Sheffield’s finest return to Australia in 17 days, showcasing the latest incarnation of a band whose members are scattered around the world, whose music is scattered through multiple styles, and whose most recent album (reviewed here) divided fans.
In this interview from 2013, eight years into their career, front man, songwriter, amused bon vivant and sardonic observer, Alex Turner explains Sheffield dreams and LA living as Wind Back Wednesday dons the shades.
The hair is short and thick in that pre-Beatles/post-pomade hairstyle of the retro-rocker. Long gone is the left-alone shag of the provincial Oasis fan he sported when his band’s first album became the fastest selling debut in UK history.
The clothes are sharper, the suits a little tighter. He’s stepped up a grade from the jeans and anonymous jackets you could hide in which he wore when that band, the Arctic Monkeys, won the first of their five Brit Awards and the prestigious songwriting prize, the Ivor Novello Award.
And home too has transformed, from perennially grim Sheffield to perpetually sunny Los Angeles, for Alex Turner and the rest of his band, Nick O’Malley, Matt Helders and Jamie Cook.
But the accent and mind remain, stubborn north-east England vowels and evident erudition even amid the kind of slow delivery you associate with a man not averse to the odd jazz cigarette, particularly before interviews.
It's a combination which makes for incongruous combinations of chilled dude drawl and expressions such as "I've been somewhat compromised this morning”.
We first met Alex Turner as the teenager who chronicled his home town like a modern day Samuel Pepys, or a faster talking Ray Davies if you like. He was still 19, the son of two teachers (of German and music) in 2005 when he recorded Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not. He was a boy who had rarely moved past the city limits of the Yorkshire city whose industrial peak had long past and whose musical peak seemingly had had one final spurt in the belated ‘90s success of Pulp.
While in many interviews at the time he was reluctant to engage too deeply (but when he did, he punctured the smugness of many a foolish journalist), in his songs Turner sang about watching brawls brewing late on a Saturday night, and cabs locked to prevent runners. He picked apart mating rituals and bouncer etiquette.
He wasn’t just smart; he was funny, drily but pungently funny. And he did it all with the kind of eye for detail and knack for insight which lifted the already vibrant English indie rock into something sparkling and urgent.
Eight years, three albums, a minor celebrity romance and a few trips around the world later, Turner is yet another Brit who has found a home on the west coast, turning native in different, small ways.
"I like to walk up to the Bat Cave. I was a big fan of the old Batman you know - the Adam West series, in Technicolor, that one - and they used to shoot it up the hill from where I'm staying,” says Turner when asked if he has a favourite LA activity. “I've been trying to go for a jog up there but it kind of turns into a stroll and a game of Batman by the time I get there."
He's talking about that spot in the TV show when the Batmobile exited a rock wall, the road sign would drop down and it would hoon away to Gotham City. Which is kind of cool don’t you think?
Anyway, in his imaginings, was he always Batman, the centre of attention and the star, or was he more comfortable just behind, as Robin? Keep in mind that while Batman had a certain element of cool, albeit in a slightly saggy outfit, Robin had a bit more fashionable style about him.
"You could argue that in the outfits Robin perhaps, by a nose, won the handsome race," an amused Turner drawls. "It was me and another kid I grew up with down my street who were Batman and Robin and I was definitely younger and shorter so I was Robin most of the time. But maybe that's what gave me the drive to become a Batman in later life. Ah, that’s a whole can of worms there. Yeah, I’m Batman now.”
With or without a stately mansion ala Bruce Manor, we agree that it’s a pity someone hadn’t thought of the band arriving on stage at Glastonbury in June, sliding down poles ala the caped crusaders.
Even without the bat poles, headlining Glastonbury at any time is a significant marker in any band’s life, even for the Rolling Stones, Jay-Z and Bruce Springsteen. But this year the Arctic Monkeys did it for the second time: headlining in 2007 as the brilliant new kids who may have been there too early but no one was going to argue; headlining in 2013 as the established figures.
First time around they were gobsmacked into silence; when they went on stage this time, did they think yep, this is right, we’re not out of place?
"Yes, it was totally appropriate. I don't know whether it would have if we hadn't played the Olympics opening ceremony the year before. But once we had done that gig on the lunar surface, Glastonbury didn't seem so nerve wracking anymore,” says Turner.
“It felt like we deserved to be there. Even though if you look at it a different way, we probably were still like the youngest [headliners] but it was all so perfect the Glastonbury performance this year.”
What completed the "perfect" was something that has been brewing for several years now, the transformation of Alex Turner from uncomfortable, almost monosyllabic stage performer to a genuine showman, a capital F capital M front man.
As the others added a layer of flair but pretty much stayed in their original roles – Cook the sardonic, distant one; Helders the lively, engaged one; O’Malley the quiet one on the side – for Turner it was not like he had slipped on some false persona, but rather allowed something in him to run free.
