They had the fastest-selling debut album in UK history. But with their strong northern accents and Frank Spencer references, how will America take to the Arctic Monkeys. Alexis Petridis boards their tour bus in New York to find out.
The Spotted Pig has a fair claim to be called the hippest restaurant in Manhattan. A kind of upmarket gastropub, it has a Michelin star and rave reviews - its low-carb alternative to gnocchi is apparently to die for - but the food is overshadowed by its celebrity connections. Beyoncé eats here. Liv Tyler pops in for lunch. One of the owners used to manage The Smiths, the head chef came recommended by Jamie Oliver, and its investors are rumoured to include everyone from Bono to Fatboy Slim. It's so hip that the New York Times sent a writer to review not the food but the background music. "They played Air, a French pop group," he noted approvingly, "before segueing into a homage to Apple Records, then some reggae dubs."
Tonight, however, Helders will be spared the hell of an offal-based starter. The Spotted Pig is hosting a party in honour of Coldplay, who played an arena in New Jersey earlier this evening, and the Arctic Monkeys have been invited. Bassist Andy Nicholson has cried off, pleading fatigue - "I find that sort of thing reet awkward, so I stopped in bed," he says the following day - but Helders, guitarist Jamie Cook and frontman Alex Turner dutifully mount the stairs to the restaurant's first-floor bar. It turns out to be both tiny and comically overloaded with celebrities.
Jay-Z arrives in a chauffeur-driven vintage Rolls-Royce. He is followed, in short order, by Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow - who get a round of applause on entry - the rest of Coldplay and Moby.Then there is Michael Stipe, who will later request an audience with Turner, and Courtney Love, who will later attempt to engage in conversation Turner's partner Johanna, before one of the band's road crew sharply intervenes, on the harsh grounds that "after what happened to Nirvana, you don't really want Courtney Love talking to your lead singer's girlfriend".
But all of this counts for little with the Arctic Monkeys' 19-year-old drummer, Matt Helders. He emerges from his taxi and regards the Spotted Pig's tastefully discreet fascia with a wary eye. "We've been 'ere before," he sighs. Like the rest of the Arctic Monkeys, Helders speaks with a broad Sheffield accent. "I ordered chicken livers on toast for starters. I didn't really know what it were. I just ordered it. They brought it and..." His voice trails off, as if he can't find words to describe the horror. He wrinkles his nose. "I ended up scraping it all off and just eating the toast. When the waitress came back, I said to her, "You lot should be arrested for serving this muck.' "
However indifferent you may wish to appear, it is almost impossible to stop yourself craning at the entrance to see who's going to turn up next, although Cook seems to be having a good try. Maybe his jaded air tells of the ennui that comes when you've recorded the fastest-selling debut album in British history and have a serious distrust of showbusiness trappings (when the Arctic Monkeys were being wined and dined by a plethora of British record labels, Cook stubbornly insisted on paying his share of the bill at the end of every meal). Or perhaps it is simply the result of the events of the previous evening, which sound remarkably like the kind of thing Turner writes songs about. Abandoned by the rest of the Arctic Monkeys party in a downtown bar in the small hours, Cook managed to fall off his seat, was ejected from the premises after an altercation with a bouncer, then hailed a cab only to discover he couldn't remember either the name or address of his hotel.
Tonight, as Manhattan's A-list crowd into the Spotted Pig, he lurks behind a pillar and discusses his previous job as a tiler in a tone of voice you could easily mistake for wistfulness. He was still doing bathrooms last May, when the Arctic Monkeys' vertiginous ascent to success had begun: he finished one off for a friend after coming back from a sold-out tour, because he had promised he would. "It were reet good. You'd get in the van at five on a Monday morning and drive to London, stay four nights, then drive back to Sheffield on Friday afternoon." He smiles: "You can charge 'owt for tiling in London." Cook's attention is suddenly drawn to the table in the centre of the bar, where the biggest celebrities are seated together, although in this instance it's not the succession of multimillionaires who have caught his eye. "Look at Helders' top," he chuckles. Indeed, the drummer certainly stands out among the bling and casually worn designer labels, wearing a lurid orange tracksuit top. "Whenever we get sent free clothes and that, there's always something you pull out of the box and think, 'Nobody is going to wear that.' And every time, Helders comes in and, straightaway, he goes, 'I'll have that.'" And with that, Cook departs to meet his cousin, who has been deemed insufficiently important to attend Coldplay's party.
If you want a metaphor for the astonishing speed of the Arctic Monkeys' success, then look no further. None of them is legally old enough to drink in America (a fact that led one magazine to abandon plans to put the band on the cover, after liquor companies threatened to pull $500,000 of advertising). One of them is wearing a frightful tracksuit top. Barely 18 months ago their ambition apparently extended no further than getting to play a gig somewhere other than Sheffield. And here they are, chatting to Jay-Z and Gwyneth Paltrow.
