In the beginning, there was angst. And lots of it.
When long-haired, guitar-slinging scrapper Alex Turner roared out of Sheffield, England in 2006 with his combo Arctic Monkeys and its Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not – the fastest-selling debut in UK chart history – was abristle with kinetic punk energy and a disaffected, working-class ennui, in piledriving social commentaries like “When the Sun Goes Down,” “Fake Tales of San Francisco,” and “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor.” The album title was nicked – aptly enough – from the Allen Sillitoe novel “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning,” a grim study of a factory-working lager lout and his shallow live-for-the-weekend existence (played to swaggering perfection in the film version by a young Albert Finney). At the time, he was barely out of his teens.
But things have changed. The man has mellowed. This January 6, he’s only turning 28. But in the interim, he’s issued four more Arctic Monkeys manifestos – including the mature new AM breakthrough – and lived a veritable lifetime.
And, in the process, he’s been forced to grow up and ditch the angst, fast. By the time the band issued its fourth Suck It and See set in 2011, he’d been living in New York’s hip Williamsburg neighborhood, in a posh fourth-floor flat with his then-girlfriend, designer Alexa Chung, and was seeing things from a distinctly American perspective. “And I’d never really written above the ground floor before, but I kind of wrote our entire last record while I was living there, just in the apartment where I was living,” he recalls.
Turner’s once-snarling voice also began to mature into a more classic crooner mode. “I think somewhere along the way, I decided I wanted to be a singer, and it didn’t occur to me until after a couple of albums,” he believes. “It wasn’t until I did this record with a friend of mine, Miles Kane, called The Last Shadow Puppets (2008’s The Age of Understatement), where we got really into Scott Walker. So listening to him and other music like that made me really want to sing, you know what I mean?” And while he might personally listen to everything from vintage Stooges and Led Zeppelin to various permutations of hip hop, from Drake to Outkast, he adds, “that crooner thing is still in there. Maybe it’s not on every tune all the time, but I feel like there’s just a time and place for it.”
Then? More changes. Turner switched coasts, and currently resides in Los Angeles with his actress galpal Arielle Vandenberg. He’s cultivated a decidedly Yankee look, as well, complete with a rockabilly-slick pompadour and retro 1950s duds, which he swears happened by accident. All during the recording of 2009’s Humbug, he explains, the Monkeys were still rocking the long-haired, vaguely metal look. Then drummer Matt Helders started the ball rolling with a new Joe Strummer-ish cut, followed by guitarist Jamie Cook’s trim, which resembled a WW II fighter pilot. “And it just snowballed from there, until I was like ‘Well, what can I do to keep up with these two guys?’ I’m the fucking singer – I need to raise the bar!’ So I went for the old grease-head look. I went into a barber shop in Austin and said ‘I know it’s going to take more than a trim to make me look like Elvis, but do your best’.”
These days, Turner carefully maintains his hairstyle via two favorite barbers – one in London, one at home in L.A. “But sometimes I have to take a chance on somebody new when I’m in, say, Vancouver,” he sighs. “There really should be a once-a-week cleanup on the sides, but I just don’t always have the time to do that. But hopefully, we’ll get to the point – on the way to our private jet – where we tour with our own hairdresser. That’s the next rung on the ladder. So what we really need is someone who can look after the wardrobe and cut hair – maybe I can take this opportunity to advertise for that!”
The artist has also become quite the motorcycle enthusiast. He remembers first visiting California with his grandmother back in 1995, when they drove down Highway 1 from San Francisco to her friend’s house in Southern California; “I have a pretty vivid memory of being on those windy roads through the cliffs, looking out from the back of a Buick,” he notes. It’s a ride he hopes to replicate on his customized Yamaha XS 650, which was designed specifically for him in Portland. He hasn’t even had time tool out into the desert on his bike. “To be honest, I just go to the studio and back on it,” he admits, bashfully.
