ABOVE: ARCTIC MONKEYS
The Arctic Monkeys have long been an embodiment of the Siren-like allure of dimly lit dive bars that litter obscure alleyways and familiar street corners. The scene is all too familiar in the U.K.—where their nostalgic rock-‘n’-roll sound is just short of anthemic—but after 10 years, their U.S. reign is still in its infancy. After parting with the tour bus they shared with the Black Keys last year, the band found itself setting up amps and a few bottles of tequila on the West Coast, alternating their spaces between Joshua Tree and L.A.’s laid-back locales. Seamlessly fusing the sounds of ’70s rock, R&B, and the cleverly tangled phrases they’ve come to be known for, their new album—the cryptically titled AM—echoes melodies that sound hauntingly familiar, yet refreshingly uncharted.
In anticipation of the release of their fifth album, we caught up with the band’s frontman, Alex Turner. Freshly off tour and testing out the iconic stuffed animals in New York’s Bowery hotel, Turner filled us in on the inspiration for the record, the latest leg of the band’s tour, and the merits of late-night recording sessions.
ALICE GREENBERG: Thanks for taking the time, Alex, I know you’ve just gotten off tour and are pretty hectic.
ALEX TURNER: I’ve actually just gotten back to my hotel room; I’m lying on the bed at the Bowery hotel.
GREENBERG: They’ve got a great bar. I should apologize for keeping you from it right now.
TURNER: That’s right, they do. But I actually think it’s about time for my nap. I’m lying on the bed with the Bowery bear. You get a little bear, did you know that? I don’t think it’s mine to keep, but I can just chill with it.
GREENBERG: You must be pretty exhausted—you just got off tour, is that right?
TURNER: Yeah, yeah. We just got off tour, but we actually had a few weeks off. We’ve been in Los Angeles, so I’ve got a little bit of a suntan, but not as much as I would like.
GREENBERG: That begs the question: did you surf?
TURNER: You know, I would have but the guy who’s our drum tech now, and comes on the road with us, he’s also a surf instructor. But he was out of town, and I still require supervision. [laughs] I can spring up pretty well on a surfboard, but I’m not quite hanging there yet.
GREENBERG: Last year you were on tour with the Black Keys, and your most recent album, AM, has some pretty amazing collaborations, like Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme and Elvis Costello’s drummer Pete Thomas. How did these aspects all come together?
TURNER: Well, Pete [Thomas] actually came down because Matt, our drummer, broke his hand. So we wanted to keep the momentum going, while he fixed himself up.
GREENBERG: How did he break his hand?
TURNER: Oh, you don’t want to know. So, Pete came down, and he played the instruments where he could figure out the knots. It was a couple of tambourines and shakers on the record and his spirit is really in there, you know? There are certain songs, like “Snap Out Of It,” where if it wasn’t for Pete we may have never completed it.
GREENBERG: So when you’re deciding to bring someone on—as a collaborator, or as any aspect of the project—what’s that decision based on?
TURNER: I’m not really one for collaborations, to be quite honest. It was more kind of like Pete stood in for Matt while he was out of commission. And Josh is a friend of our band, so he kind of just came down; it was pretty loose. We drank some tequila, and then it just sort of happened, at like 2 a.m. And then we ended up being lucky enough to get his sweet pipes on it.
GREENBERG: The name of your album, AM: does it refer to the time frame, the radio frequency, your initials, the verb?
TURNER: Sort of all of the above, I suppose. I would have called it Arctic Monkeys if “Arctic Monkeys” wasn’t such a silly name. We were into the radio wave idea, and that really seemed to fit perfectly. It’s in this style of underground records, with a picture of a VU meter, and that’s where the idea sort of originated. I really like the look of the letters, as well; the peaks and drops.
GREENBERG: Did you have a hand with picking the cover art?
TURNER: Definitely, yeah. The album art is something I originally sketched on a piece of paper, and then some grown-ups tweaked it a little bit [laughs].
GREENBERG: Do you draw?
TURNER: No, not at all. I can’t draw. I’m good on the yo-yo, but I don’t draw.
