Arctic Monkeys: “We know more tricks now, but we’re still rolling on that same instinct”

After a glorious, but divisive, sonic shift, the Sheffield band double down with their lush new album ‘The Car’, proof that they’re ready to follow wherever the road takes them

From the outside of Suffolk’s Butley Priory, it sounds as though the ancient building is collapsing in on itself. Located within a secluded and rural pocket of southern England, it is the sanctuary of this converted 14th Century monastery that Arctic Monkeys have chosen to call home for a fortnight. Behind the stained glass windows, guitarist Jamie Cook is conjuring up a rousing squall, jiggling on the spot. His bandmates look on, eyes ablaze with excitement at the wall of noise unfolding before them.

It’s the middle of July 2021, and this is the Sheffield band’s final week at Butley Priory, where they’ve been working on ‘The Car’, their masterful seventh album. Prior to recording, the building had been part of the four-piece’s legend for some time: it’s where longtime producer James Ford – recognised amongst fans as ‘the fifth Arctic Monkey’ – celebrated his 40th birthday. Before they reunited here for the first time since lockdown, however, the band’s initial intention for the record was “to write louder songs than we had for some time,” says frontman Alex Turner, but quickly realised that this collection was evolving beyond a bedrock of heavy riffs. “I think what I found myself wanting to play when the band were around was actually very surprising to me,” he adds.

Every performance was recorded, with the results influencing what the band preserved, honed, and ultimately ditched. And for two weeks, the world outside of Arctic Monkeys’ temporary studio was well and truly banished. When the band – comprising Turner, Cook, bassist Nick O’Malley and Matt Helders on drums – were not walking around the wilds of the Suffolk countryside together, they shared pints and watched on as England’s journey at the pandemic-delayed Euro 2020 tournament played out. For a fortnight, time almost seemed meaningless. The gang were finally back together.

As Turner relays this story to NME, he’s about as far from that memory as you can get. We meet the frontman in an east London pub on a deceptively warm October afternoon a little over a year later, just as ‘The Car’’s release week is starting to kick off. Almost unbelievably, the band’s 2009 hit ‘Crying Lightning’ is playing quietly from the stereo downstairs, as if on cue. Considering that Turner is about to settle down for a drink – or, er, an English Breakfast tea – on the floor above, whoever is in charge of the playlist this lunchtime is blissfully unaware that they’ve managed to tempt fate. Turner looks too busy attending to his little china teapot to notice, anyway.

Arctic Monkeys
Credit: Zackery Michael

The group’s highly-anticipated reunion comes along with ‘The Car’, a 10-track collection that, in a five-star review, NME described as “a summary of the band’s story so far: sharp songwriting, relentless innovation and unbreakable teamwork.” Under the supervision of ensemble director Bridget Samuels [Midsommar, The Green Knight] at London’s RAK Studios, it’s the first album on which the band have worked with a full orchestra, allowing Turner’s voice – which sounds more brooding and malleable than it’s ever been – to pierce through a cinematic landscape of strings, piano motifs and low-slung bass rumbles.

Elegiac opener ‘There’d Better Be A Mirrorball’ immediately raises the stakes. A breakup tune that quietly anguishes over vanishing sensations of violin and harpsichord, the album’s lead single was the first to be demoed at Butley Priory. “And picture this: while recording, I’m running around with a 16mm camera that kind of kept me out of the way of everybody a little bit,” says Turner. He ultimately saved some of the footage for himself, and the rest was interspersed throughout the track’s understatedly retro video, making for a touching time capsule of that particular recording session.

Crucially, the new album – with the cover artwork shot by Helders – presents both a more cohesive and collaborative band than the one we heard on 2018’s divisive ‘Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino’. That record riffed on consumerism and technology with a burnished depth, but traded it’s wildly successful predecessor’s tsunami of bravado, riffs and hairgel – 2013’s multiple BRIT-winning ‘AM’ – for searching lounge-pop. Its writing credits reveal that most of the band were perhaps under-utilised as performers, given that O’Malley only appears on seven tracks, and Helders’ drumming is largely restrained.

‘The Car’’s daring centrepiece, ‘Body Paint’ flips the script entirely: you can practically hear Turner wink as he sings, “and if you’re thinking of me / I’m probably thinking of you”, before swirling atmospherics and O’Malley’s tumbling bass make way for a gale-force guitar solo from Cook. It’s the full-bodied sound of the Butley Priory trip, which was solely about having fun and bringing that feeling into the new record.

