Arctic Monkeys arrive in a studio in New York to have their photos taken for Esquire. It is mid-January and last night they flew in from Los Angeles, somewhere they have called home since last year. This afternoon they are due to perform “Do I Wanna Know?” on The Late Show with David Letterman. Though all five of their albums have entered the British charts at Number One, it is their most recent, AM, that has been their breakthrough in the US.
In explaining its irresistible mix of heavy guitar riffs and r’n’b grooves, Alex Turner has cited Outkast, Drake and Aaliyah but also Black Sabbath as influences. Or, in words that demonstrate both the frontman’s fondness for playing with language and his belief that his job sometimes requires him to make statements that you or I might consider faintly preposterous – the same belief that will soon cause a quite remarkable fuss at the Brit Awards – said it sounds “like a Dr Dre beat, but we’ve given it an Ike Turner bowl-cut and sent it galloping across the desert on a Stratocaster”. Either way, at least one music website now considers Arctic Monkeys not only “post-indie” but “post-genre”.
As we speak, “Do I Wanna Know?” is Number One on the US Alternative Songs chart, making it the most played contemporary rock song on American radio. In three weeks’ time, the band will play a sell-out show at the 18,200-capacity Madison Square Garden – last September they performed at the city’s Webster Hall to 500. Last night, they went out drinking with Miles Kane. They’d called time by 3.30am, but their jet lag combined with their drink of choice – whiskey sours, with egg whites – is now conspiring against them.
“You had a lot of eggs last night, Matt,” guitarist Jamie Cook says to Matt Helders, who plays drums.
“I had a dozen,” Helders groans.
New York is in the grip of the polar vortex, the arctic front that has seen temperatures drop to record-breaking lows across North America. “They were saying in Winnipeg it got colder than Mars,” Helders says. “They recorded temperatures when the Mars Rover went up, and they were colder. You’d go outside and they were saying, like, your face would freeze in five minutes. Something’s up when you live somewhere and you have to worry about sitting still too long and dying.” He thinks about this.
“Mind you, I remember once I went on holiday to Florida and it were the lowest temperatures they’d ever had, and it weren’t cold. People were on the radio telling people not to go outside, but we were still wearing shorts. It were our summer holiday.”
They pose for photos, first one by one in the studio and then as a gang out on the roof.
“Ooh, feel that round me Gregory,” Turner says, meaning the wind.
At one point, Simon Emmett the photographer’s shutter jams. “Fuck off!” he shouts, and it starts working again.
“Sometimes that’s all it takes,” Turner approves.
As Emmett snaps away, a mix of songs blast around the room – Bowie’s “Sound and Vision”, Talking Heads’ “Burning Down the House”, The Beatles’ “Twist and Shout”. When that last one comes on, Turner’s ears prick up. “We could do this, but slow,” he suggests to the others. He mimes playing the chords at half-speed.
Their Madison Square Garden gig coincides with the 50th anniversary of The Beatles appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show. By their own admission, Arctic Monkeys struggle with cover versions – “we’ve never been the sort of band that knows how to, you know, ‘jam in A’,” Turner says – and their take on “Come Together” performed at the London 2012 Olympics took work to figure out. But that Beatles cover turned out alright (watched by a global audience of 900 million, the Olympics show was considered another significant triumph in the Arctic Monkeys’ 10-year career, one that has largely been comprised of significant triumphs). So they plan to give it another go. They just need to agree on the song.
Esquire: Music aside, what’s your role in Arctic Monkeys?
Cook: I don’t know. I haven’t really thought about it.
Nick O’Malley: Central defender. [To Cook] You’re a bit of a right winger
Turner: My job is not to use football analogies.
In 2014, Arctic Monkeys are enjoying their most successful year yet. Every so often, a band emerges to define the times not just for a generation of music fans but for a whole era – The Clash, The Smiths, Oasis, The Strokes. Where Arctic Monkeys may be unique is that they have now managed that role twice. There are people, significant amounts of people, for whom AM is the first Arctic Monkeys album they’ve discovered.
“It’s probably on the second or third generation of fans now,” says Laurence Bell, co-founder of Domino Records, the independent label that signed the band in 2005. “They’re the toast of the playground again, every 13-year-old loves them. But so do grandads who were into Led Zeppelin. It’s very rare for a band to come out of the traps so big and then have another massive moment. It reminds me of The Who and The Stones, where they did some pop singles early on and then moved into an imperial phase. The Monkeys are in a whole new era.”
