In 2011 Matt Wilkinson joined Arctic Monkeys on the US ‘Suck It And See’ tour and found himself swept along in the debauchery…
This week, Arctic Monkeys release their sixth album ‘Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino‘. To celebrate, relive the band’s NME interview from 2011 as we head out on the road with them…
“Tequila?” Jamie Cook’s in charge of the bar, while Alex Turner raps his knuckles on his knees a few feet behind him. Sunk into a bruised leather sofa, the bequiffed frontman is a picture of tired contentment as he and his band wait to go onstage at Revolution Live, a venue most recently used as the backdrop for Tom Cruise’s new flick Rock Of Ages.
Arctic Monkeys on tour in America. Sounds good, doesn’t it? Right now, Jamie, Alex, Nick and Matt are 5,713 miles – roughly – into their latest Stateside conquest. By the time you read this, they’ll be hitting the UK arena, but there are another 3,000-odd miles to go as NME hooks up with them in Fort Lauderdale, a 40 minute dash from the rollerblading, G-strung party capital of Miami. Here, though, we count 30-plus rough sleepers sleeping on the road opposite our Hilton affiliated hotel and get hassled by them whenever we step outside it. At one point, we take cover from the torrential rain only to find we’re stood among piles of shit. Fresh, human shit.
The Monkeys have toured America 14 times now, but they’ve never been to Fort Lauderdale. “This is a pretty weird place, innit?” Jamie half-says/half-asks us after the slammers. “Especially for us lot,” Alex reflects. “Being from wherever we’re from. We’re a long way from home, aren’t we?”
Last night, before we met up, they brought ‘Suck It and See’ to Orlando, played the best version yet of their string new B-side ‘Evil Twin’, partied until 3am, went on a roller coaster ride and then got into their bunks and slept bumpily for the five-hour journey south. At one point they even became bona fide rock’n’roll stars. Helders tells us. “It were called The Hollywood Rock Rip Ride or summat, the rollercoaster. And they called everyone who went on it rock stars like, ‘Come on down, rock star number one!’”
Arctic Monkeys travel across this vast Neverland in a plush tourbus, which means watching “a lot of Dual Survival” (Helders) and doing a fair bit of dice rolling (Turner). But things aren’t that plush, in all honesty. There’s no shower, it’s cramped and there’s a toilet that’s the size of a pack of peanuts. A few days prior to our meet, they somehow managed to drive 20 hours straight in the thing, from one gig to another. We ask them if they’ve ever gone road-crazy, but we’re met with stony silence until they each start to eye each other carefully.
Alex: “Go on, say it!”
Jamie: “Well, it’s alright… but you know what’s really annoying? Shit bedding, nylony fucking bedding. You really sweat.”
Matt: “My curtain doesn’t work either. It doesn’t close. I’ve got a TV in my bunk, though, a massive Bush TV down the end. I want Egyptian silk bedding. Goose pillows. I want an en-suite. Sometimes I can’t be bothered to get up to go to the toilet, however much I need a piss. It’s the only reason I sleep on the bottom now, ‘cos I’m more likely to get out! I used to be a top bunk guy but that all changed.”
Alex: “I’ve gone the other way!”
Nick: “There’s no lip, though, to stop you falling out. And I do a lot of rolling, me.”
Matt: “I am slightly concerned that one day, one of us is gonna collapse onto another one. I’ve never heard of it happening to other bands, but it does creak a bit.”
Alex: (to Matt) “I hear you talking…”
Matt: “Sleep talking? Absolutely brilliant!”
To tour is to be bored shitless for 90 per cent of the time, only to find yourself teased senseless by fleeting moments of immeasurable joy and unpredictability. And right now, Arctic Monkeys are loving it. Whether it’s randomly bumping into Robert Plant in Hollywood (Alex proudly shows us his iPhone shot of the two standing back to back, looking like Starsky and a very old, very grizzly Hutch), being accosted by astonished fans outside the venues like Nashville’s 5 Spot where they get to see brilliant newbies like the Alabama Shakes months ahead of anyone in New York or London… there are a million and one possibilities to keep the four-piece hungry.
So, what gets you going about America?
Matt: “24 hour establishments.”
Nick: “Everything’s there is you want it. Everything you could ever want to get your hands on – from music equipment to night out – is all available.”
Jamie: “I probably enjoy touring here now more than I ever do.”
Alex: “Me too.”
Why? Is it a comfortability thing?
Alex: “It’s not a comfortability thing, if that is a word – though, don’t worry, I’ll fucking run with that now – because all that stuff is relative, innit? It’s just… when you’re in the fucking van you don’t really give a fuck. You’re kind of like, ‘I am on tour in a rock’n’roll band’.”
Skip back a few hours, and we’re standing by a different van, this time hired by NME, waiting to photograph the rock’n’roll band. We’ve spent the previous day scouting sites we hope will befit their new-found exuberance, while also tying in with the romanticism of the open road that we’ve been told they’re so thriving on at present. James Dean. Motorbikes. Camel cigs. NASCAR. Dirt. Recklessness. Helders is so into it, he’s kicked everyone else out of the vehicle.
“Are you ready for us then?” comes the shout from the back. “‘Cos I’m wearing me leather trousers!”
This wasn’t in the script but it’s fine by us. They’re the very same kecks he donned in his latest porno, sorry, promo video, for ‘Suck It And See’.
“They got me to wear them for that, and I thought, ‘Fuck, it’s like they were made for me!’ I’ve never put leather trousers on in my life, but I was like ‘yes!’”