Can their astonishing success be replicated in the US? Adhering to the long-established rule that any British band who get through their set in New York without the audience throwing litter at them must automatically be reported to have stormed the US amid scenes unwitnessed since Beatlemania, one excitable journalist has already dubbed the current tour "the next phase of Operation Arctic Monkeys: World Takeover". The truth is a little less hysterical.
The Arctic Monkeys have received critical raves in the New York Times and rock magazine Blender, and been described in Rolling Stone as "one of the most exciting bands on the planet". They have been introduced by Matt Dillon on Saturday Night Live and their tour has sold out. But their debut album, Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not, has, thus far, sold well rather than spectacularly: certainly not enough to panic the apparently omnipresent James Blunt, whose Back To Bedlam took up residence at the top of the US chart sometime in January and shows no signs of vacating for the foreseeable future.
Manager Geoff Barradale says there is "no big plan to 'crack' America", and the Arctic Monkeys tour bus certainly doesn't feel like the white-hot epicentre of a world takeover bid. Someone has been writing slogans with their finger in the dirt caked on its sides. Given that most of these slogans seem to involve Sheffield United and internecine rivalries with other areas of Yorkshire - "100% BLADES", "LEEDS = SHITE" - you rather suspect that someone was one of the Arctic Monkeys themselves. Inside, the bus bears the distinctive aroma of a vehicle in which a rock band and its road crew have been sleeping for some weeks. "Sometimes I think about other bands and I wonder if they have conversations about their ambitions and that," muses Turner, as he sits amid the debris of the bus's rear lounge. "Everyone else seems to know what they're doing a lot more than we do. I read about other bands and it's as if they had a big meeting when they started and worked it all out. But we started just for something to do, because all us friends had bands. We never had a manifesto or 'owt. We just wrote songs and it came out like this."
Back home, one popular theory suggests that the Arctic Monkeys may simply be too British for US ears. In the past, Americans have welcomed culturally specific, socially observant English rock bands with the same warmth and eagerness with which Helders greeted his chicken livers. The artists usually held as the Arctic Monkeys' forebears made few ripples in the US. There were hardly any Stateside takers for the Jam, and none at all for Mancunian punk-poet John Cooper Clarke or Pulp. The Smiths remain an acquired taste and even the Kinks only really tasted success after they toned down the irony and wry observations and transformed themselves into a straightforward stadium rock band. If they proved too parochial, then what chance do the Arctic Monkeys have of making themselves understood, with their accents, their references to Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em and their song called Mardy Bum?
A fair proportion of their US press to date has concerned itself with explaining the band's more arcane references. Rolling Stone informed readers that chavs were "white working-class stock characters, ridiculed for their gaudy tracksuits and hard-partying lifestyle, and known for loutish behaviour and conspicuous consumption". Blender magazine dispatched a reporter to Sheffield's High Green district to get a flavour of the Arctic Monkeys' exotic background, while Turner says he feels "a bit silly playing Mardy Bum over here, a bit like I don't know where to look".
For their part, all the Americans I speak to get a bit huffy when I suggest they might not get some of the more recherché nuances in Turner's lyrics. "Sure, I understand them," says one female fan, who has travelled across the country, "but I'm kind of an Anglophile. Mardy means pissed, right? I'd never heard of Frank Spencer, but I Googled his name, so now I know."
"I don't think it's a big problem," agrees Craig Marks, editor of Blender. "It may be equivalent to a southern hip-hop record being understood in Sheffield. It would be a little bit of a challenge, but lyrics like 'I think she looks good on the dancefloor' [sic] are not vague, they're not in cockney slang or anything. Alex's ability to tell relatable stories to teenagers is one of the strong points and unique qualities of the group."
The crowd at the New York show, however, tells a slightly different story. It includes Liv Tyler and Amanda de Cadenet ("'oose that?" asks a bewildered Cook when her name is mentioned), as well as a sizeable number of British ex-pats. But towards the back of Webster Hall, I find an intriguing split in comprehension. To my right are two men in their mid-20s so overwhelmed by the Arctic Monkeys experience that they seem to have gone native: they are not only word perfect in every song, but have cultivated both a Dick Van Dyke-ish English accent for the purposes of singing along, and a slightly inscrutable chant that they deploy between songs: "ENGLISH BOYS!" they yell. "ENGLISH BOYS!" But to my left are a group of locals who spend the entire gig in a state of advanced befuddlement. "WHAT DID HE SAY?" bellows one, as Turner thanks the audience for coming and informs them he's fond of New York. "I NEED A TRANSLATOR!" I tell him what Turner just said. "Awesome!" bellows the gig-goer, relaying the information to his friends, before turning back to me with his palm outstretched. "High five!"
Quite aside from the possible need for subtitles, there may be another barrier to US success: the band's reputation for surly, difficult behaviour. The vast fanbase they gained through steady touring and fans sharing their songs on the internet means they attained British success without compromising: they refuse to appear on Top Of The Pops and rarely give interviews. "There's no commandments, no manifesto to what we turn down," insists Nicholson. "People ask us to do things and you think, 'I'm going to feel reet stupid doing that,' so you just say no." He shakes his head. "I'm amazed at what people will do to get their photo in a fucking magazine."
