Joe Talbot of IDLES is everything a punk vocalist isn’t supposed to be.
He’s articulate, he’s polite, he’s thoughtful, and he’s sober. Listening to the music off the Bristol band’s new second album, Joy as an Act of Resistance, that shouldn’t come as a surprise. While the sound might be hard, the sentiment is the exact opposite. Talbot wants everyone—especially men—to explore their softer side, just as he has over the last few years since a series of devastating losses. In 2015, during the making of the band’s first album, Brutalism, Talbot’s mother died after a lengthy illness that saw him become her primary caregiver while he was still a teenager. Then, during the making of Joy as an Act of Resistance, his daughter tragically died during childbirth. But instead of picking up the bottle, he finally put it down. And instead of numbing what he was feeling, he decided to not only feel it, but record it. Joy as an Act of Resistance is the result, and it will move every bone in your body.
When I called Joe to talk about the new record, his sobriety, and the state of British politics, I didn’t know what to expect. But what I found was a man so outside of the punk stereotype that it was actually the punkest fucking thing I’d ever heard.
Hello Joe! I want to start by saying that I read your profile in The Guardian, and it covered some pretty heavy parts of your life. You were incredibly open and honest though. Are you generally that open?
I am now, yeah. I think, like anyone, it takes a lot to learn how to be open and honest. I thought I was before, but my loving and patient partner taught me just how open and honest I can be, and helped me change my ways. I think I didn’t realise how clammed up I became when talking about my feelings, but yeah, I’m learning. It’s a process to go through, but I feel like as a band we strive to be as honest and diegetic as possible and I felt like it was a point in my life where I needed to learn how to be more open and honest in my own life to survive, really. So I went through counselling, and it helped me learn how to be honest—logistically and routinely—everyday. So, yeah!
Right! And I bet by you talking about stuff like this, you’ve helped so many of your fans that might be going through something similar.
Yeah, absolutely. And, y’know, I think with our audience, at the start, it was kind of subversive natured music, so it attracts people with open minds and open hearts already. What I was hoping with this second album was to maybe turn a few heads of people who don’t necessarily like our music, or make assumptions about our sort of music and would maybe perhaps persuade people less liberal to also become vulnerable and open and honest, and share their feelings.
I think it’s easy to shake the hands of liberals and pat each other on the back, but I wanted to go further than that because there’s a lot of machismo going round. As an Australian I’m sure you can understand the sort of macho-driven crap you get in rock n roll and y’know, it’s good to try to change the narrative a bit and try to open the minds of people that wouldn’t normally walk your path.
I know that you are sober now, too. I’m sure it’s changed your life dramatically, but how has it changed you musically?
To be honest, I was really worried about it. I spoke to my partner maybe a few years ago, and she reminded me recently of it. I said to her “I don’t think I could ever do a gig without at least a pint in me”, because y’know, it’s a loosener, or you feel like it is. But what it does is it just numbs you, it doesn’t loosen you up at all—it just stops you feeling. When I became sober, I became more lucid. I was a bit freer, my performances on stage became freer, my writing became more honest, ‘cause I could look within more and reflect on like, the day before or the night before. That makes me more astute as an introspective process, as an artist. I can now look at myself deeper and explore myself and it’s quite freeing.
While we’re talking about drinking—how long has your love affair with chocolate milk been going on?
Well, if you ever get to see photos of me from when I was a kid, you can tell I was very much into chocolate milk from a young age. I like all foods and drinks, but there’s something about chocolate milk. It is the most luxurious yet naïve drink that someone can enjoy.
Do you have a good homemade chocolate milk recipe, or is it always store bought?
I’m not going to bastardise the chocolate milk. There’re plenty of good ones out there. It’s also a treat; do you know what I mean? You don’t want to domesticise luxury.
On to the new album—”Danny Nedelko” is such a great song with a great message and video. Everyone in it seems so down for the cause. Did they know the concept?
Thanks! Yeah, it was explained. The idea was very simple. Often my ideas for videos come when I write the lyrics, because I write music quite visually. I just got Danny to explain the essence of the song, which is about celebrating compassion for people who are brave enough to start a new life and I just wanted to use the song as a reminder of the beauty and the humane element of the immigration debate—because sadly, there is one. It’s just about reminding people of the person behind the ‘them’.
Speaking of the immigration debate in the UK and throughout Europe, once Brexit actually takes effect, how do you think life will change in the UK?
I think that’s a really hard thing to predict for two reasons. One, I think the result of Brexit is different from the consensus of the country. I don’t think a lot of the people who voted for Brexit would vote for Brexit again. I think that the country’s mind has been changed due to the unprepared nature of our government and the people that were backing Brexit that openly said they don’t have a clue what they’re talking about. They’ve got no preparation for a Brexit plan because they didn’t think people would go for it cause it’s a really stupid thing to do.
Right. And the second thing, which is from that point, is that because the government have no idea how to prepare for Brexit, there’s no contingency plan, there’s no… if you can imagine, our whole law system has to go backwards in order to go forward because a lot of the laws in place are EU laws, so that involves not only crime but trade and health and safety and unions, everything. Our whole country is going to have to change. So, I don’t know what’s going to happen. But I think that sums up the country and in turn the world at the moment, which is that everyone feels a bit unsafe for their future and a bit uncertain.
Finally, the album closes on a pretty ferocious track, aptly titled “Rottweiler”. Do you think that anger can be productive, or is it a waste of time?
Anger can never be productive. Anger, if you ignore it and bottle it up, can manifest into something really unproductive. I think what I’ve learnt is that I can’t be ashamed of my anger, but what I can do is express it in a productive way. I think anything that you feel shouldn’t be ignored because there are reasons and a lifetime of experiences to drive those emotions. What you should do is embrace them and somehow allow them to kind of manifest into something productive or beautiful, like I’m trying to do. Otherwise if you bottle it up, it turns into idle violence, excuse the pun.