Alex David Turner is a tricky character to decode. A songwriting genius? Yes. A rock’n’roll cliché? Maybe. In a milestone year for the Arctic Monkeys frontman – the new Last Shadow Puppets album is finally here – Matt Wilkinson makes sense of a true musical enigma
December 2003. Alex Turner, aged 17 and set free in London, thought his world had peaked for ever. Staying overnight in a £30 Golders Green B&B (no running water – but who really needs that?) and flanked by his best friends Matt Helders and Andy Nicholson, the part-time barman from Sheffield surveyed the capital’s grandest music venue, Alexandra Palace. The Strokes, at the height of their career, were playing onstage and a starstruck Alex had just met his idols, Libertines frontmen Pete Doherty and Carl Barât, who were also in the crowd.
Talking to NME in 2011, Turner was still fondly recalling the “little adventure” they’d all had that night. “As much as they probably hate hearing this,” he gushed about The Strokes, “they were the band that encouraged me to rip the knees of
my jeans and write on them in marker pen. I wrote on them in red ink: ‘I’ve got soul and I’m superbad!’”
Exactly two years after that gig – to the week, no less – and the tables had turned for all concerned. This time, it was The Strokes who were left open-mouthed after witnessing a hyped new band called Arctic Monkeys play 25 minutes of the most mesmerising, precision-perfect Buzzcocks-esque punk since two Johnnys (Ramone and Rotten) had invented it three decades earlier. Having already displaced Doherty as the UK’s premier songwriter, Turner (with Nicholson, Helders and fellow like-minded soul Jamie Cook in tow) was about to go global.
And there he’s remained. His art has been praised by millions, from bona fide legends (Bowie: “A delight”), to rap royalty (Diddy: “The Arctic Monkeys are so cool!”), to politicians (Gordon Brown, although the less said about that the better) to poets (Simon Armitage: “God bless him”). And, let’s face it, probably by you too.
But just what is it that makes Alex Turner tick? Over the past five years I’ve interviewed him countless times, watching him develop and evolve from a doe-eyed Yorkshire lad who appeared fully-formed, like the kid from Kes armed with Morrissey’s lyrical lookbook and Noel Gallagher’s knack for a chorus. In January this year he turned 30. A few weeks later marked the 10th anniversary of Arctic Monkeys’ life-changing, multi-platinum debut album ‘Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not’. This week, ‘Everything You’ve Come To Expect’, the second LP by him and his friend Miles Kane’s side-project The Last Shadow Puppets, is released. Already, he’s lived several lifetimes, zig-zagging all over the world and morphing into a true rock’n’roll kingpin: all hairdos, gold records, LA lifestyle and A-list hook-ups.
But not everything has run smoothly recently. First there was the furore surrounding the Monkeys when they were reported to have invested in the Liberty tax avoidance scheme in 2014. The Guardian ran a piece entitled ‘Arctic Monkeys: from men of the people to tax-dodgers’, prompting a statement on Arcticmonkeys.com the following month, which called the allegations “misleading”, and added that the band had done nothing wrong legally and stood to gain nothing unjustly from any of their tax-related affairs. Despite it, vast numbers of fans and critics laid into them. Even now, two years later, those same accusatory comments still routinely appear on Twitter.
Then, last month, Kane’s massively ill-judged and oversexed comments to a female journalist from Spin in a Last Shadow Puppets interview caused similar ructions (“Do you want to go upstairs?” he asked the writer at the awkward chat’s conclusion, a remark that later prompted a letter of apology – subsequently published online – from the singer). Both leave stains on an otherwise gleaming CV for Turner.
It’s a far cry from the boy who, in his first cover interview in October 2005, told NME: “I like to think I walk the tightrope between Mike Skinner and Jarvis Cocker.” A bold statement, but also one that, cleverly, he knew couldn’t last. Just like Cocker jumping ship ahead of Britpop’s spectacular death in 1997, Turner was astute enough even as a 19-year-old to realise that if he was to survive the inevitable backlash against Arctic Monkeys’ phenomenal rise, there was no way he could carry on writing the same old songs as before: brilliant, life-affirming, common people songs about watching shit bands play the Sheffield venue he bartended at (‘Fake Tales Of San Francisco’); about weird encounters with scummy men outside Arctic Monkeys’ Neepsend rehearsal space (‘When The Sun Goes Down’); and about being skint and desperately in need of the latest Reeboks (‘A Certain Romance’).
Talking to him years after the initial Beatlemania-style hype had died down, Turner told me he was “absolutely petrified” at all the bullsh*t levelled at him. But you’d never have known that at the time. Remarkably, within just six months of that first cover interview, he was already bullish enough to publicly denounce his former self by saying that Arctic Monkeys’ 2006 stopgap single ‘Leave Before The Lights Come On’ – released just a year after their ‘Five Minutes With…’ debut – was, effectively, his way of saying goodbye to the Alex Turner the entire country had fallen hard for. “It’s the last song I wrote about going out and that,” he explained, closing the chapter on that part of his world for ever. “My life’s not really like that guy any more.”
Since then he’s shed his skin numerous times. Every single song Turner has written post the band’s second album ‘Favourite Worst Nightmare’ is more mature, technicolor and weird than the material he came up with as a fresh-faced teen, and with every new batch he releases he seems to travel further from his Sheffield starting point.
“How important is it to be looking over your shoulder?” he asked in the press release accompanying ‘Everything You’ve Come To Expect’. “Is it not more exciting, rather than trying to hold on to something – or to someone’s perception of something – to let that go and explore what’s in front of you?”
