Arctic Monkeys

What keeps us sane? Taking the piss!

It was hard work being an Arctic Monkey in 2006 – the glare of the world’s press reflected the skyrocketing fame of the fresh-faced foursome as they begrudgingly ascended into infamy as the purveyors of the fastest selling debut album in the known universe. Surviving the zealous attention, the tabloid intrusion and the jettisoning of an original member, the Arctic Monkeys remained characteristically tight-lipped for the most part, preferring to let the music speak for itself amidst the craziness that surrounded them.

It’s now little more than 15 months since the release of their debut, and with no sign of the media madness abating one iota, the Monkeys are set to throw themselves squarely back into the ring with the (not so) long awaited follow-up, ‘Favourite Worst Nightmare’. As the anticipation for their return mounts, they chose to speak exclusively to Clash before it all kicked off. Here we go again…

Legend has it that the Arctic Monkeys are difficult, arrogant and unapproachable. Their declining interviews and TV appearances add to the shroud of mystery that envelops them, the ambiguity of their refusals translates as obstinate to all those whose advances were spurned. Which all makes for quite a worrying prospect when Clash is en route to interrogate the band. Remembering past encounters with the band – a drunken introduction at SXSW 2006, a pissed natter after an awards show, and a sozzled meeting at their Brixton aftershow late last year – I hope that the intoxicating common denominator was not the basis for their unusually amenable manner, and with the reassurances of their publicist and label resounding in my head, I convince myself that they’re not going to be the sullen beasts as portrayed.

We are bound for Southampton, the unlikely choice for the first date of their pre-release UK tour. It is Easter Monday and the abnormally lush weather is out of sorts for a British Bank Holiday, bringing with it a slew of scantily clad locals to the coastal town’s centre, buzzing with Arctic fever ahead of tonight’s event.

The return of Arctic Monkeys to the live stage is big news – and not just for the indie population of Southampton. It marks the advent of what many would term Judgement Day – can they live up to the mammoth success of their debut or will the burden of expectation be too heavy on their shoulders? (Does anyone else notice the irony of our esteemed prophets returning on the anniversary of Christ’s rising?)

To date, ‘Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not’ has sold over two million copies worldwide and with it swept the post-Libertines zeitgeist under the carpet and trampled all over it in size nine Nikes. Scooping every award under the sun but not turning up to collect them (the BRITS’ Village People acceptance speech is now a YouTube favourite), the band seemed nonplussed by the tsunami of influence that was crashing over our shores and kept their heads low throughout. Hailed as everything from social commentators to the saviours of music, they fled from the spotlight and the unwelcome invasions of privacy from the press, granting interviews to a select handful of magazines, and tried to retain normality by keeping their feet planted firmly on the ground. Not that it stopped everyone and their uncle buying the album… It’s a lot to live up to.

‘Favourite Worst Nightmare’, following as it does hot on the heels of this wave-crest, is… (Dramatic pause to heighten excitement)… not about to disappoint. Sigh of relief. I understate a little. I’ve had an advance copy for some weeks now, lucky bastard that I am, and am still devouring every nuance of its grooves, but suffice to say this is going to send Arctic Monkeys stratospheric. Where modern classics have stumbled in their successors (‘The Libertines’ to ‘Up The Bracket’, ‘Morning Glory’ to ‘Definitely Maybe’), this seizes everything that was perfect about their debut – the breakneck beats, the infectious riffs, the astute lyrical vignettes – and propels it further forward full-throttle with stunning consequences. (For a full critique, see this issue’s reviews)

Now in their dressing room backstage at Southampton’s distinctly un-rock ‘n’ roll Guildhall, Clash is sat with half of the Sheffield quartet. Matt Helders, the youngest Monkey and drumming powerhouse, is the first to sit on the interrogation couch. We are soon joined by Alex Turner, singer, lyricist and one year older than his sticksman. At the large table behind us sits guitarist Jamie Cook (Cookie to those in the know), who will sit silently for most of the interview doodling away on scraps of paper, intermittently holding examples up for Matt’s amusement. The new boy, bassist Nick O’Malley only appears when the interview is done. Nick was drafted into the fold – temporarily at first – when original member Andy Nicholson declined to tour America in May 2006, but as it recently transpired was promoted to a fully-fledged Monkey as Nicholson was edged out (amicably) for being too homesick.

As Turner and Helders sit side by side opposite Clash, they share for the duration of our interview personal asides; private jokes, knowing glances, even finishing each other’s sentences, evidently the result of a close knit friendship, that gang mentality one needs to survive in the middle of all the madness. It is, therefore, a convivial atmosphere I find myself entering, quite at odds with what we’re led to believe is the moody Monkeys manner. Although not entirely conversational, they are at ease under questioning and respond accordingly to everything I pose – Alex usually deliberating for a few seconds before returning his considered reaction.

