In the wake of all the hoopla surrounding the Arctic Monkeys' blast-of-adrenaline '06 debut, Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not, it was only natural that bandleader Alex Turner would leave his native Sheffield for the showbiz mecca of London. But now, at 23, the precocious punk-popster has made an even bolder move — to the New York borough of Brooklyn, with his girlfriend.
"When she was offered a job there, we decided to relocate," he explains. "And I wanted to treat myself, as well as have a bit of a shake-up and get out of my comfort zone. The same goes for our new record: I thought it was really important as a band to go on this little adventure, just the four of us, because it brought us closer together as a unit."
There was nothing safe about the long, strange trip leading to Humbug, the album in question, the group's third. After agreeing on Queens of the Stone Age main man Josh Homme as producer, Turner and Co. soon found themselves in the harsh California desert of Joshua Tree, getting schooled at their new Svengali's surreal Rancho de la Luna studios.
For 15 tracks, Homme challenged his protégés artistically, and even aesthetically, when he insisted that they visit a mysterious Mojave dome called the Integratron, described by its oddball inventor George Van Tassel as a "high-voltage electrostatic generator" capable of rejuvenating human cell tissue — a technique he claimed to have learned from extraterrestrials. Naturally, the Monkeys chose the site to record one of their set's spookiest numbers, the neo-psychedelic "Secret Door."
"When we started this record, we had songs, ideas within the band, but to get it together as one thing, we needed some help," Turner recalls. "And Josh pushed us in all sorts of areas: with the recording, with the place, the guitars. And even in the area of recognition — not so much patting you on the back about your writing, but recognizing your ideas and getting them out of your mind."
While the outfit would eventually enter a Brooklyn studio to nail nine more numbers with Simian Mobile Disco's James Ford at the helm, then cull the choicest cuts for Humbug, the desert still haunted those urban sessions. To the point where Humbug presents an almost reborn Turner, now a risk-taking artist who's not afraid to indulge in sludgy guitar riffs, whip-cracking street-smart lyrics, and a velvety croon reminiscent of Vegas-era Sinatra (a voice he's toyed with on early B-sides as well as his recent side project, the Last Shadow Puppets).
Is Turner — gulp! — slowing down and growing up on thoughtful new songs like "My Propeller" and "Crying Lightning"?
He thinks so.
"I always associated the idea of sitting down for too long [with a song] with bursting some kind of bubble or causing whatever idea was there to be emasculated," he theorizes. "But I feel like I've broken that, almost ...
"I used to be disgusted with the idea that I was a songwriter. I was never sure about it. But through this process I'm now more comfortable with the idea that I write songs. That's what I do. And I feel a real sense of accomplishment."