Today sees British punk titans IDLES’ return with their third album Ultra Mono, a record that marks a new era for the band, who are now lauded as one of “the” bands of our time, which means a lot more eyes and ears and an elevated set of expectations.
In the early days of this month, I had the pleasure of speaking over the phone with Mark Bowen, IDLES guitarist, and an absolute madman during their already legendary live performance. We discussed the different sets of expectations this time around, their new recording process, their power as a live band, and even his unique perspective on Covid-19 after previously working as a dentist.
Find our nearly 45-minute full discussion below, which has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Will: Hey Mark, how is it going? Where are you located at the moment?
Mark: I’m in London!
W: How are you holding up with everything this year? How do you feel with the current state of the country and the handling of the pandemic?
M: Yeah, it’s alright…our government is messing it up, but I guess not as bad as your government is (laughs). But from a personal side of things, I’ve been very lucky, I get to spend more time with my daughter, where I am usually on tour most of the time during the year so it’s been nice this year to spend some real concentrated quality time with her.
W: You guys played some wild livestreamed sets this weekend at Abbey Road. I caught the 2nd one on Saturday. How were those performances and what was it liking doing it at such a historic place?
M: You know what, it was really hard work and I didn’t expect it to be as hard as it was, for a number of reasons. One, we are out of shape, we haven’t gigged since the middle of December so we haven’t played a show since then. We took some time off so we weren’t rehearsing or playing and then of lockdown got in the way, and then we made this decision to do the livestream thinking we could rehearse for it and we were really only able to rehearse when it was like four weeks total, and even then, Joe and I were only able to do one or two a week. So that was hard and then we got there and playing with no audience is just…tough. Like we have done things like this before, like KEXP out in Seattle, things like that, but you always sort of know, it just feels different. I don’t know, I guess with KEXP there’s an expectation of what it is, and I guess we didn’t have any expectations of this. But at the same time it was really cool, I think we succeeded in our goal, we wanted to do something that was lined up with the concepts of Ultra Mono, which is Idles distilled to its most Idles form, it was us trying to be as honest as we possibly could about what Idles is. So I think we were successful in that regard. Was it our best performance of anything ever? Definitely, definitely not. But it was real, it was as real as about any other performance. I think I can live with it.
But it was weird, going there Abbey Road turned into this, and I didn’t know going into this, but it turned into this quite corporate thing with Universal Music Group, it just was a bit stale like going to the dentist, there’s a receptionist, and it’s all a bit formal and made even more formal obviously with the measures because of Covid. It was strange. But then once you get into Studio 2 you’re like “oh my god,” you know, that room, just seeing it. It’s been in my consciousness for a long time, I’ve seen so many photos and images of bands playing there, so that felt really cool.
W: It’s funny that you compare it to it being like going to the dentist, you used to work as a dentist right?
M: Yeah, I did. And of course, nothing against dentists or dental surgeries (laughs) but you don’t want that atmosphere for a recording studio or a creative atmosphere. It didn’t really feel like a gig, it was heard.
W: So to sort of branch off from that, as someone who actually did work in the health services, what’s your perspective on how everything has been handled?
M: It’s crazy, yeah I guess I may have a more knowledgeable perspective because I understand infectious disease a little bit more than your average person, and virology and a little about immunology and vaccines and things like that. It’s just that, there’s this battle going on between economies collapsing and we don’t have a vaccine, so people are going to get sick and that’s it. Governments have decided to accept the fact that something as non-existent as an economy – like it’s just an “idea” – is more important than the actual reality of people getting sick and dying. I just think it’s the same as it always is and anything that comes with the government they follow the money and the quick fixes that people want and this is not a situation for a quick fix, this is a situation to sit it out and get it sorted. But I mean, I understand it. We’ve been working, we were in Abbey Road, that was a huge risk we took. But you got to just take the necessary risks I guess.
W: We all have settled into a sort of weird new normal state of being, how does it feel releasing Ultra Mono with everything going on right? Were plans ever in flux earlier in the year when things were even crazier?
M: We finished the album, well I actually got out of Los Angeles the day that it went into lockdown and I got back in London just as they announced a lockdown that afternoon. So the album was just finished. Our mastering engineer Bernie Grundman snuck in under darkness to master the album (laughs), so I mean, the thing is, with bands like us, because it has been two years since Joy as an Act of Resistance was released, we couldn’t have waited, we had to release something, just for our own morale. We are not the kind of people that could sit back and enjoy a two year long album cycle. We’ve been writing and working on this album pretty much since after Joy was released, even before Joy was released. We had been thinking hard about the concepts and how we were going to approach this album for a long time, to sit on it, wouldn’t have worked at all. Our label thought about pushing it back to January, but we couldn’t do it.
