Arctic Monkeys Drummer Matt Helders on Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino and Drumming with Restraint

Interviews
10/23/2018
Dusty Henry
photo by Zackery Michael
Transcription by Molly Wyman

Arctic Monkeys have never been a band that shied away from reinvention. Listening to the band’s 2006 debut album Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not propelled the band into stardom with sensational grooves, undeniably catchy guitar riffs, and sharply-written songs like “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor” or “You Probably Couldn’t See For The Lights But You Were Staring Straight At Me.” Since then, they’ve become rock icons in themselves, continuing to grow their sound like the desert-dazed Suck It And See and the rapturous AM. The band’s latest LP, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino is the band’s sharpest turn yet. While they’ve constantly mutated their sound, there was always a furious energy ready to creep out at any moment. Tranquility Base skirts tradition, mixing the aesthetics of martini bar at last call with deep web science-fiction.

At first glance, it’s the Arctic Monkeys’ most obtuse and peculiar record yet. Lead vocalist Alex Turner takes center stage with rambling soliloquies that include asides like “Rocket-ship grease down the cracks of my knuckles/Karate bandana, warp speed chic” and “Pull me in close on a crisp eve, baby/Kiss me underneath the moon's side boob.” The band’s most thunderous and musically manic moments are put aside to support the confounding yet entrancing lyricism, instead opting for pulled back yet intricate arrangements. It’s an exercise in restraint, as drummer Matt Helders tells KEXP. In these quieter moments, we get to hear the band at their most subtle and refined. It’s a process that Helders refers to as “serving the song,” giving an arrangement that fulfills the needs of the track before any individual musician’s impulses.

In talking with Helders, we slightly pull back the veil on the mysterious and intoxicating Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, while also delving into Helders’ own experiences playing with Iggy Pop on the Post Pop Depression album and tour, working with Lady Gaga, as well as his solo pursuits and photography. Read the interview below to get yourself prepared for the Arctic Monkeys set tonight at WaMu Theater in Seattle, Wash.

 

KEXP: I'm curious about the new album, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino. The story goes that Alex Turner wrote the songs on the piano, and you guys started flushing them out from there. When you first heard these demos what were you thinking and envisioning from a drummer's perspective?

Matt Helders: Well, for maybe the first time I thought that it's not really quite important that I go there and do the maddest thing I can do or the craziest thing I can do, which, for a long time, I thought that was where the importance was. I mean, I do put pressure on myself to do something original, but in the past, we've sometimes written songs around the drum beat, and that's come first, and then we've written a riff to the drums. This time it was about playing something tasteful and a good groove for the songs that suited the style. I think restraint is a difficult thing for drummers that I've felt in the past. I think it's good when you leave something out. There's plenty of spaces where I could have done something mad, but it would've kind of distracted from the music.

It's really interesting because it's definitely a sonic departure for the band, just a lot of jazzier, lounge, psych and glam tones. It does seem like the drums carry a lot of that feeling in it too. Were there any drummers that you were looking to for inspiration or any particular sounds that you had in mind? I know that you mentioned restraint, but was there any sort of vibe that you were trying to lock into yourself?

I don't know if there's any one person in particular. I mean, I find it's really difficult making a record and trying not to sound just like one other person. Influences are important, obviously, and what you take from them is important. I listen to a lot of, in terms of drummers, my favorite drummers are, like, John Bonham, but also Buddy Rich, even though I don't necessarily play like either of them. I think it definitely seeps into my playing. I suppose this was more in the world of Buddy Rich and playing more jazzier things, but I liked that it was a rock drummer playing jazzier beats rather than just a jazz drummer playing these songs. I think that made a difference.

When you first heard the songs, did you guys talk about the vision you had when you were hearing the demos and talking it through? How did you guys all get on the same page?

Well, I think early on me and Alex still lived sort of close to each other, and I'd go 'round to his house a little bit. He already had some demos that he'd done, and he'd played drums on some of them while he was getting the sound together. Then I'd go and record a little bit at his house on the tape machine, and we all kind of went individually in many ways until we got together to actually record the demo stages. I don't think we recorded all at once, necessarily, until we were doing actual takes. So we sort of all heard it at different stages. So that was quite cool.

Did you guys talk thematically at all? It's such a different style, and the lyrics are very sprawling and there's a lot of different ideas being talked about. Did you guys connect at all on that, or did you focus on your individual parts?

Well, I think, for me, it was already quite clear that it was going to be like that. I think for Alex, too, there were certain moments where there was a song where it was kind of, “Okay, maybe this was, like, more of a concept than what we originally thought.” And that's sort of what always happens. We go in with one idea, and we just have to be open to the fact that it's probably going to end up completely different or there'll be a moment when it might turn, and you just kinda know what you're doing now. And with that, I suppose, he was right in that there were certain songs that sounded like they were this idea of science fiction mimicking real life and using science fiction to tell stories about things that are happening in real life. That idea just latched in throughout the record. I suppose it was discussed, yeah.

 

You mentioned playing for the songs and using restraint. How did you keep it interesting for yourself because it is a more restrained style than you usually play? It seems like there's really some intricacies and subtleties to your playing that really serve the record well.

Well, yeah. I think it was more like the challenge for me was the subtleties of it, and that sort of comes across more live now, I suppose, because there's always bits where I change it slightly live. None of it, stylistically, is different live, it's just little fills and little moments where it just comes from playing them a lot more. In the studio, it was more about really getting good musical takes and there being really subtle differences between takes where the average listener might not even notice. We were all recording together as a full band, and it was like those little things make a big difference. And, again, it could be something like a little ghost note or a roll on the drums, and it's just attention to detail, I think.

