Arctic Monkeys have swapped shaggy beards and sullen expressions for gags and explosive stage plans. Jimi Famurewa witnesses a welcome transformation
“Right, let’s get properly leathered up,” says Alex Turner, reaching for his biker jacket as his bandmates chuckle behind him. “Flying V formation, everyone.” They attempt their best silly faces for our shoot, inspired by the iconic album cover for The Beatles’ Hard Day’s Night.
Four bandmates. Four lads changing the course of UK music. But, ever since they roared on to the scene five years ago, accompanied by chopping guitars and a record-smashing debut album, Arctic Monkeys have had a slight reputation for stroppy evasiveness; the monosyllabic mardy bums of the music world.
But over the course of an hour with ShortList, Turner (vocals/guitar, middle left), Matt Helders (drums, far left), Jamie Cook (lead guitar, middle right) and Nick O’Malley (bass, far right) have joked, laughed and even contemplated the finer points of a gravy-filled Jacuzzi.
Maybe it’s the critical superlatives lavished on their latest No1 album Suck It And See. Or the fact they’re gearing up for their first V Festival headline slot this weekend. Or that they can delight crammed, grimy indie clubs as much as Saturday night, sequin-doused dancefloors. Or maybe it’s just because after their explosive arrival they, unlike most bands hyped to the nines, have maintained their forward-thinking momentum.
Whatever it is, one thing’s clear: Britain’s biggest band have never been happier.
You’ve got V Festival and an autumn tour on the way. Any last-minute set list jitters?
Alex Turner: Right now it feels good. It feels like we’re in a good place to be able to pick an hour-and-a-half set. The last album… Well, we probably didn’t have as many songs and there were a few we didn’t really enjoy playing quite so much.
Jamie Cook: You can mix stuff up as well. When you’ve got two albums, it’s all you’ve got, so you just have to play them over an hour, and after a year of touring…
There was a bit of a backlash to what you played when you headlined Reading in 2009…
AT: D’you know what? Out of all the big festival gigs we’ve done in the past five years, we probably enjoyed that one most. Walking off stage we were like, “That was great, I had a great time.” But looking at it now [laughs] we probably shouldn’t have started with a Nick Cave cover [Red Right Hand]. But then, you only get one chance to open a gig like that with a Nick Cave cover, so you might as well [laughs].
How do you stave off tour-bus boredom?
Matt Helders: We watch quite a bit of TV. We’ve got box sets of The Sopranos and Eastbound & Down. And we did The Wire a few years ago. It becomes like a routine.
Nick O’Malley: We played ping pong a lot on the last tour. Al’s probably the best, to be honest.
JC: Yeah, Al’s pretty good.
What are the home comforts you miss when you’re on tour? Do you fill your suitcases with Kit Kats and HP Sauce?
AT: It’s more individuals that you miss — the people you don’t see. These days it’s surprising what you can get in [shops]. You can’t get Henderson’s Relish [a spicy Yorkshire condiment]. But you can’t get Hendo’s 20 miles out of Sheffield.
JC: I do kind of miss the food. I know after we’ve been in the US a while I get back…
NO: And you just want some food without cheese on it.
JC: [Laughs] Yeah, I just want to go home and have some beans on toast. But like Al says, it’s more your mates. Missing people’s birthdays…
NO: We’re getting to that age now where we’re missing stag dos, and you feel bad about that.
Not many modern bands make it this far without imploding. Do you think the fact you’re childhood friends has helped you stay together?
AT: That’s definitely something to do with it. We grew up together pretty much on the same street. So we’d hung around with each other a long time before we were a band, and that helps you bypass a lot of those pitfalls.
So there have been no Gallagher-style arguments?
AT: Oh yeah, of course. You’re bound to argue, but I think we get around a lot of that stuff. It’s maybe something about where we’re from. We’re all pretty laid back. Everyone gets aggravated, but there aren’t too many tantrums.
JC: I don’t know, I mean, Noel and Liam are brothers and they had rows.
NO: Even if you ran a shop with your brother, you’d have fights. It’s that natural sibling rivalry thing.
