Joe Talbot, who normally uses his bullhorn-of-a-voice to stir or alarm, opens Idles’ latest album with a soft croon and closes it with a comforting hum. This time, he’s acting not just as a force of nature but as a tool of nurture, and that’s no coincidence. In the time between the release of the band’s last album, Crawler, a top ten hit in 2021, and the new one, titled Tangk, he and primary musician Mark Bowen both became fathers. “When you become a parent, you’re in charge of this very vulnerable thing,” Talbot said. “Suddenly, you’re accountable for someone else’s wellbeing and that makes you soften. It makes you think more. You become more mindful of your language, more mindful of everything.”
Not that Talbot has ever been unaware of his either his emotions or his motivations. In fact, he and Idles have staked a key part of their reputation on serving as one of the most transparent bands in modern music, not to mention one of the most successful. All four of their previous albums have made the UK top 10. One of them, Ultra Mono, hit No 1. The ethos of forthrightness that has guided them through all of this is evident in everything from Talbot’s declarative way of vocalizing to his will to air his personal struggles in the press to the group’s placard-waving political views. “I can’t hide who I am,” Talbot said. “And I’ve never felt the necessity to lie.”
Even, it seems, if that means dealing with incredibly difficult subjects in his lyrics and interviews. Over the years Talbot has openly dealt with his mother’s alcoholism and early demise, the stillborn death of his first child, as well as his own harrowing struggles with substance abuse. This time, however, he has set a limit on his candor. In the lead-up to the new album, he and his wife separated. But when asked if that had any effect on his new lyrics, a wall came down. “You absolutely do not get that,” he said. “That’s about people who are not involved in the band so it’s not fair to include them.”
Talbot was less reluctant, though hardly eager, to talk about a new relationship he has found, a change that inspired some giddy lyrics on the new album. “I’m in a very beautiful place,” he said. “And I’m very grateful.”
In case you miss the point, he titled a song on the album Grateful, and another one Grace. Together, they serve as emotional tentpoles for the loving tone of the whole album. (In our conversation, Talbot used the word “love” no fewer than 18 times). All of which isn’t to paint the new album as soft or gooey. Along the way, there’s plenty of the old fury and aggression, and the love that Talbot wrote about is in no way simplistic. “People might think they understand what a love song is,” he said. “But these songs are my version of love, which, in the past, has been very dark and broken. I’ve learned how to explore those emotions, which is why I’m able to be vulnerable on this record.”
It’s also part of why his approach to his vocals has broadened. “I don’t have to hide behind violence any more,” he said. “I can be melancholic, or wistful, or flaky and not see that as indulgent. For instance, when Nina Simone was at her most delicate, there was still a lightning bolt behind it.”
Those aren’t the only changes on the new album. For the first time, Idles worked with a major producer, Nigel Godrich, who’s perhaps best known for his long association with Radiohead. “I’ve wanted to make an album produced by Nigel Godrich since I was 13 and heard OK Computer,” said Mark Bowen who, along with Talbot, spoke for the interview from the band’s cramped rehearsal studio in London.
Still, the prospect of actually getting to work with the A-list producer intimidated the hell out of them. “We had a lot of deference for music we saw as the upper echelon, which we thought was unattainable for us,” Bowen said. “A Radiohead album, or a Portishead album, that’s for geniuses! It takes something that we don’t have to create something like that. What we learned is that it’s not that difficult to attain if you put work into it. We learned that there are no geniuses.”
Bowen, who has always had a hand in the band’s production, worked alongside Godrich to hone a variety of new textures in the songs. (The album’s title, Tangk, is meant to be an onomatopoeia for the impact of the music). “It was a bit like going to school,” Bowen said. “I learned a lot about tape loops and the way he uses distortion and reverb and delay. It’s so old school, yet it sounds novel.”
At the same time, the album upholds the principle of subverting expectations that has served as the band’s mantra ever since their debut work in 2017. Titled Brutalism, the album was a musical hand grenade, packed with serrated riffs, deadbolt beats and vocals from Talbot that landed the knockout blow. “We were very interested in the violence of art,” Talbot said. “Violence in a brushstroke, in a typeface, in anything. We saw the currency in it.”
