How British-Irish rock band Idles created the kindest community online
In 2017, Lindsay Melbourne had never heard of the British-Irish rock band Idles. In the five years since, she’s unwittingly helped launch one of the most vulnerable and inclusive fan communities online today.
Melbourne — a talented photographer out of Yorkshire, England — was asked to photograph Idles’ launch show for their debut studio album, Brutalism, in March 2017. Her husband and friend had seen the band live before, but she wasn’t particularly familiar with their work.
“That was when they kind of changed everything for me,” she told Mashable.
It was only her second year working in music photography, but Melbourne realized quickly that Idles wasn’t getting the coverage they deserved. There weren’t any other photographers at their shows, which are notoriously rowdy and, occasionally, violent. It’s the kind of concert where the audience brings just as much action to the show as the band does on stage.
“Their performance has an incredible energy that doesn’t hold back in intensity but remains conscious of the audience’s experience,” Parker Alexander, a 20-year-old from New York City, told Mashable. He’s seen the band twice. “The 2019 show I was right behind the pit, but not in it. Seeing the movement and excitement of the crowd from that perspective is unreal.”
Joe Talbot, the vocalist for Idles, describes the live shows as “magic.”
“The violence of our live show is a beautiful thing and it’s a thing of visceral love and wanting to be loved that is immeasurable, really,” Talbot told Mashable. “It just is magic and it’s not something you can replicate without pure love. And that’s what we have.”
That kind of energy can be a photographer’s dream. So Melbourne started shooting as many Idles shows as she could.
“I started to get to know the band really well, and they got me on board to do some press photography and some promo shots,” Melbourne said. “And I also started to get to know all the fans. A lot of people were doing the same as me — they were traveling around to different cities in the UK to go and see the band.”
Idles during their live show
Credit: Courtesy Lindsay Melbourne Photography
Like many communities of music fans, the people got really close. Everyone started “buddying up” and going to gigs together. She thought it would be helpful to start a group online that would be able to help connect people to go to shows together and share some of her photography. So she went to Facebook and started the ALL IS LOVE: AF GANG (IDLES Community) page.
She was close with the band members, and Talbot — who isn’t on social media at all himself — actually came up with the name.
“It’s like, the As Fuck Gang, as in a group of people who are willing to put themselves out there and be enthusiastic about life. One of life’s cheerleaders. Be fucking vivid. Don’t hide behind whateverness. It’s bullshit. I’ve always been hungry and I think it’s important to show that, and that’s why I called it AF Gang,” Talbot said. But that was all he had to do with the creation of the community. Melbourne created the page on Facebook, and the fans have made it what it is today. “They’ve come to our shows and they’ve supported us, and they’ve created a whole network of people with the philosophy of hopefully acceptance and empathy as a tool to kill fascism.”
Be fucking vivid. Don’t hide behind whateverness. It’s bullshit.
Fans creating online communities to celebrate bands and music isn’t specific to Idles in any way. The “Jeff Rosenstock I Look Like Shitposting” page, for instance, is delightful. And because the pages are created and managed by fans, they’re typically friendly communities. But the rarity that sets AF Gang apart, is the way they talk about things that seemingly have nothing to do with Idles’ music — particularly mental health issues. That didn’t happen immediately, but once the group got rolling, there were passages and posts from people talking about how to deal with the death of a beloved pet, their nervousness about going to a show alone, or the loneliness and isolation that so often comes along with the pandemic, all among discussions of the band.
“But knowing that they were going to meet some AF Gang members [at shows] made them feel comfortable,” Melbourne said. “Naturally, people just started to talk about them and to health and their stories and their journeys.”
The group started with about 50 people, and it stayed that way for a long time. Once the band started playing bigger shows, the group grew with them — slowly, at first. Now, there are more than 31,000 members of the private group. And, somehow, they maintained the ethos of kindness from the original page.
“Four years down the line, I feel like there is a real family in there,” Melbourne said. “It almost says that they’re brothers and sisters, and if someone goes through something, you feel it too, and you just want to be there to support.”
Much like the organic growth of AF Gang, everything about the Idles community happened naturally. Talbot didn’t go out looking for a group of fans who would love his music and his message — it’s just what happens when people listen to the lyrics, show up to the shows, and vibe with each other.
“I don’t think every artist should ever feel a necessity to do anything for their audience, but the whole reason why I started music and I started art was because I was saving my life because I felt isolated and my loneliness and my vitriol towards the universe and its randomness led me to drug abuse, violence, and other things that led me down a pathway that I could have not lived much longer,” Talbot said.
