Q’s With Mark Bent: IDLES’ Manager On Grammy Noms & Rock’s Big Year
Mark Bent hesitated when frontman Joe Talbot first asked him to manage his new band, IDLES. He had previously managed a band in London, describing the experience as something that “didn’t end so well.” Bent was wandering around the music industry and testing out touring gigs when Talbot convinced him to just see an IDLES show.
“Literally just two seconds into the gig, I was obsessed, and have been ever since,” Bent tells Pollstar. “I don’t know what it was. They’re a very different band to what they are now, but there was just something really engaging and special about them. It took me all of two seconds to just be all in.”
Bent started managing the band near the beginning, “sometime around late 2009 or early 2010.” Over the years, their sound has changed and they’ve gotten more serious about their music. They’ve figured out what works best for them and reached their stride.
Last year’s release of IDLES’ fifth album, Crawler, has brought the band critical acclaim. Nominated for two Grammys, including in the Best Rock Album category, IDLES has been aiming to move out of the punk rock box they’ve been encased in throughout their career. While, much like this week’s cover artists, Turnstile (see here), IDLES have been around for years, but the past few have launched them into another level of success.
It took IDLES around eight years from when they first formed to release their debut album. In the meantime, they worked to perfect their live performances and discover what sort of act they wanted to become. Those years saw them constantly touring, sleeping on floors and in vans and honing their skills. Perhaps that is why their debut album, Brutalism, released in 2017, received critical acclaim in the underground once it was finally released. Their work ethic proved they had been worth the wait, and every record, every move since has served as a stepping stone to Crawler.
However, the band was still locked in the underground without breaking through to wider audiences. They further found their footing with 2020’s Ultra Mono. Described as “an album made for live” by Bent, the worldwide lockdowns of the pandemic prevented the record from seeing its full potential.
Despite the strangeness surrounding the worldwide circumstances preventing the album from being promoted how they hoped, Ultra Mono saw IDLES garnering a No. 1 record and various accolades. “But for IDLES, that isn’t what’s important,” Bent says. “What is important is connecting with people.”
Like many artists in 2020, IDLES found themselves in the studio making a record just for themselves. They returned to their roots with Crawler, creating sounds that they loved and not thinking of how it would transform live, or how the rest of the world would react to it. As they proved to not only themselves, but the rest of the world, the best art is made for simple pleasures without the pressure of the outside world, the record has launched them to new heights.
Their Sept. 14 show at The Anthem in Washington, D.C., sold 2,366 tickets and grossed the band $118,260, according to reports submitted to Pollstar’s Boxoffice. On the other side of the Atlantic, they also sold out their June 14 show in Leipzig, Germany, at Taucbchenthal, grossing $38,635. This summer saw them on numerous festival plays, including Primavera Sound, Pinkpop, Hurricane Festival, Rock Wercherter Festival, Roskilde Festival, Lollapalooza Stockholm and more.
The record also sees IDLES finally escaping the punk bubble they’ve been locked into since their early days. No longer just a punk band from Bristol, their rock ’n’ roll chops signal to the rest of the world that they, and other genre-fluid rock bands who have been making waves in the underground and are bubbling beneath the surface of the mainstream, deserve to be taken seriously.
Pollstar: IDLES has been around for quite a while, but this past year the band hit their stride. What do you feel has factored into that?
Mark Bent: The thing with IDLES is the first two, three years they were really trying to discover what sort of band they are musically. What was important to them, what was the message they were trying to give as artists. It took a while to come together. At the start, Joe was really shy and he would sing to the side from the crowds. He couldn’t even look at them with how shy and nervous he was. Obviously that to where they are now is like a world apart. That just came from experience: what works, what didn’t work. It took eight years before anyone really took notice.
When I say “not taking notice,” I would refer to more industry support or radio. That whole time they were building a fan base. That’s why there’s sort of a real community feeling around them, because everyone grew up together. It wasn’t a case of, “check out this really hot band, they’re listed on the radio, championed by the magazines” and so on. They were a real discovery band, really underground for a long time. So, fans got to grow with them. The IDLES learned as they went along, made mistakes as they went along, which didn’t really affect their career because no one was watching them.
