The four members of Arctic Monkeys
are standing in what seems like a giant shipping container somewhere on the outskirts of Maidstone. They travelled overnight on a tour bus from Wakefield and woke up this morning to find themselves in a sprawling studio complex in the middle of Kent, their bleary eyes blinking as they emerged into the daylight.
"As a band we spend lots of time in cramped conditions together," says bassist Nick O'Malley. "We know how not to step on each other's toes. We're all quite tidy young men. We try to not be the stereotype. Yeah, we want to be the world's most hygienic rock band."
Freshly pressed and smelling of shower gel, the band are here to film a segment for the BBC's Later…with Jools Holland
. Sharing the bill will be Sir Paul McCartney and our conversation is punctuated by the distant strains of the former Beatle rehearsing – the chords of Get Back reverberating around the corrugated metal walls.
No one seems to pay much attention to the fact that a musical legend is belting it out nearby (Arctic Monkeys
performed alongside McCartney at the London Olympics, so they're not especially starstruck). Instead, drummer Matt Helders, 27, is deep in conversation with his bandmates about a matter of extreme importance: Henderson's Relish.
"Do you know what Henderson's Relish is?" he asks me. I shake my head. "It's like Worcester sauce but a million times better."
In fact, Henderson's Relish is a particularly spicy condiment made in Sheffield, where Arctic Monkeys were born and raised in the suburb of High Green. These days, all four of them – frontman Alex Turner, Helders, O'Malley and guitarist Jamie Cook – live a short drive away from one another in Los Angeles with their girlfriends.
A city renowned for its glitz and superficiality, for its silicone and veneers, for its worship of celebrity and aspiration might not seem the obvious place for Arctic Monkeys to settle. This, after all, is a band whose breakthrough album, Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not
(the fastest-selling debut in UK history), combined irony with anthemic rock and a street-smart savviness that brought phrases such as "mardy bum
" crashing into the mainstream. Three more bestselling albums followed – Favourite Worst Nightmare
(2009) and Suck It and See
The band are renowned for their no-nonsense approach and laconic humour. Their early interviews were monosyllabic to the point of churlishness – a consequence of the fact that they have never liked talking about themselves. There is, running through all of their music and much of their attitude, a quintessential seam of Britishness. It's hard to imagine how that would go down in Hollywood.
But it turns out that in spite of a certain gloss in their tailoring and appearance, and the obligatory photogenic girlfriends (Turner is dating the American actress and model Arielle Vandenberg
after a well-publicised split from his long-term girlfriend, the TV presenter Alexa Chung, in 2011. Cook and Helders are also engaged to models), Arctic Monkeys remain reassuringly un-LA. Hence the chitchat about Henderson's Relish: every time Helders goes back to Sheffield, he packs four bottles of it in his suitcase to keep him going. "Bit of bubble wrap, then put them in a sock," he says.
None of them has gone on a Hollywood-style macrobiotic diet. They don't approve of tofu.
"It doesn't taste of anything," protests the 27-year-old Turner, the carefully coiffed curl at the front of his quiff shaking slightly with agitation.
"I've heard it gives you man boobs," says O'Malley, 28, deadpan. "Now whether that's a rumour started by the meat industry, I don't know, but I'm not taking the chance."
Cook, 28, admits the first time he went to Los Angeles he thought "it was a dump". These days, he mainly likes the weather.
What is the most LA thing any of them has ever done? There is a long pause.
"A wheatgrass shot," says Helders.
If there is an LA influence, it is most keenly felt in the content of their new album, AM
. Turner says this, the band's fifth, is about taking "the architecture of hip-hop or contemporary R&B…[and] applying that to a four-piece rock'n'roll band". He pauses. "A more colourful way of explaining that is to say it's like the Spiders from Mars [David Bowie's backing band] covering Aaliyah or Dr Dre."
The result is a triumph. AM, with its mixture of thumping bass notes, intricate vocal layering and fabulously acute wordsmithery, has prompted a clamour of critical gushing. It went straight to the top of the charts and is currently the UK's second fastest-selling album of 2013.NME gave it a headline-grabbing 10 out of 10 and proclaimed AM to be "absolutely and unarguably the most incredible album of their career. It might also be the greatest record of the last decade." Mojo declared thatAM had "no weak points, only mood shifts".
The consensus is that this marks Arctic Monkeys at the peak of their powers. On the day that we meet, the second single from AM, Do I Wanna Know?, wins a Q award for best track. At this week's Mercury prize, they have been nominated for a third time (they won it in 2006 for their first album). It is an extraordinary feat for a band still in comparative infancy – Turner et al were teenagers when they burst on to the music scene eight years ago, buoyed by internet groundswell and substantial word-of-mouth hype garnered from local gigging.
