Interviews: Alex Turner [Pitchfork]Alex Turner
The Arctic Monkeys leader on Oasis, Townes Van Zandt, the Kinks, and more.
By Ryan Dombal , May 10, 2012
I'm sitting with Alex Turner in the Bowery Hotel on Manhattan's Lower East Side, but it looks like he just stumbled off the set of West Side Story: slicked back hair, leather jacket cut with crisp, silver-toothed zippers, white tee, oversized belt buckle. He lights his Parliaments with a Zippo that, upon close inspection, is emblazoned with the title of the latest Arctic Monkeys album, last year's Suck It and See.
The primped greaser getup is a far cry from the regular-dude duds Turner and his bandmates sported throughout most of the group's history. Have these guys gone all rock star on us? When pressed on the new look, the frontman deliberately removes his aviators-- "seemed like an appropriate moment to take off the sunglasses," he jokes-- and says, "We just got tired of trying not to be [stylish]. We just gave in to the idea-- that's how it should be." Throughout our chat, he's thoughtful and a little self-conscious; he's probably cooler than you, but he's not going to be a dick about it or anything. And he insists his Fonz-ish appearance wasn't premeditated or a result of influential stylists as much as a testament to his band's childhood-friend camaraderie: "Two of the guys got these really sharp hairdos, and I was like, 'Fuck, I want to be back in the gang!'"
And while Turner, 26, has the charisma, voice, and songwriting chops to become a solo star in his own right-- indeed, the gorgeous acoustic songs he wrote for last year's Submarine soundtrack were some of his best yet-- he's not interested. Why do that when you're goofing off and playing gigs around the world with your best friends? The singer's an only child, but nearly all of the stories he tells me while talking about the music of his life involve his buddies, whether they're impersonating Oasis or chasing girls together. And when it comes to pronouns, he usually defaults to "we" instead of "I."
A few hours after our interview, the Arctic Monkeys opened for the Black Keys at Madison Square Garden, and once that tour wraps up this month, Turner is keen to get back into the studio with his band this summer to work on their fifth album.
On Oasis: "Morning Glory"
In the UK, you go from primary school to secondary school at age 11. And when we left primary school, all the kids would form groups and do a performance, like the girls would do a dance to the Spice Girls, or whatever. So me and [Arctic Monkeys drummer] Matt [Helders] and some of our friends put on "Morning Glory"-- we "played" some tennis rackets and pretended to be Oasis. Matt was Liam Gallagher, he had the bucket hat on. I was the bass player. We were just standing there, doing what Oasis did onstage... which was not a great deal. I don't think we got as good a reaction as the Spice Girls.
With Oasis, it's just that attitude, like it's resistant against everything else that's going on in music. I don't know if you can fully understand that-- it's like an impulse, innit? Especially at that age, you don't rationalize, you're just like, "That looks cool." And I feel like that's the fucking way it should be now, in a way. Guitar music or rock'n'roll or whatever you want to call it sort of goes away with trends, but it'll never go away completely. It can't die because it's so fundamentally attractive.
We still listen to "Morning Glory" in our dressing room sometimes, and also "D'You Know What I Mean?"-- the really long one with the fucking helicopter sound. It's so cocky but it's boss. It's funny to hear Noel talk about that tune now, about how the first time they played it to the radio booker, the guy's like, "Do you think it's a bit long?" And he was like, "What are you talking about? It's not long enough!" Classic Noel.
On The Kinks: Face to Face
Our first album came out when we were just 20. Where we grew up there were these other kids that had a band, and they used to play in one of the pubs, and we started hanging around with them. We'd go and watch them and drink cider and be stupid and chase after girls. Then, sitting around chatting on a Friday night, we were like, "We should form a band"-- just desperately looking for something to do, I suppose. None of us could play anything. But we got guitars and a drum kit and put it together one summer in me mum and dad's garage. It was just based on this idea of seeing these other kids whose only ambition was to play a show in the pub.
It wasn't until a year after that that we started getting a sound. The first set of tunes we wrote and recorded are out there, because fucking everything is now, and it's funny to hear them now because we definitely had not figured it out yet. But then the confidence came, and we gradually stumbled into something. I definitely fell in love with the idea of playing guitar, but I was never a singer and didn't know how to do that in the beginning. That's why our early songs have a lot of words and just a vague hint of a melody. I didn't start to really sing until a couple of years later.
Around then, I was listening to the Kinks' Face to Face a lot, though we'd already written the first record before I started to appreciate Ray Davies' storytelling.
For me, as far as lyricists, it goes from Ray Davies to Nick Cave to Method Man. Rappers have to put so many words into one song, so keeping that interesting is just a really cool fucking craft. I stepped out of rap for a while, and it's only in the last year that I've gotten into Lil Wayne and Drake, who are amazing. There's a lot of that on the Monkeys' jukebox at the moment.
Around this time is also when I started spending a lot of time with Miles Kane, who I made the Last Shadow Puppets album with, and we got into Scott Walker's Scott 4, which really blew my mind. That's when I started to want to sing.
I read this story about Iggy Pop where he said there was a TV show he used to watch when he was young, and the guy would ask kids to write letters into the show, and the letters had to be less than 25 words-- and he applied that to writing "No Fun". So, since we always do songs with a thousand words, we thought we should try one that had less than 30, which turned out to be "Brick by Brick". But I got the drummer to sing it because it seemed like the right thing to do.
That song introduced us to a new side of ourselves. Even though it is dumbed down, we know it, and it's got a sense of humor; it says "I wanna rock'n'roll" like three times, which is hilarious. There have always been jokes all over our songs; I originally started writing lyrics to make my friends crack a smile, which is difficult. "Don't Sit Down 'Cause I've Moved Your Chair" is like one big fucking gag.
I know my lyrics might be weird to some, but they're not like that to me because I know where they come from-- I know the secret.
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