Driving from Los Angeles out to the Joshua Tree desert, the Arctic Monkeys felt a change happening: They were about to enter uncharted territory, the mythic landscape that inspired Jim Morrison and Gram Parsons. "We didn't talk much on the drive, we just listened to mix-tapes we made for each other," says Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme, who grew up nearby and was tapped to produce the Monkeys' third record, Humbug. "I felt like I was their guide to the Amazon: They came to me: 'Will you take us to the weird and the strange?'"
Their previous two LPs were both recorded in England, in proximity to the working-class surroundings that inspired scrappy early hits like "I Bet You Look Good on the Dance Floor." Recording at Rancho de la Luna - a studio in a stucco house in the tiny town of Joshua Tree - helped the school friends tap into a whole new vibe. Humbug is the Monkeys' heaviest and trippiest album, augmenting their loose-limbed punk ferocity with a psychedelic ambiance built by reverb-drenched guitars and haunted-house organ parts. "Joshua Tree was different from any situation we'd ever been in before, so we felt like, 'We can do anything,'" says singer and guitarist Alex Turner, over a pint in the backyard of a pub in Brooklyn, where he relocated this past spring with his girlfriend, MTV host Alexa Chung. "I think it surprised us how much we were like, 'Wow, this is a special place."
Between takes, the Monkeys would fire off air rifles on the studio porch or go for a beer in Pioneertown, a Wild West movie set built in the 1940s. "Inside, the people look like they would be in a saloon - modern cowboys and bikers," says drummer Matt Helders. Homme even took them on a field trip to the Integratron, an acoustically balanced wooden dome structure believed to help balance chakras.
"When the band started, we didn't want to let anyone in - for fear it would change things, and it wouldn't be us anymore," says Turner, dressed in a T-shirt and jeans. "And we did our second record dead quick, because there was this desire to shed our skin and demonstrate that we had more up our sleeve. But with this one, we were prepared to put a bit more consideration into it. For the first time, this thing really feels like we're not catching up with ourselves."
In the U.K., the Monkeys - Turner, Helders, guitarist Jamie Cook and bassist Nick O'Malley - are popular enough that Prime Minister Gordon Brown once name-checked them to appear hip. The hype preceding their 2006 debut, Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not, sold more than 350,000 copies in its first week, besting Oasis' record as the fastest-selling debut album in U.K. music history. At the time, Turner and his bandmates were still teens living at home with their parents. Before they'd had time to figure out their identity, they were being touted as the most important new British rock band in a decade, praised for Turner's artfully phrased narratives about the banality of English youth culture - the booze and brawls and birds that make one night blend into another.
Turner, now 23, seems relieved to have moved into a new stage in his life. "I think I'm getting to the age where I can finally have a laugh with me parents," the singer says. His folks - Mom, Penny, teaches German; Dad, David, a music teacher - visited New York the previous weekend, and Turner seems genuinely surprised to have had such a pleasant time showing them around the city. Turner insists the paparazzi aren't too much of a problem back home in London, but he's rarely smiling when they snap him and Chung out shopping together. Here - living in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn - Turner has an easier time blending in. "I've always been quite shy," the singer says. "In the first couple of years in the band, I got a lot more confident and kind of tricked me'self into thinking I don't mind being the center of attention. But as time went on, I realized I really am a quiet kid."
Backstage at New Jersey's All Points West festival, where the Monkeys are headlining for tens of thousands of fans, the band relieves its pre-show jitters by tossing around a red football emblazoned with an Arctic Monkeys logo. "We're going to try some new things today," Turner notes before heading onstage. And with the downtown Manhattan skyline facing them, the Monkeys throttle full-force into the psychedelic stomp of a new tune called "Pretty Visitors," whose low-end sludge is as thick as the mud in the festival's rain-soaked field. They pepper their set with Humbug tunes like "Crying Lightning," with its shape-shifting tempo and monolithic guitar rill, and the poetic ballad "Cornerstone," where Turner beseeches a young lady who reminds him of an ex, "Please, can I call you her name?" He's the same incisive observer who penned "I Bet You Look Good on the Dance Floor," but the attitude is more mature, and less defensive.
Lately Turner has been thinking about the name "Arctic Monkeys" - the band chose it before deciding who would play what - and how it didn't fit the group nearly as well then as it does now. "The name really doesn't suit our debut," he explains. "Before we got signed, being as cantankerous as we were at that point, whenever someone was like, 'I don't know about this name, guys,' we were like, 'Fuck that! This is our thing, and we're not going to change for anybody.' But through getting older, everyone changes. So the cynicism isn't frothing as much anymore. That's the wrong way 'round, probably, isn't it?"