GREENBERG: The yo-yo, as in the ’90s staple?
TURNER: Well, yes, but it’s the yo-yo. It’s not just the ’90s! There was a yo-yo boom in the ’90s, but I’m waiting for the next one to come back.
GREENBERG: You may have to initiate that return of the yo-yo.
TURNER: Yeah, yeah. I think I will [laughs].
GREENBERG: So since your last album, Suck it and See, have you been experimenting with your sound, recording in different conditions?
TURNER: Definitely. Our plan for this record was to make it not sound like just four guys playing in a room, which is a limitation that we placed on ourselves in past studios. This one was a sort of anything goes, really, experimentation with vocals. Some of the vocal effects that you might hear in pop music and R&B, for instance. You’ll find that there are lots of elements of those corners of the music universe. It’s total chemical reaction time. You take too much from one world, and you don’t get the right color smoke.
GREENBERG: Were those your main inspirations when writing—the retro pop and R&B direction?
TURNER: Not entirely, because there’s definitely like a ’70s rock thing, like with Black Sabbath. The melodies kind of have this cosmic operatic soft quality, which I think kind of clashes perfectly with the ’70s rock thing. Just listen to the melodies from the guitar. There was a lot of sitting up on my own all night long battling with the puzzle this time, probably more than before. I had a dartboard in the back garden, and I’d throw arrows as I’d sit there trying to write. There was definitely some symmetry in how the words were going and where the darts would land; a fair amount of missing the board altogether brought me the occasional treble 20.
GREENBERG: I think the word that immediately pops to mind when listening to your album is “retro badass”—but you probably have a better one.
TURNER: No, I can handle that. I haven’t really cracked the description just yet… that’s your job!
GREENBERG: I’ve heard that artists often don’t like journalists to describe their work for them.
TURNER: Oh, that’s tough shit! [laughs]
GREENBERG: Retro badass it is.
TURNER: Yeah, I like that. Although I don’t really know how retro it is. There’s something definitely modern in it. There’s a 2013 quality to it that sounds good on an appliance also.
GREENBERG: Any weird fan moments on the tour?
TURNER: All the time. I’m kind of disappointed when we don’t get a bra on stage! It’s usually underwear. Oh, actually there was a guy last week with a Boba Fett mask on, and I really wanted it. I was trying to get him to throw it to me. I was saying, “Give me the mask!” but he couldn’t understand me. And then someone threw an Iron Man mask onto the stage… this was at the Leeds Festival.
GREENBERG: Any tour rituals?
TURNER: No, we don’t really do all the praying and the group hug or the hands in, the guys don’t really go for that. We just do a shot of tequila, and that’s about the whole ritual.
GREENBERG: I can respect that. You’ve been around for 10 years—where do you see yourself in 10 years?
TURNER: On a speedboat.
GREENBERG: In a tracksuit?
TURNER: Tracksuit on a speedboat.
GREENBERG: Not on tour?
TURNER: Maybe I’m on my way to the show in the speedboat.
GREENBERG: In several of your songs, you have a role reversal going on, like when Matt, your drummer, sings “Brick by Brick.” Do you have any similar instances of that happening on AM?
TURNER: I did just get a set of drums the other week! It’s a hobby of mine. Matt sings all over this album, and Nick, the bass player, does too. A lot of those high vocals are those two guys. Return of the Space Choir Boys!
GREENBERG: Is that a title you’ve coined for them?
TURNER: That’s the title I’ve given them.
GREENBERG: This is going up online, so I hope they’re okay with it.
TURNER: So what if they’re not, Alice?
GREENBERG: Point taken. Any wisdom you’d like to impart about the creative process?
TURNER: If anyone asks me about songwriting, I guess I’d say that you just gotta do it. I remember being afraid almost, to write shit down. It’s not strictly like—it is a craft, and there’s definitely an element… you need a little bit of luck and a little bit of magic as well. It’s just about practice; you get better.
AM IS OUT TOMORROW, SEPTEMBER 10. FOR MORE ON ARCTIC MONKEYS, VISIT THE BAND’S WEBSITE.