“We weren’t mentally ready to play stadiums up until now” – Alex Turner

By throwing themselves into new, more daring sounds, Arctic Monkeys have emerged fearless, Turner says decisively. “The records we’re making now are definitely different now to the ones we probably thought we would be making when we started out – actually, we didn’t think we’d be even making records anymore,” Turner says. “20 years ago, I didn’t envision ourselves going beyond…” He looks deep into his cup of tea as if searching for the rest of his answer, while taking an enormous pause from which you fear he may never return. “Well, the fact we gave ourselves the name ‘Arctic Monkeys’ alludes to the extent of ambitions we had.” He stops again. “Clearly hardly any.”

Yet Arctic Monkeys’ friendship has endured, in part, because the band have always known when to say no. They built a fanbase on the basis of a few early demos shared by fans through MySpace, and before the four-piece signed with the independent Domino Records – also home to Wet Leg and Hot Chip – they’d already made a pact to never agree to their music being used in advertising. They even turned down a then-coveted offer to appear on Top Of The Pops. Weeks later, their monstrous debut single ‘I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor’ stormed to the top of the UK Singles Chart instantly – no mean feat for a band without major record label cash or mountains of press on their side. They’d set a precedent to follow their own rules, and it had worked.

Stardom would soon prove to be inescapable, however: the band looked perpetually shellshocked when they broke out as unassuming teenagers with their enduring and now-seminal debut album, 2006’s ‘Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not’. “Somebody call 999, Richard Hawley’s been robbed!,” Turner famously joked, as the band, looking somewhere between a haze of drunkenness and feeling flustered, collected the Mercury Prize later that year. The following decade would see them evolve into the UK’s biggest, most culturally important band: they have gone on to headline Glastonbury twice, perform at the London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony and, perhaps most importantly, have remained consistent, while their peers in sound have failed to keep similar longevity.

“When I think back to earlier times, I feel like we were just running on instinct, creative decisions included,” says Turner, with a gentle laugh. “I mean, like, first and foremost, we didn’t really know how to play our instruments at the start. But beyond that, I don’t really think that much within the band has changed a great deal; we might know a few more tricks, but we’re still rolling on that very same instinct.”

Dressed in a royal blue Lacoste jumper, Turner entertains NME for an hour with a boyish and mischievous charm; his few concessions to age include a formal, paisley-patterned silk scarf and some stubble. A gold link chain lays around his neck – a present from his grandfather that he’s worn everywhere since 2006 – and glints against the autumn sun. As he answers questions, Turner often leans back in his chair and starts re-enacting scenes, giving it some real gusto. No man this effortlessly funny is an accident – behind it all lies a bright, astute and often humorous songwriter.

Trying to discuss his lyrics – which, on ‘The Car’, are often uncharacteristically reflective – in the pub with Turner is a different matter, however, met mostly with some hesitant, yet endearing musings on personal growth. We briefly broach ‘Hello You’, which plays with high drama, and references Turner’s youth spent in north Sheffield – but like a big Hollywood production, what’s pizazz on camera is often pain behind the scenes. “I could pass for 17 if I just get a shave / And catch some Zzzs”, he sings at one point, only half-jokingly. “So much of this new music is scratching at the past and how much of it I should hang on to,” he says. “I think that song is pretty on the nose… as uncomfortable as that may be.”

Arctic Monkeys on the cover of NME
Arctic Monkeys on the cover of NME

It’s when describing ‘The Car’’s lushly arranged instrumental sections, however, that you can sense the cogs in Turner’s brain are starting to turn a little quicker. “Around the last album, the big story was like, ‘Wow, he’s got a piano’, which was true to an extent, but I wonder now looking at it, that it was this thing that I now do – recording ideas as you go – that got me going,” he says. His sudden excitement moves him to clench a trademark pair of black Ray Ban sunglasses so tightly in his hand, you fear there’s every chance they could suddenly snap.

Working on the album led to Arctic Monkeys scrapping their old rule that everything they recorded had to be playable live, opening up unseen possibilities. Turner experimented with the wah-wah guitar for both ‘Jet Skis On The Moat’ and the ridiculously funky ‘I Ain’t Quite Where I Think I Am’ – think ‘Station To Station’-era Bowie meets ELO – the latter being the moment “where everything clicked,” he affirms. Where a younger Arctic Monkeys would have raced through punky verses with lethal precision, ‘The Car’ marinates in the textures of upward sweeps and subtle, honeyed soul.

