- 06 Sep 13
They graced the Olympics opening ceremony in style and stormed Glastonbury. Now Arctic Monkeys new album AM is getting rave reviews. But the hard work is making Alex Turner just a... little... bit... tiiiiredddd. World domination beckons – but can Alex afford to keep missing his beauty sleep?
Alex Turner is totally and utterly shitfaced. And then some. It’s just after 3am in a busy London drinking den and the 27-year-old Sheffield singer is getting smashed on shorts with his fellow Arctic Monkeys.
Jamie Cook, Nick O’Malley and Matt Helders all seem to be holding their own, but Turner – who’s dressed like a Saturday Night Fever greaser in black leathers and way too much Brylcreem – is embarrassingly three sheets to the wind, barely able to stand straight.
It’s not just the endless rounds of tequilas they’ve been imbibing all night. Judging from his saucer-eyed demeanour, you’d say he’s obviously taken some kind of hallucinogenic too. A tab of strong acid or some seriously smacky pills. Every time he glances up at the clock on the wall, it melts, Dali-style, and turns into a smiley face. When he goes to the Gents to freshen up, he sees multiple versions of his own face reflecting disapprovingly in the mirror.
Realising that he needs to get out of there, Turner makes his excuses to his bandmates and leaves. Staggering down the street, his deathly pallor shiny with cold sweat, the hallucinations intensify. Everywhere he looks, people are having obscenely public sex. Speaking of which, he’s trying to contact a fuck-buddy, but his mobile phone keeps dissolving Twilight Zone-style into his hand. Inevitably, he whites out and collapses face down on the pavement…
Crash! Bang! Wallop!
Okay, that’s a fictional scenario, played out in the impressive Nabil Elderkin-directed video for Arctic Monkeys’ latest single, ‘Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?’ which, less than three weeks after its release, has over three million YouTube views. Even so, it’s probably safe to assume that Turner, frontman of arguably the most successful UK indie band of the new millennium, didn’t have to act very hard in the role of dissolute night owl.
SOMEBODY MIGHT JUST KEEL OVER
Back to reality. It’s 10.30am on Friday, August 23rd, and Turner is sitting in his record company’s boardroom, talking to Hot Press on speakerphone. Sitting? I can’t see him, but actually I guess he may be somewhat slumped. The interview is to announce the arrival of Arctic Monkeys’ fifth studio album, AM, but from his first slurred, “Hello, Oh-laugh,” it’s obvious that our chat might have been far better scheduled for PM.
Not to put too fine a point on it, he sounds like he was starring in the real-life version of the video last night – and hasn’t gone to bed yet. So was he?
“Em… we’re only back from America this week and we’ve been rehearsing ever since,” he explains.
Still, Alex, you sound kind of… tired. “I always sound tired,” he says. Actually, the thought occurs to me that, speaking painfully slowly and in a curious monotone, he sounds almost like Private Pyle from Full Metal Jacket. Just before he shoots himself in the head. Or his own post-brainwashing namesake in A Clockwork Orange. Alex isn’t exactly in flying form! Were you acting in the video or did you drink during the shoot? It takes so long for him to respond that I’m worried I might have offended him. “I was acting so I was doing my first little bit of…” – there’s a long pause and about of coughing – “pop star acting. So no drinks for me, although I had one Guinness at the start… but, yeah, it was all fake. I was acting, man.”
At the other end of the line, I’m wondering are we going to get through this at all, without somebody keeling over (it could even be me). I’ve met Turner face-to-face on a few occasions over the years and he’s a very likeable guy. But even in the best of circumstances, he’s not always the most loquacious of interviewees. This morning he sounds like he needs at least another four hours’ sleep. Fortunately, I’m a veteran of several journalistic encounters with Shane MacGowan. I decide to carry on regardless.
“I’m sorry, man,” he says at one point, following a drawn out, 20-second silence. “It’s the, em, signal.”
And so, while there are long pauses and occasional bouts of coughing along the way – clearly he’s got a bit of a cold – as well as non sequiturs, and sentences that simply run out of steam midway through, a picture emerges nonetheless of a man and a band who are ready for the shuffle, ready for the deal, ready to let go of the steering wheel…
GOT LIVE IF YOU WANT IT
Since their mega-selling 2006 debut, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, Arctic Monkeys have always been renowned for making exceedingly good music videos. Are the band themselves very involved in the production process?
“Yeah, I think you have to sort of give it up a little bit for the videos ‘cos that’s an area… I can’t just try and find someone who is talented… You have to let yourself kind of become the… to some degree… and that is what you sort of do most of the time. Do you know what I mean?”
