The Q Interview: Alex Turner: “I still feel very much a boy”

On Friday, 22 June the Arctic Monkeys will headline Glastonbury. Favourite Worst Nightmare is the year’s fastest selling album. Their time is assuredly now. But Alex Turner is still dreaming of their impending doom.

ALEX TURNER wakes up and checks the time: 8.50 in the morning. “Fucking hell, it’s right early,” he thinks. “But I was at Dizzee Rascal’s house for ages, and loads of shit were happening. All his mates were there, they had decks out and stuff. There’s no way it can be only ten to nine.”

Rubbing his eyes, he surveys his surroundings. A hotel room, in Milan. Then he remembers what really happened last night: sitting round the piano in the hotel bar with his mum, along with bandmate Matt Helders and his mum, plus his friend John McClure and his mum. They’d all travelled to Milan a day ahead of tonight’s Arctic Monkeys gig. Dizzee Rascal’s house party was just a dream.

Four hours later, Turner is at Milan’s Rolling Stone club, telling his fellow Monkeys about the other dream he had last night, one that’s been recurring for some time. He’s onstage, playing to an audience of thousands. And people are leaving. But this one was significantly different, given the fact of where — and to how many people — Arctic Monkeys will be playing this month.

“We were at Glastonbury, and they’d put the wrong delay pedal out for me. We couldn’t get it to work. And everyone’s down at me pedals, wrestling about with wires. And then people just started walking out of the field. Then Geoff [Barradale], our manager, said, I think we should just get the guys out of the country now and not come back till next year.”

Guitarist Jamie Cook, drummer Matt Helders and bassist Nick O’Malley stare at Turner, then exchange a knowing glance.

“Geoff’d probably do that an’ all,” deadpans Cook.

You don’t have to be in the pre-eminent British rock phenomenon of the current era to have anxiety dreams, but it probably helps. A month before the release of their new album, finds this quartet of quiet lads from Sheffield as excited as they conceivably get. Since the release of 2006’s debut album, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, the Arctic Monkeys have been garlanded with critical plaudits, industry awards — the Mercury Prize, three Brits, the not inconsiderable matter of the Q People’s Choice gong — and record-breaking sales.

Its follow-up, Favourite Worst Nightmare, will only enhance the group’s commercial status: it entered the UK album chart at Number One, having sold more than 225,000 copies in its first week. At the same time, every one of its 12 tracks were in the Top 200 singles chart thanks to download sales. More importantly, the album showcases a band who have developed musically and, in the case of Turner’s increasingly broad emotional spectrum, lyrically. With the hype that surrounded their first album having dissipated, they’ve grown into the mantle of a Great British Band. And one whose art, to judge from the adulation and word-perfect singalongs of the Milanese, transcends nationality and culture.

It’s a remarkable success story, especially as they’ve resisted the media chaff that’s integral to the 21st-century pop experience. “Playing and recording are our favourite things,” states Cook. “A lot better than all the other bollocks. Just keep us away from it.” Moreover, the wobble of original bassist Andy Nicholson’s departure and his replacement by Nick O’Malley in July 2006 appears to have actually strengthened their core. “Nick’s open, he’s got good ideas,” says Turner. “He knows, like I do, that we’re only young and we’ve still got a lot of stuff to find, musically. We’re definitely a better band with Nick.”

*

Two weeks after Milan, we meet again in a sunny courtyard at the University of Exeter, host to the second date of an instantly sold-out, low-key, pre-album release UK tour. Turner is feeling “a bit fuzzy”, a by-product of the previous night’s gig in Southampton and the fact that he’s been unexpectedly gripped by hayfever. “I need a [antihistamine tablet] Piriton!” he mock demands. “In April, if you fucking please!”

Having just taken lunch (“ginger and sweet potato soup — sound”), he’s now got a restorative coffee and chocolate digestive on the go. Pale and stick-thin, though with unexpectedly muscular hands, he’s a far cry from the caustic Northerner his songs’ tart social realism suggest. Instead, the 21-year-old speaks in low murmurs, staring dreamily into the middle distance, his sentences often retreating into silence. In 40 minutes he becomes really animated only when a pheasant suddenly appears on the lawn (“Fucking hell! Look at that!”).