“I’m pretty happy with how ‘Tranquility Base..’ went down” – Alex Turner

As Turner speaks, it’s easy to picture the studio and imagine the Monkeys, once again, as teenagers in a garage: Turner the leader, Helders and O’Malley the jokers, Cook the near-silent but cunning sage – or, in Turner’s words: “Jamie remains the gatekeeper of the band, as it were.” These days, Cook is the brilliantly straight-faced foil – usually wearing a suit and sunglasses onstage, rocking gently from side to side as he churns out weighty riffs – to Turner’s loose, playful showman.

“I think that’s the key difference maybe with [‘The Car’] and the last record… perhaps we didn’t quite have a grasp of the dynamics of the bigger, newer sounds we were exploring,” he says. “But playing together live again certainly helped us to get there, and we developed a better awareness of each other. You find yourself in a different place when you take the songs to a new setting beyond where they were recorded.”

Even if ‘Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino’’s complete stylistic overhaul was curious enough to unsettle fans of the band’s louder, scrappier early days, Turner remains adamant that it was the right move for the group at the time. “I’m actually pretty happy with how it went down,” he says today. “We achieved something that we may not have been able to in the past. I think it definitely gave us the confidence to go to a different place on a record.”‘ The Car’’s ‘Sculptures Of Anything Goes’ – the band’s darkest song yet, a beast of distortion and weighty electronics – even nods to the public’s mixed response to ‘Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino’: “Puncturing your bubble of relatability with your horrible new sound”.

He alludes to how, despite ‘AM’ being the band’s most commercially popular album – having gone platinum in the US – with its West Coast rap-inspired cadences and bass-heavy melodies, it also felt like a bold revamp for Arctic Monkeys at the time of its release. “‘Do I Wanna Know?’ felt like a departure from everything that we had done before – and this was similar,” he says. “We had to almost acknowledge that our sound still had a little grease in its hair, and a bit of aggressiveness.”

“I don’t think much has changed within the band since the start” – Alex Turner

Turner says, however, that when Arctic Monkeys played the 26,000-capacity Foro Sol venue in Mexico City in March 2019 as one of the final shows on that tour, it felt like a “brilliant send-off” to what had been their most artistically challenging period. Backstage at that same show, Turner began to “sketch out” demos for ‘The Car’, with the idea that they “could close our shows.” He continues: “I found this footage of me playing a song backstage at that gig, and I thought, ‘I’m going to bottle the energy for the new record.’ It was raw, and full of downstrokes guitar.”

The songs from Foro Sol were eventually scrapped, but if anything, that night proved that the ‘Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino’ era had certainly unlocked a more lighthearted side to the band than we had seen in several years. Clips of Turner pretending to lose his train of thought as the twinkling keys of ‘One Point Perspective’ fade out – in tandem with the song’s final lyric – have since been memed into oblivion. It’s a simple, yet persistently effective act: each time, he looks suddenly blank, scratches his chin, and points absently in the air as though trying to remember something. “I don’t think it’s even a choice at this point. When that spotlight centres itself on me, I just can’t help myself,” he says.

Why did the routine start in the first place? Turner’s face curls into a convincing knot of embarrassment. “You know what? I ask myself the same question every 24 hours,” he responds.

Arctic Monkeys
Credit: Zackery Michael

In August, Arctic Monkeys formally introduced their new era by headlining Reading & Leeds for the third time in their career, and drew in one of the festival’s biggest crowds in the process. Capping off a remarkable summer of huge outdoor shows across Europe, the weekend proved that a new, young, wildly committed generation of Monkeys fans had come to the fore, many of whom arrived via TikTok or streaming services, partly due to the recent stratospheric success of ‘505’ – the first Monkeys track to fully showcase their emotional depth as performers.

Lifted from 2007’s ‘Favourite Worst Nightmare’ album, the surging indie-rock track has recently surpassed hits from Eminem and Coldplay, clocking in an average of 1.7 million plays a month on Spotify alone. The stats are even more impressive when you consider that the band have actively chosen to shun social media throughout their career – it’s almost as though they can’t help gaining worldwide attention.

