In 2018 the Arctic Monkeys released Tranquillity Base Hotel + Casino. Gone was the rock ‘n’ roll swagger of AM and in its place a band’s ambition for something more. The album moved in every direction but none. It was the past, present and future all at the same time. Pet Sounds delivered with lounge singer’s shimmer.
The end result of Tranquillity’s elaborate studio sessions was something still very much an Arctic Monkeys record but just as equally a sci-fi fantasy, the kind where John Lennon, Rick Deckard, David Bowie and The Style Council all mingle on a boat as it’s drifting downstream on summer’s day but really they are all on the Holodeck of Star Trek’s Enterprise travelling warp speed. Some hated it. But what else could this band do when they got to the mountain’s peak but keep on going? These Brits don’t do repeats.
Matthew Helders plays the drums. He’s been bashing them out with the Arctic Monkeys for what feels like half his life. He was behind the kit for Tranquillity Base. Some of the time at least, at others he was off adding synthesisers or some other mode of exotic instrumentation. That’s the musical side of it at least, but what is he really like?
Hard to say. Like vocalist Alex Turner, Helders shares a similar economy with words. Sure, a little more genial but not one to pontificate. He just wants to get on with it. Leave the unsayable unsaid, let the music speak for itself. His answers arrive short but there’s warm glimmer to most. He loves his band. Whether looking back to ‘I Bet You Good On The Dance Floor’ or forward to albums unplanned, Helders is enjoying what it is he’s doing. That enthusiasm might feel a little different from when the band kicked off all those years ago, but if one thing is unequivocal it is that the Arctic Monkeys are keen to be kicking on.
Music Feeds: Obviously, you are the Arctic Monkey’s drummer but on Tranquillity Base it seems like you were often sharing those duties with producer James Ford or another gentleman named Loren Humphrey. At other times they’re sitting behind the kit while you were off playing synthesisers or something equally esoteric…
Matt Helders: Yeah, I mean a lot of it was down to the fact that some of the songs – the sound we wanted – involved us playing multiple of the same thing. Sometimes we’d have two pianos on at the same time, two drum kits at the same time. It was just the way we wanted to record to get a certain sound. So it started off like that. We basically had a room with everything set up where we all just moved around and played different things. We had a couple of days where we bought in extra people and we just thought, “Well, we’ll use them while they’re here and just try some different things.”
MF: That reminds me a bit of that classic LA sort of thing kind of thing, The Wrecking Crew and all that. Or something The Beach Boys would go into a studio and do. Was that something you were trying to achieve?
MH: It was definitely influenced by older techniques that have been used. Recording to tape and stuff. There’s a certain natural sort of stereo sound that you get if you’re recording everything in the same room all at once multiples of each instrument.
MF: I’m a huge fan of Tranquillity Base. I love the sound and I think it takes a lot of risks. There’s a lot of depth as a result of that. But I also know that there are some people out there who would have been happier to have heard something closer to another AM. Is there anything you would like to share with the record’s naysayers?
MH: I mean it’s always been our take to do something different. It always seems like quite a natural progression to us from album to album. Obviously, we still love AM and play most of those songs live. It’s still there for them to listen to, you know what I mean? It’s not going away but I think for us it was quite a natural thing to move on and do something else. We never really know what that’s going to be when we get into the studio. It sort of develops as we go along.
MF: I remember very fondly the first time I saw the band play. It was at a festival called Splendour In The Grass in Byron Bay in 2007, very close to the start of the whole Arctic Monkeys operation really. Do you have any memories from that time?
MH: I remember it well! I mean for us Australia has always been such a fun place to play. The crowds are great and obviously, the country is amazing. Doing those festivals is a massive opportunity. [Australia] is somewhere that you never think that you’re going to go and people are actually going to want to watch. We’ve always appreciated that. It’s just a really fun place to play.
MF: I was sitting in my car a few months ago listening to the local classic rock radio station. They had just been playing Van Halen then John Mellencamp’s ‘Jack and Diane’ or something like that and then ‘I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor’ came on… Do you ever think about this whole idea of the Arctic Monkeys growing from a bunch of kids from Sheffield into this role of a ‘classic rock band’? It’s an interesting way for things to have gone.
MH: It’s not something you expect when you first start a band. When you’re 16 and you’re doing it, it’s a million miles away from that sort of thing. It’s weird for me that I’ve played drums for half of my life and that I’ve been in this band for half of my life. Time is what makes that weird. That song is over 10 years old. I don’t feel old enough for it to have been that long yet.
MF: How do you feel playing those earlier songs in the current set, is there still a lot of passion there?
MH: There definitely is. And I don’t think it’s just based on nostalgia. There are songs that don’t really work anymore and we don’t play but ‘Dancefloor’ is such a big song for us in many ways. We’ve never left it out of a set. You go a little on autopilot when you play it, but it also brings a lot of memories of how we got there I suppose.
MF: Will it be another five years before we see another Arctic Monkeys record?
MH: I don’t think so. I think that break was based on various circumstances and that was sort of what we needed at the time. But it’s not a pattern we’re going to get used to as a band. We like being in the studio. We’re keen on making albums.
MF: Do you have any other interesting projects on the boil at the moment or is your focus purely upon the Arctic Monkeys?
MH: I haven’t really got anything that’s in the workings. This is occupying my time now. I’ve just had a bit of a break obviously but that was to recoup, be a normal person for a bit. But yeah, Arctic Monkeys is the focus at the moment.
MF: Tell me more about the Australian tour. Your setlist is looking really interesting at the moment given that you have all these songs from Tranquillity Base mixing in with AM and then your earlier stuff.
MH: Yeah well, the last thing we did was a few months ago so that seemed to really be working. We sort of got a set where we interchange some of the new ones depending how we feel but the flow of it [has gotten] to a really nice place, they all sort of make sense together. Even visually we’re bringing everything that we had in England. We built a set that looks cool and it sort of fits in with the aesthetic of the album. It’s been really fun doing that. We’ve never really paid much attention to that kind of thing, but it looks really great at the moment.
MF: Is there anything else you would like to put out there to the fans about what’s coming down the track for the band?
MH: We’ll talk about what we’ll do next. There’s no real concrete plan at the moment. We’re all enjoying it a lot, we know we want to do some writing at some point but there’s nothing really. We haven’t really talked about it yet. I suppose when we’re back together on these last couple of tours we’ll start thinking about that. But yeah, there’s nothing actually planned yet.
Arctic Monkeys – RAC Arena, Perth 23/02/19 / Photos: Stuart Millen