When you fall in love with a band, you instantly become part of a community. Every comment on a social post feels like a chat with a familiar friend and every live gig feels like a bonding opportunity. Fans of IDLES know this better than most with the AF GANG, the 30 thousand strong IDLES community. Ahead of the release of their new album, Ultra Mono, we chatted to frontman Joe Talbot and Brian, an admin for the AF GANG Facebook group about mental health, the power of community, and how IDLES has saved their lives.
IDLES’ music and live gigs have been a uniting force for its fans since 2009. The band embodies community, and Joe thinks this ethos is brought to the forefront because of the way the band was formed.
“I was always a really troubled young man. There was the combination of my mum having a stroke, being severely ill and then dying, my step dad dying, and me being at university which culminated in me feeling like everything was being done to me and I was self-pitying and addicted to drugs and alcohols as a numbing agent,” he says. “The only reason I was allowed to change is because my friends and family allowed me to change. It was the learning process I went through that led me to put that into lyrics. The band saved my life and I knew then that because I was saved by the band that I could put that in my music as a form of commitment in therapy.”
In fact, although he had his family and his mates who he could turn to during difficult times, Joe went through a long period of feeling alone, and so he wants his lyrics to be a sounding board for people who feel isolated in their own feelings: “In therapy, there were times when I would say things out loud and realise that I had been thinking about them for 20 years and had never said it. And saying it was a weight lifted off my shoulders and so hopefully my lyrics might give that to someone else.”
Members of the AF GANG can vouch for this statement. The AF GANG was started in 2017 after some fans that kept bumping into each other at IDLES gigs decided to put together a fan page. Starting modestly, it was a place that people could connect through music and their love of IDLES, but quickly became a place where people could share when they were feeling a bit shit. When the band asked if they could link to the group from their website, the AF GANG rapidly grew by the thousands. Brain, one of the gang’s Facebook group admins, also feels that the band saved his life.
“I wouldn’t be sitting here if it wasn’t for the album ‘Brutalism’. I hadn’t gone to see a band live in over 10 years because of my anxiety, but when that album dropped I told myself I had to see it live and it was the greatest experience I’d had in a decade. It’s given me confidence, it’s given me friendships, and it’s given me community.”
Brian interviews different people and bands for the group weekly and posts every day about everything from his morning commute, to how he’s feeling. He’s not scared to be honest when he’s going through something difficult, and he’s found that many of the members of the group appreciate this more than he could imagine: “I get messages from people – especially guys – thanking me for posting. It’s wonderful because that’s what we want. It’s hard talking to the people you love. With the AF GANG, we’ve found that it can be easier to talk to people you don’t know.”
“We don’t have many rules but the one that matters is that people should be able to post without fear of ridicule or judgement. So, if someone’s feeling a bit rough, feeling a bit shit, has had an argument that day, and they don’t feel like they can talk to anyone – they can come into the group and share. It’s beautiful to see. It’s really lovely being part of the internet that’s not full of idiots.”
And the band feel just as much a part of the AF GANG as their fans do, without taking any credit for its growth and spirit; something Joe is keen to tell the media in interviews: “The AF GANG is nothing we built, it was something that everyone else built. What came from our music was a sense that I wasn’t alone for the first time in my life and being able to give that to other people has a point of vulnerability. I’m just a part of it. I don’t orchestrate it. I’m a part of a movement and that’s much more important to me than pretending I’m some messiah because I’m not.”
IDLES often tackle quite political and serious topics – Joe speaks openly about how pissed off he’ll be when we leave the EU – but they don’t shy away from humour within their lyrics: “One of the most disarming things one can do is make someone else laugh. It’s acknowledging that you want them to feel good. And I think it would be dishonest if I didn’t put humour in my lyrics.”
As for IDLES’ new album Ultra Mono, the honesty and authenticity is clear in every track, but while humour comes naturally to them the band were keen for it not to end up like a bad comedy sequel: “Fawlty Towers finished at the perfect point because beyond that it was over-familiar and over aware. That’s where we were getting to with the second album. There was no sense of spontaneity so we had to kind of reset, and that’s where Ultra Mono came from; we just wrote the entire album around the concept of self-awareness and self-acceptance as a point of progress.”
“I think you sleep well at night, as an artist, when you know you’ve written something authentic. Ultra Mono is the apex of emotional language. It’s being completely self-aware and accepting stuff in its entirety to move forward and go, I can’t change the way I am – people are gonna say shit about me either way – but this is who I am.”
Joe has used the new album as a form of therapy when he’s feeling a bit crap: “There’s been a few moments where music has come in and just really saved me. Every song we’ve done as a band has helped me progress as a person; but the beauty of Ultra Mono is that lyrically, I set out to create a mantra. I needed to be able to write a mantra to remind myself that I can do all of this. And so without it, I wouldn’t be here.”
When asked what they’d encourage anyone going through a tough time it’s no surprise that Brian and Joe agree it’s okay not to be ok and that accepting how you feel is important, but Joe feels it’s vital that people make sure any anger or sadness is manifested into something more positive.
“There’s no metric of suffering really, and the only way to really process it is by communicating it either to yourself or to other people. You need to talk about it; communication is key.”
Like the AF GANG, Joe feels that organisations like CALM are important for people who don’t feel as comfortable talking to their loved ones, or for those who don’t have the right support around them.
“Without community, there’s no survival. Isolation is the most dangerous thing for emotional growth. Without organisations like CALM, there’s no process in which people feel safe to speak. Talking to a stranger can be more fruitful in the initial stages of therapy. That’s why spreading awareness of CALM is important because a lot of people won’t necessarily know they need it until they hear about it and find out they needed it all along.”
IDLES’ new album, Ultra Mono, is out on the 25th September.
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