Bambara Talk Songwriting, Parenting, and Sobriety with IDLES’s Joe Talbot

Plus, stream the Brooklyn band's new track "Heat Lightning."

Bambara is the Athens, GA-bred, Brooklyn-based post-punk band consisting of brothers Reid and Blaze Bateh and William Brookshire; Joe Talbot is the frontman of the Bristol, UK-based, Brit-Award-nominated post-punk band IDLES. Here, you can read the friends’ and former tourmates’ conversation and watch the video for Bambara’s new track “Heat Lightning.”
— Annie Fell, Talkhouse Senior Editor

Joe Talbot: How are you guys?

Reid Bateh: Good, man, good. 

Blaze Bateh: Going to Atlanta in a couple days for Christmas. This is Frida’s [Joe’s daughter] first Christmas, isn’t it?

Joe: It is, yeah. She’s fucking ignorant to all of it. She’s ill at the moment, so she’s been really moan-y and cranky. She’s miserable just in time for Christmas, which is apt. But it’s cool, I’m just fucking happy to be home, man.

Blaze: Out of curiosity, how many times do you have to change a diaper in a day?

Joe: You only have to change the diaper in a healthy period, if she hasn’t got the shits or whatever, probably like four or five times a day. It’s not too bad. Maybe more actually — maybe six, but six is tops.

William Brookshire: Is it like rolling a cigarette? Is it a big sloppy mess at the start, and then you get good at it and you roll a tight, perfect diaper now? 

Reid: This is where the interview starts.

Joe: Is that the dulcet tones of William?

William: That’s me.

Joe: He pipes up when he starts talking about shit.

Reid: His eyes lit up.

William: You’re jamming my spot right now. [Laughs.]

Joe: [Laughs.] It is exactly like that, yeah. The first 10 times, you end up getting it in your hands and it’s the worst thing ever. Then after a while, you’re like, easy-peasy.

Are you guys going to be touring again soon?

Blaze: We go out in February, and then we’re going to Europe in May. It’s mostly UK, really.

Joe: Sweet. Well, not sweet. I feel sorry for you guys having to come here.

Blaze: Oh, shit. How’s the whole vibe been after that election?

Joe: To be honest, I personally am not surprised. It’s as weird as Trump getting in. It’s just kind of like, Well, this is the way it is for a while. It’s just fucked.

But, it doesn’t change a lot. The only people that are really going to be affected are the poor, and they’re the ones who voted him in. They’re lied to, so it’s not their fault that they’re voting for the sake of the people who are going to fuck them over, but, it’s just wild seeing it unfold. Especially from a distance, when we’re touring. You just assume that people can see [what’s really happening] but they really can’t. Working class people in our countries aren’t seeing what we see. It literally depends on what newspapers you read. It’s fucked. 

I don’t know if you guys really understand how lucky we are in this country to have the National Health Service. It is so good. It’s fucking amazing, to not have it be fucked.

William: I’m already thinking about if I get hurt, just to fake that I’m OK until we get over there on tour and get fixed up.

Joe: Yeah, exactly. It’s like, Breaking Bad is just like a dark fantasy to us. You’re just like, “Oh, I’ve got cancer. It’s OK. We’ve got the Health Service.” Not, “I have to become a drug dealer to sort it out.”

Blaze: We should start booking days off on tour where we just go to the hospital, get checked out. [Laughs.]

Joe: Fucking beautiful. But yeah, it’ll be fine, I’m sure. In the long run, I don’t think they’d ever be able to take away our National Health Service. In the long run, all the young voters were voting for Labour. It’s just the older people who are conservatives.

Reid: Well, how’s the record coming along, man? Have y’all started mixing yet?

Joe: Yeah. Kenny Beats has gotten involved — he’s a hip hop producer.

Reid: I don’t know him. I’m pretty ignorant with that stuff though.

Joe: He does stuff with JPEGMAFIA and—

Blaze: Oh, I love JPEGMAFIA.

Joe: Yeah, he’s done loads of cool shit. He’s a fucking amazing hip hop producer. He got in contact a while ago, just chatting about stuff. We started mixing when they announced [the album], and it was cool, but there was a low end punch missing. We weren’t really getting a full sound. Then Kenny kind of put some pointers across and we were like, “Oh, fuck, he’s perfect for that!” So he’s got involved now, which is really cool. Everyone is super excited. The two producers Nick [Launay] and Adam [Greenspan] as well — it’s just a cool new idea, a different approach to guitar music to kind of go at it from all angles and frequencies.

William: Is that all with mixing, or are you guys going to rework stuff with him?

Joe: Oh no, just all mixing. It was all recorded, basically. They did really cool shit — we recorded a song live, except for the symbols so that you can have the drums louder without any bleed of the symbols, and then just track the symbols separately. So the recording is great. It’s the mix that has to come, I think, at a different angle to get what we want.

How have you guys felt about your album? Are you happy now?

William: Yeah, definitely. 

Blaze: We were just so in it non-stop for-fucking-ever. Pretty much every single day we’d just be in the basement working on it. Then I left on tour for a month, and Reid did the lyrics all in one month.

