Fast and Furious: Arctic Monkeys

IT’S A RADIANT late September day outside a recording studio in rural Lincolnshire. Summer is still clinging on by its fingertips, a lawnmower purrs in the background and four men are clustered around a garden table. Nothing in the way they talk, act or dress marks them out as unusual; a casual observer certainly wouldn’t take them for that well-worn music business cliché: the next big thing. But according to the people whose business it is to predict such things, that’s exactly what Sheffield’s Arctic Monkeys are.

“We’re expecting them to do a Franz Ferdinand or a Kaiser Chiefs,” says Mel Armstrong, rock and pop manager at HMV. “They’ve built up a massive word-of-mouth following. You can’t put a lid on it now. It’s exploding.” The NME, meanwhile, has dubbed them “the most talked-about new band in Britain”.

Asked how it feels to be the object of so much approving attention, they sigh and squirm like teenagers faced with a well-meaning but bothersome relative who wants to know how they’re getting on at school. “I dunno,” mutters quietly spoken frontman Alex Turner. “You’ve got to go along with it really. You can’t do ‘owt about it. See what happens.” He trails off and intensifies his gaze on the tabletop.

Such is the contrast with the Arctic Monkeys’ electrifying presence on record that I initially wonder if the real band members are inside the studio and have asked four friends to handle interview duties. Their forthcoming second single, ‘I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor’, is a blistering, three-minute romp about trying to impress a girl at a club: “There is no love, no Montagues and Capulets/ Just banging tunes and DJ sets, dirty dancefloors and dreams of naughtiness.” The title sounds like a self-fulfilling prophecy: dancefloors at indie clubs will be heaving to it for months to come. Just don’t expect the people who made it to talk it up.

“It’s a bit shit,” Turner says apologetically. “The words are rubbish. I scraped the bottom of the barrel.” He exhales wearily. “It could be a big song, like. But I’d hate to be just known for that song because it’s a bit” – he gropes for the right word – “crap.”

Fortunately, Arctic Monkeys make up in talent for what they lack in PR skills. For people so young – guitarist Jamie Cook is 20, the rest are 19 – they already have an enviable arsenal of songs. If you’ll forgive the simplistic comparison, their deftly observed, white-knuckle punk-pop vignettes sound something like a more muscular Libertines fronted by Mike Skinner with a thick Yorkshire accent. ‘Fake Tales of San Francisco’, the debut single they released in May, is a withering put-down of local poseurs. “Let me tell you all my problem,” Turner sneers, stretching the syllables like a young Liam Gallagher. “You’re not from New York City, you’re from Rotherham.”

Arctic Monkeys aren’t from Rotherham; they’re from a northern suburb of Sheffield called High Green, where Turner grew up with Cook and drummer Matt Helders. They met bassist Andy Nicholson at school, and did the sort of things that bored teenagers do.

“We weren’t like yobbos,” says Turner. “We were pretty tame.”

“We wouldn’t have got an asbo,” Helders agrees. “Maybe borderline asbo. You might hang around with people who break into houses but it doesn’t mean you do.”

Until three years ago, they had no musical ambitions whatsoever, but that Christmas Turner and Cook both received presents of guitars and thought about forming a band. “I didn’t think stuff like that happened to normal people,” says Helders. “You’d look at a band and think, I wonder how that happened. Then you realise your mate’s in a band so you think it’s not that hard, is it?”

They took their name from a band that Helders’ dad played in during the 1970s. “He passed it down from generation to generation,” says Turner. “Like a recipe.” They readily admit their first songwriting efforts weren’t pretty. Turner would sing in a generic, quasi-American accent and write meaningless lyrics just for the sake of having something to sing. Gradually, he realised he should just write about what he observed around Sheffield, inspired by Mancunian punk poet, John Cooper Clarke. He wittily documents stroppy club bouncers (‘From the Ritz to the Rubble’), sulky girlfriends (‘Mardy Bum’), shady local characters (‘Scummy’) and boozy nightlife (‘Dancing Shoes’), humanising his wry observations with a sense of yearning romance.

