It is an uncharacteristically windy day in Los Angeles. On a dusty street off the main drags of North Hollywood, the ferocious wind whips the sounds of crunching rock & roll guitars through the air. This is confusing, as the Arctic Monkeys — Los Angeles residents for the last six years — are meant to be rehearsing in the studio space from which the heavy sounds are emanating. The Arctic Monkeys' new album, their sixth, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, is a change in direction for the British foursome, but these extreme sounds are not it.
Approaching the studios, numerous flight cases with "The Cult" stenciled on them are spotted. This explains the confusion in sounds, which are drowning out those of the Arctic Monkeys, whose rehearsal space is tucked at the back of the complex, behind an outdoor, presumably smoking table, and a green room of sorts.
In here, the sounds are reliably Arctic Monkeys ones: clever, fun, sharp, quirky. Two by two they emerge, first vocalist Alex Turner and drummer Matt Helders, who represent the group to the public more often than not. Then guitarist Jamie Cook and bassist Nick O'Malley, who are only a short step behind the other two in their public presence. Every single one of them is dressed up, certainly by Los Angeles' relentlessly casual standards, and far too outfitted for a closed rehearsal. This is a particularly intense one as they prepare for the initial bout of touring for Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino. The tour's third date, on May 5, is in their adopted hometown, at Hollywood Forever Cemetery, less than a week before the album's release.
All but Helders sport shoulder-length hair that is immaculately coiffed, staying in place while looking as if fingers could still be run through it without hair products blocking the move. They favor button-down shirts, tucked into iron-creased trousers, and they wear polished dress shoes rather than sneakers. And they look good: healthy and fresh, clear-eyed and clear-skinned, smooth with finely angled edges. Living in Los Angeles agrees with these fellows. They look like they practice yoga and meditation daily and swill cold-pressed juices, punctuated by the occasional street taco.
Once they open their mouths, however, they are pure Sheffield, the city they come from in north-central England. Turner, in particular, sounds like he never ventured far from where he grew up, using all the wrong verb tenses and persons and employing "me" as a possessive instead of "my." All this does is add to their British rock-star swagger, with which they are brimming.
Turner and Helders sit side by side, beneath countless gold and platinum framed records belonging to heavy metal bands they've never heard of, awarded in the years before they were born. The era referenced is the mid-'80s, as the Arctic Monkeys are in their very early 30s. Where Helders is inherently unimpressed, with a natural air of assuredness, Turner is quick to turn things into jokes and eager to go off on unrelated tangents, deflecting attention from himself.
His need for deflection is not surprising. The Arctic Monkeys have been in the limelight since they were under 21 years of age, with Turner at the nucleus of scrutiny, his unique turn of phrase the subject of both dissection and hilarity.
The Arctic Monkeys' Mercury Music Prize–winning 2006 album, Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not is the fastest-selling debut in the United Kingdom, spawning the perennial crowd pleasers "I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor" and "When the Sun Goes Down." Its speedy follow-up, 2007's Favourite Worst Nightmare, took its predecessor's neo-punk, danceable garage rock and amped it up, generating the timeless hits "Fluorescent Adolescent" and "Teddy Picker." With the next two albums, Humbug (2009), co-produced by Josh Homme, and Suck It and See (2011), the group lost a bit of their rapid-selling momentum but not much of their dedicated fan base, adding younger and younger members to their audience. With 2013's AM, the Arctic Monkeys changed direction in their recording process and had their most significant international success, including the monster smashes "Why'd You Only Call Me When You're High," "Snap Out of It," "Do I Wanna Know?" and "R U Mine?"
Legs crossed at the knee, Turner, whose facial hair is immaculately groomed, is wearing numerous additional pieces of clothing, including a waistcoat and a blazer, all fitted, all becoming. Considering his below-average height, his ensemble gives him stature and his style aids in confirming his bona fide rock-star frontman status. Yet he speaks in stops and starts, one by one picking and discarding words he feels are, or aren't, the correct choices to express his exact meaning. And he pauses, a lot. He is not, however, as interview-shy as he's made out to be in the media; quite the opposite, he is simply careful and accurate.
"We made one album here, then we made another album here, and we just stayed," Turner says of the band's relocation to Los Angeles. He and Helders are full-time Angelenos; Cook and O'Malley, once full-time, now are part-time, with families in the U.K.. For many years, the Arctic Monkeys have been attached to one leggy model or another, and now some of them have married these ladies and had children with them, except Turner, who is very serious with his latest model girlfriend, Taylor Bagley, and clarifies that while they don't have children, they are a family.
"The move wasn't to escape England," Helders says. "It was just an extra experience. We came for a reason rather than just, 'Let's change our lives.' We were making records and still seeing each other quite a lot. I imagine it being terrifying and quite isolating if you do that on your own, completely pack everything up and start a new life. It felt more gradual than that."
"Part of starting to enjoy being in L.A. came through making friends here," Turner says. "Through the time we spent making records, we started to see this place in a way we hadn't, and it sort of opened up."
It is in Turner's house in the Hollywood Hills that Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino got its start. He returned home from his 30th birthday celebration to an upright piano, a present from his manager. Turner's instrument is the guitar, and on it he is accomplished. The piano lessons he had when he was very young didn't do much for him.
But it had been a long time since the last Arctic Monkeys album, 2013's AM. Turner had busied himself with his other projects: Mini Mansions and their album, The Great Pretenders, released in 2015; and The Last Shadow Puppets and the release of their excellent second album, Everything You've Come to Expect, in 2016. He also produced Alexandra Savior, whose album Belladonna of Sadness was released in 2017.
