Post-‘Favourite Worst Nightmare’, Mark Beaumont peeked behind the masks of the most mysterious band in Britain.
This week, Arctic Monkeys release their sixth album ‘Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino‘. To celebrate, relive the band’s first NME interview proper from when the band were on the verge of blowing up…
The evil circus hypnotist catches the monocled general in his paralysing glare, smoke curling around his blood-red fez. Over his shoulder peeks a deranged Boer War field nurse, gurning like Florence Nightingale with the face of Benny Hill – the red-cheeked gentleman with the hefty moustache and cigar laughs wild at the sight. Then they all cackle, closing in on each other in a huddle over a laptop bearing pictures of themselves; a dark, demented coven of Victorian freaks, beasts and weirdos. Then, one by one, Arctic Monkeys – for, verily, it is they – scurry upstairs and gorge themselves on a feast of baked bean toasties and Pringles. The antique Victorian masks come off. The monocled general is revealed as Matthew Helders – the affable, gag-cracking drummer, called ‘Helders’ by his bandmates. He claims the past two years of success, fame and acclaim have made him for confident and culinary adventurous: “I’ll eat octopus and stuff now.” His favourite worst nightmare is “jumping off a high building. When we were in Japan we went to the Park Hyatt Tokyo where Lost In Translation were filmed and I was looking out the window thinking ‘I’d love to jump off a building, but I wouldn’t want to die.’”
The field nurse turns out to be ‘new boy’ (“it’s been nearly a year!”) Nick O’Malley, the softly-spoken, parma-cheery bassist called ‘Malley’ by his bandmates. He raves about the past year being “the best time of my life. Playing Reading and Leeds on the main stage, I don’t think you can ever do anything that’d beat that really. Maybe skydiving.” His favourite worst nightmare is “this one where Bruce Willis were my dad – people were trying to kill him and I had to protect him”.
Behind the visage of the cigar chomping gent, meanwhile, lurks Jamie Cook: straight-talking, no-nonsense guitarist, the man responsible for Arctic Monkeys’ determination play the rock game by their own rules, called ‘Cookie’ (pronounced ‘kew-keh’) by his bandmates. He claims his turn on the rock’n’roll rollercoaster has left him “not as sushpicious, when we first came out it were really guards-up and now they’ve dropped a bit.” His favourite worst nightmare is “I dunno. Has Helders said ‘porn star’? That’s a good one.”
Only one of the Victorian ghouls doesn’t want to take his mask off. The circus hypnotist, or ‘Al’ to his bandmates, is currently scribbling strange captions over NME’s polaroids and argues that NME would be “braver” to photograph him for our cover with him masked; but our purpose here today is quite the opposite. For two years Alex Turner – quiet, introspective singer, urban poet, social commentator and icon to a generation of spotty teen-brat rock warlords in waiting – has hidden his true character behind cocky onstage bravado, offstage standoffishness and lyrical bile and beauty. He’ll claim his songs are largely character-based to deflect you from the personal issues at their core; in interview he’ll happily let his sentences lift away into embarrassed mumbling; in this year’s BRIT Awards acceptance videos he was more comfortable dressed as one of the Village People or the scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz than he would’ve been thanking the panel as himself. His favourite worst nightmare is being stuck in a room with a music hack hell-bent on asking him about his love life, what drugs he’s on and why there’s so much kinky sex all over his new record. Unfortunately for Alex, we’re about to make his favourite worst nightmare come true.
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“How have I changed?” Alex Turner sniffs wetly and scratches at a hint go stubble. He feels like shit today – two heavy nights on the lash (“proper six-o-clocks”) straight off the plane from Japan after a whistle top press tour have left him with a head cold like a skullful of anthrax – and from his long pauses and awkward half sentences you sense that he’d rather be going 10 rounds with a horny silverback gorilla in a tank of pig entrails than sitting in this cosy back-room of his rehearsal studio talking about himself and having become, with debut album ‘Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not’, the fastest selling success story in UK history. In this state, our chances of prising any personal detail out of him seem about the same as convincing Osama Bin Laden to appear on Cribs. But today the main monkey is ending his silence.
