"I wanted to be as visceral as possible..." - IDLES' Joe Talbot talks us through their new album Ultra Mono
Over the last two years, no band has enjoyed the rapid rise as Bristol post-punks IDLES.
It took the band a decade to move from the top rooms of pubs and into venues proper, then, in the space of a year, they've seen gone right to the top of festival bills, into arenas and on just about every album of the year list for their second record, Joy as an Act of Resistance.
Now though, they've got to follow it up.
For their new album, Ultra Mono, they've re-enlisted Nick Launay and Adam ‘Atom’ Greenspan, who produced Joy as an Act of Resistance, and produced a visceral, bruising and unflinching new album, which revels in its lack of compromise and lack of perfectionism.
The album features guest appearances from Savages' singer Jehnny Beth, Warren Ellis, The Jesus Lizard's David Yow, and, rather oddly, Jamie Cullum.
With the LP out in the world now, we spoke to frontman Joe Talbot about the staccato recording sessions for the album, their plethora of guest stars and just how Jamie Cullum ended up on the record...
You recorded this album in bursts, over a series of sessions, rather than in a continuous process. Was that by design or because it was the only time you could fit it in?
“It’s the way we have to do it. We don’t want to rush anything. We write continuously, but we’d then finish them off in the studio. The lyrics for six or seven of the songs were done in the vocal booth. I wanted them to be as momentary as possible.”
Did you ever find yourself dreaming of spending a couple of months in the country when the clock was ticking down on a session?
“No. I’ve never dreamed about anything like that. It’s the way we’ve always done it. For the first seven years of the band’s life, we met up three times a week and practised and wrote all the time, and we’ve kept that going. A lot of this album was written on tour, so we’d get the songs together in sound checks and at venues. Seven of them were finished in our practise space in Bristol, the others in the studio. It’s just the way we like to work.”
You did the album with Nick Launay, why did you settle on him?
“He’s a master at his work. We really want to work with him because of his great track record and he was exactly what we needed.”
He’s known for making bands do quite a lot of takes, did he make you do that?
“No, we give ourselves a limit of three takes, most of them are one take. We don’t perform for anyone. We do everything we can to keep the energy of a track intact.”
You recorded in Paris, did you get to enjoy the city much?
“We stayed at the studio and we didn’t leave. We weren’t there for fun. Paris is my favourite city in the world, but we had a lot of work to do, there wasn’t time to go out.”
You’ve got some great guests on the record, Savages' singer Jehnny Beth, Warren Ellis, The Jesus Lizard's David Yow, how did those collaborations come about?
“They were mostly quite last minute. We planned to have David Yow on the album before we recorded. And, Colin Webster, the saxophone player, that was booked before we went in. But Jehnny, Warren Ellis and Jamie Cullum were all afterthoughts. They were people we knew would make the album better, but they were also moments of happenstance.”
Can you talk us through them?
“Warren Ellis just turned up at the studio while we were recording. He and Nick are friends, and he came to visit, and we just made it happen. Jehnny Beth is a friend of mine and we were in conversation about the album and the track 'Ne Touche Pas Moi', which she swiftly informed me was the wrong French. I knew it would be great to have a female voice on the record and she came in and was so great.”
And Jamie Cullum. IDLES and Jamie Cullum is an unlikely pairing…
“I met him at the Mercury Music Prize. I’m a massive fan of his BBC Radio 2 show. I used to work in a kitchen, and we’d listen to that a lot. He offered his services as a pianist, and I just thought ‘F**k it. Let’s put you on an intro’. He’s a wonderful man, and he works very hard for what he loves. That’s all I want to work with.”
Warren Ellis too. That must have been a real bucket list moment…
“He’s a hero. It was totally surreal. He just turned up to surprise us. He was a really interesting and interested person. I just thought it would be funny to have him in the vocal booth. And it was great.”
You talked about finishing a lot of lyrics very late on, is that a way of working you’re set on now? Is it the best way for you?
“I don’t want to do that again. For every album, I want to set myself new challenges. I don’t want to ever get comfortable with writing. This album was all about momentary acceptance of the self, so it made total sense to do it this way. I wanted to be as visceral as possible. I write songs in one go, but normally after I’ve listened to them about 200 times.”
Is it hard to instantly let go like that? You’ve got to sit on the album for a long time before it comes out…
“I’m always writing and we’re on album four now. There’s nothing I love more than writing. I know Ultra Mono is the best album we’ve made so far, it’s my best lyrics and the band’s best work. That was down to the process and making sure we got the record and the sound we wanted. We worked with conviction and it paid off. But we’re on album four now.”
When did you decide Ultra Mono was the right title for the record?
“We always start every album with the title. We wrote everything around that title. I came up with the phrase and that’s how it got going.”
How easy was it to get the whole band on board?
“With Bowen (Mark Bowen, lead guitarist), it was very easy. We bonded a lot over this album and we really speak each other’s language now. It was a struggle for the other guys because we weren’t all in the room together, the three of them were writing without us. Bowen and I have kids so our schedules were different. In the end, it panned out beautifully, but it took the other three a lot longer to come on board.”
You’re a band who love to tour, you would be on tour right now, have you just thrown yourself headlong into writing?
“Pretty much. Anyone who thinks that 2021 is taking any shape is delusional. I don’t know what 2021 looks like, neither do you, neither do the government, there’s no point giving it too much thought.”
Difficult to get behind a record when there’s no live performance though?
“Not when the album’s f***ing amazing, it isn’t…”