An album about death and addiction may seem like an unlikely way to help a band become more popular. In the weird, wonderful world of IDLES, it’s par for the course. Indeed, the U.K. quintet found catharsis in tragedy while also greatly expanding the palette of IDLES’ dense, heavy, and often punishing sound.
Following the album’s November 2021 release, IDLES made its American TV debut on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, played nearly 150 shows all over the world (including two high-profile performances at the U.K.’s Glastonbury Festival), and scored Grammy nominations for best rock performance and best rock album. Produced by Kenny Beats and IDLES guitarist Mark Bowen, Crawler certainly set a high bar for whatever the band will do next, but Bowen tells SPIN he and his bandmates — frontman Joe Talbot, bassist Adam “Dev” Devonshire, guitarist Lee Kiernan, and drummer Jon Beavis — are more than ready for the challenge.
The musician and new dad of a baby boy chatted with SPIN by Zoom the same day England defeated Wales 3-0 in the World Cup group stage, and the conversation ranged from how the Crawler material is working within IDLES’ famously visceral live shows, the plan for new music, and why spicy candy had a brief but shining moment during the pandemic.
Have you been paying attention to the World Cup?
Mark Bowen: No, actually. Not at all. I’m not really a fan of football.
Do you have a preferred sport?
No, not really. I’m not really a sports guy. I’m more of an athlete than a sportsperson, do you know what I mean? [Flexes muscles.]
So it’s more about general body excellence for you?
That’s all I care about. Whether the thing goes in the thing isn’t the thing for me.
IDLES have been playing material from Crawler live for more than a year at this point. What has it been like integrating these songs into the set lists?
Crawler has a little bit more of those nuanced, quiet moments. None of it is ‘quiet,’ but songs like ‘MTT 420’ and ‘The Beachland Ballroom’ aren’t all chaos from our end. On our old songs, we are swinging about, slashing, and head-banging everywhere. The energy you pick up is from your own personal chaos you’re feeding into the crowd. ‘Beachland Ballroom’ and ‘MTT’ give us time to see the impact the music is having on people, rather than just the chaos of the performance. It was quite startling at first. We played ‘Beachland Ballroom’ at this time last year, and that was when we really started to notice that feeling. We debuted ‘MTT’ in Brixton, and it’s a completely different experience. It’s really hard to play these songs live. We don’t have difficult music normally, and it was a real steep learning curve how to transfer the songs from Crawler into the live arena. It took us six months, actually, to really enjoy them, because there’s a significant amount of muscle and brain memory you have to rely on before you can become automatic. Whenever you can become slightly more automatic in the intricacies of performance, you can focus on the feel a lot more. It’s really, really enjoyable, and it’s really nice to have those moments in the set because it can center you like the music was intended to. It reminds you to be present in what you’re doing at that point, rather than getting completely lost in it.
Has the material evolved and changed on stage?
Completely transformed. In some respects, you can’t recreate a studio album live without relying on backing tracks or 150 musicians. We can’t afford 150 musicians and we didn’t want to be playing to a backing track, so the songs out of necessity had to grow and evolve into something that becomes more involved, performance-wise. We were talking about this today. We did From the Basement, which was a real moment for us. We didn’t have any shows around that time, so we had a six-week period to rehearse, and that’s where we really found those songs. They’re performed in a certain way on that, and it’s really intense between the five members of the band. Everyone is laser-sharp-focused. When we perform live, other than Joe, there really isn’t that focus within the band. It’s more about the chaos and the audience experiencing it together. So, it evolved into this other level. The songs have found their place in the set. They’ve moved around and now they sit next to their brothers and sisters from other albums. It creates an ebb and flow that’s making me more and more excited about writing new music because I know that when we write something a bit slower, thoughtful, or more reserved, it will have as much of a place in our live set as ‘Danny Nedelko’ or ‘Never Fight a Man With a Perm.’ It makes the set more of a complete thing.
Can you give me a specific example of a Crawler song that now might have a different arrangement or instrumentation in the live version? Did the lion’s share of the work fall to you to cover more of the parts?
Yeah. As the producer, I think I was the only one aware of certain complexities. I’ve got this thing we call the Crawler Machine. After we finished the album, I told my guitar tech, Gavin Maxwell, that we were going to have a real problem reproducing some of this stuff live. A song like ‘MTT 420’ has maybe 32 guitars playing at different times, and they’re all being put through Moog pedals. He said, write down everything you need to happen, and we’ll work out how to do it. He designed the Crawler Machine, which sits above my piano on the side of the stage. I have a loop station on the top and bottom. The bottom one I control with my feet, and the top one I control with my hands. On ‘MTT 420,’ I catch a loop, and while it’s being played, I have to play the next part of the song and put that in the loop. I have to find moments where I can play the guitar and then other moments where I need to be turning knobs. It becomes a bit of a dance. I’ll be counting it off in my head. On ‘Meds,’ I am in control of Dev’s bass sound. On ‘Car Crash,’ I can change Joe’s vocal sound. There’s live production going on onstage.
The Grammys have been famously out of touch about recognizing the heavier side of rock music, which is why the two nominations for IDLES seem so significant. What, if anything, does this mean to you guys?
The nominations mean a lot, and its recognition within an industry. In America, we’ve been welcomed with open arms. Our experience with the industry here has been great. But we spent 12 years being a band and everyone ignored us, or said that rock and guitar music is dead. Nobody wanted to release our albums. It’s nice to be up there with a band like Turnstile. Who would have thought there’d be two quote-unquote hardcore bands with multiple Grammy nominations? That’s cool. The idea of saying music is better or worse or deserving of accolades doesn’t make sense to me, because most people would say my taste in music is terrible. It is a real honor to be nominated because all of my favorite massive bands have been Grammy-nominated. It shows that there’s potential for growth in the band, I think. That’s exciting. Anyone saying, hey, I think you’re band’s cool, whether it’s a 20-year-old kid discovering rock or hardcore, or a 65-year-old like my wife’s dad, who likes ‘Beachland Ballroom,’ that’s a plus.