We also thought that everything around us has been taken away from us, we’ve lost control over live shows, we can’t play gigs and touring, I have no idea when we’re going to be allowed to come to America again. But what we do have control over is releasing music, we can decide when you hear what we’ve got so we wanted to give people something to look forward to and give ourselves something to look forward to and release the album. We were originally supposed to release it this weekend (early September) but our label wanted to push it back a month as they needed to understand what it is to release a record in the time of Covid. So yeah, a lot of people are releasing music this year so we felt we’d give it a month but there was no way we would sit around and wait as we were already moving on, as it’s not in our capacity to retread the ground and talk about Ultra Mono whenever we’re fully engrossed in whatever the next IDLES thing is going to be.
W: How has your process changed from the first two records, not just stylistically but your process as a band and collaborating with each other’s ideas etc.
M: It’s kind of become this very streamlined democratic thing. We were always very democratic in the songwriting but that slows bands down a lot, bands that write democratically write significantly slower than bands that lean on one or two people to write. But I think what we learned since this album is everyone playing to their strengths and everyone having faith and confidence in each other. The majority of the album was written by me and Joe, but the bits that Dev, Lee, and Jon contributed, are them adding their strengths and understanding and their rules within the songwriting process. That’s the big thing, we’ve sort of streamlined it and we know when we are working on something and say someone holds their hand up and goes “I don’t get this” or “I got an idea,” because we all want the same thing that we have got to have faith in that person’s understanding of the situation and how they want it.
For example, I’ve got a lot of confidence in whenever Joe says we need to do this or that, I’ve got a lot of confidence that he’s trying to steer us in the right direction. I guess that’s the biggest change to the process. And there’s still the same thing, we come up with the title for the album first and the concept for it always, and then we talk about it for hours, and hours, and hours, and come up with ideas, play stuff, get it wrong, get it wrong, over and over and over again and then that’s when it hits home. For example, Ultra Mono, as I was saying, we were pretty much working on that months after we recorded Joy but all the songs on Ultra Mono were written two weeks before we went into the studio. It was like we were getting the whole process wrong for 18 months and then it all came together and the concept and the understanding of what this album was supposed to be hit home and the songs just streamed out. Joe and I wrote eight songs in our first rehearsal together in the last two weeks, it was like everything just came together.
It needed to be this spontaneous thing, that’s the important thing on this album is the momentariness, it living in the moment, saying something in as few words or as few instruments or as few guitar parts or notes and then living with it and having the confidence to go “yep, that’s exactly what i meant.” It was kind of a safety mechanism doing things that way because it means we didn’t have time to second guess ourselves. We were doing it so quickly so that we didn’t have an opportunity to ask if it was right because we knew we were right, but you know, then doubt kicks in. Joe wrote most of the vocals when he was in the booth in the studio. So whenever you hear these songs for the first time you’re hearing them as we’re hearing them for the first time. I think it adds a kind of energy to it … I mean, that might be a load of crap, but for me it definitely does, as the song is only as exciting as the first time I heard it.
W: You guys have been a band for a while now and the last few years have been especially successful for you in a pretty quick timespan. Did all the time as a band before that really prepare you for this moment more so than if you took off right out of the gate?
M: 100%. One, it taught us gratitude, because it took us so long to get here, so we know the hunger that we had for so long and we still respect that, so having that gratitude is a really useful tool whenever you’re slogging it out on a tour or you’re dealing with the pressures and the crap that comes with it, like dealing with music industry people is pretty terrible on a day to day basis – not including yourself of course (laughs). There can also be an inflated sense of ego that comes whenever you’re propelled into the light and getting acclaim and stuff like that early on, it causes you to second guess yourself and you get imposter syndrome. Whereas because it took us so long, there is definitely no opportunity for imposter syndrome (laughs) because so much has been put into it. It also kind of instilled a confidence in us to stick with what we know and not get sucked up in it or people trying to guide you creatively, that’s just not in our interest at all and I’ve seen a lot of bands that come up where that can happen. Also, we didn’t break up in those first seven years, so we are pretty good at being around each other for long periods of time. I mean, it would’ve been nice to be in a big band whenever I was in my early 20s, it certainly has its drawbacks being in your mid 30s whenever you’re turning the wheel. But I feel like we are doing it a lot better because of it. I reckon Joe and Dev would probably have died if we had been here in our early 20s, so I’m grateful for that! (laughs)
W: With that said, there are a lot different expectations for this new album this time around. Did you guys feel that pressure while recording and how did it help shape the record?
