Primates of all England

 

"In Liverpool's Academy, with the sweat oozing down the walls, 2,000 people are on lead vocals. It's not so much audience participation as integration." Brian Boydhangs with the Arctic Monkeys

Alex Turner is 16 and working in a bar in his native Sheffield. The Fall are soon to climb on to the tiny stage to provide their typically discordant racket. But before them, as Turner remembers it, "there was this dead skinny guy with mad hair and drainpipe jeans. He was the support act and his name was John Cooper Clarke".

Clarke did I Wanna Be Yours: "I wanna be your vacuum cleaner, breathing in your dust/I wanna be your Ford Cortina, I will never rust . . . I wanna be your raincoat, for those frequent rainy days/I wanna be your dreamboat when you want to sail away . . . I wanna be your electric meter, I will not run out. . ." From behind the bar Turner was transfixed. "I just thought 'Wow'," he says.

"I had heard I Wanna Be Yoursbefore because an English teacher at school had read it to our class. But after I saw him live, I really got into him. I just love the way he articulates and the little words he uses and the way he delivers. I really got into him. He was a big influence."

A few years later and Turner finds himself compared as a lyricist to Paul Weller, Jarvis Cocker and Morrissey. "When certain other names were mentioned, I had to go out and buy the albums by these people because I had never heard them before," he says. "Remember I am still very young. But when I met Johnny Clarke it was great. Everyone else, including record companies who had tried to sign us, would tell us how shit our name was and how we had to change it, but he just said: 'That's a great name, there are no trees in the arctic, how would the monkeys survive?' He just instantly painted this picture about our name."

Turner, now 21, is sitting in a windowless dressing room backstage at Liverpool's Academy venue. Impossibly skinny, he juggles a bottle of water between hands as he weighs up each and every word he utters, making eye contact only to emphasise a point. He starts a sentence well, but midway seems to get an attack of "who do I think I am?", so frequently thoughts and opinions are reduced to an incoherent mumble. "Rubbish", "bullshit" and "bollocks" flow incontinently as he dismisses the music and media circus that has set up camp around him over the past two years.

He's halfway through a brief UK tour to mark the release of the Monkeys' hugely anticipated second album, Favourite Worst Nightmare, and the five-star, superlative-strewn reviews are just beginning to arrive in.

"You hear people using the word 'phenomenon' about what has happened, but I can't use that word because people will only think I'm right up my own arse," he says. "Yes, I was a bit 'fuckin' hell, what's going on here?' when the first album did so well, but I think this time around I'll be a lot more levelled out about everything. If it was weird first time out, I don't think it'll be doubly weird with this album. In a way, I can't win. If I do the humble thing, I'll get called a wanker. If I do the 'our second album is even better than our first' thing, I'll get called a wanker. What I have learnt is that when I read all these music magazine interviews with the band, they don't really capture who we are. If I was to read an interview with us and then meet us, I think I would be surprised at the difference." Little wonder they called their debut album Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not.

This is possibly because people want more from their new favourite band than Alex Turner, guitarist Jamie Cook, bass player Nick O'Malley and drummer Matt Helders can provide. Talking to all four at the Liverpool Academy, a clear leitmotif soon emerges: it is mental what has happened to us/we don't even try to understand it/we're not music industry wankers/and please don't think that we ever will be.

Their all-consuming diffidence is perhaps best exemplified by Jamie Cook's personal highlight of the last few years. It's not having had the fastest-selling album in British music history (365,000 copies of the debut sold in its first week of release), it's not the Mercury Music Prize, not a bunch of Brit Awards, not the sold-out tours of Japan, Australia and the US, and not having Paul Weller writing about how much he loves them in Mojo magazine. It's something closer to their Sheffield home.

"When I was 15 and 16 I used to go to the Leeds Festival and really love it," says Cook. "And then a few months before the first album came out we played in one of the tent stages at the 2005 festival and it was rammed. That was amazing because Leeds was a festival I went to as a punter. The next year we were headlining on the main stage - but that was a different experience."

Cook, by the way, is the Arctic Monkey who, when the band were being courted by major labels and being brought out to expensive restaurants, always insisted on paying for his own part of the bill. Within the band he's known as the "hardcore" member.

