For their latest album, Crawler, Idles guitarist Mark Bowen adopted the role of producer for the first time.
Since 2009, and over four increasingly successful albums, Bristol five‑piece Idles have built themselves a towering reputation as an intense, soul‑baring punk/metal outfit. With their latest record, Crawler, the band have expanded into more atmospheric sonic territories, without losing any of their inherent heaviness.
Idles’ guitarist and co‑producer Mark Bowen tells SOS that the aim for the album was to create a “dark warmth”, inspired by the moody soundscapes of Portishead and John Carpenter’s film soundtracks, while maintaining what he describes as “doom metal techno sludge in the low mids”.
Down the years, the band have worked with various producers, including Space (the Prodigy) and Nick Launay (Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds). But, for Crawler, Mark Bowen chose to step into the role himself, working alongside Kenny Beats, the American hip‑hop producer whose credits include Vince Staples and slowthai.
“It was daunting,” Bowen admits. “I was worried about producing it on my own. So, I got Kenny involved. He’s an incredible producer. But he was just there to give me confidence, really. I knew if I surrounded myself with the right people around this project, that it was going to be successful.
“Honestly, it was the most pain‑free recording process, and mixing process, that we’ve had, from the audio standpoint,” he adds. “Because I think that everyone we were dealing with was open. Everyone was listening, and paying attention.”
Having spent years on the other side of the studio glass — as the guitarist with his amps in the live room, trying to capture his often brutally noisy and aggressive sounds through the control room monitors — Bowen admits he’s often been left frustrated. “I’ve always been, like, a production guy, and I’ve always been interested in effects,” he says. “And I’ve always been interested in how you transfer what you’re hearing. How putting a microphone in front of something doesn’t do it justice a lot of the time.
“It’s always really bothered me, that battle [laughs]. Especially as a guitar player, I stand in front of my amps, and I’m always like, ‘This sounds incredible.’ And then you get into the control booth and you’re like, ‘Aw… you’ve not found what it was that was great.’
“So, it’s been a real journey across the lifespan of Idles. We’ve been a band for 12 years, and we’ve been in a studio a lot of that time. A lot of stuff just never got released because we were struggling in that process. There’s been a big, steep learning curve.”
Out Of The West
Idles formed in Bristol at the end of the ’00s around the core of singer Joe Talbot and bassist Adam Devonshire, before adding Lee Kiernan and Belfast‑born Mark Bowen as guitarists, along with drummer Jon Beavis. Starting out with a series of EPs, culminating in 2015’s Meat, the band mainly worked in local studios, including Moles in Bath, and Bink Bonk and the now‑defunct State Of Art in Bristol (owned at the time by Portishead’s Geoff Barrow).
“My first experience of studios was really through Idles,” says Bowen. “A lot of it was kind of relying on the engineers. You’re very lucky in Bristol because you’ve got your kind of Massive Attack heritage and your Portishead heritage. There’s a lot of pretty wonderful engineers floating about in the studios.”
But it was with producer Space that Idles formed their most successful early studio alliance, resulting in their first two albums, Brutalism (2017) and Joy As An Act Of Resistance (2018). The former was recorded at Sugar Cane Studios in Wandsworth, while the latter was done at Monnow Valley Studio in Wales.
“We got on board with Space, who’s a really open‑minded producer,” says Bowen. “He was the right guy for the bill. He helped kind of engender and cultivate that move into the heavier sound, the more kind of blistering, chaotic sound. He definitely was very proactive in exposing that and pushing that with the band.”
In 2019, for Idles’ third record, Ultra Mono, the band decamped to La Frette, a residential studio on the outskirts of Paris. There, working with Nick Launay and his partner Adam Greenspan, the band were afforded more time to experiment with different methods of tracking and overdubbing.
As the title of Ultra Mono suggests, the idea was to further define — and even narrow — the range of Idles’ sound. “Joe really wanted it to be mono,” Bowen laughs. “There was some negotiating done there because it wouldn’t have worked.
“With Ultra Mono it was the first time that production was going to take a role in the song craft on the album. So, we were writing these deliberately obtuse, deliberately simplistic songs. Everyone was kind of playing the same part and the drums were bombastic.