He still lives with his parents in Sheffield (“for now, though I’m never there”), and keeps his old friends close. Although prepared to admit to the awkward autobiographical truths behind two new songs, ‘Do Me A Favour’ and ‘505’ (the former a painful break-up, the latter a tender pledge of longing for an absent lover), he’s instinctively guarded about revealing too much of his private world. He’s also free of the self-aggrandisement that became the stock-in-trade of talented tyros in the post-Britpop era: “Our minds don’t really work like that.” His assertion that writing songs comes easily to him (“very much so — I’m always coming up with new ones”) feels simply a matter of fact.

Thoughtful, good company, he’s happiest when talking about his latest favourite “tunes”, be those by ’60s psych enigmas The United States Of America or sultry ’50s torch singer Julie London. As we settle on a picnic bench, he fondly recalls the Monkey mums’ Milan singalong. “Very funny,” he nods. “We had a cracking time.”

Both your parents are teachers. Did they caution you against being in a band?

I think they probably wanted us to still carry on at college. Cos it all started when we were at college, in our first year. And then I finished my second year, and said, “I’ll just have a year now when I work in a bar and mess about with the band and then I’ll go to uni.” That was always the thing. But then, in that year it sort of… happened.

What were you doing at college?

It was in Barnsley. I did English. And Psychology in the first year, but didn’t carry on with that. I did a music course. And I did that media thing that everyone were doing a couple of years ago. I didn’t really do anything substantial, apart from English. Which I would have then come to regret. So I got lucky, I suppose! But you get to the end of school and you’re like, “What? I can get away without doing maths?! Sound! I’ll mess about with cameras!”

If you had gone to university do you think you’d have stayed in Yorkshire?

I would have wanted to go away somewhere. I had to start filling the forms in, kinda halfheartedly, and I was looking at Manchester. My mate Chris, he went to Manchester.

What was the music course like?

More technical stuff. Me and Matt [Helders] did the same one. It were a laugh and that, and the teacher were sound, but it wasn’t really my thing. I couldn’t really see myself becoming a soundman or an engineer. I always wanted to produce, and I think that’s why I did it. My dad had Cubase [sequencer program designed for home computers] and a piano, so I used to mess around and make beats when I were younger. Me dad’s a music teacher. He’s played in big bands. He plays piano and a bit of clarinet as well, but saxophone, that’s his thing.

So there was music in the house when you grew up?

Yeah, all sorts. Sinatra in my dad’s car, or the Carpenters. He’s always been into harmonies. My mum was in The Beatles’ fan club, she’s seen Led Zeppelin, been into David Bowie. She met one of The Monkees — y’know, the original Monkees — at a party at her university. [Ponders] The one with the hat?

Mike Nesmith?

Maybe, yeah. Pink Floyd as well. I remember that record, Wish You Were Here, where the fella’s on fire, that was always beside the record player. But it never really penetrated. I just heard what was on in the car, be it Hotel California, or The Beatles. ‘In My Life’, that’s my mum and dad’s favourite Beatles track, and it rubbed off on me. I love that tune.

What was the first music you got into for yourself, as opposed to hearing what other people liked?

I remember buying Be Here Now when it came out. I was too young for Oasis before then. I was still riding me bike or whatever, messing about. But the first time I really got into something and it felt like it were mine was Roots Manuva, when I was at secondary school. But I never got proper immersed in that world. And then The Strokes came along and I started hanging out with Cookie. He’d been listening to guitar music and we’d all got guitars for one reason or another — my dad had brought me one home from school and I was playing a couple of chords. Me and him [Cook] had been chatting about having a band. Our mates had a band and we’d watched them. So getting into The Strokes led us into other bands like The Coral. That was while we were playing as a band ourselves, but we were all learning — we couldn’t play fuck all.

Was there a moment during this phase when you thought, “Hang on, we’ve got something”?

