The Arctic Monkeys’ fifth album ‘AM’ has been hailed as the best of their career, and was awarded a full 10/10 in its NME review. Here’s everything you need to know about the record, starting with Alex Turner’s description: “It definitely borrows from the world of OutKast and Aaliyah.”
The album definitely offers something that was previously unexpected. Alex Turner told NME: “It sounds like a Dr Dre beat, but we’ve given it an Ike Turner bowl cut and then we’ve sent it galloping across the desert on a Stratocaster.” The funny thing is he’s actually spot on.
It’s the longest they’ve ever spent making an album too – they started sessions in August last year and finished putting “the last tambourine on it” just before Glastonbury. They made the whole thing in sunny Los Angeles, where all four members of Arctic Monkeys are now living.
Although the band started out at Rancho de la Luna studio in the Californian desert, they soon returned to central LA and set up camp at Sage & Sound studios in Hollywood with producers James Ford and Ross Orton.
Although Hollywood might sound plush, the studio was actually pretty rundown and situated by building sites. “It drove us pretty crazy,” Alex told NME for this week’s feature. “We spent a long time in that dark hole!”
Alex said of the album, “If it was a film I’d want it to seem like a Fellini dream sequence”.
Matt Helders broke his hand during the recording sessions, but he won’t reveal how or why. “My hand came into contact with something that was stronger than me,” is all he’s giving away for now.
While Helders was out of action, Elvis Costello’s drummer Pete Thomas stepped in and played percussion on ‘Mad Sounds’.
Other guests include Bill Ryder-Jones (guitar on ‘Fireside’), Josh Homme (backing vocals on ‘One For The Road’ and ‘Knee Socks’) and a troupe of backing singers Alex refers to as “The Space Choirboys”. Why? Because of their high-pitched tones.
…Actually, it turns out “The Space Choirboys” are in fact Matt Helders and Nick O’Malley, who both contribute loads of R&B influenced backing vocals to ‘AM’. They sing “cosmic opera melodies”, as Alex puts it.
Turn of the century R&B heavily influences the whole record. Alex: “It definitely borrows elements from the world of Outkast and Aaliyah”. The band also said that Dr Dre’s work around 2000 was a big influence on them.
At the same time, they’ve obviously been listening to 70s LA rock a lot too, with several tracks recalling the glut of British bands like Black Sabbath who called the City Of Angels a home from home back then. Remind you of anyone?
Alex told NME he thinks you can split the record fifty-fifty between rock and R&B: “There’s a 70s Sabbath-y thing, Captain Beyond, Groundhogs. There is this rock’n’roll side to it. And then there’s that Space Choirboy, slightly R&B tinged, ex-girlfriend music element too.”
Producer James Ford: “There’s a lot of falsetto, with Alex singing in a really high register that he hasn’t really done before. Obviously Matt and Nick are both great singers as well, so Nick did a lot of really low Outkast-y, octave down vocals, while Matt did a lot of high, R Kelly-type stuff.”
There’s also ‘I Wanna Be Yours’, which cribs lyrics from the John Cooper Clarke poem of the same name. John told us in this week’s NME that he was honoured by that – even though he hasn’t actually heard the finished song yet.
John Cooper Clarke said he thinks ‘I Wanna Be Yours’ is “to modern wedding ceremonies what ‘Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life’ by Eric Idle is to humanist funerals.” He also added that he would say yes to a live collaboration if Arctic Monkeys ever asked him.
Alex Turner on the woozy, lustful nature of ‘I Wanna Be Yours’: “I thought it would be kind of cool to do a Johnny Clarke poem as a song and have it not sound like The Fall or something.”
‘I Wanna Be Yours’ is also notable for being the first Arctic Monkeys track to use a drum machine. Don’t worry, they haven’t gone electropop. The gadget in question was “probably the same one that Suicide would have used” according to James Ford.
Alex said of the drum machine: “It’s the first time we’ve done that. An old Selmer drum machine, and the setting on it was ‘Liverpool'”.
“Ain’t it just like you to kiss me and then hit the road? / Leave me listening to the Stones / ‘2000 Light Years From Home'” goes ‘I Want It All’. It features a brilliant Jamie Cook riff, sounds like T-Rex at their glam best and nicks backing vocals from Marvin Gaye’s ‘Sexual Healing’.
The whole album is – to put it lightly – rather sexual, lyrically. “Well, they’re sort of the best ones aren’t they, I suppose?” Alex told us about that.
‘R U Mine?’ was the song that started it all, according to the band. It was the only track they carried over from an earlier session, helmed with Ross Orton back home in Sheffield in January 2012.
The riff to ‘Do I Wanna Know?’ is one that Alex came up with. He wrote it on the same Vox 12-string guitar he played onstage at Glastonbury 2013.
“We wanted to do something very different this time” – that’s what Arctic Monkeys label head Lawrence Bell of Domino told NME about ‘AM’. Co-producer James Ford agrees. “This one was a case of, ‘all bets are off’. The band wanted to push things on and do something different.”
Alex Turner’s favourite lyrics on ‘AM’? That’d be the track ‘Arabella’, which is easily one of the standouts.
