The Californian desert has a lot to answer for.
In the late Sixties, Keith Richards would take Gram Parsons and their gang out to the arid landscape around the Joshua Tree, ingest copious amounts of hallucinogenics, and watch UFOs hover across the ethereal sky. Almost forty years later, Josh Homme, Queens Of The Stone Age’s domineering main man, lured the Arctic Monkeys out to the enchanted wilderness to channel some of its psychedelic magic into their eagerly awaited third album, ‘Humbug’.
All swirling carnival organs and colourful decorations, ‘Humbug’ is as vivid as the desert sun, and sees the band stretching out beyond previously tread territories into a bigger, more strident sound. As Clash catches up with Alex Turner and Matt Helders from the band, one sunny day in North London, we discover how the roots of ‘Humbug’ lie in the vibrant experimentalism of the Sixties’ leading power trios…
“We needed to have a shake up and be out the comfort zone,” says Alex in response to the band’s decision to up and record in the States. They had asked Homme to co-produce with long-time producer (and S.M.D. man) James Ford, and when he accepted he naturally invited the band to his Rancho De La Luna studio and into its unique method of working.
“The [studio] that we were in is just somebody’s house,” says Helders. “Dave Catching from Eagles Of Death Metal, it’s his house. He lived in it while we were recording there; he were sleeping there every night. It were a strange way of doing it but it worked.” With little to no distractions amid their surroundings, it was the perfect setting to work on the seeds of ideas they’d sown before arriving.
“Before we went there we had some demos and we’d done some songs, but there was no design for the record,” Alex reveals. “We’d talked about some things before and deviated from original plans and stuff; there was no hard and fast thing like, ‘This is what we’re gonna do’. But when we got back from that first session it did seem that that experience [with Josh] or the songs we’d recorded during that time provided the design for the rest of it, or the framework.”
That design is evident in the album’s big-sky sound, an advancement, it must be pointed out, from Turner’s widescreen foray with The Last Shadow Puppets. The band sound incredibly refined. Matt Helders, once a relentless beast unleashed on a drum kit, here sounds restrained, only really letting loose when the song needs to, but otherwise keeping things on a suitably meaty foundation. “It’s harder to hold back because it’s tempting to do fills everywhere and try to come up with a beat that no one’s ever done or can’t make any sense of, but then it’s not really that good then,” Matt admits. His thuds and rolls are married indelibly to his bass counterpart, Nick O’Malley, who acquires fuzz tones and rigid riffs that mirror the bounding rhythms, and while there are still a few bass/guitar duet hooks in there, this album’s absence of spiky, chunky, punky guitars is noticeable. From Jamie Cook (and probably Alex too) we get trebly chimes, we get ethereal timbres, we get meandering solos that almost slide out of tune, and we get soft, melodic acoustic guitars that carry light electric picking.
“Yeah, it’s more of a guitar record than we’ve done before,” Alex concurs. “[Josh] encouraged us with playing solos and stuff – guitar solos are summat we’ve kinda rarely delved into, we were always a bit scared of it or summat – but him and the engineer, this guy Alain Johannes, were both like fuckin’ amazing – Alain’s like the best guitar player I’ve ever seen, and they were very encouraging in that department. There’d be times where you’d be playing summat and you’re fuckin’ it up so they’d send you outside – because there’s nowhere else to go – to go and clear your head and you’d just be like playing among the cacti.”
A major difference that sets ‘Humbug’ apart from its predecessors is the development of Alex Turner’s voice. It’s apparent in the very first moments of opener ‘My Propellor’ – he is almost crooning into the microphone; a smooth, breathy and loose singing voice. It’s immediately interesting: you want to hear that breakneck spoken-word rap we love him for, but his laconic tones throughout are, again, more redolent of his Puppets contributions. “I’ve just sort of tapped into that a little bit more,” he says meekly. “Yeah, there was definitely a desire to wanna go down that avenue.”
The expansive desert sessions were countered by Ford’s recordings with the Monkeys in Brooklyn. There were concerns, says Alex, of the bi-coastal studios producing disparate sounds, but once the vibe was set with Josh, the mood continued and effortlessly permeated Ford’s work, meaning there’s no perceptible difference between the sessions.
Of course, the album almost never happened at all – as reported on ClashMusic.com, Alex had his prized lyrics book stolen, jeopardising all plans and sketches for proposed songs. Despite his prolificness, losing a bounty of irreplaceable prose couldn’t help but devastate Alex. All he could do was try and remember favourite lines and attempt to recreate lost songs. “I think you keep your strongest verse in your mind,” he considers. “I went and got another notebook, sorta frantically trying to remember stuff, and perhaps I came to better ends anyway.”
Under Homme’s tutelage, the Monkeys started recording in a fresh and open environment where, as Alex explains, there was no forethought on how any sonic complexities might prove problematic down the line. “Beforehand, when we were recording, we limited us selves,” he starts, “we wanted to be able to record this tune on Monday and be able to play it in a bar or whatever on Tuesday, you know what I mean? Whereas this time we weren’t really bothered about that, we just thought we’d figure out how to do it live later. We’ll just open it up a bit more. Everything about it was a lot less guarded and we just experimented more.”
That vast vision was encouraged by Josh, who supplied the band with albums by people he thought would inspire further explorations in sound. Roky Erikson was one such influence – his band, the 13th Floor Elevators, were short-lived pioneers of the West Coast garage and psychedelic scene, and are also a favourite of Primal Scream, who covered their ‘Slip Inside This House’ on the seminal ‘Screamadelica’ album. However, the Monkeys’ listening habits were dominated by a more celebrated lysergic warrior.
“Hendrix is a big thing we listened to loads during this,” Alex announces. “We got into Hendrix as you do when you first pick up a guitar cos you’re like, ‘Wow, look what he can do with this thing that’s hurting me fingers’. But we got back into that and perhaps appreciated it more and got more into the records than we had before. ‘Electric Ladyland’ and ‘Axis: Bold As Love’ and that… And we were listening to Cream a little bit – there’s some good harmonies and stuff on there, it’s cool.”
‘Humbug’ is being released the week before the group are set to headline the Reading/Leeds Festival, which means you’ve only got seven days to learn the choruses to your favourite new songs. Also on the bill are Eagles Of Death Metal, Josh Homme’s other dirty outfit, and the chance of a guest appearance during the Monkeys’ set is not dismissed by the duo.
After Reading, they’ll be heading back to the States, but this time for another tour. Their success there, says Matt, is hard to gauge. “It’s been a while now since we’ve done anything there. It’s always been good – well, good enough – without ever having to go out of our way to make it better. Like, we’ve been able to go for a few weeks and not like spend half a year there just to sell a few more and play some good gigs.” Then, when asked if the Californian-born ‘Humbug’ might fare well with its motherland’s natives, Matt just shrugs and adds, “It’s hard to say, isn’t it, cos I don’t know what they want.”
Well, I’m sure we’ll find out soon enough.
‘Humbug’ is out this week on Domino Records (REVIEW!). Arctic Monkeys will be headlining the Leeds and Reading Festivals on 28th / 29th August respectively.