After weeks of hype, Arctic Monkeys’ most eagerly anticipated album has landed. In the final part of NME’s epic trilogy, Matt Wilkinson meets the band in London as they rehearse for the ‘AM’ live shows and face up to accusations that they’ve forgotten their roots
This week, Arctic Monkeys release their sixth album ‘Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino‘. To celebrate, relive the band’s NME interview from 2013 as the band prepare to release ‘AM’…
“This is a bit of a fuckin’ exclusive, innit? Inside the Arctic Monkey compound?!” Alex Turner’s pretty spot on here. We’re sat in the rain on the roof of John Henry’s rehearsal space in north London, on an otherwise drab Thursday afternoon. We’ve just been in the canteen with the rest of the band, who’ve been having lunch. Bacon sarnie and Lucozade for Alex, salad and a copy of today’s Metro for Jamie Cook, water for Matt Helders. Nick O’Malley is downstairs somewhere in a nifty Cramps T-shirt, polishing a bass.
John Henry’s is like an indie Coronation Street – within five minutes of being here I’ve clocked various members of Peace wandering round looking dazed, Lucy Rose helping her roadies unload some unfeasibly heavy-looking stage gear and – ensconced in a room somewhere in the vicinity – the faint thud of Foals, whom I recognise by way of Yannis’ unmistakeable yowl.
Nobody pays any mind to anybody else though, because everyone’s here to do their own thing. For Arctic Monkeys this means working out how the hell to convert the intricate and sometimes mind-boggling studio-trickery that makes ‘AM’ flow with such hardened pizzazz on record into something that sounds undeniably GREAT in front of 70,000 people at a festival. It’s not exactly plain sailing.
“We haven’t really got enough hands, that’s the problem!” says Alex, a sense of ironic satisfaction spreading across his face. “Basically we need a fucking pit band. And we’re trying to put that into the five of us [counting touring member Tom Rowley] doing it, and also me wanting to dance through like a prat!”
As they run through ‘Fireside’ in the main rehearsal room (it’s 50 per cent there by my reckoning) Alex does exactly that. He’s positioned moodily at the microphone that looks like the kind of thing Phil Spector would have thrown to the Wrecking Crew in the ‘60s. It’s all about freeing himself up as a frontman, and doing something – anything – different. It’s all about keeping things moving for Arctic Monkeys.
“I’m not really that up for playing guitar music at the moment, so I’m trying to get everybody else to do it,” he shrugs. I can’t help but single out Tom [Rowley], who’s been stood at the back juggling around 50 different instruments at once. “He’s playing the etcetera this time,” laughs Alex. “He’s in the corner, rubbing his belly, patting his head, playing the lead, checking his emails and fucking shredding it on the B-3 organ! He’s got his work cut out, but that’s alright – he’s a talented individual.”
Watching Arctic Monkeys rehearse is undoubtedly a rare and altogether different experience to seeing them play a normal gig. Helders is tamed, towering over a tiny kit almost as if he’s playing timpani, while bum notes on the guitars, bass and keys – from everybody, I might add – abound and nobody really bats an eyelid. It’s much better to fuck it up here than onstage at the Motorpoint Arena in Sheffield in November, right?
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In any case, the band are already sounding pretty great on potential future single ‘One For The Road’, which they’ve been working on solidly since Monday, and current single ‘Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?’. At the time of writing, the track is the only overtly guitar-based song to make the Top 10 in the UK charts in the whole of 2013, going straight in a Number Eight and nestling itself uncomfortably alongside the million-dollar faces of Robin Thicke, Miley Cyrus and The Wanted.
In fact, were you to conduct an entirely unscientific experiment to see who Arctic Monkeys’ nearest ‘genuine’ chart rivals are right now, you’d no doubt come up with slim pickings. There’s Bowie (Number Six with ‘Where Are We Now?’ back in January), Daft Punk (Number One with… I’m sure you can guess) and, uh, that’s about it. And if that doesn’t tell you just how important this band is to the alternative music scene in 2013, then god help you.
A lot of the band’s success undoubtedly comes down to the face that they really are The Full Package. Cool enough to grace the cover of this magazine. Big enough to make Radio 1’s playlist. Enticing enough to have fashion rags devote entire spreads to their threads. Well known enough for your mum to recognise their faces on TV chat shows. And important enough to do everything from flying first class around the world headlining festivals, to making videos that both entirely undermine what music TV channels demands in this day and age (see ‘Do I Wanna Know?’, which doesn’t feature a single human being), only to go wholeheartedly over the top on it the next time around (see ‘…High?’, which was filmed on the very same street as ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’ and features more dialogue than your average episode of Neighbours).
Unless something absolutely catastrophic happens, there’s no way that ‘AM’ will not get to Number One in the album charts a week on Sunday. Likewise, there’s little chance it won’t come out top of the end-of-year polls in a few months’ time.