Alex sings that ‘Arabella’ is a girl with “a Barbarella silver swimsuit” who “takes a dip in my daydreams”. She’s got a “Helter Skelter around her little finger,” apparently, and he likes “to ride it all day long”. It’s a corker of a song.
It’s about someone specific too, according to Alex. “But it doesn’t really matter who now, does it?” Perhaps it’s Arielle Vandenberg, the actress he’s been linked with over the past couple of years?
NME’s favourite bit of ‘Arabella’ comes 43 seconds in, when it changes from a Dr Dre-influenced R&B tune into a full on 70s rock beast. It even manages to recreate the beginning of Black Sabbath’s ‘War Pigs’. As we said, it’s certainly one of the standout tracks on ‘AM’.
Another highlight is ‘Mad Sounds’, which the band have been playing live recently. Funny fact: it was inspired by a song of the same name by band friend and Sheffield producer Alan Smyth – who worked on Arctic Monkeys early material.
Alex on ‘Mad Sounds’: “Lyrically a bit of it comes from this song our old producer Alan Smyth wrote years ago. We’d always listen to it and I always remembered this bit coming in – [sings] “Mad Sounds, in your ear…” – so we built this one around it.”
Alex agreed with us that ‘Mad Sounds’ has a Lou Reed influence on it, recalling the likes of ‘Pale Blue Eyes’ and ‘Walk On The Wild Side’: “Yeah, I get that. I actually wanted the whole record to have a bit of a ‘Transformer’ thing about it – like you’d need to have a shower after it.”
Another standout is ‘Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?’ “The mirrors image tells me it’s home time, but I’m not finished,” Alex sings on it. As for that title? It seems like it’s a text message he’s has been sent by a lady friend.
‘No.1 Party Anthem’ is a highlight too. But it’s not a David Guetta-style banger – it’s a ballad that recalls John Lennon’s Bond theme-esque solo track ‘Nobody Told Me’.
Several other songs are referenced in the lyrics to ‘No.1 Party Anthem’. These include: ‘The Look Of Love’, ‘A Rush Of Blood’ [To The Head] and ‘House Of Fun’. It also contains the killer line: “It’s not like I’m falling in love / I just want you to do me no good / And it looks like you could”.
Alex told NME that lyrically, the album is partly inspired by the notoriously crazy mansion parties that Los Angeles is famous for: “There is definitely a bit of that,” he said, adding: “You’re in that party and it seems like you’re almost in an Escher painting or something, where the stairs keep going around.”
‘Knee Socks’ features Josh Homme doing Bowie-influenced backing vocals, while Alex, Matt and Nick sing a line that references Martin Scorsese’s ‘Mean Streets’.
Recording with Josh Homme goes particularly well if you get Nick O’Malley to make him cocktails, according to the band.
Alex has been getting into comedy recently, with Louis CK and Chris D’Elia among his favourites. “I’m like his number one fan now,” he says of the latter in this week’s NME, adding, “I’m quite fascinated by that whole thing,” and saying it’s influenced the way he approaches his own writing.
…Not that the new album is full of one-liners, but: “I think there’s a weird symmetry with [some forms of comedy] and songwriting. Or at least there is for me,” according to Alex.
As for recording equipment, the band looked to vintage stuff. Alex: “I got this old Rickenbacker amp from the 30s that we recorded a lot through. There’s no knobs, just two holes. This little black amp that became known as “The New Black”.
Finally, Nick O’Malley says ‘Fireside’ has “wood groove”. Nobody seems to have a clue what he’s on about there.
Turner has told NME that when the band tour this album live he hopes to spend less time behind a guitar and more of it pulling shapes. “I’m not really that up for playing guitar at the moment,” he said.
The video for ‘Do I Wanna Know?’ was inspired by legendarily risque cartoonist Vince Collins – the man behind the heroically fucked up ‘Malice In Wonderland’.
Teacher Steve Baker read John Cooper Clarke’s ‘I Wanna Be Yours’ to a teenage Alex Turner for the first time in school. A decade later, it turns up as ‘AM”s closing track.
Turner doesn’t think the ‘Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?’ video marks his entrance into the world of acting, although he does say: “It was enjoyable, I suppose. I’m sort of happy with hiw it came out – could have been much worse.”
The video for ‘Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?’ was filmed on the same street as The Verve’s classic ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’ clip.
The band have plans to continue the task of cracking the States. This is partly out of their desire to tour, as Jamie Cook says: “We love touring. We just love playing shows. It’s like, we can do the UK, but it’s a small place – three week and you’re done. And then how many shows are you going to do on an album?”
In terms of whether the band have ‘gone LA’, Matt Helders says: “I would have thought that when I was growing up… 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.”
Asked if he’d like the band to reach the level of former US tour-mates The Black Keys, Turner said: “Yeah! That’d be… nice!”
As NME editor Mike Williams wrote at the conclusion of his ‘AM’ review: “So yes, look at the score (10/10), listen to the record, and bask in the glory of knowing that while this may be chapter five of the complete history, it’s the first act of the real golden age.”