And here we are, staring into the horizon with the last gang in town. The start of 2022 may already feel like the distant past for most of us, but for Arctic Monkeys, it must seem like another lifetime – and that has less to do with adjusting to post-pandemic life than how they’ve quietly had their biggest-ever year as a band, in spite of it all.
The success of ‘The Car’, the seventh album from the Sheffield four-piece, hammers home the point that they stand as the greatest band of their generation. A triumphant headline slot at Reading & Leeds in August proved that a new, young, fiercely committed audience had come to the fore, and were willing to invest their time and fandom into whatever came next. With drama, depth and unexpected sonic choices, the record that followed was a beacon of subtle, yet defiant experimentalism: ‘The Car’ was the band’s most adventurous album, but also their most open-hearted, striking a perfect balance between subversion and tenderness.
But pretty much everything that defined the band a decade ago – leather jackets, buckets of hair gel, a collective West Coast state of mind – has already changed. Drastically. Such a close relationship between sound and intent is testament to the band’s belief in not just in themselves, but in the idea that they don’t owe anyone anything – an attitude that warranted ‘The Car’ being named as NME’s Album Of The Year. It marks the third time that the band have won the title, after receiving it for their 2006 debut ‘Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not’ and 2013’s ‘AM’, which was also named NME’s Album of the Decade.
“I think, even if it’s been done subconsciously, we’ve definitely always tried to move in a different direction, while still picking up where we left off from the last record,” drummer Matt Helders tells us over Zoom from his house in LA. “Each album has given us the opportunity to do something else. I mean, ‘Humbug’, for example, was a particular turning point for us; we were like, ‘If we can get away with this, we can do anything’.”
We’d certainly be inclined to agree. There is something so rewarding – and dare we say it, magical – about watching one of the biggest bands on the planet continuing to reach new heights almost 20 years into their career. Since its release in October, the band have showcased the record with a Jools Holland special and a run of huge shows across South America, and most importantly, announced their first-ever stadium tour for next summer. The latter is a remarkable achievement, sure, but they’ve earned it: the teamwork on display throughout ‘The Car’ is not just rare, but eternal. From here, they can truly go anywhere.
‘The Car’ has meant so much to people this year. When you wrapped up the recording process, did you know you had made something extra special?
“Yeah, and I think [so] for a few reasons. By the time we finished it, we knew we were doing something a little bit different. We were sitting on the album for over a year before it came out, so we had lived with it for a while. At that time, we were figuring out how we were going to play it live, and that’s when the songs began to take a different path. But the album still feels really fresh and new. There are certain songs that we haven’t attempted to do live yet, and ones that we’ve only done a couple of times, so it’s all still a bit exciting.”
It was also the first Arctic Monkeys album to feature a full orchestra. What was it like letting so many new people into your world?
“Everything that was the band’s responsibility was taken care of in the traditional sense, like we always have done, but then the strings were added separately. It was a different type of recording process, but one that I’ve always been interested in exploring. Recently, we had the opportunity to do these radio sessions with six people from an orchestra in order to try and play some of these new songs live, and I think what we learned is how to be disciplined, and how much to use [the orchestra] in the music. On the record, it comes in and out when it’s appropriate – there’s just the right amount of strings on there.”
Alex has previously talked about how the band would be keen to write a Bond theme one day. Given that ‘The Car’ feels closer to that sound than anything you’ve put out before, have you considered giving it a go?
“I’m sure it’s something we would still be interested in, but I don’t think it’s officially been proposed. However, it is almost like Alex is already writing Bond themes, there just ain’t a film that’s been made and is ready [for his songs] yet! But I would say that he’s definitely got a Bond theme in him.”
How does it feel to have shot the artwork for ‘The Car’ and have your image forever immortalised in Arctic Monkeys history?
“It’s amazing to see this billboard [for the album] at the end of my street and think, ‘Wow, that’s a photo I took.’ It wasn’t something I shot for that album cover necessarily as [the photo] came first before the music, and then went on to inspire some of the lyrics. Alex was really drawn to that image for some reason, so it only made sense that it became the cover for ‘The Car’. It’s been really exciting, and it all still feels a bit surreal; like, I’ve got that picture up in my house, so it’s become something that I see every day.”
