Arctic Monkeys frontman Alex Turner talks Bonnaroo
Nearly a decade after they achieved buzz-band status in America with arch Britpop ditties like “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor” and “Fake Tales of San Francisco,” Arctic Monkeys have become bona fide stadium stars—literally.
Armed with a fuller, Josh Homme-assisted sound and a long-nurtured fan base, the band has graduated to sell-out crowds at venues like Madison Square Garden and L.A.’s Staples Center, both of which they’ll be playing on a massive tour this summer that includes a stop at Tennesee’s Bonaroo Music & Arts Festival this weekend.
We tracked down frontman Alex Turner, 28, on the road in Germany and got him to talk tequila, two-way pagers, and how .
EW: How have the Germans been treating you?
Alex Turner: I just got here. Did a sound check. Then a very nice German lady served me some beef stroganoff, and I was absolutely famished, so that went down a treat. I’m going to talk to you, then take a nap, and I’m going to go play a rock show. It’s not that bad a day, really.
This will be your first Bonnaroo. What do you know about Bonnaroo going into it? Do you have a sense of what it’s like?
Not a great deal, I’ve got to be honest with you. I know we’re going to rip it up, that’s for sure. What can you tell me? It’s in Tennessee, right?
It is, and it’s very remote. It’s properly in the woods. Are you comfortable with being in nature?
Definitely. I can be a woodsman if need be. I grew up very close to some forest, and I spent a lot of my formative years up and down trees, fooling around in the woods. I’m no stranger to that sort of landscape. What are we talking? Ferns? Oak?
I think it’s a lot of mighty oak.
Good. I was hoping you’d say that. I’ll have all the oak that you’ve got.
Arctic Monkeys have been playing much bigger places this time around, with a real arena-sized show. What other great rock shows did you draw inspiration from?
Nothing in particular, but I know how I like it to look and how we like it to feel up there. I like it when it’s pretty dark and smoky, that’s important. It’s pretty simple, really.
It bothers me when there’s too much going on in terms of lighting and that. I don’t like to look at that when I’m at a show; if there’s too much going on around us while we’re playing it just doesn’t feel right. But there’s a reason why you want to put production in a big arena or a big outdoor show. So we’ve been trying to do a little more of that lately, but hopefully in a tasteful fashion.
Right. You want to be the same band, but you have to do it in a way that makes sense for where you’re playing. I imagine that’s a difficult line to walk.
It is, because suddenly there’s all these bells and whistles, and figuring out when to stop with that stuff is tricky sometimes. I’m really happy with what we’ve got going on at the moment. I think we’re walking that ridge in an orderly way. We still have a giant f–ing “AM” that lights up. But I think we didn’t blow our load when it comes to the light show. That comes second after the song and the performance. It’s auxiliary to sonics.
Your album from last year, AM, is quite different from where you started. Do you still feel connected to early stuff like “I Bet You Look Good On the Dance Floor”?
That one in particular always used to be fun to play, and now even though it sounds like a different song the way we play it, it’s still a riot. In a way, it sort of feels like we’re doing a cover version of our own song or something, but I’m used to doing that cover version now, and it’s the best cover version anyone’s ever gonna do.
Also, a lot of the new songs are so f—ing fiddly, and I have to think a lot and I’m forgetting the words and messing up the solos, and that one, I just see that on the set and I know I don’t have to think about it. I just let it out. I’m sort of patting my head and rubbing my belly live, and that’s one where I don’t have to do that. It’s a welcome break.
You’ve talked about the hip-hop influence on AM. Do you consider yourself a hip-hop fan?
Definitely. Have you seen the way girls dance to hip-hop music? It’s pretty exciting, isn’t it? So I wanted a bit of that. In the beginning, I think one of our unique selling points to some degree was the fact that we knew who Dr. Dre was but we had a Stratocaster in hand. It was always something we talked about and referenced and listened to in our leisure time.
This album, some of that started to come through, but very subtly. It was about applying what I imagined the compositional perspective of a hip-hop producer or a contemporary R&B producer is to a four-piece rock and roll band configuration. So we built up a lot of the songs not standing looking at each other in the practice room. It was built up a lot more like building blocks.
And the backing vocals, I call them two-way pager melodies, because in those backing vocals, those types of melodies usually went with lyrics about two-way pagers on female R&B songs from the late ‘90s. They weren’t all about two way pagers, but they were never far away. We started messing around with those kinds of melodies on “R U Mine?” and then they spread like wild fire through the rest of the record.
I just wanted it to sound good in the car, you know? But also, have you seen the way girls dance to it? [Laughs]
You have worked with Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme quite a bit. What is the most important thing you’ve learned from him?
There’s so much. When we were talking about working with him, he suggested we go out to the desert, and that seemed ludicrous to me. That was way far out from what I thought we were gonna do next. We did it, but almost with a cocky attitude. But when we got out there, it blew our minds, really. It opened up so many possibilities being that far away, both literally and figuratively.
The decision to work with him and to go out to Joshua Tree at that time, that made everything possible from then on. It seemed like the moment we got out there and started out on that trek…because I remember, we didn’t really know where to go after that second record. We rushed it out just to kind of move on, but we didn’t really move on anywhere.
I think that’s where I learned from him that there’s always other possibilities waiting for us.Or maybe it’s just this: Someone asked him why he wanted to work with us, and he said, “Because they don’t suck.” So maybe the most important thing we learned from him is that we don’t suck, and we had to continue to not suck.
What’s the most important item on your tour rider?
Probably the tequila. And we have a record player on there now. That’s pretty important. So it’s a tie between the record player and the tequila.
So do you travel with vinyl?
Yeah. That’s on the rider as well. Every day we request a new record. Whoever is putting the rider together, there’ll be a record on the rider every day. I’m always looking for something. Always looking for that feeling again.
So we got turned on to a lot of stuff just through traveling around getting records on our rider. It’s great. I got turned on to this record by Roland F. Howard called Popcrimes. He was in the Birthday Party with Nick Cave, and it’s f—ing excellent. The lyrics are fantastic. It’s a lot easier on the ear than the Birthday Party—and I love the Birthday Party, by the way. I was listening to them just yesterday.