Arctic Monkeys interview: ‘It’s easy to start feeling like an emissary for rock ’n’ roll’
As his band get ready to play the first huge gigs of London’s festival summer, we ask modern-day rock ’n’ roll icon Alex Turner if he’s putting it all on
Thu May 15 2014
© Paul Musso
I’m sat in a coffee shop just off Shoreditch High Street when Alex Turner walks in, removing a pair of Ray Bans as he steps through the door. Everyone here is far too cool to stare, but there are turned heads and lingering looks as he makes his way to my table. He doesn’t swagger or strut. He’s wearing a brown suede jacket and skinny jeans, but what sets him apart are the details: the dark quiff that could have been sculpted by the King himself and the insouciance that can only really come from having headlined Glastonbury twice by the age of 27.
Right now he’s enjoying a rare month off. After we order coffee he tells me he’s been back at his place in east London, and that he spent the previous evening dusting off his CD collection. ‘I pulled out “The Songs of Leonard Cohen” and it still had a sticker on it. £14.99!’
Money well spent, I suggest. ‘Totally,’ he agrees. ‘Fucking “Suzanne”: what a song! I don’t have an Instagram account, but if I did I’d have grammed it, saying exactly that: “Money well spent.”’
It must be nice for him to be home, enjoying the simple pleasures of rummaging through old albums? ‘I’m not even sure where home is,’ Turner sighs. ‘Probably Terminal 5. There is a strange sense of calm about arriving back at Heathrow.’
He’s spent a lot of time in the air these last eight years. The Arctic Monkeys’ record-breaking debut ‘Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not’ launched Turner, drummer Matt Helders and guitarist Jamie Cook into the stratosphere almost overnight in 2006, with fourth member Nick O’Malley joining to replace original bassist Andy Nicholson soon after. Since then the gang of schoolmates have established themselves as Britain’s biggest contemporary rock ’n’ roll band. Last year’s heavy, sultry and tremendous ‘AM’ (their fifth album) topped the charts in nine countries and set them up for a pair of huge shows in Finsbury Park this week.
‘There are very few bands on the radio. It doesn’t have to be that way.’
Some of the fans flocking to see them will be teenagers too young to remember the band as Yorkshire urchins, trackie bottoms tucked into their socks. There are others, however, who remember it all too well: critics who’ve accused the Arctics’ frontman of now pretending to be something he’s not. At the outset Turner wrote songs about drinking and dancing and falling out of taxis, and described those nights just the way you and your mates would, if only you were blessed with a sharper turn of phrase. Now Turner spends much of the year in LA, dates a model and dresses like a screen idol – somewhere between James Dean and Marlon Brando in ‘The Wild One’. Has he been blinded by the bright lights of Stateside success? Whatever people say about Alex Turner, who is he now?
Not a man who takes himself entirely seriously, it turns out. ‘I wish I could be that guy,’ he says, when I ask him about his International Rock Star persona. He tells me he’s happiest when he’s writing, plucking new songs out of the ether. What’s the hardest part of his job? ‘Probably the same thing,’ he deadpans, in that muttering, sub-Elvis drawl he’s cultivated. He’s taking the piss out of himself. He’s too self-aware, probably too Northern, to believe his own smooth rhetoric. ‘I wish I could be the guy who says those sort of lines,’ he says. ‘I catch myself too quick.’
This February, at The BRIT Awards, that self-awareness landed him in the eye of a tabloid storm. Collecting the first of the band’s two awards, for Best British Album and Best British Group, Turner made a now notorious speech about how ‘rock ’n’ roll seems like it’s faded away sometimes, but it will never die’.
He was accused of arrogance (as if that’s such a sin in a rock star) but Turner maintains that the celebration of his genre needed voicing. ‘I was trying to present an option in an entertaining way,’ he says. ‘In a room like that, where we were the only guitar band, it’s easy to start feeling like an emissary for rock ’n’ roll. If that’s what people were talking about after the Brits rather than a nipple slipping out, that’s a good thing. In a way, maybe it is a nipple slipping out.’
Raised on a diet of Britpop, Turner can’t have imagined being in Britain’s biggest rock band and having to make that sort of clarion call. I ask him if he ever feels like the Arctics are an Oasis without a Blur to lock horns with. He laughs. ‘It would be really arrogant to say that there’s just us. There are others but there are very few bands on the radio. It doesn’t have to be that way. I think that’s where that speech was coming from.’
‘I can come off as ungrateful, but fuck it. That’s just the truth.’
Turner is the sort of man who chooses his words carefully, occasionally retrieving a comb from a pocket so that he can attend to his quiff and buy a few more seconds of thought. Award shows don’t come naturally. ‘As perverse as this may sound, I don’t really enjoy being the centre of attention,’ he says. ‘It’s all right during a show, because I’d argue it’s the song or the performance that’s the centre of attention. It’s not like me opening my birthday presents in front of everybody. I’m not a big fan of that. I think making a speech falls into that category. It’s like getting a trophy for a race that you didn’t really know you were running. There’s a twisted side to it. I can come off as ungrateful, but fuck it. That’s just the truth.’
That subtle sleight-of-hand to keep a part of himself out of the limelight may also explain the bequiffed, leather-clad character he’s created, although he’s quick to dismiss the idea that the band are keeping it any less ‘real’ than when they started out. ‘Tracksuits are as much of a uniform as a gold sparkly jacket,’ he says. ‘We made a decision to keep dressing like that at the start. It’s as contrived as anything else. It’s a sort of theatre.’
So don’t expect him to dig out a pair of shorts for Finsbury Park (‘Unless I’m within splashing distance of water I won’t be caught dead in them, as a rule’). He’s happy that audiences seem more excited to hear tunes from ‘AM’ than old stuff (‘Still got it!’), but he’s self-effacing about what’s made this record such a success. ‘I think the production is what makes people move. The words are just me blabbing on, the usual shit.’
Our time’s up but Turner’s in no hurry. We sit and chat about books, and as befits the sharpest lyric writer of his generation he’s the sort of reader who can quote his favourite novels. He’s a fan of Conrad and Hemingway, but above all Nabokov. He recites a line about internalised anger from ‘Despair’: ‘I continued to stir my tea long after it had done all it could with the milk.’
After an hour or so, it’s time for a smoke. As we leave the coffee shop the manager stops us. He’s noticed the turned heads. ‘Excuse me,’ he asks me, ‘are you the singer in a band?’ Alex Turner laughs out loud. He doesn’t need his ego massaging. He’s a bona fide rock ’n’ roll star.
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