Everybody remembers the songs from the good concerts they go to, but it is only the truly great ones that register memories involving all of the senses. Weeks later it isn’t the setlist you recall. It’s the smell of spilled beer. The sensation of the bass rattling your chest cavity. The taste of your own sweat dripping down your face. The image of hundreds of strangers moving as one.
Shows like this aren’t mere memories, they become an irreplaceable part of our very being. Over the course of three years, IDLES were giving their fans this experience nearly 200 nights each year. Then it all came to a screeching halt.
As the UK settled into lockdown, the band had an opportunity to take a break. All of the hard work they had put in over the years gave them the freedom to take this respite, a fact singer Joe Talbot gratefully recognizes.
“What we have become, and what our audience had built along with us, allowed us to have security during the pandemic,” Talbot says. “It allowed us a label who paid for us to write another album. It allowed us the quality time we could have to spend with our families. And the security to go out every day and just reflect, think and write.
“All of this points to gratitude,” he continues. “It’s a beautiful thing to be secure. That’s a huge privilege these days.”
Instead of growing frustrated that they were unable to keep moving forward like a juggernaut, which is an apt way to describe both the band’s sound and their approach to touring, they reimagined what IDLES could be. The result is “Crawler,” their fourth studio album released in the past five years. “Crawler” sounds different than other releases by the band, but of course it would—the circumstances surrounding its creation were unlike any other.
“The reason why I think ‘Crawler’ is so successful is because we had time to reflect and we had time to appreciate ourselves,” Talbot says. “Not having an audience for a while made us reboot creatively. I think you can become too self-aware, and luckily with ‘Ultra Mono’ what we did was build an effigy of ourselves that we could burn. It was important that we really killed the idea of IDLES and what it meant to our audience and the press in order for us to be able to enjoy ourselves again.”
Rebuilding themselves was a creative challenge the band threw themselves into completely, feeling an obligation to create the most vibrant album they could to show gratitude for all they’ve been lucky enough to be given.
The subject matter of “Crawler” deals heavily with both trauma and addiction. The meaning of the album will be interpreted differently by each listener—some will primarily see the pain, others will see the triumph of survival.
“For me, a crawler is someone on their knees,” Talbot explains. “The perspective of someone on their knees is that they’re weak… or strong. Either they’re on their knees working hard and crawling through life or they’re on their knees begging, or praying. Any way you look at it, you’re getting through life and that’s progress, whether people see that or not.”
During our conversation in early October, Talbot explains how he has come out of the pandemic feeling happier, fitter and more confident than ever before. Despite all of the hardship he has endured, he credits his privilege for allowing him so much time for introspection.
“I know how lucky I am, and this is how I show the people around me how grateful I am,” he says, “by working my ass off. With this time of calm, it wasn’t time to work hard in that sense, it was time to work hard on myself. And what that reflection meant was looking at the traumas and appreciating that I’m also a product of trauma. Not just luck, not just my race, not just my class. But I’ve also been through some shit.
“It’s 20 years of that, 20 years of a lot of different traumas from the age of 12 onwards,” he continues. “I had to really appreciate that because that is the shape of me. I shouldn’t ignore it because other people don’t fucking understand it. I’m a product of everything positive or negative. This album is not a trauma album, it’s a recovery album. Because within that reflection of trauma I realized just how beautiful life is.”
Talbot’s philosophy bursts out in its full triumphant glory in the album’s closer, “The End.” The song drives forward relentlessly as he sings about the pain of life: “Cuts like a knife, stings like a tick, kicks like a mule / acts like a prick, acts like a prick.” Then, after dropping a couple of “Goddamns,” the song erupts into a joyful chorus as he bellows: “In spite of it all, life is beautiful.”
By recognizing how he wouldn’t be the man he is today if he never experienced anguish, Talbot is unafraid to drudge up the past. He applies a similar way of thinking to his tattoo collection.
“I think there’s something quite telling about tattoos, how you can see a tattoo and know someone wasn’t in a good place because it’s not telling of who they truly are,” he says. “My worst tattoos aren’t necessarily technically bad, but they’re definitely not me wearing my own skin. It’s good to keep them because I’m not interested in hiding my past. And I think the best tattoos aren’t necessarily technically the best, but they’re the most telling and true of the person at the time, and that’s a really beautiful insight.”
Over the years, Talbot has seen plenty of IDLES-inspired tattoos, loving each and every one of them. It’s an experience many musicians become accustomed to, but Talbot has plans to turn the concept on its head.
“I’m getting a tattoo of this guy, Russell, who was the first person I ever saw with my face tattooed on them,” he says. “We were doing a signing after a show in Nottingham and he was like, ‘Look, I don’t want to be weird, but I’ve got your face tattooed on my leg.’ I was like, ‘That’s fucking sick! Let’s see it.’ It’s traditional style—simple, but it looks like me. I was like, ‘I’m going to get your face tattooed on my leg one day!’”
Talbot has since changed his mind… but only in regard to placement. “Fucking shins are painful, man,” he laughs. One of these days he will have Russell’s face tattooed onto his ribs, which may be the first time the situation has been reversed.
Chances are that Talbot will be seeing quite a few tattoos featuring his band when IDLES are finally able to hit the road again. As restorative as time off from the grind of touring was for the band, they are itching to get in front of an audience once again.
We were deep into discussing the creation of “Crawler” during our interview—conducted on Zoom, of course, given the times—when I couldn’t help but notice Talbot checking his phone. Not in a rude way, mind you, but in the manner a person divides their attention while anticipating news.
Suddenly, a smile spreads across Talbot’s face as he picks up his phone. “Oh! I just got a message through,” he says. “Good news, our US visas have all been approved. Back in the USA!”
There was still the matter of passing a PCR test before being allowed to get into the country for the month-long tour supporting “Crawler,” but you could tell Talbot was fired up by the news.
“If I’m allowed into America I will have the fucking audience in the palm of my hands,” Talbot says, “and I will force them to fuck the world. So hard. It’s going to be a beautiful thing. They’re going to be the best shows in the world.”
After almost two years of collective trauma there is no better way to celebrate the joy that comes from making it through than a life-affirming rock show. Reminding all of us that in spite of it all, life is beautiful.