M: Actually, I think it was the opposite. I think there was a freedom that came with the kind of success we had and the momentum that’s behind us. There is a sense that we’re on a path creatively that’s striking a chord with people, and there is a sense that we’re on a path creatively where we are succeeding more in translating what’s in our head, sonically, lyrically, and with the songwriting as well. So the funny thing is that it instilled a bit of confidence that we are able to be a lot stronger-headed in the studio and be a lot stronger-headed and a lot more involved in the recording and mixing process, which I think has lent itself well to the album. I find that I’m much happy with how this album sounds in every aspect to any of our previous work. Is it going to be as lauded as Joy as an Act of Resistance? Probably not, because there is not that much excitement of the new and that sort of hype around us, but that’s not what I’m in it for. What I’m in it for is to create the album that we intended to and with Ultra Mono we have definitely created the album that we intended to and I’m excited about that.
W: Can you talk about your use of collaboration on this record with Kenny Beats and many others on the record such as Jenny Beth. Was this something you wanted to pursue to shake things up or did it just feel like the natural organic next step, or a little bit of both?
M: It was weird, every single person that’s on the album, it’s completely by accident.
W: Wow, really?
M: Yeah the only one that we knew about when we were in the studio was David Yow. We made the decision to have David singing, because Dev can’t sing anymore, he’s done way too many drugs (laughs), drink way too much, smokes way too much, and also screams every night, so like all he’s good for now is screaming so he can’t really sing that well anymore. Normally it’s me and Dev that do the backing vocals – and my voice really didn’t suit any of the parts, it just felt wrong, so David has been a friend for a while and it felt like the most fitting person to be on it. And then it kind of came to us, that is Ultra Mono is IDLES distilled down to its most IDLES form. So I guess a big part of what we’re about is our sense of community. It’s not about us, it’s not about the five people, it’s not about anyone in the band, it’s about the community that’s created up from those five people and then also the communities we create with our audience every night when we are performing, and creating community online with stuff like the AF Gang.
So it feels only appropriate that there should be other people other than IDLES on there and the fact that everything kind of happened in a spontaneous way and out of friendships and out of trust and love for other people, these collaborations came out. Jehnny Beth is on there by accident as we wanted to write a song in French and we got the French wrong and we were recording a TV show and telling her about this and she was like “No, that’s terrible French” so we were like well, “You gotta sing it then!” if someone is going to sing terrible French it should be a French person (laughs) so we got her to do it. And also, to add to that song, it was important to have a female voice on there and to have a female voice heard on that issue rather than five men singing about it. Things like that, they just happened in a really spontaneous and natural way. Nothing was forced, nothing pushed.
W: Going back to your singing voice, during your live shows you have a few moments to shine on lead vocals, even if it’s in a playful way. Do you have any plans or thoughts on singing prominently on any future IDLES song?
M: It’s something I’ve thought about but in a very negative way. I prefer to sing less and less, I don’t like the sound of my voice, I got this nasally Belfast accent. I don’t know, I don’t feel there’s anything particular refined in my singing voice so I prefer to keep it as this spontaneous, fun, stupid element thing that I do wehenver I take over on the mic to rile people up live, instead of saying, “hey everyone sit down and listen to me,” you know, when you listen to when Joe sings, he has this voice that you listen to, and I want to hear more of that, not mine.
W: You guys capture the essence of your power as a live band on your recordings well. Did the incorporation of hip hop influences or any other factors change that process or approach during this recording?
M: It was weird, the hip hop and electronic influences was about the writing, we knew that we were going to be using production as more of a tool, so writing a lot of heavy queuing and carving space in there and using a lot of different ways of transforming drums to make it hit as hard as possible. So in a way, I guess these songs are – it’s weird I don’t want to say it’s not as wild – but I guess it isn’t as wild, if you compare the songs on this album to say Brutalism, where the guitars are all over the place and they are kind of sporadic and spontaneous. There’s stuff on there that never gets played the same twice when we play it live. So I guess that kind of got taken away, but what we were doing with that was during the recording process it loses its power, whereas if we kind of hone in on each other and really just sit tight and lock in with each other, that’s another way of developing that power and another of getting things to go really wild because when stuff gets really locked in it gets really excited.
