IDLES' Mark Bowen on Getting Rejected by Geoff Barrow, Suffering the Grammys, and Facing Misconceptions

IDLES' Mark Bowen on Getting Rejected by Geoff Barrow, Suffering the Grammys, and Facing Misconceptions
Photo by Tom Ham

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IDLES are fascinating to me because they provoke a strong reaction in many people; the recent dustup over their using AI deepfake technology in the video for their recent single "Grace" is a good example of this (you can see the video below). I spoke with the band's multi-instrumentalist-slash-producer Mark Bowen back in December about their very solid new album Tangk, so we didn't have a chance to talk about a video that I did not yet know would exist—but, we had a very fascinating conversation about the technical aspect of things as far as what drives IDLES, as well as the band's creative process—the kind of topics that typically get lost in more eye-catching strains of discourse.

Earlier, we were talking about how you just moved back to Belfast and you're setting up something of a home space for music. I've talked to a few people recently about their home recording setups.
I'm generally an untidy person, so it's just tables and boxes right now—but I kind of know where everything is, so it works for me. My workspace at my old place even looked like this, whereas Joe's setup looks like a Bond lair—modernist furniture, wood paneling on the walls. But this works for me.

Over the last two IDLES records, you've worked more as a producer.
From the very start, I've always been the primary music writer in the band. Before everyone contributed parts, it was always down to me to sew things together and create coherence—to turn things into songs. Then, Joe would take those and put his vocals on him. Also, I've always been interested in production. It's a bizarre and dumb thing to say, but one of the things I'm interested in when I hear a cool song is, "Why is it a cool song? What happens here that makes me like it in a different way?"

Around the time of the Ultra Mono sessions, I noticed that a lot of our conversations—mine and Joe's, with the producers—were about us wanting more from the production, or for the production to be involved in the songwriting process. Once we got to the end of that album, I thought, "You know what? I want to take that on board for the next album." At this point it had become clear that Joe and I were the main songwriters in the band, and I always wanted to expand our horizons. My favorite acts self-produce—specifically, Portishead, and their approach of using production within songwriting, and using production to create new sounds while also making things sound like old sounds.

Crawler was basically me hashing together lots of ideas from Portishead that I'd read on the internet. I did actually ask Geoff Barrow to produce that album. He said "Fuck off" at first. "Absolutely not. Not with your band," he said. We had lots of conversations, and he just said, "You should just do it yourself. You know what you want. You've got a good engineer. Use that and do it yourself." So we did—but with Kenny, obviously. And I agreed with him! He's given me sage advice along the way, useful "jump into the pool" stuff. It's great.

I'm curious to hear about your early days DJing indie nights in Bristol. Playing music for people is, obviously, a lot different than making music that people hear. How does that inform what you are doing today?
It was massive. Around the time that was happening, the DJ was having a big moment in the indie scene. There was Erol Alkan and the Ed Banger crew. It eventually turned into EDM, which had its own issues, but at that time it was cool, interesting, and raucous. We were also at an age where your taste and ability to seek the new is really important. I just moved to Bristol for university, and I went to this night called Entertainment that was named after the Gang of Four album. It was the best music, to me, that was being played in Bristol at that time. You'd hear David Bowie's "Modern Love," a Claude VonStroke song, some glitchy techno stuff, goth, nü-rave. I got talking to the guys that ran it, and they got me in to DJ. Then, I started running that night, and through that I vicariously met Joe and [Adam Devonshire], and it just kind of kicked off.

The thing about that DJ night was that it was about finding new music, and I'd gone off about the idea of being a musician myself. For one, I just wasn't a good enough musician. And also, we weren't particularly cool. The cool kids were the kids who were really good at instruments, and unfortunately we weren't clever enough to pursue that, so we just DJ'd. Bristol is an amazing melting pot of different cultures, but there's also a lot of hedonism, and it gets in the way of ambition. We also got bored of DJ'ing, to be honest. Joe was like, "Me and [Adam] are starting this band, do you wanna be involved?" I got in and started playing guitar, and I remember being passionate about the creative process. I'd been in bands in school, and we always enjoyed writing our own songs. So it just grew from there.

