Dive back into Arctic Monkeys’ divisive ‘Humbug’ with this 2009 interview

Back from Josh Homme’s desert studio with a hard-rocking new record under their cowboy belts, Hamish MacBain found the Monkeys expanding their vision to infinity and beyond…

This week, Arctic Monkeys release their sixth album ‘Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino‘. To celebrate, relive the band’s NME interview from 2009 as the boys headed to the desert to get weird…

Alex Turner: “So, right, what would happen if you had a one-way mirror and you looked through it – there’s nothing in your peripheral, but there’s enough light, and nothing in your peripheral, and… (to Matt Helders) stop my if I get this wrong, you’re looking a bit like… so you’re, like, looking through a one-way mirror and across from that is a mirror and there’s a mirror there (gestures to the left) and a mirror there (gestures to the right)…”

Matt Helders: “…but there’s some light coming in though, like natural light. But you can’t see it because the mirror’s too tall. This (opposite) is a mirror and this is a one-way mirror so you can see through that way, so you see reflections. What does it look like? I can’t figure out what it would look like because no-one’s ever seen a mirror without a reflection in it. Just themselves or the sky.”

Um, surely that mirror just reflects you, no?

Helders: “But you won’t see you because it’s just a one-way one.:

Yeah, but you’ll see your reflection in there, won’t you?

Helders: “No, because that’s a mirror on that side. Like mirrored sunglasses, so you can see out but you can’t see in. So you’d just be able to see forever. It might cure blindness. We need to try it. It’s like on Big Brother, they film through mirrors. It’s like, if someone puts a mirror there, will it just explode?”

Alex: “That’s what the next album is going to sound like.”

Jesus, Joshua Tree and Josh Homme: just what the hell have you done to the Arctic Monkeys?

Discounting the webcasts, the YouTube clips, the leaks and all other modern pitfalls, Arctic Monkeys’ third album ‘Humbug’ has be officially with us for two days now. Doubtless you are still, shall we say, ‘getting your head around it’. Because it is a get-your-head-around-it affair, that’s for sure: an obtuse third album which signals that the band who made it are perhaps intent on shedding the ‘saviours of British rock’n’roll’ skin the so reluctantly wore from almost the first moment they struck a chord. Certainly not a record that can be easily digested on the first listen. You will be aware – unless you yourself have been living underneath a rock in a desert these last few months – that Arctic Monkeys decamped to Josh Homme’s studio out in Joshua Tree to make it, with the Queens Of The Stone Age leader on production duties and, one imagines, ‘vibes’. Home himself has described ‘Humbug’ as “the record where they get weird, grow up and trip out”. This seems fairly accurate. The deer – as we will discover – has left quite an impression on Alex Turner, Jamie Cook, Nick O’Malley and Matt Helders. You only have to look at the hair to see that.

Anyway, that was then, back in late 2008. Now it’s back to a more familiar reality, and doing the do. Today Arctic Monkeys are in Chicago, in a bar next door to the city’s 1,100 capacity Metro venue, where tonight they will play a midnight warm up show in preparation for tomorrow’s late afternoon appearance at Lollapalooza. Two nights ago they were in Boston, two night before that in NYC, where Helders’ new pal P Diddy made his way into the mosh put (“He came and said ‘hello’ before, he gave me a cuddle and stayed throughout”). Later on tonight, celeb-wise, they will have to make do with Depeche Mode’s Martin Gore, that tall one out of The Killers, their new mentor Josh Homme and his wife, Spinnerette/ex-Distillers front woman Brody Dalle.

For now, maybe because it reminds him of his new home, Alex pulls out a no-longer-fake ID and orders a pint of lager called Brooklyn. The other Monkeys follow suit. There will be much opportunity for informal chatter with a variety of Monkey combos over the next few days, but for official interview purposes, after some discussion, this afternoon, they all talk in twos: Helders and Alex, Jamie and Nick. “Makes things easier” is the consensus. Before the tape is even rolling, something else makes things easier as well: the fact that they seem confident in what they have made. Much more so than before.

“There’s a thing with this record that feels like we own it a bit more,” begins Alex Turner, “and so it’s easier to talk about. It just feels like, before, we were trying to catch up with ourselves constantly and this time it doesn’t feel like that. It felt more considered and more thought-out. And while it was still… we never really had a plan or anything like that, and it was still kind of chopped and channelled to some degree, but it just seems to be more… thorough.”

Jamie later concurs: “I suppose with the journey we took… there’s a story behind this one. So this record is a lot more exciting than the last few times. That’s why maybe this time it seems a lot easier to talk about.”

Consider: what would the no-nonsense, anti-bullshit, Arctic Monkeys of 2006 have made of a band using words like “journey” to describe the making of their third album?