And so, while I have their attention, it is time to confront these humble urchins on living the dream and entering the Nightmare…

Are you ready for the imminent release of the new album?

Alex: Yeah, very excited. We haven’t actually got one back yet, you know when they’re all finished? I can’t wait to see that.

Are you nervous about what the album has got to live up to, or are you fairly confident with what’s gonna happen?

Alex: Yeah…[Pause] I just wanna make another one! That’s the way that I feel. But like, we’re just looking forwards to playing it.

How have the new songs gone down live?

I think it’s probably less of a concept album than the first one.

Alex: Good. We’ve been playing this one called ‘This House Is A Circus’ first and it builds up until halfway through and it kicks off. Every time we’ve played that, especially like in Europe, they were feeling it, having it. They knew it were coming.

Do they know the songs already?

Alex: I’ve heard the odd girl singing…

Matt: People have heard some live recordings on the Internet, so some people know the choruses to certain ones.

You tried to release this album exactly a year after your debut [their album was released in January 2006] – so only a couple of months off! Would you have preferred it to come out on time?

Alex: Yeah, I would have. We wanted to get it out exactly a year after but (laughs) we went out too much when we were making it! Fucked about… Dawdled a bit… But it were still quite a quick turnaround weren’t it?

Were you starting to get a bit bored of playing the old songs? Is that why you wanted to get these out quick?

Alex: Yeah, absolutely yeah, cos we’ve been playing them even longer as well, you know, than when the first one came out. Some of them we were playing for ages. But when we put new ones in the set it made the old ones more exciting as well, it sort of refreshed them in a way.

So they break up the set a little bit?

Alex: A bit, yeah, it just made it seem like the old ones had more of a… you wanted to play them again.

The producers on this album were Mike Crossey and James Ford from Simian Mobile Disco. Why did you choose them?

Alex: We started the first album with them two guys like, and we always had a good time with them. I think probably it didn’t work out on the first one, but we always sort of think in the back of us minds we want to go back to them and try again. And this time I think that we had more of a blank canvas so the first idea was to get them in, and then we spoke to James… I dunno, it’s not like he’s got one sort of style, you know what I mean? He’s not gonna try and make you into anything or whatever, and I just think we had a good…like, vibe waiting for us when we went into the studio. [Incredulous at his own choice of words] Vibe!

He’s the same kind of age, which must have been a bit more comfortable than having an older, seasoned pro?

Alex: I suppose, yeah. When we did the first one we had Jim Abiss and he were sound, like he were perfect for that, I think, then. I think for each record we wanna do a different kind of approach. That one, we went away to the countryside for the first record, just to do it in 3 weeks, and for this one we went all over, like a bit in London, and more in cities. The next one I’d like to do it different…

Perhaps LA?

Alex: Exactly, yeah! But yeah, just try and make it so it’s different.

In terms of your sound, this album is not a radical departure from the music on the first. Usually bands would use their second album as an excuse to go a bit experimental and pad out the sound with various things. You didn’t; was that your intentions?

Alex: Yeah, but I think it is slightly removed. It’s definitely like moved on with arrangements and rhythm and stuff like that, and I feel like lyrically it’s a bit of a departure from what I were speaking about before. So you’re not kind of confined to one weekend or something, with this it will be a bit more like skewed or a bit more cantered, and also not quite as specific. So yeah, in that way I think that it is a bit different, but it’s a bit of a cop-out to make it massive, the second one, or also to try and be like a different band or something. It only come out like a year ago, it would be silly. But I think a lot of that, it just felt natural, like we wanted to get a bit heavier and stuff.

When you were writing the songs, did you test them out live to gauge which ones might get chosen for the album?

Alex: No, we’ve never played any of these before. It feels like, you know, I don’t feel like we were established enough to reinvent or depart from it, you know what I mean? In us own heads we’d come to what we were, like come to the conclusion of ‘Alright, we’re this band’…

Perhaps in this day and age though, with music moving so fast and things changing quickly, people might have expected or not have been surprised if you’d have changed, and you could have got away with it.

Alex: [Pauses to consider] Yeah.

Was the album written before you went into the studio or was it made in there?

Alex: It was like both for this. We used to have lines… (laughs) off the desk! No, I had like a book full; some were more fully written on acoustic or whatever and worked them out in practice rooms and were just like lines that we piled all together. A lot of lyrics come from mishearing someone, I’ve noticed recently.