The past 10 years have been frenetic and somewhat dream-like: from playing football together on the streets where they grew up to sell-out tours, celebrity girlfriends and the Pyramid stage at Glastonbury. Cook says he still can't believe Danny Boyle asked the band to play at the Olympics opening ceremony.
"That was surreal," he says, shaking his head. "I still haven't watched any of it. My dad bought me the box set and it's still in its package on the shelf at home. It was just crazy. There were doves cycling!... It was just that mad – the whole thing. I kind of didn't register till days later."
Talking to Turner, I start to ask the obvious question: has fame...
"Has it got in the way?" he interjects. "Not really, no. Especially being over in the US. I guess we enjoy a certain level of anonymity that some days allows you to be..." He chooses his next words with care, settling eventually on "incognisant of the fact that people know who you are."
Turner is frequently hailed as the most brilliant lyricist of his generation – the heir to Dylan, Lennon or Cohen – and it is certainly true that he is careful with words. More than any other person I've ever interviewed, Turner is so profoundly aware of the need to express himself with precision that it occasionally seems to leave him vocally hamstrung. He stops himself, retraces his steps, leaves long gaps while searching for exactly the right metaphor.
"It's why I don't have Twitter," he says. "Too much pressure."
At one point, he interrupts his own disquisition on the merits of playing darts with: "Fuck it. I'm not going to bother with that. You don't want to hear that analogy."
This would be frustrating were Turner not also charming. He is aware of this charm and deploys it to great effect: pulling his chair so close that our legs are almost touching, using my first name at opportune moments. He has that combination of total self-assuredness and a rather touching twentysomething anxiety that he is not quite impressive enough. Scratch the surface and lurking beneath there is still a soulful schoolboy daydreaming in double maths.
He says he likes to read. What kind of books – fiction?
"Wait a minute... yeah. I always get fiction and nonfiction mixed up. Like 'objective' and 'subjective'." He leaves a perfectly timed beat of silence. "Because nobody's perfect."
What's he reading at the moment?
Oh, I say. According to your newspaper cuttings, you were reading that same book over a month ago. He grins.
He says Gabriel García Márquez's magical realism has influenced some of the material on AM. The album's fourth track, Arabella, has a surrealist quality akin to Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds (sample lyric: "Her lips are like the galaxy's edge/And a kiss the colour of a constellation falling into place"). Turner compares the new songs to "an Escher staircase": that sense of living within something that can't be immediately understood, an endless fantasy experienced at a slight remove.
"A lot of tunes on there describe scenarios that sometimes feel like a surrealist painting. I remember it from when we first started: going out, winding up at a club and it didn't seem to make sense. It felt like a never-ending staircase."
Either that, or he was drunk.
But Turner sees songwriting as a craft. "I do just want to be better than anybody else," he says. "I would say there's a certain refinement process. A lot of the time, I think, there's almost a notion with some songwriters that if it didn't come to you in 30 seconds on the back of a cigarette packet, then it's not a good idea – which I disagree with.
"While you do get those rays of light, it isn't always like that and I think I'm no longer afraid to spend months on a second verse."
He has noticed recently that he is "turning inward" for inspiration and compares the process to a standup who works through all the obvious jokes prompted by external visual gags and then, finally, "you've run out of things to look and point at". Instead, he explains, you're forced to turn your attention to the dark places that lie within.
Turner catches himself sounding serious and shakes off the notion. "But that's really under the microscope. It's not as if I don't want people to just dance to it as well."
Whatever angst might go into the writing, there is no doubt that Arctic Monkeys also know how to put together a tub-thumping crowd-pleaser. When they were starting out, their material was fuelled by their own preoccupations: teenage lust, getting that elusive girl to fancy you, hanging out with your mates. Their relatability was key to their appeal – as was the authenticity engendered by being lifelong friends.
"I guess where we'd come from, the fact we were a group of friends a long time before we were a rock'n'roll band, that [authenticity] was kind of built-in," says Turner. "When the first album came out it was and still is the antithesis of pop stars off television shows."
As if to prove his point, Arctic Monkeys' second single, When the Sun Goes Down, went straight to No 1 in January 2006, unseating the previous month's X Factor winner, Shayne Ward.
"Did it?" says Turner. "That said, however, I'm not sure I ever really got that aggravated by ideas like Pop Idol. It feels like there's always been that thing, one way or the other. I guess it expands and contracts with the fashions." He stops. "That was just a footnote." A short reassessment. "A cautious footnote."
But I wonder if their original fans feel alienated when they see Arctic Monkeys upping sticks to live in LA with their actress/model girlfriends and their big, gleaming motorbikes (Turner, Cook and Helders have all recently bought bikes)?
'The best songs are love songs, aren't they?': Arctic Monkeys frontman Alex Turner. Photograph: Phil Fisk for the Observer
"Yeah, I think they probably do," concedes Helders. "And I probably would have thought the same of a band I liked if they did that. But then a lot of people have said: 'Well, why not?' I don't think it's hindered us."
