Sky News speaks to Idles guitarist Mark Bowen about working out ways to perform for fans in the era of COVID-19.
Chaos, energy, a sweaty murmuration of bodies in the crowd – and a guitarist who’s been known to strip down to his pants and immerse himself in the thick of it.
This is an Idles gig. Anyone who has who has ever seen the band live will know the idea of socially distancing their shows will have thrown up bigger problems for them than for contemporaries who rely on a less frantic kind of show.
“I’m not gonna say we’re not going to do socially distanced gigs,” Mark Bowen, the said pants-showing guitarist, begins in a Zoom call to Sky News. “I might feel that now but if you ask me in a year and I haven’t played a gig in a year, I would be like, ‘I’ll do anything to play a gig!’.
“But now it doesn’t feel like the right context. It’s not just seeing the band, it’s the event and being huddled in a mass of like-minded people.
“There’s a camaraderie and a mutual understanding of things like moshpits, you know, when people fall over, people are pulling each other up. There’s something about being squished in, the heat and the energy, that people crave.
“And that’s why you don’t go and see a band like Idles in a seated theatre. The context wouldn’t be right.”
A socially distanced gig “could be a challenge”, says Bowen. “It could be an interesting thing to try and work out how we create that kind of energy…
“I’m not going to write it off because it could be the new reality. It could be the situation that this is how live performances will go for the next number of years until a vaccine… and even then, what if there’s other versions of the virus, or new viruses that come along?”
After playing an emotional set on The Park stage at Glastonbury last year and going on to be nominated for the Mercury Prize for their second album, the top-five charting Joy As An Act Of Resistance, 2019 was a big year for Idles; and one that, like so many other music acts around the world, they were set to build on in 2020.
Everything about the industry has been “changed forever” by the coronavirus pandemic, Bowen says.
But he’s positive someone will find a solution to get crowds back into venues soon; earlier this week, the band announced tour dates for 2021, beginning in May.
“I feel like it won’t be too long before stuff like that reverts back to normal because that’s humanity, people need their humanity back,” says Bowen. “I think [human beings] are very resourceful so people are going to work out ways [to get live gigs back as they were].
“If you think about how long it’s been [since lockdown started], it’s only been a very short time. People were kind of scrambling around and dealing with that initial thing of everything falling apart, everything getting cancelled, everything getting shut down. Now, there’s been time to reflect and there are clever people out there who are going to work out how we can do this in the era of COVID.”
For the moment, Idles are looking for other ways to perform for fans. Ahead of the release of their third album, Ultra Mono, next month, they are playing some live-streamed sets, from Abbey Road Studios, no less.
Their first rehearsals after nine months apart – they were taking a break even before lockdown kicked in – “sounded like an Idles cover band, pretty atrocious”, says Bowen. But now they are back in the swing of things, and focusing on the things that are in their control, rather than the things that aren’t.
“We talked about [livestreaming] in venues because it’s very important to support independent venues at the minute, but it’s just not the right setting for us to perform without the crowd,” he says. “I think it would be very noticeable that we wouldn’t have the crowd there.
“But we have control over the sound. We can make something that sounds better than any Idles performance that you can watch online… so we thought, well, what’s the best studio in the UK? And Abbey Road came to mind.”
There is a “weird dichotomy”, says Bowen, in Idles – a band known for the raw intensity of their live sets – striving for a polished sound.
“The way that we play live is kind of in general trying to eschew the need for things to be sonically perfect,” he says. But at the studios, they can push the boundaries of how the set sounds. It “felt like the perfect place”.
The shows have created something to look forward to, he says, for the band and hopefully fans, too – “the same chaotic Idles but obviously less jumping in the crowd and running around”.
Ultra Mono, says Bowen, sees frontman Joe Talbot at his “most blunt force”.
He continues: “Joe wrote most of the lyrics in the vocal booth… He’s saying these really blunt, almost, in a way, obnoxious kind of things. And we’re just having to live with it.
“The whole idea was that we were playing the song and hearing it for the first time as it was being recorded. So whenever you hear anything for the first time, you’re hearing us hearing it for the first time as well.”
Like many artists who have been calling out for support for the industry since lockdown began five months ago, Bowen believes the government should be doing more.
“If you look at how music venues are run [in Europe], the majority of small towns and villages – we play in these places all the time – they have these community-run, government-funded initiatives, and everything about the venue is thought of and built around this community.
“We lack that a lot in the UK. There are some amazing places – The Boileroom in Guildford comes to mind, The Adelphi in Hull. There are places like that that are real kind bastions of that independent community spirit and they’re getting shafted, if I can use the word shafted, by the government. They’re not deeming it as a priority.
“This government has showed their hand many times on their opinion of the arts and opinion of how the music industry should be… I think their misunderstanding of that humanity aspect and that need people have for these things, I think it’s going to come back and bite them, because people do need it. The government should be supporting these venues a lot more.”
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At the weekend, the government confirmed the first recipients of its £3.36m Emergency Grassroot Music Venues Fund, which was announced in July. But some had criticised it as too little, too late after months of venues being closed.
While Idles are in a good position after a successful few years, Bowen says he feels for smaller acts who are just starting out.
“There’s many bands, this was their year… to move up from, like, 200 and 400 capacity rooms to the bigger rooms,” he says. “Or even just getting booked for festivals for the first time – that’s a life-transforming experience.
“What’s going to happen is that these small venues, where bands that are in the ascendancy go through, if they disappear you don’t have music in the ascendancy.
“You can’t have people jumping from 100 capacity rooms, playing, like, the front room of a pub, to playing Alexandra Palace.
“I think it’s very shortsighted of the government to overlook that and not be there supporting these people.”
Idles are playing three live-streamed lock-in sessions from Abbey Road Studios, each featuring different tracks, over the bank holiday weekend – two on Saturday at 9pm and 11.45pm UK time, and one on Sunday at midday UK time