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Thursday, April 5, 2007
Planet of the apes
By SIMON BARTZ
The hottest band of the moment tells The Japan Times about their new album, shunning the file-sharing trend that shot them to fame -- and drawing an ordinary paycheck to keep their heads straight
Arctic Monkeys are evolving rapidly. There are signs that they are starting to walk on their hind legs, utilize more of the tools at their disposal, eat meat, crunch bones, make more noise, come down from the North and . . . take over the world.
This sounds like a nightmare. It is. A "Favourite Worst Nightmare" -- the most eagerly anticipated record of 2007.
"There's some heavier things on this new album and more interesting sounds," says Arctic Monkeys' drummer Matt Helders, in a room at the ANA Hotel Tokyo. "Through playing live a lot we've got much better, and its made us more eager to do more interesting things with the rhythm and structure of songs."
So if you wondered what all the fuss was about over their rather primitive 2006 album "Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not" (the fastest-selling debut album in British history) and thought, "Hold on, they sound pretty much like every other meat-and-potatoes British guitar band around," then the Monkeys, according to Matt and bassist Nick O'Malley, who are talking to me today, have broken out of the Britrock zoo and are weaving a web of new sounds.
After listening to six new songs aired at the soldout Zepp Tokyo show the night after this interview, "old" fans need not fear, the Monkeys are still a long way from evolving into musically superintelligent aliens like Radiohead. Yet they bristle with self-belief and confidence onstage, like they know that "Favourite Worst Nightmare" could not only go 15 rounds with their debut but likely win on points.
The band's eclectic tastes in music are probably helping the evolutionary process. When I ask what's on the iPods of Matt, Nick, lead vocalist Alex Turner and guitarist Jamie Cook, Matt says: "Queens of the Stone Age, Prodigy. Compilations of psyche-pop from the '60s. Hip-hop as well. Scott Walker. All completely different styles of music between the four of us. That all helps. We decided to move it on a bit and do something more interesting."
The two new tracks they opened with at Zepp, "This House is a Circus" and "Teddy Picker," seemed indistinguishable (more experimental post-punk, less melodic punk-pop) and sounded like small animals being tortured. But then again, I did have flu and was out of my mind on Tamiflu tabs at the time, the prescription drug that's had teens jumping off tall buildings, thinking they can fly. Thank God I was refused access to the balcony area.
On other new songs they used a lot of instrument fadeout, with the guitars often stopping to emphasize the beefiness of their rhythm section and particularly O'Malley's punchy basslines. This stop-start effect is put to good use on the excellent single "Brianstorm," which together with jaw-droppingly ace new song "D is for Danger" were the highlights at Zepp. Both are carnivorously catchy and made old fave "I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor" sound like a snoring brontosaurus in comparison.
It's perversely ironic that their record company opted not to release promotional copies of "Favourite Worst Nightmare" (I assume they don't want it leaked on to the Net), because if it wasn't for file-sharing the Monkeys would still be playing the Donkey & Duck circuit in Yorkshire for beer money and going home to their mams, rather than staying in top hotels on world tours and being chased by hordes of wannabe groupies.
"We didn't do the file-sharing stuff in the first place. Our fans did. Now we got to keep as much control over it as we can, I reckon," says Matt. "And it's not like we file-shared it among journalists. We just wanted everyone to get it at the same time."
Arctic Monkeys have hardly been rewriting or updating the rock rule book like Oasis, New York's The Strokes or The Libertines -- the three most important influences on the British rock scene in the last 15 years. Yet they are unique in the way they made it big. After a few shows, they burned CD demos and handed them out free at gigs. Fans put the tracks on the Net, word spread and before you knew it they had played a sold-out show at London's 2,000-capacity Astoria on the back of a limited-release (just 1,500 copies) single. Record comp- anies then descended like pterodactyls, but the Monkeys sidestepped their talons and signed to independent Domino Recording Company. Their first two singles, "I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor" and "When the Sun Goes Down," went straight in at No. 1 in Britain, and debut album "Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not" not only did the same, but it became the fastest-selling debut in British chart history, notching up 365,000 sales in the first week of release in January 2006. Later in the year the album won the prestigious Mercury Prize, and this year the Monkeys picked up the Best British Band and Best British Album gongs at the Brit Awards.
