Their local popularity arrived almost instantly, but it took them a while to realize the possibilities. "I was 16," says Helders. "I probably still wanted to be a fireman and an astronaut." Adds Turner, "This is so British, but the ambition in the first place was to kind of get to the end of the song in the garage. Then, when it became time to play a show for the first time, it was a massive deal. But something changed, and it was like, 'Oh, fuck. This is what we could do.' Then it pretty quickly became like, 'This is what we're gonna do, and we are gonna do Glastonbury.'"
But they were cautious in the States, sticking to their indie label, Domino, and refusing to do the kind of radio (and sometimes press) promotion that might have helped them truly break into the mainstream: not even "Hi, I'm Matt from Arctic Monkeys"-style station IDs. "We couldn't even have told you why at the time," says Helders, sitting in the lobby of their Chicago hotel the following week. "Just stubborn teenage thinking."
"But we were teenagers then," interjects Cook. "Maybe we would have won a Grammy by now if we hadn't been so stubborn," says Helders. "But no regret."
On top of that, instead of touring the States relentlessly for their first album, they chose to go home and make a new one, 2007's Favourite Worst Nightmare – which, despite some great songs ("Fluorescent Adolescent"), was a not-quite-as-good echo of their first. Turner knew it, too, and felt his chronicles-of-street-life lyrical approach had to face early retirement. "I sort of cracked the chip-shop rock & roll record of the century, like on the first go," he says with a smile. "And not to kind of make comparisons with legends, but it's like the fucking Bowie thing, isn't it? You do it, it's great, and people are into it, but then you've gotta move forward."
They hit the reset button in Joshua Tree, California, 5,000 miles from home, where they recorded Humbug with Homme – a darker, weirder, heavier album that, in its moodier moments, now sounds like the doorway to AM. Homme says he didn't have to do much: He simply let the weirdness of their darker, heavier demos shine. "Alex is a smart, funny, witty, dangerous and cautious person simultaneously," says Homme, who was blown away by Turner's habit of never writing down his lyrics, Jay Z-style. "It's not easy to get him ruffled. He's got a razor-sharp wit. He has a firm sense of self. If you don't have that sense, you're easily knocked around."
"Can we get some tunes?" The Arctic Monkeys are crammed clown-car-style into a gray van cruising along Lake Michigan toward a downtown theater, and Turner has tired, for a moment, of discussing the intricacies of Breaking Bad. The band's tour manager finds a classic-rock station playing "Life in the Fast Lane," and Turner quickly begins singing along – he somehow knows every word. "That's a great line," he says, when Don Henley gets to the "terminally pretty" bit.
All of the bandmates have been living in L.A. on and off for a year, and they recorded AM in their own Hollywood studio space. But Turner's unexpected Eagles fandom has nothing to do with geography. "I got all that stuff from my mother," he says backstage at the Chicago venue, standing under exposed pipes in his fancy leather. "My mother saw Led Zeppelin in Germany, which is a pretty good credential for a mother!"
He looks around at the venue, which is highly familiar. "You know, we were talking about the band's trajectory," he says, "and here we are in a theater we've played five times already." He pauses and smiles. "But they'll scream louder tonight."
This story is from the October 24th, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.
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