Abbey Road’s Studio 2 was an unruly cacophony on a weekend in late August. The British post-punk band Idles were livestreaming a show — their first performance in 2020 — and discovering they were out of practice. But the group’s outspoken frontman, Joe Talbot, was in prime form. “This is dedicated to all the key workers that kept our country afloat, thank you very much, N.H.S.,” he said, referring to Britain’s National Health Service, before the band tore into “Divide and Conquer”: “Long live the open minded, down with the Tory scum.”
Over their first two albums in 2017 and 2018, Idles combined a vitriolic sneer with blunt social commentary, writing blistering songs about inclusivity, gender inequality, depression and toxic masculinity. The Bristol quintet’s sound mixes the blunt force of 1980s hardcore with stop-start dynamics, and Talbot, its charismatic leader, sings, speaks and growls with a bludgeoning force that is as honest as it is exhilarating.
The band is often accused of sloganeering, filling its songs with rally chants (“Do you hear that thunder?/That’s the sound of strength in numbers”), and with “Ultra Mono,” its third album, out Friday, the band doubles down on mixing messages of self-empowerment with lyrics lambasting the corruption and rot in modern day Britain. Making this kind of challenging, confrontational music is an endangered art in the world of rock. It poses a question bands may be scared to ask: Is anyone really, truly listening?
“Our arena that Idles has created is about feeling like you’re part of something much bigger and more important than yourself. We can start our own revolution,” Talbot said in a Zoom interview from his father’s home in the south of Wales. (He’s currently searching for a new place for himself in Bristol, an hour away.) His brown eyes were soft but sad, and myriad tattoos poked out from a long-sleeve white Idles T-shirt.
“People can be embarrassed by their own pain,” he said. “The number one thing in cognitive behavioral therapy, is you cannot control anyone else’s feelings. All you can do is control your own.”
The singer’s bluntness and openness has been part of the band’s appeal, and Talbot is unafraid to share his struggles with addiction and depression. The band’s debut, “Brutalism,” was haunted by the death of his mother; its follow-up, “Joy as an Act of Resistance,” contains a harrowing track written for a daughter, Agatha, who was stillborn. His frankness has endeared him to a rabid fan base, called the AF Gang, and its Facebook page has become a safe space for followers to share their own mental health challenges.
The band — which also includes the guitarists Mark Bowen and Lee Kiernan, the bassist Adam Devonshire and the drummer Jon Beavis — formed in 2011 in the dank clubs of Bristol, where Talbot and Devonshire, onetime high school classmates, moved to attend University of the West. The pair D.J.’d at hip-hop nights in various clubs before recruiting Bowen to join them in a band.
Bonded by their love of the Strokes and the Walkmen (Talbot points to hearing “The Rat” as a seminal moment), the band provided a refuge. Most practice sessions served as an excuse to get annihilated. Talbot, overwhelmed by caring for an alcoholic mother who had kidney disease and suffered a stroke, was in the worst shape, morphing from a good-time drunk to raging and violent. Some days, he didn’t bother to show up.
“I really can’t stress enough how terrible we were,” Devonshire said with a laugh in a separate phone call. “But then there were certain points when we were finding our feet and learning how to write and learning how to play, there was this feeling of ‘I’m ready to put my life into this.’”
The band released an EP called “Welcome” in 2012 followed by another, “Meat,” in 2015. Talbot’s mother died in 2016, which fueled the songs on “Brutalism,” the rawness of his grief and the relentlessness of the music striking a chord with critics and fans. The more political “Joy as an Act of Resistance” was shortlisted for the Mercury Prize in 2019 and the band’s must-see live shows became part catharsis, part hug fest.
Talbot usually begins each live gig by kissing each of the other members on the lips, howling, “love and compassion, not aggression” and is unafraid to halt the set if the roiling mosh pit becomes overloaded with testosterone. “There’s a circle forming and the radius is only men,” he admonished the crowd during the band’s 2019 set at the Glastonbury Festival. “If there are no women in the circle it is not a circle, but a phallus.”
The singer Jehnny Beth was so enamored with the band after attending a show in London that she returned for its concerts over the next three nights. “They are so comfortable with the feminine side that I fell in love with the type of men they are,” said Jehnny Beth, a good friend of Talbot’s who guests on the “Ultra Mono” cut “Ne Touche Pas Moi.” (Its roaring finale features both singers screaming “consent, consent.”)
“There is very little in society that pushes men, especially white men, to rethink their role, and to evolve and adapt,” she added. “We rarely have role models like they are.”
“Ultra Mono” mixes the stridency of Fugazi with blasts of the language of self-help as Talbot sings about faux patriotism disguised as nationalism, class inequality and sexism. “It was important to be as concise and distilled as possible,” Talbot said of lyrics to songs like the surf-punk tune “Anxiety.” “If you avoid nuance, you won’t be misunderstood. Listen to what I’m singing: ‘Our government hates the poor.’ ‘Cold leaders, cold class war.’ I can’t make it any clearer than that.”
“Ultra Mono” was recorded in two weeks — Talbot essentially came up with the lyrics in the vocal booth — at La Frette Studios on the outskirts of Paris, and features an eccentric cast of guests: Warren Ellis of the Bad Seeds, David Yow from the Jesus Lizard and the British pop singer Jamie Cullum. When it was finished, Talbot and Bowen felt something was missing. Huge fans of Kanye West’s “Yeezus,” they sent the music to the producer Kenny Beats — best known for his work with Vince Staples and Denzel Curry — to add some low-end rumble.
“We wanted to figure out how to write a hip-hop song as a guitar band, but we were falling into these punk rock, post-punk tropes,” Bowen said. “You can play some of these new songs in a disco.”
Idles won’t be playing any clubs — discos or otherwise — anytime soon, of course. But reminiscing about his favorite live moments, he described one time where it all came together. With Brexit looming over the group’s early evening performance at Glastonbury in 2019, Talbot pounded the floor with his right foot like a toddler stomping in a puddle while Bowen, who serves as his comic foil, pranced around the stage in his underwear.
The frontman introduced “Danny Nedelko” by saying, “This song is about one of the most beautiful parts of this country: the foreigners.” The song provoked the show’s biggest singalong: “Fear leads to panic, panic leads to pain, pain leads to anger, anger leads to hate.” Overwhelmed, Talbot began to cry. His wife ran onto the stage with their infant daughter, Frida, in a sling and hugged him.
“There’s a moment in everyone’s life where suddenly you feel complete. I’ve been through a lot and I’d really kept my head down for 10 years with the band and not looked up to celebrate or to pat myself on the back for anything,” he said. “There’s no better feeling in the world than working hard for something that you love and then having it given back to you. There’s nothing like it.”