We probably always did, or always thought that we’d have something eventually. Cos even when we was messing about at home I thought, “This will be good when we’re a bit older.” I were having a chat with my mate at the bus stop about the band — people had started coming to our gigs. And I was like, “Yeah, but I can’t imagine it happening cos we’re still pretty young.” Y’know, we were 17. You don’t really get bands who are 17. We were thinking, “You’ve got to be 23 before they let you on the telly.” We supported The Ordinary Boys once — ha! — in Sheffield when we were still at college. We were all like, “Yeah! We’re supporting The Ordinary Boys!” That seemed like such a massive moment. Before that we’d only played really small, tiny places. I remember first looking up at that gig when we played there and thinking, “Wow.” Couldn’t really comprehend it.

Do you still get freaked out by the realisation that everyone’s here to see you?

No, now it’s just blanked out. I felt a bit weird this morning. I looked out of the bus window and there were a fella wheeling loads of cans of Fanta and a box of Peroni into the venue. And I thought: “They’re bringing that in for us.” Like, somebody’s been sent out to get some fucking fizzy orange and I don’t even know him! It’s not weird, though, really. Fucking get on with it. You could spend every day talking about how strange this is. But I’d rather just write tunes.

How do you survive the tedium of touring?

Touring hasn’t seemed like a challenge so far, I don’t think. Maybe that’s coming. I like to always listen to tunes and play tunes. I’ve got more into learning to play and sing other people’s songs recently than ever. That’s all the time, though, not just on tour.

There’s that disdainful line in Teddy Picker: “The kids all dream of making it, whatever that means…” Did you never dream of making it?

Not really, no. Fucking hell. I was speaking to this kid and he said, “You’ve made it now.” Fucking hell, it’s a bit showbiz — “making it”. [Adopts American accent] I wanna be a star. Heh. Bit peculiar, all that.

It’s interesting that the first record you bought was by Oasis, who made no bones about wanting to make it and become famous.

Hmmm. I never really thought of it like that before. It’s just, like, Oasis, innit? You just tolerate them. But I don’t think solely what Oasis wanted was to be famous. They wanted to write good tunes. And they did. They took a lot of care. So they don’t fall into that bracket. But they openly did want to be massive. That’s fine by me!

But it’s not something you’re actively courting?

Not me. No, not at all. And it’s not to be arrogant or to be cool or whatever. I also don’t want to appear surly. I just like writing tunes. I love playing. Maybe I’ll try to get away with just making tunes and not having to be famous. Have aliases.

You mean checking into hotels under false names?

No, I mean I could have aliases to make music, so no one would even know.

You’re going to be playing some massive gigs this summer — Old Trafford cricket ground, Glastonbury. No alias will be good enough then…

[Doubtful] Yeah. [Suddenly grins] I just remembered my dream last night, another one about people walking out of the gig. Yeah! People walking out. Sound!

*

When confronted with an outsider, the Arctic Monkeys initially exhibit the characteristics of a gang, albeit a gang of nice, well brought-up boys: during a group interview in Milan they’re polite but wary. Gradually, however, our exchanges become easier. An hour before the Exeter gig, I’m invited onto the tourbus to watch Manchester United versus Roma. Sat in the upper deck’s TV lounge are Jamie Cook and Nick O’Malley. They offer beer, but no unseemly glad-handing. A keen footballer, during the London recording sessions for Favourite Worst Nightmare Cook would travel home to Sheffield every weekend to turn out for his local team. O’Malley, meanwhile, is the only Arctic Monkey to have used his “celebrity” for selfish advantage. Refused entry to Sheffield Wednesday’s hospitality suite for wearing jeans, he heard his uncle pipe up: “Hey, come on, he’s in the Arctic Monkeys!” Much to his embarrassment, they let him in. Not yet in the band a year, the stalwart O’Malley still can’t quite believe his luck. “It all seems a bit surreal even now,” he admits.

“Every silver lining’s got a cloud, Nick!” Cook laughs.

It’s only when interviewed separately that Alex Turner and his bandmates relax, laying down the cloak of collective self-consciousness that would be natural for any group of men their age, let alone in their circumstances: four 20- and 21-year-old Yorkshiremen whose every move has been scrutinised since their earliest records became such huge and unexpected successes. They claim deliberate ignorance about the details of their financial situation.

