As indie rivals flounder, Arctic Monkeys are bigger, better and funnier than ever. Sam Rowe hits the tour bus with the band of the year
Not to name drop, but let’s just say I got beat,” says Alex Turner, remembering the night before, when he was knocked from his perch as tour table-tennis champion. “Leighton beat me last night. Leighton Baines. I don’t want to make excuses – he woke me up to the fact I might not be on top any more.
“So you can put that in there, opening paragraph: ‘I walk in on Turner, reeling from defeat to Leighton Baines at ping pong less than 24 hours earlier. His mind is obviously elsewhere...’”
Outside, a queue of more than 500 eager fans snakes around Cardiff’s Motorpoint Arena, an hour before doors open. The smell of marijuana fills the air, and some of the throng are wrapped in blankets, others sip lager, while many an opportunistic patron stalks the line in search of spares.
I learn the going rate is £100 a ticket, although “You might get lucky if someone’s not shifted theirs once the gig’s started”. Their stage time is still some three hours away.
Inside, Alex Turner, Matt Helders, Jamie Cook and Nick O’Malley – the Sheffield via Los Angeles four-piece more commonly known as Arctic Monkeys – seem unfazed about whether they can dazzle their Welsh contingent of followers, troubling themselves instead with the real issues of the day. Such as Turner (who, a few days later will be felled by a bout of laryngitis, prompting two postponed shows) returning to the ping-pong paddle, or whose turn it is on the Xbox.
“It’s disgusting how much Grand Theft Auto I’ve played,” admits guitarist Cook. “I make myself sick.” Yet, even though life on tour is a somewhat artificial experience for any band – an endless tilt-a-whirl of soundchecks, interviews and watching box sets aboard a coach – you can’t help but feel that if these Yorkshire expats weren’t here, they’d inevitably be in each other’s company, whether backstage at a sold-out arena, in a Sheffield snooker hall or at one of their plush Californian homes.
Is it tough to play Cardiff and other cold, wet places in the middle of winter now you live in LA?
Alex Turner: Not at all, no. The show will be incredible, and that’s what we’re here for at the end of the day, that hour and a half.
Matt Helders: We don’t bring the LA mentality to Cardiff.
Nick O’Malley: It’s only a problem if you plan on swimming outdoors.
Your new album, AM, marked the first time in years you’ve all lived in the same place. Did it make a difference?
AT: Yeah, that was a big part of this album. Whether it was LA or Cardiff, there was just something about us all living in the same town – it was easy to be more collaborative. For a long time we weren’t able to call each other and say, “Shall we go down to the studio for a couple of hours and jam?”
Four Yorkshiremen living in Los Angeles – you must make quite the first impression…
NO: I suppose you do notice it a lot more, because you stand out. But it’s not like we’re Hugh Grant.
AT: There are so many English people over there, we’re not exotic to them.
Jamie Cook: Everyone just thinks we’re Australian, anyway.
How does a Friday night in LA compare to Sheffield?
NO: It’s more laidback. When you’ve been away from the UK, then come back and go out at the weekend, you forget how lairy it is. In LA you don’t get groups of lads going out drinking in a town centre, so it’s not as scary. But I do miss that excitement, that someone’s gonna punch someone in the middle of the pub for no reason.
What’s your drink of choice there?
MH: Margaritas make more sense there than they do here.
NO: Tequila and tonic – the big one.
MH: Refreshing drinks.
Have you found yourselves slipping into LA culture? Is it all juice bars and hiking in Runyon Canyon Park, or weed and Mexican food?
MH: A bit of both. Mexican food is definitely something I’ve had a lot of.
AT: All of the above, perhaps with an emphasis on the latter. But then, I’d have a juice [here] in Cardiff. There’s a juicer next door that we could use.
Is that when you know you’ve made it as a band – your rider comes with its own juicer?
AT: I think we’ve had a juicer since f*cking Humbug. We need it, especially with these colds going round. Get the juice in there – gotta keep that immune system strong.
Right, well we should probably talk about music – I’m sure you didn’t expect such a debate on juice…
AT: We can talk about juice all night, if you want. Pressed juice is now the thing, apparently. Like if you press it rather than, you know, blend it. It’s a different method that squeezes it, so it retains more nutrients. Apparently.
In the eight years since Arctic Monkeys erupted into public consciousness in 2005, bank accounts have swelled, five albums have been released and coordinates have shifted by 5,000-odd miles. And yet, it appears the real secret of their success is that they’ve not changed at all. Not really. Granted, the bands’ girlfriends are now almost exclusively models, the tracksuits have been swapped for leather jackets and the hair’s now coiffured with pomade, but unlike the steady stream of hyped Noughties rockers that have long since passed on, the Sheffield quartet appear somewhat immune to the delusions of grandeur, in-fighting and tabloid-baiting antics that have befallen most bands.
