By Jon Wiederhorn
There's a clear duality to the title of the fifth Arctic Monkeys album, AM. On the one hand, it's an acronym for the band's name; it's also a description of the kind of songs they wrote and the post-midnight vibe they sought to engender.
The opening track "Do I Wanna Know?" features a monochromatic thumping beat, woozy guitars, and vocals about returning in the wee hours to someone you probably shouldn't be with. "No. 1 Party Anthem" is a melancholy barroom British ballad in the spirit of John Lennon. And "Why'd You Only Call Me When You're High?" is a mid-paced, R&B-inflected number anchored by booming bass and embellished by swooping strings.
"I didn't necessarily set out to write a party record," frontman Alex Turner tells Yahoo Music. "That's just the sort of thing that comes out naturally. I haven't figured out how to write about the mountains and birds just yet, so I stick to writing about girls and the spots I find myself [in]. On the sonic side, I definitely wanted the music to throb and be something that's good for listening to in a car in the middle of the night."
If that's the case, there's a lot of late-night driving going on. AM, the follow-up to 2011's Suck it and See, debuted at number one in the U.K., Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, and Holland, and is expected to enter the top 10 on the U.S. Billboard album chart. Turner credits the band's success to exhaustive touring and long hours writing and recording.
'Over the last few years we've raised the bar and become a lot better onstage, so perhaps the new record is us raising the bar as far as what we could do in the studio," Turner says. "When we did Suck it and See, I was in America and the rest of the band were in England, so we were a bit fragmented. I wrote all the songs for that album in an apartment in New York and then when we got together in the studio. We set up a 16-track tape live and said, 'All right, there's gonna be bass, drums, guitars, and vocals, and that's it. Let's go!' We could have gone out the day after we recorded them and played the songs live if we had to. This time the process was longer and more involved."
It was also more impulsive, and some of the best moments came from happy accidents. "R U Mine," for instance, is a propulsive hybrid of '70s radio rock, Motown R&B, and modern garage rock that Arctic Monkeys wrote almost a year ago just so they'd have an extra tune to play during a U.S. tour with the Black Keys. The crowd reacted so well to the song the band recorded it and released it as a single. Then it took on a life of its own.
"It was going to be a seven-inch between records, but it informed what we were doing so much it seemed to make sense to include it on the album," Turner says. "That song was really the starting point, and at one time we wanted to write 10 more songs just like it."
When they were ready to start writing the rest of the songs, Arctic Monkeys booked Sage & Sound Studio in Los Angeles for six months and composed the album as a full band. However, they didn't jam out ideas in a room as they'd done in the past. Instead, they set up an old drum machine and recorded a variety of beats through archaic equipment. Then, Turner used the sounds he composed as a springboard to write vocals and lyrics. "The process mostly came from me messing around on this four-track cassette recorder, demoing tapes and drum grooves that were six minutes long," Turner says. 'This machine sounded so cool just because of me not being the best engineer. My weird mic technique, plus the s---ty electronics of this old machine, led me to a place that I would never have gotten to before with just an acoustic guitar."
The process was inspiring for Arctic Monkeys, but it was more time-consuming than they thought it would be. Recording AM took a full six months at Sage & Sound with producer James Ford as well as additional time at Rancho De La Luna in Joshua Tree, California.
"Each song had about four or five incarnations before it became what's on the finished LP," Turner says. "There was a lot of demoing and focusing on the songs. Having our own place rented allowed us to fool around with a bunch of things until we found the right sound. There was no time limit, in a way. That made the experience more relaxed until the end. Once we had a deadline, we realized we couldn't keep going down that spiral staircase forever, and we had to pull it all together and line it all up."
The echoey hip-hop production tricks, high-pitched background vocals, and deep-groove basslines that bob through the AM contribute to the album's late-night party vibe. Turner and drummer Matt Helders have been fans of rap ever since they met at school more than a decade ago, and over the past years they've been able to incorporate hip-hop vibes here and there, but AM is by far their most effective blend of street and garage music styles. "I really admire the architecture of contemporary R&B and pop music," Turner says. "I was a big fan of Aaliyah. The way some of those vocals and beats were put together is incredible."
Arctic Monkeys even covered Drake's "Hold On, We're Going Home" for Radio One's Live Lounge. But lest anyone think the band is out to upstage Yeezus himself, Turner emphasizes that Arctic Monkeys are far from R&B pioneers. "It's not like we went in there to make an R&B record or a hip-hop thing," he stresses. "But there are elements in that world that are useful to put in the boiling tube as part of the chemistry set when you're trying to make a record. The way the drums knock on a Notorious B.I.G. tune when you're driving in a car is really powerful, and I wanted to get a bit of that downstairs thump with this record. And the female R&B lyricists from 15 years ago sang these scales in their melodies that always appealed to me. I thought that could make perfect sense within our kind of rock 'n' roll."
Indeed, there's plenty of rock ',' roll history that informs AM, including John Lennon, the Velvet Underground, David Bowie, Captain Beyond, the New York Dolls, and the White Stripes. Joining the party were a couple of special guests including the Coral guitarist Bill Ryder on "Fireside" and Queens of the Stone Age's frontman Josh Homme, who added vocals to "Knee Socks" and "One For the Road." Turner had previously contributed vocals to "If I Had a Tail" from QOTSA's …Like Clockwork, so Homme happily returned the favor.
"I wanted to get Josh to do some 'hoo-hoos' on a couple of tracks because there were plenty of them for him to chime in on," Turner says. "It's always a lot of fun to get together with Josh. [Bassist] Nick [O'Malley] made some cocktails and we hung out and told jokes. Later in the evening, Josh sang a part on 'Knee Socks' during the slow disco breakdown wigout at the end. It's one of my favorite parts on the record, and I wouldn't have thought of what he ended up doing in a million years. That's what I like best about this album. It's full of surprises."