“I know what you mean, like,” says Matt Helders, “but it just seemed like the next thing to do rather than discussing it for ages. It was a fun thing to do as well. Like, we didn’t really think too much about it. It was just a place to get out to.”

Alex: “And it was probably a bit – like you said – we did approach it a bit cocky and like ‘(adopts stoner Jim Morrison twang) Oh right, man, we’ll go to the desert.”

Jamie Cook agrees. “I think when we first got there, we were being a bit smart-arse about it and… you know, when someone goes, ‘You gotta come to this place’? In England you can’t really isolate yourself, can you? You’re always half an hour, at the most, from civilisation. So when you first get to the desertt, you’re a bit, “Wow, this is…”

Nick: “…heavy!”

Jamie: “I mean like, none of us had ever been anywhere like that. We just sat on the wall outside the ranch or just, like, stood and looked at the mountains. We’d never seen anything like it.”

Nick: “And staying in the room that Gram Parsons stayed in when he pegged it. I think things like that summed it up. Staying in that room made you feel like you were staying in a historical place.”

Alex: “I mean, I feel like I’ve already said this sentence a hundred times already, but the desert definitely did make a better environment and definitely introduced possibilities that wouldn’t have been there without it.”

“It’s like we’ve never recorded outside of England,” says Nick O’Malley. “It was a long way away grin the juba if environment we’re used to. With an American producer and stuff.”

Ah yes, Mr Homme. Later that night, from the balcony, the QOTSA leader spends all of the Monkeys’ set nodding his head aggressively along to the disjointed groove of opener ‘Pretty Visitors’, ‘Crying Lightning’ and… well, all of it. It is fair to say he seems smitten. And one thing you almost certainly will have noticed about ‘Humbug’, even on first listen, is that the QOTSA leader’s voodoo prints are all over it. Now, could we perhaps have five words, gentlemen, to describe your new guru?

Nick: “Big… friendly… giant… erm, let me re-think.”

Jamie: “He pushes you – he’s like the motivator. Very…”

Nick: “…focused. Big… nah, leave big out, ‘cos we’ll have giant anyway. Friendly, giant, focused, motivator… and hilarious.”

Alex: He’s a bad ass.”

And how did the whole ‘Can you make it sound more like a pyramid?’ thing sit?

Helders: “Yeah, he would use a lot of examples…”

Alex: “But then again, I’ve always known exactly how to make it sound like a pyramid.”

Helders: “Yeah, it didn’t even seem mad. When you just said it just then it seemed a bit funny, but it don’t when he’s saying it. It’s not like he’s spacing out or whatever. He just says it and it’s like ‘Yeah’.”

“None of us have ever been like, music theory-minded anyway,” adds Nick O’Malley later. “And we’ve never learned music theory. So the whole Josh describing things in that kind of ‘make it sound more oblong’ way, it makes more sense to us.”

Jamie: “We’re not like, amazing musicians, you know what I mean? Plus, we all taught ourselves. We all play around each other a lot, so I suppose we have our own way of communicating stuff to each other anyway.”

Alex: “We had all these ideas and different tunes and loads of lyrics worked out and he helped us filter it and draw up the blueprint for the rest. He helped us like… he really helped us crack the code – the Joshua Code.”

And there we go, albeit with tongue slightly in cheek, back into rock’n’roll territory. Perhaps it’s fair to say that these phrases symbolise the extent to which Arctic Monkeys have evolved, from the days when everyone was forever banging on about how they were ‘anti-rock stars’?

Helders: “(Deep voice) Because then we were anti-rock stars and now we’re rock stars (laughs)!

Nice answer, we’ll take it.

Alex: “I did like the accent you had there.”

Helders: “Er, I was trying to clear my throat at the same time.”

Alex: “That’ll sound good back on the Sanyo, that.”

The tape recorder at which Alex Turner has peeked down at for maybe a split second over the last hour or so is, indeed, a Sanyo, eye for detail. Plus, just say that sentence back to yourself: “Sound good back on the Sanyo.” Flows beautifully, don’t it? Put together, these two skills amount to what in the trade is called ‘lyrical flair’, and ‘Humbug’ us awash with it. During the cab ride of ‘Cornerstone’, Alex “smelt your scent on the seatbelt”, while in ‘Pretty Visitors’ he notes a “tramp with a trampoline under his arm”. Wonderful. And so it goes on. There is plenty of sarcastic sneering that so characterised the earliest monkey recordings (“She’ll detect the fiction on your lips and dig a contradiction up” goes ‘Dance Little Liar’), a LOT of unbridled lust (“Let’s make a mess, lioness!” from ‘Dangerous Animals’ being the peak) and a healthy dose of fucking nonsense that just sounds good (much of ‘Potion Approaching’). For all musical shifts, Alex Turner’s lyrics remain the most striking thing about his band. And here more than ever, due in the main to a shift that sees him narrating almost entirely (and intimately) in the first person. A conscious thing?