“The nearest thing I can compare them to is The Beatles,” says John Cooper Clarke, the performance poet and friend, whose poem “I Wanna be Yours” was adapted for the AM track of the same name. “They’re not trapped in any style. They went to the US and came back sounding like an LA band, not to a deleterious degree. They just take what they want from everywhere, really.”
That all this has come five albums and a decade into their career is down to a happy set of circumstances that has seen several factors slot into place. It’s perhaps easy to imagine that with Turner’s new quiff-and-leathers look the band have somehow remade themselves for the US. That might be particularly galling for those fans still holding out for a return to the Tropical Reefs and tracky bottoms tucked in socks of their towering debut, 2006’s Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, released when they were still in their teens, but it is untrue nonetheless.
Though AM was recorded in California, where three-quarters of the band now ride motorbikes and date models, in fact the most significant factor in their upswing in fame might be their attitude to fame itself. Last year, they supported another band for the first time ever – The Black Keys, with whom they toured the US. They did this partly because they love The Black Keys – “we bit their hand off when they offered to take us on tour,” Turner says – but also partly because it provided an opportunity to reach people they wouldn’t have otherwise reached.
“Going on at 7pm to a huge room that’s filling up and that,” Turner recalls. “And having to win people over, we weren’t used to it. It did make us raise the bar and get in people’s faces. We tried to turn a few heads.”
Towards the end of 2013, they also played Christmas concerts for US radio stations. It’s a tradition that sees bands perform for a select group of guests and competition winners in circumstances that even the most kind-hearted observer might consider a bit cheesy. (Stools are often involved.)
“We never really wanted to do any of that stuff, but now we’re, like, Number One,” bassist Nick O’Malley says. “We never really realised the benefit before.”
It’s fair to say the Arctic Monkeys of 2006, in the first flush of their skyrocketing fame, wouldn’t have gone there. They were famous for turning down interviews, TV shows, awards dos – anything where they might be construed as selling themselves. (This, of course, being the polar opposite of received music business lore that suggests new bands must do as much as they possibly can, as often as they possibly can in order to shout loudest above the competition.)
“We said no in the beginning [to almost everything] because we didn’t want to do it,” Turner recalls. “I never liked the idea of being everywhere. And I think because it was such a whirlwind, you try to keep some semblance of control. You try to be, like, ‘Well, I don’t want to overdo this thing…’ and there’s this idea that maybe it will burn out if you do.”
Naturally, this then became a selling point in itself. “Our nonchalance was the USP, yes,” Turner says. “I don’t even know where that attitude came from. It was our world and we didn’t want to let people into it in the beginning. Even when it came to record producers.
The first people who came into our practice room, we gave them a really hard time. But it was that naivety that made that first record what it was. We’d been in my mum and dad’s garage for a year-and-a-half before, gone round in a Transit for a bit, and tried to capture that. Playing to the very limits of our ability and understanding.”
“Any individual goes to pieces when fame is visited on them,” Cooper Clarke says. “Fame is against nature: anybody with any decency is going to crack up. But Arctic Monkeys are a gang, they’re a fait accompli. Being a gang protects you. Like The Beatles again. It would be impossible for any outsiders to influence what they do.”
Even when Arctic Monkeys did turn up, it was on what might politely be called their own terms. They collected a Q Award only to call Take That “bollocks” to their faces, had a go at the Brit School from the Brit Awards podium, the latter being the former’s biggest financial supporter, and berated the photographers trying to get a shot of Britain’s hottest new band when they played South by Southwest, the Texas festival credited with breaking groups in the US. Then there was their fondness for fancy dress. They performed “Fluorescent Adolescent” on The Jonathan Ross Show dressed as clowns, while Brits audiences have been treated to acceptance speeches from the cast of The Wizard of Oz, the Village People (with an absent O’Malley replaced by an actual builder) and a bunch of cloth-capped country squires who waved around a wooden duck, blew a bugle and were prompted off the stage by Kelly Osbourne.
“We started [drinking] too early,” scowls O’Malley. “We had that mindset where we just fucking hated anything like that but realised we probably should go. Then we got it in our heads we were going to go and cause trouble and be idiots. We’ve grown up a bit now.”
In fairness, the fact they turned up at all might be considered a victory in itself.
