Arctic Monkeys man Alex Turner has been back in the studio with best pal Miles Kane, which can only mean one thing: The Last Shadow Puppets are back. Kevin EG Perry enters the circle of trust…
Maybe it’s because they get sick of living in each other’s filth, maybe it’s because of ‘creative differences’, or maybe it’s just because of all the drugs, but people in bands tend to end up loathing one another. But this story is quite the opposite. This is the story of two best friends who are magnetically drawn to making music together.
“It’s like watching footage of an explosion in reverse,” says Alex Turner. “It’s like John Lennon meets… Paul.”
Alex and his Last Shadow Puppets bandmate Miles Kane are in no mood for modesty as they announce their second record, ‘Everything You’ve Come To Expect’, the follow-up to 2008’s ‘The Age Of The Understatement’. Sitting together in Miles’ Los Angeles apartment, they’re chattering more than the two baby parrots in the cage next to them – a Christmas present from Kane’s girlfriend. They spark off each other like a comedy double act: howling at in-jokes, finishing each other’s sentences, slipping into pitch-perfect Lennon and McCartney voices.
Try to get a straight answer out of them about what they each bring to the Shadow Puppets party and Miles will tell you, “Some nice smoked salmon canapés.” “And a rosé,” adds Alex. “And then the magic happens,” concludes Miles. Speaking to them together feels like interrupting a conversation that’s been going on since 2005, when Miles’ then band The Little Flames supported Arctic Monkeys on an early tour.
In the decade since, Alex and Miles’ bromance has blossomed into one of music’s most enduring. They turn up to catwalk shows together wearing ill-advised matching outfits and last summer they appeared on YouTube bawling Strokes lyrics into each other’s faces in the crowd at the New York band’s Hyde Park show. They’ve both now set up homes in LA. Tales of their debauched nights in the Hollywood Hills echo through the indie grapevine, so Alex is surely being more than a little disingenuous when he says they’ve “left all that behind us. We’re gonna watch some TV for a bit”.
Given how close they are, the only surprise here is that it’s taken them eight years to follow up their first album. What kept them? “Well, we wanted it to be a trilogy,” explains Alex. “We wanted to write the second and third parts before we released the second.”
So the next Last Shadow Puppets record is already written – does that mean we won’t have to wait another eight years for it? “Well, I don’t know about that,” says Alex cagily. “There are lots of other things we have to factor in.”
That’ll be the day jobs; 2013 saw the release of Arctic Monkeys’ monumental ‘AM’, which went double platinum and was named NME’s Album of the Year. The same year, Miles’ last solo record, ‘Don’t Forget Who You Are’, also made the Top 10. Even then, there were shadows of The Puppets. Miles joined Arctic Monkeys for the closing song (‘505’, from 2007’s ‘Favourite Worst Nightmare’) of their Glastonbury headline set in 2013, and appeared with the band at Finsbury Park the following year to play The Last Shadow Puppets’ ‘Standing Next To Me’.
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When the Monkeys downed tools after headlining Reading and Leeds in 2014, it gave Alex and Miles a window to reunite. “It seemed to all align correctly,” says Miles, albeit hinting at the fact that he needs this more than Alex does, when he jokes, “I did have to get him in a headlock briefly, but he came around.”
The second album, ‘Everything You’ve Come To Expect’, was recorded last summer at Shangri-La studios in Malibu. Once owned by Bob Dylan and The Band, it’s now in the hands of producer Rick Rubin (Beastie Boys’ ‘Licensed to Ill’, Slayer’s ‘Reign In Blood’) who let them have the run of the place to work on more than just their tans. They rounded up their old collaborators, with Arctic Monkeys producer James Ford on drums and Arcade Fire collaborator Owen Pallett scoring the string section. The one new recruit is Mini Mansions’ Zach Dawes on bass, who worked with Alex on MM’s 2015 single ‘Vertigo’. “We’re very close to Zach and we love him dearly,” says Miles. “It just felt right to get him in to play on it.”
As for the direction they wanted the record to go in, Pallett says that when he arrived in Malibu he asked the band – who used avant-garde crooner Scott Walker and psychedelic cowboy Lee Hazlewood as inspiration for their first album – who they were going to be inspired by this time around. They replied, “Have you ever heard of a record called ‘The Age Of The Understatement’?” And yeah, there are shades of their debut, but this time around they’ve drawn from a wider selection of their record collections. They reference everything from original soul man Isaac Hayes’ ‘Hot Buttered Soul’ to Paul Weller’s 1980s outfit The Style Council, who Alex says they “didn’t used to ‘get’ in the way we do now.”
