Here is my interview with Arctic Monkeys. Their new album is out now.
After Arctic Monkeys made a major splash in England with the exciting 2006 debut disc Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, some people on this side of the pond viewed the band’s rapid ascent with skepticism.
Rock history is littered with “next big things” that failed to translate to a worldwide audience. The young Sheffield lads entered the U.K. charts at No. 1 (selling more album copies in Week 1 than anyone since Oasis), notched back to back singles in the pole position and won multiple awards simply because they delivered the goods.
While America didn’t go as crazy, it did take a shine to chief songwriter Alex Turner’s knack for authentic vignettes and the group’s raucous tunes inspired by The Strokes and Libertines. The album landed in the top 30 here, accompanied by a top 10 modern rock radio single.
Later, Arctic Monkeys performed on “Saturday Night Live” and wowed crowds at big festivals like Coachella in Southern California. Favourite Worst Nightmare did even better, launching at No. 7 on the Billboard 200 in 2007.
Eclectic new studio release Humbug was co-produced by Queens of the Stone Age leader Josh Homme and James Ford (Nightmare, Simian Mobile Disco, Klaxons). It finds the foursome straddling the line between heavier grooves (first single “Crying Lightning,” “My Propeller”) and glorious ballads (“The Jeweller’s Hands,” “Secret Door”).
Fans who are gamers will be pleased to discover that “Brianstorm,” from Nightmare, is included on Guitar Hero 5. Meanwhile, the group's touring lineup will be augmented by Humbug keyboardist John Ashton.
Singer/guitarist Turner and drummer Matt Helders gave us the current lowdown on Arctic Monkeys in a recent phone interview before playing at the All Points West Festival in New Jersey. Soon after, Humbug became their third consecutive No. 1 debut in the UK - outselling the rest of the top 5 combined.
Alex, you just moved to Brooklyn to be with your girlfriend, MTV host Alexa Chung. How do you like it?
Alex Turner: It’s growing on me.
The other guys in the band are still based in England. Has that distance affected your working relationship?
AT: The transitional period was when I did some recording [separately] in Brooklyn and it all worked out alright.
How did the band hook up with Josh Homme for the new album?
AT: [mock seriously] I met him in Belgium once on a magic carpet. Then we played with his band in Houston in 2007. We conspired amongst ourselves to work with him in a studio in a producer’s role and sort of forgot about it and started writing tunes. The idea was [facilitated] by Laurence Bell, who runs our U.K. label, Domino Records.
Matt Helders: After we met him a couple times, we all got on quite well. We knew he was a fan and we were big fans of his.
AT: [Lead guitarist] Jamie [Cook] and I used to play guitars in his bedroom and would listen to [QOTSA’s] Songs for the Deaf with the volume on ‘11.’
Homme’s studio is located in Joshua Tree, Calif. Being from rainy Sheffield, did it take awhile for the band to acclimate to the dry desert climate?
AT: We were fine. When we were there in September . It was quite hot, but in December, it actually gets quite chilly at night. We had fires going and everything.
MH: It was a different experience from anywhere we’d been before. It was an amazing place. We had such a good time there.
Was there a consensus on how you wanted the new music to sound?
AT: We had been enjoying playing more riff-led rock elements, rather than song-led stuff on previous tours. In the beginning, there was a feeling that the new record would be heavier. But as time went along, we didn’t want to make it all one dimensional. It seemed like the challenge would be approaching pop songs too.
You’d been listening to acts like Cream and Jimi Hendrix while making Humbug. Did that have an affect on the beefier songs like “Pretty Visitors” and “Potion Approaching?”
AT: I think so, yeah. You gravitate toward Hendrix when you pick up a guitar, almost automatically. Whilst recording, we delved into areas of Hendrix’s records that were not properly appreciated before. I think as you get older, you appreciate him more. We got into Band of Gypsies, which I’d never really heard until last year.
Alison Mosshart from The Kills and The Dead Weather provides backing vocals on “Fire and the Thud.” I know you’re label mates in England. Is that how her appearance came about?
AT: Yeah. Laurence introduced me to her and we got along well. Originally, I wanted to write a song for her. We did another version [of “Fire”] with Josh out in the desert. It was recorded at the end of 2007 and she sings the whole tune. But there was something about “Fire” that made me want to claim it back. It was quite a personal song. Maybe I didn’t have the balls to do it before, so I tried to get someone in to sing it. I’d love to do something with her again in the future.
Alex, on a few Humbug tracks, you sing in that crooner-type style first adopted on your 2008 solo project Last Shadow Puppets with Ford and Miles Kane. The luxurious “Cornerstone,” where you describe traveling to various bars to locate an old girlfriend, is definitely a stand out. What was the inspiration for that one?
AT: I wanted to write a traditional pop tune and get away with it – and try to avoid the cheese…I was introduced to James [Skelly], the singer of The Coral on a tour we did with them a couple years ago and his lyrical style was quite humorous. There will be some tunes he’ll do on acoustic guitar, but it’s super crafted and concise. Maybe that led me to a tune like that.
Do all those places mentioned in the lyrics actually exist?
AT: No. Maybe somewhere. A friend of mine grew up in a bar and asked the owners’ permission, very kindly, if he could call it The Rusty Hook though.
Matt, I noticed you seem to be singing more backing vocals this time around.
MH: Me and [bassist] Nick [O’Malley] did quite a bit of singing, yeah. There’s a lot more harmonies, which is something Josh was into.
After the major success of your debut album in England, were you surprised at how well it did right out of the gate?
AT: We were. I think people were certainly drawn into in lyrically. We just had a certain knack and everything was neatly tied up. Our angle on it was unique.
MH: You can never really anticipate something like that. It’s always a nice surprise.
How did it feel to break Oasis’ Definitely Maybe sales record? I know a few of you grew up listening to them.
MH: You can’t deny that it’s an amazing thing, but we never let it get to us too much. It’s not the most important thing in the world.
There have been some intriguing covers of your biggest hit, “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor” in the last few years. One that comes to mind is Tom Jones’ live version on the world televised broadcast of The Concert for Diana in 2007. What is your immediate impression after hearing a remake like that?
AT: Actually, my favorite cover is “Only Ones Who Know” [off Nightmare] by [1970s English pop standards vocalist] Tony Christie. I preferred it to the original. We haven’t been covered too many times. He did an album produced by Richard Hawley where Tony recorded songs by people from Sheffield. And I was asked if I minded being included. There’s a string section on it and it’s perfect. We’d never played the song live before, but because of that version, it prompted us to play it at live shows lately.
Upcoming tour dates
9/19 Seattle, WA…Showbox
9/22 Salt Lake City, UT…In the Venue
9/23 Denver, CO…Ogden Theatre
9/25 Minneapolis, MI…First Avenue
9/26 Milwaukee, WI…Rave Eagles Club
9/28 Columbus, OH…Newport Music Hall
9/30 Philadelphia, PA…Electric Factory
10/2 New Orleans, LA…House of Blues
10/3 Houston, TX… House of Blues
10/4 Austin, TX… Austin City Limits Festival
10/5 Dallas, TX…Palladium Ballroom