IDLES "Can Shit Out a Heavy Punk Track," So They're Trying Something New

The group weathered "lot of tension" to achieve the sonic breakthroughs heard on fifth album 'TANGK'

Photo: Tom Ham

BY Gen HandleyPublished Feb 13, 2024

"This album has a sound all of its own — it doesn't sound like anything else," Mark Bowen says, without any hyperbole. "It sits in an almost completely different dimensional region. I love it."

From his home in Belfast, UK, Bowen has been telling Exclaim! about the journey the band he plays guitar for, IDLES, embarked upon in order to make their latest and fifth record, TANGK, an amorous, affecting body of work that tested personal relationships and took the band to new sonic and emotional territories that weren't always comfortable exploring.

The incredible audio work of the album can also be credited to Bowen, who co-produced TANGK alongside Kenny Beats and Nigel Godrich, the latter of whom is a visionary known for his extensive work with Radiohead. Bowen recalls how they first worked with Godrich on a From the Basement set they did in 2022 for the band's previous record, 2021's Grammy-nominated Crawler.

"I was really taken by his approach in those sessions, and I was very taken by his interpretation of those Crawler songs — I think he heard something in Crawler that I really recognized, and I liked that. I liked that there was synergy," Bowen recalls. "Also, he's worked with artists — Beck, Radiohead, etc. — where they made left turns and went into territory that's uncharted for them. We wanted to do that with this album — we really wanted to challenge ourselves. We wanted to push ourselves with our songwriting. We wanted to make a better album than we've ever made, and we wanted to make something more experimental."

He adds, "But the thing with that is you want someone at the helm who's been there before with artists and can help you navigate through it."

Bowen says this uncharted territory was intimidating at first, coaxing himself into creative waters he's never swum before.

"I really was trying to challenge myself and it was a lot of work, trying new techniques like using tape loops, synthesizers I haven't used before, and I really wanted to push the harmonic and melodic information on the album," he says about the ambitious album, which is the second IDLES LP that he's produced. "So there's lots of new chords on there that IDLES would never have touched before — there's these shapes on some songs that are like proper jazz chords."

However, with this unfamiliar territory came a double-edged sword: while they had created an exciting body of work, there was a little insecurity about the new sounds and structures.

"We can shit out a heavy, heavy punk track or raucous noise rock and make that happen at the drop of a hat and we know it's decent, but that can breed complacency," Bowen explains. "Whereas, in this new realm, we didn't know if we were capable of making something great, so we had to really scrutinize our feelings around it and it needed to feel 100 percent right. When we got that feeling, we knew we were onto something."

They managed to find that feeling, time and time again, resulting in 10 sensorial songs demonstrating the ambition of the Bristol band, as well as the special, creative bond between Bowen and lead singer Joe Talbot, whom he met in the late 2000s. This record helped the pair realize the complexities of how they work together — even five albums in.

"We learned that if we nurtured the person's aspirations and goals and creative process, then it's fruitful for everyone's creative process, because we all want the same thing — an incredible album and incredible music. If we nurture that, we get a good outcome and if we don't, it's awful," Bowen explains with a laugh.

"This album wasn't easy to make — it was not a situation where we were nurturing our creative perspectives through it, and it created a lot of tension and created a lot of loggerhead moments, let's say, where we came to a head a few times. But that's fine and we got through it, but we learned that about ourselves."

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