What would you consider to be your own Album of the Year? Your friends and future tourmates Fontaines D.C. also ranked highly in our list…
“I was just about to say that [‘Skinty Fia’] is definitely up there for me. We’ve managed to see [Fontaines D.C.] live a few times this year on this little run of dates that we’ve been doing; it’s a great record, and a really fun one to see live.”
You’ve just come off tour in South America. What’s emerged as your favourite track from ‘The Car’ to play live?
“Towards the end of the tour, we started doing ‘Sculptures Of Everything Goes’, which has been really fun. After we finished recording the song, we were like, ‘Well how are we going to play this one live?’. It’s quite a difficult one to pull off, but [the live version] sounds like the song does on the record, which is a really good feeling. We’ve only started introducing it in the last few shows so it’s still quite fresh, but playing it live has honestly been amazing; after we pulled it off for the first time, we all looked at each other to say it went well.”
What other songs from the album are you hoping to add to the setlist at some point?
“We haven’t discussed this yet, but I think ‘Hello You’ could be really fun, and I also think ‘Jet Skis On The Moat’ could have a bit of a moment. The songs we have been doing have been great, too; whenever we play ‘There’d Better Be A Mirrorball’, we’re all pretty happy with ourselves afterwards, as we have to be perfectly in sync with each other throughout it.”
While recording ‘The Car’, you watched Euro 2020 in between sessions. Have you all been keeping up with the World Cup while you’ve been on the road?
“We finished touring on the day of the first England game, so it was great to get back [home] in time for that. We’ve all been texting in a group chat about the games, regardless of wherever we all are. But yeah, we’ve definitely been keeping up with it.”
What else did you get up to on tour? A recent video of Nick playing the drums in Paraguay has surfaced, so maybe he’s trying to steal your crown…
“It seems like everyone wants to play the bloody drums in this band now! Maybe they’re all going to put me into retirement… nah, we really had such a laugh while on tour. It was fun to get back into the swing of what it’s like to be on tour again, given that it’s been a while for us.”
How do you imagine songs from ‘The Car’ will translate to your upcoming stadium shows?
“It’s really hard to tell. Even years ago when we started doing arenas instead of theatres, that was always the question: ‘Is this [album] going to make sense in this bigger place?’. But then you do festivals in between, and you hear people cheering to the song that you really didn’t think was going to go well, which reassures you. We always consider the venues that we’re playing, so it’ll be a setlist that is built for purpose when it comes to those shows. But it’s always fun when you can get away with playing something that’s not your typical ‘anthem’, and you see people really paying attention and losing themselves in the moment.
“But I also don’t think that [playing stadiums] was the goal, necessarily, because we just didn’t expect it to happen. It probably won’t sink in until I’m halfway through the first gig. It’s wild to think that I’ve watched football games in some of these places, and it’s nuts to imagine what it’s going to be like to be on stage in front of so many people every night. It’s a massive leap for us.”
What does it mean to you to have The Hives on tour with you next year? While performing in 2019, Alex once changed the lyrics of ‘Star Treatment’ to “I just wanted to be one of The Hives…”
“Yeah for sure, The Hives were definitely one of the bands that we were all listening to when we first started our band. We’ve played a few shows around the world with them before, and they are always so much fun to watch. It’s always such a good feeling when you’re excited to see the band that’s on before you. And The Mysterines will be on before them too, and they’ll be so good at getting the crowd ready for our show. It’ll be great.”
What’s one moment from the creation of ‘The Car’ that makes you feel proud of the band?
“There’s this thing I experience quite often when we’re playing live where I can remove myself, as if I’m just watching it all happen. It’s like I’m sitting at the back, by myself, just enjoying the gig. We played a festival in Mexico City recently, and I was sitting there thinking, ‘Wow, Al is singing really well, he’s nailed it’. I just had time to enjoy the experience, and I have had a few of those moments with this record – it’s a really special feeling.”
Read NME’s full Album Of The Year list here