Arctic Monkeys’ Alex Turner Decodes Every Song on Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino

Arctic Monkeys’ Alex Turner Decodes Every Song on Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino

1. “Star Treatment”

Pitchfork: The album’s first line, “I just wanted to be one of the Strokes,” definitely grabs the listener’s attention.

Alex Turner: When I wrote that line, I imagined I would return to it, and it wouldn’t end up on the record. But when I circled back around to it I felt like it was right where it ought to be because of how it makes me think, “Shit. The last 12 years just flashed by.” There’s an honesty and a truth to it. The style of me writing has developed considerably since the first record, but the bluntness of that line—and perhaps some other lyrics on this album—reminds me of the way I wrote in the beginning.

Another lyric that stands out to me on the song is: “Everybody’s on a barge floating down the endless stream of great TV.” It made me wonder, are you on that binge-watching barge yourself?

You can’t help but get on the barge every now and again, but I like to keep an eye on it. I actually had the line before that one, “Here ain’t no place for dolls like you and me,” since about 2009. I even tried to get somebody else to put it in a song, but they didn’t like it. Maybe I was saving it because I didn’t have the follow-up. I’m not trying to dodge the question, but no matter how much TV I watch or don’t watch, I don’t get to that barge idea without this other thing that has been in the back of my mind for a long time.

It seems like the hidden answer there is that you’re just a big fan of the Real Housewives franchise.

[laughs] Right. No, no.  

Your character on this song also sings about doing a kind of Las Vegas residency, and the whole record has this loungey feel, like an underworld version of a typical Vegas show.

I like the idea of an underworld, not necessarily in Las Vegas but somewhere in me imagination, and that idea helped me to write the lyrics on the record. I also sing about the “martini police” on this song, and there was just something about that melody with those words that amused me; I’ve begun to wonder if that’s the right name for the band that has the residency in the night club in the song. And the melody of that bit reminds me of Toto—but I’m not sure why I’m sharing that with you.

2. “One Point Perspective”

On this track, you sing, “I’ve played to quiet rooms like this before,” which seems to fit with the scene that you’re setting—maybe this is a residency that’s lost its luster. At the same time, when I think about you guys playing some of these relatively strange and subdued new songs live…

… it could well end up being a quiet room, yeah. That’s interesting. We played this song the other night at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, and getting to sing “I’ve played to quiet rooms like this before” in a graveyard was something that I was glad I was able to do. Obviously, I didn’t know that we were going to end up in a graveyard when I penned that one, but I sensed something like that on the horizon. In my head, the whole verse, the whole song—maybe even the whole record—just tees up the idea of playing to a quiet room.

The quiet rooms thing also had something to do with the fact that, on a lot of the vocal recordings for the album, I was the only person in the building, just sitting there with my microphone and tape recorder, writing lyrics. That perhaps allowed me to do things that I wouldn’t have done elsewhere. And eighty percent of the time, including on this occasion, those are the vocals that we kept for the record.

You also sing a few tongue-in-cheek lines about loving a made-up film called Singsong Around the Money Tree—“this stunning documentary that no one else unfortunately saw.”

I feel like I was often overhearing conversations that went along the lines of, “Have you watched such and such?” I do that too, I’m only human. When I was writing this record, I was turned on to these three Jean-Pierre Melville films—Un Flic, Le Cercle Rouge, and Le Samouraï—that all star Alain Delon and have this jazz lounge club at the center of the story. And the clubs in these films were often very obviously film sets, which is something that interested me as well. At the end of Le Samouraï, for instance, there’s a shot that zooms out from one of these clubs almost to the point where you see the film lights. So when I would sit at the piano and play these types of chords, I was thinking about those Melville interiors a lot.

There’s also this movie called Spirits of the Dead, which is made up of three shorts based on Edgar Allan Poe stories shot by three different directors. Fellini did one of them, and there’s an airport scene in it with the strangest, orange sky outside. It’s fantastic. There’s also this weird award scene in it with this light up floor and a body of water next to it and a psych band playing. It’s like, “How did you think of this?”

3. “American Sports”

The album takes a bit of a dark turn on this song, and part of it is due to the sinister tone of your voice.

That vocal was done close to the beginning of recording that track at home. I feel like there’s an opportunity to capture something when you’re not even sure you’ve completely written it yet. I tried to replace the vocals later but I couldn’t do the thing that we liked about it anymore, so we left it the way it was. It’s probably not the most well-recorded thing.

The technical imperfections on some of the vocal takes remind me of that Frank Ocean line: “My TV ain’t HD, that’s too real.” You seem to subscribe to a similar ethos.

I’ll get on board with that, Frank. You don’t want it to be that real, do you?

4. “Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino”

You poke fun at the sterility of our modern world here with a line like, “Technological advances really bloody get me in the mood.” Do you think there’s anything sexy about technology?

