Interview Cameron Cook
Photography Leonard Greco
Anyone who spent summer 2009 in New York will tell you, straight up, it was a wash. It rained almost every weekend all three months, and not cute, dainty, cherry-blossom-scented dewdrops either. Big, gray, scummy buckets of water drenched everything, forever, all summer long. I remember turning on the local news from under a blanket on my couch and hearing that a new NYC rainfall record had been set in Central Park for the month of June. Literally, not hot.
I had just received a stream of the Monkeys’ hotly anticipated new album, Humbug (Domino, 2009), which had tracks produced by now-legendary rock hero Josh Homme and Simian Mobile Disco’s James Ford (who also produced Arctic Monkeys’ second LP, Favourite Worst Nightmare (2007), as well as Alex’s recent side project Last Shadow Puppets). While I was expecting the typical uptempo tales of British working-class travails that has become quasi-synonymous with Arctic Monkeys, I was confronted with a bigger, broader picture. A lot of their trademark qualities remained, notably Alex’s instantly recognizable vocals, but a decidedly more mature, even darker sound emerged as I continued listening. It’s clear that as a band, Arctic Monkeys have been doing their homework so to speak: listening, working, writing and growing. It’s amazing in this fast-paced day and age to see anything lasting at all, but with Humbug, the Monkeys have made certain to hold their on in the modern musical pantheon. It was on one of these somber summer afternoons that I met up with Alex Turner and Matt Helders of Arctic Monkeys, in a quiet booth at the La Bottega restaurant at Chelsea’s Maritime Hotel.
Alex: I wish it were summer.
I was watching the news today and they were saying that this was the coldest June we’ve had in like, 50 years or something.
Alex: It’s mad, innit? When we were here mixing the album it was scorching.
Global warming, get into it!
Matt [laughs]: Yeah.
Alex: Better get used to it!
I just got finished with a power listening session of the new album, Humbug. Did you guys take an official hiatus between the last album and this one?
Alex: We had a period of about six months before we got back together and started playing again. We didn’t play at all, practically had no shows last year. But yeah, with the previous album there was that desire to get back in the studio after the first one came out and shed our skin a little bit. We toured to death on that second album, and by the end I think it lost a bit of spark. So we were like, ‘Let’s take a minute and be a little bit more considerate.’
Recharging your batteries, so to speak.
Alex: A bit of that, yeah. Just spending more time writing and even during the recording, we’d record a little bit, have another gap, then go back recording. It was just a little bit more thought out.
Humbug is a way more mature album. Did you go into the writing process like ‘Okay, we’re going to write about things we never have before?’
Alex: I suppose there are two sides to it. Aside from the lyrics, at first we were a bit frightened to stop after that first one. We wanted to demonstrate that there was more to it. There was a need there, which is why we did it so quickly. Looking back on those records, it always feels like we were catching up with ourselves. It was never like ‘Right, this is what we’re going to do.’ It sort of seems like this is the first time we were maybe, in control or just a little bit in control and open. We worked with different people, whereas before we were practically afraid that we would jeopardize the identity of the band if we let too many people in. That kind of went away this time. On the lyrics, I think it seems like quite a natural progression. The process of writing lyrics doesn’t seem like it’s dramatically changed that much in terms of how often and stuff, but obviously the situation’s changed quite a lot. We’ve traveled more—
Matt: The thing about that first record is that is was so neatly, like, commentary or narration on that situation in our lives.
The first two albums, and especially the hits off of those like “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor” and “Fluorescent Adolescent”, really rely on that British working class narrative. When I heard Humbug I was like, ‘Oh, they’re really trying to break away from that.’
Alex: I guess we didn’t want to really rely on that. I felt like I’d always write about these characters and I didn’t want to overdo that, because I think there comes a point when it’s like, ‘Why would anyone care about these characters?’ I kind of get that sometimes. I hate the idea that people think I’ve got an assumption that they’d care about these people I’ve created–I dunno! Or at least if you are going to do that, make it interesting enough so you can’t argue with it. But also I think that perhaps [Humbug] isn’t as meticulously detailed as some of our earlier records, and in doing that I think it’s easier to be a bit more personal. Though, that comes with getting older as well. You get more confidence in what you’re doing and you’re not as afraid.
Matt: There are a couple of tunes that still feature those individuals, but for the same reason that we didn’t want an aggressive-sounding, quite heavier record, we deviated from that for a similar reason, just to introduce a diversity.
Do you feel like there are a lot of expectations, personal or otherwise, with this album?
Matt: There seems to be something [pauses] fresh about it. There’s a certain satisfaction listening to this one that I can’t remember having before. There’s some degree of ownership on it somehow, it just feels more like we’ve realized our ideas a bit better.
Alex: We did put a bit of pressure on ourselves to make something you could take a crack at (laughs).
Yeah, like a dancefloor banger!