“What’s the point of [sitting] in a room full of people you fucking hate more than anyone?” Cook told one newspaper in 2006. “You’d just be sat there… going, ‘Oh God, I’m going to punch someone’. I can’t imagine doing the Brit Awards ever.”
“We said we’d never do radio IDs [station promotional sound clips] out here, either,” O’Malley laughs when I remind them of this. “We’ve sold out,” Cook says.
After the photo shoot, everyone piles into a van to drive to Letterman. The band, tour manager Ian McAndrew, their friend Tom Rowley, who fronts the Sheffield band Dead Sons and plays keyboards for them on tour, and me. The conversation meanders about in a way that only the conversation of the truly hungover can.
“Has ‘midwife crisis’ ever been a headline in a newspaper?” Helders wonders, for no obvious reason. “Loads of babies dying?”
Talk turns to the Super Bowl. It’s taking place at the weekend and this year New York is acting as the co-host. There is much excitement in the city. “Who’s playing at half-time?” Turner asks, referring to the tradition of booking a star turn. No one’s sure, though everyone agrees U2 are a safe bet. (Bruno Mars, as it turns out.)
“It should be us, really, shouldn’t it?” Turner says, not seriously.
“Our music is being used,” McAndrew insists from the front seat.
“Should have booked us, shouldn’t they?” Cook says. “Why didn’t you book us for that, Ian?”
“We turned it down,” O’Malley deadpans.
“You’re in Charlotte [North Carolina, playing a gig] that day,” Ian says, truthfully.
Suddenly Turner announces: “I’ve just thought of John Newman.” The soul-pop sensation is something of a running gag in the Arctic Monkeys’ camp, though not an unkind one. It’s simply that everyone thinks he bears an uncanny resemblance to Matt. In fact, the two of them have recently met.
“I took a picture of him,” Helders laughs. “Didn’t I show you?” He pulls out his iPhone. A photo captures the bequiffed pair in side profile, like the Rubin Vase optical illusion.
“It’s unbelievable,” Cook says.
“Actually, I was saying to him we should do a cover album of r’n’b tunes,” Helders says.
“He’s got an alright voice,” Turner approves. “You could do some dancing.”
They suggest some prospective album names. Matt & John. The Elvis Connection. World Service. Then Turner finds one that seems to strike just the right note of showbiz portent and schmaltz. “Dos,” he says.
The Late Show is filmed in The Ed Sullivan Theater, in Manhattan’s theatre district. The band have performed here before. Inside, it’s all a bit underwhelming. It’s a classic example of something looking much bigger on TV. It’s also freezing.
“You need a jacket on,” McAndrew says. “The studio’s exactly 47ºF.”
How does he know? “It’s on the bloody sheet,” he says, referring to the running order the staff in their Late Show sweatshirts carry everywhere. “It’s on the bloody sheet, because everything is.”
Indeed, as befits the show that has successfully run five nights a week since 1993, there’s a tight schedule. Rehearsals from lunchtime, then the audience arrive, then filming from 4.30pm – before it’s broadcast at 11.35pm that evening.
We’re ushered into a lift and up to two small dressing rooms on the fourth floor. Along with the live music and sketches, tonight’s guests include the comedian Louis CK and former Marines sergeant BJ Ganem, who lost his lower left leg in Iraq and now captains the Wounded Warrior Amputee Football Team. (Arctic Monkeys’ performance will directly follow his interview, some of which is conducted with the vet’s detached prosthetic limb, which bears the initials of five fallen Marine colleagues, in David Letterman’s hand.)
“Every time we’ve been on a TV show here it’s just weird,” Turner says. “The first time we had someone from Deadliest Catch. And then the one from Wayne’s World that isn’t Mike Myers. Tim Allen were on once with Kenny Rogers. It’s always strange.”
The dressing room has a TV linked to the studio floor. As we wait they rehearse the night’s skits. One involves a man erroneously using rock salt from the frozen New York roads to make pretzels. “Gold,” Helders sighs.
Eventually, they’re called down to run through “Do I Wanna Know?” and then “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High” for the Late Show’s website. It takes them a couple of goes to get right.
“I suddenly realised they haven’t played live since 16 December,” McAndrew says. “The third time was alright. You could see them thinking, ‘How does this one go again?’”
Back upstairs, Pete, a man from their US record company, appears carrying a box of AM CDs and some marker pens. Competition prizes that need to be signed.
