Photo: Zackery Michael
He walks into MiniBar, a retro cocktail lounge in the Hollywood Hills, dressed like a cross between Nick Cave and Father John Misty.
Alex Turner, who is now 32, has changed more than his look since becoming the latest mouthy, scruffy saviour of British rock at the age of 19 with Arctic Monkeys’ 2005 debut single, I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor. The band’s latest album, Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino, is a huge shift from their previous work and it comes after a long break, as band members started families, reports of writer’s block started emerging in the press and, finally, a Steinway piano entered the picture and changed everything…
Barry Divola: I’m sure you won’t remember, but back in February, 2006, I was sent from Australia to interview you in Manchester, the week Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not became the fastest selling English debut album in history. That night you were playing second on the bill to Maximo Park.
Alex Turner: Wow. That seems like a lifetime ago. There’s much to discuss then, Barry.
You probably also don’t remember that you spent half the interview texting on your phone.
(Laughs) Did I really? That would’ve been an old Nokia. Probably had it for about a week.
And now here we are in LA. How did you end up living here?
You know, I think on my first visits to LA with the band, I never had a great impression of it and I certainly never would've imagined that I'd end up spending so much time here years later. But I think that changed when we started to make a couple of records here and through that time we made friends. You know how it goes when you sort of make friends in a place, it opens you up that place?
I do. It’s also interesting the number of English musicians who end up living here. I would have never thought someone like John Lydon would move here. Or Morrissey.
Yeah. An English friend of mine was visiting from Liverpool and he said,‘I love it here in LA, you can wear what you want’. There’s something to that. Maybe I read into it too much. I have a tendency to do that. But yeah, it seemed there was something heavier about that declaration.
So the opening line of the new album is, ‘I just wanted to be one of The Strokes, now look at the mess you made me make’, which alludes to how things have changed from the early 2000s when you were starting out. Why did you decide to stick it there right from the get-go?
I think it was written as a reaction. The impetus for writing it came from the music that was sitting underneath it. The idea of that song was me trying to get off the mark, the idea being that it would lead me to another place where I could start to write a record.
After touring behind AM the band went on hiatus. What were you thinking at that point as far as Arctic Monkeys was concerned?
My memory around that time was that we were having so much fun that the impulse was to jump straight back into the studio. We toured that record longer than any previous record, but we were still sort of sad to see the end of the road. I remember having the thought – ‘let's just make the second part to AM, because it feels like we really found something’. But it didn't really quite work out like that. I'm glad it didn't now, ‘cause I think it probably was right to have a break. At that point the rest of the band were getting married and starting families.
And of course, you were working on other projects during that hiatus.
Yeah, I was. When I got off the road I kind of went straight into working on an album with an artist called Alexandra Savior. Then that went straight into doing the second album from The Last Shadow Puppets (his band with Miles Kane and producer James Ford). I think that if you look at those two records I've worked on inbetween, the shift between AM and this album doesn't seem as great.
It sounds like this Steinway piano we’ve been reading about had a lot to do with the direction the new album took. I hear it was a present. Who gave it to you?
My manager gave it to me for my 30th birthday. Probably shortly after I met you Barry, all those years ago, I was given an acoustic guitar, a Gibson LG-1, by my manager, and I wrote loads of things on it ever since. It’s not the guitar’s fault, but I'd reached a point where I just knew the types of moves I always make with the guitar. So that's why I scurried off towards the piano and started to look for ideas there.
Did you learn piano as a kid?
Briefly, yeah. That was my introduction to playing music. Me dad would play it and I'd jump on it every now and again, but I never took to it in the way I did with a guitar when he brought one of them home.
You’ve said that you tricked yourself into writing these songs on the piano. What exactly do you mean by that?
Well, often the types of things I would play on piano would be similar to the types of things in me memory I could hear me dad playing in the other room. I remember him teaching me a couple of scales and a few seventh chords a long time ago. When I got this piano in the house, the types of places me fingers went were reminiscent of these things I grew up with. I never expected to do anything with that, with my own music. But, I don't know, as time went on, suddenly I found new ways through these chords. When I talk about tricking myself into it, it was through this music and the mood it created that led me to the lyrics.
You worked on a lot of these songs in your home studio, which you call The Lunar Surface. Sounds exotic.
Yeah, well let’s burst that bubble right off. But I’ll come back later and build it up if you like. Matthew (Helders, Arctic Monkeys’ drummer) and I used to live together when we first moved here. It used to be his room in the basement. Now it’s got all my instruments, my eight-track recorder, a few compressors and the piano.
Why the Lunar Surface?
It came from that conspiracy theory which is along the lines that Stanley Kubrick faked the moon landing. I've embellished that and taken it to the point where he did it in his garage or his basement. I think that's where it started. So I liked the idea of me saying I was going down to Lunar Surface, when in fact I was just heading down to the basement.
And this is also where you built the model of the futuristic building for the album cover?
Yeah. I'd seen images of architectural models and they were something that I was drawn to. Then I got the name for the album which is this sort of idea that there's this actual place, and I thought it'd be cool to put an architectural model of some description on the cover. But the time between me thinking that and actually achieving what's on the cover…well, it was a convoluted route to get there. A lot of illustration board and foam and dowel and glue. My knife skills improved after a couple of months. It got pretty messy in there, but I feel like it looks more like the music than any of our other covers look like their audio counterpart.
What did you think when people started making fun of the song titles when they were first announced and then started making up their own Arctic Monkeys’ song titles?
I’m completely unaware of that.
Really? It was quite big music news at the time. Want to hear some they came up with?
Handjob Outside Argos, Bonjela Bandit, Aye Tonya, Grubby Little Sausage Roll.
Wow. I don’t really understand most of them. They seem to bear very little resemblance to any of our song titles.
Well, maybe apart from The World’s First Ever Monster Truck Front Flip. I know you’re a film buff, and you namecheck In The Mood For Love and Blade Runner in the lyrics of some of these new songs. But musically this album also seems to be influenced by European film soundtracks…
True, the movies have seeped into this record more than in the past. And with the music, a lot of that does come from using the piano. Jean-Pierre Melville’s films had a big impact on me when I first saw them and in some ways I was thinking of the lounge jazz bars that are in a lot of his films. Jean-Claude Vannier, who worked with Gainsbourg, is definitely an influence. And Nino Rota, who did the soundtracks for Fellini’s films.
And with Batphone and a lyric about Wayne Manor in She Looks Like Fun, it seems there’s also a Batman influence.
Actually, the Batcave from the old TV show is not far from where I live. That drew me to the area. I was a huge fan of the TV show when I was a kid. I've got a picture on my wall of Adam West in the Batsuit, sitting in a director’s chair with his feet up. It's like he’s Batman on a coffee break or something like that. Very cool.
Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino is out now through EMI/Domino.