Arctic Monkeys’ Alex Turner on “AM,” Working with Josh Homme, and Adapting John Cooper Clarke

Both Sides of the Pond

Nov 08, 2013 Issue #47 - September/October 2013 - MGMT Bookmark and Share


The Kinks, The Smiths, Pulpall quintessentially English bands that have, for whatever reason, found far more success in the United Kingdom than in the United States. Add to that list Arctic Monkeys, the million-selling, critically lauded quartet that, despite having made some inroads in recent years, largely remains a curiosity in the United Statestoo mainstream to be widely celebrated by the American indie press yet too identifiably British to really fit on the American Top 40 pop charts. Part of that is likely due to the uniquely British presence of frontman Alex Turner, the slice-of-life poet who chronicles English life with the sort of dry humor and everyman wit that is easy to miss if you aren't attuned to it. But as much as Turner sounds like someone who just walked off the street in his native Sheffield, he has also never been shy about expressing his love of American music, with R&B and hip-hop chief among his interests. With the fifth Arctic Monkeys full-length, AM, he and his bandmates translate that interest into soulful backing vocals, slippery rhythm section hooks, and earth-rattling guitar riffs. For the first time in their brief history, they have made a truly American album. Speaking from backstage at a French music festival, Turner talks about his band's new groove-centric album, the dark energy that runs through it, and his love of British poet John Cooper Clarke. [Note: These are extra portions of our interview with Alex Turner, quotes that didn't make it into our main print article on Arctic Monkeys in our August/September 2013 issue.]

Matt Fink (Under the Radar): So where are you today, Alex?

Alex Turner: Fuck, where am I today? I'm in France somewhere. Somewhere in France. I'm caught between a rock and hard place. I can't go in the dressing room because then I don't have a signal, but I can't stand outside, because then everyone can see me. I have to dodge around here in a clandestine manner.

How are the new songs going over in a live setting?

Pretty tricky, because this was the least live record we've ever made in terms of all playing together and doing takes. There was very little of that on this record. There's a lot of layers and textures. We have to figure out how to recreate that...or not. It's interesting. We did a brief U.S. tour, and we got back a month ago. We messed around one day during soundcheck, doing "One for the Road" and "Why'd You Only Call Me When You're High?" and it was fun. But you definitely couldn't just line them up and go "1, 2, 3, 4." It was a bit more like "Okay, you do that, and you do this, and can you do that and this at the same time?" But it's cool. I'm excited to play them.

The title of the album is AM. Does that mean to imply that this is an album that is best heard late at night?

I think maybe it is! You can make that title what you will, but I think it's our most nighttime party record that we've made. It sounds good in the car, nighttime drive. It's one of those things like when you put on a Biggie tune in your car, and you're like "Aw, yeah!" I wanted a bit of that thing with the drums. I wanted some of that downstairs.

This album seems to be very much built around the rhythm section.

like to think so, yeah. The room where it came together this time, I went back to messing around on this little four-track cassette recorder, and I just had the boys play a groove for five minutes, and I'd just sit there with me headphones on and write melodies and lyrics along to these endless hypnotic grooves. And the way that the shitty electronics in that machine colored that sound led me to a place that I wouldn't have gone just sitting on the couch with an acoustic guitar. So, yeah, we went about it a little bit different this time. There were a lot of differences from how we have been making the last couple of records.

Did you know from the start that this record would be so groove-centered?

The whole thing was in the studio. We had an idea. We put a song out called "R U Mine?" and we wanted to make a record like that song. I think we've done that, but the definition of a bunch of songs like "R U Mine?" changed. What that could be became broader or went further than I thought it would. There was a whole six months in the studio writing and recording, and it meandered around for a minute, with a few ideas and a few blind alleys that didn't work out. All of the songs that are on there are in their fourth or fifth incarnation. There was a lot of trial and error. It's like a chemical reaction. You pour in all these elements from your musical spectrum or universe, and if you get a little too much of one and not enough of the other, you don't get the bang or the color of smoke that you want from the reaction. So then you have to start it all over again and wash the test tubes out and try to get the balance right. I think that was even more so for this record, because some of the elements are coming from corners of our musical universe that we've perhaps talked about being fans of but haven't necessarily worn as influences on our sleeves. There's definitely a contemporary R&B vibe to some of the melodies, and there's still a '70s rock and roll thing.

Speaking of the difficulties of making this record, I read that Josh Homme [Queens of the Stone Age] helped push you out of a creative rut.

Maybe that's blown out of proportion a bit, but in any session, you've got a lot left to do and you're running out of time. Or at least I do anyway. And you're a bit like, "Oh, I don't know." And there are a lot of decisions to make, and you feel a little snowed under or lost, and you wonder if you've been walking down the wrong road all along. There are certain people, Josh being one of them, that are friends of mine, and I like to play the music that we've been making to them. And it sounds different when you're sitting there with someone else playing it for them; you hear things that you didn't hear before. Just that action itself, especially when it's with someone that you respect, is really helpful for the process. Josh came down, and it was just a bit of a party evening. We drank some tequila and hung out and laughed at each other, and then he sang the backing vocal on this song called "Knee Socks" and took that song to the final step. It finished that one off and we were back. That's how I mean it pulled us out of a rut.