For Turner, seeing audiences continue to react passionately to encore closer ‘505’ has been “genuinely moving”, but he’s bemused by the revival that has come around in the first place. “Without having ‘505’ at the end of our shows for a few years around 2008, I’m not sure if it would have found the new life it has now,” he says. “I hope that doesn’t sound like I’m taking credit [for the revival] – even if it wasn’t totally unexpected, the attention around [‘505’] is really quite special.”

“The renewed attention around ‘505’ is really quite special” – Alex Turner

Arctic Monkeys’ recent live performances have also seen them bring out rarities from their back catalogue, including a moodier rendition of ‘Humbug’ standout ‘Potion Approaching’, and ‘That’s Where You’re Wrong’, a fuzzed-out singalong from the unfairly overlooked ‘Suck It And See’ era. Switching up the setlist has made the band appreciate what they’ve achieved up to this point, Turner explains: “There’s quite a lot of room now for us to unlock songs and these other little things from the past,” he says. “I have almost, like, a PDF in my mind of what we could work on.” His eyebrow arches in confusion. “Wait, it wouldn’t be a PDF, would it? I think I meant to say a spreadsheet…”

It’s this endearing playfulness and intimacy to Turner that makes his disbelief at Arctic Monkeys’ current stature, 20 years into their career, seem genuine. Next summer, they’ll play a full stadium tour across the UK for the first time ever in their career, including two huge hometown shows in Sheffield at Hillsborough Park. Better still, there’s a Glasto-shaped hole in the touring schedule, too.

The scale of these shows is already toying with Turner: “It wouldn’t have made sense for us to play stadiums before this album, and I don’t think we were mentally ready for it up until now,” he says. “I don’t want to get ahead of myself and say that some of our songs ‘belong’ in a stadium, but they could definitely hang out in a stadium.”

He says that they won’t be taking a string section on the forthcoming tour; instead, the band will be assisted by extra keys and synth. Turner is confident that the new album will translate live, and goes on to liken the rich emotional depth across ‘The Car’ to the searing, heart-raising two-minute guitar breakdown that wraps up ‘A Certain Romance’, the crowning achievement from their debut album. “I remember when we were recording ‘A Certain Romance’ and having a conversation with the producer about the final guitar solo,” he says. “There’s something that happens at the end of that track where we break some rules in a single moment. We focused on the [emotional] effect of the instrumentals over the words – and I feel like we’ve been trying to do that again and again since then.”

Are you still proud of that song?

“Yeah,” he replies immediately. “If anything, for the fact that [‘A Certain Romance’] showed that we did actually have these ambitions beyond what we once thought we were capable of. Back then, we would struggle with the idea of adding anything more to the songs; but here, there’s some guitar that goes high, and then comes back in.”

“‘A Certain Romance’ showed ambition beyond what we thought we were capable of” – Alex Turner

Across the table, he begins to play the air guitar, gleefully wriggling around in his seat. For a moment, it’s as though Turner appears spookily untouched by time: eyes bright, wide, and inquisitive; a flash of youthful, riotous joy writ large across his face. He continues: “When we recorded [‘A Certain Romance’] we were all like, ‘Woah, woah, woah…” He raises his hands above his head once more. “‘What have we done here?’ Pushing the music that far out from what we’d done before initially felt contentious, to say the least.’”

Turner looks happy, calm and content, and he should be – he’s still goofing around on the world’s biggest stages, still making music with his childhood best friends, and caring less about critical reception and more about enjoying himself. ‘The Car’ may see Arctic Monkeys traverse a far greater distance from their zippy indie beginnings than ever before, but there are no regrets, Turner says, before trailing off into another warm anecdote from the time the band spent at Butley Priory.

Arctic Monkeys
Credit: Zackery Michael

“The excitement and energy of everybody being together, sharing ideas in the same room, was quite powerful,” Turner says, briefly moving his gaze to the table below. “I noticed that, for instance, when I think about how it felt saying goodbye at the end of that session…” He catches himself, and looks faintly misty-eyed – though he’d never let us see that properly.

Turner turns to face us once more. “It’s just… you know, the air totally changes when the rest of the band leave. I don’t quite know what to call it, but I do know that being around them is how to get that magic – and I haven’t ever found it anywhere else,” he says, with a knowing smile.

‘The Car’ is out now via Domino Records

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