Arctic Monkeys’ Alex Turner talks The Car and 20 years of the band with Martin Compston
The biggest band in Britain chose us for their exclusive comeback interview. To make it extra memorable we took superfan Line of Duty star Martin Compston to Budapest to hang out with his musical heroes
Arctic Monkeys are back. New album The Car, their first since 2018, will be out on Domino Records on October 21. The Car is Arctic Monkeys’ seventh studio album.
The previous six all got to number one in the UK. And at least two – 2006 debut Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not and 2013’s AM – were the definitive albums of their age. For a band to do this once is unusual. Twice is almost unprecedented.
Turner hasn’t spoken about The Car before. But for 90 minutes, we hear his thoughts on the new release, his 20-year journey with Arctic Monkeys and Sheffield Wednesday’s Scottish football star Barry Bannan.
Martin Compston: Does it feel like 20 years ago when you started the band? Does it seem distant?
Alex Turner: It probably does feel about 20 years ago. But that’s an interesting one, isn’t it? Because sometimes you feel like you could walk through a door and be right back there.
MC: It’s 20 years since my first film came out [Sweet Sixteen, directed by Ken Loach]. I went to a screening of it – looking at that 17-year-old kid, I don’t recognise that voice. But there are moments I can connect to so clearly. It’s mad how you can feel so far away but also so close.
AT: I’m trying to scratch a little bit of that feeling we are describing here on the new record. It feels like a long time ago, but it can be right behind you. Something reminds you and it takes you back. There’s a lyric on Hello You that says, “I could pass for 17 if I just get a shave and catch some zzzzs”. Maybe that’s barking up that tree a little. Well, a lot. I’m thinking about going to the snooker club with my granddad and it feels like we were just there. But, wait a minute, there’s all this time in between.
MC: It’s been great going back through all the albums with my missus. Especially the first one. I always thought, how did teenagers write something that epic that young? But listening now, only teenagers could have done that record because it’s just relentless. It is so good but I was exhausted listening to it. It’s funny how you evolve. I was on holiday in Cork. My missus and my wee boy went for a nap, so I had a glass of wine, sat looking over the sea, and if The View From the Afternoon [from the debut album] had come on I couldn’t have handled it. But when There’d Better Be a Mirrorball [from the new album] came on, I went, this is exactly what I need right now. Have you felt people growing up with you? And can you let that influence you?
AT: I think it’s somewhere in the cracks between the two. If the idea was to do something that met these expectations, hypothetically, it’s hard for me to even know what that would be. You have to follow your instincts in the same way you did in that first place. In that way, it does all feel like it’s connected to us 20 years ago in the garage when it was pure instinct. It’s certainly not coming from us trying to be contrary. If anything, I was more contrary then.
We topped the charts and everything became different quite quickly. There was always a feeling that this could be over in a few months
Just four shows into their return to live action, Arctic Monkeys are enjoying themselves. We catch up with the band in Budapest, where they are headlining the Sziget Festival on Óbudai-sziget, a small island on the Danube, in front of 80,000 adoring fans. On arrival, we meet Compston and his wife Tianna, then find two band members in the hotel bar. They’ve returned from watching a lively encounter between Tottenham and Chelsea in a nearby Irish pub, with Fontaines DC singer Grian Chatten in tow. Spirits are high.
Before our first drinks are drunk, bass player Nick O’Malley has challenged Compston to an accent competition. “I don’t work for free,” grins Compston. Undaunted, the Arctic Monkey unleashes various attempts to impress the actor. Guitarist Jamie Cook can barely contain his laughter. Three hours later we all board a party boat on the Danube. There is dancing.
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The following day, Compston is watching early Arctic Monkeys videos in the hotel lobby. He’s already immersed in the new album, The Car. It’s complex, entrancing and builds on the more expansive sound that made 2018’s Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino such a departure from the rock riffs and hip-hop adjacent flow of AM – a monster hit.
Turner, 36, arrives looking every inch the star. Shirt collar splaying open, trousers tailored to perfection, boots on point. Two decades in, the band have never looked better.
