This article originally appeared in Q394.
Arctic Monkeys are siblings, marriages, relationships, friends and band all folded into one. Niall Doherty joins them in the US for merry drinks, intense silences and the lowdown on how making Q’s Album Of The Year changed everything. Everything, that is, except their mutual respect and love of diggers.
Alex Turner is an only child, but people tell him his relationship with his bandmates is close enough to seem fraternal. The other thing he’s told it compares to is marriage, something else the Arctic Monkeys frontman has zero experience of. What he is aware of, though, is that he knows Jamie Cook, Nick O’Malley and Matt Helders better than he knows anyone, and vice versa.
It’s been 16 years since the band started in Turner’s mum and dad’s garage in High Green, a suburb to the north of Sheffield, and, save for the early departure of original bassist Andy Nicholson, there have been no major bumps in the road. Turner, Cook, O’Malley and Helders have turned high-altitude teenage stardom into a rare form of mainstream success, one where they can take artistic left-turns without it impacting on their popularity.
They have found a way to be experimental and daring but also to operate in the manner that big rock bands do. Ahead of the release of their sixth LP Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, a record heavy on psychedelic retro-futurism and cosmic crooning, and light (very light) on rousing indie-rock anthems, they wondered if their live shows should be scaled down accordingly. Playing the album in full was a consideration. Instead, they accompanied their strangest record yet with a huge arena tour, selling out a run of four nights at London’s O2 in the process. They can have it both ways, it seems.
In the band’s early days, they stuck to a strict set of principles, a code of honour designed to make them impervious to any outside interference and to tighten their gang mentality. Over time, some of those rules, such as not having outside musicians play on their records, have been discarded. Others, like not sanctioning their songs to be used on adverts, remain. They still use one edict as a guide: “If it all ended tomorrow, could we look back and not regret anything?” It explains why making such an unusual, upside-down record as Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino was a no-brainer for them. Repeating yourself and playing it safe is reproachable behaviour in the world of Arctic Monkeys. Do what you believe in. It’s the commandment that defines them more than any other.
Seattle, October 2018. Alex Turner strolls into the Goldfinch Tavern, a bar situated on the ground floor of the plush Four Seasons hotel, and takes a seat in a booth overlooking the Puget Sound, a vast waterway separating the city from neighbouring islands. The look that Turner sported upon Tranquility Base…’s release in May – Channel 5 magician hair, estate agent goatee, ’80s schmoozer blazer – is gone. Today, he has a freshly shaven head and is wearing skinny jeans and a checked shirt with a neckerchief poking out.
He is jittery in a charming way, a fidget who chooses his words in the same fretful manner as cops in action films when deciding which wire to cut to disarm a bomb. His deliberation in ensuring he picks exactly the right expression can sometimes make it sound like he’s got a slight stutter. He has a comical turn-of-phrase and time spent living in America hasn’t softened his thick Yorkshire accent.
Turner says the sound of Tranquility Base… was born out of two things. Firstly, there was the piano he received as a 30th birthday present and, secondly, an eight-track recorder he used to flesh out his ideas, allowing him to present his bandmates with a more fully-formed version of new songs. Originally, he wasn’t sure if what he was writing was for the band – or something else. “Arctic Monkeys is something I keep reminding myself has been around for half my lifetime now, so it’s never really not there,” he says. “But there was something in writing on a piano which made me consider the idea that it might not be a Monkeys thing. It wasn’t until the others hearing the stuff and encouraging it that it became this thing.” It was Cook who said to him, “This is definitely what we should be doing.”
The frontman is at his happiest when he’s making a record. “It’s when I feel like it’s where I’m supposed to be,” he says. It has become an all-consuming thing for him. “There’s a chance I might have gone a bit overboard. But then you don’t really have the choice. It has a mind of its own a little bit and you’re trying to keep up with it. It can decide to move in a number of different directions and it’s up to you if you follow it.” Instinct is a big thing in Alex Turner’s world, now more so than ever, he says. He rarely sits down and plots out what he’s going to do.
