LA hasn’t spoilt the Arctic Monkeys despite the leather collars, says their very own Ringo
Matt Helders was back in his home town last weekend with tales to tell. There was his band Arctic Monkeys’ second headlining appearance at Glastonbury. There was the new album, AM, which many are rating their best yet. And there was life among the beautiful people in Los Angeles, the four-piece’s new base. Present at this gathering were old friends, some dating from the early days, and maybe one or two who featured in their early songs on account of a predilection for – classic Monkeys observation – “tracky bottoms tucked in socks”.
And what did they want to ask Helders? “I got ‘What’s with the leather collar on that jacket?’ all night,” he laughs. “I had to tell them: ‘Calm down, it’s only a bit of fancy trim.’ But that’s Sheffield for you. You can’t just swan back without a bit of scrutiny. It’s a place that’ll keep our feet on the ground.” He laughs. “And if it could, leather off our collars.”
Helders and the others – Alex Turner, Jamie Cook and Nick O’Malley – are on a sold-out UK stadium tour that’s bringing them to Glasgow. Paint me a picture, I say. “We’re in Newcastle and it’s grey. But that’s okay. It’s the north.” Clearly the Monkeys haven’t forgotten their local geography. So what’s on the rider these days? “We’ve just been discussing that, funnily enough. What do you think about toothbrushes – too poncey? Anyway the vote was no. We just thought we’d get bombarded with them.”
This is Arctic Monkeys’ status these days: highly sought-after endorsers of dental products. But it’s no mean feat because AM is their fifth album, a staging-post that many bands with indie beginnings never see. It’s true that they went a bit heavy and lost a bit of their charm, but AM retrieves it.
How have they not, eight years on, ended up getting too bland, too bored, too crazy, too druggy, too fed up with each other? “Smoke and mirrors, mate,” says Helders. “But seriously, it’s because we’ve know each other since we were seven years old. We’ve got more in common than just the band. Our lives don’t revolve round the Monkeys. We can switch off and talk about other stuff. Not all bands have that.” So what’s the downtime chat? He shrugs, as if sensing an expectancy of some deep and meaningful insight, but he isn’t remotely self-conscious about not delivering any. “I’m like any 27-year-old bloke. Actually probably more like a 17-year-old one.”
Helders is the drummer – a clown, perhaps, but nobody’s fool. He’s put forward as official spokesman more than other sticksmen and has collated dance-mix albums. Always good for a quip, he’s the Monkeys’ Ringo. “I take that as a compliment,” he says. But has he heard the many jokes that are made about drummers? Oh yes, and he offers up three. One is too long-winded to repeat, another is too rude, and then there’s: “What do you call someone who hangs around with musicians? A drummer.” His favourite drummers are “the dead ones”, Buddy Rich and John Bonham. I mention the extraordinary Ginger Baker documentary, Beware Of Mr Baker, though haven’t seen it. “It’s amazing. There’s this bit where he attacks the bloke making the film, hits him in the face with a walking stick and gives him a nosebleed. Hope I haven’t spoiled it for you.”
There are hip-hop beats on AM – are they his influence? “No, we all like hip-hop. You’d be just as likely to hear Dr Dre on our bus as 70s rock. Me and Alex especially were big into rap as kids. I used to play along to it because it’s so simple. There was that instant reward.” Helders says the new album is more collaborative than some of its predecessors, a happy consequence of the Monkeys all living in the same place again. “That hasn’t been the case since Sheffield. We were in the studio together every day. Me, Alex and Jamie have cool motorcycles now so we’d roar up there like we were Marlon Brando’s biker gang in The Wild One: ‘What are you rebelling against?’ ‘What’ve you got?’”
The words remain Turner’s domain. When the band first blasted out of Sheffield, his kitchen-sink social realism got him praised on Newsnight. The early songs were all about the lads, lasses, discos, kebab shops and bus stops they would eventually leave behind. Turner was compared – with a leather jacket instead of a duffel-coat, obviously – to Alan Bennett. He revealed his admiration for the punk poet John Cooper Clarke, who said the feeling was mutual. The chief Monkey would go on to experiment with a more cryptic, less South Yorkshire-specific writing style, but on AM there are goodly references to Ford Cortinas, Eric Cantona, leccy meters, sky blue Lacostes and parties with the “coats piled high” – enough for one kebab, anyway.
The overall mood seems post-party – post-romance, too. “Ever thought of calling when you’ve had a few?” sings Turner at the outset. Is this, as some have remarked, the album of a newly single man? Helders: “It’s hard to say. I don’t mean it’s hard to say whether Alex is single or not, but none of us knows how long some of these thoughts and ideas might have been kicking around in his head. Maybe they’re from a long time ago. I wouldn’t be surprised. He does that sort of thing. And when I first heard these lyrics I had a little smile to myself. I’m not bored of him yet.”
So even in the midst of all that Californian sunshine it’s still possible to summon up memories of Sheffield dankness, say when as teenagers they were refused entry to a house party, didn’t have the money for the last bus and had to walk home? “Of course, and that sort of thing still happens to us – well, apart from having to rely on buses. When we first came to LA I hated it. We kept ending up at the wrong places.”
All the Monkeys live with their girlfriends, a short bike-hop from each other. “Jamie and Nick’s are from home,” adds Helders. Presumably, then, these two can help the band’s new LA friends understand the leccy meter concept, and that shit can sometimes be shite, as in talking it, especially when the clock says 3am. That’s the time of night/morning when, as Turner sings, drinks can be spilled on settees. “I know,” says Helders, once again anticipating the next question. “You’ll be wondering what kind of sofas we have now, not them with the dodgy springs, more designery.” The same song mentions having food stuck in one’s teeth and presumably for the Monkeys that won’t anymore be a stray piece of kebab. He laughs. “And you’ll be thinking we’ve all had expensive whitening procedures. That’s why we don’t need those toothbrushes.”
• Arctic Monkeys play Glasgow’s Hydro on Friday. AM (Domino) is out now