“Maybe, yeah…(long pause). No… (long pause). Like, a natural shift,” he says. Alex isn’t awkward when talking about his lyrics, more cautious and considered. “Maybe it’s something to do with having written more. You get more confident about it. And it’s the first time we’ve put the lyrics in print on the sleeve and that. Like everything on there, I feel more comfortable with it all, really.”

There definitely seems to be less character stuff and more… you.

“Yeah, that was conscious, I think. Maybe it was jus through listening to other things. I think it’s cool coming up with people, or extensions of people, but there comes a point when I thought, ‘Why should anyone give a fuck about these characters?’ I reached a point where… I thought I didn’t want to go crazy with all that and simultaneously I was writing, well, I wrote a load of songs I intended to be for other people.”

So what you mean is they were in the first person anyway…

“…and in doing that I’ve kind of poured more into it with the idea that someone else would be singing it.”

So they won’t know it’s you?

“Yeah. And then I just got to thinking, ‘Actually, let’s claim this back!’ and I suppose another thing that makes it easier to put in more personal stuff is that way it was written. It’s not so exposed.”

But now there are a lot of songs that are about, let’s say, you and a girl, or your girl, so people will immediately assume that it is about you and your girl. There’s lots of songwriters who would go, ‘Oh no, no, no…’

“It’s the objective correlative (laughs)!”

But you’re quite happy to say, ‘Yes, these ones are about me.’

“Yeah. But not unanimously. There’s a bit of it all. Sometimes I did start out writing something and think, ‘I want to take the traditional approach to this’. I was joking about the objective correlative, but I suppose you can’t help but become familiar with writing about this entity or thing that is this extension of this situation that has happened, or that you would like to happen. It’s just a whole load of words disguising one phrase in the centre that is something that you do want to say.”

And how good is the disguise? How easy, for instance, do his bandmates find these songs to decipher? Have they looked into them much?

Jamie: “Yeah, yeah. Maybe not that much until we get to the studio….”

Nick: “…but the recording stage I think, yeah. I really prefer to try and work it out myself rather than asking him, most of the time. Unless it’s something I really don’t know about, then I might ask. Plus, like, you always think he might lie anyway (laughs). That he’s not telling the truth. I think, like, some of it’s personal to him so he’d be quite reluctant to say 100 per cent what it’s about. But you can kind of tell.”

Four o’clock in the afternoon the next day and Arctic Monkeys are on the main stage at Lollapalooza. Of a 14-song set, five are taken form the new album, six from ‘Favourite Worst Nightmare’, there’s the now fairly regular cover of Nick Cave’s ‘Red Right Hand’ and only two songs – ‘I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor’ and ‘The View From The Afternoon’ – from their debut. The reaction that greets their walk on stage verges on hysteria; the applause after they’ve twisted and turned their way through ‘Pretty Visitors’ (no-one knows it yet, of course), by contrast, is… polite. ‘Brianstorm’ raises the pace once more and as they blast on through ‘Crying Lightning’, ‘The View From The Afternoon’, ‘Fluorescent Adolescent’ and a closing ‘505’ it locks people in. But this is very much a ‘hope-you-enjoy-out-new-direction’ festival set. In fact, most of the sets in recent weeks have been thus. Arctic Monkeys appear to have little interest in buoying their live show with too many moments from their past, which is admirable. However, on the eve of headlining Reading and Leeds, is it wise?

“Mmmmm. Yeah,” smiles Alex. “I mean, it’s not a new concept for bands doing new albums to feel it’s superior. I dunno. There’s an impetus to want to play someone of those older tunes and then there’s other that seem a bit like your old homework, you know? ‘…Dancefloor’ I love; ‘The View From The Afternoon’ still seems to have, like, this life. Whereas other ones don’t.”

Later, Jamie will pick up this thread: “I think when you play festivals, it’s always a different ball game, innit? I think at a festival you can’t go on and play your new album back to back. It’s not your show, is it? Well, you could do. We’ve been playing a lot of new ones. ‘Cos obviously it’s exciting for us. And hopefully exciting for people coming and watching us.”

Alex: “Yeah, dunno what to do about it really. [At festivals] those little pockets of familiarity can kind of help you… put wind in the sails.”

Helders: “Yeah, thats the thing…”

Think the Followills are sat around having similar dilemmas? Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood? No, they know exactly what they’re doing, where their “journeys” are going these days. But Arctic Monkeys? You just don’t know. Their shows are the must-see sets of Reading and Leeds, but merely one more chapter in this story. And there’s going to be many, many more to follow.

First published on 29 August 2009