There’s a rock ’n’ roll cliché about musicians achieving stardom and immediately becoming insufferable. By any standards, IDLES have earned the kind of success that can send egos out of control.
Their previous album, Joy As An Act Of Resistance, broke their label’s record for most pre-orders, earned them a top 5 chart debut and a stack of awards, and led to a Glastonbury Park slot. Their 190-date 2019 tour climaxed with a headline show at Alexandra Palace that sold out in 24 hours.
It’s a relief, then, that they still talk just like the band who used to gig around clubs in Bristol. Their songs rail against sexism, racism, and toxic masculinity, so it would’ve been disappointing if they’d rocked up to the interview full of rockstar pretensions.
Still, it’s refreshing to talk to musicians with feet so firmly connected to the floor. When we ask guitarists Lee Kiernan and Mark Bowen about the giant amp rigs they were using on a nightly basis pre-pandemic, they sound genuinely grateful for the opportunity.
“They are sick!” exclaims Bowen. “We get giddy every time we look at them.” Lee still can’t quite believe it: “You always dream of having such huge setups, and for most of our career and for most people you just can’t use this sort of thing.
“It’s ridiculous. We’ve somehow got to a place where we actually can, and now the feeling of those amps hitting me on stage every night is incomparable. The actual feeling of those speakers kicking you is insane.”
Lee is similarly unassuming about headlining Alexandra Palace. “I’m dancing around, I’m like ‘Yeah, yeah; this is great!’ Then the lights flashed on the crowd. I looked up, and I’m like ‘Jesus Christ, that’s a lot of people!’ And then I played the song wrong.”
This lack of ego manifests itself very obviously in Ultra Mono, their new album. As Bowen puts it, “We’re all IDLES now. We’re all one machine, so it doesn’t matter whose bit is louder or who’s more prominent. It’s more about ‘How can we make this work? How can I help Lee’s part along?’”
“For this album we’ve learned to make the moments count,” says Lee. “On the last album we learned to hold back where necessary. This one was, ‘When should the guitar be the most prominent thing?’”
This approach is exemplified on first single Grounds, where the thunderous guitar riff buries everything, but drops out entirely for the vocals. Bowen says it’s a lesson the band has learned painfully.
“If you listen to [IDLES’ debut album] Brutalism, Lee and I are playing like we can’t hear each other or don’t care what the other is playing, because we’re both scrambling around trying to be the lead guitarist. Like, ‘Yeah, my bit’s sick!’”
Joy As An Act Of Resistance was mixed like a live band, with a huge dynamic range. This meant it sounded great, but caused problems when it sat on the radio beside ultra-compressed hip-hop and pop tunes.
“It always feels like things take a little bit of a dip compared to a Kanye West song, because guitars absorb so many frequencies. If you’re playing a drumbeat and you start playing guitar, so much of what you’re playing with the drums is consumed by the guitars,” Bowen sums up.
For Ultra Mono, they enlisted help from hip-hop producer Kenny Beats. Their lessons in ego management came in handy here.
“We thought about how hip-hop is written and how we can transfer that into guitar-based music. The ego needs to go in order for the song to be the best it can be. That’s what needs to happen if you’re making hip-hop. No one talks about hip-hop producers by and large. They’re not centre stage.”
Bowen’s enthusiasm for the details of the recording process is boundless. “Whenever the guitar needs to be the most prominent thing, it’s the most prominent thing, but then it’s not even there when you need to hear the drums and feel the beat.
“The big driver of how we went about using guitars was ‘How much frequency bandwidth can we avoid using?’, and then in certain parts, ‘How can we cover absolutely everything in guitars?’”
To cover everything in guitars takes a lot of gear, and we could dedicate an entire issue of the magazine to Lee and Bowen’s pedalboards alone. Bowen’s Z.Vex Super Duper 2-in-1 and JHS Haunting Mids are on permanently.
“It means that I can very egotistically pick the frequency where I’m gonna stick out most, and you can hear each guitar part. But it also means that if Lee’s got one area of the mids covered, I’ll move into another area.”
Lee uses an EarthQuaker Devices Tone Job for the same purpose, and also has an EarthQuaker treble booster on all the time. After that, each guitarist runs a phalanx of pedals.
Judging from our conversation, their love for gear has not been dulled by performing nearly 400 gigs in two years. Lee raves about his Drolo Stamme[n]. “You can really destroy the sound of your notes. There’s no way I can explain the noises it makes. It’s like trance music.”
Of the Recovery Sound Destruction Device, Bowen enthuses: “You can get these sounds where it’s really compressed but also really gated. They sound like creaky doors!”
“I use the EHX POG 2 on almost every song,” Bowen continues. “On Joy As An Act Of Resistance, I used the octaves, and this album I started learning how to use the filter and attack.
“The Moog Minifooger and Death by Audio Echo Dream 2 are my main delays. I often use two different kinds of slapbacks, and using them both at the same time they’ll go off each other. Or I use a lot of the modulation on the Echo Dream with big long delays with quite a lot of feedback.