MC: Here we are, two guys who’ve done all right and there is this shower of shit running the country and the cost-of-living crisis, so I’m not in any way saying poor me… I’d love to be a rock star but the fame that comes with that I would not envy. Everything you say under the microscope from being 17 or 18…
AT: At the time it happened very quickly and was a shock to the system. We topped the charts and everything became quite different very quickly. But there was always a feeling that this could be over in a few months. The bottom is gonna fall out any minute.
I’m thinking about you mentioning The View From the Afternoon. We’ve been playing [it] in these last few shows – when I’m doing that, it feels like it would take more than a shave and a sleep to feel 17!
MC: Matt [Helders, drummer] must be fucked after playing those early songs.
AT: I keep looking back over my shoulder at him. “You still there, pal?” Nah, he’s fine. I’m the one huffing and puffing. In those days, I used to wear my guitar really high, everything was just tight. Now I think, loosen the guitar. Take the guitar off, even. Everybody relax.
I got to listen to the album… and wow. My impression is of Bond villain overtones
The band seem happy out in the world. Comfortable with the recognition that comes with being in one of the world’s biggest groups. A happy band of childhood friends who have grown into an all-time great act, they have been smart since day one. Realising the power of saying no, safely surrounded by management and crew that have been with them most of the way. The eye of the Arctic Monkeys storm feels surprisingly calm.
MC: When you get to this scale, which you don’t have access to when you start out in terms of orchestras, it’s the scope of it. If you are acting under constraints, it can force you to be more creative. On one film they were constructing a whole shot because there was a mountain in the background – I was like, we’re losing what the scene is about.
AT: You are losing the performance for the mountain?
MC: Yeah, losing the heart of it. When you get to album seven, it’s like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory time. Is that pressure or pure freedom?
AT: I love that, with the mountain in the background – that’s a watertight analogy. I certainly try and keep an eye on that. It’s about everything having its own space and not all shouting at once. There is room to use all the things from the factory. And there are times I’ve used the wrong tool for the job, probably. But you learn from that. This time, we’ve kept more of an eye on the performance. You can keep the mountain in the shot but it’s in the eyes, isn’t it?
MC: I got to listen to the album and it’s fucking class. Hello You is a belter. And …Mirrorball? Wow. My impression is of Bond villain overtones. Do you have characters in your head?
AT: I’m just processing that. Because you hit a couple of things on the way there. One was Bond villain – that went off in neon in my mind. It’s a response I’ve had to other things we’ve composed, this idea of something sounding ‘cinematic’. I never completely subscribe to it, but it’s louder this time.
MC: Would you fancy directing? Because the imagery of the songs is so strong?
AT: Not tomorrow. I’m very interested in it. But I think, don’t run before I can walk. I will keep doing my research for a minute.
You can go out and experience the world but as I get older, I’ve realised Greenock is at the core of me still
Arctic Monkeys began in Sheffield in 2002. Their rise is the stuff of legend. CDs of early demos handed out at gigs, copied and shared among fans, their MySpace page blowing up and becoming huge, fans knowing the words to songs before they were released.
They signed to Domino Records in 2005, their first single I Bet You Look Good on The Dancefloor going straight to number one [as did the follow-up When the Sun Goes Down], the debut album becoming the fastest-selling in UK chart history. They were fast, they were loud, they were energetic and Turner’s lyrics and delivery were smart, skilful and sharp. The last track of 2007’s Favourite Worst Nightmare, 505, recently became a TikTok sensation.
The response when they play it at Sziget is huge. From MySpace to TikTok and concept albums set on the moon, Arctic Monkeys have been at the vanguard of change. Success has taken them across the world. Turner has lived in the US, in France, in London. But the connection to home remains strong. Outside their backstage dressing room is a huge 600-pack of Yorkshire Tea bags that probably needs its own roadie to drag it across Europe.
MC: How much of a legend is [Sheffield Wednesday and Scotland footballer] Barry Bannan?
AT: Oh yeah. We haven’t even been there yet, have we? So you can play a bit.
