Idles and Stewart Lee in conversation: the extended edition

The Big Issue brought together Idles and Stewart Lee, both masters of the art of railing against injustice in the world. Here is their exclusive extended conversation in all its glory

What happens when the most outspoken band in Britain meets its most provocative comedian?

Stewart Lee has been a dedicated Idles fan from the first time he saw them perform.

Formed when the members were studying in Bristol, Idles’ first two albums, Brutalism (2017) and Joy as an Act of Resistance (2018), captured the unsettled mood of the nation; songs sounding a siren for the underdog and downtrodden. Lead singer and songwriter Joe Talbot’s voice is ferocious but there is more empathy than fury in the message. Out of frustration rises inspiration.

‘The best way to scare a Tory is to read and get rich” is a refrain in Mother. Perhaps their most famous song, Danny Nedelko, champions immigrants, its coda: “He’s made of bones, he’s made of blood, he’s made of flesh, he’s made of love, he’s made of you, he’s made of me, unity.”

Their sound has shifted with the new album, drawing on hip hop influences and bringing in guests including Nick Cave’s right-hand man Warren Ellis and pianist Jamie Cullum, but the humour, hubris and urgency remain.

“I intend to go go go like Conor McGregor with a samurai sword on rollerblades” promises Talbot in Mr Motivator. Model Village is a cutting portrait of little Britain’s small thinking (with a video by the Gondry brothers) and Grounds critiques the critics: “Not a single thing has ever been mended by you standing there and saying you’re offended.”

When it comes to offence, Stewart Lee, named by The Times as the “Best living comedian” in 2018, knows a thing or two. The comedian and provocateur deconstructs the art of stand-up, railing against the world, the audience and himself.

Talbot has grouped Lee alongside Armando Ianucci and Chris Morris as “the greatest spokespeople of our generation”. And Lee is a mutual fan but they meet (virtually) for the first time, in a Big Issue-hosted Zoom meeting.

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The call begins… Stewart Lee and Idles have never met but talk about when they have seen each other perform

Mark Bowen: The last time I saw you was at one of your London shows and it had to be stopped early because someone fell ill.

Stewart Lee: Near the end a bloke had a heart attack.

Bowen: I was like, this is part of it, he’s a genius! 

Lee: If something goes really badly wrong, the assumption is I’m such a control freak that I’ve micromanaged the situation. It’s difficult to keep things fresh every night so when something does go wrong, I tend to roll with it. But that guy had to be taken to hospital so it wouldn’t have been right to… What I liked about both times I’ve seen you is it felt like it was out of control in a really great way. Do you manage to do that every night?

Joe Talbot: The essence of our shows is the energy created from the sense that it could fall apart at any moment.

Bowen: That’s something we’ve really strived for. We’ve got a core understanding of what happens every night but the rest has to be spontaneous. And often terrible as a consequence.

Talk turns to Idles’ latest album

Lee: The last tracks are not the sort of things you normally do, The Lover and Hymn. It’s very different to the feeling of a live sound being trapped on a record, which you got in the first albums.

Talbot: I’ve been speaking to music journalists for weeks and you’re the first person who’s said that off the cuff.

Lee: I can do that job then, because we’re never going to be able to perform live again.

Talbot: We can record some canned laughter for you, Stewart, if you want. Ha-ha-ha.

Lee: I can’t do it because I need to be in a room and judge things by the laughs. Loads of people have been saying, can you do stuff online? But I can’t even just go through the lines because they depend on annoying people or getting different responses from different places. I’ve realised I haven’t really got an act, the audience is doing all the work.

Bowen: That’s our problem. Without understanding the relationship we have with our audience, you miss the point.

Lee: It must be weird not being able to take [Ultra Mono] on the road now.

Bowen: It almost benefits from the challenge of not having it in a live setting. We’re really fucking good live, so we could hide behind that confidence and the audience lapping it up rather than actually living with the statements and intents.

Lee: And it must be strange doing songs that are about issues now. While we’ve been hidden away, debates have happened in this strange cut-off atmosphere about race, identity and representation. And we don’t really know how the stuff would land if we were to go out and talk or sing about it. You’re not out there taking the temperature of the country.

