When I started this blog 5 years ago, I never expected it to take me to the places that it has. If you told me I would have a chance to interview a member of my favorite band, Arctic Monkeys, I would have called you crazy. But last week, the stars aligned and I was allowed to chat with Arctic Monkeys bassist Nick O’Malley over the phone. Even though he had to prepare for the band’s show last night in Oakland, he made time for me and we had a great chat.
We talked about their most recent show in New York City, his favorite song on AM, how they ended up cover Drake, and what goes into picking songs during a live show. Nick was an absolute pleasure to speak to, and I consider myself lucky to have had some time to talk with him.
Today’s my birthday, and I can’t think of any better gift that to share an interview that I did with a member of this band. It’s truly an honor. With that said, enjoy the interview below.
Will: You guys were great at Webster Hall last week. I’ve seen you guys a dozen times now but last week’s show was one of the best yet. It truly had a special feeling in the air. How do you think it went and where does it rank with all the New York gigs you guys have played over the years?
Nick: Yeah. That one felt really good. It’s been a while since we played in New York. I think maybe the last time was when we supported The Black Keys (at MSG last May). Webster Hall is a really intimate venue, and plus we haven’t been playing too much of the new stuff really, as we only just started just throwing them out there. So yeah, it gave us a chance to play quite a lot of new stuff and the crowd was great, everyone seemed to get into it. It was definitely up there as one of the best shows in New York.
It’s a treat to have seen you guys play at some of the best, intimate venues in New York with this show and the Music Hall of Williamsburg show in 2011. Considering you guys don’t really get to play them at home.
N: It’s kinda more nerve-racking sometimes, more so than the bigger shows. You can see everyone’s facial expressions since they’re so close. Compared to the bigger shows that we will play where everyone’s really far away.
How has the tour been going so far? Are you happy with how the new songs are being received live?
N: Yeah, it’s been really good. We’re doing something that we haven’t done before with the new songs. In the past usually the new songs we play at first have been loud and aggressive, where as these ones now seem to all have more of a laid back pace and more of a hips feel to them. That’s been good for us to step in that direction and it seems to go down really well. I think probably this has been one of the best responses that we’ve had to playing new songs live. Usually when you brought an album out, everyone sort of looks a bit confused and doesn’t know what to do, except for the single. This time around, we’ve been playing all the new ones at some point in the last couple of weeks and they seem to get a good reaction and everyone is singing along and knows the words already.
The reception to the album in general has been pretty great as well.
N: I think it’s the best we’ve ever done in America chart wise, so yeah it’s been pretty good.
You guys have quite a deep catalog of songs to choose from whether it be from the albums, EP’s, b-sides, or even covers. How do you find a balance between keeping the sets interesting not only for the fans but for yourselves?
N: That’s it I suppose. Having such a wide variety of songs to choose from stops you from getting bored of playing them. That can be a little bit of a problem for us and I’m sure it can be for the fans as well. Like you’re saying, you’ve seen us a few times as a fan and if we kept doing the same set with a couple of new songs you’d be like “Ahhh fuck.” So yeah, we get bored of it as well, so having 5 albums worth of stuff to choose from and a few b-sides that we might throw in there helps. Quite like we just started playing “Dancing Shoes” from the first album again. We hadn’t played that one for years, its got a new lease of life and we’re all excited to be playing it again. We kinda take some favorites ones to play live from everything we have and then we always have the option to change it around when we get bored.
You and Matt really stepped up your vocal game on the new record, as your backup vocals are more prominent than ever before. How was this for you?
N: It’s great. I love doing it. It’s something me and especially Matt, Matt’s got a great voice. The album gave me him a chance to step up and be more of a featured vocal. It was quite a challenge at first. I don’t have a naturally high voice and a lot of the vocals are pretty high. But I’m really enjoying doing it, definitely.
Have you ever considered or wanted to take the lead vocals of a song sort of like what Matt did on “Brick By Brick”?
N: (laughs) Nah, I don’t think I’d like that. I’d don’t think I’d be into that. I never liked being the exact center of attention. I like being just next to it I’ve discovered. That’s probably why I like playing bass so much.
You never know, maybe you’ll change your mind someday.
N: Yeah, maybe..yeah.
What’s currently your favorite song of the new album? I can imagine it’s a tough question to answer as it probably changes as it does for me all the time.
N: Mine is probably “One For The Road.”
That one sounded even better live than it does on record I think.
N: Yeah I think that’s probably why. It really goes down well live, that one. Like you were saying with me and Matt on vocals. I really enjoy playing that one.