Recently, he was listening to an interview with the film director Paul Thomas Anderson about the creative process. “He said, ‘When things go there, it gets really interesting.’” Turner could relate to the notion of one thing leading to another. “One of those things could be a chord, or a melody, or some musical idea that suggests this thing,” he says, “and six months or a year later you’ve somehow found yourself in this position where you’re onstage and at the end of a song every night, you’re pretending that you’ve forgotten what to say, which is a position I’ve found myself in. Yeah.”
Outside of songwriting, Turner hasn’t got many other artistic hobbies. He’s never tried painting (“I’m yet to reach for the easel,” as he puts it) and although he’s been asked a couple of times to write a book, he doesn’t think he’s ready yet. “The idea that I would write something other than pop songs one day does appeal,” he says, “but I’m not entirely sure what that is.” He did find himself becoming engrossed in making the sculpture that appears on Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino’s sleeve, however. “That made me think perhaps there’s something in that that I should explore,” he says. A pause. “Keep me out of bus stop.”
He isn’t sure what his worst trait is. He’s stumped. There is silence. Deep silence. Colossal silence. “It’s just occurred to me I’m spending an awful lot of time looking out the window,” he suddenly says. OK, is there a trait you don’t like in other people?
More silence. Huge silence. A chasm of silence. It’s not a mean silence or a tense silence. But it’s silence. Long-haul flights take off and land in this silence. Regimes topple. Oasis re-form. Spurs win the league. Still silence. He eventually speaks.
“Sorry, it gets a bit like this sometimes, it’s all just knotted.”
You know, there isn’t an obligation to answer every question…
“I forget that. I let it get too serious sometimes.”
He says the best piece of advice he’s ever received is from fellow Sheffield musician Richard Hawley, who tells him intermittently, “keep wriggling.”
Are you a wriggler?
“I’d concede that, yeah.”
Turner’s favourite track on Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino is opener Star Treatment. He remembers playing it to Nick O’Malley and saying, “If we could do something like this, we might be getting somewhere.” “That was the song at the inception. That’s why it’s the first one on the record. It means the most.”
He seems aghast when it’s put to him that the album is not a record made for the age of instant gratification, that it takes several listens to get to grips with, not something conducive for immediate judgement. It was certainly an interesting social experiment searching “Arctic Monkeys” on Twitter on the morning it was released. Some proclaimed its genius, some didn’t. Most probably hadn’t finished listening to it all the way through yet. One tweet from a Scottish fan simply read, “New Arctic Monkeys album. Pure clean shite.”
“Honestly,” says Turner, pausing, playing Scrabble in his head again, “at the risk of tripping myself up on the tightrope and plunging into pretentiousness, I don’t know how I could’ve done something that would’ve been more, in your words, ‘instantly gratifying’ than this. I really can’t imagine what else I could’ve done.” He starts pulling at the thread, presenting himself with riddles. Is it because people think of him as the person who wrote I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor or Do I Wanna Know?, he wonders. “If we were to agree for a minute that, at a certain time, I could do that,” he says, “I don’t know how to any more.” Tranquility Base… has changed everything. Turner finishes his black coffee and heads back to his room, untroubled by the idea that he might not know how to write a pop song any more. Anyway, he’s not sure he ever did.
Even among their group of friends in Sheffield, Turner, Cook, O’Malley and Helders are an inner circle within the inner circle. “Even though they’re ‘your people’, where you’re from, we’re still a different thing within that,” says Helders. “It’s still us and everybody else, and some of them get it and some of them don’t.”
Helders is the group’s most naturally charismatic member, a wise-cracking chatterbox, the office joker. The drummer thinks he suffers from Peter Pan Syndrome. He’s got a wife and kids at home in LA, but sometimes he looks at his friends who are the same age and thinks their lives are a lot more together than his. He suspects this might be a side effect of the band’s decision to never talk about money and to ignore the business side of life. “We started this so young and we were oblivious to that side,” he says. “We were like, ‘Can we just make records and go on tour?’”
Any concerns Helders has about the band aren’t related to success or longevity. He thinks they’ve made enough of a stamp now, that their legacy is secure. “I also wouldn’t want to fade away,” he says. “I’d rather just end at the top, at a peak. You just don’t know when that’ll be.”
