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Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2009

Arctic Monkeys: An American Band?

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They were the coke-snorting, trust-fund abusing, bastard grandkids of The Beatles—true libertines, influenced by The Libertines, with substance-driven frantic energy, skirt-chasing confidence and the too-cool-for-the-room sneer of disaffected youth. When NME named the Arctic Monkeys’ debut “the fifth greatest British album of all time,” the average age of the band members was 20. Four years and two releases later, prodigies of their image or not, they were eventually bound to grow up.

Arctic Monkeys’ new album, Humbug, is an appropriately titled kiss-off to their old image. Their fairly detailed stories of staying out too late have mutated into something cryptic, the drunken frenzy of chords has given way to a dark, atmospheric sound. Listening to the band’s earlier, polar-opposite efforts, enlisting Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age to produce some of the new album would seem like a terrible idea. But listening to the revamped digs of Humbug, it’s pretty clear they made the right choice.

“We were still young on the first album, and on the second one still quite young,” says bassist Nick O’Malley. “I think now that we’re in our early 20s, we’re grasping the musical side of it more, and able to do things we couldn’t do. We can get away from the shifty storytelling that everyone loved us for, I suppose, but that we couldn’t imagine doing forever.”

It’s easy to forget that when the Arctic Monkeys’ age belied their talent, their talent also belied their age. The band is still listening to the cultural touchstones of music for the first time. It isn’t just their newfound fandom for Nick Cave, manifesting itself on YouTube as a seemingly out-of-the-blue cover of “Red Right Hand.” Between the band’s second full album, Favourite Worst Nightmare, and the new Humbug, O’Malley has just now had his first Creedence Clearwater Revival phase, as well as his first of Pink Floyd. He’s only a couple of years removed from digesting the Velvet Underground catalog. For the excesses of the lyrics, the band was still virginal where it mattered: in the record collection.

So, perhaps it is of no great surprise that after four years—20% of their lives—Arctic Monkeys were due for a reboot. “You always progress and want to try new things,” O’Malley says. “As long as you listen to new music, there’s always new stuff you’d want to do.”

Or, at least, it shouldn’t come as a surprise—though it’s hard to convince all Arctic Monkeys fans of that notion.

Faux outrage has come from all angles. There were those who felt the band, being the prototypical band that played Arctic Monkeys music, was leaving the not-yet-entirely explored, if safer, pastures of their own genre. And there were those who saw the band behind the “fifth greatest British album of all time” committing the ultimate blasphemy by shifting their sound while recording an album at Homme’s studios in America.  We are, after all, supposed to be rivals.

“I don’t think it’s something I’m conscious of, and I don’t think I’d like to be, either,” O’Malley says. “Everyone thinks that we sounded extremely British. And then a lot of people were surprised, and said our album sounded American. We just thought it sounded like what we wanted to sound like at the time. We never thought of it geographically.”

But if they’ve become more American, they’ve done it with the best intentions and the greatest curiosity. They are still testing the waters, and haven’t even attempted all of the things they have on queue.

“I don’t think anyone ever gets to do everything they want to do, especially musically,” O’Malley says.

Arctic Monkeys headline an 8 p.m. show at The Rave on Saturday, Sept. 26, with openers The Like.