The Big Read – Arctic Monkeys: “Science fiction allows you to explore the real world”

Arctic Monkeys are back – but wait… with a piano? And sci-fi themes? And, gulp, no riffs? Kevin EG Perry meets Alex Turner at the iconic Hollywood Forever Cemetery to talk about ‘Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino’, the album that’s set to delight, confuse and cement his genius forever.

What do you mean, you’ve never seen ‘Blade Runner’?

Alex Turner lives for moments like this. The strangled incredulity in the voices of those who simply refuse to believe that in this age of instant on-demand entertainment he’s never sat down to watch Harrison Ford hunt replicants. He loves it so much he wrote the line into ‘Star Treatment’, the opening track of the Arctic Monkeys’ sixth album ‘Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino’.

“When it’s at it’s absolute best, that scenario,” he says, with pure glee in his eyes, “And I’ve only seen this happen a couple of times, but it goes beyond: ‘What do you mean you’ve never seen ‘Blade Runner’?’ and gets to: ‘Oh my God, I envy you!’”

The memory of this makes him throw back his head and laugh, the sound echoing around the Masonic Lodge in Los Angeles’ Hollywood Forever Cemetery where in a few hours the band will play out on the lawn. He’s wearing a tan safari suit, a pair of yellow-tinted shades and a white shirt open so low you wonder why they even bothered putting buttons on it in the first place.

“I fucking love that shit,” he says, composing himself. “When it goes there, that’s like a fuckin’ slam dunk. ‘Oh I envy you!’ People are so involved in that stuff, aren’t they?”

Arctic Monkeys NME
Photo credit: Zackery Michael

It’s rare to see Turner this unguarded. Usually the 32-year-old talks like he writes: slowly, marshalling his thoughts in long pauses and choosing every syllable precisely. Yet back at the start of 2016, he found himself at a complete loss for words. He had no idea how to follow the multi-platinum international success of 2013’s ‘AM’. He was rattling around his home in Los Angeles, with his model girlfriend Taylor Bagley and their dog Scooter, not watching Blade Runner. Instead he was watching Fellini’s 1963 meta masterpiece 8 1/2?.

If you want to understand how Turner arrived at ‘Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino’, 8 1/2? is the key to unlock it. It’s a film about a director with writer’s block, struggling to make a science-fiction movie – a towering spaceship set is under construction – but all the while being haunted by flashbacks of his youth.

“I’m not sure if ‘haunted’ is exactly the right word,” suggests Turner. There he goes again, always interrogating language. “It seems inherently negative and I don’t think it has to be, but yeah, things from his past are coming in and out, and it’s writing about writing.”

8 1/2? showed Turner a way forward. It combined a lot of the things he was struggling to talk about: his own writer’s block, the memories of his youth, and the science-fiction vocabulary which would allow him to explore it all without leaving himself too exposed.

So he went down to the old spare room, which he would later start referring to as the ‘lunar surface’, and which now contained a Steinway Vertegrand piano that the band’s manager Ian McAndrew had given him for his 30th birthday. Sitting down at the piano, he experienced his own Fellini-esque flashback. He tumbled back through time to before the house in LA, before headlining Glastonbury twice and the millions in the bank, back before even the electric excitement of that first album, to little eight-year-old Alex learning to play the piano with his dad, David.

Arctic Monkeys NME
Photo credit: Zackery Michael

“There’s something about the stuff I wrote on piano that definitely reminds me of the types of thing he would play, and still does even now,” he says. “There’s this bit in ‘One Point Perspective’, the sort of jazzy bit of that, that every time it comes around, when I sit there, it feels like something he would play. That’s the thing I’ve been playing whenever I’ve sat on a piano stool since I was a kid, but I never thought it would find its way into my compositions as much as it has on this record.”

As he sat there, playing his dad’s old chords, he experienced another flashback, to a now-teenage Alex in his parents’ garage writing ‘Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not’. There is only one time in our conversation when Turner doesn’t pause or hesitate to answer, and it’s when I ask whether he thinks this record is lyrically the closest thing he’s ever written to their first.

“Absolutely I do, absolutely,” he cuts in. “I can’t put my finger on exactly why I think that, but I have been saying it a lot recently. It’s set in a completely different place, obviously, but there’s something in the lyrics that reminds me of something in that writing. I’m tempted to say that it’s something to do with how blunt it is. I think that was something I was trying to get away from, and perhaps I’ve returned to it now.”

So it makes sense that the album opens with one of the bluntest lines he’s ever written: “I just wanted to be one of the Strokes, now look at the mess you made me make.” He has found himself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful girlfriend, and he asks himself – how did I get here? “The first thing that line does is make me think about then and how much time seems to have suddenly passed,” he says. “I expected to change it, but by the time I got back around to it it seemed like it was exactly where it needed to be, and I was obviously attracted to how blunt it was.”

The album is littered with lyrics just as frank and direct as that one. On ‘Science Fiction’, he sings about his own creative process: “I want to make a simple point about peace and love but in a sexy way where it’s not obvious… So I tried to write a song to make you blush, but I’ve a feeling that the whole thing may well just end up too clever for its own good, the way some science fiction does.” If it wasn’t for the trappings of the fictional lunar hotel that he set about constructing around himself, this could have been a purely confessional, autobiographical record.

