Idles are peculiar.

Q: You’re from Newport…

J: I’m Welsh, yeah.

Q: Are Idles a Welsh band or a Bristol band?

J: The words are Welsh cause I’m Welsh. But I think we’re a Bristol band because we’re the product of Bristol. Because Bristol is one those places that celebrates difference. It comes from slavery, there’s a huge immigrant population, huge Polish population, huge African population. Caribbean. In the 60s they came over. It was a port. Lots of fucking pirates back in the days. It’s all based on a sense of subversiveness from togetherness in the nooks and crannies of the landscape, hiding in the corners and having a good fucking time. We know how to party, and we know how to celebrate each others’ differences. That’s a feeling. You ask anyone in Bristol, that’s no bullshit, that’s real. It’s a great place to live, but it’s not such a good place to visit, because you have to be there a bit to really get it.

Q: I've always liked Bristol and I’ve always thought that Massive Attack could only have happened in Bristol.

J: Yeah! Absolutely. And Portishead. And Tricky. And any Bristol sounds. That came from a culture clash. Jamaican sound system culture with whatever was going on at the time. It was explosive, and it happened in Bristol because people just fucking let it happen. There’s an energy, a vibe in Bristol.
Gian Swans, Spectors, a lot of great bands coming out of Bristol, Heavy Lungs, Scaler are great. Willy J. Healey. All very very different.

Q: This is going to be expensive, I’ll have to buy all this new stuff!

J: Stream it first. You might think it’s shit. But yeah, Scaler, Heavy Lungs, WJH, all great acts, all very different. It’s beautiful. Heavy Lungs, that's Danny Nedelko's band. Their album has just come out, it's  incredible.

Q: A question obviously I have to ask – Nigel Godrich?

J: And rightfully so! We did (youtube platform ) "From the Basement" (  https://www.youtube.com/@FromTheBasementOfficial  ) and the feeling in the room was electric. We worked beautifully together, all of us in a room, Nigel, us, his engineer. It felt magic, a really fluid day. And we wanted it to happen again. We knew we had an album coming up, we were always going to work with Kenny Beats again, he had to be on the album, but we were, like: why don’t we just ask Nigel, too? That’s our philosophy, well, not ours, we don’t own it, one we’ve adopted, and it was a no-brainer. He was enthusiastic, once we’d spoken. And the process was a lot harder than I thought it would be but also a lot more rewarding than I thought it would be.

Q: What was the hard bit?

J: Me.

Q: Your often singing in a much quieter style on this album. Was that the difficult bit?

Q: No. I had all the intention of singing on this album. That was before Nigel was involved. The hard bit came from the writing process which was different to what I was used to. Normally, Bowen and I write the music and then I listen to the music 200 times a song and then write in the booth in the studio. And Nigel’s philosophy is: it’s not a song until there’s a voice, someone singing it, the human element. And I was: it IS a song, whether I’m fucking singing  on it or not. But along the way there was a lot of – I was discombobulated. There was a lot of back and forth, writing, recording in his studio in London, and I was living in Bristol. I was coming out and not really enjoying being in London for three days. I just wanted to write and stick at it. Bowen and Nigel are very different. They’ve got brilliant minds, work differently than I, but they’re quite similar. So I felt a bit like a fish out of water. But Nigel and Bowen were very patient and eventually we got to the studio and everything changed. It was explosive again, beautiful, productive and fluid. I took a lot of him, Nigel. As a producer, he knew how to get it out of me to shine, finding balance in the room and encouraging the writing in the right way. Which happens in whatever way it  happens, everyone writes differently. He was great. It was a huge learning process for me, and I’m very grateful to him for it.

Q: There's a lot of great detail, like the strings that start Dancer – or Gospel, I really like that song, the subtlety. Was that Nigel’s input or did the band generally feel there needed to be more detail?

