In just 12 months, Arctic Monkeys have become the biggest band in the land. Uncut took the boys back to where their incredible story began — Barnsley College student union
ALEX TURNER is looking to the future. He’s wondering whether his band, the Arctic Monkeys, will still be playing live in 40 years’ time, cranking out tracks from their debut long-player, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not. This, by some distance, has been the most successful album of 2006.
“If you’re gonna get out, you’ve got to get out early,” he says. “Like The Jam. Weller always said they were about youth. But then you get tempted into carrying on, or doing a comeback because you’re skint.”
“Look at The Beatles’ career,” adds guitarist Jamie Cook. “It was only eight years in total, wasn’t it? You couldn’t do it like that now. No one would allow you to make that many albums in that short a time.”
The Monkeys meet Uncut in the Citrus Rooms, once the student union of Barnsley College. It’s an indication of how far — and how fast — they’ve come that tonight they’re playing a sell-out gig here. Three years ago, three quarters of the band — Turner, drummer Matt Helders and new bassist Nick O’Malley — idled away lunch hours in this very building. “The first gig we ever went to together was The Vines,” says Turner. “In this building, when it were the old student union. It was brilliant. Tonight is like we’ve come full circle.”
Possessed of Paul Weller’s intensity, the laconic delivery of Jarvis Cocker and the coiffeured ‘do of peak-period Rod Stewart, 20-year-old Turner appears to have beamed down from rock’s central casting. Is he aware of the devotion his band incite?
“Of course. But I think if bands try to change things or become spokesmen for a generation it puts at least as many people off as it excites,” he says. “When we were starting out we never took notice of no-one, you just have to do what you’re doing. It’s the passage of time which decides these things; who’s important. And who isn’t. Besides, the next big thing is always around the corner.”
So, just how big are The Arctic Monkeys? Look around. Having released the fastest-selling debut album of all time in January (353,675 sales in the first week; current sales 1.1 million), and scooped the Mercury Prize in September, the Monkeys are indisputably theband of 2006.
“It was a surprise, all this,” says Turner. “When we went to No 1… I mean Top 20 would’ve been great. We never did any TV and we never tried to be No 1. And you know what? The minute you do start to try it almost ruins it, doesn’t it?”
Already their influence has extended beyond the narrow parameters of pop. In June, the tabloids treated the departure of bassist Andy Nicholson with a relish only reserved for those exiting rock’s highest table, while in August Gordon Brown told New Woman in a toe-curling interview that the Monkeys “really wake you up in the morning”. For most commentators, they’re already firmly established as part of rock’s regal bloodline.
“It was clear from the start they were the apex of what had been building with The Strokes and The Libertines,” explains NME deputy editor Alex Needham. “Our sales went up 10,000 the first time we put them on the cover. There’s a slight regret that they haven’t gone all the way this year. It’s within their power to finally kill off Britpop and establish the noughties with its own identity.”
No pressure, then. Under such scrutiny, it’s little wonder the Monkeys have retreated into a shell. Having released the non-chart eligible EP, Who The Fuck Are Arctic Monkeys? (home to the bullish lyric: “Bring on the backlash!”), and the terse ‘Leave Before The Lights Come On’, there’s a sense the band’s truculence is harming their career — a charge fiercely denied by PR Anton Brookes.
“This idea that the band are ‘difficult’ amazes me,” he says. “What people don’t appreciate is that they’ve got their own ideas. Formatting, ringtones, TV advertising — they’re not interested. They don’t want to sell their soul like some bands. Plus, they’re just normal young lads, up for a laugh.”
Easily distracted the Monkeys may be, but they’re also light years from the spoilt brats of media imagination. Voluble on subjects that interest them — the minutiae of rock history; Sheffield Wednesday FC — their outlook inevitably comes via the prism of life on the road.
“We still live at home, though,” says Turner. “People say ‘Oh, you’re mad — move out’, but we’ve been away for three months, living in hotels.” So they watched England’s exit from the World Cup backstage at a festival in Belgium (Cook: “It all kicked off; they asked us to leave!”); were unaware of Keith Richards’ fall from the coconut tree (Turner: “Should he have been up there? If he was our age!”) and dismiss the demise of TOTP as an irrelevance (“It wasn’t really for our generation, was it?” muses Cook). If their alcohol consumption is up — Helders cheerily admits to “drinking all the time now” — life before the band is slowly slipping into the distance.
What were their highlights of the year?
“The band has been the highlight of the year,” asserts Turner pointedly. “All of it. The best gig was Berlin. It was a Saturday night and Germany had just played their last game in the World Cup. The atmosphere was incredible, all these different nationalities totally up for it.
“And we met Jack White, Noel and Liam. And Drew Barrymore — she were right sound!”
This year also saw the Monkeys make their third trip to Japan, where the album has sold over 150,000 copies. “It’s a mad place, isn’t it?” laughs Turner. “Fans just wait at the hotel for you all day. One of them picked me up once!”
“The proper hardcore ones are still there when you get back at two,” adds Cook. “And then when you go down to breakfast, they’re still there!”
“We were due to leave at six in the morning,” continues Turner. “And one of them said to me: ‘I might not be able to be here in the morning’. I was like: ‘Er, don’t worry about it. It’s OK!'”
The lowlight, though, was the departure of bassist Andy Nicholson. His replacement was an old friend from Barnsley college, Nick O’Malley, who exudes the level-headedness you’d expect from someone who had been planning a career in criminology before stardom came calling.
“It wasn’t like, ‘Shit, let’s get a session player in’,” says Cook. “But if Nick hadn’t done it, I don’t know what we’d have done.”
