If you’re ever lost in New York City, Matt Helders is the guy you want at your side. The drummer for the Arctic Monkeys—the prolific, record-breaking, award winning, British post-punk indie rock group—doesn’t live in Manhattan. He has, however, been there enough times to be able to direct his driver: “If that was Avenue A, and this is B, then the next one will be C.” Helders is in town patiently promoting the Arctic Monkey’s fifth studio album, AM, with the understanding that the band’s change in musical direction, songwriting process, and recording practices are going to require explanation.
These changes can be traced back to a birthday present given to Arctic Monkeys vocalist/guitarist, Alex Turner: a cassette four-track. When starting to work out ideas for AM, the Arctics, who all are Los Angeles residents, set up camp at the city’s Sage & Sound Recording Studios—not so much for recording, but as a rehearsal space. For six months, the four of them, rounded out by guitarist Jamie Cook and bassist Nick O’Malley, were at the studio daily. Here, they experimented with small parts of the sounds, working out rhythm grooves, creating loops, and recording it all on the birthday present.
“We’ve never been a band that jams,” says Helders. That’s boring and sounds stupid after a bit. There’s usually quite a bit of structure to how we work. This time, because the rehearsal room was a recording studio, we thought we’d record ourselves. You can listen back straightaway and cut out a lot of time by recording, listening, and making a decision, whether it’s good to keep or not. Because the four-track has these crap-quality electronics, the tape has a nice, warm sound compared to anything digital.”
When it came time to formally record AM, the Arctics spiffed up the room in which they were working at Sage & Sound, brought in the informal fifth member of the group, Simian Mobile Disco’s James Ford, to produce (he also produced the group’s albums Favourite Worst Nightmare, Humbug, Suck It And See) alongside Add N To (X)/Fat Truckers’ Ross Orton (M.I.A.), and traded in the four-track mentality for über-modern recording techniques.
Some of the moments captured on four-track were retained while others were recreated. A number of ideas that remained weren’t fleshed out or demoed properly, so Ford built a version on his laptop using Ableton Live. This way, they could mess with the key or feel or structure of the demo, which was then used as a reference for the band’s performance.
“We’ve always gone for a big, live sound,” says Helders. “We wanted people to know that we sat there and played it, from start to finish. We would only record something if we could play it the next day. If we can’t do it live, why put it on a record? Now that we’ve gotten more comfortable and better at being a studio band, we relaxed that. We thought it more important to make a good sounding record than hold on to the idea that we should have to be able to play it live.”
Instead of all members playing at the same time and capturing that performance, which was their approach on the last album, Suck It And See, the focus was on honing individual tracks for AM. For example, Helders’ drum kit might have been set up unconventionally and played separately to glean a better sound, with overdubs on the bass, or redos on the snare, or layering of sounds.
“For some songs, like ‘Fireside,’ I did a straight beat with kick and snare for the groove, but then I overdubbed a tribal pattern on the kick drum, playing it with sticks, a weird set-up I had never done before,” says Helders. “On other songs, I would play kick drum for a take, then add the snare to try and get an isolated sound. I found the challenge of playing an effect on a drum kit interesting. I didn’t understand the appeal of trying to sound like a machine, like Questlove from The Roots, when I first started playing drums, but I get it a bit more now.”
“We had a decent selection of different drums: deeper snares or smaller hats that we would swap out for each track,” says Ford. “Most of the time, drums and bass were recorded together to get a good rhythm-section feel, with maybe a guide vocal. The bass was mainly recorded through a vintage Ampeg Portaflex amp. The guitars were tracked one by one by [Cook] and [Turner] in the control room with their Selmer Truvoice and Magnatone amps—plus a small pedal-steel amp that [Turner] bought during the session, which we nicknamed ‘The New Black’—in the living room.”
Vocals, backing vocals, percussion, and keyboard overdubs followed. Going for a smoother, more R&B style vocal with in-time delay rather than their standard distorted, shout-down-the-microphone style, the Arctics’ attitude toward this approach started out as jokes that ended up on the finished product.
“You have to be Mariah Carey for a minute, with one headphone on and plugging your ear with your finger,” says Helders. “We’re not trained vocalists by any means, so for us to achieve what we want to achieve, we spend loads of time with Pro Tools, comping more than ever before, getting certain words perfect, chopping up one specific sound because we did a particularly good one. We were under the microscope with everyone’s parts. You can’t get it nearly right, you’ve got to get it right, which is another challenge. It’s more detailed production, which was something we were worried about doing before, like it would be too glossy or shiny. It’s something we would have thought really cheesy if we had done it when we did the first record.” For all this, the vocal chain is standard—more often than not, a Neumann U67 through a Neve or BAE mic pre and a Universal Audio 1176 or Empirical Labs Distressor for control.
“There were definitely more vocal layers than normal, with important parts tracked in octaves,” says Ford. “[Turner] would take the lead and generally double his voice the octave up in falsetto. [Helders] would also track this octave up and do any high backing vocals and [O’Malley] would generally track the octave down with his nice, rich baritone.”
This type of detail is all over AM. They even threw in drum machines and synthesizers where needed, an unheard of practice for the Arctic Monkeys. “I Want To Be Yours,” which takes its lyrics from a James Cooper-Clarke poem that sparked Turner’s imagination when he was in high school, features an old drum machine; the song also went from a fast rock song to a slow jam after a pre-production session with Ford. “Do I Wanna Know” had Helders triggering a sample from a drum pad when the band performs the song live. This track also changed dramatically with Ford’s input, with an entirely new chorus sketched out on his laptop. “Mad Sounds,” on the other hand, kept some of the original 4-track recordings.
No object is safe from use on AM. When an EBow wasn’t handy, the Arctics grabbed a small Donald Duck plastic fan, turned it on, and rubbed the end of it on the guitar strings. The vibration came as close to the EBow as they wanted. These instances can be earmarked whenever the guitar sounds like it might be a keyboard. Also featured heavily on AM are claps. Helders tips, “Knee slaps sounds like two people clapping. It’s about getting a lot of people to clap just out of time with each other so it sounds like a slam.”
“We focused a lot on percussion, lots of claps, tambourines, and strangely-miked drum set-ups,” says Ford. “The percussion was generally recorded with a Coles 4038 ribbon microphone, but often there was a trash microphone in the room going through a cassette four-track or a Roland Space Echo through an amp or even through guitar pedals. Sometimes the simple backbone of a beat was done with a traditional drum set-up and overdubbed with a random set-up in the middle of the room, like [Helders] playing a bass drum with sticks and an old military snare. ‘Knee Socks’ is an example of this. O’Malley doubled his basslines with a baritone guitar.”
He continues, “We went to a great studio called Vox to do keyboard overdubs. They had lots of interesting things to play with like an Orchestron—a bit like a Mellotron that plays sounds from a record—and a great-sounding celesta. We also used a Hohner guitaret—a bit like an electric kalimba and quite tricky to play—to back up some of the guitar lines. The drum machines were also from this studio: Thomas Bandmaster and Selmer through a Fairchild spring reverb.”
“We got two electronic producers to make a rock record,” says Helders. “If we say to people: We’ve made an album that has backing vocals borrowed from R&B and West Coast hip-hop beats, but we’re a rock band, that sounds like it could be terrible. No one wants a rap-rock record. We had to be tasteful about it, choose the write parts, get Ford and Orton, put the two together, and find the right balance of different styles of music.”