Arctic Monkeys’ Alex Turner Discusses the Band’s New Album, “AM”

Smoke and Mirrors

Nov 07, 2013 Issue #47 - September/October 2013 - MGMT
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As you might expect from someone who has developed an ingenious ability to infuse his songs with a deeply cinematic sense of everyday realism, Arctic Monkeys' singer/guitarist Alex Turner finds it easier to talk in images when describing his band's new album, AM. So when he's describing the band's songwriting process, he explains it in terms of chemistry, of scientists clumsily adding a pinch of garage rock here and a dash of disco rhythms there before washing out the beakers and starting over in hopes of finding a more satisfying reaction. When he describes the sinister undertones that lie just beneath the album's sensual after-hours textures, he does so by placing you in the middle of a surreal party, climbing up a flight of Penrose stairs and stumbling through a hall of mirrors on your way to the restroom. If Turner is struggling to explain just what AM sounds like, he has a good reason. Arctic Monkeys have never made an album quite like it before.

"It's not like I'm going to start rapping, but it felt like this album is almost like a rap-rock record, something we can all agree by now, in the year 2013, is the worst combination around," Turner laughs. "So it's not that. But there are definite elements from that world. But it's back to that chemical reaction thing. You don't want to take the wrong [ingredient] or too much of it or force things together. There's something in the grooves. You want the drums to sound like they do on a hip-hop record and sound good in the car, but at the same time I wanted to have that '70s rock band with the blue screen behind them and the thin drum stand and liquid light show guitars going on. That's what I'm into. Yeah, we pinched a few moves and a few scales from contemporary R&B artists like Aaliyah, but that's just us trying to do something our own, to make something new."

AM, their fifth full-length release, is a smashing success in that regard. Where Turner wrote the majority of their last album, 2011's Suck It and See, by himself on an acoustic guitar, this time he used a cheap four-track to record drummer Matt Helders and bassist Nick O'Malley playing "endless hypnotic grooves," over which he'd compose his lyrical and melodic ideas. As a result, where Suck It and See found the band reining in the meandering, expansive arrangements of 2009's Humbug in favor of glam guitar leads and stomping arena rock anthems, AM retains many of the same elements, but pushes them to a new level of rhythmic nuance and textual range in the interplay between instruments.

Here the guitars are utterly massive, the scorched earth riffs of "Arabella" and the thundering lurch of first single "R U Mine?" sounding as if they are peeled straight from classic Zeppelin and Sabbath records. Helders, long the band's secret weapon behind the drum kit, provides the slippery pulse of the album, his nimble grooves and bone-rattling beats anchoring the bottom end of the album's dark throb. And, yes, there are tracks that offer unmistakable nods to contemporary R&B, with the spidery guitar leads and sing-song verses of "One for the Road" joining the leering vocals and funky backing croons (courtesy of Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age) of "Knee Socks" in representing the half of the album that sounds like Justin Timberlake fronting The Black Keys.

"We stumbled across the combination when we put that 'R U Mine?' track out," Turner says of the 2012 single that has been brought back for AM. "And I got the boysI call them 'The Space Choir Boys'to do that 'Are you mi-ine to-morr-ow,'" he says, mimicking the falsetto backing vocals that add a soulful resonance to his reedy baritone. "As soon as I got them to do that, it was like, 'Aw, fuck! This is something! Let's see what's behind that door.' And we went off on that. So there's a lot more work on vocals this time, and there's me and Nick, who plays bass, and Matt, who plays drums, trying to get a bit more of that stuff going on. At the same time, it's not like we're trying to make an R&B record. I still feel like it's a rock and roll record. You know when you listen to Transformer by Lou Reed, and you feel like you need to have a shower after it? I wanted a bit of that quality in there. To me, in my head, those types of melodies add to that," he says, leaving an uncomfortable pause. "Maybe."

Despite being one of his generation's most acclaimed and commercially successful songwriterswith four straight albums that have reached the #1 spot on the British Albums Chartsuch hedging is typical for Turner. In conversation, one gets the impression that if he doesn't lack confidence exactly, he's also close enough to his Sheffield working-class roots that he's careful not to create the perception that he's too impressed with himself. The fact is that with each album Arctic Monkeys are coming one step closer to cementing their place in the canon of quintessentially British rock bands stretching from The Kinks through The Smiths to Pulp.

"It's not something I spend any time trying to work out, that equation. It makes more sense for me to focus on the...art," he suggests, emphasizing that word in such a way that indicates that he's not particularly comfortable using it. "Just getting it to all add up and make the right color smoke is a bit of a balancing act. It's beautiful to us. It's our most original record," he says, finally sounding confident that their chemical equation has yielded the desired concoction. "We're certain of that."



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