Joe: That sounds super fucking intense.

Reid: Yeah, it was pretty intense. The day that I was done with the lyrics was the day we went to record, so there was no room for error. But it all worked out.

Joe: Not lyrically, but there’s a real difference in the vocals this time around, in terms of how it sounds. The clarity and the diction, it just seems a lot more… What’s the word? It sounds harder, is the best way to describe it. I love it. I can just hear everything, and it sounds fierce.

Reid: Cool, that’s great. 

Blaze: Thanks, man.

Joe: Yeah, it’s fucking sick. The whole thing’s amazing. For me personally, on the last Shadow On Everything record, there was nothing missing. But I know it’s a change in angles. I think with our third record, it’s the same thing: You’re doing the same thing, you’re just doing you, but you do it with a different angle. There’s a bit of bravery there, to just change things up a bit. That’s how I see it anyway, with our third album. What I got from yours is just a new angle with new stories. Because we’re not going start writing fucking folk music, are we?

Blaze: Yeah. I can’t wait to hear what y’all end up with, man.

Joe: Well, as soon as we got it, we’ll send it over.

Reid: You wrote a lot of lyrics on the road, right, for this record?

Joe: Yeah, I wrote about half the lyrics on the road.

Reid: Was that hard for you to do, in between cities and stuff like that?

Joe: Not really. Because what I never do is sit down to write a song — “Oh, yeah, I’m going to do it now.” If I do it now, I’ll just start and finish the whole song. So I have to kind of to do it in one go. I realized after ages I was putting too much pressure on myself. So I stopped writing after a while [and did] the rest in the studio. So I did, like, half the album in Paris on the spot.

Reid: Damn. That’s so crazy. That gives me anxiety even thinking about it like that.

Joe: Yeah, but you do it. You have to do it, you know what I mean? I had the idea of what I was going to write about before [we started] — “I want to tell these people to fuck off.” I had the title of the album first, [and] the concept of what the album was going to be about, and then I just kind of let it write itself. So every song I wrote, before we were in the studio, it was just like “Ah, that’s what it is,” and then I’d just do it in one go. 

If I overthink it, it gets worse and worse. You know how some people are engineer brains? I can’t just unpack something in front of me and get how it works; I can’t do that with writing either. I can’t write over time, it just gets worse and worse, and then I end up like, I should just try and sound like Reid from Bambara and write a story

So am I supposed to be asking you questions?

Blaze: Whatever you want to do. It’s freeform, my man.

Joe: Alright. [Laughs.] Who do you think would win in a fight, Bambara or IDLES?

Blaze: I think Dev [Adam Devonshire] can take us all out. [Laughs.]

Joe: If I covered you all in fucking peanut butter, he’d eat you boys up. [Laughs.] So, when’s the album coming out?

Blaze: Valentine’s Day.

Joe: Oh, that’s right. You bunch of Casanovas.

Blaze: When did you first start playing in a band?

Joe: Well, with IDLES, I just started the band. I couldn’t sing or play any instruments, but I wanted to start a band because all the bands in the UK were shit. I was a DJ and I was like, “There’s no good UK bands coming out anymore.” So I was like, “Fuck it, I’ll start one.” But I realized real quick I didn’t know what to do, so I just started singing. And it was so bad, it was terrible. So it was 2010 when I started the band, 2011.

Reid: Shit, I didn’t know. So you just kind of organized it without any real idea of what it was going to be? Or did you have an idea?

Joe: I had an idea, I wanted it to be aggressive post-punk. I just went to Dev like “Dev, get your fucking bass, we’re starting a band,” and he was like “Alright.” [Laughs.] And then he’d just play basslines and I’d shout over him. I was never very musical. I was a DJ, but I never thought I could ever make music, until I just got pissed off with it one day. What about you guys?

Reid: We just started when we were kids, when we were 11 or 12, or something.

Blaze: Yeah, me and Reid started playing in sixth grade, and William started playing with us in seventh grade.

Joe: Fuck, that’s mad. 

William: Our first show was a girl’s birthday party back in seventh grade.

Joe: That’s like that legendary moment when Joy Division supported the Sex Pistols. [Laughs.] And the rest of history. That’s a long time. You guys should be much better by now.

Reid: [Laughs.] Absolutely. Correct.

Blaze: Lee [Kiernan] was the latest addition, but Jon [Beavis] was the second drummer? Or was he the drummer the whole time?

Joe: We had a few drummers before him. We used to have our mate in, who lives in America now — he’s a dubstep producer. He was helping us out, and then he was like, “I’ve gotta concentrate on production, but I’ve got a friend who’s fucking sick. He’s only like 12, but, you know.” [Laughs.] Then he joined. We just kind of bounced around with different drummers, and all of them were busy with a lot of shit, but just helped us out. Then Jon was our first permanent fixture. He was sick, but he was too good. The rest of us were really sloppy and drunk all the time, so we kind of just took the jazz out of him. Now the rest is history.

Blaze: Speaking of which, are you drinking right now or are you still sober?

Joe: I’m still sober.

Blaze: Since I last saw you, in London?

Joe: Yeah.