That was the big change, but we still did the same thing, we recorded everything live, most of them are the first take. We leave mistakes in. That’s it. It was always going to be that way but more so the pre-thought and preparation we did, we used about 20 amps each, so we had loads of different sounds set up, we were using these massive rigs, so everything was kind of prepared and we went in and performed it knowing how it was going to sound. So then the after stuff, the production, the stuff that Kenny did, working around the transience of the drums getting the front-end of the drums to really pop and come out, to add onto the sound that we got in the studio, this incredibly violent sound, it has this kind of rockiness, the violence is in the tail of it, not the first strike. So we got this first strike punch in and not too get too technical, but if you listen to the low end – anything 100 Hz or below, doesn’t really get any attention paid to it, so it kind of gets left as it is, which often means that the bass and any low guitar really mess around with the kick and create this big washy sound, so what Kenny did was really tidy it up so you get a concerted kick sound and concerted strong bassline that is getting you right in the chest. There’s a lot of stuff on this album that maybe you can’t really hear if you listen to it on a laptop speaker, you’re not gonna get the full potential of it, it needs to be heard loud.
W: “War” is a striking opening track as it sorta feels strangely relevant in many ways even more so now – but at least to me, it feels like a passing of the baton from the previous era of the band to this new one. Am I reading into that or was that intentional?
M: No yeah, you hit it on the head. We always write the first song on the album first, so we know what we’re getting into. And it often has this changing of the guard feel to it, like “Colossus” on the last album. It’s not bridging the gap, but it has this sense about it that you’re moving from one thing to another. It’s like there’s before war and there’s after war, there’s before you hear the song and after it. There’s a sense of something coming with that song and you also get a sense of what is coming because there’s a lot of totems for the rest of the album present on that song, so it’s Ultra Mono, a guide in to it, and then “Grounds,” the second song, really is the most “Ultra Mono” song on the album, so as soon as you hear that and understand that’s the kind of pinnacle of the album, that’s what the rest of the album is going to sound and feel like. But yeah, that was definitely the intention with “War.”
W: You guys give your all night in and night out for months. You and Lee in particular are kinetic forces on stage and get pretty wild and brave with your crowd surfs. How do you maintain that energy night in and night out and do you have a craziest story or memory about a venture into the crowd while performing?
M: I guess it’s something that’s just instinctively in us. I’ve always done that at our live shows, it’s a big thing for me and I guess you just have to be particularly fit and confident with it. If you ever lack in confidence jumping from something, you’re going to trip and fall. You’ve just got to embrace it and also understand that the audience, by and large, are there for you, so they’re going to help you out. Lee actually has a terrible back now, he’s working on that, I’m lucky so far.
I’m trying to think of stories…one of the funniest ones is one time I went out into the crowd and then the security wouldn’t let me back on stage because they thought I was a part of the audience trying to get on stage, it took until Joe noticed that he told them that I was in the band. It was funny, like how many people do you expect to be just walking around in only their pants (laughs). And there are lots of other stuff that happened, you get in the middle of a fight or luckily you can ease conflict because people are there for the band. A lot of fingers up bums that’s happened during the crowd surfs…it was inevitable but its still very disconcerting when it happens (laughs)
W: I interviewed Carlos from Fontaines D.C. this summer and he had some great stuff to say about their time spent with you guys on tour last year. He also said at some points during their tour for Dogrel that he regretted not being more present and appreciating the moment while he was there. Did you ever experience anything like that?
M: That’s interesting you bring that up about Carlos because whenever we were on tour in the states early on Carlos kind of was talking a bit about that and I spoke to him a bit about meditation. Me and him used to meditate every night in the van before going on stage. Which is a really cool thing to do, it’s just really good for centering you and bringing some of the things from practice into the show, you really benefit from it. Yeah I’ve had that a fair few times, I used to have a few drinks before a gig and then one night I just noticed it sort of numbed my experience of the show, so I haven’t drank since.