“Start greasing them wheels,” he says.
“And there was me thinking all you had to do was reinvent a genre,” Turner mutters.
Pete has good news: they will be Number One on the Alternative Songs chart for a second week. “Lorde is 200 spins behind us,” he says. (They’ll stay there for four weeks, be knocked off by Lorde, then go top again.) Pete suggests they should start thinking about next year’s Grammys, for which they may now be serious contenders. “I’ve been doing a little bit of research,” he tells them. “Queens [of the Stone Age] never had a Number One single. The Strokes never had a Number One single. Interpol have never had a Number One single.”
There’s a short discussion about The Strokes’ authenticity. Pete suggests they may not have always been the skinny-clad rock stars we know them to be. “On their first gig they wore baggy jeans,” he advises.
“I bet everyone who watches gigs could’ve got into my jeans on our first gig,” Cook says.
A man appears to introduce them to BJ Ganem. “Gentlemen, this is BJ Ganem from the United States Marine Corps saying hi,” he says. “This is some rock stars.”
“Served in Iraq and got in the wrong place one day,” he explains.
“Good luck out there,” Turner says.
“You too, guys,” Ganem says.
One of the Letterman staff arrives with an AM CD. Would they mind signing it for a colleague? “Stick it on the pile,” Helders says.
They are called to perform. Letterman introduces them as “a wonderful rock’n’roll band from England”. The performance is terrific, Turner giving his full complement of hip-swivelling moves that have become familiar from their more recent shows. The band watch it back at their hotel that night.
“It looked cool,” Turner says the next day. “I could have kicked my leg a little higher.” It’s not clear whether he means his actual leg or whether this is a metaphor for the whole performance. Perhaps it’s both. “You could tell I’d not been kicking my leg for a month.”
Esquire: What makes a good frontman?
O’Malley: Someone who’s got charisma, I suppose. People always say, “I like it when frontmen of bands are really honest and themselves”. Well, I fucking don’t. I prefer a character you won’t meet everyday, someone that seems like they’re from another planet. It’s not, “What about that fucking weather?” Do you know what I mean? I want to think you’ve just landed from outer space.
Cook: Alex has evolved from being quite shy, quite kind of quiet. Like, some people have got freaked out by the change. But I think it’s much better the way he is now.
Turner: Certainly, in this day and age, a sense of humour. Because it’s pretty ridiculous. In 1969, there probably weren’t many laughs in rock’n’roll. But then they were probably funny people. They had a sense of humour, they just didn’t use it. Not to name-drop, but we bumped into Robert Plant last night and he’s hilarious. Just funny, straight away. [These days] I think if you start taking it too seriously, which I’m, like, sometimes definitely in danger of doing… then it gets ugly.
Helders: Probably a decent hairstyle wouldn’t go amiss.
Nick O’Malley’s abiding memory of recording AM is of producer James Ford teasing a noise from a guitar using a toy he’d made with a Chupa Chups lolly. (He scrolls through his phone to produce photographic proof.) When people write about AM, it is usually explained that in making it, Arctic Monkeys crossed rock with hip-hop and came up with a catchy mix of the two. Whereas this isn’t exactly wrong, it is does rather imply that this was somehow a straightforward thing to have done. While the history of pop music has produced plenty of evidence to suggest it must have been anything but.
“The whole thing on paper sounds terrible,” Helders says . “It depends which words you decide to use. Like, if you use ‘rap’ and ‘rock’ it sounds terrible. I mean… it isn’t that. There’s no rap on it.”
“When we were first talking about this album,” Cook says, “I think everyone was terrified.” The path forward had been illustrated by “R U Mine?”, recorded as a single in 2012 as the band wanted something new to play on The Black Keys tour.
“We were, like, ‘Yes, this is something that excites us, we should explore it more,’” O’Malley says. “So, then that became the idea behind it, we wanted it to all fit with that.”
Unlike previous Arctic Monkeys albums, which were recorded as if they were played live with as few overdubs as possible, this time they built the songs up slowly using studio technology. They went back to their favourite r’n’b and hip-hop singles of their youth and tried to work out how a producer like Timbaland had made them. And how they then might apply some of that craft to “a four-piece rock’n’roll band”. As with many things in Arctic Monkeys’ world, those singles are not necessarily the ones you might expect. Turner has described them as by artists his girlfriends used to listen to at school.
