During the second of three livestreams that UK post-punk quintet Idles were undertaking from London’s famed Abbey Road Studios to help stoke the fires of anticipation for their third full-length Ultra Mono, vocalist Joe Talbot looked each of his bandmates in the eyes and recited a single word.
“Logician. Mediator. Defender. Entertainer,” he intoned. “You ready?”
From there, the group set their collective teeth and claws into a rough, yet rollicking version of “Love Song,” a track found on their 2018 breakthrough album Joy As An Act Of Resistance. But I missed the first minute or so of the song trying to suss out what and why Talbot said that about his friends and collaborators. Nicknames? An inside joke?
“It’s all from Carl Jung’s 16 personality types,” Talbot explained a few days later, speaking over the phone from a rented flat in London. “We all did the test to see what kind of personality we were. I am an Advocate. It’s like reading a mirror. I discovered with the test that I’m introverted. I always projected that onto myself, growing up, that I was selfish. But now I realize I need a lot of time on my own to process certain things to fit among other people.”
This is the way conversations with the members of Idles tend to go. Talbot and his bandmates — guitarists Mark Bowen (Logician) and Lee Kiernan (Mediator), bassist Adam Devonshire (Entertainer), and drummer Jon Beavis (Defender) — would just as soon relay the details of how they create their blunt, scabrous rock as they would their experiences with cognitive behavioral therapy and meditation. Every word, whether that’s shouted in a microphone on stage, shared with one another, or told to a sleepy journalist dealing with an eight-hour time difference, is carefully and deeply considered.
Take, for example, how the group landed on the core concept of their new album. As with the previous two full-lengths Idles has released to date (2017’s Brutalism and 2018’s Joy), they began with a title: Ultra Mono. It was a phrase Talbot dropped as the band drove to Blackpool for a gig during the long promotional campaign they undertook for Joy. In the van, the five men were wrestling with how their next record would sound. “Would it be natural sounding, going down the routes of ’70s rock?” Bowen remembers. “Or we would head to a more heavy, industrial hip-hop kind of thing?” Talbot turned around in his seat and settled the issue with that two word phrase: ultra mono.
“It set the path forward for the creative process,” Bowen continues. “I think we work so much better when things get narrowed down. If we know we’re working toward a title, if we know we’re working toward these strict concepts, then anything we do, we can go, ‘Is this ultra mono?’”
Prior to Ultra Mono, the connection between title and content is pretty easy to suss out. Their debut is as rigid and imposing as the architectural movement its named for — and as violent and thrashing as its double meaning. And for all the fury and frustration found in its songs about toxic masculinity and the band’s critics, the follow-up feels like the endorphin high that comes after a good cry or a particularly impactful therapy session.
Ultra Mono is a little more difficult to explain. In part, it refers to the singularity of purpose of any band — various talents and personalities joining forces to create a unified sound. But it’s also, according to Bowen, distilling the music down to its essence. “Everything was written around one part,” he says, “so we can make that part as loud as possible. It changed what we do. If you listen to Brutalism or Joy, the guitars are all over the place. It gives it a kind of power and energy and presence. Whereas this new way, where we’re all locked in is a new form of power. We’re all unified. We’re this one engine that’s pounding on the door.” Or as Talbot sings on the album’s second single, “Grounds,” “Do you hear that thunder? / That’s the sound of strength in numbers.”
There’s also a lot of open space within Ultra Mono. Guitars and drums lock in for short controlled bursts rather than the slashing and pounding of previous recordings. That allows Devonshire’s bass to pull focus throughout, riding an upward trajectory on the vicious opener “War” or giving “Reigns” its Killing Joke-like pulse.
Though the band sounds entirely comfortable in this new mode, it took some time for them to get there. Working around their packed touring schedule last year, Idles stumbled at first to cohere around this ultra mono concept. It wasn’t until two weeks before the group was set to go into the studio that it all cohered. From there, the songs came in a flurry, with Talbot writing most of his lyrics moments before he was set to record them.
That first thought/best thought approach does help explain some of the more awkward lyrical turns on Ultra Mono, like “I wanna cater for the haters / eat shit” in “The Lovers” or the pop culture references that run through “Mr. Motivator” (“Like Kathleen Hanna with bear claws grabbing Trump by the pussy”). But it fits in well with the immediacy and discourteous quality of the music.
“I was questioning myself about this,” Talbot says of his writing style. “‘Why do I do that? What is it about that that works so well?’ And I realized it’s the momentary flow of it. I allow the song to write itself really. My subconscious is listening to it until it becomes a part of me. ‘War,’ to me, sounds like inner conflict. So, it’s called ‘War.’ Of course it is. And everything around it is written.”
As he’s proven over the band’s three albums, Talbot has a lot to shout about. His country is pulling itself apart in the wake of Brexit. Other bands and some critics have responded to Idles’ success by poking suspiciously at their sincerity and their middle-class backgrounds. Racism and sexism and homophobia are still running rampant around the globe. He sings about it all through gritted teeth and with clenched fists.
But while the band is part of a wave of other volatile British post-punk acts like Shame and Fontaines DC, what truly distinguishes Idles are those songs where Talbot is at his most revealing. “June,” a centerpiece of Joy, dealt with the stillborn death of the singer’s daughter Agatha. And on the closing two tracks of Ultra Mono, Talbot is unabashedly gentle. While the band fumes and spits behind him on “Danke,” he returns again and again to this couplet: “True love will find you in the end / You will find out just who was your friend.”
To see this duality in action, dial up the clip of Idles performing “Never Fight A Man With A Perm” at last year’s Mercury Prize award ceremony. As it begins, Talbot is stalking the lip of the stage, stomping down his right foot as if trying to crush the entire building under his boot. But he quickly stops and, with a small hand wave, quietly says, “Congratulations, everyone.” It’s a dramatic and amazing switch flip, and one that Talbot is entirely aware of.
“If you look at the most tender moments in your life,” he says, “when you’ve been the most sincere and loving to someone, they’re the most violent, potent, and memorable moments. People confuse tenderness with softness. Tenderness can be something that cuts through everything else like an explosion. Stamping my feet comes from love and empathy as much as it does anger and shame. I’m definitely violent on stage but that comes from all sorts of emotions. Sadness, loss, love, lust. Sometimes I’m just hungry.”
Talbot is certainly itching to stomp around a stage again — something he might not be able to do until next May when Idles set off for an already sold-out run of shows in the UK and Ireland — but he’s embracing this surplus of downtime with grace. Sure, there’s preliminary discussions about album No. 4, but more importantly, he gets more hours to spend with his daughter. And, true to his personality type, it gives him the chance to process how Idles spent nearly a decade building their collective muscles so they could weather the whirlwind of the past three years.
“That meant we weren’t making loads of mistakes under the microscope,” Talbot says. “We had room to breathe and to learn about what we wanted to do and who we were as a band. We just plowed through and worked really hard for our own sake. We only did it because we loved it and because we wanted to.”
Ultra Mono is out on September 25 via Partisan. Get it here.