Arctic Monkeys:Rock Star Tunes in to the Elders of the Tribe

By MELENA RYZIK  05/13/11 NY Times

SINCE 2006, when Arctic Monkeys appeared on the British music scene, Alex Turner, the frontman, has been acclaimed as a songwriter wise beyond his years. (He was 20 when the group hit it big, thanks in part to the tendency of the British press to trumpet and acclaim.) Through lineup changes and side projects, and a recent foray in New York with his girlfriend, Alexa Chung, the MTV personality and Madewell designer, Mr. Turner has gravitated toward classic musicians, like Gene Clark of the Byrds, and films like the 1959 western “Rio Bravo.” His retro sensibility is evident on the band’s fourth album, “Suck It and See” (Domino), to be released June 6. The title seems cheeky but it’s not, Mr. Turner said. “It’s an old Britishism, like a bit Dick van Dyke-y, like ‘give it a try’ almost — it’d be a slogan for some candy,” he said. “That’s not really traveled very well.” In a conversation peppered with other Britishisms (“nice one, love” he said, often, alongside saucier phrases) he recently spoke with Melena Ryzik from Stockholm, where the band members were starting their tour, performing together for the first time in over a year. “I’m a bit nervous, to be honest with you,” Mr. Turner said. “I have just opened a beer, actually. We’ll see if that’s going to help it out. I don’t want to do too much of that. I’m worried I might become forgetful, and there’s a lot of words in our songs.” Here are excerpts from their conversation.

Q: What were you listening to when you wrote the album?

A: When we get together, we gravitate to listening to the Stooges’ “Raw Power” or Stone Roses or Black Sabbath — heavier kind of rock, driving around [music]. One thing I wanted to get in place for this album was a song in the purest form. I just listened to what I thought would be really good songwriters — John Cale and George Jones and Gene Clark. The country thing is something I’ve never tapped into before, I was kind of afraid of it. There’s some dreadful country music, but when it’s good, when the lyrics are good, they’re the best songwriters. They’re either really funny or really sad, or sometimes both. The George Jones tune, this song called “Relief Is a Just a Swallow Away” — that’s really [expletive] funny. There’s two verses in it, he’s like, “I’ve been there before and I’ll be there again, I’ll drown all my worries or I’ll teach ’em how to swim, because relief is just a swallow away.” A sense of humor, that’s what I wanted to get into this new record. That the song is like an idea: relief is just a swallow away. I imagine they think of a title like that, and they just gotta fill in the blanks. There’s a song on this record like that — the single, “Don’t Sit Down ’Cause I’ve Moved Your Chair.”

Q: That does sound like a country tune. Do you ever hear a classic song and think, man, this is so good, I should just hang it up?

A: All the time. The last song where I had that sensation was the song “The Beast in Me,” by Nick Lowe. I almost did pack it in when I heard that. It’s simple — him and a guitar; that blew me away. I was like, [expletive] that’s what a song should be. I get that from more classic songwriters, but I also get that from great lyricists. I put Wu-Tang on that list. When we’ve been driving to and from rehearsal we’ve been listening to “Triumph” a lot. Method Man’s verse on that blew me away, the way it kind of flows. He mentions “A Streetcar Named Desire” on it. You’re not used to hearing that sort of stuff in rap. When we were making the album, driving back, we’d sometimes listen to Biggie, just to get away from guitars. That song “Kick in the Door” was often on in the car.

Q: You don’t listen to a lot of really contemporary music though. Dios, an L.A. act, is one of the few you mentioned. How did you hear about them?

A: There’s this guy in Rough Trade, the record store in London, who recommends stuff to me — this crew called the Oscillations, these comps called “Death Before Distemper” — quite a bit of stuff. He’s like, we’ve got a few copies of this album called “We Are Dios.” We played it loads. That’s our favorite album from last year.

Q: Do you think culture was better in the ’60s and ’70s?

A: It’s tricky, that, isn’t it? I don’t know if it’s better. Aesthetically I think things usually look better then, and that’s not to say that things that are older look good. I’m not that into how things looked in the ’80s. I may be fascinated by the ’60s and ’70s. I like the idea that there was more mystery with stuff then, if you were into a band. You don’t get that as much now, with technology. My mum tells me she’d get a Beatles record, before she got a record player, and she’d sort of look at them and check them out and clean them and put them back.

Q: Are you getting extra historical perspective from one of the books on your reading list, Tom Wolfe’s “Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby”?

A: I really got into him a couple years ago. Aside from anything else, I learned some great words from that that I’d never heard before. Like arteriosclerotic — like when you get clogged arteries. He described a fat cat kind of cigar-smoking bigwig as being like arteriosclerotic. I got a kick out of that language.

Q: You wrote most of this album not at home in England but in Brooklyn — how was that?

A: Someone put it to me that New York is a good place to write, because of the grid. It’s pretty organized, you kind of know where you are on the map, more so than some other places. That’s an interesting idea, I thought — you know where you are, and that centers you. It’s the first time I’ve not written on the ground floor; our apartment was up on the fourth floor — that was different. I did find it a good place to write songs. I definitely know when it’s not a good place. Balconies are not good for me, balconies by water — it’s too serene. I had a terrible result on a balcony by a river once.

Q: Maybe you need something unbalancing.

A: This is good for me nerves, this chat.


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