“The ones you didn’t admit to owning yourself,” Helders clarifies. “Or, you buy them the CD so you can listen to it.”
“People like Aaliyah, there’s real craft on those singles,” Turner says. “‘R U Mine?’ was kind of a lift from an Ashanti tune. We like the scales and the melodies on some of those records. The way the backing vocals might come right to the front and disappear again. The conversational lyric dictating the verse melody where it just meanders and never really locks into place. There was a crossroads at one point where it was, like, ‘Are we going to go for this thing or not?’ And thankfully we decided to take the red pill.”
In fact, many of AM’s songs still exist in a pre-makeover form. “There are other songs as well,” O’Malley says. “Songs we liked but it was just… it could have been 10 years ago.”
The band, who had been visiting LA more and more since recording the album Humbug there in 2008, moved out there last year.
“They’ve always really enjoyed touring the US,” Laurence Bell says. “They like playing and I think they found America somewhere where they could go and be a band that was a little bit out of the headlights. It wasn’t like some mad ambition [to break the US]. It’s just a fun place to be.”
“We thought, ‘Why not?’” O’Malley says. “We’re in our twenties, it’s one of those things you might look back and regret you didn’t do. I’ve got the rest of my life to live in England.”
It’s been reported they live in Los Feliz, an affluent Hollywood enclave with links to Charles Bukowski. But this isn’t quite right. “It’s a bit further out,” Turner says. “Where we live: it’s not pretty. It’s not suburban. It’s just quiet. You can kind of get away from it all. And that’s… definitely a plus. One of the many differences between New York, let’s say because we’re here, and LA is that it’s a lot easier to scurry up the hill in LA. It’s kind of… I don’t even know why I’m even trying to describe it to you, to be honest.”
Because I asked you to, I say.
“Well, I’m not going to tell you,” he says.
Each morning, they’d ride their motorbikes five minutes to the studio they were renting. “We wanted to arrive noisily and then carry on making noise,” Turner explains. Again, given that LA is home to the world’s grandest recording studios, theirs wasn’t anything special.
“I wouldn’t even describe it as comfortable,” Turner says. “Don’t get me wrong, I like going to those big studios where, I don’t know, Stevie Wonder’s piano is or something. I get a kick out of that. But if you’re spending a lot of time there to make an album, you get to this thing where it gets to midnight and you have to pay overtime. That kind of thing doesn’t put you in the mood to want to create.”
Not that their studio didn’t come with its own kinds of distractions. “Jamie’s got, like… let’s call it a fetish for old arcade machines,” Helders says. “He found this guy in the Valley who rents old machines and he was really excited one morning. He was, like, ‘You’re not going to believe what I’ve done…’”
“‘What I’ve sorted out for us...’” Turner says. “[I thought] there’s a stripper coming in this afternoon or something. And then this guy wheels in a Donkey Kong machine.”
“‘No, you’re right, I’m never going to believe what you’ve done,’” Helders groans.
“He spent the rest of the three months we were there going, ‘Oh, come on, Donkey Kong! You wanker!’” Turner says.
Helders turns out to be quite hard-line when it comes to vintage platform games. “I don’t think I had one go on it,” he says. “It’s too much. I know I’m not going to be able to get that far. I’m going to keep doing the first level and that’s it. It’s going to kill me. I shouldn’t have to keep doing that first level. I’m a grown-up. I like computer games, don’t get me wrong, but I like progress as well.”
The day after Letterman, Arctic Monkeys have a number of radio interviews scheduled. Madison Square Garden hasn’t sold out yet and any extra push can only help things along. Between 1–2.30pm, they have to fit in two interviews for Z100, New York’s largest Top 40 station, one for Q104.3, a classic rock station, and one with online station iHeartRadio. These interviews are done by Turner and Helders.
“They kind of leave us lot out of it,” O’Malley explains. “Sometimes, a half-hour interview with us lasts 10 minutes. The interviewer is, like, ‘I’m not getting much out of you two’.”
The Q104.3 interview is for a show called Out of the Box, presented by Jonathan “JC” Clarke. He introduces them as “the biggest band in the UK at this moment, and soon to be the biggest band in the US.” He’s curious about the new album’s title. He detects the whiff of rock’n’roll debauchery.
“AM… is this a reference to late nights?” he asks, leadingly. “Early mornings? Both? Or AM radio?”
“Arctic Monkeys’ initials,” Turner says.
