Q&A: Joe Talbot of IDLES on Touring, Recording, and Life in the Dystopia

Frontman Joe Talbot (far left) brings his English-Irish band IDLES to The Van Buren on Tuesday, August 30.
Frontman Joe Talbot (far left) brings his English-Irish band IDLES to The Van Buren on Tuesday, August 30. Tom Ham
IDLES are a truly interesting chestnut.

Since at least the release of 2018's Joy as an Act of Resistance, the English-Irish band has been championed as one of the forerunners of a new wave of punk. Only, for most of that same time, IDLES railed against such labels (per The Guardian). Likely because, as reflected on subsequent LPs like 2020's Ultra Mono and last year's Crawler, they've forged a thoughtful and progressive sound, one indebted to punk but far beyond its tribalism, with songs against toxic masculinity and in favor of righteous activism.

In fact, it was Crawler that really pushed IDLES' ongoing evolution. Here, the band shifted from solely political songs to more personal offerings, with frontman Joe Talbot taking an increasingly intimate lens to explore these larger ideas of Brexit and the rise of right-wing ideologies. And the rest of the band followed suit, pushing the LP's sonics into new and daring directions, including the addition of electronic elements. It's solid proof that IDLES are so much more than whatever we'd call them.

The Phoenix New Times caught up with Talbot recently via Zoom as the band began its latest U.S. tour. There, we spoke about the power of live music, his recent book purchases, how he feels about the album after a year in, and visiting the U.S. amid endless social upheaval.

IDLES come to town on Tuesday, August 30, at The Van Buren, 401 West Van Buren Street. Doors are at 7 p.m., and the show starts at 8 p.m. The event is currently sold out.

Phoenix New Times: You're staring down the barrel of a North American tour. Has anything changed about touring or playing, especially coming out of this "post-COVID" era?

Joe Talbot: I wouldn't say I'm looking down a barrel. If anything, touring is easy and playing shows is easy and it's a beautiful gift that we have. The only thing about the pandemic is it made us grateful and excited for our future. A lot of our friends didn't have the luxury or the security that we did. They're looking down the barrel of not touring; you don't look down the barrel of a tour. Touring is a privilege and anyone who doesn't see that is blind. But I think gratitude is one thing that's changed. I think our crowds are as beautiful as ever. They're always full of what we want, and nothing's changed.

Phoenix New Times: Does that sense of gratitude make you go bigger, or do something you haven't before?

JT: I'm not going bigger as I've been going as big as I can every show for the whole of my career. I've never not given everything I have.
Phoenix New Times: Do you write new material on the road, or is that something better left for at home?

JT: We wrote some of Ultra Mono and some of Crawler on tour, but it's time dependent. It depends when we set our recording dates, but we don't want to force anything. But if we're excited about a song and we've got time and soundcheck, we'll go for it. But we don't sit down with an acoustic guitar in a room and start. If we've got time on stage, we'll go through shit. We're always excited about new music, and we're always trying to write new music. So whenever we get an opportunity, wherever we are in the world and we're together, we'll do something that might not necessarily be new. It might just be practicing. But, yeah, we have done for sure. And we will for the next album.

Phoenix New Times: It's been about a year since you released Crawler. Does your connection to the material shift at all? Are you performing it the same way now as some initial shows?

JT: I always get better performing [the] songs. Because I think when they're new, you think too much about what you're doing because you're learning. But it has changed; I'm more proficient. And your relationship changes with albums all the time. You've just got to embrace it and not expect it to stay the same, and to be honest, it should only ever become easy here to play.

Crawler was a real big turning point for us in how we wrote and how we saw our music. And it's given us a lot more depth live to have [those] dynamics in the songs in the setlist. And that's exciting. But we just want to keep writing and moving forward and playing songs because it's fucking magic.

Phoenix New Times: Some bands feel playing albums for a while gets a little tedious.

JT: So, nothing's tedious about playing live. If you're bored of playing live, you're boring — matter of fact.

Phoenix New Times: Fair.

But then the other thing, we are amid some truly hellish, dystopian times. As a band coming to the U.S., do you feel like you're grappling with all these happenings at all?

JT: It doesn't affect us in a way where it's a negative thing; it's a conversation, you know. Just because we're British and Irish doesn't mean that our politics [are] party political; it's politics of the self, and it's politics of art and music. And that's a universal politics. So it's not restricted to where we were born. We're interested in conversation with our people. And that's everywhere, not just the states or in the U.K. So the conversation is a beautiful one, because we learn a lot more about how similar things are, like the insecurities of individuals and how common that is.
But you say your country's dystopian, and I mean, the world's on fire. A lot of right-wing racist parties are getting empowered, and the poor are more poor than they've ever been. There's an energy crisis. It would be kind of ignorant to think that the U.S. is worse, because it's not. There are some really medieval things going on in your country, like the abortion step-back; that's just barbaric and weird. And how many school shootings a year? But that's not for us to come and feel that we should judge or even change; what we can do is talk to individuals and learn about it.

But would I bring my children up in America? That would be very hard for me if there's no health care and guns everywhere. But I don't come over as a father. I come over as a musician, and musicians and artists create a conversation with their audience. That's a universal thing.

Phoenix New Times: But then us having that conversation alone has got to be valuable. Like, everything is messed up, and we can still do important things like celebrate art and music.

JT: I tell you what, it is a valuable service that the audience give us. It's not a one-way street. We're not servants to it. It's a practice that makes us, as individuals, feel safe and heard and welcome. And we try and give it back. That's why we started the band, so that we could feel that we're not alone, right? But that's what we want from our audiences: to feel that they're not alone. And it's an exchange, isn't it? That's what happens with open-mindedness: Communities are built, and that's borderless.

Phoenix New Times: Last question. Are there any books, films, movies, etc., that you're excited about? Or that are influencing or shaping what you're doing now?

JT: I always go blank when I'm asked stuff like that. I'm about to read [All About Love: New Visions] by bell hooks. I saw it in a shop in Bristol, and I bought it, and so I'm excited to read that. Because I feel like I'm interested in love as a concept at the moment.
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Chris Coplan has been a professional writer since the 2010s, having started his professional career at Consequence of Sound. Since then, he's also been published with TIME, Complex, and other outlets. He lives in Central Phoenix with his fiancee, a dumb but lovable dog, and two bossy cats.
Contact: Chris Coplan