Monkey magic: The success of ice-cool Arctic Monkeys
The Arctic monkeys have been big since 2006, but what's the key to their success? They just try ‘not to suck’, Alex Turner tells Eamon Sweeney.
Alex Turner may have a massive show in Dublin looming in his diary, but he’s keen to pinpoint exactly where Arctic Monkeys played their first Irish gig. “Is Whelan’s the one with a balcony around the top?” he asks. “Ah yes, I remember it well. There was an altercation of some kind and I don’t think it was the locals.
“I remember there being a bit of a kick off with someone in a Sheffield United shirt for some reason. Something happened and there was a bit a scuffle.”
Despite this incident rearing its leary head, the Marlay Park bound star has plenty of fond memories from the band’s Irish engagements over the years.
“I’ve good memories of all the Irish shows, even Oxegen when the rain was horizontal,” Turner enthuses. “Matt (Helders, the drummer) dressed up as Spiderman for the Malahide Castle show, so that one lingers in there too.
“They’ve always been good shows with great audiences, but you guys know that. You don’t need to fish for compliments. You’re all great.” Oh, you’re such a charmer Alex.
The 28-year-old singer, guitarist and songwriter has enjoyed an extraordinary first decade in music by anyone’s standards. Turner received his first guitar from his parents for Christmas in 2001. Alex was an only child, but he soon bonded with his next door neighbour Jamie Cook (guitarist) and they formed their own band of brothers.
The fledgling group soaked up inspiration by going to watch Sheffield concerts by such bands as The Strokes and The Thrills. Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not became the fastest selling British debut album of all time in 2006, shifting 360,000 copies in its first week. Their success was no flash in the pan. All five Arctic Monkeys albums have gone to number one. The band that started life by singing about swigging alcopops and fights in the chip shop are now being hailed as the 21st century torch bearers for rock ‘n’ roll.
Arctic Monkeys are the most successful English guitar group since Oasis, but are a far more consistent outfit in terms of quality control and critical acclaim. Alex Turner has also become one of the most instantly striking front men of his era, with his dapper hair and retro dress sense.
“I think at this point I’m just on the bandwagon with everyone else when it comes to the haircut,” he laughs. “Looking like the Arctic Monkeys could mean a few things. In 2006, it was about tracksuit tops. A couple of years ago, it was about shaggy long hair.
“I’m probably more recognisable now. The whole face is exposed, whereas in the past the forehead and sometimes the ears and cheeks were veiled. Now that big nose is protruding and pointing straight at you.”
While the chart-topping megastar would risk being mobbed in Sheffield if he popped out for a pint of milk or, indeed, a pint, he lives a relatively anonymous life in Los Angeles. It’s a long way from the Northern Steel City that spawned Pulp, Richard Hawley, The Human League and Def Leppard.
“I do miss Sheffield,” Turner laments. “I really miss the friends I have there. I’ve got to see some of them over the summer. Some of them are the funniest people I know. Not to whinge about being famous, but that obviously has become a factor.
“I got to go to a Sheffield Wednesday match last season. I was reading that we’re going to be bought by an oil tycoon the other day, so that might be interesting.”
Would Alex be tempted to invest in the club affectionately known as the Owls?
“I don’t know,” he replies, laughing. “Good question. I'd probably be advised not to. I suppose Elton John bought Watford. Who knows? I’ve got to think about that one.”
Amongst his new-found Californian friends is towering Queens of the Stone Age front man and so-called ‘Ginger Elvis’, Josh Homme, whom Turner has frequently collaborated with.
“I’ve developed a taste for a tequila called Ocho from drinking with Josh,” Alex reveals. “It is not as easily available as Patron, which we always have on our rider. Ocho and ice is all you need. You don’t have to mix it with anything.”
On one of their recent trips back to England, Arctic Monkeys spectacularly opened the 2014 BRITS Awards with some jaw-dropping pyrotechnics.
“The reason we were at the BRIT Awards was to play with fire,” Turner says. “We were invited to play, so the stipulation was that we had to have fire. Suddenly, we were up there winning an award and there was a bit of tenuous nip slip.”
This “nip slip” presumably applies to Alex’s bewildering but entertaining acceptance speech. “That rock 'n' roll, eh?,” Turner began. “That rock 'n' roll, it just won't go away. It might hibernate from time to time, and sink back into the swamp. I think the cyclical nature of the universe in which it exists demands it adheres to some of its rules.
“But it's always waiting there, just around the corner. Ready to make its way back through the sludge and smash through the glass ceiling, looking better than ever. Yeah, that rock 'n' roll, it seems like it's faded away sometimes, but it will never die. And there's nothing you can do about it.”
Turner finished by saying, “Invoice me for the microphone if you need to,” before dropping the mic on the floor.
Gus Unger-Hamilton of Alt-J blasted it as “self-indulgent”, while former Smiths guitar god Johnny Marr praised his spiel as being “quite poetic.”
“It honestly didn’t even occur to me that it would be taken out of the context of the BRIT Awards,” Alex says. “I thought just the people watching the program might see it for what it was, perhaps foolishly. I didn’t think it was of note to be spread around outside the programme. Once you do that, it becomes something different, but in the programme it seemed to make a lot more sense.”
Did Alex get invoiced for the microphone in the end? “I don’t believe so, we’ve quite a good relationship with Sennheiser,” he deadpans, referring to a microphone manufacturer.
The much ado over nothing has done them no harm. They now occupy an unique position in modern rock. Turner’s lyrical talents are praised by the likes of the poet laureate Carol Anne Duffy, but his band still top the charts and play to huge crowds all over the world.
“I really don’t take it too seriously,” Turner says. “I don’t sit around thinking about our legacy or looking back on what we’ve done. I’m not sure what we’ll do after this. I will think of something. I might go and live in the woods for a little bit.
“I spend a lot of time in discussions like this trying to explain what it is about this new album, or being in a certain place, or what were we on or what we were listening to. It really just comes down to reaching out for something and doing your best not to suck.
“Josh Homme said (the reason) he wanted to work with us was because we didn’t suck. We just try to continue not to. It really is that simple.”
They’ve certainly come a long way from Whelan’s, or the Grapes in Sheffield where they played their first gig in June 2003. “I don’t remember even opening my eyes during that gig,” Alex recalls. “The objective that night was not to fall off the stage and maybe get a snog out of it. The main goal was not to be humiliated.
“After that point something did change, but Madison Square Gardens or Glastonbury certainly wasn’t on the agenda just then. We took baby steps.”
Did Alex get a snog at the end of the night after all?
“I don’t think I did actually,” Turner replies. “At least I didn’t fall off the stage.”
Arctic Monkeys play Marlay Park on Saturday, July 12