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 firstÂ Arctic MonkeysÂ album in five years is lush and claustrophobic at the same time â€“ 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 howÂ Tranquility Base Hotel & CasinoÂ was born. Itâ€™s mid-April, a few weeks before the albumâ€™s May 11 release, and the Monkeys frontman has just descended from his home in the Hollywood Hills to a cafe for breakfast. Itâ€™s barely 10 a.m., but heâ€™s wearing a crisp vintage tan suit â€“ safari pockets, flared legs â€“ as he slides into a booth: â€œChristian Dior,â€ 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, whoâ€™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 â€“ the platinum-certifiedÂ 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: â€œThe places my fingers would naturally fall on the pianoâ€ lent themselves, he says, to chords, progressions and â€œjazz turnsâ€ that â€œsuggested 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.â€ Other influences, he said, included Serge Gainsbourgâ€™sÂ Histoire de Melody Nelson, Dionâ€™sÂ Born to Be With Youand the jazzy score that FranÃ§ois de Roubaix composed for Jean-Pierre Melvilleâ€™s 1967 post-gangster classicÂ Le Samourai.
It was impossible, writing songs at that piano in 2016, to avoid the news: â€œPeople tell me that the last Monkeys record had this American feel, but I didn’t feel it then as much as I did here,â€ he says. You hear this in lyrics about â€œbattleground states,â€ those who â€œtake the truth and make it fluidâ€ and â€œthe leader of the free worldâ€ who â€œreminds you of a wrestler.â€ 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. â€œScience fiction creates these other worlds to comment about this world,â€ Turner says, â€œand that idea in itself was interesting to me.â€ Welcoming us toÂ Tranquility BaseÂ is Turnerâ€™s â€œlounge-yâ€ narrator, hamming it up while holding down a â€œmake-believe residencyâ€ at a possibly computer-generated post-apocalyptic luxury hotel on the moon. â€œIâ€™d be writing the lyrics with a microphone in one hand, pressing record on an eight-track with the other,â€ Turner recalls, then running it all through a late-Sixties gizmo called the Revox A77, creating â€œall this slap-back and wobble,â€ as he puts it, to compound the kitschy, retro-futurist ambiance. The result is a captivatingly bizarre album about the role of entertainment â€“ the desire to escape into it, and the desire to create it â€“ during periods of societal upheaval and crisis.
All of which may represent a huge curveball, Turner acknowledges, to Arctic Monkeys fans â€“ especially those primed byÂ AMÂ 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. â€œI was blown away by the direction Alex had gone in,â€ Cook says. â€œIt took a few listens to even begin to, likeâ€¦â€ he trails off, smiling. â€œIt was just, like, â€˜Shit. What do we do withÂ this?â€™â€
But as they hunkered down, the piano and guitar started to jell. Helders â€“ who joined the sessions later along with bassist Nick Oâ€™Malley, first at a classic Hollywood studio called Electro-Vox and then at a beautifully weathered mansion outside of Paris called La Frette â€“ says that the new sound constituted a learning process for him, too. â€œEvery time weâ€™ve made a record before, Iâ€™ve always wanted to do something completely original, like a drum beat no oneâ€™s ever thought of,â€ says Helders. â€œThis time I settled down a bit, realized itâ€™s not about me, itâ€™s about playing for the songs.â€ When I ask Turner if he sees the dramatic shift away from big riffs as something of a â€œfuck-you gestureâ€ aimed at fan expectations, he grins: â€œMaybe thereâ€™s a time and place for both that guitar riff and a fuck-you gesture.â€
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 albumâ€™s titular vacation spot. Now the albumâ€™s cover, it began with Turner sketching a hexagon â€“ to represent album number six â€“ and grew from there as he took inspiration from iconic midcentury architects like Eero Saarinen and John Lautner. For two months, he says, â€œI was going to the art-supply store quite often,â€ buying illustration board, slicing it with an X-acto knife, making different shapes. â€œI 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 â€“ that loop is appealing to me, like inÂ The Shining, with the miniature hedge maze in the lobby, and heâ€™s looking in there and then he sees the people are in thereâ€¦â€
TheÂ ShiningÂ 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. â€œIt would be me and the dog going in there every day,â€ Turner says. He laughs. â€œAnd heÂ wasnâ€™t telling me I was crazy, either.â€