J: Erm, pft, it depends on the song. I think it was the marriage of all of us together and our hunger for it. Some of it was Kenny, some was Bowen, some of it was Nigel, some of it was me. Depends. It was our conversation, and it was all of us willing to try new things. The strings at the start of Dancer was because I really wanted the strings in the middle, I really wanted to use pizzicato strings, and the example I played Bowen was A Very Good Year from Frank Sinatra, and there’s this bit in the last quarter of the song when the strings come in and it adds huge depth to the song. I wanted that space to come in, because that song feels quite close. Bowen playing it at home on his piano, recorded it with an iPhone, so I wanted it to have some space in the middle and a restraint from somewhere else, so with Kenny I wrote that string part – he sent it to his strings guy in LA, and the morning after we had it. But the song I was playing Bowen before that was Frank Sinatra. And then Dean Martin came on as another example, and he said, we should have that at the start of Dancer. Bowen came up with that idea a few weeks later. Again, we sent it to Kenny’s guy in LA, and next day it was back.

Q: I think it’s probably your most dynamic album, just because it has those quiet spells in it. "Hall & Oates"…

J: Yeah, I wrote "Hall & Oates" on the toilet, listening to Gary Glitter. I was, like, what’s that song? Oh, my God, it’s GG. I really wanted to write this glam rock track. Pounding. I have a very beautiful relationship born out of lockdown with Willy J. Healy. He moved to Bristol from Oxford, and we started riding bikes together with our friend Ben, and it was just a real huge saving grace for me to find new friends, and exercise at the same time. I just thought it would be a beautiful piece to write, a love song about a beautiful friend who is a man. And it’s like a new energy. Like a new relationship. It was a joke, when you first make love with someone you have Hall & Oates in your head when you’re walking down the street  the next morning. So that was my reference to that.

Q: Amazing how many recordings and books came out of lockdown, people being free of any pressure to do anything.

J: Yeah, or I think a lot of people didn’t because suddenly they had all this freedom to write, and they couldn’t. I was very lucky person to come out of that having written so much.

Q: I'm sorry but I'm not really au fait with the lyrics yet – I always hear the music first a few times before the words begin to reach me.

J: Me, too. Me, too.

Q: But I did hear a “fuck the king” somewhere. What's the context?

J: Fuck every king, every king on this planet. Fuck them all. Fuck every monarchy. Fuck everything to do with monarchy. Fuck the thievery, fuck the thieves, fuck the system, fuck all of them. Thieving cunts, get them out. May they rot, the paedophilic bastards, fuck them. Fuck the king and his disgraceful fucking system that he’s built, his grandparents built, his great-grandparents built. They’re all stealing fucking wealth from the people who need it. There’s food banks in this country, and this fucking horrible cunt is coming along in a gold carriage and puts a crown on his head because he’s fucking born into a family. And you have a fucking government, and the House of Lords, that buy and inherit seats and make choices for my fucking child – fuck it all! I despise them with everything I have, I do not appreciate the king.

Q: It’s astonishing people still buying into this whole thing.

J: Is it? Look – someone like Boris Johnson can become prime minister. People will buy whatever. When there’s lunacy in the air, chaos, they need something safe like the monarchy.

Q: To what do you put this attitude down? Failure of education maybe?

J: I don’t know. To me it seems obvious. It’s just inherited lunacy. I don’t understand how House of Lords and monarchy still exists. Where it comes from, don’t know. Institutionalised racism, fear, ignorance - fuck knows, I don’t get it. But then I’m not here to judge people who don’t get it. I’m not here to – I don’t think I’m better than someone who likes the royal family. I’m just terrified. Scared in a country that’s fucking – the idea that they fill a pothole with sand so he can have a smooth ride in his carriage! Do you know how fucking insane that is! A pothole in a developed country, filled with sand – repair the tarmac and we can all have a smooth ride. Ignorant cunts.

Q: By the time the album comes out in February you’ll have written another album…

J: Yeah, yeah, yeah – I hope so. Maybe not an Idles record, though. I could do with something else.

Q: A solo album?

J: Nah! I don’t like to work on my own. I work with other people, always. It’s more fruitful. You got to keep yourself in check. Surround yourself with good people.