The pitfalls of this kind of prominence can be perilous though. Two days before John Henry’s, I’m sat in the members’ bar of London St Pancras Renaissance hotel. Outside the tinted windows that shield the public’s glare, thousands of commuters make their way out of the capital. I’m doing the opposite – here to speak with all four members of Arctic Monkeys, individually, about whatever we like. Songwriting, sexism, forgetting their roots, finding themselves, losing it and the unnecessary evils that come with fame, fame, fatal fame. I’ll let Nick take up the story about that one…
“We were in Rome a few weeks ago, in a hotel, and I went to meet Tom in a bar round the corner for a pint. And I just sort of came outside the front doors of the hotel, and there were about 50 kids out there. Before I knew it a couple of them came over asking, ‘Can I have a picture?’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah, yeah, of course.’ But then I look over and see hundreds of them. So suddenly I’m going, ‘Fuck! Fucking hell! I didn’t expect this!’ So I run round the corner, go into this pub, and text our tour manager. ‘Steve! There’s shitloads of kids outside for us! Help!’ And you know what his reply was?” Nick pauses for a split second, as the dry art of northern comic timing rears its head. “Nah, mate – Bruce Springsteen’s staying in our hotel too…’ I had my pint, walked back in and literally nobody noticed me!”
There’s an endless argument on the Arctic Monkeys web forum about whether the band have forgotten where they’ve come from. It’s easy to see why people are so fascinated by it – an eye-watering level of success in America, leather, rockabilly hair, Dre beats, Elvis accents and millions of adoring fans across the globe have made them less… ours is the general consensus.
“I would have thought that when I was growing up,” says Helders. He’s been living in LA for over a year now, in a place “five minutes away” from all the other Monkeys and not too far from Josh Homme’s pad either. “If some band I was into did it straight away, ‘Hollywood, movie stars… whatever these people do, they must be doing it too.’ But the amount of normal things I’ve done while I’ve been there! I’d rather them think I’m glamorous than taking the bins out every Monday night.”
It – the Hollywood lifestyle – is available, he says, but only if you want it. He’s seen and sampled enough to put him off from fiving in headfirst. “When you’re on tour for the first time [and] you go there, you see all that. It’s a bit exhausting. It’d be depressing if it was that every day.”
What drew Arctic Monkeys to LA in the first place? A mixture of circumstance and fate, according to Alex.
“It was this feeling I remember when we left from making ‘Suck It And See’ there. It just felt like it didn’t make sense to go that time, to leave there. There was something. It’s not like it’s ‘The Strip’ or whatever. ‘Cos you’ve been there – that’s not really how it goes.”
That’s not how everyone sees it, I tell him. To a lot of people, the band are probably lording it up at debauched Hollywood Hills parties every night.
“Mm-hmm. Absolutely. You kind of have to be [open to that], I suppose. You can’t worry about what everyone’s gonna think about your step, about whatever direction. I think doing this anyway, regardless of that possible situation you described, you’ve gotta be prepared to be constantly misinterpreted and misunderstood.”
Alex gave up trying to “come out” through the press a long time ago. “But that’s not to say I don’t give a shit [about interviews],” he says. “It’s kind of fine to have us come across that way. ‘They’re over there now, parties in the Hills…’ But I think, even if that’s what you did think about us – let’s say it is – this record is good enough that it doesn’t even matter…”
Their lengthy arena tour in the States last year supporting The Black Keys opened up all four Monkeys’ eyes as to what’s now almost within their line of sight: becoming as big a deal across the pond as they are in the UK. They’ve worked hard zigzagging their way across the States for eight years. Most British bands give up after around four, instead of focusing on the safer territories: home, Japan and mainland Europe.
“That’s the thing,” says Jamie. “We love touring. We just love playing shows. It’s like, we can do the UK, but it’s a small place – three weeks and you’re done. And then how many shows are you going to do on an album? We aren’t [keen on] shoving it down people’s throats.” The band have always tried, he adds, “to give a bit of respect and not piss people off” by being in their faces in their faces all the time.
I ask Alex if the fans who knock the band for not still living at home, or take the piss out of his voice for saying he sounds like Elvis ever get him down. “I’m relatively oblivious to all that stuff. I just think, unfortunately, it’s never been on the agenda to be what they’d want us to be. I mean, it’s on the fucking title of the first record, you know! You can’t be any more blatant than that.”
Would he like Arctic Monkeys to become as big a band in the States as, say, The Black Keys? Too right he would. “Yeah! That’d be… nice!”? The thrill of going from headlining Glastonbury to playing a 4,000-capacity club in Milwaukee adds “variety” to his life, he says, and keeps the band on their toes too. Laziness is the enemy. “I definitely have ambitions to keep progressing in America, because it’s come so far in the past few years.” Alex’s eyes widen somewhat. “You can just tell. I think you just see something starting to happen over there. It’s hard to leave that alone.”
