Arctic Monkeys Lean Towards Darker Rock On 'Humbug'
New York's heat and humidity are going through the roof as singer/guitarist Alex Turner and drummer Matt Helders hunker down to face the media at an Italian eatery in the heart of the Meatpacking District, but that's not about to stop them from ordering hot tea. No wonder Arctic Monkeys' label boss calls them "the coolest band in the world."
Once upon a time, such inquisitions made the band deeply uncomfortable, but today Turner in particular seems relaxed -- perhaps because he recently relocated to the city, while Helders, bassist Nick O'Malley and guitarist Jamie Cook still live in Sheffield, England.
The American influence looms large over the band's imminent third album. "Humbug" (Domino), which will be released Monday (Aug. 24) in the United Kingdom and a day later in the United States, was conceived in the Mojave Desert, Los Angeles and New York and precision-tooled for the road. Produced by Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme and longtime collaborator James Ford, it doesn't quite follow through on early reports that the band had "gone metal," but it's notably more robust.
"When we were first thinking about the album, we were gravitating more towards the rock side rather than the melodic pop side," Turner says. "But as we started working it out, we thought, 'This should be a little more diverse ... let's have a little bit of both.'"
Nonetheless, some of the typically British indie-isms -- the frantic guitars and Turner's kitchen-sink lyrics -- have been jettisoned in favour of a more universally appealing, darker rock sound. And, while the brilliant likes of the foot-stomping "Pretty Visitors," heartfelt crooner "Secret Door" and sinister lead single "Crying Lightning" make an instant impression, the album is notably light on the pop anthems that made the band such a phenomenon in the United Kingdom. There, 2006 debut "Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not" has sold 1.3 million copies, according to the Official Charts Co., while its 2007 follow-up, "Favourite Worst Nightmare," sold 708,000.
BOTH SIDES OF THE POND
The U.K. release of "Humbug" is tied to the band's August 28-29 headline slots at the Reading and Leeds festivals, giving fans an opportunity to hear the songs before they receive their first live airing on home soil. In the United States, the band already has played Lollapalooza and All Points West, with another string of dates kicking off September 14 in San Diego.
"The thing that's sealed the deal for them in the U.S. is their blistering live show," says Peter Berard, Brooklyn-based U.S. director of marketing for the U.K. indie Domino. "They went from playing (New York's) Mercury Lounge to Webster Hall inside a year -- that's something very special."
American record sales, however, have struggled to match that momentum. "Whatever" has sold 368,000 U.S. copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan, while "Nightmare" has sold 179,000.
"You could argue that we haven't spent a great deal of time here in terms of what you need to do to break through," Turner says with a shrug. "I don't know if it's something to do with the sound or that the words don't translate, but there's been enough people buying the records to warrant us coming."
But Berard has high hopes for the band's new sound, which he says "will play into the American audience better than 'Favourite Worst Nightmare.'" He cites the band's first Rolling Stone feature, good early reactions at modern rock and adult alternative album radio and its August 4 "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon" slot as evidence that the U.S. media tide is turning.
"Nightmare" was released with marketing and sales support from Warner Bros., but "Humbug" will be handled by Domino alone.
"We had a very good experience with Warner," says London-based Domino founder Laurence Bell. "The American marketplace has changed enormously in the last two years, though, and we feel very well equipped to take this album to the American marketplace ourselves."
With buzz around the record boosted by the band's July 30 transmission of a live performance featuring several new songs on its official Web site, Bell's confidence is sky-high.
"This record will establish them as one of the key modern rock bands of our time," he says. "At the end of the campaign they will be the coolest band in the world."