By the time it came to actually getting that break, by the time they were signed to a label or took any of those steps, they were selling out 1,500 capacity venues without any support. I don’t think people realize how much work went into this, the constant touring and the constant rehearsing. When you watch them onstage, it looks very chaotic. But a lot of work has gone into it.
By the time the band released their debut album, it reached critical acclaim in the underground. Now, with Crawler, they’ve been propelled to an entirely new level that’s garnered them two Grammy nominations. What about this album at this point in their career has brought them more widespread attention?
There were so many years people were telling us that it would never happen. They were too old, too shouty, too British. America would never get into it. All these things for years and years. When we released Brutalism, no labels wanted to touch it that I was in contact with. So Joe and I decided to start our own label, Balley Records, to release it. Then suddenly everyone’s like, “Is there something there?” And obviously there was, and luckily for us it connected critically and underground. But everything has been a stepping stone up until Crawler. […] They showed a completely different side to them.
The decision was “let’s do something that really excites us, gives us all the freedom to be as creative with it as we can.” Which was the thinking of Brutalism at that point, because there was no game plan. No big team wanting different things and pulling us into different directions.
There is a lot of depth and talent within the band because it was an intentional thing. With Ultra Mono, the simplicity of the songs, the simplicity of the lyrics was so they could work with bigger venues. People could connect to them straight away and celebrate them. When it came to Crawler’s lyrics, it was like, we’re going to do what we want. We have the confidence that people are actually going to give this record a chance because people are starting to take us seriously. It’s really being in the position where we find ourselves with an opportunity like the Grammy nominations, which is one IDLES never thought they’d get. It’s down to their hard work and dedication.
What does live music mean to the band and their albums?
With Ultra Mono, it was all about “what’s going to sound amazing live?” For them, it’s a driving cause. Getting into a venue and playing a show and celebrating with people is what it’s all about. It’s amazing to get something like a Grammy nomination, and that should be celebrated. But what really drives everyone here is getting out and being able to play it to people and celebrate with people. I think with something like the Grammys, it just opens more doors with regards to maybe getting on radio and getting some good TV slots. People have to pay notice now, there’s no way you can’t.
What was that like for IDLES to have to re-evaluate Ultra Mono and being unable to perform live?
It was another step where they record they made and the intentions behind the record were that it was reliant on live touring and shows. And when we released it in the middle of the pandemic, they weren’t able to go out and play the shows and connect with people. Everything was done via social media and YouTube throughout the press. It was a difficult time because the album was allowed to breathe.
How is it for you to be in the audience at an IDLES show and witness first-hand how their records translate onstage?
Having a catalog enables you to change shows on a nightly basis and keep things exciting and fresh. There’s so much more dynamic now within shows than when they released Brutalism. You’ve got 14 songs that are all really fast paced and high energy. There’s one show you’re going to get from IDLES which is very high energy and fast-paced. Going through their catalog now, especially with Crawler, they’ve explored other things more and there’s more dynamics to a show, which is great because they span an hour-and-a-half now. Even though IDLES could play an hour-and-a-half of Brutalism type songs, I don’t think the crowd would make it through the show. There’s a lot of people that will now go and check out more than one show, so it keeps that excitement as to the songs they will or won’t play.
This year’s Grammy nominations see quite a few bands who have this heavier, genre-fluid sound. Do you think there’s some sort of rock resurgence going on?
It’s mad to think a band like IDLES is doing what they are because it’s not really the sort of musical landscape that does well commercially. I’m hoping that will open doors to other bands and artists. There’s an incredible scene here in the UK with some amazing bands. Whether they’re having the same commercial success, probably not. I still think it’s really hard to have commercial success doing that kind of music. I don’t think there’s that kind of landscape there yet. Especially for bands like IDLES, there’s a long way to go.
You guys are breaking down a lot of barriers this year.
I know, right? We’re slowly getting there. It’s honestly just pure persistence and hard work and not taking no. Just belief. I think whatever you’re doing or whatever music, that’s just the key. Bands or artists that are doing very well, 99% of the time that is because they’ve worked incredibly hard.
There’s so much will for everyone to do well. If IDLES can get a Grammy nomination and be doing what they’re doing now, most people can. But it’s what you have to do to get there that stops people a lot of the time and puts people off.