I do actually. You need a good director, but you still have to put enough of yourself into it that you can stand over the end result. Have you been touring all through the summer?
“We have, yeah. We just had a couple of weeks off and we’re just about to get back into it now. But we were all over the States and Europe.”
And getting rave reviews, most notably for their triumphant Glastonbury appearance. This weekend, they’re at Electric Picnic. It could be one of the gigs of the year.
TINA TURNER, BLASTING OFF
In a recent BBC interview with Zane Lowe, Alex admitted that his inspiration for the title AM came from the Velvet Underground’s 1985 outtakes compilation album VU.
“Yeah, the difference being the initials for the Velvet Underground are V and U, obviously, rather than A and M,” he explains. “And on the cover of their album there’s just a picture of a VU meter like you would see on a mixing board, and we have put the AM radio wave on it – obviously just snuck in an AM to the centre. It was really about kinda wanting to self-title the record, but we have such a stupid band name that AM seemed like a better fit. I just kind of liked the shape of letters, you know. Peaks and troughs.”
AM was recorded in Rancho de la Luna in Joshua Tree, California. They’d written and road-tested all of the songs for 2011’s Suck It And See,
but most of their fifth album was developed from scratch.
“We wrote the whole thing in the studio this time,” he explains. “It was a change from the last record in terms of the way we recorded it. Last time it was all pre-production, I suppose, rehearsing together and playing together. This time we just wrote the whole thing as we went along in the studio. We had a lot of demos of every version… like every part on there is kind of in its fourth or fifth incarnation at this point.
“A different record but it kind of contributes… the way it sounds as well… and it was one of the first studio albums that we have ever made. I think it’s a good thing to kind of separate those two worlds: live and studio. I think it has restrictions on it and certainly there’s no need to do that on your fifth album.”
Is there a different kind of pressure involved when you’re on your fifth album?
“I suppose there is, yeah. It’is different from like the second, obviously, but I think the pressure comes from wanting to... (pauses) I think we’ve come on as a live act in the last three years or so, we’ve raised the bar, you could say. Perhaps this record was raising the bar as far as recording goes. That’s where the pressure comes from.”
In fairness, it’s an amazing record. Citing Outkast, Aaliyah and Black Sabbath as influences, he told Lowe that it sounds like “a Dr. Dre beat, but we’ve given it an Ike Turner bowl-cut and sent it galloping across the desert on a Stratocaster.”
“Yeah, I suppose there’s a bit of Dre there,” he says now. “I like the way that music is constructed, that music being hip hop and contemporary R’n’B. There’s a dash of that in the record, but no rap though. Even, like, the Notorious BIG. I love that music and I think that was kind of our USP at the beginning.”
His response to my question about their long-term producer James Ford becomes the casualty of a slur, but Turner totally redeems himself with this brilliant further description of how the album sounds.
“I was just thinking that it sounds like Tina Turner, the footage of Tina Turner in Gimme Shelter, the Rolling Stones film, right, that Tina Turner in cassette tape grey leather pants riding a Chopper into a sunset that looks like a graphic equaliser up to the ramp to the spaceship that’s been fixed after all this time… and blasting off!”
SPEAKING OF GUESTS
AM features some guest musicians, including Bill Ryder-Jones, who plays guitar on ‘Fireside’ and Pete Thomas, who contributes drums on ‘Mad Sounds’. But the daddy of them all is Josh Homme of Queens Of The Stone Age.
“Yeah, he came down and did some BVs,” Alex explains. “He did some backing vocals. We had a get-together and played him a few tunes. We got him to sing on the song ‘Knee Socks’. We were really thrilled with his contribution actually.”
Turner had previously guested on QOTSA’s sixth studio album …Like Clockwork.
“Yeah, I did a little something on his album before. I scratched his back and that, so he scratched mine.”
It was when Matt Helders injured his hand that percussionist Pete Thomas (best-known for his work with Elvis Costello) kept his drum
“Well, Matt just broke his hand, you see, and Pete came and helped us out with keeping momentum. He was shaking the tambourines, adding a bit of spirit.”
Guitarist Bill Ryder Jones, formerly of The Coral, meanwhile, is an old buddy.
“He’s a friend, but I did this thing a couple of years ago – this film called Submarine – and I did a few songs for that. So I had Bill come and help me out with that. We;ve been consulting with him for years and he’s a very talented guitarist.”