He says that between the singer and Jamie Cook, Arctic Monkeys have two people good at making decisions to keep the credibility of the band intact. “Jamie is the barometer for what we should and shouldn’t do,” he says. “Sometimes it goes too far. Like, ‘It might have been fine if we’d done that Bacardi ad,’ or whatever! But really, it hasn’t harmed us the way he’s been – it’s only helped us.”
Cook isn’t so sure about his status as keeper of the flame. “I think everyone is like that in this band,” he says. “Everyone’s got a bullshit detector in them.” The guitarist is affable company but there is a sense that he doesn’t enjoy talking about any of this. He doesn’t ever think about why the band have never had any troubles, no. He doesn’t have anything to do with social media, no. He doesn’t get nervous about putting out a record, as long as everyone who’s made it is into it, no. What did he learn from making this record? No idea. Not really this, not really that, you know, not really. He states that they all have other interests outside the band, but he can’t say what they are. “We don’t need to talk about personal stuff, if that’s alright,” he says, erecting a large no-entry sign.
What is apparent, even though he might not admit it, is that Cook is Turner’s trusted consigliere. It was Cook who was dispatched to France to suss out the vibe at La Frette, the residential studio on the outskirts of Paris where the majority of Tranquility Base… was recorded. “It looks like a haunted house,” he says. “The garden is all overgrown. There are Renault 5s and Fiats just parked up with moss and grass growing over them.”
Cook says the fact that there are no egos in the band informed their approach to Tranquility Base…, which features a host of contributions from other musicians, including producer James Ford, Zach Dawes and Tyler Parkford of LA rock trio Mini Mansions, touring guitarist Tom Rowley, former Klaxons singer James Righton, Last Shadow Puppets drummer Loren Humphrey, Tame Impala bass player Cam Avery, Chicagoan multi-instrumentalist Evan Weiss and Franco-British pianist Josephine Stephenson. “Early on, we weren’t up for having other people playing on our records. We kept it quite tight, that was our way of protecting us as a gang. But now we’ve been doing this for a long time, and we’ve met a lot of people we like and trust.”
Nick O’Malley was perhaps the biggest victim of the anything-goes attitude that took hold at La Frette. He only plays bass on five of its 11 tracks, plays guitar on a couple of others and doesn’t appear at all on the title track, Golden Trunks, Four Out Of Five or Batphone. The bassist has an amicable manner and takes it with good grace. He says the band have always swapped instruments while they record, it’s just that maybe they haven’t written it all out on the album credits before. “There was some stuff that Al had done before we got to La Frette on bass and drums, and they were so great there was no point trying to beat that,” he explains.
The big break between records was a bit of a blur for O’Malley. He had two kids during that time and relocated back to Sheffield from LA when his eldest was due to start school. Apart from Turner, they are all dads now. O’Malley says waiting for the frontman to start working on new material was hard in a sense, but he’s always treated everything they do like it could be the end. “You never know what could happen,” he says. “There are no guarantees that we’re always gonna have this opportunity where we can keep making records.”
Helders was repeatedly interrogated on the band’s extended hiatus. “Relatives can’t fathom the idea,” says the drummer. “They were saying, ‘People are gonna forget about you… I ain’t heard about you much on the radio recently.’” While the other band members have managed to shut themselves off from reviews and reactions, the drummer has left that door ajar, even if he didn’t mean to. “We had this on Humbug as well, where people feel like they have to tell you, like, ‘I actually like it,’” he laughs.
Helders says the band rely on what they think is good and what they want to do. No outside influence and no making music to satisfy an expectation. No one gets to bend rock’s premium bullshit detectorists to their will.
The WaMu Theatre is a 7000-capacity venue in the bowels of CenturyLink Field, home of the Seattle Seahawks NFL team and their MFL counterparts, the Seattle Sounders. Tonight, Arctic Monkeys are here, edging closer to the end of their 2018 tour. They have been on the road since May and there are three dates to go. From the moment they walk onstage, there’s a feeling that they’re cutting loose.
