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Bristol’s Idles are continuing the narrative with their latest LP, Ultra Mono.
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The follow-up to Joy as an Act of Resistance keeps a sense of community at the front-and-centre, something that feels more important now than ever before. We caught with guitarist Mark Bowen to chat about the album and the partnerships that brought it all together.
Hysteria: We’re now onto Ultra Mono, how does the narrative compare to your past records?
Mark: It’s evolved a lot, we started the process of Ultra Mono almost immediately after Joy as an Act of Resistance. From a sonic perspective, we weren’t hitting certain markers, we were still happy with the record but it was far off where we wanted the band to go. We assessed that situation and how we were going to approach songwriting and production. We talked about the kind of music we wanted to emulate, hip-hop and electronic, and we listened to a lot of it to get that perspective.
We had to narrow down what we were doing, a lot of Idles’ stuff has been very cacophonous and the guitars have been all over the place, absorbing a lot of the song. We decided to line up, have everyone play the same thing and work as one machine so we could have that impact come through from the drums, the production and everything, to make it as gut-wrenching as possible. As this whole distilling down of what Idles is became clear, it started to seep down into the lyrical content of the album. It came through in the simple, straightforward language we were using.
It takes a lot of confidence to strip things back to the essential form of songwriting, it’s very laser-focused and microscopic. Because of that, we had to reinforce our self-belief and that became another topic on the record. Joy as an Act of Resistance was really about opening up conversations. Listening and being open-minded is incredibly important, but Ultra Mono is us starting those conversations again and getting our point across.
Did any events inspire the record?
Interestingly, there was a musical experience Joe (Talbot, frontman) and I had the first night we met. Mr Oizo was playing in a club, he played this track called Motor and there was this insane moment where it kind of turned into a flash-mob, everyone was locked in on it. That moment of unification and becoming one machine, and the sonics of that track, really influenced this album.
We also just leant on our experiences in the past and our tastes. Joe is a hip-hop fan and I’m a techno fan, so we brought that into the music. I would say Grounds is a hip-hop song and Reigns is an electro song. We managed to succeed in becoming our influences rather than just wearing them.
A really important aspect of Idles is the sense of community we try to cultivate…It felt important to have a sense of that in the album.
[ Mark Bowen ]
You collaborated with a few different musicians. What did they bring to the table?
It’s funny. A lot of them were by accident, they came around spontaneously. We were distilling Idles down to its most essential form and really exaggerating those aspects of our personality and what it is to be us. A really important aspect of Idles is the sense of community we try to cultivate, within the band itself and with our audience. It felt important to have a sense of that in the album, and that meant it wasn’t just the voices of the five men in the band being heard. Artists like Jehnny Beth, Warren Ellis, David Yow and Jamie Cullum… on paper, none of them should work together. David and Jamie being on the same song doesn’t make any sense but that’s part of what Idles is about. That was the important aspect of having those collaborations on there.
How did those collabs actually happen then?
For example, Warren Ellis just turned up in the studio one day (laughs). Nick Launay, who produced the album, is good friends with him, so he just turned up to say hello. While he was there, he gave us some good insight into what we were doing. We had an interesting chat, and we very cheekily asked him to be involved in one of the songs. All he does is say “hey” in the middle of Grounds, but that’s one of the best things on the whole album (laughs).
We recorded the album in France and wanted to have part of a song spoken in the language. Our French is terrible, so Jehnny Beth came on board. We wanted to have a woman’s voice on Ne Touche Pas Moi anyway, it was important it wasn’t just coming from a male perspective. We also felt it was entirely appropriate that if someone was going to bastardise the French tongue, it was a French person rather than a Brit.
Tell us about your recent Abbey Road livestream.
Abbey Road was the distillation of the last five months. It was really difficult, those live streams were one of the hardest things we’ve done as a band. As soon as we got there, the elephant in the room became really apparent… there wasn’t an audience, we were performing for people at home and had no idea when we’d be performing to crowds again. That added tension and frustration. When lockdown came into force in March/April, we booked this live stream thinking it was only going to last for a month and we’d be able to rehearse for eight weeks and play these sets as we always had. We’d taken a break from December, so we already hadn’t been playing for four months. It became apparent we weren’t going to be able to rehearse until right before the show, we had three ones as a full band before playing the show.
We play around 190 shows a year, so with songs like Mother… I haven’t thought about how to play them for five years. It comes naturally, it’s feelings and muscle memory. But then I got to a point where my fingers couldn’t remember. It felt as though we were becoming a band all over again. We dealt with it in our way, and it came across as we intended it to. It was honest and open, we showed our mistakes and wore them with pride. It went as well as it could have but it was bloody difficult.