These days, Arctic Monkeys call the desert home. The Sheffield-raised group’s latest record, AM, is the third they’ve worked on in the sunny, hazy expanses of California – and ahead of its release, all four of the band have officially uprooted to the US west coast. “It’s one of those ‘grass is always greener’ things,” explains bassist Nick O’Malley. “People [from California] that haven’t been to England are always saying how much they want to go, and how amazing Sheffield must be, and we’re all like, ‘Well yeah, I suppose it is – but there’s palm trees and sunshine here.”
Weather aside, the Arctics’ decision to trade Hillsborough for Hollywood rested on musical reasons. “There’s just so many great studios out there, great gear’s really easy to get your hands on,” O’Malley says in his heavy Northern drawl. “And obviously there’s a lot of history involved, which sort of makes it a bit more special when you’re recording there. When you think about all the albums that have been made in California, it’s magic.”
“[The] first time we ever did it, when we did Humbug, we were recording with Josh [Homme], and we just went out and tried it in the desert and we really enjoyed it. Ever since then, we’ve been back. This time we did the demos in the desert and then when we were actually recording the tracks for the album we did it in a little studio in LA that we found. It was sort of run down and abandoned and a lot of things in it didn’t work or anything, so we just rented that out, got it really cheaply and got it fixed up, and it were like our own studio for a couple of months.”
As per Arctic Monkeys’ last two releases, Humbug and Suck It And See, the new record carries a palpable Golden State influence. Those early Alex Turner tales of taxi ranks and scumbaggery remain consigned to the past – but while the more recent efforts were soaked in shimmering, sun-fuelled riffery, AM explores a tougher, more primal space. It’s as if the sleeves have finally been rolled up; the band at last ready to get down and dirty on the streets of LA. Witness ‘Do I Wanna Know?’, the stomping and seductive album opener unleashed – with little prior warning – as a single in June.
“Once we got an idea of what we were doing, that became the general thing – that we wanted it to be quite stripped back,” O’Malley says. “It’s probably the least Matt [Helders] has ever done on drums, he’s really simplified what he’s done this time, and I suppose that’s given space for me to come through now a little bit more. That was never really set out as the plan from the beginning, but once we did ‘Do I Wanna Know?’, once we got that recorded, we thought, ‘Oh right, this could be cool.’ So we just explored that [direction] more.”
Long-time Arctics chum and Queens of the Stone Age frontman Homme recently described AM as a “sexy after-midnight record”; O’Malley throws in it’s “a bit kinky,” too. But AM moves in broader circles as well – it’s Arctic Monkeys’ most adventurous album yet, featuring some of their slowest songs (‘No. 1 Party Anthem’ and the plucky folk ditty ‘Mad Sounds’ in particular) and some piano here and there. ‘I Want It All’ bears the shoo-wop choruses of ’60s soul, while crowd favourite ‘R U Mine?’ – first heard last year – is reworked with some extra, outer-space layers on top.
“That was the blueprint,” says O’Malley of the 2012 single, not originally planned for inclusion on the album. “We recorded ‘R U Mine?’, and that was the best reaction we’d had to anything we’d released for a while … We were like, ‘Right, let’s go and make an album, 12 songs like that on it.’ Whether that worked or not I don’t know, but I think we’ve simplified it a lot more.”
By far the least familiar sounding of the new set is ‘Knee Socks’, a cut of playful guitar pop that features a cameo from Homme himself. “He just came down [to the studio] one night,” O’Malley says. “The song he features on, that wasn’t really the one we got him down for. We wanted him to sing on ‘One For The Road’, that high backing vocal on that song, and me and Matt had already done it … And then we were like, ‘Alright, well what about this other song called ‘Knee Socks’? Just go and do something on that.’ He did, he just let rip – it was unexpected [it’d be] that great. He definitely made his presence felt, like he always does, in a great way.”
Five albums in, the lesson learned is this: Arctic Monkeys are a band comfortable with taking risks – and proud of themselves for it, says O’Malley. “The first and second records [aren’t] too far away from each other, but then I think – you know, we were really sort of young when we did those, we weren’t very good at playing those instruments then because we’d only been playing a few years, and that’s probably part of the charm of those first few records, the naiveté of it … When we came to recording [this time], we personally wanted to explore for our own curiosity, and do what we want to do. We never really wanted to just fall back on the success of the first and the second album and just keep doing that over and over again. Which would probably work for some people, and a lot of people would probably really like that – but a lot of people wouldn’t, and that includes us.”
BY CHRIS MARTIN
AM out Friday September 6 through Domino/EMI.