One result of their reluctance to do press and appear on TV is that, 360,000 album sales on, a slightly intimidating air of mystery still surrounds the Arctic Monkeys. In lieu of hard facts, a variety of lurid rumours has gained currency. The most diverting suggests that, far from being the work of a keen-eared and preternaturally gifted 20-year-old, the Arctic Monkeys' lyrics about prostitution, recalcitrant girlfriends and taxi rank rucks are written by manager Barradale, formerly the frontman of dimly remembered indie rockers Seafruit. "That's a good 'un," says Nicholson, in a tone that suggests he doesn't think it's a particularly good 'un at all. "Have you heard any of Geoff's songs?"
In fact, the band's members are noticeably less truculent in the flesh than advance publicity suggests. Turner is quiet and clearly deeply uncomfortable with being singled out for attention, but he is never less than scrupulously polite. Nicholson's face seems naturally to arrange itself into a look of profound disappointment - something about him makes you think of Bobby, the perennially disenchanted son in King Of The Hill - but in person he is charm itself, possessed of a bone-dry wit. Helders and Cook, meanwhile, are an absolute hoot, which seems at odds with their relentlessly pessimistic interviews in which they are much given to predicting imminent disaster for their careers. "Every silver lining has a cloud," says Helders when the dictaphone is pointed in his direction. "Our history teacher, Mr Staunton, always used to say that. There's a downside to everything."
If the kind of intransigence that has become their trademark seems odd back home, it is unheard of in America, where bands are expected as a matter of course willingly to press the corporate flesh and smile their way through interviews with gormless DJs. "There's no way around it," says Craig Marks, of Blender magazine. "Over here, if you want to sell a lot of records, you have to go to local radio stations in Dayton, Ohio, and shake the hands of men with satin jackets." There seems little chance of the Arctic Monkeys doing that in the foreseeable future.
Today, they are due to appear on MTV, where they will be filmed performing live and then interviewed. They don't seem exactly overjoyed by the prospect - "Check this shit out," mutters a rigidly unimpressed Turner as they arrive at the studio. The interview passes with all the zip and good humour of an agonising death after the Arctic Monkeys refuse to introduce themselves to camera. "It's our company policy that we don't introduce ourselves," says Nicholson, flatly. Initially, at least, the only one who seems willing to answer any questions is Helders, whose idiosyncratic approach to designer freebies is once more much in evidence - the top part of his head is almost entirely obscured by a vast pair of sunglasses - and whose answers invariably involve bands no one in America has ever heard of, and lies: "I like East 17, me. They were a reet underground dance act in Britain." The interviewer's smile never slips, but when she attempts to direct an inquiry about the band's influences to Turner, he stares at the floor and his answer tails off first into monosyllables, then into indistinct noises, then into silence: "I dunno, really. Songs are more influenced... by different events... than... artists... I... don't... huh... hmm..." Things pick up marginally when Nicholson, apropros of nothing, tells her that he used to be a champion tapdancer, "then I pulled me 'amstring and it were all over". It's difficult to tell if she pursues this line of inquiry because she believes him, or simply because she's relieved that someone is talking about something other than East 17, but she asks about his dancing partner. "Me partner's dancing with someone else now," says Nicholson, his expression even more mournful than usual. "I don't like to talk about it."
While MTV's interviewer heads off to have her smile removed by a crack team of surgeons, the Arctic Monkeys tour bus drives to Philadelphia and a seedy ballroom in what is self-evidently the least salubrious area of town. Backstage, Turner wearily ruminates on his night with Manhattan's glitterati at the Spotted Pig. "It were weird. They seem strange people, like. A bit glazed. All sat on a table with everybody staring at them. If they just stood around with everyone else, nobody would be looking at them, would they? I feel in them situations almost like..." He sighs. "Not an imposter, but do you know what I mean? I like to be in normal situations, me. I just want to be in the same atmosphere as everyone else."
Outside, the venue is heaving. As in New York, there are British ex-pats waving St George flags, word-perfect wannabe Yorkshiremen and a healthy sprinkling of bewildered frowns. The Arctic Monkeys sound fantastic - taut, explosive and exciting. Turner tries to talk to the crowd, but he's drowned out by cheering and chanting. "You're not even listening to me, are you?" he complains. "'Ow rude." They play a new song called No Buses, and he ends the gig jumping into the audience, still playing his guitar.
Afterwards, his mood seems to have lifted. "There's worse things you can do in life," he says. "I keep forgetting that. You only think about things within what you're doing, so there's always bad things about it. But if you put it on the grand scale of things, you think, 'Oh, shurrup you dickhead, there's worse things to moan about than that. You've got the opportunity to write songs for a living.'" His eyes shine, and for a moment Alex Turner seems neither weary nor jaded nor rigidly unimpressed. "You're proper fucking blessed."
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