Tell me about the band's productivity. This was the longest period of time in between records for you.
That wasn't intentional on our part. We finished this last March, and we would've released it last March. Most people have a view of our band as from 2017 onwards, but we've been a band since 2009, and there was a lot of struggle. We weren't really willing to release anything until we were right and ready. We were good live, and we were an exciting band to see in the Bristol scene, but our songs were crap and Joe couldn't sing. We were tight, but it wasn't the right kind of thing. We honed that for years, and we were really working on the creative dynamic within the band too—a language—and once we got to Brutalism, that language really started to come together.

As we're in the finishing touches of making an album, we always start talking about the next one. It's exciting, and in terms of evolution it always makes sense. It just snowballs. It feels like you should strike while the iron's hot, and the iron's hot in many ways. We've had that success that's building and building, we've been touring more—but even creatively, we've been building momentum, and there's a bit of fear that if we stopped trying to be prolific, we'd take 14 years. I don't think we're the kind of band that would wait six or seven years between releases.

That's another important reason why I wouldn't self-produce entirely. There's two kinds of artists that self-produce: The ones who release frequently—so there's no shit filter, and you get exposed to the working process, which is sometimes an interesting thing for the listener but often not, because you get exposed to so much crap and you can't really filter it yourself—or you end up being so overwrought that it takes you six or seven years to finish an album. I don't think we have the patience for that. We'd just collapse.

You've now had two records to establish a rhythm with Kenny Beats, and you brought in Nigel Godrich in for this new record, whose touch I can definitely hear on it. Tell me about working between the three of you when it comes to production. What is it like to have multiple people in the creative headspace at that stage?
It can be difficult, but first and foremost, the kind of producer Kenny is makes it so there's not much of an opportunity for loggerheads or ethos. He's very much from the younger generation, where it's all about questioning and sharing. "Why isn't this sick enough?" "Who's the best person to make this good, and how can we get that information from them?" The dynamic between the three of us is inquisitive. They ask and try and get a sense of what's intended from the artist. My scope is as the artist, so I bring production in terms of using it in the songwriting—it's important the drums sound a certain way, otherwise the song won't come across right, so it's about using certain effects and bleeding things together and things like that.

With both of them, they have lots of questions and are intuitive in terms of what we're trying to create. They really pushed us further. The reason I got Nigel involved is because we did the From the Basement sessions, and obviously I'm a huge Nigel Godrich fan—the records he's made are incredible, and as you rightly pointed out, you can hear his fingerprints on them. You can definitely tell he produced them. He's also dealt with bands and artists who have made left turns and gone into uncharted territory, which is what I wanted us to do on this album. I wanted more melodic information, I wanted Joe to sing a lot more. I knew we needed someone to be a shit filter and to be brutal about whether or not we were achieving our goals, because on a lot of that stuff we wouldn't be sure.

With Kenny, I don't foresee us ever making an album without him. His approach with Joe in the vocal booth...Joe is a very impatient person. He's a tight ball of energy, and he's a very honest performer. It's really important that, whenever he gets to the mic, his intention and expression and honesty can be maintained. You can't let too much process or opinion get in the way of it. Kenny's approach with Joe is very inquisitive. It's about getting him through to places. But he's also quite firm with Joe as well. Their dynamic, the success of it, is something you can hear on this album, because Joe's vocal performances are incredible. Whenever we got to the studio, Nigel and I would peel off with the band on one side, and Kenny and Joe would peel off to the other to do the vocals. You could get a real sense that they were having very serious conversations. They were getting somewhere with it, and that's Kenny all over.

Tell me about going to the Grammys after being nominated for Crawler.
It was an awful experience. Awards and prizes around music—it's anathema to me. It's such a subjective thing. How can you decide whether one thing has more merit than another? I don't really care that much—but I do as well, and it's nice to be recognized, and it's nice to hear that someone likes your music and creativity. It's nicer still when someone says they get your creativity as it was intended. Oftentimes, it's also nice when someone hears something you didn't initially think of. So awards are weird in that regard, but they're a necessary evil in the business of music, and it's a good opportunity to meet random people.

