The distance travelled by Arctic Monkeys can be expressed with gestures. When they speak of their debut, 2006’s charismatic, classic Whatever People Say I Am That’s What I’m Not, the band’s members lean forward and clench their shoulders as if on the point of miming that record’s hectic guitar strumming. 2013’s AM, says Alex Turner, making a discreet hand flourish, “is a bit more like this.”
Along the way, their work has taken unexpected turns. In spite of the media frenzy surrounding their first album (then the fastest-selling British debut of all time), the band’s second, Favourite Worst Nightmare, was miraculously not all about the music business. Their third, Humbug, moved their indie rock to another level via a collaboration with Josh Homme from Queens Of The Stone Age. 2011’s Suck It And See turned back inland to British guitar music. Their current set, AM, fully embraces what producer James Ford calls the band’s “love affair with America”.
“They change, they try new things,” says the band’s friend Richard Hawley. “That’s what I like about them: they don’t seem to be scared. Like, ‘Ooh, that was a No 1 album, we’d better stick with that formula.’”
“I’m definitely as frightened as everybody else,” says Alex Turner. “But I think if you try to create something that you think is going to fit radio or whatever, everyone’s going to see straight through that.”
Arctic Monkeys set out on the right foot. When he started to write songs, Turner feels he was “more malleable”, but was encouraged – particularly, he says, by Jamie Cook – to pursue his own vision, and the band have followed it ever since. Before he joined Arctic Monkeys, Nick O’Malley saw one of their earliest gigs. “I remember being jealous,” he remembers. “We expected them to not be very good: they did covers and a couple of their own songs. I remember thinking, ‘Shit, they’re better than us already.’ They’d been working hard.”
Even at this early stage, this was a band who took things seriously. Richard Hawley recalls playing a gig at Sheffield Boardwalk with his dad’s rockabilly band The Hillbilly Cats, and afterwards being quizzed by Turner, then the venue’s barman, on the finer points of the show. O’Malley, who went to school with Turner, remembers he brought a certain artistic seriousness to everything.
“I was in the same media studies class with Matt and Alex, and they had this knack when they worked together of making things that were good. They used to film each other, doing daft things, like Jackass when they were 17. They always knew what they were doing: whether it was bike riding, darts or music – they always had a way of doing it really well.”
In their music, and the business outside it, Arctic Monkeys were fast learners. Alan Smyth, who recorded the band’s first demos, recalls seeing the band again after the first rush of media interest in them in 2005. They said hello outside his studio when they came in to record a B-side. “We shook hands,” Smyth remembers. “They’d clearly shaken a lot of hands since we last met.”
Between their first session in September 2003 to their fifth in November 2004, Smyth watched Arctic Monkeys develop from the high-voltage R’n’B of “Curtains Closed” to the accomplished likes of “Dancing Shoes” and “Fake Tales Of San Francisco”. When he started work with the band, they couldn’t even field a full team. By the time he finished, he was working on songs that would appear on a classic debut album.
“When they came into the studio, Cooky was a tiler, or was training to be one,” Smyth remembers. “He was working ’til the afternoon, so we had to put him on later.”
What Smyth (and eventual album producer Jim Abbiss) recorded were songs that dripped with hyperlocal colour (“Fake Tales…” mentions the Yorkshire town of Rotherham, and uses the derogatory expression “fucking wank”) but painted a picture with a huge reach.
“I think it’s part of a tradition that goes back to the turn of the century,” says John Cooper Clarke. “Alex is a writer of popular songs, and it’s a long and varied tradition. I’d put him in the same line as Ray Davies: they sing about the world they know. It’s not gritty, it’s not folk music. It’s their world, but they make it magical – they make it of interest to someone who doesn’t live there.”
“That first album could have been about any town,” says Nick O’Malley, “could have been about everybody’s weekend. Everyone can say that they feel as though those experiences have happened to them.”
A musician who moved to the US from Mexico, who was born in Chile and raised in Geneva, Humbug engineer Alain Johannes is a good test case for O’Malley’s contention. “I absolutely got it,” says Johannes. “The thrill of it, imagining the nightlife… It’s poetic, but of the street. There’s something about Alex’s delivery: there’s nothing unclear about the intensity of what he’s delivering.”
“It ain’t area specific,” says John Cooper Clarke. “The word ‘Sheffield’ never crops up, and that’s the great thing about it. Salvador Dalí says, ‘By the ultra-local shall you achieve the universal’, and nobody does it better than them.”