When Idles live-streamed their Abbey Road sets last month, it was only right they took on the challenge of performing The Beatles’ heaviest and most explosive song.
Frontman Joe Talbot threw himself so far into their performance of Helter Skelter he ended up scream-singing whilst writhing around on the floor in apparent pain, as his band – including eccentric moustached guitarist, Mark Bowen – played manically and danced devilishly around him.
It’s just a shame only a few camera operators were able to witness it in person.
Speaking a few days afterwards, a recovering Talbot tells the BBC the physically demanding track will “absolutely not” be going into their setlist, if and when they are able to resume their rescheduled UK tour in May next year.
Current government guidelines for socially distanced indoor gigs during the pandemic recommend quiet music and seated punters, who should be discouraged from singing or shouting, As anyone who has seen or heard the Bristol punks play live will tell you – it’s not like that at all.
“I’d never say never, but I can’t imagine us having a socially distanced gig,” says Talbot. “It would be mental.
“I’d love to do a zorb gig, like The Flaming Lips did. That’d be great. We’ll just do the singing and that, and the fans can all just get in the zorbs and mash each other up.”
The band’s committed and in-places rowdy community of fans (The AF Gang) has been rapidly building over the past few years, and you wouldn’t put it past them, if allowed.
“It’s insane how much support we’ve got” notes Talbot, who says sales of Idles T-shirts – some of which he designed himself – have been “keeping our career alive” this year.
The 36-year-old hopes “someone might come up with a really sick idea” to make thrilling live shows viable again soon, but, he admits: “I’m not holding my breath.”
‘An idiot, or a liar’
More importantly, he stresses his band “don’t want to be responsible for spreading the virus”.
“Anyone who thinks that they’re an expert at this time is either an idiot, or a liar,” adds Idles’ funny-but-at-times-furious leader. “Unless they’re an epidemiologist.”
“I’m not excited by the future,” he sighs. “I’m just excited for the album.”
Talbot says their direct new third album, Ultra Mono, was designed to develop “the conversations we started with our audience”, around self-growth and self-acceptance, on their Mercury Prize-nominated previous effort, 2018’s Joy as an Act of Resistance.
“If you really truly start to understand yourself, and you start to love yourself, you’ll have the confidence to listen and love others, and use empathy as a way of killing fascism,” he states.
The last LP saw them skilfully subvert their raucous aesthetic to tackle sensitive social issues around immigration, masculinity, and vulnerability, as well as grief.
Now the band’s chief wordsmith – who experimented with writing lyrics in the vocal booth this time around – is once again grappling with “how to get sober, be a father, be a better musician, and be a better friend,” he says.
To help with the penultimate one on that list, they’ve opened their doors to collaborators as wildly varied as hip-hop producer Kenny Beats, Warren Ellis from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, and piano tinkler Jamie Cullum.
As well as French singer Jehnny Beth (Savages), who is also listed on a freshly all female line-up of Idles support acts for 2021 – a bid to help tackle sexism within the industry.
After 10 years of grafting away on the west coast in conflicted anonymity, they now have famous friends and admirers; and were able to spread Joy and its message of inclusivity around the world on several tours.
Two years on though, like most other British bands, they are now grounded in a country where Brexit is firmly back on the agenda.
Their marauding recent single, Model Village, was written as a reaction to the referendum result.
‘Fed up with England’
“That’s the metaphor I’m using for England and nationalism,” explains Talbot.
“These are imagined borders people have drawn up, and people that love their country don’t know it. You can love some of the people in your country but you don’t know 99.9% of the population.”
Another track, the brooding Grounds, finds the singer addressing Britain’s colonial past: “So I raise my pink fist and say black is beautiful”.
He believes many people “wanting to make England great again”, don’t actually know what that means.
“It’s just dangerous ignorance,” Talbot continues.
“And they don’t know what genocide happened to make the empire what it was, and how important immigration is, and the National Health Service is, and socialism was as a construct in building our country, the welfare system, and looking after the poor.
“We are now in a class war, and the poor are losing massively. I’m just fed up with England.”
Thankfully for him, the nation’s music critics largely don’t feel the same way about his band.
The NME gave Ultra Mono five out of five. “This is a proper classic punk album, one that people will turn to in times of need, one whose authors are unembarrassed about still believing that art can manifest positive change,” wrote Jordan Bassett.
The Independent predicted “it could be the most vital album we’ll hear all 2020”. “This is rock music that compels you to pay attention,” offered Elisa Bray.
Meanwhile, Kerrang‘s Ian Winwood exclaimed Idles have given “a state of the world address in sharp, stark, brilliant fashion”.
For all the plaudits though, there are still plenty out there who don’t like what Idles do, or don’t get it.
The Times‘ Will Hodgkinson felt “a judgmental tone undermines the energy” of the LP.
And The Quietus opined that the band’s “hearts are in the right place” but their execution was lacking. “Idles and other folk who followed in the footsteps of Sleaford Mods and Fat White Family have been praised for challenging masculinity,” wrote JR Moores. “But to do this in such a routinely chest-beating way seems self-defeating.”
The two other indie provocateurs mentioned have in fact traded verbal blows with Talbot in the press, respectively accusing him of “appropriating a working class voice“; and being “sanctimonious“, which he denies.
Others have interpreted their passion as mere anger. But Talbot, who became a dad again last year, isn’t going to lose any more sleep over it.
“That’s just the curse isn’t it of being such a bombastic and violent-toned band,” he shrugs. “There’s not a lot of nuance there, I’m not upset people misunderstand us.
“I can’t write a song like Model Village and expect everyone to think I’m a really well-rounded forgiving open-minded person. I wrote an angry song, and I’m allowed to because I’m an artist.”
He adds: “I also write sad songs, and loving songs, and happy songs. I make music of my emotions.”
The album artwork contains some pretty violent-toned images of each of the five-piece being slammed in the face by what looks like, co-incidentally, giant zorb-shaped exercise balls.
In the spirit of self-improvement, they’ve had a cash bet to see who can shed the most pounds before Christmas.
There’s £1,250 in the pot and Talbot thinks bass player Adam “Dev” Devonshire is probably the bookies’ outsider, judging by his noodle-munching-while-working-out routine in the video for stomping lead single Mr Motivator (one of a series of DIY music videos they took on the “beautiful challenge” of making during lockdown).
Talbot’s tactic, aside from emptying his chest in various studios, involves punching a punch bag and ditching the carbs.
“I’m only ever gonna run if the police are after me.”
Idles third album Ultra Mono is out now.