They also saw a use for it – namely, to counter the predominant voices in Britain at the time. “We wanted to use our violence to cut through the violence in advertising and popular media and journalism to create a conversation in opposition,” Talbot said.
The subjects the band sparred with along the way ranged from white privilege to Brexit to immigration to class, with a special wallop reserved for the crueler aspects of traditional masculinity. Not since the early work of Henry Rollins, in fact, has a band used hyper-masculine sounds and imagery primarily as a way to push back against those very things. Perhaps inevitably, all of this brought a backlash, with musicians like Jason Williamson of Sleaford Mods and members of Fat White Family publicly questioning Talbot’s sincerity and depth on the subjects he tackles. “It’s aimed at me because I’m a loudmouth,” Talbot said.
But the result has affected the whole group, leading some to try to categorize Idles as a political band. Asked how he feels about that description, Talbot first offered a blunt “no comment”. One beat later, however, he began a comment that lasted 10 full minutes. “People want to own us and tell us who we are,” he said, heatedly. “I have always been interested in writing about empathy and communion as a tool to fight the fascist government that we are under. I don’t see that as political. I see that as humane. I despise our government. I fucking hate them! I hate every single lie that comes out of their fucking, horrible mouths. And I hope they are crushed in the next general election.”
Though Bowen had a more even-tempered response, it was no less resolute. “Our political dynamic is so integral to who we are as people that the notion that something is not political is anathema to us,” he said. “It’s a huge part of who we are.”
An equal part concerns the intent behind their protest. While the lyrics on the new album may put extra emphasis on love and support amid the calls for change, Talbot insists such emotions have been central to his message from the start. “I’ve always come with compassion, with self-reflection and love,” he said. “And I’ve always talked about being grateful.”
The difference this time is that his tone more often mirrors those feelings. The song Pop Pop Pop epitomizes the change. Its lyrics co-opt a term that has gained some popularity in the press of late: “freudenfreude”. In essence, the term means to take pleasure from someone else’s success, as opposed to the classic word “schadenfreude”, which means to take joy from someone else’s suffering. “‘Schadenfreude’ is such a pathetic thing,” Talbot said. “There’s a lot of that in the British press and in British culture. It’s in the class system and I hate it. Right now, there are a lot of people who feel unsafe and unheard and that turns them into very sadistic and mean people. You give them something like the internet and the tabloid press and the broadsheets and they can turn into vindictive egos on the attack.”
Another song on the album that’s meant to counter the culture’s cruelty has a title that, clearly, was chosen well before a recent, high-profile pop culture story broke. Titled Hall & Oates, the song means to celebrate the power of friendship. “My ex and I used to joke about how when you make love for the first time, the morning after it’s like the birds are singing and Hall & Oates is playing,” Talbot said. “I like the idea of friendship being the same as making love.”
The bitter lawsuits between Daryl Hall and John Oates have made them anything but role models for that feeling now. But to Bowen and Talbot, the public’s shocked reaction to the news only proves how deeply the duo used to trade on such things. “They’ve broken the magic,” Talbot said. “And fucking right they should. They’re two human beings who should break up if they want to.”
By contrast, the members of Idles have never felt more in sync or driven. In a little over six years, they’ve recorded five important works and toured furiously, with a planned run that’s meant to eat up most of this year with dates crisscrossing several continents. There’s a reason for their relentlessness. “You get a little worried that if you go away, you’re not going to be able to seize it back,” Bowen said. “You need to keep working.”
The fruits of that labor were clearly on their minds the day we spoke, stoked by the setting of the interview. “When we first started in this very room to write songs, we dreamt of this,” Bowen said.
If the results have made Talbot more grateful than ever, a certain edge underlies it. “Gratitude is about understanding your privilege and paying it back with hard work,” he said. “But, for us, hard work doesn’t mean writing the same shit every day. It means transgressing and making yourself uncomfortable creatively in order to make something that’s, hopefully, even more brilliant.”