Stewart Lee is an unabashed fan of Bristol punk rockers Idles. Their sound capture the mood of an uncertain nation, a siren sound for the underdog and the downtrodden – what the provocative comedian refers to as “snowflake oi”.
So The Big Issue brought them together. Lee met singer Joe Talbot and guitarist Mark Bowen as the band’s new album Ultra Mono hits the shelves.
The record, Idles’ third, takes the social and political issues that run like a thread through the fabric of Talbot’s lyrics and turns them on the listener — and on himself — in a new and sometimes uneasy fashion.
“Model Village” is a cutting portrait of an insular Britain, while “Grounds” critiques the critics: “Not a single thing has ever been mended by you standing there and saying you’re offended.”
“Lots of rock bands, they’re party bands,” says Lee, reflecting on song titles like “Mercedes Marxist”, the band’s 2019 single. “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 album single 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 isn’t put off.
“I grew up in middle-class Exeter, where subdued sexism, racism and homophobia was underneath,” he says. “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.”
And their dedication to using their platform to push what they think is right is a quality to be admired, as far as Lee is concerned.
“When I saw you for the first time at Latitude, I had the kids with me,” Lee says. “They were about seven and nine and I was so glad that they could see something like that.
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“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.”
This is an excerpt from this week’s Big Issue magazine. To read the full no-nonsense interview, buy a copy from your local vendor – they’re all over the UK. If you’re unable to reach a vendor, you can still subscribe to receive the magazine directly to your door or purchase through the Big Issue app.