Alex: Yeah well that’s the thing. I love the idea of doing like a party record.
Matt: Called “Ready When You Are” (laughs).
Alex (laughs): I think it would be about some part in the party but definitely not the like, jumping-around part.
You’ve had a couple, you’re like, ‘I think I’ll take a nap…’
So many bands are going the dance route nowadays though.
Alex: Maybe not like ‘dance’ but you know—
Matt: Four to the floor!
Alex (to ’SUP): Wait, what were you going to say about bands going dance?
I just feel that like, you know, Bloc Party did it, and the Gossip. Back in the day I loved the Gossip, but now everything’s just so polished and nice! I could name about 15 bands that have done the same thing.
Alex: Yeah, I know what you mean.
Matt: Remember that Aaliyah cover they did?
Totally! I’m very partial to some Aaliyah. But yeah, the dance music sound doesn’t work for everyone. Sorry, I just had a horrible vision of like, Arctic Monkeys gone disco.
Alex (laughs): No no! It won’t be that! All hips and shit! Me like, dancing around with a guitar. No, I didn’t mean that kind of party! I’ll tell you what’s great though, that new Simian Mobile Disco record.
Yeah, I heard it the other day. It’s like going to be a huge pop record.
Alex: The Beth Ditto track is so amazing. The one we love is that’s like, ‘Looking for girls who like girls…’
Oh, the one with Young Fathers, “Turn Up the Dial”!
Alex: That tune is so big. Simian were doing that song in this practice room in London when we were recording next door and we’d go in and be like, ‘Can we just listen to that again?’ (laughs)
This album is going to make them like, the new Chemical Brothers or something.
Alex (laughs): We joke about that all the time! We call them the new Chemical Brothers.
Speaking of Simian, you worked with two pretty heavy producers on this album: James Ford from Simian Mobile Disco and and Josh Homme from Queens of the Stone Age.
Alex: Well we’ve always been huge Queens fans and we got to play a show with them. We opened for them year before last. We got to chatting, because we referenced them in an interview and we just heard through different people, like ‘Oh we were speaking to Josh the other day.’ I remember reading something where he was asked ‘Would you do something with Arctic Monkeys’ and he was into it. We sort of forgot about it, but then we started doing these demos and we told our label we’d be down for this Josh Homme thing. So we sent him the demos and went from there. I think the one thing is that we kind of tapped into each other’s sense of humor a bit, straight away. It’s adds an important (pauses)—
Alex: If you’re going to be working in such close—
Alex: With each—
Matt: Other (laughs).
(Laughing) Wow, you guys are so close. It’s cool when a band gets someone they admire to produce their record and that person can really put their stamp on it. Often it seems like bands are like, ‘Oh, we got so-and-so to produce our record!’ but it sounds just like the last one.
Alex: One thing Josh was always adamant about–whether it was something he had produced or something James had produced–was that our identity remain the star. Before this recording I probably didn’t have confidence in that. We let go a little bit more, like traveling out to the Joshua Tree to record.
That must have been amazing. Just the ambience.
Alex: Undeniably. A load of possibilities were provided by that trip. That’s where we started, and the things that were recorded there really set the blueprint for the rest of it.
On the flipside, Alex, you just recently moved to NYC, right?
I can’t think of a more different place from the Joshua Tree.
Alex (laughs): Yeah! Recording in New York was quite circumstantial. James was on tour, no one really wanted to fly anywhere (laughs). He’s got a good head, James, as we’ve just been discussing. We like working with him. But during that sessions we were conscious that the things we were making, we wanted to fit in with the [Josh Homme recordings]. In that sense, I guess, New York had less of an influence.
One song in particular, “Secret Door”, has a lot of ’60s, almost psychedelic vibes to it. Are you a total ’60s buff now, after having done Last Shadow Puppets?
Alex: I think that with Last Shadow Puppets I had used a part of my voice that I had never touched with the first two Arctic Monkeys records, so that comes back across just because I enjoyed singing like that. In terns of what we were listening to at the time, I got a lot of Hendrix back out, which is obviously like, when you first pick up a guitar what you immediately go to. I kind of left it for a minute, then picked it back up. We were carrying on a bit of a Cream thing for a while. Josh turned us on to a lot of things, like obscure Roky Erickson and stuff that we weren’t super familiar with. Even some Creedence. After that we even brought out like, Nirvana. And the Eighties Matchbox B-Line Disaster (laughs)!
Humbug has a way darker tone than all of your previous work.
Alex: Definitely, in the sounds, and everything really. But again we didn’t want to go like, super dark, like everything’s in a minor key or something. Bells and shit. There are a couple of songs, like “Secret Door”, that perhaps bring a bit more of that. Sometimes it seems like the easy option to make it sound dead dark. Doing the other thing is maybe a bit more challenging. To do it – and get away with it.