“We’re just the same as we were,” adds Turner. “Having Nick in the band has given us a kick up the arse, both in the playing and the hanging about. There’s no drama…”
Alex was always the quiet one,” says Joe Carnell, singer with fellow Sheffield band Milburn and a schoolfriend from Stocksbridge High Secondary School. “Even when we were 15 and hanging out, Alex would always stay in the background. Then, when we both formed bands, we would sit down and play songs to each other. It was then I started to realise how good he was. We’ve been on tour with them in Europe and to see thousands of people singing along at first hand has been incredible.”
Carnell has seen up close the Monkeys’ extraordinary ascent, and Turner’s own development as a songwriter. He recalls, just a few years ago, when Turner worked behind the bar at local Sheffield venue the Boardwalk, switched on by The Fall and John Cooper Clarke, The Strokes and The Libertines.
“I remember the first time I saw the Monkeys play at The Boardwalk in 2003,” Carnell remembers. “Alex was wearing a tunic — he was really into Pete Doherty. He even introduced the band with the words, ‘Hello, we’re The Libertines’.”
After meeting manager Geoff Barradale at Sheffield club The Fez and — infamously — caused power-surges nationwide as fans scrambled to download demos of ‘Fake Tales Of San Francisco’, ‘A Certain Romance’ and ‘From The Ritz To The Rubble’, the band signed to Domino Records in June 2005.
“A lot of labels were already interested by the time I saw them,” explains Laurence Bell, label boss at Domino, whose roster also includes Franz Ferdinand. “I went to a gig in Stockton-On-Tees. There were 250 people there and half of them knew all the words. You didn’t have to be a genius to realise that this was one of those special moments where the music and the times were in perfect harmony.”
“The Monkeys were shrewd in signing to Domino,” says Martin Talbot, editor of trade magazine Music Week. “Otherwise they could have had credibility problems like the Manic Street Preachers did at the start. Nonetheless, it’s disingenuous to suggest they’re torch-holders of the indie flame. The fact is they’re signed to the same management company as Craig David and the biggest music publishers in the world. There’s a lot of corporate muscle there. I’m not comparing them musically, but at the same stage last year James Blunt had sold a similar amount of records. By the end of the year he’d doubled it. The question is, can Arctic Monkeys do the same?”
Turner is clearly keen to start recording the Monkeys’ next album. Which leads you to wonder where his inspiration will come from now fame has removed him from a world of niggly girlfriends, narky bouncers and taxi-drivers taking him the long way home.
“I can’t stop writing songs,” he says. “I don’t know what else I’m going to do. I like chucking them out there. People come up to me and go: ‘I like that B-side — why didn’t you use this as an A-side?’ And I’m like, ‘Well, you’ve got it, haven’t you? What’s the problem?’
“At the moment, I’ve written quite a few slower ones — but that’s purely because I’ve been writing on my own. There’s 13 or 14 songs, maybe a few more, in different states. It might be something I’ve done which someone played acoustics on, and some of them we all know already. There’s one called ‘Brian Storm’ I’m pretty pleased with.”
According to Laurence Bell, there are some surprises in store: “The new songs I’ve heard sound quite heavy, but still with a massive groove built in. ‘Brian Storm’ is out there — it’s very bright and metallic. It’ll shock a few people. They’re in an adventurous mood. There’s a creativity and energy in the Monkeys that most bands just can’t access.”
Are they worried about the pressure? Does the burden of expectation hang heavily on Turner’s shoulders?
He shakes his head. “I’m not a fan of doing things because someone else did it. All the things in history happened, people did what they did without thinking about it. Things have to progress naturally, otherwise you end up as The Darkness.”
He smiles broadly. “It’s the best year of our lives, isn’t it? Not bad for a first job, is it?
“We’re in a great position at the moment. Let’s not ruin it.”
Monkeys’ Business — The Arctic’s year at a glance…
January 23: Release debut alburm Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What’s I’m Not, which becomes the fastest selling debut in UK chart history, selling 363,735 copies in the first week
January 24: Co-headline NME Awards tour, along with Maximo Park and We Are Scientists
February 15: Win Best British Breakthrough Act at the Brits
February 23: Become the first band to win Best New Band and Best British Band in the same year at the NME Awards; also at the Awards, the Sugababes perform their version of “I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor”
March 11: Kick-off sell-out US tour playing Saturday Night Live: only their fourth ever TV performance
April 10: Scummy Man DVD released, directed by Shane Meadows’ collaborator Paul Frazer
April 13: Begin two-week, 12-date UK tour, culminating at Brixton Academy
April 24: Five-track EP, Who The Fuck Are Arctic Monkeys?, is ineligible for chart inclusion
May 2: European tour opens in Paris
May 25: Nick O’Malley is drafted in as a temp replacement for “fatigued” bassist Andy Nicholson
June 19: Band’s website officially announces Nicholson’s departure
July 28: Monkeys start first Australasian tour in Auckland
August 12/13: Play festivals in Tokyo and Osaka
August 14: ‘Leave Before The Lights Come On’ reaches Number Four; the video features Dead Man’s Shoes‘ Paddy Considine
August 20: The Rolling Stones kick off UK leg of the Bigger Bang tour at Twickenham. The gig was originally scheduled to take place at the new Wembley Stadium, whose construction has been delayed. Mick Jagger notes from the stage: “I think they’ll have Wembley ready for the farewell tour of the Artie Monkeys.”
August 27: Carling Weekend festival gig marks the end of the band’s 2006 touring commitments; reunited backstage with Nicholson
September 8: The band win the Mercury Prize
September 25: Gordon Brown claims he’s “more interested in the future of the Arctic circle than the future of the Arctic Monkeys” in a speech at the Labour Party Conference
© Paul Moody, Uncut, December 2006