words: Seth Tempo
pics: Andy Brown
We sent our roving reporter into the heart of the City’s seedy underbelly to catch up with Arctic Monkeys, one of Sheffield’s best new bands.
"Business, love ?”
I’m ten minutes early to meet Alex Turner, lead singer of the Arctic Monkeys, on a street corner in Neepsend. It’s a cold February night, and I seem to be in the red light area. When I decline her services, the woman who approaches me goes back to staring at the passing traffic. She does a funny little curtsy at any car that looks like it might be thinking of slowing down, and blends into the shadows each time she sees the police car that seems to be circling. She’s wearing a miniskirt and she’s chain-smoking. I think to myself that she must be fucking freezing, and I realise that I’m in an Arctic Monkeys song.
In ‘Scummy’, the Monkeys document life on the streets round here; “Who’s that girl there? I wonder what went wrong so that she had to roam the streets? She don’t do major credit cards and I doubt she does receipts / It’s all not quite legitimate”
By the time Alex arrives, what I’m watching actually seems beautiful. This is not to belittle the woman or her potential clients; it’s just that the scene is so well described in the song that it now has a soundtrack. And this is the thing about the Arctic Monkeys. Their songs rock like bastards, but in a way that makes you want to dance, and their tunes are so good and their lyrics so accurate that they stick with you as you move through the city. Each of the ten or so demo tracks the band have made so far is a potential classic; going on the word-of-mouth excitement they have generated, their future looks extremely bright.
As a Sandman hack, it’s easy to get carried away over a new band that can play in time, is vaguely in tune and has a bit of energy. I’ve sung the praises of several bands to friends when, in hindsight, it’s just that they were slightly better than the other bands I’ve seen for a while. But this time it’s different, I promise.
This is urban poetry mixed with funky indie rock and roll, and it’s going to explode. It’s also very, very Sheffield. Not in a self-conscious way; it’s just that the Monkeys – Alex, guitarist Jamie Cook, drummer Matt Helders and bassist Andy Nicolson - are not ashamed of what they are, and that’s South Yorkshire through and through. When they talk, it’s with a thick Sheffield accent, and their songs are peppered with local dialect in much the same way that Mike Skinner’s songs make references to Southern geezerdom.
Tales of beautiful but vacant girls under disco lighting, teenage nightclub lust (the monkeys are each only 18 or 19 years old), girlfriends being stolen by older townies, wannabe-American posers, stupid bouncers and the chav mentality are all told with perfect timing and humour (as in the glorious “now then mardy bum / I see your frown and it’s like looking down the barrel of a gun”).
Even their name comes from the City’s streets – once, the story goes, they sat down in Dixon’s doorway on Fargate and chatted to a tramp that other people were looking through. They had a laugh and sang some songs with him. As they left, the tramp said “it’s like the fucking arctic tonight lads, but you’ve warmed me. You warmed me, ya little monkeys.”
We make it through the freezing fog to the factory in which the Monkeys rehearse. Inside, the rest of the band are playing pool and listening to music. It’s as low-fi and gritty a rehearsal space as you could find. The only thing that sticks out from the understated indie cool of the scene are guitarist Jamie’s seemingly uber-trendy-looking jeans – grubby, splashes of white paint everywhere, looking very much like he’s been mistaken for a hairdresser and mugged by a boutique owner on Devonshire Street. Within a few minutes, though, he’s apologised for them – he’s come straight to rehearsal from his job as an apprentice tiler, and hasn’t had time to change.
To kick off, we talk about when the band started gigging in the summer of 2003, and the Libertines comparisons that were thrown around. This, Alex concedes, was “probably fair enough, but now it’s just lazy. We don’t sound like the Libertines now, and we especially don’t sound like all the Libertines derivatives. There’s a different groove element to our stuff.”
