A brick through a glass window—that’s what listening to the music of Idles is like.
Pulsating bass and drum beats; wicked, detuned, delayed and jarring guitar lines; and the gruff, gritty vocals of a man who has gone through some shit all combine to create the signature sound of one of the most ferocious and passionate bands out there. (Listen to “Colossus” to hear it all come together.) Idles is a five-piece band with both British and Irish members, whose political lyrics are accompanied by one of the most exciting and high-energy live shows around. The band will appear at Coachella on Friday, April 15 and 22.
“A festival like Coachella has a lot of prestige behind it. It’s well known, and there’s a ubiquity to it,” said guitarist Mark Bowen during a recent Zoom interview. “It’s like the U.S.’s Glastonbury, I guess. It tends to be artists that are either up and coming, or have kind of established themselves—and I don’t really know where we sit, to be honest.
“It means a lot to be on that list. It shows that people are paying attention in the States a bit more, and all the efforts that we have to play over there are landing. We’re always looking to what the next step is, and what the next iteration of the band is, and what it means to perform live, as our live shows are growing and changing. We were a crazy live band in a 400-capacity room, and now we’re playing 5,000, sometimes 10,000-capacity rooms, and that’s a very, very different challenge, and a very, very different space. So it’s just about, like: How do we maintain that intimacy, and maintain that chaos, but also make sure that the show is going to be what people want?”
I’m still getting dirt and beer out of my hair from the band’s sold-out show at Pappy and Harriet’s last October.
“We always want our shows to feel like that Pappy and Harriet’s show,” Bowen said. “There’s a real chaos to what we do, and there’s a real energy behind that, which we promote within the band, and then we try to get that from the crowd again. There’s a feedback loop created from that, and it escalates from there. It’s really just about: How do we do that in front of a lot more people? How can the person 500 rows back get the same experience?
“Also at the same time, we don’t like to overthink it. The second that stuff kind of becomes contrived, it then loses its magic. … It’s basically just about reading the room on the night.”
It’s been a whirlwind of both success and change for Idles since the band was announced as part of the 2020 Coachella lineup. Since the shutdown, the band has released two albums: the fierce Ultra Mono, and the darker and brooding Crawler.
“The live show has grown a lot, because you’ve got those Ultra Mono songs, which are so bombastic and caustic, and they’re really about big, big stages,” Bowen said. “We wrote those songs, because we were playing in these bigger rooms, and we wanted to create this real, like, Wagnerian-concert-hall-type sound. On the flip side of that, we wrote almost the polar-opposite album, Crawler. This is a very self-reflective, insular album that’s got a lot more nuance and quieter moments, and more subtle forms of violence rather than just the straight, bludgeoning tool that the violence in Ultra Mono is. Having both those aspects and that kind of dichotomy really lends itself quite well to a setlist, so there’s a bit more of an arc to our setlist now, whereas before, it was all just chaos, chaos, chaos. chaos.”
Bowen said the stylistic shift between the albums was difficult, but well worth it.
“As we were writing Ultra Mono, we knew that was the last time we were ever going to write an album that was like that—so abrasive and so obnoxious and so heavy all the time,” he said. “We were setting out to write this album (Crawler) the way that it was, but it was difficult, because it’s not something that comes naturally to us. The Ultra Mono sound is the thing that instinctively comes from us, but it’s definitely something we’ve been wanting to write for a long time, and it’s really enjoyable to challenge yourself that way.”
The pandemic pushed Idles into the darker vibes illustrated on Crawler.
“The pandemic, and isolation, and lockdowns, and things like that, really lend themselves to the insular field, because of geographical necessity—and also, like, legally, we weren’t allowed to meet up with each other,” Bowen said. “A lot of the writing took place on our own; it was either just me writing on my own, or Joe (Talbot, Idles’ frontman) writing on his own, and that led to a more kind of personal feeling to the album, that maybe wasn’t at the forefront of previous albums. Also, we didn’t have the context of performing live. … We’re incredibly lucky that we were able to get an album out in that time, but I’m almost certain that, if the pandemic hadn’t hit, we wouldn’t have written an album by this stage for sure—and the album that we would write, I don’t know if it would be the same as Crawler.”
While Crawler did feature more independent writing, Bowen is proud of the group song-writing dynamic that the band has developed.
“We’re always writing; we’re always focusing on what the next iteration of the band is, and I think that there’s room for progress,” Bowen said. “I think that what we’ve shown is that we can afford to experiment and not get lost, so I think we just push those boundaries even further, and see how far we can go before we do get lost. Hopefully, we’ll have the insight to be able to notice when we have gotten lost, and not release it. Definitely a big factor is having the grinding of the other members of the band.”
As the band continues to shift its sound, Bowen said fans seem to be fine with the changes.
“It’s always interesting when you think about, ‘Is the fan of Joy as an Act of Resistance (Idles’ second album, released in 2018)going to be a fan of Crawler?’” Bowen said. “You would hope that there would be a wider net cast by having different albums, and you’d bring more people together, but people who were there for the early days … seem to be enjoying Crawler as well.
“This doesn’t sound right, but we don’t really write for our listeners; it’s more just like what we want for ourselves. Especially with Crawler, someone sitting down and listening to the album wasn’t really a consideration for us; it was more just an experiment for us and a focus for us and a release for us. I haven’t really thought about other people listening to our music since Ultra Mono.”
Looking ahead to the band’s performance at Coachella, it’s important to know that before each set, Talbot calls out to the crowd: “Are you ready to take care of each other?”
“We’re very open people who like to engender that kind of loss of inhibition and sharing amongst each other,” Bowen said. “We share a lot with each other; we’re brutally honest with each other; but we’re also there for each other and supportive of each other. The themes that are in our songs, and the catharsis and the unity of our live show—that’s for us as much as anyone else. We need that as much as anyone who comes to our crowd—to feel like you’re a part of something more than just yourself. … It’s about the shared experience through the personal experience, and it’s always been that way for us.”