Blaze: Damn.

Joe: Yeah, it’s been over nine weeks now.

Blaze: Has that changed the touring experience?

Joe: It did, yeah. It was a lot better, to be honest. I was in a real bad way. The last time I stopped drinking, I wasn’t in a real bad way but, but my drinking got out of hand really quick and I just get really down. It just makes me depressed, I think. So yeah, I just stopped and haven’t looked back.

I just don’t think it’s for me. I love drinking, I think alcohol is amazing when you drink right, if you can drink right. It’s a bit like riding a BMX — it’s fucking great if you can actually do it, but if you can’t you’ll end up with a broken neck. I’m just not supposed to get on that bike, it’s just the way it is. It’s cool, I’m just going to watch other people get shit-faced.

Blaze: Yeah. I’m gonna try to do it this next tour.

Joe: It’s weird, I kind of stopped drinking for a week, and then Jeremy — he was actually, at the time, really fucking shit-faced — he was like, “Dude, I know I’m drunk, I should probably wait until I’m sober to say this, but I’ve watched you do loads of shows sober and loads of shows where you’ve drank before, and even with one beer before, you’re nowhere near as good.” He said, “You’re just better sober. You’re just better on stage. Everything you do is better when you’re sober.” And I was like, “Oh, wow, that’s a cool thing to say.” I think I appreciated it more because he was shit-faced. 

William: You know he was getting real about it. 

Joe: He was like, I don’t give a fuck. I’m not saying this to be profound, I just mean it: You should not drink before shows. It made me realize, it’s not just stage. I perform better in life when I’m not drunk. I know specific people who aren’t better drunk, but they’re not worse drunk, you know? Also, coming home to a nine-month-old baby hungover is not something I’m ever about. She is a benevolent dictator. She will ruin me. [Laughs.] So when are you guys going to have kids?

Blaze: Our mom is going to ask us that when we’re home, probably.

Reid: Yeah, really.

Joe:  [Laughs.] I’ve found there’s a very different vibe with relationships in the UK and America — at least the way people talk about relationships in America, or in New York especially, which I’ve found quite interesting. But surely kids comes up — I mean, after you’re 25, it’s kind of a conversation that’s had now and again.

Reid: I think in New York, it doesn’t really come up that often. It’s almost probably later, like in your 30s. I think it’s just such a struggle to get by in New York that the idea of adding one more stressor, or anything into your little ecosystem that you’re barely holding together, it seems kind of not possible for a lot of people.

Joe: Yeah, I guess that’s true where I’m at as well. I’m 35, most of my friends are musicians and stuff, and they’re not like “Hey, let’s bring a child into this cesspit of drugs and fun.” Not that I’m saying you guys are cesspits of drugs and fun.

Blaze: [Laughs.] Where we’re from in the South, people start having kids way earlier. That’s definitely more of a discussion.

Joe: Yeah, same where I’m from actually, in the South. People have their jobs and their kids and they stay there and they retire. Although, the Atlanta that I saw was not child-friendly.

Reid: [Laughs.] Yeah, you saw a nice little slice of it.

Joe: I had to get tested just looking at that bar.

Blaze: Willy has that bullet — they pulled it out for him, out of his car.

William: Yeah, I’ve gotta make some jewelry or something.

Joe: Oh, no way!

William: Yeah, I’ve actually got the slug pulled out of the radiator. I can make a necklace or something out of that thing.

Joe: You should make a ring out of it.

William: Yeah, that’s what I’d like to do. That’d be sick.

Joe: That’s so wild. Did you sleep through it or did it wake you up?

William: It must have taken place right before I went to the car to pass out. But I didn’t wake up until I was in the midst of a crime scene.

Blaze: Alright man, we’ve got to run to this show down the street. 

William: But dude, thanks again, Joe.

Joe: My fucking pleasure. Thanks for having me. I love you guys.

Bambara’s Stray is available for pre-order from Wharf Cat Records. 

(Photo Credit: left, Kevin Condon; right, Ania Shrimpton)

Bambara — the Bateh brothers, Reid and Blaze, singer/guitarist and drummer respectively, and bassist William Brookshire — have been evolving their midnight-black noise into something more subtle and expansive ever since the release of their 2013 debut Dreamviolence. Formed in Athens, Georgia the band have consistently expanded their sound and with it an audience marked by a cult-like devotion to the band. With 2018’s Shadow On Everything, a narrative concept album that was their first release on stalwart Brooklyn independent Wharf Cat Records, the band made some major artistic strides. The album drew attention from critics, being dubbed “a mesmerizing western gothic opus” by NPR, and earning praise from likes of VICE, Bandcamp, The Quietus, and Spin, and from Bambara’s growing circle of peers, with ex-tour mates like IDLESJoe Talbot and DaughtersAlexis Marshall highlighting the album as one of the best of the year in interviews. Bambara are currently preparing to release their follow up, Stray, which is due out on Wharf Cat on February 14. It’s an album built on dedication, creative risk taking and an immersive approach to creative expression – principles and processes that pay off in a release that represents a monumental leap forward for the band.

(Photo Credit: Kevin Condon)