Meanwhile, the other three got domesticated. Additionally, amateur photographer Helders played drums for Iggy Pop's Josh Homme–produced album, Post Pop Depression, and toured with him. Still, an Arctic Monkeys album was overdue.
"I don't remember having very many ideas before the piano was in the room," Turner says. "After the piano arrived, it seemed to lead me to a different space. I know where my fingers are going to fall on a guitar. The types of chords that are all over this album, had the piano not been there, I wouldn't have arrived at them. Also, the idea of being the guy sitting at the piano, a character that sings on top of those chords, started me off in a lyrical direction and different ideas that otherwise wouldn't have been there."
If it weren't for Turner's singular, instantly identifiable voice, the initial press of play on Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino wouldn't sound anything like the Arctic Monkeys' punky dance-rock nuggets. The Bowie-esque opener, "Star Treatment," could be called space-lounge. It is perhaps what would be played in the lobby of Turner's fictitious hotel on Tranquility Base, the site of the first moon landing.
The whole David Bowie–channeled album rides on this science fiction concept, one that, like everything in that genre, is a commentary on the current world through the creation of another one. Cosmic and cinematic, some of the songs have an eerie, classic horror-film quality; case in point, "American Sports," where Turner croons, "Emergency battery pack/just in time for my weekly chat with God on video call." Then there's the borderline creepy, retro-futuristic title track, in which he plays the hotel's slick host with lines such as, "Jesus in the day spa/filling out the information form" and "Pull me in close on a crisp eve baby/kiss me underneath the moon's side boob." "Gold Trunks" parallels the theme song for the Shirley Bassey–vocalized 1964 James Bond film, Goldfinger. The sentiments, however are far away from that, with Turner stating, "The leader of the free world/reminds you of a wrestler wearing tight golden trunks."
It's these lyrics that keep Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino grounded. As wryly observational with an undercurrent of tongue-in-cheek as the band's work has always been, Turner pushes the boundaries of comfort, hitting a little too close to home as he proclaims thoughts that you try to keep hidden for fear of ridicule or shame. "It is important that the melody, the music and the lyrics are all pulling in the same direction," Turner explains. "There are some things you can't get away with saying, but when you put them into that particular melody, it's suddenly allowed. Or this line is supporting the other lines around it. Ultimately, it's about it all working together."
He continues, "The idea that there was some kind of settlement at Tranquility Base with a hotel and casino complex seemed to permit a lot of lyrics and to match up with the sound of everything in the end. I like the idea of the title of the record being a place, because sometimes, to me, records feel like places you go to for a bit."
Arctic Monkeys' music has been many things, and while it conjures up a lot of vivid images, its tone has not been filmic in nature, which is another change in direction for Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino. Even when Turner created the soundtrack to Richard Ayoade's 2010 film Submarine, he just used some leftover songs he had, as the writer-director wasn't looking for something "soundtrack-y." Instead, Ayoade was interested in narrative songs that lent themselves to the picture, along the lines of The Graduate by Simon & Garfunkel or About a Boy by Badly Drawn Boy.
"I definitely wasn't sitting there like I imagine [Radiohead's] Jonny Greenwood does," chuckles Turner, speaking of his work on Submarine. "I used to think of movies and books as a way to escape music, escape listening to music, escape writing music. Now, that stuff seeps into the lyrics and the songwriting more than it did in the past. Specifically, there are these three Jean-Pierre Melville films — one of them is Le Samouraï and the soundtrack to that, by François de Roubaix, directly influenced 'American Sports' with the organ arpeggio. Even outside of the music, World on a Wire is a movie I was watching at the time that led me to the song 'Science Fiction.' The first song I wrote, 'Star Treatment,' the lyrics are about writing. The idea of a song about songwriting was inspired by the movies made about moviemaking, like Federico Fellini's 8½.
"The idea of describing something as 'cinematic' is definitely something I've done myself before, and I don't know that I really knew what I meant by that. In this case, I understand that description because there is a bunch of things on it that directly relate to cinema."
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As much as Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino is an insight into the previously hidden, most creative corners of Turner's mind, it is only wholly realized when the other members get involved. Turner's piano and Tascam 8-track recordings are taken to Woody Jackson's famed Vox Recording Studios in Los Angeles for the initial recording sessions. Here, the Arctic Monkeys are joined by their honorary fifth member, James Ford (Depeche Mode, Florence and the Machine), the producer of all but one of their albums. With Vox's veritable treasure trove of old analog instruments in great shape, much of Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino's vintage sound is attributable to the Vox sessions. The next step is La Frette Studios outside Paris. A first for the Arctic Monkeys, they invite a number of their musician friends to join them, playing live on Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino.
"It was a sonic thing," Helders explains. "We wanted to record two drum kits at once, two pianos at once, to get the energy of a whole bunch of people playing in a room, the way they recorded some of the records we love.
"It's never been an uncomfortable feeling," he continues, speaking about Turner redirecting the group into unchartered territory. "We went through establishing what it meant to be this band a while ago. That allowed us to move around and musically go to different places and not to be too intimidated by it and not worry about what that meant."
"This moment we're in now, with the release being a few weeks away, is like it was when we were getting ready to release AM. We were equally uncertain about how that record was going to be received," Turner says. "It doesn't mean I'm not excited about this record. I'm really thrilled with how it's come out. Perhaps more so than I was ahead of the release of AM, in a way. I suppose if you weren't feeling that, then it would be more concerning because that would mean you've gone nowhere with it. You haven't flown high enough."