Music

'Music is an important creative outlet': IDLES answer questions from superfan with Angelman syndrome

A meeting of musical minds, thanks to the wonders of technology

Mark from IDLES and Alastair

Mark from IDLES and Alastair. Processed with VSCO with a6 preset

Alastair Smith, 20, is from Hull. He loves travel and live music. Last year he went with his parents and best friend Harry to Berlin to visit the same spots that David Bowie and Iggy Pop did when they lived there. Soon he will travel to the Eden Project, Cornwall to see IDLES, his favourite band.

Alastair has Angelman syndrome, a rare genetic condition that affects the nervous system and causes severe physical and learning disabilities. He uses symbol-based communication via an AAC device. Alastair came up with some questions that we sent to Mark Bowen, IDLES lead guitarist, on tour in the US. He sent back answers on video so Alastair would be able to understand them, and with help from Alastair’s mum Jenn, added his responses and annotations to show what inspired the questions. 

IDLES
IDLES. Image: Tom Ham

I like to travel, do you like to travel on tour?  

Mark Bowen: Hey Alastair, how’s it going? I love travelling with IDLES on tour. It’s one of the greatest privileges of being a musician, getting to go to lots of different places all over the world. And insert yourself, very briefly, into a little scene of the cities that you go to. Sometimes it’s difficult. Sometimes there’s jet lag and stuff like that. But one of the important things is to be open to anything happening. You like travelling, but is there anything about travelling that you don’t like? Would you teleport if teleportation was a thing? 

Alastair: I would like to be able to teleport to go further than I can get in my camper van or out of places I don’t like. 

Do you have time to explore new cities? 

MB: Sometimes. We make a point of moving away from where we’re supposed to be that day and exploring the city. It’s definitely one of the best things for your mental health. One of the big things for me is finding a good coffee place. Once you get the coffee you can suss things out around you then explore. If there’s good exhibitions, or art spaces that are novel or interesting, we’ll do that. We also like to exercise so we’ll find a gym or an athletics club, something fun to do. Is there anything that you like to do when you get somewhere to settle yourself or to start off your exploration?  

Alastair: I like art, I like coffee, I like boat rides. I am very good at geography. [Alastair knows where everything is within a couple of hours of arriving somewhere new.] 

Alastair with his gig buddies and bandmates Jack and Josh
Alastair with his gig buddies and bandmates Jack and Josh

Do you have a favourite city or venue? I like Berlin and the Adelphi [an independent music venue in Hull]. 

MB: Interesting you say the Adelphi. That’s definitely in my top 10 venues. It’s an incredible venue and an incredible place. And favourite cities… it’s hard to say. I really like New Orleans, Tokyo. At the minute we’re in Dallas. And I do like the Texan vibe. I remember I went to see the David Bowie Is exhibition and I spent ages looking at the keys to his apartment in Berlin that he shared with Lou Reed and Iggy Pop. That was the coolest thing. What was the coolest place you saw that was Iggy Pop/David Bowie-adjacent in Berlin? 

Alastair: David Bowie house and coffee shop Neues Ufer with Harry, best mate. [Also learning about The Concert for Berlin in 1987 and everyone listening on the East side of the Berlin Wall despite not being allowed to listen to music]. Music is good. 

I am in a band but sometimes can feel too excited to play live – what advice do you have? 

MB: OK, so advice around performing. You have to remember that everyone in the room is wishing you to do a good show. They want a good show and they’re there to support you in creating it. No one’s trying to catch you out, no one’s trying to judge. I tend not to get nervous but sometimes I do get a little bit overwhelmed when I’m about to do a very particularly big show or am playing a song for the first time. I use some breathing techniques. A big inhale through my nose, inhale again and exhale out really slowly. Trying to slow the breathing down, that helps a lot. I find it centres you a little bit, which is important. 

Have you ever had a state of flow when you’re performing? That’s one of my favourite things, whenever
you get to the end of a show and you can’t really remember any of it but you know it was incredible. It’s really hard to get there, isn’t it? But I love it. 

Alastair: Yes, I like dancing. [Alastair will sway his arms and head along with his music to better feel his position within the band.] 

Do you like working with other people? 

MB: Collaboration is key. I mean, it’s one of the reasons I’m in a band. There’s a huge collaborative effort that helps avoid some aspects of self-doubt creeping in. We collaborate with lots of producers and lots of different musicians. You learn something every time. Who’s the most interesting person you’ve collaborated with and what did you learn from them? 

Alastair: Josh, music, guitar. [Alastair and his PA attend open mic events where Alastair is encouraged to explore a range of music genres and instruments. He loves meeting new people and jamming to find new creative outcomes.] 

All Alastair’s travels are with his parents in this camper van
All Alastair’s travels are with his parents in this camper van

Have you seen any good or bad examples of inclusion within music venues?  

MB: A big part of IDLES shows is losing your inhibitions in a safe space. So even though it’s chaos and there’s a mosh pit and there’s lots of energy, I find when I’m in the crowd that it feels safe and everyone’s looking out for each other. I don’t know whether this is a good example of inclusion or not, but one of my favourite show memories was when we played in Vancouver, at the Rickshaw Theatre, and a guy in a wheelchair crowd surfed. The whole crowd were lifting them up for an entire song and it was one of the most amazing things ever. 

Music is such an important creative outlet for people, whether it’s listening to it or performing. It’s hugely important to my mental health, for my understanding of the world around me. People like Open Up Music and National Open Youth Orchestra and Gig Buddies, it’s all about giving people access and it’s so important because there’s going to be some incredible music made. 

Have you got any good stories? Have you got any horror stories? I’d love to hear. 

Alastair: [He loves it when he can be among everyone at festivals or independent venues. He hates the rules of bigger venues and not being allowed to take more than one mate (or companion as it’s often referred to, who even says that?!). Alastair loses all inhibitions when watching live music and finds it completely freeing. He is an amazing dancer and will make sure everyone around him is having a great time too. Alastair was once escorted by security out of a venue as they described his wheelchair as a “stationary trip hazard”. Alastair describes this as “bad, makes me feel mad”. He has never been back there.]

Thank you so much for taking the time to answer these questions. 

Alastair is working with Nice Twice Club (Mencap) and Gig Buddies to help improve venue access across Hull and beyond. You can follow his musical adventures and more on Instagram @smiling_and_waving, words taken from the lyrics of David Bowie’s Five Years, a song that the family always joke was written about him.

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