The buzz hadn’t officially begun yet. But already you could hear it, bumblebee-droning. Getting louder by the minute.
The time: A few short months ago. The place: A hip, Anglophile-oriented nightclub in San Francisco during an early-evening soundcheck. The cast of characters: Colorful, to say the least, including a long-haired monitor man fresh from several world tours with The Darkness; a sound guy who also recorded as Little Gem with a CD in his metallic briefcase featuring an anti-Thrills anthem called “Santa Cruz Is Fucking Miles, Mate”; a band manager who resembled a missing Kray twin, in his gangster-ish Vivienne Westwood pinstripe suit and winklepicker oxfords; an affable representative from chic U.K. indie Domino Records, doing his best to ride herd on the situation; and, of course, the reason for all this hubbub, Sheffield pop-punk sensations the Arctic Monkeys, watching the tornado of activity swirling around them with an almost aloof disdain.
Could they sense the buzz? Maybe. But they’d flown into the Bay Area at 4 p.m., were jetting to Japan the next morning at 7, and right now, they just wanted to rock.
But nothing is ever as simple as it seems. Especially when your latest single, “I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor,” has just debuted on top of the British charts, virtually through word-of-mouth alone. Within weeks, noise surrounding the Arctic Monkeys — whose diehard fans have been press-christened the Arctic Army — will grow positively deafening. Their scrappy debut disc, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, will soon sell 363,000 copies in six days, making it the fastest-selling U.K. debut in history. A following NME readers poll, listing the Greatest English Albums Of All Time, will rank the album at a stunning fifth, ahead of such classics as The Beatles’ Rubber Soul and The Clash’s London Calling. And all before these four working-class kids — whose complexions are still, as they say overseas, “a tad spotty” — have even hit the ripe old age of 21. Journalists are now clamoring to converse with scruffy bandleader Alex Turner. And Alex Turner, in turn, would rather hide beneath a cone of disaffected silence.
The drama going on at the aforementioned nightspot, in fact, revolves around whether or not Turner will bother to chat this evening at all — even though the interview has been set in Domino stone for well over a month. The powwow goes on for several tense minutes. Eventually, The Darkness cat breaks from the huddle, strolls over to reveal the verdict: “I’ve got some good news and some bad news,” he tells this writer. “The Arctic Monkeys have agreed to talk to you. But only while they’re playing pool.” And remember. This is long before they became Britain’s biggest buzz band.
The setup proves awkward, at best. The gangly, mop-topped Turner grabs a pool cue and slams into his break. As he starts discussing the Arctic Army (many of whom have actually flown into S.F. for tonight’s show), it goes something like this: “Yeah, NME put that name on . . .” KLAK! “. . . these fans who came to watch us. It’s all a bit . . .” KLAK! “. . . weird. We don’t really like it, and I don’t think the fans themselves really like it.” KLAK! “It’s a bit condescending.” Within minutes, the KLAK-KLAK — plus Little Gem’s repeated cavernous mic-testing bark of “CHECK! CH-CH-CHECK!” — gets to Turner, and he retires to a quiet stairwell to clear his head, enunciate his thoughts more clearly. And your first reaction, sitting down with him, is almost paternal. Something akin to “Such a nice, soft-spoken, well-behaved young man — what on Earth is he doing in this nasty business of rock ‘n’ roll?”
The 20-year-old Turner knows exactly what he’s doing. Later that night, he’ll Jekyll/Hyde into a whirling dervish onstage, half-spitting, half-sneering Monkeys standards like “Riot Van,” “When The Sun Goes Down,” “The View From The Afternoon,” and the signature “Dancefloor.” His barely contained, urban rage ripples through the crowd, reminding more seasoned fans of vintage Jam, Undertones, and Buzzcocks. But the steeltown kid’s venomous vitriol really seems to connect with listeners his own age, twentysomething Americans who — under the visibly corrupt Bush regime — are probably feeling just as disencfranchised, just as bored and bitter. Turner’s erudite wordplay (hey, he even references Shakespeare!) really seems to resonate: “Your fake tales of San Francisco echo through the room” (another Thrills jab, perhaps?); “All you people are vampires and all your stories are stale”; “I’ve seen him with girls of the night . . . he’s a scumbag, don’t ya know.” Turner ends the show literally drenched in manic sweat, his voice hoarse from shouting. Back in the stairwell, however, he’s as whispery as a mouse.
– Tom Lanham
To find out how quiet Turner stays, pick up the April issue of Illinois Entertainer throughout Chicagoland.
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