Arctic Monkeys were a sensation in England even before the word “go.” The Sheffield band’s first album was hyped enough to become Britain’s fastest-ever selling debut in 2005.
American audiences didn’t have the same reaction to spastic indie/punk chart-toppers “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor” and “When the Sun Goes Down,” and through the first four albums, the Monkeys have been more of a record-store geek band on this side of the Atlantic.
But the fifth album, simply titled, “AM,” has been a charm, and on the band’s current tour, the venue sizes have doubled thanks to the single “Do I Wanna Know?”
“It went a lot better than we imagined it would,” says drummer Matt Helders, who also does a share of vocals. “It got played on the radio a lot, and we never really had that in America, like a radio hit. Obviously, we made an effort to do something different with this record but not with the aim to break in America, by any means.”
The drummer launches “Do I Wanna Know?” with a thumping hip-hop beat, soon joined by a fuzzy desert-rock guitar riff that’s offset by Alex Turner’s distinctively British vocal. They didn’t know this would be the one, but “we were happy that we had a big song we were excited about when we listened back to it at the studio,” the drummer says.
This is the third California album for Arctic Monkeys, who have taken up residence in Los Angeles.
“We’ve just really enjoyed working there,” Helders says. “It’s a great place to make a record and hang out as well. This time we were all living in the same area, within a mile of the studio, so it was collaborative. Everybody was equally involved.”
Once again, you can hear the Josh Homme effect in “AM’s” stoner-rock haze. The Queens of the Stone Age frontman co-produced the band’s third album, “Humbug,” and this time turned up for inspiration and backing vocals on two tracks.
“When we first got the opportunity to work with Josh we were amazed,” Helders says. “We were all massive fans, thrilled to be around him, you know, thrilled that he wanted to work with us, and excited to see what he would do with our songs.”
The drummer sees “AM” falling between “Humbug” and 2011’s “Suck It and See,” which was more of a return to the punchier early sound.
“ ‘Suck It and See’ was a lot more of a songwriter record,” Helders says. “A lot of the songs were written on guitar and we put it together as a band, whereas ‘Humbug’ was a bit more experimental, a bit more of a studio album. This was, too. We spent a lot of time in the studio. Every time, we’ve gone about it in a different way, and I think that every album has led to the next one in a way.”
He saw his role on “AM” as keeping it simple and working under the principle of “knowing when to leave something out” as in “not do a crazy drum fill but still be interesting.
“A lot of that came down to how we were doing demos ourselves on a little four-track. Just because of the equipment we were using it meant that I had to play really quietly and play the same thing for a few minutes. We liked how that sounded and we wanted to try to re-create that when it came to recording the finished thing. The hardest thing about drumming is trying not to show off.”
Helders is a student of good drumming. In December, he assembled for Music Radar his “10 essential drum albums,” a diverse list that included everything from Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” to Jay-Z’s “Unplugged” (with Questlove) to “Rich Versus Roach,” the epic showdown between Buddy Rich and Max Roach. His No. 1 was “Led Zeppelin II,” in part for John Bonham’s crushing “Moby Dick.” He got to see the late Bonham’s son Jason back the band for the O2 reunion in 2007.
“I was blown away,” he says. “I got chills as soon as they came on.”
He doesn’t think, however, that the band should venture out without Robert Plant, who has refused to take a Zep reunion on tour.
“No, I don’t think so. That’s sort of a massive part of it. I mean, I’m sure someone can do that voice, but it’s not going to be the real thing.”