Guitarists Lee Kiernan and Mark Bowen shove the envelope on the band’s new album, stomping in sonic mud puddles and mashing electronic music and hip-hop as they abandon their comfort zone.
From the British Invasion of the ’60s to the punks of ’77 to the nascent days of heavy metal and shoegaze, the U.K. music scene has often been the harbinger of what’s next for guitar. To many, Bristol-based post-punk unit Idles’ music represents that next step. Idles’ albums are confrontational, heartfelt, politically outspoken, and don’t sound like anything else. The band’s 2018 release Joy as an Act of Resistance hit the top five in the U.K. charts, enjoyed nearly universal critical acclaim, and earned the group a Mercury Prize nomination.
While many critics focused on Idles’ enigmatic frontman Joe Talbot’s poetic lyrics and brash delivery, Joy as an Act of Resistance was full of writhing, rhythmic, anti-rock guitar work that was equal parts clever and reckless—via guitarists Mark Bowen and Lee Kiernan. (Drummer Jon Beavis and bassist Adam Devonshire complete the band.) It was a blast of fresh air at a time when many popular rock bands had lost their teeth, were boiling their songwriting down to an algorithm, or were wistfully mining the genre’s past.
In a small brick room deep in the bowels of La Frette Studios—tucked away just outside of Paris—Idles and producers Nick Launay (Killing Joke, Public Image Ltd, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds) and Adam “Atom” Greenspan (Refused, Anna Calvi) crafted and honed Ultra Mono, the highly anticipated follow up to Joy as an Act of Resistance. Bowen and Kiernan took a decidedly different and novel approach to penning the new album’s 12 songs. The pair began the writing process by defining a sound palette for the album via pedalboards populated with some of the least musical and weirdest stomps they’d each collected. Over-the-top fuzzes, alien-sounding filters, and a boutique glitch box from Belgium all played a major role. The anti-shredders’ effects experiments were the direct starting point for much of Ultra Mono’s songs and guitar parts—many of which Bowen confesses “really wouldn’t sound like anything without the effects.” The album’s lead single, “Grounds,” is a great example of this effects-first approach. It’s an anthem of solidarity for the anti-racism movement, built on the back of a lone repeated note played through a Red Panda Raster delay. The song is an exercise in weaponized simplicity and atonality, yet somehow wildly catchy.
Kiernan and Bowen often use the guitar like synthesists or drummers on Ultra Mono, harnessing the percussive side of the instrument as a trigger and controller for the sounds they coax out of their pedal menageries. Relying on effects-processed rhythmic passages in the same way a producer uses samples gives the albumthe rhythmic bounce and swagger of hip-hop, but presented with the snarling sonics of a rock band playing through high-powered tube amps at full tilt. That trick was further helped along with a dose of post-production magic by producer/engineer Kenny Beats, who added programming and was part of an arduous four-month mixing process.
The result is that Ultra Mono is a whirlwind of hulking fuzz, clanging dissonance, synth-inspired bleeps and bloops, and notes bent so far out of shape that they’d break if they were bones. While there’s an underpinning of dry garage-rock rhythm 6-string that helps propel this effects-laden guitar colossus and provides counterpoint, it all comes together to make something genuinely original. As we enter the probable peak of the effects-pedal renaissance, and at a time when our collective reality is just too absurd for loud rock bands to not have something of substance to say, Ultra Mono is a record deeply representative of the moment.
Despite Ultra Mono’s anger and serious subjects, Bowen and Kiernan are affable gear nerds that don’t take themselves too seriously. The pair have even taken advantage of the unexpected downtime Covid-19 has foisted upon us by starting their own phonetically named YouTube series, Genks, which finds the duo exploring the inner workings of Idles’ tunes, their favorite effects, and interviewing notable guitarists that they mutually dig.
Premier Guitar caught up with Idles’ pedal pushers by phone to discuss their effects-based approach to writing Ultra Mono, the exotic and mundane gear used to craft their band’s latest, how Gang of Four, Electric Wizard, French DJs, and Wu-Tang Clan all found their way into the sonic stew, and how seemingly useless sounds can make great music.
You’ve said the guitar tones on Ultra Mono arelike weapons and that the album was written around sounds rather than riffs. That really shows in your playing, which is often primitive and rhythmic—like you’re acting like drummers.
Lee Kiernan: That was a goal. We wanted to have a lot more rhythmic power and work as a team towards that. A lot of the time, songs started with bass and drums, because that’s always the backbone of our music, and we’ll push those ideas with guitars to make it bigger. Something we really tried to do on this album that we didn’t do in the past is give each other space and also focus on playing together. Bowen and I play as a unit together a lot on Ultra Mono—often playing the same thing at the same time to add more emphasis and power to a single idea.
Mark Bowen: When we set out to make this album, there was something about rock sensibilities and production that had too much deference to the guitar and how we felt the guitars should sound. The thing about guitars is, frequency-wise, they can kind of get in the way of everything. What we really wanted to do is have the guitars either play percussively or play to support the bass. Otherwise, the frequency bandwidth of the guitars was narrowed down to allow other things to really pop in the mix. The opposite also happens a lot on the album for an effect, too, where the guitars deliberately take up all the frequency real estate for impact. All of these tracks were really written around the idea of us all supporting one musical part at a time. That concept was key during the writing, so the recording process was really about making sure that each of the instruments had the impact and weight we wanted them to have.
TIDBIT: “The mix on this album was so much of the trick, and we took four months to mix it,” says co-guitarist Mark Bowen. “We wanted that hip-hop edge.”
Flourishes of atonal guitar are a huge part of Ultra Mono’s sound. How much of that noise-making was baked-in from the songwriting process, and what was the overall approach to experimenting with effects and noise-making in the studio?
Kiernan: Most of it. Bowen and I are always on the hunt for new pedals that are weird. When we were writing this album, we’d go to random guitar shops and ask them for the weirdest pedals they had. It may sound useless, but it still might touch you somehow. Every now and then, a pedal that does something really weird will kick you into gear. Or sometimes you just need to slam a weird pedal with some fuzz or find the weird noises hiding in it. We’ll both admit we’re not the best guitarists and relying on sound-making is our key and really a major part of what we do.
Bowen: The noise-making had to be thought of from the start. We basically created a sound palette first, and once we created a sound, that sound informed the riffs. The riffs on this one really wouldn’t sound like anything without the effects we used. So there was a lot of time spent tweaking, but it was really important to the overall writing of the album.
Do you have any advice on finding the musically useful ideas hiding in deliberately ugly-sounding effects?
Bowen: I think you hit the nail on the head when you said we’re all playing almost like drummers. If you’ve got a sound that you initially feel is musically useless, try using it rhythmically and use it as an adjunct to a snare hit or use it where a high-hat might be in an electronic song. It sounds like nothing else when you replace drum parts with a weird guitar sound. Another big thing is if you get a sound that you think is great, but you can’t necessarily see a traditional musical place for it, building a song around that sound is a big thing for us. If you look at “Danke” and the sound that almost sounds like a piece of metal being whipped in the middle of that, that sound was the starting point for that song.
Kiernan: A lot of what I use is fuzz, and I especially like the ones Death By Audio makes. They’re punishing. Their pedals are just brutal and I like to slam fuzzes into different things to get unique sounds. Essentially what I do a lot of the time in this band is find a big noise and then bend the strings to make it sound like something alive and dynamic more than just a blast of noise.