So we went! Was it fun? Sure, it was interesting. [Laughs] Would I go again? Sure, but it's hear about people where that's their goal, to get a Grammy or be Grammy-nominated. I'm not ungrateful at all—I'm hugely appreciative, it means a lot—but my goal is to make an album with Nigel Godrich and Kenny Beats, and for it to be as good as it possibly can be in my eyes, and for me to sit back and say "I'm really happy with this," and to release that to the world. Whatever comes after that is a bonus, I guess.

Let's talk about your experience within the music industry the last few years. You've been around for a minute now. What's good? What's bad?
I'll start from the beginning and then explain where we got to. When we started as a band, right around the time we recorded Brutalism, no one would touch us. Our manager was going to lots of record labels, we were trying to get support slots, and everyone was like, "This type of music is dying on its arse. No one is listening to this sort of thing. You're too old, and you're not cool, and you can't play your instruments." These were all the things we already knew—we were like, "Duh"—but since no one would take us up on it, we self-released it.

Because of that, we got to a place where we were getting played on the radio. Steve Lamacq came to a show and loved it, and it snowballed from there. Partisan approached us, and so did other people because they could see that success was generated, and also post-punk was having a revival so there was clearly legs in this. But what we got from self-releasing after being denied in all aspects of the music industry was that we were able to be selective.

One of the issues that artists have is that everyone is so keen at the start that you have to take whatever comes your way. You're so grateful for it, and it is great, and it's exciting, but you don't really get the opportunity to be that selective. You go with the best option you think, which is all the flashing lights, and it ebbs away at the wrong things if you get the wrong label, or spend too much time doing tours, or doing interviews, or doing stuff like going to the Grammys, or just doing the wrong stuff in the music industry. We've been able to cherry-pick how we fit into that dynamic, and it's the same with picking our agent, our promoter, our publishing team—every aspect around us, we've curated.

So my experience in the music industry, in that regard, is a very positive one. We've been very lucky. I've been in some band's dressing room where their label people are there, and we've been like, "Oh my God, we are so lucky." [Laughs] There are a lot of people in the music industry, and I just don't understand why. I'm not gonna question their merit or reasons for doing things, or their motives, but I don't understand it at all. Especially in the era where bands need to be prolific if you want to be "successful"—you need to be releasing albums every two to three years, otherwise any sort of momentum you get disappears, and it's very hard to claw that back.

But also, everyone's playing it so safe. Algorithms, streaming, TikTok, trends, all this stuff—it's just all bullshit. Everyone's trying to do this thing where if they copy a trend it will work out, but that has never worked out in music. It's always the people who are doing something completely against the stream, or people who are doing something that is putting a new spin on it. My experience in the music industry is a great one. We're very lucky to have the team that we do around us. We're lucky this happened to us in our 30s, because we're confident and happy to do what we want—and we struggled for so long that there's a lot of gratitude, too. We're just happy to be here. Get us on the road, and get us performing in front of people, and we're like pigs in shit.

For a band working in the sound of post-punk, IDLES are fairly high-profile. What are some misconceptions you feel the band has faced over the years?
We've been misconceived the whole time. We look and sound, without listening, like aggressive and hypermasculine bros. We've all got facial hair, tattoos, and muscles and whatnot. At the start of our career, we had a lot of punks being like, "What the fuck? You're talking about love, that's not punk." And we were like, "Yeah, we're definitely getting the wrong end of the stick here."

Even with interviews for this album, people are like, "You're not fighting fire with fire, you're just talking about love." We're like, "It's always been about love!" And empathy, and sharing, and listening, and loving yourself, and being in love with the fallibility of humans—their ability to change, learn, make mistakes, and fuck everything up. It's still funny people aren't quite getting it. There's lots of people who also don't get what we're saying when we do that, and think that we're too saccharine or naïve. It's just humanism.

People also think that we're preaching–that we're zealots, or that Joe is some sort of messiah. But Joe is literally saying that he's a piece of shit! That's a fundamental part of it. He's the one that needs all these mantras the most. That's why this album is all about love—he needed that at the time. We're all fallible. We all bring baggage to everything, and we all can react to preconceived notions. But from our experience, the more you experience something, the more you learn that you cannot be preconceived. If you share in it, and you listen, you get it—and whatever if you don't. I'm happy.

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Jamie Larson