“That way we can’t get into an argument about it,” says Matt Helders, the stocky, fast-talking drummer who started boxing training in order to cope with the demands of touring the new album. “Of course the idea of being stupidly famous worries us. But we’ll manage not to get like that. A lot of famous people wanted to be famous. And then they complain about it afterwards.”

“There’s ways to deal with it,” says Cook. “We’ve proved you can stay out of the way.”

What irritates you most about Alex?

“He’s always late,” says Helders. “He’s like clockwork in his lateness. Yesterday in Southampton, the bus was picking us up at half 12 at the hotel to go to the venue, and [tour manager] Timm phoned him, goes, Al, where are you? The bus is here. Everybody knew what time they had to be down there. He said, I’m watching Danger Mouse. He was still in bed.”

Invited to list Turner’s positive attributes, the three Monkeys shift awkwardly. “His timing’s pretty good otherwise,” offers Cook, eventually.

Ten days later, we’re in Birmingham, where it’s the Friday night before the Monday release of Favourite Worst Nightmare. More and more new songs are now being sung back at the band. Wearing the same white Lyle & Scott V-neck he’ll sport onstage this evening, Alex Turner offers Q the dressing room’s comfy chair and allows himself a contented glance at the pile of finished new albums that have just been delivered. He’s even more at ease than previously, though the conversational flow noticeably slows to a trickle during a couple of occasions when Cook pops in.

Do sales figures matter to you? If the album sold 10,000 copies as opposed to 200,000, would it matter?

Not really. So long as people are getting into it, and they seem to be. That’s what matters. I’m not arsed about breaking any records.

Was the success of the first album intimidating when it came to recording this new one?

More like excitement. We were ready for it. We’d been playing those songs for a long time. We didn’t see it as if we’d done loads and were ready for a break.

Were you trying to do new things with your songwriting compared to the first album?

“Songwriter” – I don’t feel like the image that word conjures up. It makes me think of someone with a hat on and an acoustic guitar. It seems like a natural thing. I met Jarvis Cocker, and he was saying it’s weird to say why you wrote that, because in your own head you just get to a point where you enjoy playing it. The more times I think about all that stuff the worse I’ll become. So I’ll just try to keep going and not become some mad character.

Was releasing ‘Brianstorm’ as a single an attempt at derailing your own success? It’s hardly the most commercial track on the album.

That’s what it’s all about, really, isn’t it? Trying to not do what everyone thinks you’re gonna do. And then, when they think you’re gonna do that, do what they thought you were gonna do. That’s a much more fun way to exist. Have this! And then, deal with this too. I’m certainly not the sort of person that’s like, “This is what I am!” I don’t feel like I’m completely formed yet.

It lost out on the Number One spot to Beyonce and Shakira’s ‘Beautiful Liar’…

But come on! How does a tune like [‘Brianstorm’] challenge Timbaland and Beyonce?! For us to even get near that world with such a strange tune is a good thing.

What would you say to her if you meet?

Oh, she can have the Number One! I’ve always been a fan of Beyonce. I love her. She always has pretty good quality control and she’s got a bit up there, I reckon.

You’ve rubbed shoulders with the pop world when the Sugababes covered ‘I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor’ and you met them at last year’s Q Awards.

Mad! It seemed well weird when all that happened.

Who’s your favourite ‘Babe?

I reckon, erm… I quite like the newest one, y’know. In that Comic Relief song they did, the Run-DMC thing, she raised the bar in that. Very impressed. But, hmmm… Keisha’s the one with the pipes. She’s the one with the… hmmm. We met them a couple of times, but never really chatted. We’re always dead shy in those situations.

Your acceptance films for the Brits, where you dressed up as the Village People and characters from The Wizard Of Oz, looked like fun to make.

Cookie wanted to get Peter Stringfellow to collect it, but they weren’t having it. Then we were thinking of fours we could dress up as [although there were six people in the Village People]. So it were like, Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles, then ‘YMCA’, Wizard Of Oz, Musketeers. Those were the easiest costumes to get. Cos we were grateful for it, we thought we’d do a sincere thank you. But that sincere thank you became more miserable as the day went on just cos we thought that would be funnier. The Wizard Of Oz costumes were cracking. There was a kids’ face-painting lady as well.