“Even the songs that are more personal are done in that observational way because it’s not as close to the bone,” he explains. “People can’t get at me and say, ‘Who’s that about then?’ It’s a bit like you’re hiding behind something. Sometimes when you write summat and you come to sing it first time in practice, instead of ‘I’ you put ‘he’, without even thinking about it. I dunno, it’s hard to explain but it’s easy to do.”

Two years ago, they recorded their first demos, posting them on their website and handing them out at gigs. At the dawn of the download era, when the major labels were beginning their long nervous breakdown over copyright, more optimistic observers predicted that unknown bands would be able to build a following by giving away their music instead of zealously guarding it. Arctic Monkeys are decisive proof that this works. Although they’ve only released one single, a diligent fan can have a collection of around 20 free downloads. Standout songs such as ‘A Certain Romance’ (“There’s only music so that there’s new ringtones”) are much-loved anthems before they’ve even been released.

After this year’s Mercury Prize was announced, music industry website Record of the Day invited subscribers to predict the names on next year’s shortlist. Somebody named the Arctic Monkeys’ debut album, despite the fact that barely a note had been recorded (it’s now almost finished, and slated for a January release). “I’m quite amused by that,” says Record of the Day’s Paul Scaife. “It’s amazing that they haven’t even made it yet and it already has that feel about it.”

The band’s hype-wary manager decided they wouldn’t call any labels or play any London shows – they’d let the buzz build by itself. Last Christmas, around the time the band realised that unfamiliar faces at gigs were mouthing every word, the A&R pack descended. Arctic Monkeys weren’t impressed (“Coming round and telling us what’s wrong with yer,” sniffs Helders) and chose to sign with independent label Domino, the home of Franz Ferdinand. “With a label like that, you’re talking to the person who owns it,” says Turner. “If he likes us, you can’t really go wrong. He’s really passionate about his music and that. It just seemed right.”

Before they were signed, Turner and Helders were considering university; Cook only quit his job as a tiler in May; Nicholson was on the dole. “I’d have been a builder or summat,” says the bassist in the gruff, deadpan tone that seems to be his default setting. “I’m a big lad. I can carry bricks. I’d have built a house on my own.”

“You’d have been a property developer,” says Helders.

Nicholson ponders this for a moment. “I’d have took over the world, I think.”

When they started writing songs, the only bands all four could agree on were Oasis and the Coral. It’s strange to think that when Definitely Maybe came out, the future members of Arctic Monkeys were only eight or nine, and that Noel Gallagher is old enough to be their dad. “How old’s he out of Franz Ferdinand?” asks Cook.

I tell him Alex Kapranos is 33.

“Thirty-three!” he says incredulously.

“We’re the Macaulay Culkins of this game, aren’t we?,” says Helders. “We’ll get the child star curse.” Cook agrees. “I’ll get to 25 – boom!” He enthusiastically mimes blowing his head off. “Everyone always sells more when they shoot theirself.”

Nicholson warms to the idea of life at 25. “He’s” – pointing to Helders – “going to buy a pub, he’s” – indicating Turner – “going to live on an island. I’m going to go crazy and burn a studio and lose all the tapes of our best album ever.”

This is not entirely improbable, given that Nicholson spends most of the interview restlessly flicking a clipper lighter. He holds it against the bottom of the tabletop until a thread of smoke rises up. Helders looks disapproving but unsurprised. “Don’t set that on fire,” he scolds.

All in all, Arctic Monkeys don’t appear to take themselves overly seriously, which can only be to their advantage. They may be guaranteed to top most people’s tip lists for 2006, but such feverish anticipation can be a poisoned chalice: for every Franz Ferdinand there is a 22-20s. Scaife sounds a note of caution: “These buzzes become self-perpetuating so something becomes bigger than it really is just because people are talking about it. I think they’ll sell a reasonable amount but not a staggering amount.”

Whatever happens, Turner plans to take it all in his stride. “When you want it and you get obsessive, you mould yourself to be whatever they want you to be. I think because we weren’t obsessive about it we’ve got a bit more bollocks.”

“We’re better than fucking … ,” Cook begins, before thinking better of it.

“Come on!” chides Nicholson. “Well, I’ll say it. We’re the best band in the country.” But he can’t sustain the bravado and his face cracks into a smile. “No we’re not.”

The thing is, he might just be right.

© Dorian LynskeyThe Guardian, 30 September 2005

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