The record’s spirit of collaboration has seeped into the live show. Four extra members join the others as they begin with Four Out Of Five, while later, a hypnotic, extended psych-rock jam forms the intro to Knee Socks. Mid-set, the grunge-style thrash of Don’t Sit Down ’Cause I’ve Moved Your Chair prompts a big moshpit and there’s frenzied screams when they play Do I Wanna Know?, with an alarming number of the audience breaking into some ultra-serious air guitar. It’s an excellent show. They can do it on a wet Tuesday night in Seattle.
Afterwards, you follow the “Monkeys Sheffield” signs through winding corridors backstage and come to the band’s spacious dressing room, where everything is bathed in a dim red light. The room hisses with the sound of beer cans being cracked open. The band are spread across the room, either talking to each other or to the support trio Mini Mansions, whose keyboardist Tyler Parkford also plays with Arctic Monkeys each night.
Alex Turner wanders over, makes sure that I have a drink, and reiterates his point from earlier about how instinct dictates his life choices. He’s not choosing his words as carefully now and there’s euphoria in his eyes. Turner thinks the new songs have become something else now they’ve got their road legs. “It’s like saying the same word over and over again,” he says, “the edges start to soften.” Turner doesn’t get nervous before he goes onstage. “It’s the best place for us sometimes,” he declares.
O’Malley joins the conversation. The bassist says he likes to know what kind of stage surface he’s going to experience before he goes on. Sometimes, he says, he gets up there and he’s got leather shoes on and spends the show sliding all over the place. The band don’t have any pre-gig rituals, but sometimes they do need to watch what they eat before showtime. “We’ve just been in Texas and on one of those show days, I ate a whole chicken before we played,” says O’Malley. “I’ll probably not try and do that again.”
Suddenly, the room is filled with the sweet sound of Hooky Street, the theme tune from Only Fools And Horses. “That’s Tyler’s doing,” explains Turner. The keyboardist saw some episodes of the classic British sitcom backstage during their four-night run at the O2 and has been obsessed ever since. Everyone is stood in a circle, singing, “God bless Hooky Street” to each other. By the time the track is on its fifth rotation, though, the room is starting to get a bit Hooky Street’d out. Turner’s girlfriend, the French singer Louise Verneuil, takes action and puts on Led Zeppelin’s Rock And Roll.
In the corner, gregarious Mini Mansions frontman Michael Shuman is trying to find out which bars are open in Seattle. The singer, who also plays bass in Queens Of The Stone Age, finds a spot and rallies everyone into a van to Screwdriver, a dive bar in the Belltown neighbourhood.
At the bar, Turner says he’s changed his mind about the best advice he’s ever received. He says it’s actually “surround yourself with people who really make you laugh.” Helders is getting a round in. He’s having a scotch. He reflects on tonight’s show and wonders how the younger him came up with some of those drum beats. Sometimes when he’s playing I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor, his mind wanders back to the room where they wrote it. He says that song has seen every type of gig. “It’s been played in front of four people in York,” he says. “And I think they were the support band.”
An hour or so later, it’s closing time and we head out into the crisp night. There are no cabs to be had, and Helders makes the executive decision that we should walk back to the hotel. It’s only half a mile up the road, so Arctic Monkeys venture up Seattle’s 1st Avenue at 2am, Turner and Verneuil bringing up the rear, Helders leading the charge at the front and a chatty mix of Monkeys, Mini Mansions and crew members splintered off in-between.
About halfway there, we come to a corner where Jamie Cook and Nick O’Malley are loitering next to some roadworks, almost certainly waiting for their best mate Turner to catch up and quite possibly planning another drink somewhere else. “What are you two up to?” I enquire, because a little nightcap on top of a previous nightcap seems like a good idea. “Just looking at diggers,” comes the comically terse reply from Cook. The message is clear, inner circle only. Even among their mates back home, Alex Turner, Jamie Cook, Nick O’Malley and Matt Helders are a different entity. They are siblings, marriages, relationships, friends and band all folded into one. They have to protect their gang. And, to be fair, they were some very impressive diggers.