Monday 5 December 2016

Monkey business

Eamon Sweeney is charmed by Arctic Monkey’s frontman Alex Turner as they talk about poetry, being inspired by country music and loving Oxegen — even in the rain

Published 27/05/2011 | 05:00

Arctic Monkeys play Oxegen on Saturday, July 9
Arctic Monkeys play Oxegen on Saturday, July 9

These loveable Sheffield scamps Arctic Monkeys are remarkably baby faced in the flesh. Shorn of the long hair they sported for their last studio album, Humbug, which they recorded in the Mojave Desert with Josh Homme of Queens of The Stone Age, they look far younger than their mid-20s.

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For a band that emerged in the wake of the Strokes and are frequently heralded as their English equivalent, they have been far more prolific and consistent.

Singer Alex Turner has authored no less than six studio albums, including The Age of Understatement as half of the Last Shadow Puppets and a solo mini-LP foray to soundtrack the recent Richard Ayoade movie Submarine. Acclaimed as one of the finest songwriters of this generation, his parents bought him his first guitar in Christmas 2001, back when The Strokes were all the rage on the back of Is This It.

Poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy has even hailed Turner as an immense poetic talent. A series of Great Lyricists booklets featured him in a stand-alone edition alongside the illustrious likes of Bob Dylan, Morrissey, Bruce Springsteen, Leonard Cohen, Patti Smith, Chuck D and Joni Mitchell. Intriguingly, the title track of his fourth studio album with Arctic Monkeys contains the lines, "I poured my aching heart into a pop song/I couldn't get the hang of poetry."

"I'm not a poet, absolutely not," Turner smiles. "Poetry and the written word are harder, you've no melodies to hide behind. That lyric is a bit tongue in cheek though and a gag. They spelt me name wrong as well. On the front, they missed the first r out of Turner, so unfortunately I was Alex Tuner, which is significant, as it really was a bit premature to induct me into that company."

Turner and his bandmates are gathered in the bar of Shoreditch House in east London overlooking a stunning vista of the city. They're a relaxed, chatty bunch, but it's Alex who possesses the most enigmatic, not-quite-there aura, gazing out of the windows and exuding the same dreamily romantic atmosphere that permeates their new studio album, Suck it and See.

A deafening fire drill threatens to put a spanner in the works of their tight promotional schedule. But drummer Matt Helders and guitarist Jamie Cook remain rooted to the spot, not even stopping conversation as I gently advise it might be worth checking out that there isn't an actual fire in the building, as everyone -- including a slightly nervy-looking Alex Turner -- is in the process of evacuating.

When order is restored, the conversation returns to how the Arctics have stopped writing about "fights in the taxi rank and swigging alcopops" and grown into a beguiling romantic band. My favourite new song is Love is a Laserquest, where Alex croons, "Do you think love is a laserquest? Or do you take it more seriously? I try to ask you this in the daydreams that I have, but you're too busy being make believe".

Turner maintains that Suck it and See benefited from thorough planning. "We had the whole thing together for three months beforehand," he reveals. "The focus was firmly on the sound and right performance. In the past, a lot of the time we'd have boxes with different bits to them. So we'd have a box full of a load of riffs, a bag of drum beats and a flask of lyrics and we'd mix them all together and get this soup out of it."

As he's speaking, he's miming the gestures of emptying a bag or lifting a box. For a guy who supposedly doesn't like doing interviews, he's being extremely charming.

The influences on Humbug were a heady mixture of Nick Cave, Jimi Hendrix and Cream, while the inspiration for Suck It And See is unexpectedly rooted in county music. "I'm not capable of making a country album so I think that's why I get a bit of a kick out of that music," Alex says. "There's something about the formula of those songs and lyrics that I really connect to.

"There's some really wonderful songs by those old country guys like George Jones or Townes Van Zandt or Roger Miller. They're really funny, really sad and tender and they clearly know what they're doing in terms of songwriting as a craft. Sometimes they're smart-arsed, but I'm kind of guilty of that myself. Willie Nelson's Crazy is approaching perfection."

But Suck It and See doesn't remotely sound like a country album, even momentarily. "Something like Don't Sit Down Because I Moved Your Chair (first single) is born out of a title," Turner continues. "The song falls around that. It was like it was already written, I just had to fill in the blanks. And I really like this song by George Jones, Relief is Just a Swallow Away, which is a drinking song. I can imagine him thinking that and then deciding how to get to there. Sonically, there's absolutely nothing country about that song whatsoever. Or anything on the record."

In the space of a single album, Arctic Monkeys suddenly were promoted from gigging in Whelan's to festival headliners. "I remember some people getting thrown out," Alex recalls on their Irish debut. "Isn't Whelan's the one with the balcony? Yep, remember it well. There was some altercation and I've a feeling it wasn't any of the locals.

"Last time we played Oxegen, it was the worst weather we'd ever played in. It was like horizontal rain and we were playing with a natural wind machine."

The first time the band played Oxegen, both Jamie and Nick were celebrating their 21st birthdays the same weekend. "It's always been a good laugh even when it's raining," Matt says. "We're like that in a few places in that we might go to that town and do a gig but we'd be quite high up on that bill and then the next time we'd be there would be at a festival.

"I remember a guy from The Thrills coming to see us in Whelan's and we were quite excited about that. One of the first gigs we'd gone to see was an NME tour with The Thrills.

"It's great to play outside our country and a few people had turned up. It gave us the feeling that our sound had travelled."

Arctic Monkeys have indeed travelled well, despite all their colloquial references. On the title track Suck It And See, a girl is compared to the obscure Northern soft drink dandelion and burdock, while all other girls are "post-mix lemonade".

"It's given people an interest," Cook says. "If they don't know what you're talking about they want to find out. Looking back, we never wanted to isolate people. If you listen to rap music, you're not necessarily going to know every reference to growing up in Compton. It's entertaining, but you still can get a grasp of what it's about."

They're as Northern English as they come, which seems to give them a sort of grounded determination and work ethic. "We just get bored not doing new tunes," shrugs Cook. "We love touring, but some bands do two years. That would completely do our heads in."

The whole raison d'etre of Arctic Monkeys from day one was to do new songs as often as possible. "We liked making CDs and handmade artwork and giving them away at gigs," Helders says. "That's the only thing we knew how to do. I didn't even have an email address, so it wasn't like we were a quote unquote internet band."

They ended up becoming a so-called web sensation by accident rather design and thanks to the enthusiastic efforts of fans. "When we started getting gigs in Nottingham and Newcastle and Glasgow, we thought that if we went there and played to 20 people we might as well give them a few songs," says Helders. "Just having people hearing the tunes in the places that you played in. Some people have got the wrong end of the stick. We're not an internet band, never have been. It's not like we were the only band with songs on the internet. They have to be good songs and you have to be able to play them well. If someone comes to see you and it sounds shit, then if it's on the internet it's not going to sound any better."

In the space of half a decade, Arctic Monkeys have become one of the biggest indie rock acts in the world. What's in store for the next five? "It's five years now, is that a long time?" Turner muses. "I don't know. It kind of does feel like it is and it doesn't. It's still early days now, so we'll see ... " Turner does another of his dreamy thousand-yard stares out the window. "We always try to ... not suck," he says with a grin. Suck it and see, indeed.

Suck It And See is out on Domino next Friday. Arctic Monkeys play Oxegen on Saturday, July 9

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