“So… AM! I didn’t even think of that. I said ‘AM… AM… What does that mean?’
“So, that guy Dr John Cooper Clarke… he’s an English poet, right?” JC continues. “He is on the front page of your website with a video so I guess you guys took a poem of his and turned it into a song for this album.”
“That’s right,” Turner says. “This song ‘I Wanna be Yours’…”
“Yeah, yeah,” JC says. “First thing I noticed was, like, ‘Is that Ronnie Wood on the Arctic Monkeys’ homepage?’”
“There is a bit of Ron Wood in there,” Turner says. “The difference is you’d catch Ronnie Wood in big, colourful Adidas trainers...”
“Right, right, yeah – exactly…”
“…Whereas Johnny Clarke is exclusively pointy boots.”
For Z100’s Saturday Night Online, they’re interviewed by Maxwell (it’s just Maxwell). He’s even more enthusiastic than JC. And keen to delve deeper into the idea the band have been friends since primary school.
“How amazing now is it to watch this tremendous growth with your brothers?” he asks. “Headlining Madison Square Garden, Glastonbury… things like that. How fun has this ride been?”
“Great, yeah,” Turner says. “I’ve not really any basis for comparison, but I do think perhaps the fact we had this firm friendship to begin with maybe protects you from some of the pitfalls that bands can fall into.”
“There’s something to be said for the persistence,” Maxwell persists. “For taking this journey along the way and not getting that instant gratification ’cos you don’t quite appreciate the hard work. To go in front of Glastonbury, that’s one of the most epic festivals in the world – when you’re hitting the stage and you’re seeing 100K all rocking out to you. How does that feel, on stage? Or, is that like a stupid question to ask?”
“Physically, you don’t see that many people,” Helders says.
“You’ve got a stigmatism,” Turner fibs.
“I’ve got bad eyesight,” Helders says.
Esquire: In what ways does your Britishness stand out in the US?
Cook: They think we’re Australian. Or Irish.
O’Malley: No one understands us half the time. Which is quite funny. [Thinks] I suppose it’s that we’re not keen to shove ourselves down everyone’s throats. I suppose that’s a very American thing, very self-promoting at every opportunity, where, if you meet somebody for the first time, they will straight away tell you what they’re doing. Like, ‘Hi, my name’s so-and-so. I work for…’ And you’re, like… ‘Er, OK.’ English people don’t swap that information unless it’s necessary.
Turner: Aside from mentioning, whatever, the chip shop in songs? I think the song we’ve got on the radio now definitely stands out. You’re listening to the radio and everything else is the modern rock that is on high rotation in the US now. I think we definitely sound different to all that. And maybe you can attribute that to where we’re from.
Helders: We still complain like the English.
On February 8, Arctic Monkeys play Madison Square Garden. They’ve been here before – as fans to watch The Strokes, and as support to The Black Keys. But this is the first time they’ll play to their own fans. A sign in the audience suggests not all their lyrics have translated. It reads “SHAKE YOUR MARDY BUM”. They have settled on a cover of “All My Loving”, which they play in the encore. Turner announces to the sea of camera phones it is 50 years, almost to the day, since Ed Sullivan brought The Beatles to the US.
“Apparently, one-in-three Americans watched that performance,” he says. “So, if we’re lucky, one or three Americans might watch this YouTube video from your phone.”
But the band are genuinely chuffed. They make sure they get a decent recording of the song as a memento. Keen photographer Helders documents the backstage area with his Leica. “There’s pictures of everyone,” he marvels. “From Frank Sinatra to Jay Z. It’s the most famous venue in the world.”
This year, Arctic Monkeys not only turned up to the Brit Awards but opened the show. “It was on that basis I confirmed it,” manager McAndrew reveals. The other deciding factor was organisers agreeing to their special request. Giant flaming “A” and “M” letters mounted in the middle of The O2. “That was conditional,” Turner says. “‘We will do it if we can have our name in giant letters on fire.’ It’s kind of a gag... you know?”
In fact, presumably overjoyed they’d managed to persuade the band not only to show up in a state that at least promised to be relatively sober and without recourse to Wizard of Oz costumes or wooden animal props but to actually perform, the Brits people said why stop at flaming letters? What about a wall of fire? “They came back to us and it was, like, fire everywhere,” Turner says.
The band talked them down. “That was one of the funniest conversations of my life,” Turner says. “‘Is the fire and lasers at the same time?’ ‘Shall we just save lasers for the end?’; the most ridiculous Spinal Tap conversation.”
