Arctic Monkeys frontman Alex Turner may have some real rivals for the best-rock-songwriter-of-his-generation title, but when it comes to fantastic rock & roll hair, he is the world's current undisputed all-ages champion. His rockabilly-inspired quiff is nearly a fifth member of the band, rising from his head all proud and shiny and high, requiring two different kinds of greasy stuff to maintain. The only things that match its onstage luster are the pricey black leather motorcycle jackets Turner wears to complement the retro-futuristic posh-biker/Lennon-in-Hamburg thing he's got going lately. Almost as striking is his gigantic belt buckle, acquired in Japan: a metallic eagle emblazoned with a Kawasaki motorcycle logo.
The look suits Turner, especially given the newly flamboyant performance style he's taken on (he's not quite sure if the fashion inspired the performances or vice versa: "It's a bit of a chicken and an egg," he says) – and it's certainly better than the indifferent Brit-pop-fringe plus pasty-bad-skin combo he sported as a teen in the mid-2000s, when a tsunami of homegrown hype made the Arctic Monkeys the biggest band in the U.K. (and moderately successful in America). At 27, Turner is obviously a man who has decided how he wants to look. Perhaps not coincidentally, with their just-released fifth album, AM, he and his bandmates became equally clear on how they want to sound.
The plan, Turner says, was to record an album that sounded "almost like the Spiders From Mars covering Aaliyah. There's like a shimmery, intergalactic, slightly cosmic element to the way both those genres make me feel." The result is a falsetto-spiced, groove-laden, slightly spooky, laid-back record – one utterly unlike their first LP, 2006's Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not, an instant classic that mixed tough garage punk with detail-rich lyrics about small-town English nightlife. (Turner called it "chip-shop rock & roll.") AM is the Monkeys' best since then – or, if you believe the excitable British press, it's their best yet and possibly the greatest album ever made. It's already their fifth Number One album in a row in the U.K., and thanks to their first real radio play since 2006, it landed at Number Six in its first week in the States, the Arctic Monkeys' highest-charting debut here yet.
This afternoon, less than a week after AM's release, the band is onstage in New York's 1,500-capacity Webster Hall, soundchecking for the second show of its North American tour, with Turner's jacket, belt buckle and hair reflecting the stage lights. The material is new, and the more rhythm-centric approach is even newer. "I've heard the term 'in the pocket' a lot more than before," says drummer Matt Helders, who goes for a more downscale and modern biker look, built around an ever-present pale-blue denim vest. "I didn't know there was a pocket! It's nice in there."
Onstage, Helders triggers a frantic electronic snare, and Turner sings a line from Drake's "Hold On We're Going Home," before they launch into their current single, the achingly slow and sexy "Do I Wanna Know?" As Turner acknowledges, many of the album's lyrics center around heartbreak – he doesn't specify, but the cause is presumably his 2010 breakup with longtime girlfriend Alexa Chung, the model and TV host. (Like the Monkeys themselves, the couple were a bigger deal in the U.K. than in America.) For the first time in years, he had concrete subject matter to address. "Definitely," he says. "And if you got that sort of foundation, you've got something to hot-rod. I suppose I do want to think of 'Do I Wanna Know?' as 'Are You Lonesome Tonight?' with a jet pack on."
When the Arctic Monkeys first came to America, eight years ago, they also started with a New York show, in the tiny club Mercury Lounge. It was impressive: all jerky, furious teenage energy, but they didn't move much, and Turner berated the crowd for using their mid-'00s flip phones to take photos. He held his guitar practically at his neck, because he was still used to playing it sitting down.
Tonight, the floor of Webster Hall is a sea of illuminated rectangles, with fans shooting video for minutes on end. Turner is ready for the crowd and the cameras now – he puts his guitar down to strut and dance, drops to his knees for solos when he does play, flirts shamelessly with the female fans (he introduces the band's early hit "I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor" with an almost Beasties-ish cry of "laaaaadies!").
"It's a very unnatural environment to be in, up on a stage," he says later, admitting that his early shyness never really went away. "So you put up defenses to hide. Like looking at the ground with your hair in your eyes, or being tightly wound and quite aggressive and uncooperative, as I used to do." His newfound showmanship, he suggests, is just a better way to hide.
But it also developed on their stint opening for the Black Keys last year, when the Monkeys realized how hard they still needed to work to reach that band's mainstream U.S. audience. "We'd played arenas [overseas]," Turner says, "but we had all the fucking smoke machines and lights and had a roomful of people that know those records inside out. So maybe that did lead to kind of like, not quite complacency, but I think I was kind of used to not having to do that much, I suppose. And I remember on that Black Keys tour, thinking, 'That guy down there is just fucking looking at his BlackBerry still. Between now and the time we leave, he can't be doing that anymore.'"