“I don’t think I’ve changed drastically” he shrugs. “I don’t feel that different when I’m in town or at home or whatever. When I get home and watch telly, I don’t feel like a pop star. I know I’m making pop music but I don’t feel like a celebrity. I don’t think I’ve got it in me to act like a fucking pop star.”
You came across as pretty cocky at first.
“Yeah, but I was a blagger. I’ve never been like that.”
What were you trying to cover up?
He frowns. “I dunno. Maybe I got pure adrenaline from it all kicking off and when I started having to do interviews or awards, I probably got more defensive, my guard went up.”
Were you surprised it was kicking off so hugely?
“Maybe a bit, and a bit frightened as well. I was 17. It didn’t seem frightening at the time but looking back, it were a bit unnerving. Back then, you just thought ‘fuckin hell, come on!’ and walked up to collect an award like you were Liam Gallagher or something.”
So what do we know about the pre-Monkeys Alex Turner? That he was born in Sheffield to teacher parents, with whom he still resides. That he attended Stocksbridge High School with Matt Helders and original Monkeys bassist Andy Nicholson and lived a few doors down from Jamie Cook. That he was a child of hip-hop, particularly Roots Manuva, before hearing Oasis and convincing both his and Jamie’s parents to buy them guitars for Christmas in 2001. And, um, that’s it.
Today he lets on a little more” he admits to lacking confidence as a teenager, and being stage-shy – he took drama classes at school “because it were a laugh” and appeared in a Christmas play (the only time he’d ever been on stage before the Monkeys’ first gig) but never considered himself a performer. His confidence, he believes, came from seven gigs that he played in the summer of 2003, once the Monkeys were up and running, as guitarist in his friend John McClure’s (aka the Reverend in Reverend and the Makers) band. “I did seven gigs with them in York and Liverpool and around that time I got more confident. John is a very confident character, he’s such a frontman, and I reckon I got a lot of it from him. Not cockiness, just confidence.”
Where did you get your determination to deal with the music industry in your way?
“That probably came from Cookie. We just didn’t want to look silly, really. It gets so blown out of proportion. We wouldn’t do some stuff that was daft, but then it becomes, ‘these boys just say bo!’ and that’s bad because then everybody tip-toes around you.”
And the lyrics? The streetwise poetry of disaffection and disgust at all the prattling scene kids, the social vampires, the hardy bums and Neepsend scumbags? The words that hooked a nation? Where did they come from?
“Maybe that is to do with my mum and dad. My mum’s a linguist, she’s a German teacher and my dad’s a music teacher so maybe I get that off him, the musical thing and the desire to create. And my mum’s always been fascinated by language… Maybe I get it from her originally.”
So the desire to express yourself in song didn’t come from any major teenage heartbreak? Alex shakes his head. “I’ve been quite fortunate to dodge heartbreak. The only heartbreak I’ve had has been brought on myself. In hindsight you just think, ‘Aw, shit’; everyone has that first love thing, but there’s too much other stuff pulling you away from it.”
You’ve never been very hurt, emotionally?
“No.” He bites his lip. “I’ve got that to come.”
Mind you, judging by ‘Favourite Worst Nightmare’, he’s been distracted from matters of the heart by affairs of the flesh…
When did you lose your virginity?
Alex laughs. “Teens. It were good, yeah. When we were at school early was early, y’know what I mean? I wasn’t the first but I wasn’t the last.” Now though, you suspect, he’s fast approaching “the most often”.
Alongside the musical evolutions of ‘Favourite Worst Nightmare’ – the thunderous Queens Of The Stone Age riffing, the surf guitar sedition, the heartfelt balladry – Turner’s lyrics have matured from the sneery street-rat sniping of ‘Whatever People Say I Am…’ to include more, ahem, adult themes. From the ‘Fluorescent Adolescent’ no longer getting it “in her fishnets” and being asked of her latest conquest “was it a Mecca dabber or a betting pencil?” to the lustful temptations of ‘D is for Dangerous’ and ‘The Bad Thing’ there’s so much inappropriate rumpo going on in this record you could stick an Edwardian corset on it and sell it to BBC2 as a ‘controversial mini series’. Why’s that, Alex?
