Arctic Monkeys Start Over
After a huge hit album, Alex Turner decided to ditch guitar riffs, listen to jazz and write a science-fiction opus
The first Arctic Monkeys album in five years is lush and claustrophobic at the same time – it calls to mind a guy going a little nutty in a small room in a nice house on a hill, constructing a fantasy world in his head and setting his visions to piano. Which, to hear Alex Turner tell it, is more or less exactly how Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino was born. It’s mid-April, a few weeks before the album’s May 11 release, and the Monkeys frontman has just descended from his home in the Hollywood Hills to a cafe for breakfast. It’s barely 10 a.m., but he’s wearing a crisp vintage tan suit – safari pockets, flared legs – as he slides into a booth: “Christian Dior,” he says.
Turner started writing the new album in 2016, up the hill in his home studio, sitting at a Steinway Vertegrand piano that his manager bought him as a birthday present. Turner, who’s long admired the stylistic shape-shiftings of John Lennon and David Bowie, wanted to do something that sounded nothing like the last Monkeys record – the platinum-certified AM, full of snaking guitar riffs and heavy grooves. Having never written on a piano before, he thought the Vertegrand might shake loose a new sound, and he was right: “The places my fingers would naturally fall on the piano” lent themselves, he says, to chords, progressions and “jazz turns” that “suggested to me this idea of a lounge-y character, which never would have occurred to me had I been playing a guitar. They reminded me of things my father used to play on the piano.” Other influences, he said, included Serge Gainsbourg’s Histoire de Melody Nelson, Dion’s Born to Be With Youand the jazzy score that François de Roubaix composed for Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1967 post-gangster classic Le Samourai.
It was impossible, writing songs at that piano in 2016, to avoid the news: “People tell me that the last Monkeys record had this American feel, but I didn’t feel it then as much as I did here,” he says. You hear this in lyrics about “battleground states,” those who “take the truth and make it fluid” and “the leader of the free world” who “reminds you of a wrestler.” But, as Turner explored the Vertegrand, he also found himself exploring themes of escapism, crafting lines about people plugging into virtual-reality devices and decamping for quickly gentrifying space colonies. There are several self-reflexive references to science fiction across the album, including a song named for the genre. “Science fiction creates these other worlds to comment about this world,” Turner says, “and that idea in itself was interesting to me.” Welcoming us to Tranquility Base is Turner’s “lounge-y” narrator, hamming it up while holding down a “make-believe residency” at a possibly computer-generated post-apocalyptic luxury hotel on the moon. “I’d be writing the lyrics with a microphone in one hand, pressing record on an eight-track with the other,” Turner recalls, then running it all through a late-Sixties gizmo called the Revox A77, creating “all this slap-back and wobble,” as he puts it, to compound the kitschy, retro-futurist ambiance. The result is a captivatingly bizarre album about the role of entertainment – the desire to escape into it, and the desire to create it – during periods of societal upheaval and crisis.
All of which may represent a huge curveball, Turner acknowledges, to Arctic Monkeys fans – especially those primed by AM to expect the roar of a guitar front and center. Guitarist Jamie Cook and drummer Matt Helders join us at the cafe, and Cook tells me that he was taken aback when Turner first played him demos, back around February of 2017. “I was blown away by the direction Alex had gone in,” Cook says. “It took a few listens to even begin to, like…” he trails off, smiling. “It was just, like, ‘Shit. What do we do with this?’”
But as they hunkered down, the piano and guitar started to jell. Helders – who joined the sessions later along with bassist Nick O’Malley, first at a classic Hollywood studio called Electro-Vox and then at a beautifully weathered mansion outside of Paris called La Frette – says that the new sound constituted a learning process for him, too. “Every time we’ve made a record before, I’ve always wanted to do something completely original, like a drum beat no one’s ever thought of,” says Helders. “This time I settled down a bit, realized it’s not about me, it’s about playing for the songs.” When I ask Turner if he sees the dramatic shift away from big riffs as something of a “fuck-you gesture” aimed at fan expectations, he grins: “Maybe there’s a time and place for both that guitar riff and a fuck-you gesture.”
Not that Turner was thinking much about audience reactions at the outset, he emphasizes. Perhaps nothing captures just how deeply he fell down his own rabbit hole as the architectural model he began constructing by hand, once the music was done, of the album’s titular vacation spot. Now the album’s cover, it began with Turner sketching a hexagon – to represent album number six – and grew from there as he took inspiration from iconic midcentury architects like Eero Saarinen and John Lautner. For two months, he says, “I was going to the art-supply store quite often,” buying illustration board, slicing it with an X-acto knife, making different shapes. “I became quite consumed by that. Getting up in the middle of the night, going down and delving in. I kept calling it the lobby model, like the idea that sometimes those things sit in the lobbies of the buildings they represent – that loop is appealing to me, like in The Shining, with the miniature hedge maze in the lobby, and he’s looking in there and then he sees the people are in there…”
The Shining reference raises an obvious question: Who around Turner thought he was going insane as he pursued these solitary obsessions? His girlfriend, model Taylor Bagley, fully supported his midnight tinkerings, he tells me, and so did their furry housemate Scoot. “It would be me and the dog going in there every day,” Turner says. He laughs. “And he wasn’t telling me I was crazy, either.”