Despite ruling their native U.K. for nearly a decade, the only way Arctic Monkeys have been able to play arenas in the U.S. was opening for the Black Keys last year. "We went on at 8 p.m. every night, when everyone was buying popcorn and shit," says the intensely British crew's deadpan frontman, Alex Turner. "We'd see a guy two-thirds of the way back start the show on his BlackBerry. By the end of our set, he was fucking pogo'ing."
Riding high after the tour and hoping to capture that energy, they made plans to head straight into the studio. That's when their massive U.K. fame got in the way: Before they could get started on their next album, the Monkeys were asked to perform at the opening ceremony of last summer's London Olympics alongside Paul McCartney and J.K. Rowling. "That's sort of like a once-in-a-lifetime gig on the moon," says Turner. "It was only five minutes, but it took months of preparation."
They finally regrouped to work on their fifth LP, AM, earlier this year at studios in Los Angeles and Joshua Tree, California. "We like to go out to the desert to 'brown the garlic,'" says Turner. "If you want to be black-and-white about it, that means we went there to write." In an effort to shake up their sound, which leans toward arch, high-energy pub jams, they embraced everything from Nineties hip-hop (Dr. Dre, Outkast) to the sludgy attack of Seventies rock. "It's like a chemical reaction," says Turner. "If you get the wrong amount of one element, smoke comes out of the test tube. There was a lot of demo'ing and dead ends." They emerged with 12 tunes, including the Sabbath-y "Arabella" and the surprisingly mellow "No. 1 Party Anthem." Says Turner, semi-helpfully, "To me, that song is about a kind of midnight where you feel like you're in this parallel universe."
It's been a long ride since the group stumbled upon instant U.K. superstardom when its 2006 debut exploded onto the charts – while the young bandmates were still living with their parents. "We've known each other for 20 years," says Turner. "We were climbing trees together before we made music, so when the madness came, we all had each other to rely on."
This story is from the September 12th, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.