Alex Turner: “Making an Arctic Monkeys album is not an easy alchemy”

Arctic Monkeys on their future, their past and working with Josh Homme

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With his band, Alex Turner told me last year, it’s about ups and downs. “It’s peaks and troughs with an A and an M,” he said, stating the typographical facts. Up and down implies a bumpy ride, but for a band who became a phenomenal success so young, Arctic Monkeys have embraced what has followed, rolled with the punches and avoided the pitfalls. There’s been some good management, all agree, and a good record label. The band are also, as labelmate Bill Ryder-Jones says, “sensible lads”, but as he also remarks, “You want there to be more to it than them just being lads from Sheffield…”

Really, though, the grounding and understanding (for which you are encouraged to read “constant pisstaking”) that goes along with that long friendship is not to be over-estimated. “We’ve got more in common than just the band,” says Matt Helders. “After a gig, the band and the gig are probably the last thing we’ll be talking about. One of us will have been thinking of something stupid from when we were younger. Like, ‘Remember when Chris fell off his bike?’ It’s more than just our jobs.”

“It must have simplified things as we were mates before,” says Nick O’Malley. “You hear about frontmen who are divas and they’re not even that successful – so it it’s refreshing that we’re quite successful and Al’s not a nightmare.”

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“They’re all aware of the absurdity of it all,” says Bill Ryder-Jones. “It’s all about drinking Boddingtons and watching Wednesday play with them. That’s a joke – but I’ve never seen any of them eat houmous, ever.”

“They weren’t formed from, like, a ‘bass player wanted’ ad,” says John Cooper Clarke. “They don’t seem to be part of any prevailing youth tribe, any more than The Beatles and The Kinks were, really. I think Arctic Monkeys fall into that. It’s hard-wired into them. They couldn’t follow a trend if they wanted to. You can only piss with the tackle you’ve got.”

This kind of grounding has seen them through 10 years, and looks likely to see Arctic Monkeys into the future. The band have no longterm plans (“It’s foggy out there,” says Turner. “Maybe I’ll go off and make furniture…”), but the examples of David Bowie, Nick Cave and The Stooges are inspirational in how a long career might be interestingly conducted. At Glastonbury last year, the band watched The Rolling Stones. “You hear all these stories, but they looked like they were having an amazing time,” remembers Jamie Cook. “Having a proper buzz. You’ve got to admire that.”

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Rather than up and down, the band’s career since Humbug has been about a movement from side to side. Alex made with James Ford a low-key solo record for the soundtrack to Richard Ayoade’s film Submarine, and the band embraced that simpler, classic British indie-rock sound for their next album, 2011’s Suck It And See, as Nick O’Malley remembers it, also as a response to a resurgence of interest in The Stone Roses and the Pixies.

With their latest album, AM, the band has done something different again. Whether their movements are quite as perverse as they sometimes appear is a different matter.

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“It seems erratic to me,” says Turner, “but I think to most people those shifts don’t register quite as dramatically.”

“There are different vibes to the albums,” says James Ford. “I can see why people would think they were different. But for me, Alex’s writing and voice are so definitive, they can almost do anything at this point and it’ll sound like them.”

In his own modest way, Turner supports James Ford’s view. “With this new one, we were asking, have we gone too far? Does it sound too much like Dr Dre or something? Then you play it to someone and they wouldn’t even pick up on that. But they can tell it’s us…” He looks for the right words. “…as soon as I start waffling on.”

AM bears out precisely what he and Ford are saying. This is a band of such strong identity, they can throw a huge amount at their music and still have it sound like the Arctic Monkeys. Nick O’Malley bluntly recalls the band wanting to avoid “the same old indie bullshit”. If a record that occasionally sounds like Justin Timberlake fronting Black Sabbath and at others like John Lennon can be said to avoid that, then they’ve certainly managed it.

Revelation came to the band in the desert. Working again at Rancho De La Luna, but this time with Sheffield engineer/drummer Ross Orton, the band worked on songs that set the tone for the whole of the album: the heavy-riffing opening tracks “Do I Wanna Know?” and “R U Mine?” (first demoed at Orton’s Sheffield studio). Turner recalls “Do I Wanna Know?” was a particular breakthrough.