More than confidence it was a reflection of being comfortable in the spotlight and having “a version of yourself” as he puts it bearing the burdens of attention.
"I think whenever you step out on stage it's always to some extent a character or an extension of your own. To go out there and completely be yourself is kind of impossible because you are in a very unusual situation as soon as you walk out there,” says Turner. “I’ve definitely become more comfortable on stage so maybe it's an improved version. It comes with doing a few laps I suppose.”
There’s not much design in it he argues, not much of the worrying “which leg to kick out” at a particular point in the show, but it’s not exactly without calculation.
“You do the math a little bit more,” he says, adding with deliberate droll delivery, "the internal sums of the soul.”
Like many young bands, the early incarnation of Arctic Monkeys was a group ever alert, sometimes to the point of paranoia, about falseness: one song on their debut mocked English bands taking on American iconography and traditions.
In an approach which would resonate with many Australian bands who spend years running away from showmanship for fear of being seen as pretentious wankers, the Arctic Monkeys were the antithesis of flashy and gobby.
It can't be a coincidence that the on-stage confidence and flair has emerged as the band has grown more comfortable and confident in its songwriting and playing, shifting between styles and sounds with ease and eagerness each album, up to and including this new one, AM.
After their first two albums of taut, word-packed songs which operated as witty but also gimlet-eyed takes on the quotidian as played through English rock’s recent history, the band shifted across the Atlantic, across the American continent even.
In album number three, Humbug, they made a record in the California desert with Queens Of The Stone Age powerhouse Josh Homme (who calls Turner “one of the most talented songwriters out there”) which flummoxed some fans with its touches of ‘70s hard rock heaviness and relative opaqueness.
They followed that with Suck It And See which expanded on the rock and even into groove with a definite increase in sense over sensibility. Meanwhile, Turner was turning away from often poetic descriptions of what he saw around him to more exploratory, more sexual, more worldly-than-Sheffield observations.
The confidence to be showmen and the confidence to go decidedly modern R&B with a new song like Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High must come from the same source.
"Absolutely, yeah. I hadn't given much thought to the idea that experimenting in the studio for Humbug fed into the live thing but it probably did and certainly on this new record where we have gotten to as a live band in the last three years has informed and encouraged those moves in the studio. Without a doubt,” says Turner.
“In fact in my mind there is a direct symmetry between the bar being raised in the shows and this album, a direct correlation between the two points, aptly proportional [he chuckles at himself] I'm drawing graphs now, I'm in a mathematical mood this morning."
You could say that this album is taking the band out of its comfort zone except the fact that plotting exactly where that comfort zone is for them has become harder and harder in recent years. Even listening to the way Turner sings now, easing his way into things in the manner of a modern rapper - he was a teenage fan of Dr Dre after all - takes you further from the streets of outer Sheffield.
"A couple of albums ago, the album we made in the desert with Josh was the moment we made the decision to leave the comfort zone. We would try a flourish or, as you say, forget about the accepted wisdom, and see what's out there,” Turner explains.
Having done that he reckons is what enabled them to make what he calls “a really original record, wildly different to anything we’ve done before”. How did it happen? “The whole thing to me was this delicate chemical experiment, chemical reaction.”
And speaking of chemical reactions. Whether or not they have anything to do with his recent life – including a four year relationship with TV presenter Alexa Chung which ended after the previous album – the lyrics on AM are streaked with suspicion or maybe doubt: more than once the songs appear to turn on questions of who to trust, how much to trust, and how you feel after it all has passed.
"Maybe that's more than we should look at it,” Turner laughs, perhaps self-consciously, except you suspect he’s got no intention of going anywhere he isn’t comfortable.
“There's some truth in that in certain moments of the record. [New song] #1 Party Anthem is essentially all about being in a room full of strangers where everybody is acting like pals and maybe some of that sensation appears elsewhere in the record.”
Pushed to explain further beyond the assumed LA-ness of that situation, he veers, lightly but definitely. Even in the in-house interview he’s done to accompany the press copies of AM he prefers the vague enough to sound potentially deep metaphor rather than address anything personal.
That said, he’s happy enough if we want to see this album as painted by the idea of facing up to some home truths. Wherever that home is.
“There are a few scenarios and situations I am describing there and it doesn't matter to me where that is, I don't want to know who the Egg Man is if you know what I am saying,” Turner, the Beatles fan, says. “There are the moments which are about that point in the night where the genie decides, actually, he's not going to grant you those three wishes after all."
Given their reputation – as songwriters, as performers, as interesting human beings - has done nothing but grow in the eight years since the Sheffield quartet landed on our doorsteps, you get the feeling the Arctic Monkeys have one or two wishes left.
Arctic Monkeys play: RAC Arena, Perth, February 23; Rod Laver Arena, Melbourne, February 26-27; Qudos Bank Arena, Sydney, March 1-2; Brisbane Entertainment Centre, March 3; Spark Arena, Auckland, March 6.