And it’s the slow creep of rivalry that thankfully appears to have bypassed the Sheffield foursome. When, in 2006, their first album Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not stormed into the No1 spot, selling 363,735 copies in a week, it became the UK’s fastest-selling debut of all time (since eclipsed by the Cowell-funded behemoths of Leona Lewis and, heaven help us, Susan Boyle). Unsurprisingly, a comparison to The Beatles was quick to emerge: a home-grown quartet of talent who turned the music industry on its head. But far from looking to Eastern spiritualism and descending into a swirling pit of bitterness and antagonism, for nine years the Arctics have stayed solid.
Although, make no mistake, they do incite screaming mobs, to which anyone who’s attended one of their sweaty gigs packed with adoring indie girls and raucous shirt-twirling guys will attest. It would seem that even the unpredictability of the British musical landscape can’t put a dampener on the band’s unrelenting popularity.
Liam Gallagher said that it wasn’t guitar music’s time at the moment. Do you agree?
AT: Definitely. But that’s all the more reason for us to play at V Festival and be right in the middle of all that. It will come back around. People ask us why we released Don’t Sit Down… as the first single, because it’s not the pop-iest one on there — it’s really guitar-heavy. But because we’ve got that fanbase and we’re one of the guitar bands that have a shot of getting on the radio in the daytime, I almost feel like it’s our job to put that sort of tune out.
JC: Yeah, I’m sure Liam’s seen it happen before in the Nineties…
NO: We were talking a few days ago about when you were younger and you’d always know what the No1 single was. Now I haven’t got a clue.
Is there any cheesy pop you secretly quite enjoy?
MH: Kylie Minogue. Particularly Get Outta My Way. I really like that song.
AT: Yeah, that’s the thing when you talk about pop music dominating. It’s not like it’s all sh*t and we’re dead against it. That’s not the case at all, because there are some great pop songs.
You were quoted as giving Lady Gaga the thumbs up as well, Alex…
AT: I don’t know if I did that — it may have been a bit twisted. Some of it is nonsense, but it’s not like we’re completely trying to destroy it. And if we do V Festival we can get right into the nucleus. But no, Lady Gaga — it’s not my cup of tea, that.
You had a very drunken night at the Brits in 2008. Any embarrassing celebrity encounters?
JC: I don’t think so, but I wouldn’t be able to remember.
NO: I can’t remember going up and doing the [Best British Group] acceptance.
JC: I just remember everyone looking at us. We were quite nervous about going, which was the thing, thinking back. We started drinking a bit before and when we got there, there were just loads of…
NO: Hip flasks…
JC: And it just got worse and worse from there. I don’t think any of us realised that it lasts for about five hours or whatever. Five hours later, “Arctic Monkeys!” “Oh, God…” [Laughs]
NO: If they ever forgive us and invite us back, we’ll behave a bit more. Those [country] outfits were quite good, though. I’d wear that now. There’s this bloke who I see in the pub when I go home and he blames us for the price of Barbour jackets going up.
Have you ever been drunk on stage?
MH: I can’t play if I’ve been drinking. I’ve had two or three pints before I’ve played before and I get paranoid about dropping my sticks — I can’t play fast and I get a bit tense. I’ve done it a couple of times. I’ve maybe had three drunk gigs.
NO: There’s that magic amount. If you go on with nothing you’ll be a bit nervous, but if you have too much you’ll be crap.
So what’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever seen in the crowd?
NO: I once saw a rubber dinghy full of people…
MH: Yeah, they were pretending to row and being carried along.
NO: They had Mexican wrestling masks on as well. It was pretty impressive, that.
Talking about strange experiences, what are the oddest photo shoots you’ve done?
MH: I remember one of the first things we did, they asked us to climb a tree and hang off the branches. That was probably about as weird as it got. People got aware pretty quickly what not to ask for.
NO: It was always like [photo shoots in] chip shops for a while as well, wasn’t it?
MH: Yeah, people think they’re being pretty inventive suggesting northern things.
NO Next it’ll be you in a big Yorkshire pudding… [laughs]
MH: Yeah, like a hot tub full of gravy that’s a Yorkshire pudding.