Several journalistic think pieces emerged saying that the Monkeys had changed the face of the record industry with file-sharing. But it was something waiting to happen -- it just happened to them first -- and it's already happening to others. Of course, it helped that they had a bunch of good tunes and, as teenagers, they could easily connect to their young Internet-savvy audience. The fans had found a friend and not just another hero when they listened to Alex Turner's gritty tales of discos, girls, Reebok trainers and the last bus home; the critics talked of him being on the same lyrical plateau as Jarvis Cocker, The Streets' Mike Skinner and even Morrissey, who once sang: "Fame, fame, fatal fame / Can play hideous tricks on the brain."
The Monkeys were so freaked out by their success that, unlike Oasis, The Strokes or The Libertines, they ducked and dived or ran away every time a dictaphone or a camera was shoved in their faces. Examples include refusing to walk the red carpet at this year's Q Awards, rarely giving interviews (many newspapers and magazines were turned down on this trip to Japan) and not showing their faces in the video for "Brianstorm."
"We didn't want to be on TV all the time or in magazines," says Matt. "We were afraid of our every move being under scrutiny. Being a celebrity or famous is not something that seemed exciting to us."
"You didn't want to shove yourself down people's throats," says Nick, looking at Matt. "People turning the television on and saying 'Oh, no! It's them again.' "
"I suppose that did happen in many ways, but it was out of our hands," says Matt. "It would have been a lot worse if we'd have gone for it."
So after the next night's gig it was always unlikely that they'd be found naked in a Roppongi brothel being smothered in whipped cream and having their tongues and toes sucked while snorting pink coke off the buttocks of Cambodian sex slaves wearing schoolgirl uniforms.
"It's the way we were brought up and where we're from that has helped keep us normal and our feet on the ground," says Matt. "I imagine if one of us moved away from High Green (a suburb of Sheffield, in the north of England) to join a band with people you don't really know, then the situation would be different because you'd fall into doing things you normally wouldn't do, but because we went to school together and behave the same way that doesn't happen."
Their down-to-earth nature is also reflected in their simple stage shows. At Zepp, they didn't have even the most rudimentary backdrop behind them and the lighting rig was so basic it could have been operated by your dog. They haven't even been out splashing the cash, either. Matt admits buying a house, but he says there's an Arctic Monkeys bank account and they all get paid an agreed wage.
"It's so we don't go mad and spend it all; especially in Japan we'd be buying tons of trainers and gadgets," says Matt, adding, "I don't know how much we've got, I'm too scared to look."
Girls Aloud: the truth
But they do like to party, and the result of a recent kneesup has been hogging tabloid headlines in the last few weeks -- a proposed collaboration with reality TV group Girls Aloud.
"It's pretty much a joke that backfired," says Matt, laying the rumors to rest. "At the NME Awards, they presented us with one of our awards and we were backstage a bit pissed (drunk) and one of them (Girls Aloud) was particularly pissed (drunk). They filmed us talking for the show's DVD, and she's saying 'We should collaborate' and I said 'Yeh, definitely. I'll book a studio.' Then me and Al (Alex) later told journalists that we're booking Rockfield Studios for two weeks and working on a backing track. Obviously joking, but even though they know you're joking they're gonna write it like it's true to get people talking."
Filmstardom knocked back
Offers to appear in Hershey ads, model Calvin Klein Y-fronts and star in movies must be flooding in.
"The makers of (futuristic thriller) 'Children of Men' asked us to be in it. It's set in the future when they've stopped having babies," explains Matt. "They asked us to write a song for it, and they've got big videos on billboard screens, and they wanted us to be on there playing a song. But they were gonna age us, make us look like we were 20 years older, aged 40, and we'd have to write a song reflecting on what we think we'd be like when we were 40. We were interested, but time-wise we couldn't and we were thinking how could we pull it off without making us look stupid. But when we saw the film we wished we'd done it."
They've been accused of cashing-in or risking burnout (original bassist Andy Nicholson left the band after citing fatigue in May last year) by knocking out two albums and EPs of new songs in just over a year, but Matt says: "We're always writing songs and they make sense now and are ready for release now. It's too tactical to just wait. We might not feel the same about them later. Even if we've been forgotten in a year's time, at least we can say we had a crack at it."
The crack continues with a British tour in April, and then dates in the States, including the Coachella Festival in California, before returning to Japan in August as one of the headliners of Summer Sonic music festival.
"Favourite Worst Nightmare" is released on April 18. Simon Bartz edits a Web site about Japanese music at www.badbee.net