MC: Well, a bit. But 20 years ago. Your band coming out coincided with the end of my career – when I found festivals and all that.
AT: Were you talking about Bannan last night, with Jamie [Cook]?
MC: Yeah. Barry’s a wee character. It probably annoys Sheffield Wednesday fans but I call them a sleeping giant – and having that many fans and being properly loved down there is why it’s so special to him. Being from Greenock is a massive part of my identity. Don’t get me wrong, I couldn’t wait to get out and see the world, but it’s when you leave you realise it really is at your core – the people and the place.
AT: Absolutely. It’s a huge part of your character. But I don’t think that means you can’t allow yourself to… I’m trying to find another word for evolve. It helps you be open to experimentation.
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MC: Exactly. I remember when I got to London, all I wanted was one of those Libertines military jackets. Walking out in Greenock I’d probably be punched in the face. You can go out and experience the world but as I get older, I’ve realised Greenock is at the core of me still.
AT: The next thing I knew, I’m in Hollywood getting a Sheffield Wednesday badge tattooed on my forearm. I guess that reveals something. It’s a bit too on the nose. Did you get the jacket?
MC: Yeah. And the purple velvet one as well.
AT: I remember wearing one of them to a Coral gig at the Sheffield Octagon and getting shouted at in the street. When you’re in the Coral gig, you are all right. But on the way there…
It feels like a pretty unique situation. We grew up together since we were 11
“Fuck me,” says Martin Compston. Nine hours after speaking with Alex Turner, he has just been going wild to I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor at the side of the stage at Sziget. “I feel like I’m 17 again.”
It’s been emotional. There are some tears. Knee Socks and 505 set Compston off; No.1 Party Anthem does the same for me during the encore.
The band kick off their set with the first track from their debut LP, then go straight into early hit Brianstorm. It’s an energetic, relentless opening salvo. This is a band that means the world to Compston. A band he’s loved for half his life. A band he has spent two days hanging out with for The Big Issue.
“Who let all these people in my room?” Turner teases from the stage. He was referencing Frank Sinatra at the Sands Hotel and Casino in 1966, he tells us afterwards, as he talks with Compston’s wife Tianna Flynn about her home city of Las Vegas. It’s doubtful any of the 80,000 in attendance gets the reference. But it speaks to how comfortable he is, both at this stage of his career and on stage in front of the largest crowds.
MC: I am so much better technically at my job than I’ve ever been. The 17-year-old me couldn’t do what I do now. But I’m still trying to get back to the fearlessness of being 17 – working with Ken Loach, when he’d set up scenes, I’d be like, why are you doing that? Now I wouldn’t have the balls. So I want to keep the knowledge but get back to the instinct.
AT: Exactly. And that instinct is here somewhere, isn’t it? I’ve also had phases where I’m like, I need to get on top of all my references. But now you don’t feel the need to prove yourself as much.
MC: I remember you got Shakespeare into a song and made it cool. Then on AM, the second verse of Do I Wanna Know? is verging on a rap.
AT: I can draw a line back from there to From the Ritz to the Rubble on the first record. I hadn’t learned how to sing yet. I used to pack so many words in. At school, in 2001, I was listening to Roots Manuva. Me and Matt were making beats. I can’t go all the way to actually rapping, but there’s a bit on the edge that’s an interesting place to occupy.
MC: Sitting with the boys last night, we were…
AT: You were rapping?
MC: I could see how protective of each other you all are.
AT: It feels like a pretty unique situation. We grew up together since we were 11. I try and limit the amount of time I spend wistfully looking back on that. But there’s a confidence you get from being a part of that. And that can be a ‘creative asset’. But that’s only one part of it, isn’t it? It’s nice to be around… actually, scratch that. I’m not about to say ‘It’s nice to be around your friends.’ I’m getting to a place that’s a bit gooey. And I don’t know if I want to get gooey.
MC: There was this one gig – and I think there is an apology I owe you. After seeing Woodstock ’99 it will feel very tame, but I went to see you at the Palladium in Hollywood. We were down the front and I was soaked. I took my T-shirt off and threw it and you had to duck.
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