Even so, they have to do four test runs in rehearsals. The tricky thing isn’t getting the letters lit, but putting them out. This is done with a blast of CO2 which is noisy, smoky and smells bad. The flaming letters incinerate the confetti collected in the rafters from years of concerts at the O2, making it rain soot.
With jet lag returning, Turner goes off for a couple of hours’ sleep in the nearest Holiday Inn. In the shower there, he comes up with the speech he will deliver when the band collect their Best British Album award (they also win Best British Group, becoming the first group to claim the Brits double for the third time).
Did he know the award was theirs?
“Yes, everyone knows that,” he says, meaning who the winners are. “I think so.”
This is what he says: “That rock’n’roll, eh? That rock’n’roll, it just won’t go away. It might hibernate from time to time, sink back into the swamp. I think the cyclical nature of the universe in which it exists demands it adheres to some of its rules. But it’s always waiting there, just around the corner, ready to make its way back through the sludge and smash through the glass ceiling, looking better than ever. Yeah, that rock’n’roll. Seems like it’s faded away sometimes, but it will never die. And there’s nothing you can do about it. Thank you very fucking much for this, I do truly appreciate it. Don’t take that the wrong way.” Then he adds: “And yeah… invoice me for the microphone if you need to,” before dropping it and exiting stage right.
The next day, one newspaper runs an article under the headline “Brits fans wonder if Alex Turner is drunk after rambling Brits speech”. No less an authority than Peaches Geldof takes to Instagram to call the singer an “ungrateful twat”. Twitter decides he must be on drugs, spectacularly arrogant or taking the mick out of the whole event.
There’s more support in their traditional heartland. The next week, the NME will pull its proposed cover (Beck) for a mocked-up picture of Turner as Lord Kitchener and a six-page story on the 146-word speech. “One week on, everyone’s still talking about it,” it announces. Inside, the editor writes: “Inspiration comes in many forms. Last week, it had a quiff and an agenda and stirred up a whole world of shit at the Brits, and the trail of anger, nonsense, adulation and mild confusion left in its wake has made the last seven days an exciting place to live.”
Alex Turner walks into an upscale restaurant in central London wearing his leather jacket and carrying a bottle of water. It is two days after the Brits, and his jet lag is still a problem. He’s been up since 4am. “I’ve looked at everything on the internet,” he says. “Well, not everything. Not, like, the nasty stuff. Every motorbike on the internet.”
He refers to the Brits speech as “that performance”. “I’m in a difficult position in the sense that, preposterous as this might sound, I don’t like being the centre of attention,” he says. “I get up on stage every night and play songs, but I almost feel the songs are the centre of attention. I don’t like opening my birthday presents in front of people, either. But I can’t really see another way round making an acceptance speech.”
“I suppose on some level, in that environment, rightly or wrongly, it almost feels like we were representatives of guitar music, or rock’n’roll,” he says. “And while I don’t see getting any trophy as a great victory, in some sense it’s a victory for our music. But I can’t go up and gush about how I dreamt about picking up a Brit Award all my life, because it just isn’t the truth.”
It’s probably not why most people form bands. “No. I mean, I might have written some songs to get somebody’s number. I’m not that deep. But the idea that talent is directly proportional to your trophy cabinet is one I oppose. I’m not mad at it. It was enjoyable being there. In the past, we’ve presented ourselves in a way that we behave like yobs. I don’t regret that either.”
Some other things of greater or lesser importance in the life of Alex Turner. His earliest memory is of seeing the Red Arrows in Eastbourne. The record currently on his home turntable is “Harlan County” by Jim Ford, the Kentucky singer-songwriter once described by Sly Stone as “the baddest white man on the planet”. (Arctic Monkeys have recently had a record player in their dressing room, playing Light of Love by T-Rex.) His most treasured possession is the chain he wears around his neck, a present from his grandad, on his 18th birthday.
“He wears one just like it,” he says. “I never really take it off.” He’s just finished reading Vladimir Nabokov’s Despair. “It blew my head,” he says. “I think it might be my favourite.” (Before that it was The Fall by Albert Camus.) Every now and then, the same dream returns to spook him: Arctic Monkeys are playing a huge field somewhere, there’s technical difficulties and first the songs and then the audience slowly filter away. “And I’m just there, it’s just me.” Not that he always dreams about the band. “Sometimes I dream about, like, a violent ocean,” he clarifies.