Arctic Monkeys NME
Photo credit: Zackery Michael

“And you could say because of those trappings, it’s allowed to be,” he suggests. Then he laughs to himself at what he’s just given away. “I just walked right into that one didn’t I? I think the way into that was that I became interested in the idea that these worlds are created in science fiction stories that allow you to explore things that are rooted in this world.”

Things he would have found hard to explore without that device?

“Almost impossible,” he agrees.

One of those subjects is his own personal failings, a topic he keeps prodding like a wound that won’t heal. He sings about: “Things that I just cannot explain to you and those that I hope I don’t ever have to”, and the album closes with the line: “I’ve done some things that I shouldn’t have done. But I haven’t stopped loving you once.” Rather than writing more songs about love and lust, did he find himself drawn to writing songs of regret?

“Oh, you devil!” he laughs at this line of questioning. Understandably, he’s not going to be drawn on the specifics, but he did think it was time to stop singing about love. “I think ‘Sweet Dreams, TN’ from the [Last Shadow] Puppets album seemed like the place to leave that, for the time being,” he says. “All that is, is a love letter, I don’t know how much more detail you could go into. Also, it was suggested to me by a friend: ‘What about not doing that for a moment’. I think I was arriving at that place myself anyway.”

As well as allowing him to be more introspective, the science fiction setting also gave Turner space to write about modern life. One of the album’s best tracks, ‘Four Out Of Five’, concerns a taqueria on the roof of the titular lunar hotel complex with the unlikely name: ‘The Information-Action Ratio’. It’s a phrase Turner lifted from Neil Postman’s 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death, which also heavily influenced Father John Misty’s ‘Total Entertainment Forever’ on last year’s ‘Pure Comedy’. Turner says the phrase ended up as the name of the taqueria by happy accident. It just so happened that the words came in on the backing vocals he recorded with drummer Matt Helders just as the lyrics mentioned the taqueria.

Arctic Monkeys
Photo credit: Zackery Michael

“The implication of course is that that’s the name of the thing,” he explains. “But what a wonderful name for a taqueria on the roof of a lunar hotel complex! But you’re more interested, I think, in why that phrase leapt out at me. I think one of the things I liked about that phrase is that you sort of know exactly what it is right away.”

The Information-Action Ratio is Postman’s prescient analysis of the way that a tidal wave of information and entertainment renders all of us on the receiving end utterly helpless as to how to decipher which of it is useful or useless. In other words, you’re not alone if you feel overwhelmed by 24-hour rolling news coverage, Twitter feeds and the constant, pinging updates on your phone.

“Exactly,” he says. “And phonetically it’s quite alluring, I think.”

Once Turner had corralled all these disparate ideas into ‘Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino’, he assembled the band – Helders, guitarist Jamie Cook, bassist Nick O’Malley and producer James Ford – and they decamped first to Vox Studios in Los Angeles and then to La Frette, the 19th century mansion-cum-recording studio in northern France where Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds recorded ‘Skeleton Tree’. There, the five were joined by a host of other musicians including their touring keyboard player, Tom Rowley, Tame Impala’s Cameron Avery, Klaxons’ James Righton, Mini Mansions’ Zach Dawes and Tyler Parkford, and drummer Loren Humphrey. They all played together in the same room, inspired by the lush recording sessions for the Beach Boys’ ‘Pet Sounds’ and the idea of Phil Spector’s ‘Wall of Sound’, as heard on Dion’s ‘Born to Be With You’ and Leonard Cohen’s ‘Death of a Ladies’ Man’, some of Turner’s favourite records. “You see those images from those recording sessions and it just looks so exciting,” says Turner. “Primarily I think I love those albums and I wanted my album to be a bit like them.”

Yet when it came to the vocals, they found that it was the lines Turner recorded on his vintage 8-track Tascam 388 in splendid isolation at home that needed to be retained for the record, impossible to better wherever else they tried them.

In a way, that’s fitting. ‘Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino’ is full of songs which sound like they’re being narrated by a reclusive rock star. On ‘One Point Perspective’, he’s dancing at home alone in his underwear, only distracted by the suggestively named “Mr Winter Wonderland” who keeps making him lose his train of thought. Like David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’ and Elton John’s ‘Rocket Man’, these are songs that are ostensibly about space travel but use that as a metaphor to talk about the isolating nature of fame.

Where ‘Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino’ joins the dots is by extending that idea to all of us. These days we’re all isolated, living in our own bubbles overwhelmed and rendered apathetic by the alienating stream of information pouring in on our screens. We seek refuge in frivolity. “Everyone’s on a barge floating down the stream of great TV,” as Turner sings on ‘Star Treatment’. We can have everything we want delivered to us on-demand. “You push the button and we’ll do the rest”, the slogan from a very early 1888 Kodak advert, repurposed for ‘The World’s First Ever Monster Truck Front Flip’, that could also describe every app on whatever device you’re reading these words on. Is Turner telling us that in 2018 we’re all becoming more like reclusive rock stars, sat in our pods with every form of entertainment ever devised available to us at the push of a button, slowly realising that having our desires met instantly may not actually make us happy?

“I find it hard to disagree with anything you’re saying,” he says finally, after another of those lingering pensive pauses. “I can’t resist. I’m trying to think of something that I can say that relates that I didn’t say on the record. Of course, I suppose. Of course.”

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