Arctic Monkeys aren’t done evolving
ALEX TURNER IS THINKING ABOUT a parking lot. Specifically, one in Hollywood, California where Arctic Monkeys performed on April 26, 2007 as musical guests on Jimmy Kimmel Live. At the time, Turner was 21 years old, delivering a blistering rendition of “Brianstorm” to a crowd that lined up around the block to see the latest from the most hyped band coming out of the British indie-rock scene. There were the Libertines, Franz Ferdinand, the Rapture, Bloc Party, the Cribs, the Kooks, but there was no one quite like Arctic Monkeys.
“It’s funny, innit?” Turner smirks. Currently, the Arctic Monkeys bandleader is at ease and upbeat sitting at a New York City hotel restaurant, awaiting a cappuccino. “I haven’t thought about that for a while, but when you said it then… I feel like I can remember what T-shirt I was wearing or something.”
As Turner, 36, muses about how surreal it is to reminisce about gigs they played 15 years ago, he pauses. “Not to get bogged down in memory lane,” he says apologetically. “But there’s something about how vividly some of that stuff stays with you, and maybe not what you would expect to.”
Memory lane for Turner is largely paved in polo shirts and leather jackets, shoulder-length locks and buzzcuts, tiny gigs and stadium tours, unremarkable Sheffield pubs and bohemian Hollywood bungalows. He has spent the majority of his life in a band, and most of that time in the limelight.
Too much reminiscing about the old days, though, is enough to make anyone feel washed, perhaps even someone as effortlessly cool as Turner. But after 20 years as one of the biggest rock bands around, it’s hard not to get hung up on the past every once in a while.
[Photo by Zackery Michael]
IT WAS 2002 WHEN Arctic Monkeys formed, gaining popularity by word of mouth and via free demo CDs making the rounds in their hometown of Sheffield and elsewhere in Northern England. From the jump, this was a band that was associated with their loyal fanbase: Even their MySpace page back in the mid-aughts was run by fans, not the band itself. By 2005, the band signed with Domino, and in 2006, their frenzied debut album Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not became the fastest-selling debut album in U.K. music history.
This success was swiftly followed by Favourite Worst Nightmare in 2007, but they managed to avoid becoming nothing more than a landfill indie band in 2009 with the release of Humbug, a dark, sonic departure for the band that set the stage for a musical legacy that defied stagnancy and predictability. Their 2011 album Suck It And See was followed by AM, the record that not only solidified the band’s success in America — beyond the Anglophiles and indie sleaze veterans — but introduced them to Gen Z Tumblristas. The AM-era sound and aesthetic arguably overshadowed the previous iterations of the group, threatening to damn them — and especially Turner — to a leather-jacket-and-mop-top image forever.
Their 2018 album, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, put a swift end to that. The band’s delightfully oddball exploration of politics, tech and cheese from the perspective of characters on a lunar resort was a reminder to fans old and new to never make assumptions about where Turner is going next.
And yet, the band’s forthcoming studio album, The Car, still manages to defy expectations of what an Arctic Monkeys album can sound like. If TBHC was a divisive response, The Car may very well be seismic. So whether fans like it or not is almost irrelevant: It won’t stop them from stanning and duking it out over coveted concert tickets.
“The way the project was put together this time was not unlike, what in my mind I imagine, making a movie might be like,” Turner says of The Car. “Obviously, I have no idea what that's actually like, but there was a longer post-production period in this, trying to take a lot more care of how everything fits together, the space and the dynamics within it… making it a thing that works from start to finish,” he ponders, before smirking and pivoting to self-deprecation. “It isn’t like I haven’t been trying to do all along.”
But this time, he thinks, they’ve nailed it. This wasn’t the case with their first two albums.
“They’re all over the place when I think about them now,” Turner reflects. “It's fast and everything is just done really quickly and kind of reaching all over the place to figure out where it's going.”
[Photo by Zackery Michael]
And now, Turner’s attempt at this meticulously crafted project culminates into a record that feels like a natural progression from TBHC, if only in that Turner, drummer Matt Helders, guitarist Jamie Cook and bassist Nick O’Malley have decided to continue down the path of “fuck it, let’s make it weird.”
“The first song that really gave me a sense of ‘OK, this is a direction that feels like it might be quite exciting to move in’ was ‘There’d Better Be A Mirrorball,’” Turner says. From there, he built out a mellow and complex album over the next two years.
So it feels reductive to say that the first thought that came to mind when “There’d Better Be A Mirrorball” debuted was to conclude that they’re in their soft-rock era. Their dad-rock era. Their Steely Dan era.
Perhaps those are pejoratives, but at times the album does little to distance itself from such epithets, and it’s impossible to miss the Frampton-esque twang in “Jet Skis On The Moat.” Yet, it doesn’t find itself trapped in it. This project is lush, string-heavy and has a decidedly cinematic flair, with songs like “The Car,” evoking a scene of an outlaw driving out west with a body in the trunk like a scene out of Fargo, and “Hello You,” which has a decidedly funky Quincy Jones film score-like bent.
“I mean, I’m absolutely all right with that [comparison],” Turner says, visibly chuffed. (And, yes, he’d love to try his hand at a film score).