"It's sort of up to us [where we live], isn't it?" says Turner. And besides, he insists, he's still writing about the same old things: love, lust and the landscape in between.
"I don't really know how to write about anything else," he sighs. "I wouldn't want to either. That's where I flourish... I think the best songs are love songs really, aren't they?"
Although they would rather sticks pins in their eyes than admit it, it is arguably the love that exists between the bandmates that is most creatively sustaining for all of them. They attribute at least part of AM's success to the fact that they were all living in the same place again for the first time in years. The band holed up in a windowless studio in east Hollywood and worked there every day for the best part of a year – the final touches were only added in July.
According to James Ford, the album's co-producer: "That studio was so important to them – to have their own space to experiment and fuck around in was great."
The way the four of them communicate is, says Helders, "almost telepathic. A lot of it is unwritten, unspoken. You know what each other is into and you don't need to go through certain steps to establish things."
They have known one another since they were seven years old. The original bassist, Andy Nicholson, was also from Sheffield. But Nicholson disliked the sudden attention that came with a hit record and left the band in 2006, to be replaced by childhood friend O'Malley.
All of them come from similar backgrounds – O'Malley's father was a steelworker, Helders's mother is a nurse, Cook's father is an engineercorrect (his mother works with special needs children), and Turner is the product of a German teacher mother and a father who taught physics and music.
As children they played together on the streets near where they lived, sat next to one another in class, passed around albums they liked – they all remember Dr Dre
being a seminal influence when they were in their early teens. Turner recalls listening to his mother's favourite music when she was driving and he was in the back of the car – Bowie, Led Zeppelin and Jackson Browne. His father played the saxophone and was more into jazz.
When the four friends decided to set up a band, they practised in Mr and Mrs Turner's garage (and were thrown out once for being too loud). They didn't have a clear plan of where they wanted to go – and, indeed, none of them played an instrument at first – but they knew, says Turner, "what we didn't want to be", which was a naff American soft-rock band singing about private jets and platinum credit cards.
When I ask what their families thought of their sons turning their backs on jobs or higher education to see if they could make it in the music industry, everyone says they were supportive. After recording a series of demos and gigging across the north of England, they began to get local radio airplay. By 2005, Arctic Monkeys were playing on the Carling stage at the Reading and Leeds festivals. That June, they signed to the independent label Domino and have never looked back. They say their parents remain "proud".
But Arctic Monkeys are not big on self-analysis and further questioning down this line proves fairly fruitless. Turner still stays with his parents when he goes back to Sheffield. Is his childhood bedroom the same as it used to be?
In what way?
"They're turning it into a museum," he says drily. "It's going to be like Graceland."
When they first started giving interviews to the media, they gained a reputation for extreme reticence verging on arrogance. In truth, those who know them well say they were simply teenage lads who found the idea of baring their souls in public toe-curlingly embarrassing.
According to Anton Brookes, the publicist who has been with them since the beginning, their early press photos "were like they'd been captured on CCTV committing a crime and the accompanying interview would be like the statement they'd given to the police".
Has it got any easier, I ask O'Malley.
"I suppose it has a little bit. In the early days, when we were getting asked questions, we were 18 or 19 and you don't even talk that much to your friends. With lads it's, 'All right?' 'Yeah.' There's lots of very basic grunting.
"Now, once you get older, it gets a little bit easier. We've all developed our conversational skills."
Still, introspection is not really their thing.
"I try not to think about fame," admits Cook. "It messes with your head a bit."
Does he ever feel unsettled by the scale of their success?
"Yeah," Cook says. "There are things that really hit you now and then. We did a festival in Mexico and we were at the airport and it was like Beatlemania. Strange stuff like that does freak me out [because] I'd never do that. I love music and bands but I can't understand going to the airport to see them."
Later, as they pose for photographs, Arctic Monkeys keep up a steady stream of banter. Helders has changed out of a T-shirt advertising a local LA waffle house into an eye-poppingly bright red and yellow cowboy shirt, and his choice of clothing causes much mirth among the others. There is further ribbing when Turner is asked to stand on a block to even out the height differences between them.
In spite of the fame, the album sales, the critical acclaim and the LA life, they are still those same four teenage boys taking the piss out of one another and doodling on their exercise books. Their friendship has survived and, with it, their sense of place and belonging.
On the inside of his left arm, Turner has a tattoo: a black outline of a Yorkshire rose with "Sheffield" inked out in capital letters underneath. He got it two years ago.
Was he homesick at the time?
"Not especially, no," he says, looking at it. "It's essentially vanity. It's just quite conceited: you want your arm to look a bit cooler."
He's teasing, I think. But sometimes it's hard to tell.