Talbot: Weirdly this album was about isolation. It started as a reflection on where we were with Joy as an Act of Resistance, playing to more people and trying not to become what your audience, or worse, what journalists, want you to be.

Lee: I thought that was what Grounds [on the new album] was about. People saying to you, well, you’re not entitled to comment on this anymore because you’re in a privileged position. You suddenly can’t do the right thing. I assume you’ve been able to give up your day jobs. You don’t still do dentistry though, do you?

Bowen: Stopped that for two years now. I was gonna go back during lockdown actually. My boss called and asked if I wanted to go work in some of the prisons.

Lee: Where did you train, in Belfast?

Bowen: Bristol, which is where I met the guys. Belfast was like 15 years behind anywhere in the UK. I moved to Bristol and it felt like the future, the way people thought about stuff.

Lee: Teeth are the same anywhere, though.

Bowen: Do you know what? There are some subtle differences.

Talbot: Subtle differences between Northern Irish teeth and Bristol teeth or just now and then?

Bowen: Northern Irish teeth and Bristol teeth. Northern Irish teeth are savage, Bristol teeth are alright.

Lee: That’ll be the bit at the top. They say they’re liberal yet they’re making fun of Northern Irish teeth, bastards.

Bowen: I can say that, I have Irish teeth.

Talbot: Yeah, you do. You really do.

Returning to the odd pressures success brings

Lee: Mercedes Marxist [2019 single], that’s the sort of thing people say to you if you’ve done well and you make a political statement. I really feel for you because lots of rock bands, they’re party bands. If they do cocaine and have loads of groupies it’s part of the image. But set yourself up as having values, if you make the slightest slip you’re really held accountable. There’s lines about small town mentalities in Model Village, attitudes to race and stuff. And then what the people on the right do is say, ‘Oh, you’re making fun of ordinary working people’s anxieties, you’re a snob.’

Talbot: I grew up in middle-class Exeter, where subdued sexism, racism and homophobia was underneath. Rampant was young men, very bored and very boring, beating the living shit out of each other four or five nights a week. If I don’t put that out there, I’m lying to myself and the audience. The problem with that song is that it’s nuanced. It’s supposed to be a metaphor of building your own village in your head, these communities and borders you’ve imagined that you’ve got to preserve and allegiance to people you don’t fucking know.

Lee: When I saw you for the first time at Latitude, I had the kids with me. They were about seven and nine and I was so glad that they could see something like that. I like the fact that about a third of the songs on each album have a football terrace chant quality about them but with quite complicated ideas about why you think cultural diversity is a good idea. I wrote about it saying it was ‘snowflake oi’ and I wasn’t trying to take the piss. You look at the dominant narratives in the news and feel really shut out and alone. Then Idles give you statements you can sing like football songs that reassert your beliefs. You must get people thanking you for that?

Talbot: Yeah, it fills you with joy. Latitude is a great example. I actually went the year before, I won a ticket with Lucozade. You don’t know how the crowd is going to react and then you realise, the more eclectic the crowd, the more open they are and beautiful it is.

Lee: Is that a responsibility that weighs heavily on you then, this idea that people sort of want answers and comfort from your music? Do you feel an obligation to provide that now that people are responding?

Talbot: No, I don’t. I think that’s because I’m super introspective or introverted when it comes to processing everything. So I just assume that once our music’s out there… It happens, like the AF GANG community has built itself. It’s exponentially grown but they look after each other. Obviously I speak to some of them on the phone and stuff, people I’ve met in person and become friends with.

Lee: Will you be able to carry on doing that as it gets bigger though? ‘He used to phone us up all the time, what’s happened, they’ve changed!’ I last saw you at a big venue in London. Although there were a lot of young people there, there were a lot of 50-something guys who obviously listened to John Peel and were pleased that they could relate in that vein as well.

Bowen: That was our bread and butter early doors. It’s only recently that we’ve had more young people come to shows. Our first toilet tour around the UK, it was all dudes in their 50s coming up and they’d always reference their band from back then.

Talbot: It was a beautiful interaction wasn’t it though, Bow? ‘I haven’t felt this way since 1970-whatever.’ We felt new suddenly. We found our rhythm and what we were good at and we were getting an audience. It was a half full room, but the room was full of enthusiasm.