This is the crux of Alex Turner in 2016. It’s the reason why, while the entire British press was busy anointing him the new Noel Gallagher back in 2005, he dropped all pretence of being Britpop 2.0’s golden boy and ran off into the Californian desert with Queens Of The Stone Age leader Josh Homme as soon as he could (the two bands first toured together in 2007, with Homme telling NME, “They’re tight little springy f***ers, alright,” stageside in Texas one night. Since then the American has become a Jedi knight figure for the band, and particularly Turner).
It’s also why, when the resulting Homme-produced deeply psychedelic album ‘Humbug’ (2009) freaked so many Monkeys fans out, Turner was able to act shrewdly, flip-reversing once again and handing over a beatific, New York-based collection of tightly-wound tracks on ‘Suck It And See’ (2011) that obsessed about his then-girlfriend – model and TV presenter Alexa Chung – before fully ensconcing himself in the all-out sleaze-fest that is after-hours Hollywood for Arctic Monkeys’ mesmerising, world-beating 2013 record ‘AM’.
Alex Turner is always moving, and always working. It’s this sense of never looking back that explains why the Monkeys barely play any material from their first two albums live these days, too. “Whatever it took to write and play them songs when we used to isn’t there now,” he told me frankly about the band’s Sheffield output in 2011. “It sort of feels like we’re doing covers of other songs [when attempting to play the early material]. But we can’t do a cover of ‘Fake Tales Of San Francisco’…”
He was sat on the Monkeys’ tour bus midway through the band’s ‘Suck It And See’ tour during that conversation, just as they were beginning to make serious headway in America. Turner, newly bequiffed after he got his “shaggy Beatles bob” chopped on a whim in Austin, Texas, a few weeks before (“First time I’ve ever had a haircut. It’s just fun, innit?! One of those things where you’re like, ‘You may as well…’”), looked every inch the rock star: beautiful leather jacket, regulation aviator shades, Strummer-esque Levi’s turn-ups, bovver-boy boots, rings and chains galore. He fidgeted continuously, rolling a couple of dice around a small table for half an hour while slowly pondering – without ever really being able to find the answer – how it had all gone right for him.
This is the Turner way in interviews. Considered, delicate, quiet and ever careful. When paired with his bandmates, he’ll almost always wait until they’ve said their piece before piping up with some wisecrack at the end. He winces if you quiz him on anything remotely deep – his lyrics, for example – in the presence of anybody else (“Don’t do this to me, Matthew, not in front of me friends!”), but when you get him on his own, he opens up brilliantly, revealing a natural flow for conversation that’s every bit as flowery and fast-paced as his way with words is on record.
“I told you I had a dart board, right?” he said once, as if he was letting you in on a huge secret while explaining about the songwriting process for ‘AM’. And in a way, for Turner, even something as mundane as playing darts in his apartment ended up being a signifier, an inspiration for his most out-there collection of songs yet. “I’d go out and throw darts, and there’s definitely some symmetry between trying to nail the way a lyric wanders through and where the dart actually goes on the board. It was weird. Sometimes, when I was winning, when I was getting treble 20, I was getting further inside a song, getting there. You sort of have a little smirk to yourself…”
He’s a dreamer and he has been forever – regardless of where he’s based. This is perhaps what’s instigated the biggest change in Turner’s personality the older he’s become. The more he’s let it seep into his songs, changing the rapid-fire rollout of snotty early tracks like ‘The View From The Afternoon’ and ‘Teddy Picker’ into his more free-flowing, salacious output of late (‘No 1 Party Anthem’, ‘Miracle Aligner’), the more he’s grown into his role as a writer.
“You genuinely can’t predict what might happen next with Arctic Monkeys,” the band’s manager Ian McAndrew told international and analysis platform Music Business Worldwide in 2015. “But whatever they do, you never lose faith, particularly in Alex as a writer. His skills, his lyricism especially, have been growing all the time. He’s a special songwriter.”
And a relentless one. Last year he spent his first serious time off since Arctic Monkeys formed writing and recording ‘Everything You’ve Come To Expect’, a couple of songs for LA friends Mini Mansions and, reportedly, an entire secret album for the sultry, Lana Del Rey-esque US newcomer Alexandra Savior.
Mirror that with 2008 and 2010, when the other Arctic Monkeys members all took substantial downtime between albums. Turner, on the contrary, kept on going – first releasing and touring the debut Last Shadow Puppets album and then recording the soundtrack for Richard Ayoade’s film Submarine. To date, he’s had almost 150 songs published since 2005, including the two LSP albums, which is substantially closer to the number held by Lennon & McCartney in their Beatles prime (180 collectively) than Noel Gallagher (88) or Radiohead (96) ever managed in their first decade.
As 2016 dawned and Turner hit 30, he didn’t gush about the 10-year anniversary of ‘Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not’. Instead, his record company Domino used the anniversary week to announce the release of ‘Everything You’ve
Come To Expect’.
Recorded at Rick Rubin’s plush Shangri La studios in Malibu over the final months of 2015, this obscene level of scenic change from what Turner once was when he started out might horrify some bands, not to mention fans. They use Bob Dylan’s old tour bus there as the mixing room, incense sticks burn constantly and you can smell the Pacific Ocean through the warm, serene garden breeze.
But the enduring and most important thing about Turner as he matures – and he’s still the UK’s most intriguing, inspirational mainstream songwriter by a country mile – is that this is exactly what he’s always been about: never stopping, constantly looking and forever remaining utterly steadfast in his desire to not rest on his former glories.
“Writing songs for me is like waiting for deliveries,” he once said when I asked him where it all came from. “There’s always that thing… maybe it will just disappear? I could go and do gardening or something.” He tailed off, before quietly returning to the conversation. “To tell you the truth, I don’t have time to really worry about it.”