Formed in Edinburgh in 1995, at the height of Britpop, Idlewild launched a sonic assault that had nothing to do with Blur’s wry social commentary or Oasis’ seize-the-day bombast. Abrasive and loud, Idlewild’s debut mini-album, 1998’s Captain, found them forcing 80s US hardcore and 90s noise rock into bed with melodic songwriting, resulting in a unique kind of British guitar music that offered a visceral alternative at the end of the decade. “Britpop just didn’t really mean anything to us,” Idlewild frontman Roddy Woomble tells Dig! of the band’s early days. “We all loved American music – the Dischord label and Sub Pop, Pavement and Mudhoney and Sonic Youth.”
“I didn’t want to be in a polite, melodic band”
Woomble had drummed in bands before taking on the frontman’s role in Idlewild, which he formed with guitarist Rod Jones, bassist Phil Scanlon and drummer Colin Newton. With his earlier bands, Woomble had discovered a knack for writing melodies – “I could find a tune and I could weave a little melody in and out and put some words to it… It was sort of a magical talent that I seemed to stumble upon” – but when the fledgling four-piece caught a Sonic Youth gig at Glasgow’s Barrowland Ballroom in 1996, they experienced a “revelatory moment”.
“They had The Make-Up, the band formed out Nation Of Ulysses – so a Dischord band, really high-energy rock’n’roll four-piece,” Woomble recalls of the support acts. “And a band called Prick Decay, who were basically like a proper noise band.” There and then, Woomble and co realised that Idlewild needed to be like all three groups in one. “It just struck us: if we can combine all these things – a little bit of noise and drones and chaos, and high-energy rock’n’roll, with the kind of alternative pop songs that Sonic Youth were writing at the time – that’s ultimately what we wanted to do.
“I didn’t want to be in a polite, melodic band,” Woomble adds. “But I knew I could come up with nice little tunes to go on top of the distortion. That was always the thing about Idlewild that made us stand apart.”
“It was a communal moment of shared chaos”
Idlewild soon gained a reputation for performing chaotic live shows (the NME would describe them as “the sound of a flight of stairs falling down a flight of stairs”), making the “quite unusual” decision to play their own songs, rather than padding their sets out with covers of bands that influenced them.
“From the onset we were always described as four bookish students that went on stage and went crazy,” Woomble says. “We weren’t putting on a show. We were just really into what we were doing. And I loved the aspect of: when you played live, it’s so unpredictable. We were always falling over, bumping into each other. I was taking my shoes off, throwing them into the crowd. Someone would throw the shoes back. It was kind of a communal moment of shared chaos.”
Translating that energy on to record was the band’s first challenge – “We were really limited by our abilities,” Woomble says of the band in these early days – but after sending their debut single, Queen Of The Troubled Teens, released on 7” through Edinburgh indie label Human Condition, to Radio 1 DJ Steve Lamacq, the indie tastemaker asked listeners if anyone could help him get in touch with the band. Before long, Idlewild were signed to Deceptive, the label that Lamacq had co-founded, and were booked in at London’s River Studios to record a single. The label were so pleased with the results, they decided to take the six best songs and release them as Idlewild’s debut mini-album, Captain.
“The best records sound like they’re falling apart”
“Some of the best indie rock, punk rock records are the ones that sound like they’re almost falling apart,” Woomble says. During the six days that Idlewild recorded Captain, producer Paul Tipler found himself trying to put the chaotic pieces together. “We weren’t a tight band, and that really became apparent in the studio,” Woomble says. “Live it didn’t matter, because it was noisy and exciting,” but Tipler “had a method to make this ramshackle band sound better”.
Having only ever been in the studio twice before, to record a demo that helped them get gigs, and then for the Queen Of The Troubled Teens release, the group were used to just doing one or two takes of a song before moving on. “We were bemused by the fact Paul kept us doing more takes,” Woomble says. “But that was because, every time, he was tightening it up. He realised Idlewild made the impact on stage in these wee clubs, so we needed to record something that could capture a piece of that without really trying to recreate it… He managed to harness all the negatives and turn them into positives.”
Opening with a distorted guitar followed by a bludgeoning drum beat and a frantic count off, Captain took charge with Self Healer, the first taste of how Idlewild could channel their live energy into a new direction on record. Fans who’d caught the band’s shows began to see Idlewild in a different light: “People would be like, ‘Oh my god, this is good. There’s something going on with this band. They’ve got ideas and it’s thoughtful,’” Woomble recalls. “But at the same time, it’s exciting and energetic, quite raw in places.”
“We were sort of deranged and noisy”
Dispensed with in under 20 minutes, the six songs that made up Captain showed off the best of Idlewild in concert. “We knew what songs worked,” Woomble says of deciding Captain’s tracklist. “It was just the ones that went down well live. We were very good with that and quite disciplined – we’d write songs very quickly, we’d try them out in concert; if people didn’t clap, we’d just scrap them.” The mini-album took its name from one of the first songs the group ever wrote.
“That was one of our best songs,” Woomble says of Captain itself. “We knew it was really good because it always got a reaction from people… It’s still one of the most exciting songs to play live.”
Released in January 1998, the Captain mini-album spoke to both indie kids looking for something fresh from a guitar band and a metal crowd drawn to the energy of Idlewild’s live shows. It was picked up by both the NME and Kerrang! “Even though, technically, we were nowhere near those metal bands,” Woomble says, metal fans were drawn to the “sort of deranged and noisy” shows Idlewild were performing almost nightly. (“As soon as we started veering of into more melodic music, around the time of 100 Broken Windows and The Remote Part, the metal press kind of turned its back on us,” Woomble laughs