Trying to describe this difference is difficult. In addition to Mike Skinner and the Libertines, some of the names that seem to belong on the same bit of derelict waste ground or hanging round the same dance floor include Pulp, Franz Ferdinand, a bit of The Jam and something of the energy of The Hives. Halfway between the Streets and Jarvis is probably a good description of the lyrics; Alex says that Mike Skinner is a bit more scallywag, a bit more involved in the scenes he describes than he is himself, and it seems that Jarvis is rather more voyeuristic. Pulp’s tales of dark urban beauty are more likely to be told furtively from the inside of a wardrobe than, for example, from the by-the-bar position the Monkeys opt for in’ I bet you look good on the dancefloor’. Alex has also been compared to Ian Curtis; when he’s on stage, he has the same jerky, eye-popping movements. But this isn’t intentional; “I don’t really know Joy Division. I wish I could give a better answer – that Ian Curtis was my uncle or something. But I can’t.”
Whilst releasing all your early material as free demos on the internet might seem like a foolhardy thing to do, in the Monkeys' case there is little doubt that it has been a help to them.
“People are starting to dance and sing at our gigs now even though we’ve not released anything”, says Alex. “That word-of-mouth support is the good side. We’ve given the demos away, but at the same time they’re just demos. If we make a record it will be better, but putting the demos out has made people get into us. People turn up to gigs now who we don’t know. We’ve got fans now! A couple of kids came over from Nottingham last week – that’s right good, that. I started to write these songs in my bedroom, and then we all finished them here, and now they mean something to people we don’t even know.”
Whilst this groundswell has come fast, it has only come through hard work. The band remember playing at Hull University to a crowd of 6, and knowing all their names by the end of the set. There have been lots of small gigs, but by last December they started to notice a change, in particular at a packed gig at the Boardwalk. Andy says “that’s when I first realised that things were happening – it was really busy, there were lots of record company types, and a kid told me he’d driven up from London to see us and I was like ‘why ?’”. It was at another gig at the same venue where the crowd first took over singing the introduction to Scummy; Alex was visibly and understandably overwhelmed.
Back in the rehearsal rooms, I try to gauge whether the band are as Sheffield-centric as they sound on record.
“I love Sheffield, me – there’s nowhere better than Sheffield” states Jamie. Andy agrees that it’s right good, and adds that Barnsley is shit. This causes a row between him and Jamie, who loves Barnsley almost as much as he loves Sheffield, and doubts that Andy has ever been there in his life.
Alex is quite philosophical about the Sheffield influence. The music, he says, is about Sheffield because Sheffield is what he knows – “you gotta rep where you’re from”, he smiles – but it’s really about everywhere. “I bet there’s a Neepsend in Liverpool, and songs like ‘A certain romance’ are about people everywhere in the country – it’s about some people’s state of mind being over there rather than over here.”
I ask whether Alex’s lyrics are intentionally observational. On the surface he downplays what he does – “I just write things that you see – it doesn’t need any explanation” – but when I mention that I’ve heard him described as the best lyricist in Sheffield, he is visibly chuffed. While Andy wonders out loud whether there is a Best Lyricist in Sheffield league table on the internet somewhere, Alex thinks for a moment and then states “I probably am the best lyricist in Sheffield”.
On paper this might come across as arrogant, but the Monkeys are not an arrogant band at all. They just know that they’ve got something good. And, as it happens, Alex probably is the best lyricist in Sheffield. So there. “I’m right into the idea of battling – like in 8 Mile”, he reckons. “I’d be alright at that.”
One topic on which the Monkeys are more coy is record company interest. They will say that things are “moving along nicely”, but that’s it. “I don’t want to say ‘this is it’, because as much as I’ve got confidence in it I don’t want it all to just fall away”, reckons Alex.
“The most important thing at the moment is that more and more people are getting into it. At the end of the day a record deal is only there to sell records to people, so you need the people there to buy them.” And it’s this solid, feet-on-the-ground approach that means that things will probably go very right for them.
For the moment, then, it’s on with gigging and growing things by word-of-mouth. They’re also planning a single, hopefully by April. It might be ‘I bet you look good on the dancefloor’, or it might be ‘Fake tales of San Fransisco’. The fact is, it could be pretty much any one of the songs they have – and whatever it is, most of the people going to the gigs will already know the words.
By the time you read this, the secret will be on the way to getting out. The monkeys played their first London gig in February, at the Garage in Islington. They’ll be a fixture down that way before long – if you haven’t already, catch them while they’re still playing round the corner. As Yorkshire as they are, they won’t be around here for much longer.