Progress Report: Arctic Monkeys
NAME: Arctic Monkeys
PROGRESS REPORT: Alex Turner and Matt Helders chat about constructing Arctic Monkeys’ difficult fourth album Suck It And See.
If you are a fan of Arctic Monkeys then the past couple of weeks have been pretty kind to you already. The band are currently on tour here in the states, stopping in NYC last week to play a discrete show in Central Park and pay a visit to David Letterman to unleash a properly heavy version of “Don’t Sit Down ‘Cause I’ve Moved Your Chair.” The band’s fourth album Suck It And See officially arrives on June 7th (you can read our very own Premature Evaluation) and it is quickly shaping up to be one of 2011’s nicest surprises. One would think that now — four albums deep into their career — Arctic Monkeys would have finally been able to shake the weird stigma that comes with being having been one of the most heavily hyped new bands on the planet at one point, but apparently it’s still a subject that continues to haunt them. I sat down to talk with front man Alex Turner and drummer Matt Helders about the thought processes behind the new album and the perils of having been the next big thing.
STEREOGUM: You guys toured pretty relentlessly behind the last album. Did you take much time off after that?
ALEX TURNER: We did. At first we thought that we’d immediately just go back into the studio and begin work on a new record right away, but we realized pretty quickly that we just weren’t ready. We all needed to go off and do other things for a little while first.
STEREOGUM: So how did the songs for Suck It and See come together?
ALEX TURNER: Well, for our difficult fourth record we just wanted to have all the songs together and in good shape before we started recording. We wanted a firm foundation of good songs. Lyrics, melody, and chords all done beforehand. I know that’s not exactly…
MATT HELDERS: Not exactly groundbreaking (laughs)
ALEX TURNER: No, not exactly a groundbreaking plan of attack, but for us it was a really different way of working. In the past our recording was a lot more like putting together a jigsaw puzzle — we’d go in with lots of little bits and pieces of things and then figure out in the studio how it was all gonna go together, but we did a lot less of that this time. We made the decision to keep everything quite simple.
STEREOGUM: I know every record kind of has its own particular journey and specific set of problems, but in the context of your earlier albums was this a tough record to make? Would you say that your methodology has changed radically since you guys first started making music together?
ALEX TURNER: The actual recording of this record was much easier. We basically recorded one song a day. When we were going home at night we’d end by putting the tambourine or handclaps on, so we’d go home at night with a new tune. That was very unusual for us. But it was only because we’d spent so much time beforehand working everything out. Our aim was to actually go into the studio with the finished track list and just bang through them in order. We were really fucking organized. It didn’t quite work out that way exactly, but we were close. It was good because we could focus our energies in the studio just concentrating on the sounds rather than figuring out the actual songs. As a result of that, I think this record has a kind of warmth to it that we’ve never had before. Sonically, I think it’s the best thing we’ve done. The last song I wrote for the previous album was a track called “Cornerstone”—and I think that really set the tone for the songs I wrote next, many of which ended up on this record. I didn’t want it to sound twee or cheese, but I wanted to have the more melodic, major-key songs to go first on this record. We tried to challenge ourselves that way.
STEREOGUM: How long did it take to make the record?
ALEX TURNER: We did it all in two and a half weeks.
MATT HELDERS: That doesn’t include the preparation time beforehand, which was only a couple of weeks. All told, it took us much less time to prepare the songs and go in and record them than it takes a lot of bands to make a record. It felt good to work that fast.
STEREOGUM: This being your fourth album, do you feel like you’ve sort of gotten over the hump in a way? Like you can relax a little?
ALEX TURNER: Well, after everything that happened with our first album — with all that attention — we immediately went back into the studio just a few months later. There was definitely that feeling that we needed to move on to the next album really quickly. We didn’t want to give ourselves enough time to second-guess ourselves too much. As a result, that second album is far from perfect. I mean, there are some songs on it that I really like and that we still play, but there are others that I don’t care for as much.
STEREOGUM: Favourite Worst Nightmare does have kind of a manic, hysterical quality to it.
ALEX TURNER: Yeah, it’s because we were quite frantic ourselves. It was like, we need to hurry! Now! Now! But it was good because that album came out less than a year after the first one and it allowed us to just carry on with what we were doing and not get too distracted by all the press and attention.