Like malapropisms?

Alex: What’s that?

Matt: Is that what it’s called?

Well, it’s more like saying something wrong by accident, like Ringo used to say “a hard day’s night”.

Alex: Right, yeah, but like someone would say something and I’d say, “Did you just say ‘two feathers from a vampire duck?’ (Both laugh)

Matt: ‘No, I said, ‘two leathers on the back of that truck’.

Alex: And you’re like, ‘Wow, two feathers from a vampire duck? What an amazing title!’ (Laughs)

Do you use the studio as an opportunity to experiment with sound?

Matt: This time we were more bothered probably about trying different sounds and stuff and it weren’t as much of a problem if we said, ‘I want to try that song again but with this amp’ or something different. The first time, we pretty much set us stuff up and it stayed like that all the way through that, every song.

Alex: James came in with that opinion.

Matt: Yeah, he was always encouraging us to maybe try a different sound. It were good, like, we re-did drums a couple of weeks after just to see what it were like. Stuff like that we probably wouldn’t have had time to do first time, but cos them songs as well were already pretty much set in stone so there weren’t really much room for that.

The energy in the album is very much ‘up’; there are only two more downbeat songs on the album. When you’re writing and recording them, do you envisage them as live performances or tracks on a record that someone at home can listen and dance to?

Matt: I don’t know. I think about listening to some back and thinking ‘I can’t wait to play this live’, just from like a playing point of view, but for a listener, I don’t know. It always sounds more exciting if you do it live when you are recording. I can’t imagine what we’ve got in mind while we’re doing it.

Do you listen to your own stuff at all?

Alex: Yeah…

Matt: We have to… Oh, do you mean…

Alex: …like on us Walkman or summat, yeah? I do. I’ve still been listening to ‘The Bakery’, cos that’s the only one I’ve got. A few tunes, like B-sides and that, I kind of listen to them more. There’s a tune called ‘Plastic Tramp’ that we’re gonna put on a B-side. I like listening to that.

What about when someone sees you in a club and puts on one of your songs?

Alex: It used to be like, ‘Oh no’, but now it’s just like funny, like ‘Come on!’

Matt: ‘Brianstorm’, I’ve heard that a couple of times.

Alex: We went to that party after that BRITS thing and that samba ‘Dancing Shoes’ kicked in. You know they did that, whatever it’s called… [Rhythms Del Mundo reworked the Monkeys’ hit with a Cuban swing] That came on and Helders let go! People were filtering out by the end of it and it were a pretty sparse dancefloor, so there were plenty of attention, and plenty of space!

Matt: That version just took over me. It’s the beat – I just can’t help but dance!

Did you have a rose in your teeth?

Matt: No, but I should have – I were one step away!

‘Only Ones Who Know’ is the tenderest track on the album. It’s got a bit of bass and two guitars, but could be played live with just vocals and a guitar. Matt could sit it out…

Alex: With a rose in your teeth!

Would you consider it for a solo moment?

Alex: I don’t know. I’ve not really thought about doing that one. Cos like, that one we just did it on acoustic and then we didn’t know whether we were going to do drums or what on it, and we ended up messing about with loads of [FX] boxes, and James did like a slide on it. I normally hate slide guitars; it’s country music.

Hey, there’s nothing wrong with country music!

Alex: I know. I’m just scared of it!

When you’re writing lyrics and you’re singing about “he” or “she”, are you always singing about other people or is it a cunning way to divert any personal feelings?

Alex: Cunning! (Laughs) Sometimes both really.

If it were too personal would you change it round?

Alex: I don’t know. You can double bluff with it though.

Does it get boring having to talk about your lyrics?

Alex: It can be sometimes. Not boring, just quite challenging sometimes.

Because you don’t know what they mean sometimes?

Alex: Yeah… No, because like I think I probably did but it’s almost like that much happens and stuff and you sort of do other songs and then you’re like, ‘Wait a minute…’ and it just sounds like you’re lying!

How personal do you tend to get when you’re writing? Would you write about things that you wouldn’t normally tell other people?

Alex: I suppose, yeah, definitely, probably cos you can get away with it. There is some stuff that I probably think is weird that I like the sound of, almost like subconsciously sometimes. I go, ‘Yeah, that’s good and that’s not’. I don’t know; I can’t explain it very well.

Do you think that you can be too honest sometimes?

Alex: Sometimes you want a bit of that though, you know what I mean? As long as you don’t have to do that every night. It’d probably be different if you didn’t have to do that, play it or sing it every night.