Idles and Lee are both prolific tourers, playing up to 200 dates a year

Lee: It’s such a physical show. Do you have to really look after yourselves on tour and not overdo it?

Talbot: We never used to. We used to try and keep up with the support bands who were 10 years younger. The only time Bowen and I have ever talked about our performance was when I was drunk and aggressive. There was a time when I’d become nasty. I wasn’t a bully but the tone would shift and I’d become complacent. Do you drink before shows or anything?

Lee: No I don’t. But unless I am going through a period of complete abstinence I can’t not drink afterwards. And as I get older I do longer and longer shows, which are probably too long now to be honest, you feel even more hyped up at the end. I don’t know the way around it. It’s an impossible thing to manage. I’m 52 now. I always have massive sympathy for people that develop problems because if you’re doing 190 shows a year it’s like doing 190 parachute jumps. I ran into this guy recently, an ex-paratrooper, who obviously had a drink problem. I thought, it’s not surprising, is it? Imagine the comedown from that… I realise I’ve said an absolutely unacceptable thing: being in showbiz is the same as being in war.

Talbot: ‘They think they’re paratroopers and they hate Irish teeth.’

Lee: I take that back, it absolutely isn’t. But there is a traumatic stress element. I’m glad you’ve managed to get a system for it because you see people destroying themselves.

Bowen: On our first big tour we did three and a half months solid and fell into dangerously repetitive behaviour. Luckily we had time off to talk to each other and go, actually this isn’t how I want to go about this. So we started exercising before shows and took booze off the rider.

Talbot: This sounds really boujee but Bowen started getting different ingredients for a smoothie every night. They all tasted like shite but it broke up the monotony.

Bowen: A mojito one, a chocolate raspberry torte-flavoured one…

Lee: When I when I bump up against proper showbiz I feel like a naive child. At the Leicester Square Theatre – where the guy had a heart attack – there was a famous American comedian on for two nights trying stuff out. He wanted all the lights in the dressing room replaced with red bulbs, there had to be two rotisserie chickens, £300 bottles of whisky. The rider would have cost more than his share of the room. I couldn’t make sense of it.

Talbot: If you’re not aware of yourself you become a psychopath because you’re completely dislocated from accountability.

Lee: I used to be in a double act and we were with a management company – this was the ’90s when comedy was the new rock ‘n’ roll for about four months. They put us out on the road and we’d always come back in debt. As soon as I left them and sorted my own touring out, I started to go into profit. Even £20-30 quid a night but you could get by. There used to be a system where promoters kept people in debt so they could keep working them. Now no one’s selling records, you can’t work that anymore.

Talbot: You’d be surprised. I know for a fact there’s a lot of bands on our level being mismanaged and spending way too much. Riders are a big one, booking flights late. It’s just this wasteful attitude: ‘it’s not my money, it’s the band’s money’.

Lee: Here’s a pretentious one. If you’re doing one gig a week, you can be you, right? But if you’re doing it night after night, do you have to decide: I’m now going to be this character? I met a guy playing keyboards for Iggy Pop, and he said that, James Osterberg becomes Iggy Pop about two minutes before he goes on, his stance changes and he becomes this feral thing.

Talbot: If I’m in a good mood or a bad mood, I just amplify that mood. Afterwards there’s no comedown because I’ve genuinely got out my actual mood on stage. And I can just unwind with a smoothie.

Idles Abbey Road
Idles reunite after lockdown to play at the iconic Abbey Road Studios. Credit: Sergio Maschatzko
It’s Lee’s wife’s birthday so he can’t stay much longer

Talbot: I’ve got a question I really want to ask in case I never see you again.

Lee: Go on.

Talbot: You have an amazing way of being defiant with your audience. You’re not scared to test the people that love you most. I find that really daunting. The idea that I want to be loved is still quite prevalent. I’m not very confident with conflict.