Even the only slight hint of controversy about the band has proved to be a non-starter. Just before the beginning of a US tour last year, the original bass player, Andy Nicholson, told the band he wouldn't be able to do the tour for personal reasons (it was homesickness, apparently). The band drafted in Nick O'Malley from fellow Sheffield band, The Dodgems, and when they returned from the US it was announced that O'Malley was now their full-time bass player. Did Nicholson jump or was he pushed? The fact that he turned up at Alex Turner's 21st birthday party and regularly runs into the band around Sheffield pubs tends to signify that all was amicable.

Even the doesn't-hold-much-water-in-the-first-place semi-slur that the Arctic Monkeys were hyped up by MySpace comes to nothing. "That had absolutely nothing to do with us," says Turner. "That was the big story for a while when we started, that MySpace had broken us and all of that. But we didn't set up that MySpace page - some fans of the band did and they were responsible for all those people being able to download our music for free.

"We were totally happy with that because at our first-ever bunch of gigs in Sheffield, we used to hand out our demo tapes for free. At the bar I used to work at in Sheffield, I was always really pissed off by these bands who would play and then charge three quid or something for their CD after. And that thing of people having our songs for free really helped when we started playing outside Sheffield because the audience would know all the words - even though we hadn't released anything at that stage."

Songs such as I Bet You Look Good. . ., Mardy Bumand When The Sun Goes Downwere peer-to-peered like no other songs had been, and the Arctic Monkeys became the band that record companies used to come and see - not to listen to the band, but to watch their audience and wonder about their electronic word-of-mouth appeal. The band eventually turned down "silly money" to sign with the respected indie label, Domino (also home to Franz Ferdinand).

Tonight in Liverpool's Academy, with the sweat oozing down the walls, 2,000 people are on lead vocals. It's not so much audience participation as integration. Beered-up blokes throw their arms round each others' shoulders and sing along to Mardy Bumas if it were a terrace anthem. This is truly folk music - the type of popular appeal last seen when Oasis were at the peak of their singalong powers.

The songs from the new album - which miraculously don't appear to have been leaked even this close to release date - are treated with a reverential silence.

"If I had to use one word to describe the new album it would be. . . 'bigger'," says Alex Turner. "I don't mean bigger in the sense that there's string sections or anything like that on it, I mean bigger as in fuller. It was produced by James Ford (one half of hip electro remix team, Simian Mobile Disco) and the last thing he worked on before us was The Klaxons.

"He's a clever guy, he listens to lots of music and suggested things we wouldn't normally have gone for. I mean, when we first started playing our record collections weren't that great, but we have picked up on a lot of stuff over the last few years, and I think that shows on this album".

A superior work to their debut, Favourite Worst Nightmareis a less angular affair than its predecessor and at times almost veers into 1980s New York disco/early house music before coming to its indie Sheffield senses.

Standout tracks are many but already Fluorescent Adolescent is being talked about as the next single and all concur that the startling closing track, 505, is, at a push, their How Soon Is Now.

"I'd love to be able to make a record and not have to try to explain it," says Turner. "I can't really explain what the new album is all about. I just can't explain what it is. Honestly, I can't. I know that's not going to make your job any easier, but here's something you can use: you can say that we had a laugh making it. That should be enough, shouldn't it?"

Their favourite best poet

Much of the press surrounding the recent re-release of John Cooper Clarke's Zip Style Methodalbum prioritises the fact that the poet has been name-checked and endorsed by the Arctic Monkeys. While it is unfortunate that Clarke needs some new school credibility to get back into the limelight, it can only be a good thing if a new generation is made aware of punk rock's poet laureate.

A striking figure, Clarke has jet black hair teased into what can only be described as a collapsed bouffant style and he is seldom seen without his trademark sunglasses and drainpipe trousers.

Born in 1949 in Salford, Manchester, Clarke first came to prominence as the support act of choice for many a punk band - including The Sex Pistols and The Buzzcocks. To this day, he is a frequent opening act for The Fall.

His beautifully acerbic urban poetry - delivered in his trademark Mancunian drawl - threw up such wonders as Kung Fu International, I Married A Monster From Outer Spaceand the still magnificent Beasley Street.

He has overcome a debilitating heroin addiction to return to the live circuit. You can catch him in Róisín Dubh, Galway on May 7th and Whelans, Dublin on May 9th.

Listen at www.myspace.com/johncooperclarke