If you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention. By that ethos, IDLES have spent every waking hour devouring what is going on around us. The band’s brutal takedowns of society and the human condition have seen them go from strength to strength. On the eve of the release of Ultra Mono, SNACK caught up with guitarist Mark Bowen to capture the state of the IDLES camp pre-release. As with their music, he doesn’t miss many targets.
As a band known for singing about social justice, do you find it a struggle coming up with topics these days?
I mean, yeah! It’s strange how prescient this album has become. It was written in September of last year. This album was really about isolation, social media, the loneliness of touring and being away from our families. Lo and behold, this new and tangible isolation crops up. Also, we touch on the Black Lives Matter movement. We had a feeling about the world around us, and it’s only been exacerbated. Everything has been ramping up to this point, which is terrifying.
‘Grounds’ and ‘Reigns’ are frighteningly on point right now – did it surprise you how well it tied in?
Grayson Perry said in one of his Radio 4 lectures that an artist’s job is to notice things. An artist should be more sensitive to what is happening around them and then convey it in a way people can see and understand it.
We try to offer a blunt and exaggerated version of what is happening. There’s so much in the news, COVID, the murder of George Floyd, Prince Andrew, and all the issues around those. It’s shone a spotlight on those issues in society, and it has aggravated people’s feelings. If these things hadn’t happened, the blunt force we were going with would make people seems like ‘these guys are going in’, but it is what people are feeling these days.
Are there enough bands/artists speaking socially these days? And would you encourage more to do so?
I don’t think people need encouragement. Escapism in art is important. If we were all Billy Bragg, it wouldn’t work, as the message wouldn’t be as poignant. It’s important to have something that isn’t about your life in general.
What is important for an artist is for them to speak to their understanding of what they think the truth is. I don’t believe there is a truth, but there is someone’s perspective. This album is about putting stuff out there and living with it. There’s no space for nuance, no space for caveats or understanding. That’s not necessarily the way for social politics and social justice to work, but it is what our role is. You want to listen to people and understand them, but you can’t be a doormat or let people walk over you.
Do you worry that you are only preaching to the converted?
I don’t think preaching to the converted is a thing. People who share our views aren’t doing enough. That’s why there’s not a Labour government, that’s why there’s not Scottish independence. We are not doing enough. People on the left and with socialist values aren’t doing enough; we’re being walked over and craftily manipulated by the media, the right-wing press, and the Government. Our job is to get people thinking about what their stance is and how it can be more active. We search out unexpected venues and arenas for our music. We do Soccer AM on Sky; we do interviews with right wing newspapers.
If you aren’t willing to discuss or negotiate with these people, you don’t drive your agenda. It’s possible to develop apathy for socially involved bands but our goal is to be as active as possible.
An example of media diversions would be the Proms singalong furore, all the while, ‘Carcinogenic’ could easily be the new national anthem couldn’t it?
That’s the thing. The really smart thing the Government does is confuse people. If they put enough crap out there, they control the narrative. It’s about seeing through that. Yes, there is scope for discussion on the songs sung at the Proms, and how they shouldn’t be sung, but it’s not a thing we should be focusing on, it’s giving fodder for right-wing journalists to have think pieces on.
It allows them to stir crap about national pride to people who don’t get it. That’s one of the reasons behind the blunt nature of the album, lets move onto the important things.
Given your growth in recent years, how did you approach writing and recording Ultra Mono?
Our process has remained similar. We come up with a manifesto, we come up with a title and then we work out what the title means. I deal with music and Joe writes lyrics, and we discuss a lot of it.
Our concept of self-worth and what we’re doing gets flustered because of positive acclaim and negative criticism. You try and avoid it as much as possible, but it’s there. I read the reviews, comments and the bloody tweets. We decided with this album, it’s all about self-confidence. Being able to live with something, put something down and not second guess yourself.
We wrote most of it in the two weeks before we went to the studio. Joe wrote most of the lyrics in the booth when he was doing his takes. That was almost a comfort blanket; we didn’t have the chance to second guess ourselves. That added an exciting energy to proceedings, and it adds an interesting dynamic in interviews.
