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IDLES: Joe Talbot on Sobriety, Blur & Loving New Zealand

Rolling Stone AU/NZ caught up with the IDLES frontman as his band prepares to return to New Zealand to perform at Elemental Nights



I’ve caught Joe Talbot at a bad time. He should have been playing a show before our interview but a storm has taken over the city of Dallas. His band, IDLES, were rushed off stage just 15 minutes into their set, given only a brief moment to inform fans they couldn’t go on due to safety concerns. 

“I’m dissatisfied, but grateful,” is how Talbot describes the experience over Zoom. 

His reaction makes sense: Talbot and IDLES have made a career out of caring, truly caring, about their fans and their lives.

The band’s bruising post-punk songs expound vital values like empathy and compassion, traversing serious subjects like toxic masculinity, systemic racism, faux-patriotism, and distaste for the monarchy. There’s a lot going on underneath IDLES’ rampant rock rhythms, in other words.

IDLES’ songs also offer perspective, generating conversations, spurring questions, and offering the sense to listeners that they’re part of a positive movement, which Talbot says is really the point.

“I started a band in order to make people feel like they’re part of something much bigger than themselves – a safety and a refuge in which they can feel themselves, celebrate themselves, celebrate each other and certainly not serve the ego of a drug-fuelled white man with a guitar,” he tells Rolling Stone AU/NZ after warming up from the Dallas derailment. 

The Welsh singer sought refuge himself in music as a child, finding it to be a place of solace and strength. “I used to have headphones in most of the time and it’s a beautiful place to be. And I still find it my refuge,” he recalls. 

“I just found it was a good place for me as an introvert to live in a world of housed emotion. I think I’ve always seen the magic in it. My mother bought me up on soul music, as every good parent should.” 

His father, an avid socialist, taught him from a young age that a vote shapes actions and everyone’s wellbeing. Talbot also started to realise that empathy matters, a lot, and he took these lessons into his music.

Talbot was around 23 when he decided to start a band. It came during a time when he felt a scene existed that had become “bloated and uninterested.”

“People looked bored on stage and it filled me with a sense of fury,” he says. “I was going to live concerts and I wasn’t feeling like that anymore because people were showing up to look good and not to change and not to make energy in a room and not to feel the violence of pure music.” 

It’s not that Talbot thought he had greater awareness than those around him; he was simply supremely driven by the fractious political climate that surrounded him growing up in England.

“I was scared and angry at the state of which I lived in,” he remembers. “What I had was a lucid need to be part of something, a community, where I felt safe and loved and I can show people love. I wanted to influence people and be part of something positive.

“I wanted to feel like I was part of something, a movement, whatever that was. I wanted to move forward. I needed to build something that brought me closer to the universe because I was very lost.”

Nor does he want it misconstrued that he thinks he’s brighter than anyone else. “I’m not a preacher, I think people come and feel like they’re part of something greater than themselves. That’s a beautiful thing,” he says. “I don’t think I was ever going to make political change with our music but I think I made change with our music in terms of humanity.” 

Talbot has relaxed into conversation now. He details how his journey into fatherhood changed his view on the world. “For many reasons, it makes you feel grateful. It makes you feel powerless and powerful,” he says.

As IDLES’ career just began to take off, Talbot endured the devastation of losing a child when his first daughter, Agatha, was stillborn in 2017. Today, he is the proud father of a three-year-old girl.  

“I feel good thinking about her, I love her very much,” he gushes. “It makes me want to work hard because I am away from her, and if I’m away from her, I’ve got to work and make this worth something.” 

On IDLES’ most recent album, last year’s CRAWLER, the depictions of class struggles and toxic behaviour were still there, but Talbot sprinkled in deeper personal elements, including his mother’s death, addiction, and the loss of Agatha.

15 years and four albums in, Talbot firmly believes that the band’s focus and intentions haven’t changed; if they did, he insists, that would signal the end.

“I think it’s always going to be important to us to stay interested and to stay vivid on stage because it’s a gift, it’s a huge privilege to be able to play to lots of people, it’s not something you should ever forget as a musician, is how lucky you are to have an audience,” he says. 

“You’re only as good as your audience, but your audience are only as good as the house that you build – if you build a house where it’s welcoming and it’s full of energy and you offer yourself to the crowd, they give it back to you, and then that energy is what makes the magic of live music. 

“We show that gratitude with hard work, but it’s also a joy to do it, but it’s not like a job. It doesn’t decrease for us… I think that’s the end of IDLES, if it decreases on stage. 

If I’m in a bad mood, you get me in a bad mood, but I’ll still give you everything. If I’m in a good mood, you’ll see that joy amplified.” 

For Talbot, such forthright commitment now includes putting the best version of himself forward – alcohol-free. Sober for two years until the band started touring again in 2021, he slipped back into old habits, but he’s been sober for a few months now, and feels as though a weight has been lifted. 

“I don’t miss it at all, I perform better because my body and brain are not poisoned,” he says. “I was going through a lot and I used it as a crutch and then I realised it wasn’t helping me at all, so now I am not numb, I’m very grateful to be here. 

Touring sober is a new animal: I’m up in the mornings, I’m feeling good, I reckon everyone should be sober for a bit and see how it feels. But it wasn’t alcohol that was the problem, it was me and my actions. I’ve changed them and now I feel unbelievable.” 

Talbot adds: “I don’t think it should ever be said that you are better or worse around alcohol or drugs. You’re not a better or worse person – I’m not a better person because I’m sober, I perform better, my cognition is sharper, physically I’m healing quicker, because I’m not healing from other stuff. 

“But there’s no shame in being an addict, and there’s no good and bad, you’re just either an addict and what you do defines you and you’re just making life harder for yourself. It seems easier because you’re numb for a bit, but the repercussions of that are decades long if you don’t sort it.” 

Our conversation returns to music. When prompted to name some of his favourite music moments, Talbot has one quickly come to mind. He recalls being moved by Otis Redding’s version of “A Change Is Gonna Come”, although he didn’t quite grasp what it meant at the time. “That song has so much weight for something I couldn’t understand but it kinda changed my life.”

He also fondly recalls being in the crowd to hear “Tender” at the end of Blur’s Glastonbury set. “That was a beautiful moment, I felt like part of a congregation of love,” he says. 

IDLES make a quick return to New Zealand for Elemental Nights this month, performing at Spark Arena on Friday, July 21st for one night only.

There’s a particular reason Talbot can’t wait to come back here: the beaches. “They’re stunning. The most stunning beaches I’ve ever seen,” he gushes. “You have some of the best people in the world in terms of crowds, we always have a beautiful welcome, good venues.” 

Buoyed by thoughts of touring elsewhere, even the torturous Dallas weather doesn’t seem so bad now. “I’m in the middle of an incredibly scary thunderstorm, we’ve had to call the show off, but it’s beautiful to look at, so I’m going to go look at a bunch of lightning strikes. It’s crazy, I’ve never seen an electrical storm before.” 

IDLES launch Elemental Nights at Spark Arena on Friday, July 21st. Ticket information is available here