His favourite colour is blue. “Blue for Wednesday,” meaning Sheffield Wednesday. And he’s worried everything is dumbed down. “I don’t know how you get out of it. We’ll all start to exist on phones, like it’s an inevitability we’re all going to get dragged there. It would be nice to know people still know how to build things. It bugs me that there might not be anyone who can build a dry stone wall.”
Recently, he’s started collecting rock photography. He shows me a photo of Tina Turner by Jack Robinson, the Vogue photographer whose career ended abruptly in 1972 after struggles with alcoholism. “He had a meltdown and ended up being a caretaker,” he says. “It’s kind of a cool story.”
Interviewers sometimes play the game of trying to extract from him whether a song is about a particular girlfriend. (They never get very far.) Lately, people have wondered if “Arabella” is about Arielle Vandenberg, the US model and actress he’s been seeing for the last few years. But it doesn’t seem particularly helpful to anybody to confirm this either way. Least of all him. “It doesn’t help the sales of my memoirs in 20 years’ time, either,” he says.
He’s happy to concede that girls still provide the best inspiration for his songs. “To write about women, yes. I haven’t really found a way round it yet. There’s other things I eventually might get round to writing about. But for now…” He reconsiders this. “In a sense they’re about girls. But in a sense they’re about loneliness. And longing.”
In late February, Turner and Helders attend the NME Awards where Arctic Monkeys are nominated in eight categories. The event is at the Brixton Academy and despite a good turnout – Paul McCartney’s there, Damon Albarn and Blondie collect prizes – it’s oddly low-key. As is the modern way, all the awards are sponsored by someone or other. The Best Album prize is courtesy of inFAMOUS: Second Son, a PlayStation 4 game. The Best Music Video category is sponsored by Domino’s pizza.
“So, as the sun sets on awards season, there’s just the big two to go,” Turner says, collecting their first prize. “I am, of course, talking about the Oscars and the NME Awards. Let me start by saying I’d just like to thank the Academy [he gestures around, to the Brixton Academy]… only joking. To be honest, I used up all my best shit last week.”
They win five awards – including Best British Band, Best Live Band and Best Album – bringing their haul of NME awards to date to 18. They skip the after-parties and go out with a small group of friends. “I’m not keeping up with new music as well as I should be, I’ve no idea who most of the people are,” Helders says. “It’s good to be recognised for what you do but it’s a bit strange to be in a room of people who do a similar thing to you. I find it a bit unnatural. It’s like a convention. Like, if you were into pharmaceuticals, and all you could talk about is that.”
Esquire: Why haven’t Arctic Monkeys messed it up?
Turner: It depends on who you ask, in some people’s heads we probably have. I suppose working with good people, and a bit of luck, really. We’ve got a great manager and we made a good decision there to sign with a label that was going to encourage us to flourish. [Thinks] I was trying not to say this but, you know, it’s built on a friendship that goes back to when we were, like, seven years old or whatever. I’m just desperately trying not to be, like, sentimental.
O’Malley: We keep trying. I need to get a really big drug habit, then we’re fucked. But you want to look back and go, “No regrets about it”. You meet people who are in bands and they seem quite bitter about things that have happened to them. But we’ve got no feelings like that. Hopefully, when I’m old I will still be able to say that.
Helders: There’s loads of things we’ve backed away from or not done that maybe would have made us a bigger band but weren’t necessarily that credible or something we could live with ourselves for. Even if that’s just a song idea that’s a bit dishonest in a way. It’s quality control. As long as we all agree on stuff, then I think we’ll be alright.
Cook: Really? I don’t know.
Speaking to Helders on the phone. It is mid-March and the band are back in LA about to take a couple of months off. O’Malley is due to have a baby with girlfriend Kelly and Arctic Monkeys’ diaries have been cleared until May, when they’ll play New Zealand and Australia. Then there’s more US dates, plus headline slots at the Reading and Leeds Festivals in summer. It will be the longest they’ve been on the road.
“We’re running out of singles,” he says. “If we keep touring we’ll have to find something new to play.”
So perhaps they’ll go into the studio later this year for a one-off single, as they did with “R U Mine?” That turned out alright last time. “Exactly,” Helders says. “That’s what led to all this.”
Taken from Esquire's May issue, on newsstands now.