Idles a subversive band that disagrees vehemently with our government
Brit-nominated Bristol band Idles played their debut Belfast gig this month. Kevin McSorley snagged a quick chat with Welsh frontman Joe Talbot and guitarist Mark Bowen, formerly of this parish, just before they went on stage
LISTENING to five-piece Bristol band Idles is like getting headbutted and hugged at the same time. With the release of their incendiary and infectious second album Joy As An Act Of Resistance last year, the post-punk outfit have achieved both critical and commercial success.
They reached number five in the UK album charts, got nominated for a Brit award and made a memorable appearance on Later… with Jools Holland. I caught up with frontman Joe Talbot and guitarist Mark Bowen, who hails from Belfast, moments before they took to the stage for their recent first gig in Northern Ireland, at The Empire.
“I was in a band in school and we used to play gigs in the Front Page," Bowen said, recalling his musical apprenticeship at the Donegall Street venue. "We were kind of like a covers band. We did a few of our own songs but, they were – I don’t know how to describe them – kind of like, 'Oh look, this band have just discovered The Strokes'; that kind of thing.”
Bowen moved to Bristol for university and met Talbot on the DJ scene.
“Me and Joe share a mutual friend who is a promoter and he was putting on a night at a venue Joe worked in,” he recalled.
Talbot: “Yeah, it was the opening night and Mr Oizo was playing. It was amazing and we met because I was DJing indie nights there and our mate was promoting nights that both I DJed at and Bowen DJed at and then we just found out we had a lot more in common outside of music. Music was there – but we just got on and made each other laugh. It’s because one of us is Irish and one of us is Welsh. So we’re funnier.”
Talbot was born in Newport, on the Bristol Channel, once the home of punk legend Joe Strummer.
“I grew up in England," he told me. "[But] I was born in Newport and my family are Welsh. So, I’ve always thought of myself as Welsh. Joe Strummer lived in Newport for a while. My dad knew him... they weren’t mates but they were mates of mates so, he would hang out with Joe Strummer now and again.”
So, were The Clash an influence on the Bristol band?
“We’re a subversive band that disagrees vehemently with our conservative government," Talbot said. "We are left leaning, very left leaning comparatively to what’s about now. We want change and our tool, our platform, is music.
"So, if you are a subversive act, then you probably are in some way influenced by The Clash, because at that point in time, their bravery to do what they did and to push boundaries and to break down rules, as Malcolm McLaren did in very different ways, you can’t ignore that. You are definitely part of that heritage, whether you want to be or not.
"You don’t have to like The Clash to be influenced by them. Just what they were and what they sounded like and their celebration of all different kinds of cultures – that’s a massive part of Britain.”
Despite being a post-punk band, Idles cited hip hop as a key influence.
“Idles is hip hop," Talbot said. "It’s everything that we’re made of. I grew up on hip hop. Hip hop is in my writing. That idea of celebrating yourself in the face of adversity is something that hip hop artists have done and black people have done with serious bravery.
"I come from a privileged background: I’m middle class, I went to university, I have never felt oppression. But I love that vigour. I love what hip hop has done for black people and I want to celebrate that in my own way, which is by wanting equal opportunity for all, to fight for that with love and joy and really sick beats.”
Bowen concurred: “Hip hop informs the guitar hooks, the bass lines, the drums, the vocal delivery, the flow. It’s present in even more measure than punk would be and people call us a punk band.”
Talbot’s father gave him a copy of Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks as a way of expanding his musical horizons. It had a lasting effect.
“My favourite album is Astral Weeks," he said. "That album changed my life forever. There’s a playfulness in the album. It was all recorded live. It’s momentary and there’s something magical about that.”
When I told him that if he jumped in a cab, he could be in Cyprus Avenue in five minutes,
Talbot said: “Yeah, I never thought about that. Cyprus Avenue – I’d like to see that.”
And with that, the pair were gone, joining the rest of the band on stage for their sell-out Belfast debut. Maybe next time they'll make it to Cyprus Avenue.
:: Joy As An Act Of Resistance is out now. Idles play Iveagh Gardens, Dublin, on July 11 (ticketmaster.ie).