While they may joke about it, the inherent Yorkshire-ness is a vital element of their success. Or, to put it more succinctly, it’s Turner’s exceptional lyrical dexterity (a world of “Mecca dobbers” and Dandelion & Burdock) that has propelled the band to heights far above their contemporaries. His writing has been called “incomparable” and “ingenious”, and he’s been labelled the “most poetic” of lyricists by actual poet (and Sheffield University’s Professor of Poetry) Simon Armitage.
Notably, his school record is nothing to shout about. He left aged 16, and while his teachers recognised that he was clever, and had an “original sense of humour”, let’s just say he wasn’t marked out for great things. However, he’d been affected by the work of ‘punk poet’ John Cooper Clarke — part of his school syllabus — more than anyone could have realised. And as with Cooper Clarke before them, the trappings of fame haven’t dented their, well, ordinariness…
Have you made any extravagant purchases?
MH: Not really, no. It’s just been a car and house. Not too many luxuries, really. I’ll probably do that later in life when I’ve still got some money left. I’ll get a DeLorean or something [laughs].
NO: And it’s just rusting away…
MH: I’ll be like, “My tax bill’s mental. I really need to sell this car! Can’t even get it in the garage...”
NO: So impractical [laughs].
MH: I don’t know. I’ve just spent it on a lot of jackets and T-shirts.
JC: Yeah, none of us have really bought anything ridiculous yet. No one’s bought a boat yet, or anything. A jet ski. That’d be funny, I think everyone would love it.
Gordon Brown infamously once said he listened to you. Would you welcome a namecheck from David Cameron or Nick Clegg?
MH: You’d always be suspicious about it, wouldn’t you? Like they’d been advised to say it.
NO: We’ve not heard anything about Nick Clegg…
Did you see any of the extreme security for him during the Lib Dem’s Sheffield conference?
MH: Yeah. They were blocking drains and there were snipers on top of John Lewis car park.
NO: That was just because of that massive sale they had on. Nothing to do with Clegg, that.
MH: [Laughs] Exactly — that was just queue control.
Would you ever ban anyone from liking you?
MH: I wonder who the worst person to listen to us would be? Like a terrorist or something [laughs]. If they found us on Osama’s bomb-proof Walkman.
NO: [Laughs] He had all our B-sides and posters everywhere…
MH: We’d have to have a press conference. “We are not affiliated with Osama Bin Laden…” [Laughs]
What are the most ludicrous press stories you’ve read about yourself?
NO: There was one saying that one of The Kooks had kicked Al in the face at a festival once because Al was pulling his leads out of his amp. I remember thinking, “That definitely didn’t happen.”
JC: When we’d just done this album we rented a house because it was cheaper and when we left there was something saying we’d trashed it and we were smoking inside. I wish we had done, you know what I mean?
NO: It makes us sound pretty cool but really, we were just playing table tennis.
JC: It was quite funny. But you get home and people are like, “I heard you smashed a house up…”
NO: “Yeah, it was a £10m mansion and it cost £100,000 a day to stay there!”
JC: It went up by about £1m over the course of a month. You end up explaining it and by the end you just think, “F*ck it. We smashed it up, it cost us a £100m a week to rent out and we had six bathrooms each.” [Laughs]
Do you feel like you’re getting the hang of playing arenas?
AT: I used to never think that we’d be able to play arenas. I used to think, especially with the first album and the second one, that it was too frantic and it wouldn’t really work in a big open space. You do require a few bells and whistles these days, but it can be done tastefully — it doesn’t have to be tons of lasers and everything.
What about pyrotechnics?
MH: They’re a bit more traditional, actually. We had confetti cannons when we did our arena tour. That was all we had.
AT: Pyrotechnics are exciting, though. That is tempting…
MH: We should just go over the top with it. You know like when you go to Disneyland and they do a bit in the Animal Kingdom where they pretend the bridge has fallen down and they’re all in on it. We could do something like that, as if something’s gone wrong. Like a stunt. The light falls on me…
AT: [Laughs] Sets the drum kit on fire…
MH: Yeah, the drum kit’s on fire, and everyone’s screaming and they’re all crying, then I come back on and do Brick By Brick [laughs].
Arctic Monkeys’ new single The Hellcat Spangled Shalalala is out now.
They headline V Festival 20-21 August
(Images: Paul Stuart)