As Turner continues to explain — or, rather, justify — the heavy use of strings on the album, he stops; the conversation at a table nearby has grown louder by the second. He thoughtfully frets over the integrity of our recorded interview, but he also admits that he’s distracted. After suggesting we relocate to another part of the room, he grabs both of our coffees and belongings and perches at the bar. He says distractions help keep him on his toes, preparing him for the next gauntlet to come his way. And Turner is always careful with his words, rolling them around in his mouth a bit and seeing how they taste before sharing them with the class. It makes for a slightly slower interview, but a meaningful one without the puff. He’s methodical and patient, with himself above all else, at one point going as far as to regret not using a different synonym for the word “distortion.” And it’s this meticulousness that translates into his lyrical prowess, crafting words and phrases into increasingly cryptic songs.
So it’s fitting that The Car’s best and most striking song is neither groovy nor soft; instead, it’s a pulsating, spooky track called “Sculptures of Anything Goes,” and it’s the first song co-writing credit with Arctic Monkeys guitarist Cook since “Still Take You Home" on their debut album.
[Photo by Zackery Michael]
Turner immediately perks up when the song is mentioned.
“Jamie got the Moog synthesizer and was playing with this sort of computer rhythm, like a rolling drum machine,” Turner explains. “He was putting that through the synth, so when you hit the key, you'd hear the drum machine and then it’d fade out. I basically wrote a song for that sound.”
The result: an ominous little earworm with the dark sex appeal of 2013’s AM and the eerieness of Humbug. “There's a bit of [a] desert thing still hanging around,” Turner agrees, referring to Joshua Tree where much of Humbug, their third album, was recorded.
Drummer Helders also cited the track as his favorite, noting that “there's a lot of scope for a cool video for that one.” He even assumed that “Sculptures” would be the first single from The Car. But that would have been misleading. Turner was correct in saying that “Mirrorball” sets the tone for the album at large, and the reception of that one mirrors how well they might receive the album in general.
There’s plenty to love about The Car: Turner has never sounded so confident in his singing voice, and his songwriting still cements him as one of the generation's most talented songwriters. But there will be Arctic Monkeys fans — longtime devotees who knew the band from their frenzied “Teddy Picker” days, “Arabella” bandwagoners and “Batphone” evangelists alike — who will find themselves uninspired by the band’s latest.
Following the release of “Body Paint,” someone tweeted, “Free Matt Helders, let him play drums on the new album.” Fair enough: Helders’ spirited drumming style has certainly taken a backseat on this album, but it’s a move Helders says he doesn’t mind (he suggests seeing them live or listening to the older albums for those who miss his drumming so much). And while Turner doesn’t seem entirely indifferent about the idea of alienating his fans, he’s not interested in placating them to the point of regression. If anything, Turner is perplexed by those who don’t see that their growth as a band is less about abandonment and more about evolving.
“Maybe it's wishful thinking, but I'm like, can't you see that [throughline]?” Turner says.“ I feel like we’ve got to move on… it’s been almost 10 years since [AM]. I don't think there's a way to keep doing that. And I think [we] sound like the same band that we did in the beginning.”
In short, Turner is ready for AM’s pomade-laden funeral pyre.
[Photo by Zackery Michael]
THROUGHOUT ALL OF Arctic Monkeys’ eras, Turner maintains an admirable level of faith in his fans; but maybe that’s because he doesn’t see all the shitposting on social. Turner famously — and, perhaps, smartly — doesn’t have a public social media account. In fact, his aversion has led his fans to jokingly refer to him as a Luddite who doesn’t know how to operate a smartphone.
So, does that mean we shouldn’t expect Turner to show up on TikTok one day and do a dance challenge?
Over Zoom, Helders quipped, “That’s the day I leave the band.”
“I’m not ruling it out!” Turner exclaims. Then, he adds, somewhat distressed, “There aren’t enough hours in the day! And this is not a criticism of anyone at all… I just don't know how I would be able to do a good job.”
No need. The TikTok generation has picked up his slack, and they’re out in full force waiting in line for the band at gigs and online. While old heads stick to the official forums to theorize the meaning behind song snippets (for a while, its members debated whether “I Ain’t Quite Where I Think I Am” is about The Great Gatsby), the stan accounts who shitpost all day get the most spotlight. The band’s single “Body Paint” — a cynical love song, accompanied by a beautifully shot music video — has already been memed to death with Turner’s faraway staredown set to elevator music and clips of him playing guitar on a rotating platform compared to food heating up in the microwave. The shitposts come from a place of love, but it’s hard to imagine Turner having a full understanding of some of his loudest online fans’ antics. Still, it’s undoubtedly them who will help shape the narrative following The Car’s release, and help the band continue to build their legacy.
But it’s a fool's errand, bothering to have any real expectations going into a new Arctic Monkeys release. Every record has offered something different — even their sophomore album, Favourite Worst Nightmare, released just a year after their record-breaking debut, experimented with some darker elements that would be fully explored in the psych-rock-adjacent Humbug, turned lovesick in Suck It And See, terminally horny on AM and out of this world on Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino.
[Photo by Zackery Michael]
No noise will prevent anyone from clamoring to see them live next year when they travel to North America, Europe, the U.K. and Ireland to promote The Car on their stadium tour; the bloodbath over concert tickets in recent weeks has become so unhinged that some fans have jokingly tried to cancel the band in an attempt to dissuade potential concertgoers from buying tickets. Every tweet announcing additional tour dates is met with fans wondering — or rather, demanding to know — why the band aren’t hitting their neck of the woods: “Come to Brazil in 2023;” “Drop Asia tour;” “Eastern Europe when?”
It’s a far cry from the parking lot.