Craft Service: Arctic Monkeys Branch Out

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Published May 31, 2011

 

ARCTIC MONKEYS, INCLUDING SINGER ALEX TURNER (FRONT RIGHT) AND DRUMMER MATT HELDERS (FRONT LEFT).

The evolution of Alex Turner as a songwriter and performer has been something to see, and more Americans ought to be paying attention. In Turner’s native United Kingdom, Arctic Monkeys are arguably the biggest band to emerge in the 21st century, and Turner is a bona fide celebrity; here, the band has a sizable following but still manage to fly just under many people’s radar. But the proof is in the recordings. The guy who emerged in 2005 as a wry, motor-mouthed spitfire—a white-boy Dizzee Rascal, they called him, a rock version of The Streets’ Mike Skinner—has turned into a deft songwriter with a knack for classic-sounding hooks and melodies, as capable with a sentimental croon as with a sardonic sneer. Suck It and See, the boys’ fourth full-length, out next week, is the most rich and varied Monkeys release to date: growling rock songs living side-by-side with soaring pop and even one country-tinged ode that is Turner’s sweetest, most heartfelt tune to date (“Suck It and See”).

As that album title suggests, the Monkeys still like to have a laugh, and helping keep that flame alive, along with a driving backbeat, is dry-witted drummer Matt Helders. He has assumed an increasingly prominent role, taking the lead on the new jackhammer track “Brick By Brick.” Arctic Monkeys are currently on a US swing with new British buzz band The Vaccines, and we caught up with Turner and Helders recently at Ludlow Guitars on New York’s Lower East Side.

JOHN NORRIS: I was trying how to sum up this album the other day, and I think it might be the hardest Monkeys record to easily fit into one description. There’s a lot of variety.

ALEX TURNER: I know what you mean, because there is definitely a side of it that comes from the heavier side of the last one, and that’s carried over. But there’s a bit of something new as well. Whereas on [last album] Humbug, you had “Cornerstone” and “Secret Door,” which were perhaps sweeter than the rest of that album. We’ve got that again this time, but perhaps they’ve drifted apart, those two sides.

NORRIS: On the heavier side, there’s “Don’t Sit Down Cause I’ve Moved Your Chair” and “Brick By Brick,” which you wrote and sing, Matt. And you’ve said that wasn’t necessarily going to be the title?

MATT HELDERS: We had a long list of things that were going to be done brick by brick, that we would talk about from time to time. And we didn’t really decide which ones were going to be which until we got in the studio. So we had a lot of ideas to pick from.TURNER: It’s like the song that never got written, that. It just went on…

HELDERS: Even when we were working the album out, rehearsing it and stuff, I’d sing a different thing most times, until we settled on it.

TURNER: We had that much to pick from, and then when it came right down to it, it was just like “do whatever,” “freestyle it”…

HELDERS: We had “feel your soul, feel your soul.” There were a lot of options.

NORRIS: Onto that album title. With Humbug, you guys educated most Americans to the fact that it’s the name of a candy that we don’t have here; likewise, Suck It and See is an expression not exactly in the American parlance.

HELDERS: What I’ve been saying to people is it’s kind of like “bite the bullet,” although not really. It’s more like “take the risk.”

NORRIS: Give it a try?

HELDERS: ‘Cause you never know what you’re going to get in the end.

NORRIS: And of course it comes from the song “Suck It and See,” which, whether or not people think it sounds like a rude title, is definitely not a rude song. In fact, I’d say it’s flat-out one of the most sentimental Monkeys songs you have ever written. I think a few years ago, people would have expected any song like that from you would have to be ironic and have a punchline to it. But as far as I can tell, it’s a pretty song that is quite sincere and straightforward. It’s even got something reminiscent of The Eagles.

TURNER: The Eagles? Wow.

NORRIS: A bit of “Lyin’ Eyes” in the melody. Is that way off?

TURNER: Wow, that’s interesting. But yeah, definitely, I think between then and now I’ve come to recognize songwriting as something that I do, and I want to be good at that. At that craft, if you like. I want to practice it.

NORRIS: So you have “got the hang of poetry,” so to speak?

TURNER: I don’t know about that. But somewhere along the line, around like the Shadow Puppets experience [The Last Shadow Puppets, his 2008 retro-pop side project] and then Humbug, I saw that something changed in terms of the way I approach writing. I don’t know. Before, everything was just sort of pieced together; and more and more nowadays I’ll have complete songs—chords, lyrics, a melody—and we’ll apply to those songs what we feel is required. That has happened much more on this album than on any of the others.

NORRIS: You also recently released the six-song EP from the film Submarine, which includes a different version of one of the sweeter Suck It and See tracks, “Piledriver Waltz.” That’s an interesting overlap—do you not write with a specific project in mind?

TURNER: I think each thing in a way acts as a stepping-stone for whatever the next thing is. So for instance, I reckon the last tune I wrote for Humbug would have been “Cornerstone,” which in a way is very much related to the next bunch of songs that I wrote, which would have been for Submarine, and then that leads into most of the songs for this one. I mean, there’s a few exceptions, things that will come in from the outside.

NORRIS: So by the same token, would you say that the last songs written and recorded for this album may be pointing toward whatever is coming next?

TURNER: I suppose, I mean that is the logic I am applying to it now, but all of these things, you sort of start to realize them as you go along. The last tune we wrote for this album was “That’s Where You’re Wrong.”

NORRIS: Which is also the final track on the album, and one of the more—I don’t know how you’re going to feel about this but—”arena rock” sounding songs.

HELDERS: Yeah. That’s where we’re going next, then. [laughs]

NORRIS: A favorite of mine is “The Hellcat Spangled Shalalala.” Some have described this album as more “poppy,” and that song would certainly fall under that description.

HELDERS: In the traditional sense, yeah.

TURNER: What we’ve been saying is that with the guitars, Jamie [Cook] and I started to play the “other” three strings this time. And he came to visit me last summer when I had got a couple of tunes together, and we kind of sat down just to get a head start before we all got in a room together, just trying to get some guitar parts together. And we were doing this kind of open, shimmery, chime-y guitar thing and that ended up being like, “Oh, that’s interesting.” We hadn’t been down that alley before. And now that feel is pretty much every tune.

NORRIS: You guys rented a house in LA early this year and recorded the album out there?

HELDERS: Yeah—I think for what we were doing, it was perfect.

NORRIS: So is it going too far to say it’s a west coast-influenced record? There are some jangly Byrds-like guitars on there.

TURNER: Well it’s funny, because most of it was written when I was living in New York, last summer, so that’s what it reminds me of. But yeah, like you say, there’s a Byrds thing in there, or even like Beach Boys.

NORRIS: But not Eagles?

TURNER: I mean, I sing Eagles at karaoke…

NORRIS: Okay, I will withdraw that comparison.

TURNER: My mum is a big Eagles fan; I know some Eagles fans, so maybe it has crept in there. But that’s still blowing my mind, actually.

SUCK IT AND SEE IS OUT JUNE 6. ARCTIC MONKEYS WILL CONTINUE TOURING THE WORLD THROUGHOUT THE SUMMER. FOR MORE INFORMATION, VISIT THEIR WEBSITE.