Monday, January 30, 2006


[Note: After reading today's uncharacteristically gushing New York Times piece on the Arctic Monkeys (Arts section), I've decided to post my own (hopefully) more even-handed article before it appears in a magazine this coming March]

There’s a sad, lost-looking teenager standing outside the Mercury Lounge frustratingly dialing numbers on his cell phone, searching in both directions for some familiar members of his party. Having traveled all the way from London, England, this was Andy Nicholson’s first time in New York and he was now alone and abandoned. To a foreigner, the Lower East Side can seem intimidating without the consecutively numbered streets and avenues. After a few seconds of witnessing his anxiety, I approached Nicholson and asked him if he needed help finding his way. “Yes, please,” he said. “It seemed that the rest of my band has left me behind.”

It’s not that Andy’s band roster is so large and is prone to frequently leaving band mates behind. The Arctic Monkeys only have four members and, moreover, they’re all childhood friends. You don’t simply forget a close friend, or “a mate,” in a foreign city, especially when there’s only a quartet to account for. But in their defense, the Yorkshire teens have a great deal on their minds. At the time of our interview, their debut album Whatever People Say I Am, That What I’m Not was the most anticipated release in a British decade (weeks later, when it was eventually released, the record went on to sell 118,501 copies on its first day, making it the UK’s bestselling debut). In fact, their hype was so overwhelming and surreal that their publicists and label were both working hard to rein it back in by limiting press and interviews—there’s a difference between a band blowing up and a band on the verge of exploding.

Among the many publications covering the Arctic Monkey phenomena, the British weekly NME has bestowed upon the band the power “to unite a generation,” likening the words of 19-year-old lead singer Alex Turner to those of other great lyricists like the Smiths’ Morrissey and Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker. All throughout their short American tour, you could find countless Craigslist postings regarding the exchange of Arctic Monkeys tickets to their sold-out shows. Some wanted hundreds of dollars, others were looking for favors ("Extra Arctic Monkeys ticket for HOT girl with loose morals!"). Message boards feverishly discussed the as-of-yet unreleased songs and their lyrics (initially transcribed based on assumption) like Talmudic text. And Domino, their label, was banking on them becoming the next Franz Ferdinand. That’s a lot for any band to live up to. Never mind the fact that that they’re just a bunch of kids still living at home with their parents.


Sitting in the basement of the Mercury Lounge for a half-hour of peace in their otherwise chaotic two-day schedule, the four blokes seemed incredibly un-rockstar. Turner seemed, quite frankly, like a typical adolescent uncomfortable in his own skin, constantly fidgeting, muttering most responses under his breath, and doing his best to accommodate yet another interviewer. Their visit to New York had been like a revolving door; the constant barrage of questions stayed the same, but the one asking them changeed. I first apologized for making them sit through yet another discussion. None of them responded with anything that resembleed a “that’s okay,” because I’m sure they all believed that the apology was warranted. Although, I sensed a feeling of relief: finally, they thought, someone gets what we’re going through.

Just over a year ago, Turner, Nicholson (bass), Jamie Cook (rhythm guitar), and Matt Helders (drums, backing vocals) knew nothing of interviews, record labels, publishing royalties, contract negotiations, and publicists. Rather, they were scrappy schoolmates who liked to play music together as an after-school hobby. There was no mission to save rock and roll, do it for the kids, or to unite a generation. They received instruments for Christmas and thought it would be a lark to “write stuff.” And unlike most of the bands that cite older influences as the catalyst for their music, like Joy Division, Interpol, and the Cure, the Arctic Monkeys speak the praises of the Vines, Oasis, and the Streets. In fact, during our interview, when discussion somehow turned to David Bowie (Domino told the band that Bowie would be attending the Monkeys show the next night at the Bowery Ballroom), I asked the band if they're fans of his music.

Turner: Um…I wouldn’t say we’re fans really.

Are you excited that Bowie’s coming tomorrow night?
Turner: Yeah, sure. It seems cool.

Would you be able to name any of his songs?
Cook: What’s the one with that “ch-ch-changes” line? I think it was in an advertisement.

Cook: Yeah, that one.
[Band laughs]

The following night, Bowie did in fact come to the show and sat in the VIP section. Allegedly, it was reported that, when the band eventually brought their families (who had flown into New York) into the venue to find them seating, they asked a stranger to leave the section to make room. Mere moments later, they realized that the man they had kicked out of their section was the Man Who Sold the World. The band then immediately and profusely apologized to David Bowie.


As I stood in the back of the dimly lit Mercury Lounge, I found myself surrounded by five middle-aged balding men. The first American Arctic Monkey audience was a veritable who's-who of corporate men who sit among piles and piles of unsolicited demos sent in by unsigned bands. Needless to say, they didn't shout song requests, they didn't cheer, and they certainly didn't mosh. This did not make for a thrilling live experience. But the band, the nervous, pimple-ridden quartet performed onstage appropriately like teenagers both insecure and defiant. Their nonplussed stage presence somewhat suggested apathy, as if to say, we're the Arctic Monkeys and we're here. You're here. Why not play a few songs?

They sped through a feverish and hyperactive set of post-punk pub rock, their sound akin to a un-metrosexual Franz Ferdinand, a brattier Buzzcocks raised in the Oasis versus Blur decade. Their propulsive lead single “I Bet You Look Good On the Dance Floor” inspired some fists in the air. The chorus repeats “dancing to electro-pop like a robot from 1984,” which is funny considering that none of them was even alive then, never mind, dancing like robots. Paradoxical to his calm demeanor during our interview, Turner’s stage presence seemed nasty and antagonistic, his in-between song banter rife with curse words and punkish attitude. It seemed to me that this was a young band eager to impress, or trying too hard to look like they weren’t trying too hard.

Hours earlier, before their debut show, none of them could understand why they were the source of so much excitement. "We're just okay," said bassist Andy Nicholson. "Not sure what all the bloody fuss is all about."

Do you understand why the whole entire United Kingdom is championing your band right now?
Turner: No, we have no idea.

I can’t help but think they you’re all very afraid of hype. Your MySpace page features the quote, “don’t believe the hype.” Your upcoming album is entitled Whatever People Say I Am, That What I’m Not. Why not just ride the wave instead of defying it?
Turner: We didn’t make that MySpace page, by the way. So, we don’t know what that was about. But as far as hype is concerned, this is all so new to us. This has only been going on for a year or so and it’s pretty much out of control. We can’t do anything about it. It’s like a monster just growing on its own.
Cook: I think the people are responding to good music.
Nicholson: At least, we hope so.
Cook: So, as long as it happens for that reason, we should be okay.

All of you honestly can’t figure out why people are reacting in the way they are…
Turner: If people get excited about our live show, well, that’s one thing. That’s something we’re doing. But everything else? That’s not us. That’s like a machine we don’t control.

Soon thereafter, the publicist interrupted our interview to remind the band they were late for dinner. With that, they all politely excused themselves and I thanked them for their time. The Arctic Monkeys headed upstairs to leave the Mercury Lounge, while Nicholson shouted up ahead that he’s first running to the toilet. After a few minutes of loitering outside, the remaining three Monkeys, preoccupied with pre-concert jitters, dashed off to the restaurant. Tonight would be their opportunity to prove themselves worthy of the enormous, imported hype. To justify the storm front of buzz, the Arctic frenzy. They didn’t even notice that they’d left Nicholson behind. Truthfully, this is no time to sweat the details like where you left your bass player.


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