Can IDLES write on the road? Have they?
Absolutely not [Laughs]. We wrote Ultra Mono on the road. Maybe 60% of it was written in soundchecks, and I don’t have a clue why that worked, because there’s absolutely no way in hell that would happen anymore. Ultra Mono is a very blunt, straightforward thing, and I think we’re looking to be slightly more complex and nuanced in our music now. That requires a bit of premeditation and discussion, as well as spontaneity. We’ve learned the hard way to set boundaries. When you’re gigging, you’re gigging. And when you’re writing and recording, you’re that. You’re a different beast.
Is there any new music percolating yet?
There is, yeah. We’re not a band who rests on our laurels and we’ve just been nominated for a Grammy a year into having an album out, so we’ll need to use that goodwill in some respects. We’ll be pushing forward as ever. The hunger is there as well. We were excited about what Crawler meant for the band, so we want to do it now, rather than wait for three years.
Of course you don’t want to just make a part two of Crawler, but generally, are you interested in continuing to push the sound to different places?
Yeah. What I enjoyed about the Crawler experience was that at certain points, I felt out of my depth. I’d play Kenny a track and tell him, I really want this to be good but I have no idea how to make it good. Kenny would be like, it’s really good! And I’d realize that it was. I want to try and get as much out of my depth as possible without it being a complete and utter calamity. However, I also think there’s a certain level of seriousness that came with the music on Crawler. There was a respect we had to show to the craft. What I love most about being in IDLES is, generally, the lack of respect we show anything, from hegemony to hierarchy to expectation or being told how to do something. We definitely have to do that. We can’t be a serious, navel-gazing band all the time. I really want to bring the chaos and the fun back in as well. The next stage of IDLES is taking something like Crawler and using the lessons we’ve learned there to bring the humor and fun and exhilaration of Brutalism and Joy back into the fold. That’s my goal with the next one.
Are you open to working with Kenny again?
What were some other highlights of the year for you?
We played Mexico for the first time, which was an incredible experience. It was pretty special. That was a big moment for us this year. My favorite gig this year was when we played Glastonbury. We did a secret set the following day where we played our first album in full. I went on in my underwear, like I used to. Joe had been over-indulging the night before and Dev was a mess. It was literally like we were transported back to 2016, playing to 20 people. We had the same gear and everything. It was the most fun I’ve had playing this year because it was complete chaos. All the muscle memory was still there.
Were there songs from that album that hadn’t been played in ages?
My God, yeah. Since Crawler, quite a bit of Brutalism has been nudged out. In certain countries, Brutalism wasn’t really a thing. There’s really only ‘Mother,’ ‘Dive and Conquer,’ and ‘Faith in the City’ that cling around the set routinely. I don’t think we’d ever played ‘Rachel Khoo’ live at a gig. We hadn’t played ‘Well Done’ in like three years either. Joe remembered all the lyrics, though. It was shocking. I think we were in some kind of weird time warp that brought us back to 2016, because it felt exactly the same.
Is it possible for musicians to stay sane on the road?
It always falls apart towards the end of a long year. It was definitely starting to fray at the edges the last couple of times we’ve been out. Generally, we’re quite good at giving each other space and checking in on each other. We don’t stay in bed until ridiculous o’clock and only wake up right before the show. One of the really hard things is the transition between touring. Ron Sexsmith was talking about this recently. You don’t really pay attention to the toll of performing every night until you come off the tour, and you realize your brain is mush. You can barely have a coherent conversation. Sometimes we’re good, and sometimes we’re not so good. But that’s just what being a touring band is.
What was some of your favorite music this year?
The Jockstrap album I really dig. I got really into death and black metal out of the blue. I’ve never been into metal in my entire life, and it looks like I’m wearing a metal t-shirt, but it’s actually a Big Thief t-shirt (laughs). Their album is good too. There’s a death metal band called 200 Stab Wounds who sound like Cannibal Corpse, but their riffs are so sick. That’s my album of the year — Slave to the Scalpel. It has some pretty harrowing artwork.
I saw that someone from IDLES played a King Gizzard song during a recent DJ set in Mexico. Did you check out any of their new albums?
I didn’t get a chance to. Didn’t they release a bazillion of them?
Just five this year [Laughs].
That level of prolific is too mysterious and mystical to me. I don’t know how they do it, because every Gizzard song I’ve listened to, I have enjoyed. I’ve been completely stumped by their catalog. I’m like, how the hell do I get in? The Ohsees are my level of prolific. I have managed to follow and understand them.
Have you heard from Mariah Carey about IDLES’ live version of ‘All I Want for Christmas Is You?’
We haven’t, but hopefully she’ll be at the Grammys and we’ll be able to apologize. Although, she’s getting a little bit of the IDLES ticket price every night. We’re showing our respect through that.
For a period of time, you were reviewing spicy candy on your Instagram feed, but it has been a minute since your last update. Did you run out of things to analyze?
This is a two-pronged answer, I’m afraid. One, I became a dad, so social media is considerably less interesting to me. Rather, participating in social media. I don’t have the energy. Two, apparently there was a glut of capsicum out in the world. It was a bit like when there was a glut of Skittles and they were feeding them to cows. A big tanker crashed in Wisconsin and there were Skittles all over the motorway. People were like, why are there skittles on the motorway? It was because they were feeding them to cows. So apparently there was a big glut of spice, and they put it in candy. Everybody was adding it — Spicy Reeses Cups, Spicy Starburst. I think I got through all the best ones.