“It’s natural, perhaps I’m confronted with it more. I had a girlfriend most of last year so it weren’t like I was going mad after gigs or anything, but perhaps there’s more temptation and stuff now. There’s a lot of temptation in the album. ‘D is for Dangerous’ is like a fantasy of having done the deed and you need to escape the surrounding you’ve been led to, but it’s more just a fantasy about it, knowing you haven’t actually done it. And ‘The Bad Thing’ is these three things that happened, meeting three lasses on separate occasions and it all ended up in there.”
Touring notoriously makes maintaining relationships difficult, of course.
“Yeah,” Alex nods. “I think for now it’s probably best to be on me own. I find it too hard to carry on. Especially when you’re all over the place. And especially at our age. It gets to the point where you’re not even seeing each other. It’s weird, I’ve only ever had two girls I’ve been with for any length of time. One of them were this last year when I was the other side of the world and one of them was a mile from our house.”
Have your experiences with girls changed a lot since you became famous?
The mumbling kicks in earnest. “Things just happen don’t they, sometimes? I don’t ever feel like I go out to look for someone or anything. Those two times I’m on about when I were, like, ‘in love have just come along. It’s easy to be very cynical. The idea of meeting someone in the street, that seems like it’s just from films and that, but that did happen to me.”
Certainly Alex has become more direct and open about his personal life on ‘Favourite Worst Nightmare’. He describes ‘505’ – in which he’s hurrying to meet a girl in a hotel room in New York – as “the first proper love song we’ve done” while ‘Do Me a Favour’’s tale of a tempestuous break-up while driving a girl home sounds like it could come from personal experience.
“Yeah, that one is,” Alex admits. “It’s about a goodbye, really, and about me being a bit of a knob. Perhaps I were craving to experience something else and looking back and feeling like you were a bit of a knobhead, just in how you perhaps treated that person. It’s just describing a goodbye. That’s another thing, when you’re with someone they seem happier in photos before you met her, or happier in stories from before. I always think they do.”
You think you drag them down?
“Maybe, yeah! Bad perception of self.”
And then there’s the thinly veiled S&M references in the hell-for-rubber pop thrash ‘Balaclava’. Have you had girls trying to handcuff you to torture cages, then, Alex?
He grins. “Some of it just comes from a subconscious thing or wanting to put that word in a song. It’s fun to write about that, that’s all. There’s not many tunes about that.”
He’s just as cagey on the topic of narcotics. Witness: so Alex, has anyone ever offered you hard drugs?
“What do you mean ‘hard’?”
And how do you respond?
“‘Nah, you’re alright’”
Long pause. A shift in his seat. “My nana reads NME.”
Have you ever had any big lost weekends?
“Yeah, you do, but again, me nana reads NME.”
Alex’s mind maybe on the private life of his gran, but his life has been far more public. Has rock’n’roll made a man of you?
Alex ponders. “Nah, I don’t feel like a man yet. I still feel very much a boy. Maybe this is the year it’ll change, but I do feel very much a boy. I’m probably in a bit of a Neverland kinda way. We haven’t had to really grow up. I still feel quite young and this is just starting.”
So perhaps Alex Turner has been veiling himself thus far because he still feels like a person still developing, that the gobby young kid who was thrust so violently into rock’s spotlight in 2005 is still feeling his way into adulthood, unsure of his place and purpose. Perhaps he’s so unwilling to take on the mantle of hero to the current Generation Pop because he’s yet to properly get to know himself, particularly the version of himself that’s been so unceremoniously tossed into the paper shredder of fame. Perhaps he’s trying not to let on that he’s just a boy lost in the swirling freak show on unfathomable success.
So Alex, what’s your favourite worst nightmare?
“Jumping off a building,” he recites, “because it’d be fun on the way down.”
Matt said that one.
“Oh shit, I’ll give you another one then. What was Malley’s? Being covered in honey without a change of underwear?”
His dad was Bruce Willis.
“What was Cookie’s? Did he just not do one? We had this one where Jessica Alba was chasing after you, but she’s a vampire. So it’s a laugh but then she gets you so you’re like, ‘Shit!’ But then you’re vampire friends and you roam together.” The seductive and vicious catch-22 of fame then, a teenage take on adult concerns, the epitome of Arctic Monkeys Phase Two. Finally, the masks are off…