“I think the last record ended up being just one thing,” continues Alex. “We talked about Scott Walker a lot and our record became perceived asa homage to that sound. This one, in my head, doesn’t wear its influences on its sleeve as much as the first one did. We were definitely listening to a bit of Isaac Hayes this time, but it was less of a big deal. I don’t think it’s as directly…” “…tipped towards anybody,” finishes Miles. “At that time, all that stuff was new to us. We were discovering it for the first time. This time, it was just songs that we were buzzing off that we were inspired by.”
That change in direction is immediately apparent on lead single ‘Bad Habits’, which appeared in early January. It’s punchier than anything the pair have recorded together before and sees Miles snarling “Should’ve known, little girl, that you’d do me wrong”.
“It is quite different to anything on the first record,” says Alex. “But some things haven’t changed.” ‘Bad Habits’ isn’t indicative of the album though, which is more varied and accomplished than ‘The Age Of The Understatement’. Highlights include the shimmering seduction of ‘Miracle Aligner’, which Pallett calls “a remarkable song”, and the piano-led title track. “We’ve progressed more on that tune than anything we’ve done” says Miles. “That’s the one that stands out as being, dare I say, the most unique.”
Listening to the record so soon after the death of David Bowie, you can’t miss the line on the title track that mentions a “collar on a diamond dog…” The Last Shadow Puppets covered Bowie’s ‘In The Heat Of The Morning’ as a B-side for their first single ‘The Age Of The Understatement’, prompting the man himself to go on record
to say, “That’s a delight! How lovely. A daymaker.”
High praise indeed. Bowie’s influence is present all over ‘Everything You’ve Come To Expect’, although as Alex points out, “He’s sort of in the DNA of every record, to some extent. He’s been built-in for a long time.”
“I had a blue day on the day he died,” adds Miles. “I watched the ‘Lazarus’ video and found it quite hard to watch. I definitely had a cloud over me.”
There’s another standout lyric on ‘The Dream Synopsis’, in which Alex describes a dream where “a wicked wind came howling, through Sheffield city centre.” Having made himself over as an LA rock star, does the Sheffield of 2006’s ‘Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not’ seem like a distant memory? “It’s still home,” says Alex. “I was back there for Christmas. I’ve still got a lot of great friends there.”
What comes across on the record is how much fun they had making it. Alex says recording in Malibu – and going for morning swims to start days that would end in the small hours – felt like “a holiday”, just as recording in western France did on the first Puppets record.
Owen Pallett agrees and says the sessions felt more like hanging out with mates than work. “The best thing about working with those guys is the atmosphere and the camaraderie,” he says. “It’s really palpable. You can feel that the fire is stoked. Miles always had knee-jerk reactions to the music where he’d go, ‘No, it’s supposed to go like this!’ Alex is more of a slow burner. Sometime around 2am, after we’d had a few drinks, he’d go, ‘That part of the song isn’t working. We should do it this way.’ I’d make a note and fix it in the morning.”
Turner and Kane’s holiday is set to continue. After the record’s release in April, the Puppets will play Coachella Festival in California later that month, then tour, then play more festivals. Right now, with Alex confirming the lack of Arctic Monkeys’ future plans (“nothing yet”), the pair just seem happy to keep their decade-long conversation going. How do they think they’ve changed over the years? “We’ve grown into men,” says Alex. “Especially when you look at those old photos, and you look at us now.”
The recent photos of them – Miles with his head shaved, Alex with hair slicked back, both in matching velour tracksuits – are a long way from the mop tops and deer-in-headlights expressions they sported around the first album. “I know,” laughs Alex. “We’ve gone from The Beatles to The Fast And The Furious.” When they talk, their flurry of in-jokes is so dense it can be hard to tell fact from fiction. For example, they like telling people they’re working on an X-Men-style comic book film. “We’re in the storyboard phase,” says Alex. “We’re having a slight argument about it because I wanted to bring in some lucha libre Mexican wrestlers,” adds Miles, “but Alex is quite firm that we keep it strictly X-Men-style.”
Is any of it true? Who knows. In an effort to get some emotional truths out of them, I ask them to face each other, look deep into each other’s eyes and say one thing they love about the other.
“I like this game,” says Alex. “You realise you’ve never let it out.” “I tell him I love him all the time,” replies Miles. “You have to go through the pain threshold. I love you because you’ve got a very strong pain threshold.”
How about you, Alex?
A long pause. Are we about to hear something from the heart? “A halo just appeared around Miles’ head while I was staring into his eyes,”says Alex finally. “I swear. No kidding. Just as I was about to respond, a halo appeared and now he’s levitating about four inches. He’s floating.”
Maybe the only time Alex and Miles can really be honest with each other is on record. At least now we have a second chance to share their certain bromance.