Alex Turner never took to the piano as a kid. After a couple years of lessons, all he could really play was a jazzy vamp he’d improvise, more for comic relief than anything else. He certainly never embraced the instrument the way he later did the guitar - an immediate fixation when he got his first one as a teenager. But that all changed in early 2016, when a friend gave Turner a beautiful Steinway Vertegrand for his 30th birthday. “I arrived back off holiday and it was sitting there,” he says, gesturing toward the piano. “I just love that thing and I’d come and sit at it and while away me days in here. The addition of the piano to this room was definitely a huge part of the making of this album, because that suddenly became the centre of it.”
You can hear what he means right from the outset: Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, Arctic Monkeys’ sixth studio album, opens with “Star Treatment,” an elegantly seductive musical monologue you just couldn’t put across the same way with a guitar. Listen and you can picture Turner sitting there - on a Hollywood hilltop, in a shockingly small room, all things considered, at the Steinway, Mexican beer and a guilty half-pack of smokes poised nearby, as the words begin to tumble out: “I just wanted to be one of The Strokes, now look at the mess you made me make / Hitchhiking with a monogrammed suitcase, miles away from any half-useful imaginary highway.”
It’s an instantly intriguing start to an album that follows the U.K. quartet’s most commercially successful LP to date, 2013’s A.M., which reached #1 on charts in a dozen countries, achieved platinum status in the U.S. and has sold approx. 5 million copies worldwide. More importantly, that album’s unexpected focus on hip-hop beats and 90’s R&B-inspired melodies reminded listeners that this band of childhood friends from Sheffield remained intent on exploring new musical terrain with each album. Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino ups the ante in a big way; it is a bold and brilliant album reflecting Turner’s ever more comprehensive creative vision. It’s like he’s directing a noir film about a moon colony resort where the nightclub house band is the Arctic Monkeys; he’s pictured every detail, even if he’s only willing to give away a few evocative hints. “It’s got more chords. And space shit,” is how Turner puts it.
The core ideas for Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino took root in LA in the early months of 2017, as Turner began recording demos in his modest home studio - which had been drummer Matt Helders’ bedroom when the lads first moved to LA in 2012, but has transformed into a kind of creative nerve centre. On one side of the room, there’s the Steinway, a drum set, a couple of vintage organs, a few guitars. On the other, a workspace littered with cardboard cutouts and Exacto blades - the result of countless hours Turner spent designing and constructing the elaborate architectural model you see on the cover of the album. “I don’t know what happened there,” the singer admits. “I got a bit obsessed.” He’s even started crafting a model of the stage design for Arctic Monkeys’ upcoming tour.
“This room we’re sitting in now became known as the ‘lunar surface,’” Turner says. “You know that conspiracy theory about Stanley Kubrick faking the moon landing in his garage or his basement? At some point I started saying to people, when I was coming to work in here, ‘I’m just going down to the lunar surface for a bit.’”
Though he’d rarely written on anything other than guitar, piano-led songs began pouring out of him: “One Point Perspective” opens with a bright piano riff and Turner’s vocals, with elements suggestively joining one by one, like new dance partners the singer spins around for a bit before realizing he’s the only one in the room. On the shimmering, cinematic title track, Turner lays down an absurdly slinky bass countermelody to his seductive falsetto.
Once Turner had a few songs he was excited about, he asked guitarist Jamie Cook to fly over from London to check out what he’d come up with and add guitar to some of the recordings. “I was kind of blown away,” says Cook. “I’d never really seen him playing piano before! Considering we’re looked at as a guitar band, it were kind of a bold move. But I don’t think any of us wanted to make an AM, Part Two, so I were very, very excited by what he’d come up with.” Turner says he had suffered a few moments of worrying whether his bandmates would dig where he had gone with the new music, but he was immediately reassured by Cook’s enthusiasm.
It’s all even more impressive considering that a sizeable portion of Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino was recorded by Turner, alone in that home studio. Though Arctic Monkeys eventually moved into La Frette Studios outside Paris to work out additional parts, most songs retain layers Turner captured on his beloved Tascam 388 - a vintage 8-track he says he loves because it “encourages you to work in a way that simplifies things.” He had used the Tascam while working with singer-songwriter Alexandra Savior as a co-writer and producer on her 2017 debut album, Belladonna of Sadness, and applied a similar process for Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, creating the skeleton at home and then fleshing it out in a real studio later. “A lot of the vocals are from in here,” Turner notes. “There’s something about the first time you do the thing that you kind of just can’t improve. A lot of times I’ve gone to sing something again and it’s not there anymore.” The intimacy of his voice, the effortless way he turns meaty verbiage into a caramel croon, his dexterity with sly, internal rhymes - it all coalesces with even greater poetic power on this album.
Ever incisive in his ability to skewer the vain and vapid, on Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, Turner concocts an outer-space realm where shit is even more absurd. “Four Out Of Five” is set at a well-reviewed taqueria on the hotel roof, with Turner offering this sales pitch: “Cute new places keep on popping up around Clavius. It's all getting gentrified.” In “Golden Trunks,” he imagines a President as an 80s WWF wrestler in love with the sound of his own theme song: “The leader of the free world reminds you of a wrestler wearing tight golden trunks.” The luxurious and mournful “American Sports” describes technology-induced ennui (“My virtual reality mask is stuck on 'Parliament Brawl' / Emergency battery pack just in time for my weekly chat with God on Videocall”) in a song that resolves with Turner singing, “And all of my most muscular regrets explode behind my eyes like American sports.”
After Turner tracked as much as he could at home on his Tascam, Arctic Monkeys reconvened at La Frette in September of 2017 to spend five weeks recording with their longtime producer James Ford. A gorgeous 19th century French mansion converted into a recording studio in the ‘80s, La Frette has hosted recordings in recent years by Nick Cave and Feist, among others. “It’s like the Addams Family house when you first get there, going through the gates and this overgrown garden,” says Cook. “And then it’s full of all this amazing gear. There’s a definite vibe about that place. We were really home there, the five weeks we were there. I would probably say it were the best recording session we’ve ever done.”
Part of that owes to the fact that, for the first time while making a record, Arctic Monkeys invited an array of musician friends to join them in the studio. Their touring keyboard player, Tom Rowley, Klaxons’ James Righton, Zach Dawes and Tyler Parkford from Los Angeles band Mini Mansions, Tame Impala bassist Cam Avery, and drummer Loren Humphries, among others, visited La Frette to add to the proceedings. “I love that Dion album Born To Be With You,” says Turner. “Me and Loren and James [Ford] talked a lot about the way they recorded that album, which was like the way they did [the Beach Boys’] Pet Sounds - with a load of people in a room, everything is spilling all over. I’ve always thought it would be cool to try something like that, and La Frette seemed like a great place to do that.”
Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino comes out May 11th.
To learn more about Arctic Monkeys visit arcticmonkeys.com... And make sure you're listening to ALT 98.7 to hear "Four Out Of Five" at 12:35p, 3:05p, 6:05p and 10:05p every day this week.