A lot of considered thought went into the writing and recording process, but we wanted it to be spontaneous and of the moment. The themes and sonic side of it were well thought out, but the bones of the album only came out in those two weeks.
There are a few guests on the record – was it easy to bring them into your recording process?
A lot of the guests came about by accident. With the album, we wanted to distill IDLES into its most vital form. Everything was written around a single part, filtered into this ultra mono theme, which is there across the album. The lyrics are blunt and to the point, but there are also elements of what IDLES is.
IDLES is about community and a shared experience, so it’s appropriate that there’s people from our community at large on it. If you put all these people in a room, they don’t fit together, but that’s the IDLES way. Even within the band we are different people, so our collaborators are people with different backgrounds. But there’s a shared enthusiasm for life and music.
Warren Ellis turned up at the studio to say hey. With Jenny Beth, we had written this song in French, and it turns out it was terrible French, and we played it to her. She said that’s appalling, so we felt we had to get someone singing it in their own tongue.
Has anyone you’ve name-checked in a song got in touch with the band?
No. I was hoping we could get someone involved in a video. It would be really great if David Attenborough got involved. I wonder if Mary Berry has heard about us?
As a band with so much to say, do you ever worry about your music being overlooked?
I think we’re on a journey with the music. With this album, as we were so involved with the production, it’s the best we’ve been musically in conveying what we intended to. We wanted to make sure that the points of the lyrics come across and convey what Joe is saying in sound as well. I’ve realised that, in reviews, the only thing I’m interested in is whether people understand what we intend to do and say.
We’re trying to be blunt, and people are getting that. It is interesting because in interviews, 99% of the focus is on the lyrics, but we write musically first.
It should be noted, you guys put on one hell of a show – how are you adapting to the situation where proper live shows look very far off?
It’s pretty crap to be honest, but it’s not something I want to complain about. We’re in a lucky position as a band where we can continue, we can go into the studio and record stuff. As a socialist, I’m an optimist, you can’t be anything else.
People need that congregation and community. People need to stand in a room together listening to loud music. That’s one of the most important things for humanity, and I think, we’re going to work it out. It might be different, and there will be challenges to make it as close to what it was, but it is so necessary for the human condition. I think we’ll work it out.
You recently streamed sets from Abbey Road – how was that experience?
It was one of the hardest things we’ve done as a band. We touted this idea at the beginning of lockdown. We foolishly assumed lockdown would be a three-week thing, and we’d have two or three months rehearsal. We ended up with four weeks.
Even then, with the way lockdown was, Joe and I were looking after our kids. We were only able to rehearse once a week. So we had four rehearsals before we went in. It felt very raw and new. It missed the audience.
We’ve done TV and radio stuff with no audience but you go into those things with certain expectations. We maybe had mislaid expectations or didn’t understand what this would be. It’s a long way off from having an audience in the room, and that added frustration and tension. It was an interesting thing to do. I don’t regret it, but it was hard.
On your last tour, you played two nights at the Barrowlands. Next year, you’re playing three nights. How do you keep your energy levels high when you have a run like that?
One of the greatest privileges of being in the band is playing to Scottish crowds. We know that if we go out all guns blazing, we give an energy to the audience that we’ll get back in return. I could play Barrowlands every night for a year. There’s an energy you get from that room and crowd that is something else.
I’ve had gigs where I’ve been hungover, vomiting off stage, but when you walk on and get the energy from the crowd, the hangover disappears. Also, can you imagine what those Barrowlands gigs are going to be like after not playing for a year and a half?
I did a DJ set outside the other night, it was weird. The crowd weren’t allowed to dance, they were all separated at their picnic tables. Shows like that will be weird. I’m not going to say we aren’t going to do socially distanced gigs, but an Idles show will only really work in normal circumstances, so let’s hope there’s a vaccine.
If you could give people one message to help them get through the rest of 2020, what would it be?
Humans are really clever. We’ve worked out how to not live in the wilderness, we live in houses, we have central heating, internet… we have ways of communicating with people from other continents immediately. In a year or two years’ time, things will be normal. Those things we cherish and love will be there, because we cherish and love them. The important thing now is to stay healthy and safe.
Main image credit: Nwaka Okparaeke
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