“Everything kind of had to sound singular. So, there were a lot of discussions around that. The album was recorded in less than two weeks, but it took about four months to mix. It was about trying to find that sound within the cacophony a lot of the time. And that’s why the album sounds like it does, y’know. It’s supposed to be this abrasive, obnoxious, singular‑sounding thing.”
One of the great discoveries for Idles at La Frette — a studio previously used by Arctic Monkeys and Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds — was that it wasn’t a posh, upmarket residential facility: “It’s this beautiful, massive chateau,” says Bowen, “and because it’s got this faded glory, it doesn’t feel stuffy. It’s very vibey, very moody, and all the recording space is downstairs. A bit dingy, but an absolute banger of a [1973‑built] Neve [A646] desk. Lots of interesting mics, lots of interesting, weird vintage gear. It definitely adds a vibe to the recording process that is useful.”
The basement drum room at La Frette was formerly a brick‑walled wine cellar, so is particularly live‑sounding. To control the kit recording, Launay suggested to drummer Jon Beavis that he try out a trick the producer had learned when working with Kate Bush in the early ’80s.
“It’s where you record the cymbals separately from the drums,” Bowen explains. “So, Jon was doing all his parts and hitting a pillow whenever he was hitting the cymbals, and then swapped everything and he was hitting pillows and then hitting the cymbals. Luckily, he’s a robot, so it’s really straightforward to get him to do that.
“Then we set up in the other rooms. We had a big bass room, and for the guitars, we normally set up a big wall of our amps, and then kind of pick and choose what ones are being used.”
After the La Frette sessions for Ultra Mono, Idles — looking to add hip‑hop sonic dimensions to their traditional rock sound — first asked Kenny Beats to get involved with them in an additional production role. “The low end of the bass, the subs, needed to be cleaned up,” says Bowen. “If you listen to grime and drill and trap, the low end’s very, very concise. It’s in a kind of pocket, which guitar music just doesn’t have. And also it was to make the drums cut through and slap.
“It’s always this thing when you work with guitar band engineers — the battle between guitars and drums is always won by the guitarist. And then with hip‑hop producers, it’s the opposite. The drums always supersede anything else. And we kind of want to sit somewhere in the middle. Kenny did a lot of drum programming, triggering, put some 808s in and did some processing of the bass.
With this fresh perspective on the tracks achieved, the files were sent back to Launay and Greenspan, who mixed Ultra Mono at Sunset Sound in Los Angeles. “It showed them where we wanted to go,” Bowen says of Kenny Beats’ additional production. “It went to this really extreme version that sounded crazy. And then Nick and Adam kind of processed what Kenny was doing.”
Crawl To Arms
Approaching the February 2021 recording of Crawler at Real World Studios near Bath, it was clear to Mark Bowen and the other members of Idles that they wanted to make an album that sounded markedly different to Ultra Mono: “Very much so. We definitely didn’t want to retrace the steps of Ultra Mono. I think that the obnoxious chaos of Idles had reached its zenith. It was starting to become annoying [laughs]. Y’know, for members of the band as well.
“Joe was talking about how he wanted to sing more,” Bowen adds. “So, that kind of led us down this more melodic route. Also, I think if you’re singing melodically, you can’t really have that obnoxious music as the background to it. The idea was just to approach the drums and the instruments and vocals in a very different way.”
Ahead of the sessions at Real World, Mark Bowen demoed all of the tracks in his North London home studio, using Ableton Live, a Push 2 hardware programmer and Universal Audio’s Apollo Twin interface, along with a heap of effects pedals.
“I did a lot of, like, guitar synthesis, or was using the guitar as my primary oscillator, let’s say. That was going into a lot of Moogerfooger pedals, and I was using CV to have those communicate with each other. Then using the Red Panda pedals as well, the Particle and the Raster. So, like, granular delay and heavily modulated, pitch‑shift and delay.”