The album closes with a truly superb cover of the John Cooper Clarke poem ‘I Wanna Be Yours’, which Turner originally studied for his GCSEs. Has the Bard of Salford passed judgement on it yet? “I don’t actually know what his reaction is to it yet, but I think he’ll dig it,” he suggests. “I’ve heard, as I understand it, that he’s sold on the whole thing. I’ve been a long-time fan of his. When we started the band, I saw Johnny Clarke supporting The Fall, and that kind of changed my approach to lyric writing. We were sitting there with this little four-track cassette recorder on which we had made this shitty demo with some loose grooves and riffs, and as I do with most songs I kind of write it with this machine and I actually started singing that line ‘I want to be yours’ and I remembered that there was a poem of his that I was very fond of, which is an interesting juxtaposition in music – and then it just came out the way it did on the record.”
LET’S NOT DWELL ON THE FUTURE
Talk swerves to other things. Last year, at the request of film director Danny Boyle, the Arctic Monkeys played to a massive international TV audience when they performed their debut single ‘I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor’ and a cover of The Beatles’ ‘Come Together’ at the Olympics opening ceremony.
“That was like playing on the lunar surface or something,” he laughs. “We were all terribly nervous up until, I would say, about 90 seconds before we stepped out. And at that point we just decided that it was going to be great – and it was! I think when you see people doing things like that, you see they look nervous. I don’t think we did, really, and we pulled it off, I suppose. I think that prepared us for Glastonbury this summer. That was definitely one of those moments. Glastonbury magic aside, we’re business as usual.”
Are you looking forward to Electric Picnic?
“Of course, man, yeah. This is a new
No, it’s been going for 10 years...
“OK. That just shows what I fucking know! I understood it like they’d stopped doing the other festival. But I’m looking forward to it.”
Having split with MTV presenter Alexa Chung in 2011 – ‘Why Do You Only Call Me When You’re High?’ was allegedly written with her in mind) – Turner has reportedly been living with actress Arielle Vandenberg in Los Angeles since last year.
“Yeah, we’ve been there for the last year or so, the four of us. We’ve been spending a lot of time there, made the record there. Only for the last year or so.”
He also owns homes in London and his native Sheffield. Is he planning to stay in LA or return to England?
“For the foreseeable future I’m going to be on the road, so it sort of doesn’t really matter. And after that, I don’t know even where I’m going to end up. Let’s not dwell on the future.”
Their support act for their stadium tour will be Cavan teenagers The Strypes. Has he seen them play live before?
“No, I haven’t,” he admits. “I’ve seen them on the laptop. I did meet them, actually, at Glastonbury. They seemed like very nice boys… by all accounts.”
They’re all about the same age as the Arctic Monkeys were when they first started. Is that why you chose them?
“Not really, no,” he says. “Well, maybe there’s a bit of that, but I’m not going to be, like, giving them any advice. The music industry is a very different place now, apparently, so I wouldn’t know what to tell them or where to start. I don’t think they’re looking for that either, from what I understand. They’ve kind of got their thing and they seem to do it very well. It’ll be good, though – it’s a different kind of support band for us.”
BEN AFFLECK IS BATMAN
Speaking of the music industry being a different place nowadays, what’s Turner’s take on music-as-blood-sport TV shows such as The Voice and The X Factor?
“I’m not setting the video recorder for them, put it that way. They’re sort of part of it and there’s nothing you can really do about it. But, you know, it doesn’t stop you from picking up a guitar and writing a song in your bedroom.”
Are there any other plans to do another The Last Shadow Puppets album?
“Not just yet, but one day I would like to ride again.”
How about film soundtracks?
“Nah, no plans for that, either. The last one was a bit of a fluke, to be honest. A friend of mine, Richard Ayoade, made this film [2010 British comedy-drama Submarine]. It just so happened that I had some songs that worked out. I adapted them very slightly to fit to the film. If it came to actually doing a soundtrack of a film from scratch, I don’t know if I’ve got the stuff for that. I dunno, but maybe one day I might do an X-Men soundtrack or something.”
Have you heard that Ben Affleck has been cast for the new Batman movie?
“Ben Affleck!” Turner suddenly sounds more animated and excited than he has for the previous half-hour. Yeah, it was just announced today.
“Wow! Fucking hell! That is…. great news! That’s interesting. I thought that was why the phone was ringing, actually, I thought I was gonna get offered that role. But no – it were
I hate to disappoint you...
“No, you’re doing everything but.”
The voice of a record company handler comes over the line: “Could you make this the last question please, Olaf?”
Sure. What has been the weirdest experience you’ve had as an Arctic Monkey?
“The weirdest?” There’s a very long pause. “Fuck, I’ve kind of ran out of road there…”
We can give you a pass on that one, Alex.
“Yeah, I’ll need a pass on that one.” He laughs uproariously. “We should probably have ended on Batman. That would have been better.”
The line goes dead. I really hope he gets