The album title, ‘Favourite Worst Nightmare’, comes from a lyric in the song ‘D Is For Dangerous’. Why did you choose that to sum up the album?

Alex: I think that the title for the first album were more related perhaps to the lyrics and the situation that we were in. With this one, I think those three words sum up the mood of the record. Even though in the song it’s related to that situation, as the title of the album it’s almost related to the sound.

We wanted to get the album out exactly a year after but we went out too much when we were making it! Fucked about… Dawdled a bit…

Do you think of the album as a whole when you’re making it, so that it’s cohesive, or does it come together and then it makes sense?

Alex: Again, with this one we just sort of put it together and then worked it out after, but with the first one it was all like thought it out before and recorded. With this one it was just more like… [The lip balm Alex is fiddling with accidentally flies from his hand] Like that!

From interviews around the time of the first album, you said that you knew ‘A Certain Romance’ was always going to be the album closer. Did you know this time around which ones would open, which one would close, which ones would be singles?

Matt: We knew that ‘Brianstorm’ would be the single ever since we heard it played at soundcheck. I remember we didn’t know what we were going to do last…

Alex: Or the order of it…

Matt: That were all a bit last minute, we did leave it a bit late.

You’ve ruined the lives of quite a few Brians – they’re gonna hear that first line, “Brian, top marks for not tryin’” forever!

Matt: Yeah, I’m a bit worried.

They won’t buy your records now.

Matt: How many Brians are there? (Laughs) Don’t let things like that get to you!

Were there any albums that you admire as templates for what an album should be, or do you not tend to pay attention to what others have done?

Alex: I think we do pay attention, but I don’t think we were like ‘This is something we want to replicate’, but it’s something to work around.

So you wouldn’t call this a concept album?

Alex: This one? No, I think it’s probably less of a concept than the first one.

Do you listen to other music while recording?

Alex: Yeah we did, we listened to all sorts, just to be like, “It should sound a bit like this’, like a drum sound or summat. We listen to music all the time anyway.

Do you download it or go out and buy it?

Alex: More buying it, yeah. That’s one good thing about travelling around. Someone will be like, “Oh, there’s this record shop…”

Do you buy vinyl or CDs?

Alex: Both really. We’ve got one of them Vestax portable turntables. But we got a bit burnt by that though, cos when we were in Australia we got loads of records robbed. A big bag of records, but only what we’d bought from there. But still… Or was it New Zealand?

What keeps you sane when you’re on the road?

Alex: Taking the piss!

Matt: I ain’t conscious we’ve been insane!

Alex: [To Matt] You’ve got your blankie.

Matt: I’ve got this. [Points to beige blanket by his side] Never leave home without it! On the bus we have a Playstation and that but we don’t really even do that. We watch DVDs and listen to music.

When you’re on tour around the world, do people still have a problem with your accents? Do you have to…

Alex: Speak very clearly? Yeah. We just did a promo trip to Japan and we paired up for it. I did it with Jamie and he just doesn’t change his accent no matter where the person’s from, how little English they speak or whatever – he still speaks broad as fuck. And then I don’t even understand it! (Laughs)

Matt: “What he meant there is…” (Laughs)

Who’s the worst?

Matt: For understanding us? It’s probably hardest working in Japan. Actually, it makes it easier because you don’t have to say as much. We’ve got a translator as well, and it takes longer to do it, and we’ve still only got half an hour each or whatever, so they don’t get as many questions in. We just sit there pissing about while they just translate it. It’s not bad though. The hardest thing about that is when you don’t really understand what they’ve asked you, and you just pick up on the odd key word. Like, they asked us about the environment while we were recording the album, but I didn’t know they’d said that. I went, “The environment? Yeah, very important, I always turn me TV off!” (Laughs) They were like, “Okay…”

Alex: The best thing is like when you get an interpretation of the song. And you’re like, ‘No, but I prefer that meaning what you come up with’.

Could you ever see yourselves living abroad?

Matt: I don’t know. I dunno about living, but I definitely wanna go places other than being in the band. I think I’ll got to Thailand for a year and become a Thai boxer. I’m gonna train for a year.

Alex: And while he does that I’m gonna go to Berlin.

For the clubs?

Alex: Fuckin’ techno? Is it techno there? House? I don’t know…

Were you disappointed that things had to change when Andy left the band?

Alex: How do you mean?

They say that you shouldn’t mess with a good thing. Were you worried that with his leaving it might affect how things worked?

