Ahead of their hotly anticipated third studio album Ultra Mono out this Friday 25 September, Sam Smith sat down with Mark Bowen, guitarist from British band IDLES to talk recording, style labels and missing live shows.
SAM: Ultra Mono is your third album, it comes after the success of Joy as an Act of Resistance. How different do you think this album is to that album?
MARK: Very different, I think. Thematically, it deals with a lot of the same things again in some respects, because maybe our message was a little misconstrued on the last album so we wanted to reassert that. I think that we also wanted to do that to kind of piss people off a little bit. We have been accused of sloganeering and politics by numbers and so we decided to make an album that is literally 99% that.
But sonically it is completely different, as soon as we had finished the mastering process of the last album we kind of reassessed and we knew that we had not hit certain sonic markers that we were trying to. So there was a lot of reflection and assessment of the music we were trying to emulate and how it sounds the way it does, and that really is where the idea of Ultra Mono came about, about distilling us down to a very singular form so that this singular unit could be as loud and effective as possible. We gave each other a lot of space, the drums and the guitars are barely playing at the same time, and if they are it is basically the guitar trying to sound like a drum. That kind of space gives it a type of bombast.
SAM: I was going to mention hip hop and obviously you bought Kenny Beats in to help do a lot of programming. What was his input on the album?
MARK: It was really weird. He got involved during the mixing process, not in the recording and production. He got in contact with us on Instagram and then met up with us in LA and then I met up with him in London afterwards and he was playing me some stuff that he had been making, he works with a lot of drill and grime artists in the UK and the kind of clarity in the low end and the front end of the drums was really present.
So we kind of got him on board just to, almost school us in how that was and help show the way with our producers Nick [Launay] and Adam [Greenspan] who did an incredible job. Like, this album, first and foremost is still a post-punk album and still a guitar album, and the guitars sound incredibly searing and violent.
SAM: It’s interesting you calling it a post-punk album. I know Joe [Talbot] is very touchy on the subject of labelling your music and that kind of thing. What do you think of that?
I feel on this album though we were able to become our influences more like I would say that Grounds is a hip hop song, I would say that Reign is an electro song, it just has your typical rock band instrumentation, but I think if you listen to that song it sounds like an electronic song and that is exactly what we wanted.
SAM: You mentioned sloganeering and the politics of Idles. Is this an intentional move on your part to speak out about a lot of the social and political issues that are impacting the UK at the moment?
MARK: We as a band don’t deal in escapism at all. We are never going to sing songs about wizards and very rarely we even touch on the topic of love. What we deal with are real things and our truth and our experiences. It is inescapable at the minute to not discuss the politics of the UK and the rise of our incompetent, yet the still overbearing fascist government and the social issues that arise out of that. It is not our responsibility; it is just who we are as artists and that is the kind of stuff we talk about amongst each other as a band.
SAM: Where do you get your energetic performance style from? Does it come naturally to you?
MARK: Yes. One of the things that have really happened with the band over the long time that we have been together is that on stage we really have become an exaggerated version of ourselves, it is almost caricaturist. It is an important tool that we use for catharsis, being able to be the most version of yourself helps get a lot of stuff out there, it is like a form of therapy. I think it is always an important thing to remind people that we don’t take ourselves too seriously. Joe takes performing live very seriously and can sometimes get caught away with himself, so I kind of act like the light comic relief to Joe’s intense seriousness.
SAM: You must miss performing live because you have played a lot of shows over the last few years?
MARK: We average about 190 shows a year. I miss it more than I can say. I didn’t realise how important that was for my mental health to have that kind of therapy. The lift we get from it on a personal level is really important but also that shared experience is something that you need to prevent you feeling isolated and now we are in enforced isolation so it is more difficult.
SAM: The band have had such a whirlwind few years, how have you found all the attention and acclaim that has come your way from all over the world?
MARK: I think that is what we deal with head-on, on this album. One of the things about this album is dealing with the positive and negative criticism and attitudes towards the band that rose out of the last album, and how we were held up to be this thing. And that affects your self-esteem hugely so we needed to really reassert ourselves and our identity as a band and what our intentions are and Ultra Mono is the manifesto for that. I am I, the assertions that we make on there, but also the songs themselves are the assertions of who we are.
Pre-order Ultra Mono HERE