In the end, elements of these demos, particularly the treated guitar sounds on the songs ‘MTT 420 RR’ and ‘Progress’, ended up on the finished album. “What you hear is actually the demo of ‘Progress’,” Bowen says. “Those heavily granular delay, pitch‑shifted, weird sounds. When we got to the studio, we just kind of thought, ‘Why would you do anything differently?’”
Unusually, Bowen had drummer Jon Beavis initially record the drum parts for the majority of the tracks at Holy Mountain Studios in Hackney, East London, before having them pressed onto an acetate test pressing. At Real World, Beavis played alongside his own turntable beats, with Bowen hoping that the fast‑degrading acetate would produce interesting sonic results (as heard on tracks such as ‘Meds’ and ‘MTT 420 RR’).
“I was really hoping that after 100 plays, it would be unrecognisable,” he laughs. “But actually after 10 plays it kind of blows out a little bit. You get this real warmth in the low end, you get lots of compression, and then it kinda stays the same.”
Mark Bowen: We were moving mics when we needed to rather than processing... We recorded all the drums to tape as well, which was a big thing.
Recording Beavis’s drums at Real World, Bowen was keen to use very little kit processing, preferring to set up “tons of mics” and get the sounds at source. Beavis was positioned in the studio’s Wood Room, with the microphones fed to the Big Room with its Neve 1073 preamps routed into its 72‑channel SSL 9000K desk.
“We were moving mics when we needed to rather than processing,” says Bowen. “We recorded all the drums to tape as well, which was a big thing. Ran it quite hot, but not like crazy hot, onto the tape.
“We had a mantra: ‘Hiss makes hits’ [laughs]. All your favourite albums are hissy as hell. Like, you listen to Led Zeppelin, to the Beatles, to Motown, it’s filled to the brim with hiss. And I think that’s part of the charm.”
In terms of drum‑miking choices, Bowen was partly inspired by Steve Albini’s famously unorthodox methods. “So, an Octava [MK‑12] and a [Shure SM] 57 on the snare. We taped them together. Coles [4038s] pointing on the floor. We used the AEA [R88] split stereo mic in front of the drums, and this other really battered AEA as a room mic, up on the balcony, with Schoeps [CMC6Us] up there as well.
“I love a distorted room sound of heavily compressed drums. But adding all those processes creates a limitation in the sound. You’ve got to do a lot of carving and so we wanted to create that in the acoustic side of things as we were moving from acoustic to analogue. I think we had like 22 channels of drums or whatever, all running into tape.”
When a more distorted, processed sound was needed, the team used the Thermionic Culture Vulture valve rackmount unit. “We had this really ridiculous setting on the Culture Vulture that was our distortion sound,” Bowen says. “For compression, we used the Valley People  compressor and the [Empirical Labs EL8] Distressor.”
All Your Bass
For Adam Devonshire’s bass parts, the band worked with a fairly basic setup. “Two amps... dirty, clean, and both dirty,” Bowen explains. “There was a ’70s Hiwatt 100 that was absolutely stunning that they had at Real World. So we had that, and we intermittently changed between Dev’s Fender Super Bassman and another Hiwatt. We used a [Shure] Beta 52, a [Sennheiser] MD 421 and a Beyer M80 on the bass. Then two DIs, one clean, one dirty. We ran one hot into preamps and kept one really clean.
“Again, it was always first principles. So, we were in the control room and if the bass didn’t sound right, we were running out to the amps, changing the settings, changing the position of the mics, and then just balancing in the DI, but trying to avoid as much as possible carving the shit out of everything. Everything took a lot longer, but it sounds a lot better.”
One standout bass sound opens Crawler: the low, synthy tone that underpins ‘MTT 420 RR’. “That bass synth sound is actually transposed guitar, using the Moog Freqbox, and a POG [Polyphonic Octave Generator],” Bowen points out. “And then also just pitch‑shifting it in Ableton, using the transpose… not even, like, AlterBoy, or some swish kind of plug‑in. The terrible, terrible processing in that Ableton transpose, where you get these weird wobbles and glitches, I love that.
“It’s hard to get bass guitar to sound like that. And it’s also difficult to get that plucked guitar feel. It fits that John Carpenter/Portishead vibe but stays within the Idles punk rock band ethos.”