"They really came out for it, yeah?!"
Alex Turner, Arctic Monkeys frontman, thumbs a Marlboro Lite and flips the pack over to avoid the "SMOKING KILLS" label screaming up at him from the tabletop in one of the green rooms of Boston’s TD Garden. The fact that Alex is lighting up is a bit surprising, given the ease with which he belted out the lofty, punchy refrains of his band's crowd-pleasing hits ("Fluorescent Adolescent," "I Bet You Look Good on the Dance Floor") as well as the darker numbers ("Crying Lightning," "Library Pictures") the night before to a capacity crowd in Portland, Maine’s Cumberland County Civic Center.
That's the show we’re talking about – not the 20,000 people he’s about to "warm up" (as he puts it) for the Black Keys, who Arctic Monkeys are supporting on an aggressive two-leg tour packing arenas and amphitheaters across the country.
Over the course of their 60-minute set, bandmates Turner, Jamie Cook, Nick O'Malley and Matt Helders leap, lunge, punctuate the 50-cent words peppered throughout each chorus with finger jabs, collapse to their knees and vault themselves back up again, then hit the last chord and take a breath before going another round – all while bearing the weight of two guitars, a bass and a Union Jack-branded drum kit. For the Sheffield-bred quartet, it’s par for the high-octane course, and the frenzied, kinetic vibe sets an important tone as they plow through the rest of their sold-out tour dates alongside garage-gone-arena demigods Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney.
Which songs felt particularly good in the set last night?
There’s a new song we’ve been playing called "R U Mine" that we only started playing two nights ago. Last night, the crowd was great for it all. I’d never been to [Portland] before, but they were all really up for it.
You’re doing 17 dates in 22 days on the first leg of the El Camino tour. How do you sustain the kind of energy it takes to put on a set like that every night?
It’s just an hour and twenty minutes a night, so you can be boring the rest of the time (laughs). On this tour, our set’s not even an hour. In a way, it’s gotten easier, I suppose. We try and have an early night now and again, but it hasn’t worked out that way so far, though we’ve only been out on tour for four days. We went to watch the Dirtbombs in Detroit Saturday night. Other than that, we play a lot of dice after the show, that kind of thing.
What’s the strangest thing that’s happened to you on tour?
The most interesting stuff shouldn’t be spoken about on your tape recorder, obviously (laughs). It’s strange when people show up at your shows that you’d never imagine in a million years to see there. Years ago, David Bowie showed up the first time we played New York. I really learned what "starstruck" meant in that sort of moment. I looked out at another New York show and Diddy just appeared right in front of us. It was a surreal moment. I didn’t expect to see him right there – pretty rad, actually. It’s been a wild year, but it’ll all be in the memoirs (laughs).
You still incorporate a handful of your older songs into your live set. These babies of yours have grown up a bit. Do you think certain songs are more representative of your sound live than on the records?
The songs we play off the earlier records – "Dance Floor," "Crying Lightning" – are the ones that’ve grown and got beards now (laughs). I don’t know what it is from one song to the next, but some songs seem to have legs and some don’t. Some songs are too specific, lyrically I suppose, and I have a hard time putting meself in those shoes to be able to perform it. There’s this one off the second record, "This House Is a Circus" that feels like a bit of a staple. There’s this song – I guess it’s newer – it’s called "Evil Twin" that’s a B-side off one of the singles, and that’s felt really good live. I love the recording of it, but it gets a good reaction.
Are you trying to write while touring?
A bit. I don’t try to write on the road. I might try to this time, just for a change. Usually, I get home and I realize it’s bad, so I’ve not done it in the past. We’ve messed around in sound checks, but I’m not gonna meet a deadline, and it’s not like I need to write, though I want a head start for the next time around.
Lastly, if you don’t mind my asking – what the hell do you use for that hair?
(Laughs) We got a few tubes of grease bopping around backstage.
You propelled yourself off the drum kit two songs into your set and your hair didn’t even move.
It did come down a little bit, I think.