Before recording their new album, Suck It and See, Arctic Monkeys’ lead singer Alex Turner swung by the small offices of Domino Records, the label that first signed the band in 2005. He was there to fetch a copy of their debut, 2006’s Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, which he hadn’t listened to since it was pressed. What he heard next were kinetic, beer-soaked retellings of the band’s nocturnal misadventures: face-offs with bouncers, propositions from hookers, and boozy encounters with spray-tanned lushes. They were, after all, four teenage guys from Sheffield, England. What else were they going to make music about?
If the title of their forthcoming release is any indication, today’s Monkeys haven’t evolved much from the cheeky lads who recorded a 2006 EP titled Who the Fuck Are Arctic Monkeys? “I suppose Suck It and See is a bit rude, innit?” says Turner between puffs of a Camel. “It’s an old English saying, like, ‘Give it a try.’ We’ve got some American friends, and when we were talking about calling it that, they were like, ‘You have to do it!’” But despite naming albums based on what their friends think sounds “fucking awesome,” the Monkeys—none of whom is older than 25—insist they’ve grown up.
Turner and drummer Matt Helders meet me on the outdoor patio of Manhattan’s Bowery Hotel one day in late March. The band is in New York for three days promoting their album’s June release, but guitarists Nick O’Malley (who joined the group in 2006, after original bassist Andy Nicholson left) and Jamie Cook have opted to stay in their rooms. Turner and Helders explain that fewer members will invite more fluid conversation, but intimations of a party in Brooklyn the previous evening call their reasoning into question. The Monkeys are also known for resisting the advances of journalists. Of their notorious aversion to the press, Helders says, “It’s definitely gotten easier to deal with, but talking about myself isn’t an easy thing for me to do.”
It shows. While Turner and Helders say they’ve come to terms with promoting their work, they still seem insular, hesitant, and more than a little distracted. When Turner speaks, Helders looks down, fiddling with a keychain or his iPhone. What was once a defense mechanism, a reaction to the sudden, thousand-watt spotlight thrust on the band even before the release of their first album, has become, four albums in, total ennui.
When Whatever People Say I Am was released, the internet had just begun to eclipse record labels in terms of influence on a musician’s career. Based solely on the strength of their demos, which went viral before “viral” was a part of the lexicon, the Monkeys experienced an unprecedented surge in exposure. The end result was the fastest-selling album in UK history, with 363,735 units moved in the first week. “You’re not going to blame that on us,” says Helders, about his band’s role in the music industry’s online revolution. And he’s probably right. It was their fans—enthusiastic about the Monkeys’ brash gutter-rock sound, which filled the void left behind by the collapsing Libertines—who distributed their songs across social websites like Myspace. In an age when the biggest artists on the planet have embraced the web as a tool for DIY self-promotion, the Monkeys have remained resistant to overexposure. “I’m still pretty disconnected from all that social networking,” Turner says. “It’s not something that any of us really uses.”
Since the beginning, the Monkeys haven’t taken themselves very seriously. They decided to band together after receiving instruments as Christmas gifts; their first hometown gigs were played for a total of three people. “We were just having a laugh,” as Helders puts it. But when they became the biggest band in England almost overnight, they quickly formulated a blueprint for outlasting the hype. “After that first record, we went right back into the studio to make another one, and I’m glad we did,” says Turner of 2007’s Favourite Worst Nightmare. “Otherwise we might still be in there now, trying to write ‘Hallelujah.’”
Suck It and See marks a meaningful shift for the Monkeys, both in its recording process and in the finished product. For their previous album, 2009’s Humbug, the band, along with their producer, Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme, painstakingly narrowed down the 12-song track listing from the 25 they had originally recorded. This time out, Turner wrote most of the songs in the Brooklyn apartment he shared until recently with his girlfriend Alexa Chung (the couple moved back to London following the cancellation of MTV’s It’s On with Alexa Chung in December 2009), intending for each of the tracks to appear on the album’s final cut.
For Turner, Suck It and See—despite its title—is a more serious record. “In the past we shied away from traditional verse-chorus-verse structures,” he says. “Perhaps we’ve not done that before because that’s how everybody else does it, but you get to a point where you realize there’s a reason people do things.” That revelation gave them the confidence to expand their sonic arsenal. Suck It and See finds the Monkeys, a band who once specialized in stripped-down, blunt-force trauma rock, sounding almost lighthearted. Gone, for the most part, are the “faster, riffier” songs, as Turner calls them, replaced with echoing guitars, foot-tapping bass lines, and soulful choruses. Their post-punk garage-rock aesthetic—trumpeted by bands like the Hives and the Vines—has been eschewed in favor of something that sounds closer to Brit-pop.
But if the Monkeys’ sound has evolved, then what about their sensibility? Turner’s lyrics, which have developed in quirk since the Sheffield days, are known for their turns-of-phrase and cocky wit. But when it comes time to decode them for the press, he avoids specifics. He despises, in particular, the track-by-track breakdown, a safety net for stumped music writers. “It’s like, Oh yeah, this one’s all about pain,” he says. “When promoting the first record, I’d be like, Why the fuck are we breaking this down for you? It’s pretty obvious what each tune is saying.” The songs on Suck It and See won’t make interpretation any easier. “Bite the lightning, and tell me how it tastes,” Turner sings on “Don’t Sit Down ’Cause I’ve Moved Your Chair,” the album’s first single. “Kung fu fighting, on your roller skates. Do the Macarena in the Devil’s lair, but just don’t sit down ’cause I moved your chair.” Appropriately, Turner, who’s busy squirming in his own chair, insists that those are some of the most accessible lyrics on the album.