‘I'm not the next Billy Bragg’: On the road with Idles’ Joe Talbot

The band’s debut album, Brutalism, was hailed as a rage-fuelled masterpiece. The singer recalls how frustration at being a carer for his sick mum led him down a dark path – and how he learned to channel that anger

A man walks into a bar and says: “Have you got any alcohol-free lager?” The landlady asks: “Why, love? Are you driving?” “No,” he says. “I’m a recovering alcoholic.”

It’s not the world’s worst man-walks-into-a-bar joke: the man is Joe Talbot, the 33-year-old singer in Idles. He could have said he was driving or had a heavy one last night, but he didn’t because Talbot thinks it’s important to be honest. An hour and a half later, walking back from the Deal Cutter pub – where they do serve alcohol-free beer – to the Ramsgate Music Hall, where Idles are playing that night, Talbot wants to ask something: “Do you think I was being honest in that interview?” No idea. That’s for you to answer, isn’t it? He nods. “Yeah, I suppose so.”

A week on, backstage at Heaven in London, Talbot is thinking about why he asked that question. “I just want to be honest because I feel like it takes such a weight off your shoulders and it’s a cathartic process when you realise what an arsehole you were to your mate or to your ex-girlfriend, or whoever, and you explore that. That’s how you improve. I always wonder: what if I were a journalist and I felt someone was going through the motions – bullshitting – it would be a waste of my time. I like to explore the idea of seeing how honest I was because it’s new to me. So it’s interesting. Did I lie? Did I avoid saying certain things in a certain way?”

Those familiar with the work of Idles may find themselves wondering what on earth he’s on about. Their debut album, Brutalism, felt like the most honest album of 2017. Over furious, high-velocity punk rock, Talbot addressed male rage, the death of his mother, the burden of expectation, the state of the NHS and pretty much anything else that was on his mind. Except, back then, he was still drinking – he stopped in February, cold turkey, no meetings – and so every piece of truth was filtered through the arsehole he had been when he drank. “I’m not a good drinker. It doesn’t suit me. It really suits Bowen [Mark Bowen, one of Idles’ two guitarists]. He’s a funny drinker. My girlfriend’s a good drinker. But I’m just a prick. I get paranoid, jealous, angry, violent.”

As Idles unload their gear at Ramsgate Music Hall, their tour manager sets about cleaning the mics with disinfectant wipes. The previous night’s show in Southend had been so sweaty, he says, that he feels the mics need it. The venue manager had wanted to put the air conditioning on, but the band wanted it sweaty.

“But when I get sweaty, it shows my bald spot,” complains Lee Kiernan, the group’s other guitarist – and other recovering addict. “The photographers always wait until I’m bending over, sweaty, and then they shoot it.”

Guitarist Mark Bowen, the ‘court jester’, on stage.
Guitarist Mark Bowen, the ‘court jester’, on stage. Photograph: Burak Cingi/Redferns

That evening, it is sweaty, but the room is too small for any photographers to be there, so Kiernan remains unexposed. Talbot prowls his tiny space: with slick-backed hair, tattoos and a sizeable moustache, he looks as if he has walked off a 19th-century Mississippi paddle steamer, having fleeced the other passengers in card games. The men – overwhelmingly men – at the front shout at Talbot in between songs. Someone calls out the chorus to Mother, from Brutalism: “Motherfucker!” “How nice to see men pushing each other to a song about impotent male rage,” Talbot replies.

“The whole point of that song was that it was meant to be an exploration of womanhood and my feminist standpoint,” Talbot says later. “But people just think it’s funny to swear. I’m not going to change how I write to make more people understand me or get my sarcasm.”

The next week, Talbot returns to the gap between his intentions and the crowd’s reactions. It has been on his mind. “I get it,” he says of the sweary shouting. “We’ve been playing in small towns and there’s a lot of frustrated impotence there. I was one of those dudes when I was younger, in a fucking fishbowl wanting to get out. But it’s about trying to educate by example. I want to be able to sound like a Viz character, but also have the poise and intellect to convey something different.” Talbot celebrates these ordinary men. “That’s important; normality has been bastardised by the media into being something that’s not valuable. To be a 33-year-old chubby man with club feet is just as beautiful as being Ryan Gosling. We have been given the platform to be normal and that’s where the wall’s gone down. Creating a dialogue between us and the audience and keeping that going is our art, I guess.”

Joe Talbot … ‘I still have this impotent rage in me.’
Joe Talbot … ‘I still have this impotent rage in me.’ Photograph: RMV/Rex/Shutterstock

Educating by example goes further, too. Another week on, over the phone, Talbot says: “We’re not a political band.” He means they’re not party political; instead, politics is part of everyday life: “For me, it’s fundamental. It’s in my frontal lobe.” So Divide and Conquer, from Brutalism, is about the NHS. (“A loved one perished at the hand of the barren-hearted right.”) When his mother died in hospital in Newport, he wondered if she would have lived longer under a different government. “Probably,” he says. “But what happens with the discourse of politics is it dehumanises, when the whole point of politics is the wellbeing of the individual and the community.” Similarly, the track Danny Nedelko from their forthcoming second album, Joy As An Act of Resistance, turns a policy debate into real people: “My blood brother is an immigrant,” Talbot sings, “a beautiful immigrant / My blood brother’s Freddie Mercury / A Nigerian mother of three.”

