Alex Turner and Miles Kane seem to have this whole rock & roll thing figured out. As The Last Shadow Puppets, they've managed to record both of their albums in settings Turner describes as “idyllic”: France's Loire Valley for their 2008 debut, The Age of the Understatement, and a beach in Malibu for this year's long-awaited follow-up, Everything You've Come to Expect (out April 1).
“Who do we think we are?” Kane asks rhetorically, sipping a pint of Stella Artois in the lobby bar at the Line hotel in Koreatown. This is another way they've got it figured out: These days, they do most of their interviews in hotel bars, where a little lager takes the edge off answering questions like “Where did you record your album?” for the umpteenth time.
“How dare we?” Turner says, smirking mischievously. “Pretending it's the '70s.”
“It is '76, right?” Kane says with an infectious cackle. The lager also makes their banter funnier, at least to them. They pepper their interviews with inside jokes and non sequiturs, and seem to take some delight in bewildering journalists, a habit that's recently gotten them in some hot water.
But more on that later. First, let's talk about Everything You've Come to Expect, because it might be the best record the two old friends from the north of England have ever made, together or apart. And yes, that includes Turner's string of critically acclaimed LPs with his main band, Arctic Monkeys.
Upon first listen, Everything You've Come to Expect does sound as if it could have been recorded in 1976. Like its predecessor, the album swoons with lavish orchestral arrangements, courtesy of violinist and frequent Arcade Fire collaborator Owen Pallett. Even on more rocking songs, such as advance single “Bad Habits,” the strings dart and feint with all the melodrama of a chase sequence in a spy thriller. Turner once said he'd like to write a James Bond theme, and though he often kids, he probably meant it.
But where the first Puppets album was, as Turner now admits, “an experiment,” this feels like its own, fully realized entity, full of songwriting every bit as witty and sophisticated as anything on Kane's two solo albums or Turner's work with Arctic Monkeys. It's a huge leap forward.
“All that stuff on the first record, it seemed like an exercise in a way,” Turner says, sipping his beer. An L.A. resident since 2012, he now dresses the part, looking casual in a plain gray T-shirt, sunglasses perched atop his perfectly coiffed hair. “We wanted to make a record that sounded like these Scott Walker records we'd gotten into. We just let it happen.”
Eight years later, they felt less bound to that first album's touchstones, which also included pre–”Space Oddity” Bowie and eccentric '60s studio wizard David Axelrod. “We still love them records,” says Kane, who moved to L.A. last summer. “But we've opened up to more soul [music] and a touch of funk, records that we may have rolled our eyes at a few years ago.”
“I think the list of influences was a lot less important this time,” Turner agrees. “It's not quite as obvious what was on the stereo.”
Pallett, a sought-after arranger and film composer as well as an accomplished solo artist in his own right, jumped at a chance to help reboot the Puppets. “I've kind of followed Alex's changing songwriting voice through Arctic Monkeys,” he says, describing the new album's palette as “a more adult series of reference points,” including the '70s albums of cult L.A. singer-songwriter Ned Doheny and Isaac Hayes' 1969 classic, Hot Buttered Soul.
“They had a better idea of what I do as an arranger,” says the Montreal-based Pallett. “They left a lot more space for the arrangements to grow or blossom, so it wasn't so jam-packed.”
Pallett was able to hang out with Kane, Turner and their other collaborators, producer/drummer James Ford (Simian Mobile Disco) and bassist Zachary Dawes (Mini Mansions) while they cut the album's non-orchestral tracks at Rick Rubin's Shangri-La Studios in Malibu. “We were spitballing the arrangements back and forth, and we were able to come up with really strong, powerful stuff,” Pallett explains.
Those arrangements support a set of 11 tracks that manage to sound both meticulously crafted and playfully loose. At its most lush, as on the seductive “Miracle Aligner,” the album touches on everything from '60s psychedelic pop to Northern soul to spaghetti Western soundtracks. Elsewhere, those Isaac Hayes influences creep into the forefront, giving the strings on album standout “Pattern” a soulful swagger.
Turner, once celebrated for his vivid lyrics about pub life in his hometown of Sheffield, now tends to prefer trafficking in ambiguities. Everything is full of striking but hard-to-decipher images: “There's a set of rickety stairs in between my heart and my head/And there isn't much that ever bothers going up them.” It's a style he says he and Kane first began playing with on the first Shadow Puppets album, though he thinks they achieved something “slightly more surreal or abstract” this time around.
“If it's possible to refine that, that's hopefully what we've done this time,” Turner says. “And then at the same time … in some parts, [that] allows you to have more personal moments, as well.”
He's likely referring to “Sweet Dreams, TN,” a love song obviously addressed to his girlfriend, model Taylor Bagley, which is the closest the perpetually droll Turner has ever come to penning something adorable. “It's really just the pits without you, baby,” his reverb-soaked voice croons, as Pallett's strings swirl around his lovestruck head. “It's like everyone's a dick without you, baby/Ain't I fallen in love?”
How big was the orchestra? Turner shrugs. “How big are they usually?”
The album's orchestral elements were recorded at United Recording in Hollywood, the historic studios formerly known as Ocean Way. When asked about this part of the process, Turner and Kane become even more sardonic than usual. It's obvious this is a subject they've grown a bit weary of.
How big was the orchestra? Turner shrugs. “How big are they usually? Sixteen? Twenty-four?” (The actual number was 29, according to Pallett.) “There was a lot of people. It was hot in there. He likes to keep it hot in the studio.”
Kane chimes in: “Bikram strings.”
“Yeah. That's what he calls it. He keeps the heat up in there.”
“Apparently it does something to the bow and shit. So he says.”
Asked how many strings will figure into The Last Shadow Puppets' live show, and Turner and Kane answer in unison: “Four.”
“But a hologram of eight,” Kane jokes.
“I think the strings, they got a bit big for their boots last time,” Turner says. “Well, they didn't, but they were getting all the press: 'Oh, it's so great. You've got this orchestra.' This time we want to make it about us.” He's kidding again, but not entirely.
They've been doing interviews all day and they're getting punchy. As the second round of pints arrives, Kane says, “Should we get a room?”
“Here we go!” Turner says, flashing a wicked grin.
“Come upstairs,” Kane offers. “You've got no plans tonight.”
Addressed to a male journalist, it's a harmless joke. But a couple of weeks later, when Kane says something similar to Rachel Brodsky of Spin, she describes the experience as “an increasingly distasteful situation.” (Kane later sent her a written apology.)
So maybe The Last Shadow Puppets haven't quite got the whole rock & roll thing figured out after all. When it comes to joking around with journalists, at least, they can no longer pretend it's still the '70s.