“Listening to that, that night in the desert, that was a victorious moment. We were all dancing round. That’s what it’s all about for me.”

“It sounded nothing like anything any of us had been involved with before,” recalls Ross Orton. “We went, ‘Fucking hell, this is right good.’”

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Their victorious trip to the desert behind them, the band returned to LA. Having gone looking for a rehearsal room near their homes, they ended up finding the “B” studio of Sage & Sound, a facility off Sunset Strip that had seen better days; those days being the 1970s. There was, recalls Elvis Costello’s drummer Pete Thomas, who played on the sessions for two weeks, “plenty of wood and hessian”. “It was like something out of Boogie Nights,” remembers James Ford. “There were fake Grecian pillars.”

The decor notwithstanding, the space proved to be pivotal to the band’s new work. Having brought in an engineer from New York to fix technical issues, it became evident that the studio would work just as well for recording the album as for writing and demoing it. Writing to loops, then over-dubbing, they arrived at an eloquent, simple statement of their lives as American residents: a concise heavy rock, providing the sound beds for falsetto R&B-style vocals. It was a risky endeavour.

“It could have been terrible,” says Matt Helders. “It could have sounded like Limp Bizkit.”

“It’s not an easy alchemy,” Alex Turner concedes. “It always seems like on every record we’ve ever made there’s a moment when it all feels like a complete mess, disconnected. James Ford usually talks me down. I know every band since the dawn of time thinks this, but it felt pretty out there when we were doing it.”

“The hooks were very R&B,” says Nick O’Malley, “which is a lot more easily absorbed in America than going on about Sheffield bike clubs or whatever. Alex is the same feller, he’s just not having his weekends in Sheffield any more.”

“You make the kind of music to reflect where you are at the time,” says Ross Orton. “If they’d stayed here in Sheffield, maybe it would have been 10 ‘R U Mine?’s. Which wouldn’t have been a bad thing but it would have been different – a heavier, rockier kind of thing. It wouldn’t have been as slick.”

When Matt Helders injured his hand in the early stages of writing the LP, Attractions drummer Pete Thomas sat in for a few weeks while the band continued working on demos.

“It’s a proper group with a proper style,” says Pete. “It reminded me a bit of us as well, our first few albums – lots of bits. It’s very civilised. They sit around, and it’s like, ‘What do you reckon, then?’ ‘Will I double that on the guitar?’ ‘Let’s have a fucking crack at it, then…’ They got me in to bash away. They work on it, then record it and go and listen. There’s no jiggery-pokery. They go in, get the tea on, work on it and suddenly it’s great. Alex goes off inside his head writing: he’s like Elvis. He’s just pulling it out of the air.”

AM is a spectacular record of where Arctic Monkeys are at now, born out of a contradictory environment: conceived in Sheffield, grown in the desert, born in LA. It’s a swaggering hard-rock record about emotional uncertainty; a series of bold and eloquent statements about personal grey areas. The search for contentedness, Alex Turner decides, isn’t unlike the search for good music. It goes on. “It’s never resolved, is it?” he says. “You’re looking for this thing, but you don’t really know where you’re going to find it. But I have a reverence for that process, that trek. It’s not some bullshit like ‘I want to put beautiful things in the world’. But there is some of that, you know, the way ‘Happiness Is A Warm Gun’ does that to you. I remember hearing The Beach Boys in a car, hearing those harmonies. It gets you down there somewhere.

“That’s what my dad told me about music; it’s about feelings,” Turner says. “There’s a set of rules you can follow. But at the end of the day, you’ve got to feel it in your soul.”

The July 2018 issue of Uncut is now on sale in the UK – with Public Image Ltd on the cover in the UK and Johnny Cash overseas. Elsewhere in the issue, you’ll find exclusive new interviews with Ray Davies, Father John Misty, Pink Floyd, Mazzy Star, Sleaford Mods, Neko Case and many more. Our free CD showcases 15 tracks of this month’s best new music, including Father John Misty, Neko Case, Natalie Prass, Melody’s Echo Chamber, Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever and Jon Hassell.

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