Turner is almost reluctant to confess it, but he’s really starting to get into the SoCal vibe. “Frank Lloyd Wright once said that if you tipped the world on its side, everything that’s loose would land in L.A.,” he chuckles. “And I sort of subscribe to Frank Lloyd Wright’s take on it, really.” It was Queens of the Stone Age anchor Josh Homme who first familiarized the Monkeys with the West Coast, when – for Humbug – he oversaw the recording of several tracks at his Rancho De La Luna studios in Joshua Tree (the rest were cut in New York with James Ford). The band liked the desert, basked like lizards in its heat-lamp climate. The fascination continued with Suck It and See, which was whelped out of Los Angeles, proper.
“We were in Sound City in Van Nuys, and staying in West Hollywood then,” Turner remembers of the sessions. “And when it came time to go, we sort of didn’t want to leave, having been there for two months. So the ball started rolling on a decision to come here a bit more permanently. And when it came ‘round to making the next record, the one we’ve just done, we decided to head back out West to L.A. and just set up camp there.” Of course, added incentive was his already-thriving relationship with Vandenberg. “Well, the boys have girls, so the rest of the band and their girls came over, too,” he adds. “But the decision really started with us just not wanting to go after that last record.
“And even to go back a step further, when we came out here with Josh the first time, we really got to know this part of the world. And that session we did in the desert? Without doing that, I don’t think we could have made ” AM four years later. That opened us up to the possibilities, just by getting us so far away from where we were from. We started to look at it differently, started to realize that we could be more than just another band from Britain.”
Naturally, Homme and Turner still help each other out. Turner guests on the latest Queens salvo …Like Clockwork (on the curiously-dubbed “If I Had a Tail”), and Homme makes some vocal appearances on AM, as on the tribal “Knee Socks.” (Pete Thomas and Bill Ryder-Jones also pop in, and the disc was once again helmed by James Ford.) Fans – outside observers, too – have been coming up to the members and suggesting that AM might, in fact, fit into the Arctic Monkeys canon as its fabled ‘California album.’ Turner says he supposes they’re right. “Although I feel like I’m maybe too close to it to pass judgment on it, But people have been saying that, and I have been agreeing with that idea. But I don’t really know why it’s a California album, although people keep saying ‘Well, the grooves kind of lean back a little bit like they do on some of those classic records.’ But I’m not sure if that’s the truth.”
Truth be told, hip hop influenced AM, as did Black Sabbath and psychedelia. Which doesn’t fully explain the surreal finished product, which kicks off with the stomping blues rocker “Do I Wanna Know,” then segues into the squealing, gutteral riffs of “R U Mine.” “Arabella” nods to that swirling ’60s sensibility, “I Want it All” captures a vintage-Sweet essence, “No. 1 Party Animal” puffs up to Phil Spector size, and “Snap Out of it” feels almost Vaudevillian. “Fireside” is flamenco-spicy, “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?” is a swaggering soulful strut, and the closing “I Wanna Be Yours” implements poetry from John Cooper Clarke, but finds Turner intoning in his best Lee Hazelwood drone. He really has become an exceptional vocalist over the past tumultuous decade,
“I suppose that song does have a Lee and Nancy twang to it,” Turner chortles. “And yeah, on “I Want it All,” there’s a bit of glitter in there. Definitely. And there’s a bit of music hall in “Snap Out of it,” as well, with kind of a Leon Russell piano, and he’s got a big blues hat on, shades, and a shimmery shirt. It’s that kind of piano. With a little bit of Outkast. But of course, it’s all a balancing act.”
AM is, by all accounts, a hit. Even in the States, where the band tours relentlessly. It peaked at #6 on the Billboard chart – the group’s highest position yet – and has sold over a million copies, worldwide, and made countless year-end “Best Of” lists. It moved over 157,000 UK units in its first sales week alone – the only act to top this feat in 2013 was Daft Punk. In a two-night run at London’s swank Earls Court, the Monkeys played to a crowd of 34,000, and they knocked ’em dead at this year’s sprawling Glastonbury Festival. Two huge British headlining shows at Finsbury Park have just been announced for this May, rounding out the AM campaign with a career-high flourish.
– Tom Lanham
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