“I find love fascinating and empowering”

It’s the week of Valentine’s Day and the stench of love still hangs thick in the air. Could it be a clever marketing ploy from Idles‘ record label to drop their loved-up and sentimental fifth album ‘Tangk‘ at this opportune moment? “I don’t know if that was on purpose, maybe it was,” smiles frontman Joe Talbot some weeks before, resplendent in mohair cardigan and full of the joys on the oncoming spring.

There’s a line in recent single ‘Grace’ where Talbot offers “No god, no king, I said, love is the thing“. It’s a driving mantra and repeated motif throughout the album. For the frontman, who re-entered therapy ahead of the record, it became a a design for his own life rather than a banner for the world. It may seem deep, but simplicity is key amidst all the noise.

“Being a father and at a time of complete and utter lunacy with think tanks running the country, lies everywhere and everyone so fucking apathetic because they’re dead from being lied to – for me, it’s all about ground zero,” he tells NME as we meet in an east London hotel. “How can I sustain a sense of purpose in such a fucking psychotic mess? For me, that’s about going to the basics and fighting for what I truly think is important.”

He continues: “I was starting to go through the same fucking bullshit cycles of behaviour, and I wanted to stop it. It’s surprising how much more it takes to break those cycles. I looked within, and I found that I needed love. I understood that writing love songs has, seemingly, been done. But it hasn’t for me, so I don’t fucking care!”

And we’re all the better for it, as Talbot explains to us what it means to be in tune with your heart, with your demons, and putting the personal over politics rather than ranting from a soapbox.

Hello Joe. What can you tell us about approaching love songs on this album?

Talbot: “I’m interested in showing the different facets of love that are not so conventional, but are very fucking important: empathy, patience, honesty, communion, hard work, recovery, forgiveness. That’s what I wrote about. I’m still there. I’m still going to need to go through it, and I’m still very much interested in writing about love forevermore. I find it fascinating and empowering.”

Do you find it more interesting than when you were wearing your anger and rage on your sleeve a bit more?

“I was not wearing anger on my sleeve. I was wearing a passion and a violence on my sleeve. The anger was what I realised was putting me in very bad places. I wasn’t holding myself accountable for the things that I was doing, and I needed to create a new avenue in which to heal and better myself, so I started a band. People misread it as anger, and they like to write about it as anger because it’s easy. It’s not anger: it’s violence, it’s a brushstroke, it’s a cadence, it’s a tone, it’s a fucking guitar sound.

“I get that. I was presenting it as very basic and simple, because I wanted to address complex issues with a sense of compassion and simplicity. The human condition is very complex, but the basic needs are quite simple. When you get to the crux of that, you can start making a change with who you vote for, the drugs you take, the drugs you don’t take etc. Because I shouted it was easy-pigeonholed and that’s no fault but my own.”

IDLES, 2024. Credit: Daniel Topete
IDLES, 2024. Credit: Daniel Topete

Well, you were shouting ‘I FUCKING LOVE YOU’ at the same time…

“Exactly! Obviously the complexities were there for me. I tried to talk about it. It sometimes worked, it sometimes didn’t, but that’s why I’m still here and working at it. For me, it’s always about the human condition and wanting to connect to something bigger than myself. That’s all it’s ever been.”

Tell us about collaborating with LCD Soundsystem for ‘Dancer‘ – that marriage of punk and movement seems like a pretty perfect fit?

“I think most musicians want the same thing. Artists are often people with delicate egos, and they either use art to break it down and show themselves bare, or to build up a really beautiful shield and mask. It’s a different conversation but it’s always around existential growth – unless it’s vapid music; which is fine! I’m not here to bark at anyone, but my interest is about having a connection to the universe. It sounds wanky, but it’s true. When I started the band, I was very lonely and scared and I wanted to build something that I could feel safe in.

“There’s an energy when everyone in a room just connects and dances to the same beat. It’s fucking magic.”

Did you talk about that with James Murphy?

“We didn’t need to talk about it, because we were touring together so were doing it and feeling it every night. What we did talk about was all the other stuff; that once you’ve made that love and energy and come off stage and you’re all buzzing, you just connect on normal shit and celebrate life. It was a really beautiful tour. They’re just incredible human beings. We learned a lot as a business and as humans. They helped us out loads, for no reason other than to help us out.”

Is it fair to say that there’s a generosity of spirit at the heart of ‘Tangk’?

“Yes. If you act with love, if you act with empathy, if you act with compassion, then hopefully you will see that there is no love in voting for the right. It’s a loveless act, but we’ll see. This is what I’m coming to terms with: my music will not make a difference in that way, other than me. I’m comfortable with that. As long as I sleep at night knowing that I’m doing the right thing for me, I’m cool with that. I’m always going to be a cheerleader outwardly. I’m lucky that I’ve been gifted a life that I’m very, very grateful for. I’m going to celebrate that, and that’s how it comes out in ‘Tangk’.”

In the age of social media, everyone’s expected to have an opinion on everything and state the morally obvious, when you could just live it instead…

“Social media is just algorithms. What you see is what they allow you to see and you need to remember that. It’s bollocks. My reality is the one that I’ve indoctrinated by what I look at and what I don’t look at. Now, whatever I want I get, but what I need I’ll never have – in terms of information.”