The most amazing thing about the Arctic Monkeys is that they still exist, and, by their account, have never even come close to breaking up. "What they went through would destroy 99.9 percent of all young bands under 20," says Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme, a friend and mentor to the band who produced most of their third album, Humbug (and who sings backup on the lascivious AM track "Knee Socks"). He's referring to the band's first blush of success in 2005 and 2006, when they became instantly huge in the U.K., thanks to early demos that circulated online ("Fucking MySpace," guitarist Jamie Cook says now with a laugh). The excitement carried over enough to the States to get them a very early Saturday Night Live gig and a sold-out club tour.
In mythic punk fashion, none of the Monkeys could play their instruments at all when they first got together. They were friends from middle-class families in grimy Sheffield, England, who lived within a two-block radius (later, after original bassist Andy Nicholson wanted to take a break from touring, they brought in Nick O'Malley as his permanent replacement). They learned it all together, playing White Stripes covers, and began writing songs. Turner discovered an uncanny knack for clever, vivid lyrics – inspired at the time more by Method Man and the Streets than Bob Dylan and Elvis Costello (though Turner has since discovered both). He hadn't read many books either, though he's since gobbled up writers from Tom Wolfe to Gabriel García Márquez – he likes to consider some of his new lyrics magical realism. For a long time, Turner wasn't even comfortable calling himself a songwriter – a term he associated less with, say, Leonard Cohen than with a lame classmate who carried around an acoustic guitar, wore a train driver's hat and was "a bit of a twat."
Their local popularity arrived almost instantly, but it took them a while to realize the possibilities. "I was 16," says Helders. "I probably still wanted to be a fireman and an astronaut." Adds Turner, "This is so British, but the ambition in the first place was to kind of get to the end of the song in the garage. Then, when it became time to play a show for the first time, it was a massive deal. But something changed, and it was like, 'Oh, fuck. This is what we could do.' Then it pretty quickly became like, 'This is what we're gonna do, and we are gonna do Glastonbury.'"
But they were cautious in the States, sticking to their indie label, Domino, and refusing to do the kind of radio (and sometimes press) promotion that might have helped them truly break into the mainstream: not even "Hi, I'm Matt from Arctic Monkeys"-style station IDs. "We couldn't even have told you why at the time," says Helders, sitting in the lobby of their Chicago hotel the following week. "Just stubborn teenage thinking."
"But we were teenagers then," interjects Cook. "Maybe we would have won a Grammy by now if we hadn't been so stubborn," says Helders. "But no regret."
On top of that, instead of touring the States relentlessly for their first album, they chose to go home and make a new one, 2007's Favourite Worst Nightmare – which, despite some great songs ("Fluorescent Adolescent"), was a not-quite-as-good echo of their first. Turner knew it, too, and felt his chronicles-of-street-life lyrical approach had to face early retirement. "I sort of cracked the chip-shop rock & roll record of the century, like on the first go," he says with a smile. "And not to kind of make comparisons with legends, but it's like the fucking Bowie thing, isn't it? You do it, it's great, and people are into it, but then you've gotta move forward."
They hit the reset button in Joshua Tree, California, 5,000 miles from home, where they recorded Humbug with Homme – a darker, weirder, heavier album that, in its moodier moments, now sounds like the doorway to AM. Homme says he didn't have to do much: He simply let the weirdness of their darker, heavier demos shine. "Alex is a smart, funny, witty, dangerous and cautious person simultaneously," says Homme, who was blown away by Turner's habit of never writing down his lyrics, Jay Z-style. "It's not easy to get him ruffled. He's got a razor-sharp wit. He has a firm sense of self. If you don't have that sense, you're easily knocked around."
"Can we get some tunes?" The Arctic Monkeys are crammed clown-car-style into a gray van cruising along Lake Michigan toward a downtown theater, and Turner has tired, for a moment, of discussing the intricacies of Breaking Bad. The band's tour manager finds a classic-rock station playing "Life in the Fast Lane," and Turner quickly begins singing along – he somehow knows every word. "That's a great line," he says, when Don Henley gets to the "terminally pretty" bit.
All of the bandmates have been living in L.A. on and off for a year, and they recorded AM in their own Hollywood studio space. But Turner's unexpected Eagles fandom has nothing to do with geography. "I got all that stuff from my mother," he says backstage at the Chicago venue, standing under exposed pipes in his fancy leather. "My mother saw Led Zeppelin in Germany, which is a pretty good credential for a mother!"
He looks around at the venue, which is highly familiar. "You know, we were talking about the band's trajectory," he says, "and here we are in a theater we've played five times already." He pauses and smiles. "But they'll scream louder tonight."
This story is from the October 24th, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.
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- David Bowie, Arctic Monkeys on Mercury Prize Shortlist
- How the Arctic Monkeys Got 'High'
This article originally appeared on Rolling Stone: How Arctic Monkeys Reinvented Their Sound