Matt: I dunno. It didn’t seem like as big a thing to us as it might have looked, like ‘Oh, are they gonna survive?’ That’s probably a lot down to Nick as well, because it could have been a lot different. I can’t imagine what else we’d have done if it hadn’t been someone we already knew. It seemed pretty easy to do. And obviously we didn’t know it were going to be permanent at first, so we were probably a bit more open to him as a temporary replacement. But it did make it easier we already knew Nick and we got on with him and stuff. It didn’t seem like it were breaking up a gang and it were all gonna fall apart and everything.

Did he feel like a breath of fresh air in the band?

Matt: In a way, yeah, that tour was; that first tour that he came on. He seemed dead excited.

Was it different for you to play with a different bassist?

Matt: I don’t know, not really. We’ve been talking about that because quite a few people have been asking and I’ve never really thought about it. It’s not like we work closely together in practice or anything like that.

So you’re not playing as the rhythm section?

Matt: That’s what I mean. I do a bit, like, recently, only because people have mentioned it. So I’ve started turning [the bass] up a bit in my monitor!

Keith Moon used to play against the vocals.

Matt: I do. In my monitors, the loudest things are the lead vocals and lead guitar. I find it easier to keep in time with the vocals. I don’t know really, I’ve just never thought about it that much…

Alex: Some of the lyrics are a bit rhythmic…

Matt: Yeah, exactly.

You guys are famously reticent when it comes to interviews. Is that because you don’t want to talk about yourselves or you don’t want other people to read about you?

Matt: It’s a bit of both, I suppose. The actual doing it is not always appealing…

Alex: After a few hours it’s like…pfff… You just feel a bit weird. I can just hear me own voice.

Matt: But then on the other side of things you don’t wanna be shoved down everyone’s throats all the time, or on front covers all the time.

But isn’t it a double-edged sword? If you don’t talk to people they’ll write about you anyway, and it won’t always be true.

Matt: Yeah, that’s what we always get told: “We’re gonna write it anyway. You might as well give us something.” It’s always inaccurate anyway.

Have the tabloids given you any trouble, like harassing your family or anything?

Alex: Yeah, they did that last year. There’s that tune ‘If You Were There, Beware’ on the album, which is the only one – cos I wouldn’t ever wanna write a tune about the press – that’s a bit about that time cos we had people like ringing up as us nans and stuff, you know what I mean?

I remember seeing you guys out one night last year, you were a bit pissed and just chatting to someone as you would while out, then the next day it was in the papers with “Exclusive interview” plastered over it. How frustrating is that when you have to watch who you talk to?

Alex: Yeah, and it’s all inaccurate. Like, the other day Cookie was copping off with this lass and then he was supposed to be going out…

Matt: It said: “broke guitarist Jamie with mega rich glamour model”! (Laughs)

It’s festival season coming up…

Matt: Yeah, we’ve got T In The Park and Glastonbury.

Do you think it’s a good time for music at the moment?

Alex: Dunno. I feel, like, detached from it, I suppose, what with being away and that. I ain’t really heard much new albums that have come out. There’s that Arcade Fire one ain’t there. I ain’t heard that though. Cookie’s heard that. And then there’s Kings Of Leon.

Do you use festivals as an opportunity to go and see people?

Matt: Yeah, that’s the good thing about them.

Alex: We saw Queens Of The Stone Age at this festival last year in America and it were one of the best gigs ever.

You’re headlining the first day of Glastonbury – that means you’ve got all day to wait!

Matt: Yeah, to build it up a bit!

That could be dangerous!

Alex: Yeah, it will be good. James [Ford] is on in the dance tent. It will be sound. Can’t wait for that.

Is the rest of the year planned out for you? Have you any time that you could try and fit in a third album?

Matt: I dunno, this year is pretty jam-packed. It’s a lot to do with us though. We basically said why don’t we go where we enjoyed last year, like Australia and the USA; we really wanna go play there again. It just makes it… I dunno… It’s not like it’s hard work.

If your kids told you that they were going to do this for a living, what would you tell them?

Alex: Kids? (Laughs) Well, they are actually…

Matt: Yeah, my little one is away. He’s out on tour with Lil’ Bow Wow.

Erupting into giggles, the cheeky Monkeys clearly haven’t been exasperated by this afternoon’s vocal diversion. Hell, maybe they even enjoyed it. The convergence now of all four members signals our time together has come to an end. They as much as huddle together, close ranks, and breezily while away the last spare moments before soundcheck. Evidently uncomfortable when singled out, collectively they are impenetrable, a force to be reckoned with. Last year they came out of nowhere and sparked a revolution in the heads of millions, so it’s fortunate for all that even in the face of heightened expectation and heat, the Arctics show no sign of thawing. You have been warned.

Join the Clash mailing list for up to the minute music, fashion and film news.