Arctic Monkeys get funky on album number five

As Arctic Monkeys make a triumphant return with AM, Alex Turner and Matt Helders reveal how the LA lifestyle and their love of hip-hop has found its way into the fabric of their sound

 

We’ll say one thing for Arctic Monkeys: they’ve certainly come a long way since their first Irish gig at Whelan’s in 2005, when they were spotty of face, baggy of jean and bad of haircut. We’re backstage at Electric Picnic with frontman Alex Turner and drummer Matt Helders, an hour before they eviscerate the crowd with a storming main stage set to close the festival.

Right now, the dapper Turner is perched on a chair in the media area, hands shoved in the pockets of his leather jacket and looking for all the world like he’s channelling a young Elvis in his drainpipe jeans, slip-on shoes and the magnificent Teddy-Boy quiff that he’s been sporting of late.

Yes, you could say that things have changed. The days of the young cheeky chappies who met at Stocksbridge High School in Sheffield are long gone, only to be replaced by lean, mean rock-star machines 11 years after they first formed. But that doesn’t mean that egos are out of control, either; confident and charismatic, Turner happily leads the conversation as the more reserved Helders is content to interject with witty asides along the lines of “I do have a Twitter, but I rarely tweet anything of worth – mostly pictures of Ron Atkinson and Nando’s”.

“Do people really think we were cheeky chappies?” winces a worried-looking Turner. Well, perhaps once they did, but not nowadays. The quartet have been through a number of stylistic changes over the years, both fashion- and music-wise. Their most pronounced transformation was from loveable, droll rogues to purveyors of highoctane indie-rock on third album Humbug, an altogether scuzzier proposition than what had come before. 2011 saw them scale the aggression back slightly with Suck It and See, and their fifth album AM sounds like a natural progression from what has come in the recent past, taking elements of both rip-roaring riffs, irresistible sonic grooves and Turner’s trademark amusingly astute lyrics.

“I do think there’s been a thread to it all,” says the frontman, nodding. “The starting point for this album was this song R U Mine? that we put out about a year ago. There was something quite accidental about that, to be truthful; it was designed to be a single between albums. It felt like we ran out of steam on that last record – we’d been touring it for a year and we had this other tour booked up with The Black Keys in America, and we thought maybe we should just do a new tune to just kind of powder our noses, so to speak. And we stumbled across this thing on that, specifically in the vocal production of it; there was just something going on with the guys doing the backing vocals, and the way the melodies moved around. We thought ‘That’s really something’, and everybody else seemed to agree, so then it became about making an album that can just embellish that tune, really. I think there’s similarities between this and the last record: the foundation is kind of the same, it’s just that the building’s a little bit different on top.”

The album is compelling, and will cement Arctic Monkeys’ reputation as one of the most consistent mainstream indie-rock bands of the last decade. For AM, they decamped to California to record; both Turner and Helders have American girlfriends and much of the band’s time has been spent in Los Angeles over the past few years in any case, soaking up the lifestyle and learning to ride motorbikes. For a band that is, in many ways, quintessentially British and perennially influenced by bands such as The Kinks, The Smiths, The Jam and even Oasis, Stateside living has had an audible effect on their last few albums.

“It probably has, without knowing it – but I think I’m still probably too wrapped up in it to decipher what that actually means. Like, I’ve caught myself saying ‘Well yeah, the grooves on this album are a bit more laid-back’, but then I look at it and think ‘Is that just bullshit?’,” he says, chuckling.

Arctic Monkeys - R U Mine?

Arctic Monkeys - Do I Wanna Know?

“Maybe I’ll look back at it in 20 years or summat, and think ‘Oh yeah, definitely . . . I can hear the fuckin’ palm trees in that one’, but right now, I’m probably too close to see it. But I definitely believe the surroundings, or where you write the record or write the song must seep into it, like it or not.”

There has been a subtle change in Turner’s lyric writing over the last few years, too. Many of his earlier songs were character-based, be it the “scummy man” in When the Sun Goes Down, or the girl who “took a left off Last Laugh Lane” in Fluorescent Adolescent. These days, it seems as though Turner is putting more of himself into his songs, with I Wanna Be Yours and I Want it All two of the most interesting tracks on the new record.

“I suppose, arguably, I’ve been perhaps clearer when it comes to ‘razor-sharp’ themes,” he shrugs. “But is it ever really a diary entry? I don’t think so – not for me, anyway. But y’know, a song often starts with some truth, and you kind of make it interesting. There’s a quote by a much wiser man than I, that said something along the lines of ‘We have art so we don’t die of the truth’.”