IDLES have never been a band with a political manifesto as such, right?

“I would say that the manifesto is, ‘All is love, love is the thing’. I’ve been saying it from the start. It’s about human connection. It’s the fable of the sun and the wind: you can fucking blow as hard as you can and just keep screaming down the barrel of the gun and it ain’t gonna change shit. But if you shine and you show people compassion, you listen and you have an open heart, then maybe that connection will be made.

“Art and music is whatever you want it to be. I also like people shouting at me and telling me I’m a prick sometimes. It’s all important. I grew up on hip-hop, but I did not live that life – but it’s important to me and I fucking love it. My calling is what I’m doing, and I’m loving it very much so and I’m grateful to be here.”

IDLES, 2024. Credit: Daniel Topete
IDLES, 2024. Credit: Daniel Topete

How important was subtlety? The feeling of this record has a delicacy and purity to it.

“‘Delicate’ is the word. Since becoming a father, I’ve addressed that in my art. I was a very impatient man; even after sobriety. I was a fucking nasty bastard back in the day when I wanted to be, and I hurt a lot of people. I wanted to stop, and that takes time and forgiveness. I found patience, but in the most beautiful way. I’m covered in someone else’s faeces, and someone else is shouting at me with their hand on their hip because they’re running late for something. It makes me laugh! It makes me realise just how fucking silly it is.

“If you just put yourself in that little person’s shoes, you can do that with anyone. I’m starting to do that. I was very fucking disheartened by post-Brexit Britain, then you realise everyone’s been massively fucking lied to. They knew they were lying, and there are people there with lives and stories. I just had to be more patient to understand it. Now I’m worried, but I don’t carry that sense of resentment towards decisions that are detrimental to… free trade? Let’s put it that way… fucking pricks.”

So fatherhood has softened you?

“I’ve learned from being a dad that to go through things with grace, be delicate and to celebrate the small beautiful things that you can overlook so easily if you’re impatient with the world, you miss out on a lot of tiny details that will make your day. It’s got to come out in my art, because that’s how I am.”

IDLES, 2024. Credit: Daniel Topete
IDLES, 2024. Credit: Daniel Topete

You told us once that ‘Ultra Mono’ was about killing off a caricature of Idles and then ‘Crawler’ was about recapturing an essence. How would you describe that essence and how were you pulling the strings of that on ‘Tangk’?

“The best way to describe it is that we’ve always been the band we are now. The IDLES we are now is like looking at a piece of paper and picturing a building. You draw it, but the building you’ve drawn isn’t what you’ve got in your head. To get to a point where you can draw on paper what you have in your head – your mind’s picture – it takes a lot of practice.

“We got to a point where there was a lot of conversation about who we are, and that wasn’t up to anyone else. No person can tell you who you are; that’s insane. It’s a toxic relationship, so we killed that. Now we’re just exploring again. We’ve got rid of that toxic boyfriend who was telling us what to wear, and now we’re wearing whatever the fuck we want. That’s the sound of the last two albums and will be the sound of the rest.

“Maybe one day we’ll make an album that’s just really succinct, but then we’ll have to drink the kool-aid or jump off a cliff… in matching tracksuits, obviously. Hopefully IDLES’ albums are the sound of us never getting there. Making it is making it.”

So it’s over if you ever make the perfect album?

“If you think you’ve made the perfect album then you should quit, start something, challenge yourself and make yourself feel uncomfortable. You owe it to your audience to feel uncomfortable, to be insular and work at everything. Unless you’re doing it just to sell records, and I’m sure that would be uncomfortable for a different reason.”

There’s a line in the song ‘Jungle’ where you sing: ‘Save me from me – I’m found, I’m found, I’m found’. With ‘Tangk’ now behind you, how do you feel?

“Powerful. I’ve got a lot of challenges this year that are very, very privileged. I’ve got to try and sustain a sense of health – mental health, because I’m touring the world with my brothers. I get to spend quality time with my child and live a very beautiful life, but to do that properly, as with any good art, you need to show gratitude and work for that.  For me, that’s a sense of graft so I’m just going to keep working at it. I’ve got two years of it solid. I’m not going to stop.”

Do you try to sensibly put things in boxes: I’m an artist, I’m a performer, I’m a father, I’m not a spokesman…

“Yes, and it’s a difficult one. My advice would be: don’t separate. If you separate then there’s not a sense of accountability or causality for your actions. This is coming from an addict’s point of view: have a sense of stability throughout so when I’m onstage I’m the father I want to be and when I’m at home I’m the artist I want to be. That way, the dichotomy is just about circumstance rather than the person.

“It’s good to wear masks and to perform well in each arena, but underneath that it should you be you – solid and with the same beliefs, the same behaviour and the same actions, so as not to be a hypocrite.”

Very wise. Anything to add?

“Fuck the king, stick that on the end. Fuck yeah – fuck the king!”

‘Tangk’ by Idles is out now, with the band touring throughout 2024. Visit here for tickets and more information. 

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