How did you choose who was who?

Malley went straight in and got the Lion costume. Cookie was adamant that he was gonna be Dorothy, from the kick-off. I just ended up with the Scarecrow. But that were like a dead indie scarecrow outfit. Right thin trousers and a Crombie sort of thing.

You seem to be enjoying that aspect of being in a successful band more than you used to…

I think we always have done, though — it’s just documented different now. Yeah, have a fucking laugh with it. Because at the end of the day it’s not serious, is it? But people get so riled up about it all. I went to that Oasis party after the Brits and I couldn’t believe how seriously some people take these things. Fair enough, though, who am I to say? That’s just how we wanna deal with it. It’s not like setting an example for anybody. It was just, let’s have a laugh, let’s dress up. And I don’t want it to seem like I’m patronising anyone by saying this, but if that does mean a lot to you then fair enough. I’m not saying that our way is right. Although… it is.

But are you grateful for these awards?

Of course, yes. A lot of the time they’re voted for by the people and all that sort of stuff, which is obviously a good thing. Cos people obviously wanna show you they’re into it. And we’re obviously very pleased about that.

What do you think when you’re called “the voice of a generation”?

I don’t think people even say that any more. I think everyone realised it were a bit daft. It was something that got put on us early on to frighten us a bit. Even if anyone did say it I’d ignore it. I’ve got more immediate thoughts or more immediate conversations to have other than “the big ones”. If I were in them situations all the time then probably I’d become some dickhead going, “Oh, so you wanna know how I wrote that tune? Well, what it was…” But I try to avoid them situations. Keep your head, think about something else. Obviously, any compliments about your music or your lyrics are a very good thing. Perhaps I just don’t like to be in the positions where you’re bombarded with stuff like that all the time. But then, who would be?… Maybe someone might.

How did you feel when your cool barometer was such that even Gordon Brown felt obliged to name-drop the Arctic Monkeys?

[Groans] I don’t know, I never even had a second thought about it. But that soon changes, that’s how everything works. Something happens and then as soon as it becomes “that thing” something else kicks against it. But I never felt we were kicking against anything that came before us. We just seemed to form a band and then played. Cos I suppose the band “before” us were The Libertines and I love them. Certainly weren’t trying to kick against them. When I were at college they were always on me Walkman. When I look upon those bus journeys now, it seems enchanted… But everyone has a soundtrack that goes with that doe-eyed time. Doe-eared! So I had The Libertines and The Strokes and The Coral. And Rubber Soul, too.

Do you feel old now? You’re making it sound like this was aeons ago.

Oooh, God yeah, the stories I could tell… No, not at all. I still feel very much a boy.

Being in a band is a way to retard the onset of adult responsibilities.

Yeah, of course. We’re very lucky to be in this position for that reason.

*

As he leaves to soundcheck, I give Turner a compilation CD. He spots a Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds track and starts quoting ‘The Carny’, the richly grotesque masterpiece from Cave’s 1986 mini-album Your Funeral… My Trial. Not the sort of thing you’d expect Alex Turner to have tripping off his tongue, but then only a fool underestimates an Arctic Monkey.

“I’m still forming what I’m drawn to and I’m always becoming drawn to different things,” he says. “This week it’s Billie Holiday, ‘Gloomy Sunday’. My friend lent it me the other day. I’m fond of not being able to explain why a song gets under your skin.”

With a quiet “thanks” of farewell, he wanders off.

The following Tuesday, the Arctic Monkeys are recording Later… With Jools Holland, dealing with the smoke and mirrors of live TV performance with unflappable ease. The first-day sales of Favourite Worst Nightmare are a remarkable 86,000, the sort of figures that might cause the average 21-year-old to lose their grip. But that isn’t Alex Turner. In our final exchange, he clarifies his earlier comment about not becoming a “mad character”.

“Whenever you speak to magazines or whatever, it’s printed and it never comes out true. But if you don’t speak to them then they form their own ideas, which is potentially worse,” he says. “I reckon the only way you can avoid that is to keep making music and putting records out. Until there’s an antidote we’ll have to keep writing songs — something I love doing anyway.”

© Keith CameronQ, July 2007

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