It’s really, really important for our show. If you were just to listen to audio of our show and have no idea about what it was, it does sound pretty terrible, like it’s calamitous, like the bits where we are locked in are good, it sounds heavy, it’s large. But there’s a lot of bits where it falls apart or very nearly falls apart and I think it’s important to be in the moment for those things and experiencing this as it is right now is one of the most important aspects of IDLES. If you don’t have that and if your mind is somewhere else, it’s not going to be anywhere near as good, it would be terrible if we are dialing it in and it would lose the reason that everyone is there. I learned early on to not drink and to really kind of get a sense of the room, that’s a big part of our show, is the feedback of energy that’s given between us and the crowd. We come out guns blazing so that they can probably give us something back and then we can know how the evening is going to go from there because we are able to ramp it up, we have control over that, and the more present you are, the more control you have and the more present you are the more mad you can be in the crowd and the more excitement you can get out of people and get up in people’s faces because you feel more in control.
W: Years ago your big arrival in New York was at that Rough Trade NYC show and it was remarkable how you took over the room and it felt like you had been playing there for years. And this carried over every time at MHOW, Brooklyn Steel, Terminal 5. Can you talk about the relationship you have with the city?
M: Absolutely love it. It’s the best place in the world to play. I’m going to say that. Dutch venues are best, Portugese crowds are probably the best, but New Yorkers are probably the best combination of everything. Early on, I would have thought that we would’ve been too British, too idiosyncrasy British with our post-punk sensibilities, I thought people wouldn’t really get us in the states. But that show at Rough Trade was just like wow, people get it even more over there. There’s an energy in New York that is really IDLES. There’s a real sense that fits with our ethos, with our understanding of communities. The music scene over there is so strong and everything about it fits.
I feel like sonically every venue we played fit our kind of sound, it felt like we were in the right place. There’s a griminess, there’s a dark that’s in the air that really works. I don’t know how to describe it, but every time we’re playing New York that’s the one we’re looking forward to playing the most because we know the audience is going to be receptive and uninhibited. Maybe there’s an uninhibited aspect of American people there that are willing to talk and be open and I guess living in a big city, sometimes that’s kind of taken away from you? Because of the things you give up whenever you live in a big city you search for that catharsis and that opportunity to be open and to be uninhibited. Our shows are definitely an arena of theater for those kinds of things to happen and I think that search for catharsis, I’ve noticed that New Yorkers look for and that we appreciate as well.
W: The IDES AF Facebook group is a rare thing as it’s something positive that has thrived on social media, as it’s a truly wholesome good nature fan club and community – one that aligns with a lot of the stuff you guys speak about in your songs. You guys have also been involved with it. How does it feel to have this sort of support happening in the wings in such a great positive way?
M: The AF Gang was this amazing thing that sprouted out around us, that was built itself, we didn’t have any intentions with starting it or anything like that. It was a group of people that we’ve known from very early on in IDLES, the admin, she is an amazing photographer and did most of IDLES early photographing around Brutalism and beyond. I guess there is this thing that comes with us and the sense that we try to create in our shows, which is a sense of community, open-mindedness, unity, and support that we try to nurture in our performance, within us with the band and then within our audience and I guess it got recognized and people wanted to create an arena that was similar to an IDLES gig but online, and then it kind of blossomed.
I guess everyone just understands what it is, they understand the ethos behind it and the ethics of what it is to be on that, so how to share, and how to help, and how to be open-aired and open-minded and I really admire it. I’m not active in the group, but I lurk, as people say and it always blows my mind the stuff that goes on there, it really picks you up when you have a bad day to see the conversations that people are having with each other and the support they’re giving. It really helps me in my practice of being open-minded, I just think it’s a really cool thing. It’s grown completely out of proportion, it’s grown beyond IDLES, it’s not really about the band anymore and I’m glad as I don’t want things to be about IDLES all the time.
W: Finally – what books, movies albums have helped you past the time throughout the year stuck at home?
M: I got really into gardening! Basically at the start of lockdown I was like a caged animal. I didn’t realize how important performing and the physical exertion that I get from performing live was for my mental health. So I took up weightlifting, it’s so animalistic, I’m kind of embarrassed for how useful it is for me, but if I’m going in and lifting heavy things for 20-minutes it makes me feel good for the rest of the day and I’m level headed and at peace. But yeah, going into the garden and growing my own vegetables, I have some zucchini that I grew for my dinner tonight and watching Gardeners World, which is basically a thing for retired people, so in a way in my forced retirement, I’ve become really into growing flowers and vegetables.
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