So what if everything were to stop tomorrow? The Monkeys’ lucky streak – starting in the summer of 2004 when they played Sheffield’s Harley and Boardwalk practically every week – has been astounding compared with their contemporaries. How many other bands can you think of who’ve kept it together enough in that time to release five top albums and not succumb to to scandal, injury, selling out or just plain old losing it?
All four band members understand how unfortunate they are to have got this far, but none of them can put their finger on why it’s all been so textbook.
“There’s got to be a reason,” ponders Nick. “But I think it depends how you define luck. Luck in the sense that Al’s writing great songs. Or we’re lucky generally?”
Of course, they’ve met people along the way who have lost it, and, cackles Jamie, “It’d be funny if someone here did, wouldn’t it? It’d be amusing! Someone’s got to someone somewhere along the line!”
So why hasn’t it happened yet? “Maybe it’s that close bond – the group. Or maybe we have lost it and we just don’t realise?”
Matt’s more cautious. “I suppose I do think about it every now and again, but… I’d like to think we’d stop before we saw it going that way. I don’t know how it would be overnight, unless one of had some kind of scandal.”
But bands never stop at the same time, do they? “No, I know. I mean, you can say it all you like – ‘We’ll stop when we’re not good any more, or it’s not fun, or we’re not making good records.’ We can say that all the time, but you probably don’t know, that’s the thing.”
Alex is the only one of the four to not have taken a proper break since they got signed – the rest of them had a year of downtime while he was off doing The Last Shadow Puppets in 2008. Unsurprisingly, the idea of burnout has crossed his mind.
“Maybe I’ll arrive at that point sooner rather than later. To be quite honest, it’s not seemed like there’s been no gaps in it, even though the albums have come out pretty quick. I suppose I just haven’t found anything else to do when we’ve stopped, so it’s come back around.”
Does he ever worry the magic won’t be there one day, in terms of songwriting? “I don’t have time to worry about that, to tell you the truth. I think there’s always that thing… maybe it will just, like, disappear? And I could do some gardening or something?”
There’s always acting, I reply. He’s tentative talking about his role in the ‘…High?’ video. While the others simply had to turn up, get filmed having a few pints and go home, Alex was on set until 4am for two nights running, pretending to be off his head stumbling into fully paid-up thesps in the supporting roles. “It was enjoyable, I suppose. I’m sort of happy with how it came out – could have been much worse,” is his assessment of the final product. He’s even more restrained when I ask if it’s the start of a glistening career in Tinseltown. “I don’t know… Probably not. (Long pause) I’m taking the question too seriously here. (Longer pause) I’m going to be in the next Game of Thrones next year: it’s where all the northern-sounding people go!”
Actually Thrones might have to wait: Alex is way too invested in songwriting to give it all up just yet, I ask him about the process for this album and straight off he replies with a great metaphor concerning – of all things – a washing machine. “Writing songs for me is like waiting for deliveries. You get a window: the washing machine’s got to be there between 11 and 5. You’ve gotta wait for it. It [the song] is the washing machine, the idea! You’re like, ‘Right, we’re gonna do this record between now and then, and in the middle something is gonna arrive.’ A loosely metaphorical washing machine. Shit, I should start a blog called that!”
That’s another thing he hasn’t got time for, he laughs – blogs. He couldn’t handle the pressure of a Twitter account, he says, although he’s tempted by Instagram “sometimes”. But not while there are tunes to be written…
“The only thing that’s common every time I’ve done it for all the records is there are vast periods of time where nothing’s happen. Those three-in-the-morning [moments] – ‘Oh yeah!’ And not, like, waking up going, ‘Oh I’ve got the song’ – more like having sat up since the evening. I just spend a lot of time alone, I suppose.”
For ‘AM’ there was a lot more “internal tussling” in the songwriting process than usual. “I told you I had a dartboard, right? I had a dartboard in the back garden. I’d go out and throw the darts, and there was definitely some symmetry between your internal dartboard, of trying to nail the way this lyric wanders through, and where the dart actually goes on the board. It was weird. Sometimes, when I was winning, when I was getting treble 20 or whatever, I was getting further inside [a song]. Getting there!” He spins his sunglasses around his fingers and laughs. “You sort of have a little smirk to yourself then…”
A couple of hours after I turn up at John Henry’s, the band’s management politely boot me out. There’s work to be done, and me asking about music videos and motorbikes is eating into valuable rehearsal time. They’ve got exactly one week to learn the whole of the new album with the aim of playing it in full on a French television show this Friday. “You don’t have to do it all but I kind of want to – it’s an opportunity to play it all,” Alex says. “But some of them are really tricky to figure out…”
As the door to the rehearsal room closes, I hear a final strain of ‘One For The Road’ blaring out. It sounds totally ready for the masses to my ears. Bullseye.