Wow. [long pause] I’m going to have to get back to you there. I suppose not.

There are a few small references to politics scattered throughout the record, including on this song. But as you were writing this album in 2016, were you ever tempted to make something more overtly political?

Well, when you suggest the idea of doing something political, I immediately think of the Windsor knot that you have to tie your tie in for a press conference; I get lost in that imagery. Though that might not be the knot anymore, even. If we’re really going to move things forward we’ve got to change the knot—we could run on that.

As far as making something more political, I think the truthful answer is I don’t know. But more of those ideas have certainly found a way into this record than anything I’ve done before.

5. “Golden Trunks”

Speaking of politics, there’s a line on this song that feels uncharacteristically bold: “The leader of the free world reminds you of a wrestler wearing tight golden trunks.”

Yeah, as soon as you say those words, it rather steals the show. But I was almost attracted to how cumbersome the phrase “the leader of the free world” is, especially now. There are some things that are really hard to get to work phonetically, but the tune somehow allows it. In this case, when I go, [sings grandly] “the leader of the free world,” it’s suddenly amusing. It’s kind of Disney, that melody.

But let’s talk about the rest of the track because that’s something I haven’t had the chance to really do. That song is definitely centered around a female character, and it’s the closest thing to a love song that’s on this record. I made this character, and she had this idea about what was going on. The line came to me through that; I thought of the WWF.

When you wrote this song, did you know that Trump really did take part in a professional wrestling match?

I did not know that then, but I do now.

6. “Four Out of Five”

This track has a sci-fi bent. It’s about a taqueria on the moon that’s called the Information Action Ratio, which is a reference to the idea of how we have so much knowledge at our fingertips but don’t quite know what to do with it.

Yeah. I lifted it from this book called Amusing Ourselves to Death. I was attracted to the idea as soon as I heard that phrase; even though it was in this book from [1985] it still seemed relevant—more relevant than it probably was when the guy made it up. I sang it into the tape recorder when I was making stuff up one day, and it ended up falling in a place where the implication was it was the name of this taco shop on the roof of this hotel complex.

Are you taking a bit of a critical stance as far as how we’re lost in this overflow of information?

I don’t think I am, necessarily. If I was doing that, I’d probably try to lay it out a bit better, rather than just naming the taco shop on the roof after it. I just think it’s interesting, something to look at.

7. “The World’s First Ever Monster Truck Front Flip”

The title of this song is based on a real event.

Yeah, it was a news story that came out one day that I clicked on. It’s remarkable. I mean, it’s definitely the most surprising thing I saw that day. It flipped forward!

How many times did you watch that video?

It might have just been the one.

8. “Science Fiction”

There’s a meta thing happening in this song, where you sing about writing songs…

… as we roll our eyes.

I enjoyed it! The song is something of an ode to sci-fi, what is it about that genre that appeals to you?

Science fiction creates these other worlds within which we can explore our own, and I wanted to write something about that idea. So, through reading sci-fi books and watching films like Fassbinder’s World on a Wire, I began to access that sort of vocabulary—then suddenly we’re talking about virtual reality moon casino experiences.

On this track, you sing about making a song that “may well just end up too clever for its own good.” Is it hard for you to turn that self-critical part of your brain off when you’re writing?

Evidently.

9. “She Looks Like Fun”

This track seems to take place in the realm of social media, and the random words in the chorus— “Good morning/Cheeseburger/Snowboarding”—are akin to scrolling through Instagram.

It’s about the characters that people create in that virtual world. As far as the “cheeseburger” line, I was actually watching an episode of the show “High Maintenance,” and there’s a part where the person’s taking their picture with a cheeseburger and posting it and all this. That part in the song also reminds me of when you’re reading a book and trying to get into it, but you can’t stop from looking at your phone. I might have been doing a bit of that when I was writing the song.

10. “Batphone”

On this track, you sing, “I launch my fragrance called Integrity/I sell the fact that I can’t be bought.” I looked it up, and there actually is a fragrance called Integrity now.

Oh, shit. I’m sure I checked when I wrote that, and it didn’t exist yet. So I’m probably going to get in trouble then, huh? With something like that, I can’t sit here and tell you I wanted to make some comment about integrity and my relationship to it, and then make a fucking perfume out of it and write a smart-ass line like that. It’s more like I see the shape of the letters of “integrity” on the perfume bottle in my mind’s eye—once you know what that font looks like, then it writes itself after that.

11. “The Ultracheese”

You’ve always seemed wary of being seen as a ponderous songwriter, but this album—and especially the lyrics—seems very properly thought out, in an engrossing way. Do you feel more comfortable in that role of a songwriter now?  

Certainly more so than when I was 18. There was something wrapped up in that word that used to make me uncomfortable, but I’m marginally more comfortable with it now.

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