Did most of these songs start with a guitar riff?

They were all different. A lot of them came from a riff, yeah. A lot of the last record, I sat down and wrote the songs on the couch with an acoustic guitar, and we applied to the songs what was necessary. This time, it was more a guitar riff or a drum beat or a rhythm section groove, and then we'd jigsaw it all together. That's how we used to work years ago, like jigsawing it together. So it's not uncommon that the lyrics from one song might have originally existed in another song, and I just lifted them and put them in something else. Actually, I was looking through my old voice memos on me iPhone this morning, and I found a demo for "Do I Wanna Know?" that I've done, and it's got the lyrics from "No.1 Party Anthem" on it. I had forgotten about it, but that's something that I used to do quite a lot, and that seems to have happened again with this new record.

"No. 1 Party Anthem" is a bit of an outlier on this album, since it's a ballad on an album of more upbeat tracks. Did you worry about how it was going to fit on this album?

A little bit. I knew we wanted to have a couple of them types of tunes on there. You've got that, and you've got "Mad Sounds," which comes after it, but it's got a little bit of something else in there. There are others that are in major key on the record, but what connects it to the rest of them is the subject matter and the melody. I was trying to get away from melodies that stick on something, and it was one of the first melodies that meandered around a bit. You get that on "Do I Wanna Know?" and a couple others, as well, on the melody and the bridge. It's almost kind of conversational more than melodic. It doesn't seem to follow a formula. You don't really know where the next line is going to move melodically, which is exciting for me.

This album, despite having a lot of really catchy and immediate songs, still seems to have a dark energy underneath.

There's a sweetness to those melodies, but then it's kind of like it's up to something, as well. There's that sweetness, but you're a bit frightened by it. There's a sinisterness to something really sweet sometimes. It's that certain kind of midnight where you feel like you're at a party or something, but you just feel like you're on the Penrose stairs. Or you're in a party that looks like a surrealist painting, and you're confused by the mirrors coming out of the bathroom or the stairs keep going up, like Escher's relativity. The songs are all in these weird settings, like dream sequences. They're all kind of sweet, but at the same time they're a little bit freaky. A lot of twists and turns and scenarios. "One for the Road," for instance, is that point in the evening when you find yourself somewhere and the genie turns around and decides that he's not going to grant you three wishes anymore. It's that moment where suddenly everything seems a bit real.

"Why Do You Only Call Me When You're High?" seems like a song that was taken directly from a conversation. Very real.

The "...High?" one, I just wanted to do one of them songs where, if you're the listener, you're right on me shoulder. Of the tunes that we've had over the years, we've got two categories: ones where that is the case and ones where it isn't. That's definitely one where it's pretty clear what it's about. I just thought, "Why not just have a tune that's pretty straightforwardly about that?" Just make it obvious for once.

"Snap Out of It" would seem to be in that category, too.

Yeah, I guess so. I couldn't believe there wasn't a song called "Snap Out of It" already. That was dead in the water a bit, that tune. It was just the germ of an idea. And then Matt, our drummer, broke his hand, and we weren't going to lose two weeks, so just to keep working on ideas and stuff, we got our friend Pete Thomas, who plays drums for Elvis Costello, to come down to the studio a bit and play along with us. And if it hasn't been for Pete's enthusiasm for that "Snap Out of It" idea, I don't think it would have come to fruition. I owe him one for that. He was just like, "Oh, yeah! This is great!" and he was singing it. And we went and rewrote it. Sometimes you're like, "I don't think anyone has written a song called 'Snap Out of It.' There needs to be one of those."

And "I Wanna Be Yours" is taking on a John Cooper Clarke poem, correct?

It's just John's words. It's a very old poem of his, and one day I was sitting there with me four-track and there was this riff that I had laid down, and I sat there with headphones on and just started singing this melody and saying that line, "I want to be yours..." and I remembered his poem, like, "Oh, shit. Maybe we could make that fit somehow." And then James Ford, the producer, was like, "Why don't we do a really slow jam feel?" So then I thought those sweet, sexy melodies with a Johnny Clarke poem would be an awesome juxtaposition. An unlikely one.

Those words really work in that setting.

I think so, yeah. It's a nice nod to Johnny Clarke, who really was a massive inspiration for me when I started writing lyrics.

Do you know him?

I've met him a couple of times. I'd say I know him, yeah. He's great. There's a movie about him. They made that documentary [Evidently..., 2012]. He's awesome, man. I love his show where he just stands there and walks out with a carrier bag, a shopping bag, full of scraps of paper and just rants for an hour. That's the best. I love that. "Kung-Fu International" is me favorite.

Overall, this record seems like a nice addition to your catalog. It really offers another side of the band that wasn't necessarily present before.

I hope so, man, and I believe that to be true. I feel like it's a step in the right direction for a recording artist. I feel like in the last couple of years, we've stepped up our game as a live band, and I feel like this record is a big step for us in the studio. It's quite exciting. Everyone thinks of more possibilities, and I think this one certainly does that.

[This article first appeared in Under the Radar's August/September 2013 digital issue.]



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