“Jamie Cook?” deadpans Helders, referring to the band’s guitarist. “Nah mate, more like Nietzsche, ” replies Turner, smirking through his thick Yorkshire accent.

When it came to the musical aspect of AM, Turner may have joked about its propensity for “grooviness”, but there is no getting away from the fact that most of the album is just that. One for the Road’s slinky tempo is impossible to keep straight-shouldered for, as is the nifty Knee Socks, while I Wanna Be Yours marks the first time that they’ve used a drum machine on a song. The inspiration for those beats and dips came from an unlikely source, the pair explain: it’s not many rock bands who spend their formative days absorbing hip-hop.

“Outkast and Dr Dre and Roots Manuva, ” nods Turner enthusiastically. “Roots Manuva was a huge influence on me writing words, to begin with – that’s what Matt and I particularly were into in school, before we even formed the band. Jamie, the guitar player, was the guy who was into Queens of the Stone Age and stuff; we didn’t really know about that stuff at the time. Hip-hop was always our thing, so that’s definitely an influence on this record – but only certain elements of that sort of music. It’s more the way those tracks are put together, I think – that’s the thing that we’ve borrowed for some of the stuff on this album. But it’s quite subtle, too. It’s just the way that one of those tunes comes on for the first time in your car, the way it knocks. It was like ‘Can we have a bit of that in our drum sound, please?’”

The Queens of the Stone Age reference is pertinent for more than one reason: Josh Homme co-produced the aforementioned Humbug and has stayed in touch with the band ever since. He makes a vocal guest appearance on Knee Socks and One for the Road, repaying the favour of Turner’s turn on the most recent QOTSA album earlier this year. Having a figure such as Homme on your side helps when making an rock album, they both agree.

“He’s a great barometer,” says Helders. “He’s an opinion that we’d all listen to – but he wouldn’t just come in with it unless we invited him down.”

“Yeah, first and foremost he’s a mate now,” nods Turner. “It’s not always about music with us and him anymore. That’s what it was about to start with because we worked together, but we’ve got to know each other now, and it’s friendship. But at the same time, he’s a friend who also happens to be in a shit-hot band that are also trying to do something interesting, of which there are not that many right now. So when it comes to playing your album to someone for the first time, he’s up there on that list for that reason, really.”

Homme accurately described AM as a “cool, sexy, after-midnight album”, but there were also other subtle influences at play. Although Turner recently mentioned Lou Reed’s Transformer album as a mood that they wanted to capture, there weren’t really any direct influences in force.

“In the past, when we’ve been talking about records, I’ve been like ‘Right, I’ve been listening to this, this and this, and that’s why it sounds like this.’ This time, there’s something more original about it, and it’s probably for that reason. Not to toot our own horn massively, here – but R U Mine? was really what started it,” he reiterates. “Whatever was in that was really what we were chasing after. But yeah, things like Transformer did seep in... not so much the sound or anything like that, but the feeling that it evokes in you: it’s a bit fucking kinky, know what I mean? It’s a bit grubby, a bit seedy. In my mind, I hope the record has a bit of that. In other areas, there’s a record by this guy called Michael Chapman called Fully Qualified Survivor that was an influence – again, not quite on the lyrics, but the mood of some of that record, there’s a bit of it on here . . .

“Maybe someone like Leon Russell, too. I suppose loads of stuff. Then on the one hand, you’ve got the five-a-day – Black Sabbath, Stooges etc, and like, Aaliyah and Outkast and that sort of stuff. But it’s not as if you’re sitting down and listening to those records – you already know that shit. It’s like the map that’s in your mind.”

Does that mean that Arctic Monkeys have now come full-circle and are – gasp! – influencing themselves? It’s highly unlikely that they would brazenly admit to such a thing, but you get the feeling that becoming creatively self-sufficient is just another step in the band’s evolution. Now that they have played the huge gigs – headlining Glastonbury (twice), the opening ceremony of the London Olympics, regular sell-out tours in the US, a territory that they have officially “cracked” – what could possibly be next to tick off their list?

“I dunno,” shrugs Turner, rubbing his hands together against the chill of the evening as the Electric Picnic stage beckons. “There’s still a way for us to go in America, I think – definitely live, anyway. I think the ambition now probably lies in us improving as recording artists and pushing that forward into making our records better. And I think what we’ve done with this record is take a big step in that direction.”

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