STEREOGUM: Your band will always be remembered in part — for better or worse — for the crazy hype and hysteria that surrounded the release of your first record in 2006. Has that been a strange cross to bear as a band?
ALEX TURNER: It was a very strange time. I was very excited, and we were very pleased, that we helped change things on the charts. It felt like, for a moment, everyone was really behind us. When “Dancefloor” went to the top of the singles chart, there was this feeling like anything could happen … and we didn’t know what would happen next. I think when that explosion of attention happened one of the results was that it really made us very defensive with people who were outside our little bubble. We didn’t want to let anybody in.
STEREOGUM: It’s a lot of pressure having that much attention focused on you, especially when you’re a new band. I know it often takes a while to figure out when it’s OK to say no to things.
ALEX TURNER: Yes, but it was also quite fun. We had a lot of really good times while all that was happening. You can’t complain about being successful, can you? No one wants to hear that. You just hope that it doesn’t backfire in some way or that people will still be interested when you put out your next record. We’re all much more comfortable now, which also has to do with being a little bit older. We were 16 and 17 when we first started the band and we’re all in our mid-20s now. Everyone tends to change quite drastically in those years.
MATT HELDERS: In a way, it was kind of good that we were so young. We didn’t know any better than to just have a good time with it. We weren’t too worried in that moment about what was gonna happen next.
ALEX TURNER: I think we made it through it all OK because we’ve all known each other for so long. I’m in this band with three of my best mates and some of us have known each other since we were six or seven years old. It didn’t really affect our dynamic with each other or as a band. Had that not been the case, it would have been much tougher to navigate.
STEREOGUM: What has been your experience with coming over to play for US audiences?
ALEX TURNER: It’s always been a lot of fun for us. In the beginning it was such a novelty — the whole idea of flying over here to play shows was just so exciting. But even recently I’d say that the shows have been a lot more fun, mostly because the size of the shows is so different than what we play back home. I mean that in a good way though — it’s not as if we’re pissed off that we can’t play venues that are as big as the ones we play in the UK. It’s a lot of fun being able to play all these different sized rooms across the country.
MATT HELDERS: We’ve never played in Nashville, which we really want to do. Hopefully we can do that this year.
ALEX TURNER: I really get a kick out of playing small clubs in the middle of America. That’s when you really have to turn it on for people. You get used to playing these arenas with lots of lights and a big stage—everyone is so far away. It’s not the same when you are in a small room with people who are standing three feet away from you and are looking you in the face. It’s nice to be able to see people’s faces.
STEREOGUM: Alex, how do you feel like your songwriting has changed over the past five or six years?
ALEX TURNER: It’s changed a lot. I do think about it as if … well, I’ve come to accept that I’m actually a songwriter now.
STEREOGUM: That’s funny. You never felt that way before?
ALEX TURNER: I just didn’t think of myself in that way. That idea conjured that image of the singer/songwriter with an acoustic guitar or something … and I didn’t ever see myself like that. Eventually I came to accept it though and I decided that, if I’m going to keep doing this then I also want to be good at it, you know? As much as there is this element of magic involved, songwriting is also a skill that can be practiced and improved.
STEREOGUM: Who were the songwriters that most influenced you? What did you grow up listening to?
ALEX TURNER: It’s funny, when we were in school we mostly listened to hip-hop. Both Matt and I were really into Roots Manuva. I also really liked my parent’s music — Beatles, Beach Boys, Julie London … stuff like that. We were just a bit too young to be swept up by Britpop, but we all grew up hearing his older brother listening to that stuff a lot. To be honest, The Strokes were really a big deal for us. That was a gateway to a lot of other music for me. There is always that one band that comes along when you are 14 or 15 years old that manages to hit you in just the right way and changes your whole perception of things. I don’t know what band is doing that for kids right now
STEREOGUM: Maybe it’s you guys. I bet the success of Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not inspired a lot of kids to run out and start their own bands.
ALEX TURNER: Oh, I don’t know about that … but it’s a nice idea, regardless.
Suck It And See is out 6/27 via Domino.