“The EarthQuaker Devices Acapulco Gold is my go-to pedal for overdrive slightly spilling into fuzz. I use it for a lot of low frequency stuff on this album where I sound vaguely like a bass guitar. The ‘woop’ noises at the end of Danke are a 4ms Noise Swash.”
Lee’s tone is a bit drier. “For this album I didn’t use many crazy effects. It was mainly drive and fuzz. The majority of my feedback stuff is the Death by Audio Interstellar Overdriver. Sometimes I would add the Death by Audio Evil Filter to it because it’s just a messed-up fuzz which drives the hell out of everything.
“The stabs on Mr Motivator are the EarthQuaker Devices Organizer. Sounds like an organ. Makes things sparkle a little bit, which is lovely.” His divebombing and rising pitch sounds are courtesy of a Boss Harmonist. “I think they’re really cool but I’ve never used any of the settings except the ramp setting!”
It can be overwhelming to see such giant rigs, but Bowen is anxious that no one is put off.
“You see a 'board like that you think, ‘I’ll never sound like these guys,’ but ultimately there’s kind of three things going on: there’s octaves, there’s drives, and delay/reverb. That’s really all you need. I’m pretty sure you can get a very decent slapback from a Behringer pedal.
“I always feel I could be putting young guitarists off by talking about my rig but our rigs are like that because we were playing 190 shows a year and we’re complete pedal geeks. I’ve had these jeans for 10 years but I’ll spend all my money on a Moog pedal because I love it so much.”
Lee admits that the pedals aren’t always essential. “We were actually sat in Abbey Road the other day laughing at our pedalboards, saying that actually sometimes the best our sound ever gets is when it’s just the guitar going into the amp at 10.”
On a show in the US with rented gear, though, Lee found himself in big trouble when the power to his pedalboard died, leaving him to go direct into the only available amp, a Fender Twin. “I played three notes and I was like ‘I’m out!’”
When the press shots arrived for Ultra Mono, TG assumed that the wall of amps on display was just for show, but it turns out IDLES really use them all. We had to restrict ourselves to their live rigs.
Bowen uses two 100-watt Hiwatt DR103 heads into 2x15 and 4x12 cabinets, a Sunn Model T, and Fender Twins. Lee runs a Marshall 100-watt 1959 SLP and a JCM800, each through 2x12 cabinets fitted with Eminence Swamp Thang speakers, and a Fender Twin. All the amps are clean except the JCM800, which is slightly crunchy.
Lee already has big plans for when the band is able to get back on the road, planning to replace the JCM800 with a Hiwatt. “The SLP becomes really bold but harsh, and the Hiwatt just fills out the whole body. Then you’ve got this Twin that sounds like somebody’s just cutting you with a knife.”
They travelled to France to record Ultra Mono with about 25 guitars, but only a handful got recorded. Lee used his Fender Baja Telecaster and Player Telecaster and with Bare Knuckle pickups, a Mustang, and a partscaster Telecaster. Bowen mainly used an Electric Guitar Company Series 2, with a plexiglas body and a one-piece aluminium through-neck.
His other guitar was a Fender Player Stratocaster with Creamery Red ’79 pickups. “It’s got a really trebley post-punk sound, so I use that on the more garage rock kind of songs.”
A 1971 Fender Musicmaster makes a brief appearance on the intro to A Hymn. “We have very different pickups in all our guitars so that it’s got a unique sound, but most of them are Fender. I play either Mustangs or Strats, so you know when you pick it up it’s gonna feel vaguely similar,” Bowen continues.
They only use their bridge pickups, and disconnect the tone controls. Two of Bowen’s guitars are just wired straight to the output with no controls whatsoever. The guitar rigs, then, are giant and complex, but the playing is not.
As Bowen puts it: “All the guitar parts are really simple, so in order to make it sound more like us we craft every aspect of that simple sound. I think that how terrible I am as a guitarist is a strength that I play to.
“I can play something like someone who doesn’t know how to play it. That’s a big part. And then I know what I want it to sound like, I have control over that because I’ve got this massive pedalboard.”
Lee gives an example of their inventive approach to simple parts, from the new song Danke. “You take the B string and pull it over the G string all on the 15th fret. It sounds like a bell with the Moog MF Chorus.”
Lee demonstrates by literally putting the B string on top of the G and plucking both. With his Mustang it does indeed sound like a bell.
It turns out even this simplicity requires its own skill, as we discovered when we tried to recreate that sound ourselves. IDLES say that Ultra Mono is a celebration of community, and Bowen ends on a positive note.
“This album is all about self-confidence and confidence in the other people around you, the people that hold you up. That’s where that egoless playing comes in, because I’m confident in Lee and Dev [bassist Adam Devonshire].”
The band has built its own community of fans, in mutually supportive Facebook groups. As we finish the interview, Bowen seems to be talking to fans as much as he is about his own playing.
“Then it’s being confident in ‘that is enough’. That one note, that was enough. You don’t need to overcomplicate things. You don’t need to second-guess yourself. If it feels good, stick with it. Doing what we intended to do, that’s the important thing. And then living with it.”