Nick O'Malley of Arctic Monkeys on measuring your success by your grandparents' reaction
The gradual shift in musical sensibility for Arctic Monkeys (due at 1STBANK Center with the Black Keys on Monday and Tuesday) can be traced through the guys' aesthetic: They wear sunglasses a lot now. They wear them in music videos and on stage, and sometimes when it's not really sunny enough to merit protecting their corneas. As their urban grit has widened into blatant, raucous rock and roll, boots have slowly replaced sneakers. They wear black now, and their pants are tighter. So are their riffs and rhythms, if not, perhaps, their accents. As bassist Nick O'Malley mentions below, the world has grown a lot larger than Sheffield in the past six years.
Since their 2006 debut, Arctic Monkeys have consistently chronicled the peaks and puddles of youth culture -- and they seem now to finally be enjoying it. Four albums into a career spent as troubadours for the quarter-life troubled, the guys returned recently to the jarring, hyper guitar and unflinching sentimentality of their origin story with "R U Mine?" -- a single without a cause (or an album). We recently caught up with O'Malley in between bouts of Ping-Pong as the Sheffield foursome launches the second leg of its tour supporting the Black Keys.
Westword: Let's start off with a fun one: What is one thing the band has done right in the past year, and one thing you guys have done wrong?
Nick O'Malley: Wow, that's a big one. I suppose right is that we've sort of kept playing what songs we wanted to play. There are a lot of songs people keep wanting us to play from the first album, and they want us to just keep playing them over and over, but we have to grow. We want to move on and play B-sides and new material. A lot of people seem to appreciate that, but there are obviously other people who just want us to play the hits again and again. We're moving on.
And I'm not sure it's in the past year, but in the past, we used to turn a lot of stuff down because we were sort of new to it and really worried about overexposing ourselves. We would do hardly any interviews and never let our songs get played on HBO shows or in movies. But now we're more open to that, and we know that playing your song on TV doesn't mean you've sold out.
What's your least favorite song to play live? Based on that first part, I'd guess something like "Mardy Bum."
Yeah, that's one of those songs that people keep asking us to play. For the current set, we really enjoy playing them all, but we made it that way. We all feel like we've all moved on and are a little bit older. That's a song that was written when we were eighteen years old, and it's weird and doesn't feel relevant anymore. We've grown up, and we're not the same people, and we've written new songs about where we are now. I don't know that we'd do anything completely different, but I'd say (we're) open to new ideas. When we were eighteen, we were so closed in our new circle, and if anyone suggested things, we'd think they were crazy. There's a bigger world out there than Sheffield and Yorkshire.
On this tour, you're paired with the Black Keys as support. What is the relationship between the two bands like?
We just started the second leg of the tour yesterday. They're both really nice guys and sort of pleasant, not your stereotypical, loud, in-your-face rock stars like most people would imagine. There just sort of normal, quite friendly guys. We get along and visit each other's dressing rooms. We've been playing Ping-Pong and some soccer and that sort.
How is the internal dynamic different on a supporting tour, as opposed to headlining your own gigs?
Every night, it's a challenge to win the crowd over. You only have an hour to make everyone think, "They were good, whatever they were called. I like that band." Obviously, there are some people who know who we are and were already fans of ours. There's a lot of crossover, and the Black Keys are not a hundred miles away from us musically. It's really interesting to walk out and see people who are obviously like, "Oh, it's that band," and then by the time we finish, they actually care and liked us.
Since the band started, each album comes with a sound that's progressively less sharply urban and perhaps more rock 'n' Western. The thing you said about crossover between you and the Black Keys -- maybe there would have been less a few years ago. Where did that influence come from: age, maturity, touring?
I think it's a combination of all of those things, really. We've been spending more and more time touring in America every tour, but we're also getting older and listening to more music. When we were younger, we only listened to a handful of things. I still don't think we sound particularly more American and everything, but we've opened up a lot in ways that we were closed off before. We just get out there a lot more.
If you had to measure the band's current level of success, what benchmark would you use?
I suppose it's when your grandparents have heard of you. For example, my grandma loves Adele. If she's heard about it, that's the benchmark for me.
And what does she think about the band?
She likes it, obviously, but she's biased. My grandda -- or grandfather, or whatever you say -- he just thinks we're noise. Just a big bunch of noise. He's come to a few shows and all of that, but he's not as biased. Today, obviously, album sales are still a big thing, but people can download things and it doesn't count toward the chart these days. I guess you sort of know [when you're big], don't you? It's when you're in demand a lot. We just played South America, and it were crazy. You just want to have a lot of fans demanding that you come and play. That's how you really know.
If you could borrow any band's career trajectory, which would you choose?
I really like the way Radiohead have done things. They've really done well in America in a good way. It's difficult not to go straight toward these massive, legendary bands, but it would make me feel a bit weird saying that. There are these bands like Flaming Lips, though, that have done well without compromise, and I think we'd like to be at that level.
With the band's videos, most feature Alex [Turner, lead singer] or Matt [Helders, drummer] in slightly silly or dramatic roles. What would it take to get you on camera as the star of one?
Matt's always the one who's best on camera. He could have a great acting career. I've never been that comfortable on camera, so if I had to do something, it would probably be wearing some sort of disguise. Me and Jamie are both sort of camera-shy, and we avoid it if at all possible. I'd need covering.
How does the band come up with its song titles -- things like "Don't Sit Down, 'Cause I've Moved Your Chair"?
That always used to be a thing at school, where someone would move someone's chair right before they sat down. Most songs just come from inside jokes or something personal for Alex while he's writing it. We've only got a couple of idea songs right now, and they're quite serious. No silly song titles yet, but there will be. We just did one called "R U Mine?" [the band's latest single], and we thought about saving it for a new record, but we thought that we were doing this tour with the Black Keys and thought, "Why not just release it and have something new to play on tour?"
After that, we're going to have a rest and get some new songs together, and I'm really looking forward to that. We were already really excited after "R U Mine?," because the riff and melody of that is something we've not really done for a while. It's not even on any album, but it's the song fans are getting the most excited about at the moment. We'd love to create more songs like that at the moment.
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