When Johnny Borrell (the former Razorlight frontman whose solo album Borrell 1 infamously sold 594 copies in its first week earlier this year) bought himself a motorbike and drove it around with then-girlfriend Kirsten Dunst, he was branded a pillock (“It’s probably more to do with him having his shirt off when he rode it,” jokes Helders). In contrast, Turner and co developed a penchant for bikes while recording AM in California, and not since Steve McQueen’s jump in The Great Escape have two wheels been so appealing.
Whether it’s their distinct lack of interest in fame, refusal to engage in relentless self promotion or simply their northern charm, it would certainly seem that playing it low key has been at the heart of the success of the Arctics. Of course, five sublime albums probably don’t hurt, either.
Unlike the media circus around the Daft Punk and David Bowie album releases, you simply put out a single, then the album, and it was successful. Is there too much fuss around marketing nowadays?
MH: Some of the things Daft Punk did were pretty cool – it can be done in an interesting way that’s not just a massive billboard. But I dunno, we’ve just never really done that much marketing, in the traditional sense. This is probably the first time we’ve had billboards. And a TV advert.
NO: [Surprised] We’ve got a TV advert?
MH: Yeah there’s a TV one, on like E4, and in the US. Just for that final push.
How did it feel to headline Glastonbury again, six years and three albums since the last time?
AT: Yeah, 30 years on! Last time we had really bad weather, things didn’t work and, I don’t know, we stayed up too late the night before or something. This summer it was just perfect. We had great weather, it was loud and we were just on fire. And I think the show has only improved since then.
The last album, Suck It And See, doesn’t feature too much on this tour. How come?
AT: I suppose it’s like picking a footie team in that sense.
JC: Strong squad.
AT: It’s a bloody strong squad, Jamie, you’re right. I can’t remember. We always want to play the new album, obviously, but I think this time they’re the tunes that get the biggest reaction, which is something that hasn’t always been the case. Like R U Mine? seems to trump …Dancefloor in terms of live reaction. I reckon every album is pretty well represented, but this is the first time we’ve had the material to overhaul the set, and make it an improvement on the last time we came to town.
You’ve won pretty much every award going by this point. Is there anything you’d still like to achieve?
NO: Another Brit Award would be good [laughs].
MH: I’m not sure we’d get invited back, after last time.
JC: I think the Mercury is one we’d like to have on the shelf.
AT: Though whose shelf is it on?
JC: I have no idea. Or the first – no idea where that is. I don’t know where hardly any of them are.
What about your Guinness World Record for Fastest Selling Debut Album – is that still about or did Leona Lewis collect it when she broke the record?
MH: We did a relay race – handed the baton. Nah, I don’t know, it’s just not in the Guinness book any more.
Did they give you an actual award?
NO: Nah, just a T-shirt.
Not even a copy of the book?
MH: Not even that. There’s too many records in there – that’s a lot of books.
You paid homage to Lou Reed by covering Walk On The Wild Side live. In death, which of your songs would you want covered?
AT: Wow. I don’t know, I’m taking it too seriously. Whenever anyone asks me about an artist or something, I sort of forget what music is. The colours blur.
NO: I’d want Guns N’ Roses to play Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?, or Bryan Adams to do Mardy Bum.
MH: I’d probably get Bon Jovi, or just R Kelly… to sing anything.
AT: Lady Gaga.
JC: Which song?
AT: Like... I dunno, f*cking Bigger Boys And Stolen Sweethearts.
Your touring partners The Strypes are among the new wave of rock bands. What do you make of them?
MH: The Strypes are amazing. They’re talented and still so young that they’ve got plenty of time to do what they want. They’ve been playing ping pong.
Are they any good?
AT: I don’t know. I’ve seen them play, but we haven’t duelled just yet. I’ll probably [take them on] at some point in the next 72 hours.
Aside from your ping-pong playing pal Leighton Baines, do many celebrity fans pop by?
MH: You get a few interesting ones on the guestlist. Simon Pegg came down the other day.
NO: Jimmy Page came to Earls Court.
MH: Yeah, we had a chat with Jimmy. Bit of pressure.
JC: Do you think he’s good at ping pong? I bet he plays...
AT: Traditional grip? Yeah, he f*cking does, doesn’t he?
You’ve admitted you’re not fond of the name Arctic Monkeys. What would you change it to?
NO: Fire Pony.
MH: At the time there probably wasn’t anything better in our minds. But luckily for us it doesn’t really matter any more.
Finally, one of your mid-Noughties contemporaries, Ricky Wilson from Kaiser Chiefs, is now a judge on The Voice. If Arctic Monkeys fell on hard times, would any of you consider being a judge on a talent show?
MH: I’d do the dancing one, Strictly. I know a good step when I see one.
AT: It’d be nice if one of us was a judge on Strictly Come Dancing. That would mean something mad had happened, some serious sh*t would have gone down between now and then.
AM is out now (Domino). For information on live dates, visit arcticmonkeys.com
(Images: Rex/Getty/Jared Johnson)