That’s when he started DJing and, later, writing music and working with the other members of the band — Adam Devonshire, Mark Bowen, Lee Kiernan, and Jon Beavis. “I realized that my focus wanted to be on making sure that I never felt alone again through vulnerability and through openness and catharsis. And that came with our rock music and our live act. It’s still there now.”
Slamming a cucumber at their live show
Credit: Courtesy Lindsay Melbourne Photography
Dr. Hae Joo Kim, assistant chair of professional music at Berklee College of Music and an expert on fandoms and how they impact artists’ success, told Mashable that when musicians show this kind of immense vulnerability in their music, “fans will respond in kind.”
“The fans, when they’re meeting, going on social media, and going on all these apps, and websites, and platforms, and seeing all this vulnerability, there’s a certain relationship that builds there and they themselves become vulnerable to the group and with the group — in a very one-directional way, obviously,” Kim said. “And then a community goes across the fans. So there’s this, like triangulation.”
And Idles fans aren’t just communicating with vulnerability on Facebook — their fan pages all over the internet are filled with the same vibe. Alexander, the fan who described seeing Idles live as “unreal,” has been one of the moderators for the Idles subreddit for nearly four years. He says the Reddit community feels like a “great extension” to the “communal aspect that you experience at their shows.”
“It’s the band’s consistent message contained in the lyrics of the betterment of one’s self and leading with joy and compassion that creates a strong base for the fans to stand on and pick each other up,” Alexander said. “The original fan group on Facebook also set the standard for others to follow when it comes to leading with kindness regardless of background.”
But it didn’t happen without some bumps.
“It was this perfect, sweet, amazing little place on the internet for about two years,” Melbourne said. And then Covid happened. Lockdowns ensued. Everyone was spending more time on the internet. “There were people coming in and kind of trying to cause trouble.”
The ethos of AF Gang is that all is love — but it’s hard to love the trolls. “We are this all-encompassing, all is love vibe and we’re not gonna just going to kick people out. So it was quite hard managing these situations where members were feeling uncomfortable.”
Melbourne realized she needed more people to help moderate. For the first two years of the group — in a world before COVID — there was no political talk allowed.
But as the group grew, Melbourne said she couldn’t play gatekeeper or ban any topics. At first, it caused a bit of blowback, but she found that the group eventually settled. For every post about Brexit or the U.S. elections, there was one about someone’s mental health journey. “There was still all that love that people wanted to share and support, and that ultimately brought people back together again,” Melbourne said.
For Idles, all is love
Credit: Courtesy Lindsay Melbourne Photography
To help foster that community, the moderators manage AF Gang in the most Idles way imaginable — by listening to everyone’s point of view before making any big decisions.
“Even if someone’s coming in and they’re being quite angry, there are probably reasons behind that,” Melbourne said. “So just trying to be as open as possible and trying to encourage everyone to listen to each other, but it’s much easier than it sounds. It’s been really hard, but I think in the last year, it seems to have gone back to that place where it was when we first started.”
All of this kindness and vulnerability might feel at odds with Idles’ music if you’re paying attention only to the aggressive sound and not at all to the aggressive — but tender — lyrics. It’s the kind of music my mom would hate to hear across the house, bleeding out of my room, but would love to see written as a poem. Pitchfork described Talbot as “modern post-punk’s most voracious life coach,” and his music as delivering sensitive and introspective moments” with the same bull-in-a-china-shop aggression and lack of subtlety as their protest-placard rockers.” There’s a violence to their vulnerability.
“The violence that we put in our art is supposed to remind people of the humanity of it,” Talbot said. “One of the worst things that has ever happened to our society is advertising companies convincing people that imperfection is wrong and that everyone’s ugly, everyone’s too old, everyone’s too fat, everyone’s too poor, and you can invest in buying into a dream that will not ever succeed because perfection can’t exist in the human race. And we wanted to just bring back a sense of belonging through the violence of everyday life and celebrating imperfection.”
Whatever the opposite of toxic positivity is — they have it. And the new album — which has moved away from their past albums baiting their haters — proves that.
“The new album is incredible and the lyrics are really strong,” Melbourne said. “It feels like a really lovely place to be.”
In the closing line of the last song of the newest album, Crawler’s “The End,” Talbot continues to see the lotus in the swamp. “In spite of it all,” he growls, “life is beautiful.”