I was reading about how there was a moment that you helped inspire the naming of the taqueria [in "Four Out of Five"] as the Information-Action Ratio. Alex mentioned in an interview that you guys were recording backing vocals and that kind of helped inspire the name. Can you talk a little bit about the story behind that?

I remember because those vocals were done, and the vocals we did as the demo lasted on the record and remained on the record. They were the ones that we did in his room at home, and we just sort of transferred them from tape to tape because we got good versions of them. So it's just me and him singing the backing vocals, and I think when we were doing them not all of those parts had been decided on yet. Usually, how that works for us, is if we can't make a decision but it's written there would be a few options. We just, sort of, open it up to everybody to help decide. And it was probably a case of that and also, because of the way we were singing, it was knowing what fits best in terms of the number of syllables. From memory, I reckon it was more of helping make the choice between a couple of different options or a few different options on lines.

Do you guys often have those sort of deliberations with vocal phrasing and things like that in the music?

Yeah, I mean there are times when it's not going to end until he's actually recording it and singing it, and then even in the vocal booth it's kinda like, “Does that sound better or does this sound better?” It will be between us and the producer, and we can come up with a decision. Suggestions are welcome, and that works out well then.

 

So, outside of Arctic Monkeys, you recently made a record and toured with Iggy Pop, and you played on the last Lady Gaga record. How does working with other artists outside of your primary band inform you musically? Were there any big takeaways from venturing to other projects?

I mean, I've never really done that until the Iggy thing, and that was, obviously, quite a big one to do for the first venturing out outside of the band. I think, any time you make another record, it's just another load of experience dumped on you, and it's probably not always clear at the time what I'm taking from it. Then, afterward, I sort of look back and a lot of that stuff I was there because we were there for the whole writing process and everything, and it was just good to see how other people write music. Even if there are no specifics I can think of, it's in there now, like the way we worked together and even how we toured. I was touring with people that have been touring at least 20 years by that point and everybody on there was quite a bit more experienced than me in many ways, and that was cool. It feels like the phrase "steel sharpens steel," and I always relate to that. Like when you play ping pong against someone who's really good at ping pong, you sort of get better at it, and I felt like that when I was working with Iggy and Josh and Dean and all the other guys. That sort of led to the Lady Gaga thing, and she was involved in that with Mark Ronson. That was more like a hired gun thing where they needed a drummer, and I was around. That was a really fun thing to do as well. Like, a completely different experience than Arctic Monkeys or Iggy Pop, but it was still me playing drums and that's, you know, rarely a bad thing for me.

It's interesting how between the Iggy record, the Gaga record and the new Arctic Monkeys record, you've been able to stretch yourself in a lot of different ways in a fairly short period of time. It's cool to see you adapt.

Yeah, it all kind of came at once.

Aside from drumming, you are also into photography. Can you tell me how that came about and if you feel like having an artistic outlet like that helps you in your craft of drumming and music?

Yeah, I mean, photography is something that sort of precedes the drumming in a way. I did it at school, and before I started playing drums it was like a hobby. So, I did that, and I DJ'd with vinyl and that kind of came before the drums and then the drums sort of took over my life, but photography kind of remained there because I was presented with opportunities to travel and take photographs of different places every day and different people. Photographing the band is sort of second nature, and I've always got a camera with me. I suppose I just got more and more into it. As an outlet, yeah, I think I just enjoy the process. For me, it's like, because I only shoot film, really, it's quite a slow, thought out process where a lot of other things in my life are quite spontaneous and, like, rushed in a way. This is something, also, that's good to do on a day off when I'm in a new city. I just walk around and take some pictures. Nothing might come of it, but that's not really why I do it. The results are important, but the process for me is quite a big part of it. The fact that you're committing something to history, even though it might be nothing. It might be a picture of a fire hydrant, but it only exists because I just pressed the button on the thing.

With all these different projects you've been working on and different styles and everything, what would you like to try next? Are there any dream collaborations that you'd love to make happen?

I suppose I've always toyed with the idea of doing something on my own or with somebody but, like, more of my thing. I've sort of got a little studio set up at home now that, when I’m there, I can commit some time to. That’s basically old drum machines and synthesizers – a bit more electronic and a bit more like soundtrack-y, like a John Carpenter kind of thing. There isn't really a goal for what it will be yet. I'm just trying to drop in the tools in case. Whether it's a score or a record or what. I'm just kind of enjoying it as a hobby and when that leads to something I think that feels a bit better for me when it's, like, just something I wanted to do and have interest in. Then maybe it becomes something, and maybe it doesn't. But, yeah, there's less drumming involved with that, which is quite nice I'm in that role. I'm just stepping back a bit and playing with some old machines. It's more chaotic in a way. Collaboration-wise I'm just, like, open to suggestions [laughs]. If it sounds like fun I'll, you know, consider it.

How has it been playing the new Arctic Monkeys songs live?

It's been great. We sort of changed the set quite a bit just 'cause we've got more to choose from now, but it's good seeing how the new ones fit within the set, and where it’s best to play them. Some old ones have come back because it just seems to make sense like that sometimes. It's just been a lot of fun. It's fun to try and achieve the sound that the record's got live, and it required, like, adding a couple of people. Sometimes there's like six or seven people onstage, but I think it's worth it to represent the record.


Revisit Arctic Monkeys' 2011 in-studio performance on KEXP below.

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