“Look at the decisions that are being made,” Talbot says, referring to the Windrush scandal. “What happens is that, on a human level, families are completely fucking torn apart. Families that are 50 years British. I’m trying to turn politics from a game of risk into the stories of different individuals who are affected by the decisions made by politicians.”

That said, he refuses to be a campaigner. He has Conservative friends and he assumes they want the same things he does – “for their families to be safe, warm and fed” – but believe there’s a different path to getting there. He votes Labour (“as the lesser of three evils”), but he won’t tell people how to vote. “I’m not the next fucking Billy Bragg.”

It would probably help to understand Idles if you had some idea who Talbot is. That reference to the 33-year-old chubby man with club feet is him. He’s neither chubby nor club-footed now – he is strikingly handsome – but that’s who he was. As a kid, he had surgery on his feet 11 times. He couldn’t play football (“I played some basketball because it was with my hands. Couldn’t jump, so I wasn’t great at it”) or do much exercise, so he was overweight. Childhood was “being laughed at, being stared at. And you just feel like a piece of shit.” The chubby, club-footed kid is still within him, waiting to be laughed at, he says.

His parents split when he was six months old and his mother, Christine, worked for the Inland Revenue until she took early retirement after a heart attack. She got bored and went to work for Tesco, until that second career was cut short by a stroke when he was 16. When Talbot’s stepfather died, he had to become her carer. He loved his mother, but he didn’t love being responsible for her. Drugs, drink and inebriated violence became part of his life. “It was an avoidance of reality. I was always the last one at parties because I didn’t want to wake up and be responsible for my mum and for myself. I felt the weight of sunrise: the responsibility disc coming up.”

Christine died when Idles were making Brutalism, hence her haunting the album’s songs. But her death freed Talbot. “It allowed me to become me. I’d been terrified of letting her down. I’d been terrified of being a shit son: I don’t want to fuck this up. So I’d just avoid it all and get pissed.” When he was her carer, he says: “I was a horrible beast. My functionality tricked me into thinking I was OK, but just functioning is dangerous because you have this impotent rage that goes silent for however long, but it’s going to come out. I still have it in me, but it’s a pragmatic rage and it’s an important part of who I am and I make sure it comes out in the art and not in the relationships.” The rage came out in Brutalism; so, in a literal sense, did Christine, when her ashes were pressed into 100 vinyl copies of the record.

Last year, as Idles began writing and working on Joy As An Act of Resistance, Talbot was preparing to become a father. But his daughter, Agatha, died during the birth. “My daughter dying came at a point where you either talk about it every day, or you don’t and you end up killing someone.” Eventually, he says, he and his partner were able to “come out grieving as opposed to completely submerged in grief. I went on tour – it was a bad time; I was a mess inside. We really had to go through our relationship and fix ourselves and each other with counselling. We got through it and we’re still together. Fuck knows how.”


At this point, Kiernan, who has been listening, speaks up. “I was livid when that happened.” A pause. “Because dead baby trumps alcoholic drug addict. He has always got one up on me now.” Talbot laughs. “You are no longer the saddest story.”

Just as Christine flitted in and out of Brutalism, so Agatha (and Talbot’s father – an artist, still alive) dart through the excoriating songs of Joy as an Act of Resistance. “This one is shaped by my daughter,” Talbot says. “The first one was about womanhood. This is about manhood. And the realisation that to progress as a person I need to rely on people more, to share more and be vulnerable. It was a new kind of grief, and I had to learn to love myself and rely on my friends to take some of the weight because it was too big to take on my own.”

After all that, the intertwined rage and joy that flow through Idles on stage becomes more understandable. Bowen, stage right, is the court jester: improbable facial hair, inability to stay still; bassist Adam Devonshire stands to the left of drummer Jon Beavis, stepping up to his mic to deliver backing vocals that usually go something like: “Wrrrroaargh!” Kiernan is stage left, hunched over his guitar. Talbot is in the centre, the MC, the eye of the storm, the one addressing the rage and promoting the joy.

He says he always knew he would be involved in something, even when he was a fat 10-year-old with club feet. “I believed I could play in the NBA. I believed I could do it. I always had this affinity with people paying attention to me. That was narcissism. Then my mum had her stroke and became paralysed and the wind got kicked out me. I realised there was no place for narcissism. Narcissists always believe one day everyone will listen to them. I’m not like that any more, but I don’t like to sit back and be a spectator. So I was not necessarily going to be a frontman, but I was definitely going to be involved. I’ve got no patience and I couldn’t learn an instrument. That’s why I became a frontman.”

He stops and then offers his credo. “I think words are the most powerful and important thing we have.”


Michael Hann

The GuardianTramp

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