Lee: Well, I saw The Fall 54 times. [Mark E Smith’s] thing was to appear to make no concessions to what the audience want. Also, I was a club comic five nights a week for 10 years. I remember getting really fed up towards the end. I was on stage in Liverpool, in a little club at the docks, and a drunk guy kept shouting at me: ‘Talk about illegal immigrants! Talk about illegal immigrants!’ And I said, ‘Why don’t you talk about illegal immigrants?’ and got him up on stage at the mic. He couldn’t really think of anything to say. I wanted to sit in the audience and watch what would happen. Let the whole thing go to shit. After that I gave up for about four years. When I came back, I decided that’s what I was going to do. If the room became conflicted, or there were problems, I’d just make them worse until they got better. Obviously a lot of people stopped coming to see me, but the ones that understood what was going on gradually grew. And I had nothing to lose, that was the other thing. It was after I’d worked on the words for this opera that Richard Thomas wrote about Jerry Springer.

It was supposed to be a massive hit but it got closed down by protests. I thought, if you can be attached to something that looks like it’s going to be the next Sound of Music, then becomes nothing, you’ve just got to find a way of doing what you want. There’s a sick thing where I quite like it falling apart. I sometimes come out of my head and watch myself making it go really wrong, then bait myself into doing it worse, and see if I can still pull it back together.

Talbot: How do you cope with the reaction, being criticised? Do you give a shit?

Lee: I don’t mind being hated for the right things but it’s not nice to get accused of things that you absolutely don’t think and would never think. I only worry if it’s going to affect my kids. Things that are not true have been said about me by people on the right. It means your kids don’t get invited to parties. That’s why I don’t really do interviews. And when I write supposedly funny columns for newspapers I know a lot of people hate, I do them in the character of a slightly pretentious journalist who uses long words he doesn’t quite understand to create a slight distance between me and the criticism.

Talbot: You publish spelling mistakes, don’t you?

Lee: Yeah. Because people on the right love it when you make a grammatical error. I love the stupid righteousness about it. A lot of what I write or say I do because later on, I’ll be amused at what idiots who’ve got no sense of humour or imagination say about it on Twitter. I like to get historical details slightly wrong – ‘He doesn’t even know that Henry VIII was blah blah, blah!’ Because that’s all they’ve got, you know?

Bowen: That’s the big thing at the minute. The lies. They have control over that narrative because they know it’s not real.

Lee: When you were explaining what Model Village meant to you, talking about nuance – you can’t use nuance against those sorts of people because they deal mainly in lies and three-word slogans. It’s difficult for artists to respond because bringing truth or sensitivity or concern or empathy to this argument is pointless because these are not things they recognise or care about. I like the unequivocal nature of Idles because in comedy at the moment, people try to nobble you by saying there should be balance. Do a joke about the utter corruption of the Conservatives then you’re supposed to do a joke about how Jeremy Corbyn had scruffy trousers or something, when it’s obvious to anyone following politics that the worst people are in power and that’s who we should be making fun of. Anything else is a waste of energy. If that’s not too controversial from my champagne socialist record-lined eyrie in left-wing North London.

Before the call ends, tickets are promised for the next time they’re able to play live

Lee: What I miss, I mean I’m old, but I want to be squashed in at the front of an Idles gig, for example. Until there’s a vaccine, will people ever have that confidence to create the instant sense of community you get down the front of a gig?

Talbot: I was really surprised at this fear, which I’d underestimated. I didn’t appreciate how terrifying this situation is for a lot of people. My auntie’s got autoimmune problems so is in the demographic of super-vulnerable people. People have serious anxieties but I can see the reaction of masses in the populace is like, fuck it, I want to go to the beach. When there’s a vaccine it will take a while for the healing to happen but I think a lot of people will just be instantly like, you know, hug parties. We should start a hug party network, underground hug clubs. You up for that?

Lee: No, because I’m an overweight man in his mid-50s. I’ll be gone instantly if I get it.

Talbot: What a way to go. Death by hug.

Lee: Better than just slowly, slowly getting worse and worse at what you do.

Talbot: Or not being known at all and dying at a Stewart Lee gig.

Lee: The guy was alright. He came again to another show.

Idles’ new album Ultra Mono is out now. They tour (let’s hope) from May 2021 idlesband.com. Stewart Lee’s rescheduled dates for his Snowflake/Tornado tour are still TBC: stewartlee.co.uk

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