Arctic Monkeys business is booming with record-setting debut album
Britain’s latest musical sensation comes from the windswept moorlands of southern Yorkshire.
The Arctic Monkeys hail from Sheffield, the former steel town that boasts a solid music pedigree with bands like Human League, Cabaret Voltaire, Def Leppard and Pulp.
On Jan. 23, the band released its first album, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, on the indie Domino label (home of Franz Ferdinand), and sold over 110,000 copies in a single day. By the end of the first week, that number had surpassed 360,000 units and the band gained the honour of having the fastest selling debut album in British chart history, beating the previous record set by pop group Hear’say in 2001.
At the Brit Awards on Feb. 15, the Monkeys were named the British Breakthrough Act of the year and the following week they walked away with Best New Band and Best British Band at the NME Awards, beating out the favoured Kaiser Chiefs in the latter category.
Word on the web is…
Just how did these four Sheffield lads pull it off? As it turns out, it wasn’t the result of any savvy marketing strategy by a sly manager or a scheming record label. Rather, it was the power of the Internet that allowed thousands of young British fans to download free demos off the web over the past two years.
These songs started out as CD recordings that the band members burned themselves and handed out at gigs to their fans. Within a short period of time, the tunes were being passed around the web and helped create an incredible word-of-mouth buzz around the band.
When the Arctic Monkeys played shows in towns they had never been to before, they were amazed how many audience members knew the lyrics to their songs. It was only last May that they finally released Five Minutes With Arctic Monkeys, a two-song EP with a limited run of 1,500 copies.
But things changed last summer when the Monkeys signed with Domino Records after an intense bidding war. In October, the band’s first official single, I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor, debuted at the top of the British charts. This feat was repeated in January with their second single, When the Sun Goes Down, which also went straight to the top of the charts.
The band’s edgy, often fast-paced sound and sharp, wry lyrics have set up comparisons with such British greats as The Jam, Blur and Pulp. Their songs focus on topics like small-town life (A Certain Romance), club bouncers (From the Ritz to the Rubble), prostitutes (When the Sun Goes Down), and the police (Riot Van).
As the band embarks on its 12-date, sold-out North American tour, the album has entered the U.S. charts at number 24 and has become the second-fastest-selling indie debut album in American chart history.
Ever since becoming the buzz band of last year, all four bandmates – singer Alex Turner, guitarist Jamie Cook, bassist Andy Nicholson and drummer Max Helders – have been experiencing a whirlwind of media attention. But all this frenzy hasn’t seemed to faze these down-to-earth Yorkshire lads, who are all 19 and 20 years old.
"Yeah, life’s a bit crazy. But we don’t think about it too much. It has changed, but not in a bad way," says Helders over a speakerphone from backstage at the famed Melkweg club in Amsterdam. "It did happen that we got chased down the street once."
But back home in the Sheffield suburb of High Green, the four are just treated as local lads. "Where we live, people respect our privacy. When we’re coming up for a big thing – like a single release and a tour – we got the newspaper people around our house. But it’s not all that bad."
Currently the four still live at home and enjoy the comforts of family life. "Our parents love it. They always come to gigs when they can. They’ve been very supportive."
The name that comes back to bite
Numerous articles on the Monkeys state that they named themselves after a band Helders’ uncle (or dad) had in the 1970s. However, Helders admits it was just a joke. "It’s come back to bite me," laughs Helders. "I still told it to someone the other day. I couldn’t bring myself to tell him that I’d been lying, because he had interviewed us twice before. I didn’t have the heart to tell him the truth."
The idea of forming a band started after Turner and Cook received guitars for Christmas presents in 2001. The following summer the four assembled in Turner’s garage and started fooling around on their instruments. How Helders ended up on the drums was simple. "That’s all that were left," he quips. "When we started the band none of us played anything. We just put it together. They all had guitars and I bought a drum kit after a bit."
Helders says he didn’t find learning the drums difficult. "To be honest it just came natural to me. I never had any lessons. I had some drumsticks and a book and I taught myself from it. I’m still surprised by it all."
Along with fame came a slew of crazy rumours about the Monkeys not writing their own lyrics – supposedly too sophisticated for lads of their age. "It’s rubbish. I just think journalists are looking for something else to write about because we’re not interesting enough. I dunno what they’ll write next."
In January, New Musical Express, the influential British music weekly, declared the band’s album the fifth best British album of all time. "It’s pretty strange," says Helders. "I don’t know how they did it. The album came out on a Monday and the magazine came out the next day on Tuesday. They’d already done all their research. It must have been printed before the disc came out. I mean, it’s flattering, but ridiculous."
As far as his own musical interests and influences go, Helders says he listened to a lot of hip-hop, especially Dr. Dre and Brit-rock gods Oasis. "In fact, we’re playing with Oasis in Toronto at some kind of arena that holds about 15,000 people."
Asked whether Oasis was opening for the Arctic Monkeys, Helders snickers. "Nah, nah, not yet – we’re supporting them."
As the conversation winds down, Helders wonders whether there is any snow in Montreal. When he’s told there was and recent temperatures had been minus 15 degrees, his curiosity turns to astonishment. "Wow! Bloody hell – I’ll bring my coat then."
With The Spinto Band at the Spectrum, March 22, 8 p.m.