So they’re comfy then?
“They’re alright. They’re a bit warm. When we were in the desert filming it were warm, it were like 100 degrees and I couldn’t get ‘em off – I needed to talc. But then Al came out when I was doing the video and he were like ‘whoa, what are they?! They look alright on you!’ I was like ‘I know! Perfect!’”
Of course, believe the British tabloid press right now and you might think Arctic Monkeys are going through some kind of personality catastrophe, a mid (band) life crisis manifested by said leathers, Alex’s aforementioned quiff and his well publicised split from Alexa Chung. The Mirror labeled his ‘do’ “break-up hair” and added that is was a “seriously bad decision”, while The Sun wasted no time in reporting Alexa’s supposed romance with Hurts’ Theo Hutchcraft. Apparently, all of this is ruining Alex and the Monkeys right now. But we’ll call that bullshit actually, and so will they.
“I just think I’ll take a step back from all of that stuff,” Alex says. “It’s nothing, it’s out of my control, and it’s not me. I never went in search of that and I still don’t.” And the barnet? “It’s the first time I’ve had a haircut,” he shrugs. And the first time you’ve done all the moves onstage too. You must be having a breakdown. “Oh, this? [Strikes the same Elvis pose he did when the band plated Jay Leno’s talk show recently] That was a hangover. That were a giddy hangover. You’ll get plenty of that tonight… but you wouldn’t normally get that on the telly. Maybe I’ve been liberated by the haircut?”
Were you aware that it made the papers back home? “I didn’t think anyone gave a fuck about it anymore. God knows I’ve looked rough for long enough. Oh, do you know what, someone maybe did tell me – it was probably me grandad, that was probably how he found out I had my haircut. It’s just fun, innit? It’s one of those things where you’re like, ‘You may as well…’ I did it because he’d [Helders] had his hair cut like Joe Strummer and he’d [Cookie] had his hair cut like a fighter pilot from WWII. So I just wanted to be back in their gang.”
Jamie: “I mean, I looked like a wizard for a while. That’s definitely more weird than our haircuts at the moment. But people accepted that a lot more.”
Alex: “Sonically, your beard was all over everything [on ‘Suck It And See’]. And then you just had to let it go.
Jamie: “Aye, I don’t think it could have toured.”
Back at the venue an hour-and-a-half later and there are upwards of 100 fans outside. It’s still over five hours until showtime, and NME is inexplicably mobbed in Beatles-esque scenes by loads of them, desperate to know what their idols are like in person, as well as handing over handwritten letters in the hope we can pass this on. First off, the feeling this gives you is brilliant. Second, we wouldn’t want it all the time. We ask 15-year-old Galo why he’s here so early. “Because they’ve changed my life! I used to listen to really bad music and then I found them, and they led me to other bands that were, like, really good.” The kid stops and stares us out. “They changed me!” Later on, Alex sticks the letter in his jean pocket, and says he’ll read it, like it’s the most normal thing in the world.
The frontman’s not nervous, he tells us, doing that he never is these days. The gig, sold out, is pretty pulverising. It’s hands-down the best time we’ve ever seen the band live. The best setlist. The best and coolest draping of a stray stage bound bra on a singer’s mic stand since Rod Stewart himself, perhaps. And definitely the best stage moves. Alex is blossoming as a frontman, way more animated than before. His bandmates, too, are sturdy and shit-hot behind him.
Afterwards, the tiny dressing room sways to Nick’s iPhone. During ‘Brown Sugar’, Jamie hands us a cocktail called La Paloma (tequila, grapefruit, soda) – Queens of the Stone Age and the Monkeys’ tipple of choice. And then things for really weird.
A guy Alex met lounging by a swimming pool a few lifetimes ago bounds in with an entourage of impressively hip, buff and, uh, super-hot friends, and tries to whisk everyone back to his place. He’s not taking no for an answer, and initially it takes some convincing… but the blacked out stretch limo he has waiting outside the venue – complete with champagne glasses and chauffeur – seems to do the trick. It reminds us of a conversation earlier, where Helders has said America was a rollercoaster ride. “It’s that thing where one thing leads to another here.”
This is one of those things. We pull up to the guy’s house (in a taxi – the Monkeys got the limo) with tour support Smith Westerns. The place is jaw-droppingly impressive. There are boats, fountains, chandeliers, stone fires, tiny togs with pricky ears, gold discs of John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’, signed Elvis memorabilia, a karaoke room (complete with drum kit, cinema screen and a bar), another bae downstairs stocked with what appears to be the Groucho Club’s entire drinks cache and – impressively – a panic room. Best of all, though? Our host’s granddad invented the ice cream cone. We are therefore partying at King Cone’s pad.
As the night goes on, the house starts to resemble the midpoint in a rock triangle encompassing a Freddie Mercury party, Almost Famous and the place where Charles Manson’s lot did over Sharon Tate. With the rest of the Monkeys long gone (bus call was at 2am), Alex surveys the situation. Fresh from dragging NME into one of the pools in the garden, he turns to us. “This is well mental, like. Even for us, this is off the scale. Have you got a drink?”
We leave him there at precisely 7:32am, a massive smirk on his face. He’s still honing his dance moves, doing ‘pull the rope’ with NME before bundling us to the group in an act of pure drunken brilliance. He looks fucking happy. In a few hours’ time he’ll get up, grab a last-minute flight to a new city and hook up with his best friends to play another show. And when he does, it’s not difficult to imagine Cookie standing there, armed with a grin and another shot of tequila…