Arctic Monkeys Migrate West
When in Rome, one should simply do as the Romans do, they always say. And the wisdom isn’t lost on Alex Turner, a once defiantly British teenage scrapper who—as frontman for the critically-kudoed quartet Arctic Monkeys—burst out of working-class Sheffield with a blast of proto-punk adrenaline dubbed Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not (in 2006; the fastest-selling debut in British chart history). But the more time he spent away from home, the less bratty he became. And the more days, weeks, months he spent Stateside—first on tour, then living in Brooklyn for 18 months, then finally with a permanent move to Los Angeles last summer, where the band tracked its new California-sounding fifth album, AM—the more American he’s become.
Exactly how Yankee is Turner these days? Here’s a perfect example. This past Sunday, the Monkeys were playing the first of a multi-night run at L.A.’s Wiltern Theatre. After the show, however, they didn’t stick around backstage for any celebratory bacchanals or expected meet-and-greets. They did what every other red-blooded American worth his TV-watching salt did that same evening—raced back to Turner’s house, en masse, to watch the picture-perfect, smash-bang series finale of AMC’s brilliant Breaking Bad.
“Well, I suppose since the invention of DVR, we didn’t really have to ‘race’ home,” drawls Turner, laconically. “But we left soon after the gig—we had two more shows coming up there, so I was sure we could party another night. But we had to get home and see that final episode!” And he can parse the program’s schematics alongside the most ardent fan, like the clever use of Marty Robbins’ trail-song classic “El Paso” and Badfinger’s definitive “Baby Blue.” “Even the Lydia cellphone scene was great—all the thought that went into it,” he marvels. “It was just perfect the way they did it all. And I fell for that one hard here in America, Breaking Bad, and we’ve really been devouring it. It’s pretty exceptional—I think it goes The Sopranos, then The Wire, and Breaking Bad is the next step. It’s easily in the same league as the others.”
The conversion has been gradual. In Austin a couple of years ago, Turner, 27, impulsively snipped off all his metal-length locks into a vintage rockabilly pompadour that he still carefully maintains via two key hairdressers—one in London for away days, and his main man in Hollywood, Rudy G. He also has two motorcycles—one on the old sod, and a special Yamaha XS 650 for California. He has yet to take it on the proverbial long desert drive. “It was modified by this guy in Portland at a company called Holiday Customs,” he says. “He makes these really interesting creations, and my bike is one of them. So I’d go to the studio and back on it, but it’s not really that comfortable for a long bar hop or something.”
Turner is also seeing actress Arielle Vandenberg. Inspired by his Tinseltown relocation, the other Arctic Monkeys—drummer Matt Helders, bassist Nick O’Malley, guitarist Jamie Cook—also packed up and headed West with their respective girlfriends. And it’s not like they didn’t have any friends in town—they’d already done sessions with Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme (who sings backing vocals on two AM tracks, “Knee Socks” and “One For the Road,” reciprocating Turner’s recent appearance on QOTSA’s “I Wish I Had A Tail”), and their last album, Suck It and See, was tracked at Sound City in Van Nuys. “We were staying in West Hollywood then, and when it came to go, we didn’t want to leave, having been there for two months,” Turner recalls of the initial idea to move to California. “So the ball started rolling on a decision to come here a bit more permanently. So when it came ‘round to making the next record, the one we’ve just done, we decided to head back to L.A. and just set up camp there.”
With producer James Ford (and co-producer Ron Orton), the quartet disappeared to Sage & Sound Recording, with additional work being done at Homme’s Rancho De La Luna studio out in Joshua Tree. And they emerged with a slinky, R&B-infused set of stompers (like “Mad Sounds,” “Do I Wanna Know”) that vacillates from Sweet-sugary glam (“I Want It All”) to Vanilla Fudge-sludgy rock (“R U Mine”), kaleidoscopic neo-psychedelic (“Arabella”), vaudevillian music hall (“Snap Out of It”), even Lee Hazelwood-ish space-folk (“ I Wanna Be Yours,” which borrows lyrics from a John Cooper Clarke poem). Turner rides herd on all of AM with the fluid, whiskey-edged phraseology of a seasoned blues great. Which makes sense, he says, because that’s all he’s been listening to lately.
Turner has always been interested music that came before him. Whenever he visited Amoeba Records in Los Angeles or San Francisco, one of his favorite rituals was to stick his hand into their barrel of old 45 singles and pull up random Sinatra-era treasures. And that curiosity is perhaps what’s given Arctic Monkeys such shape-shifting longevity. “And I’ve not yet reached the end of that journey, not by a long stretch—there’s always stuff just around the corner to discover that blows your mind,” he notes. “Every couple of months or so I’ll find something new that I hadn’t heard before. Like there’s this soul tune by this group called The Mad Lads, ‘I Forgot To Be Your Lover,’ that I’ve really been digging, along with Isaac Hayes. At the moment, I’m on that old soul tip.”
Turner has also been refining his skills as a composer. While early singles like “I Bet You Look Good On the Dancefloor” felt like lightning barely contained in a fragile bottle, his recent material is more nuanced, thoughtful, restrained. And he takes the work very seriously. “Because it is a craft, something you can practice and get better at,” he reckons. “Like, the first time you try and make a mortise and tenon joint when you’re making a table, you kind of don’t get it right or it doesn’t fit together. And maybe that table stands up, but it’s just a bit wonky. But you can refine that. The more you practice it, the more you get the legs to fit together better.” He pauses.
“But that’s not to say that songwriting is just that,” the vocalist/guitarist adds. “There’s another side of it that is a little bit less up to you. And you need that—that spark in the beginning to sort of power up the tools, if you like. So you’ll be able to cut the wood.” Looking back over 11 years, and his five-disc canon, does he view AM as his California album? Again, he pauses. “I suppose so,” he soon decides. “Although I feel like I’m maybe still too close to it to pass judgment on it. But people keep saying ‘Well, yeah, the grooves kind of lean back a bit like they do on some of those classic California records.’ And I have been agreeing with that.”
Where Turner will go from here, stylistically, is anybody’s guess. He’s got the smooth kind of crooner voice that wouldn’t seem out of place, say, in fronting a full orchestra. Which would be him really going Hollywood. But—even with the photogenic Vandenberg at his side—he still hasn’t assimilated in town to the point where he’s a paparazzi-snapped, red-carpet regular. Why? That’s easy, he guffaws. “I don’t get invited! To be honest, I really don’t get those invites. I just don’t think I’m on the mailing list, you know what I mean?”