How many songs did you end up recording for AM and what will you do with the left over’s. Will they be used as b-sides?
N: Yeah. Recycling. We’re really into recycling this band (laughs). I mean songs, unfortunately not plastic and cans (laughs). We recorded probably around 20 songs and we did like 2 or 3 versions of some songs like “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?” We did a version of that that’s a loud rock version and then decided that we wanted to go down this other route with it and that’s the slower version (on the album). There’s a few songs like that where there is like 2 or 3 different ways that we tried to do things. Then there’s also a bunch of other songs that we recorded that didn’t make any sense with the rest of the album. There’s a couple that didn’t work out that I know Al really liked the words, so he’ll hang on to them and re-use them for something else. But everything that’s worth using eventually gets used.
I know I don’t speak for myself, but some some of your best work are your b-sides.
N: Yeah we didn’t want to be one of those bands that just treats a b-side like they don’t really give a shit about it. You know, like an acoustic version of one of your album tracks or get someone to remix your song. It seems like a bit of a cop out to us.
Your quality release of b-sides is very reminiscent to how Oasis used to always release some high quality b-sides, arguably some of their best work as well.
N: Yeah, I think that probably was a bit of inspiration. Their Masterplan album could have just as easily been an album. We saw that and thought, yeah, lets not make shit b-sides.
How has working with Josh Homme over the last 3 albums impacted you as musicians?
N: He’s like a big brother. Great to work with. Anyone who knows him knows his sense of humor and whenever your with Josh you’re laughing. He’s a genius, especially in the studio. He definitely rubbed off on us in terms of finding guitar tones and not just doing the obvious things to do. He’s propelled us further in the studio, and gave us a leg up from watching over our shoulder.
AM may very well be your best produced album. Do you guys find yourself putting more importance in your work as studio musicians, or creating material that will translate well live? Or do you strive for a happy medium between the two?
N: Probably a happy medium between the two. We’re a live band obviously that loves playing live. Although we put a proper effort in the studio to make things as good as possible. I think also you can’t take it to a point where you can’t then recreate and represent that correctly live. So when we put all the vocals in the studio I think we were like “oh shit we are gonna have to do this live” (laughs). But eventually with a few weeks we finally got there and were at a point where it sounds acceptable live.
We got one of our friends, Tom Rowley (of Dead Sons), to play on keyboards because there’s a lot of keyboards on the album. If they weren’t on there live it wouldn’t sound as good as they are on the recordings.
You got Bill Ryder-Jones (formerly of The Coral) to play some guitar as well, right?
N: Yeah he came an played on a few French TV shows with us, yeah. He played a guitar solo on the song “Fireside” and a few extra parts that he comes and does when he can when hes available. We also have our drum tech, Davey, whose a great drummer. Also he plays tambourine on some songs. You don’t realize how crucial that tambourine is to the whole vibe of the song playing live. It’s amazing.
Believe it or not it’s been nearly 7 years since you joined the band. How would you describe the journey of joining and could you imagine yourself doing anything else?
N: Not really no, I can’t imagine doing anything else, and I wouldn’t want to anyway. But obviously it can’t go on forever. But I remember seeing it on the outside when the first record came out and Arctic Monkeys were everywhere in the U.K. and everyone was going crazy about them, and I was like “Shit, I Should’ve joined that band” but then fate had it and I got the chance to do so. So yeah, it’s been great. It’s what I always wanted to do soon as I got into music seriously when I was like 15, 16, or whatever. And getting to do it with some friends that you’ve known since you were a kid is great since you know each other in other ways other than music. It makes it a lot easier to get along.
I loved the cover you guys did of Drake’s “Hold On, We’re Going Home.”
N: Yeah, that worked out pretty well.
You guys have quite an eclectic selection of covers. How do you guys come about choosing which songs to cover, who normally picks them?
N: I don’t know really. We actually had to play something from the BBC’s top 10 A-list thing, their chart that you have to choose something from that week. Alex is a bit of a Drake fan and he suggested that one. I don’t think any of the rest of us had ever heard that song before he suggested it.
Yeah so we all got it and we gave it a try in rehearsal and were like “Ok, I think we should do this.”
I would have never guessed most of you guys didn’t know the song beforehand. Considering how well done it is I assumed you were all pretty big Drake fans.
N: Well, maybe now, yeah. But I never heard that song before, but I think Alex is quite a big Drake fan.
What do you guys do to kill time while on the road. Are you all caught up on Breaking Bad for the finale this Sunday?
N: (Laughs) Yeah, we’re all quite into Breaking Bad. Actually I got the marathon going on AMC in the hotel as a sort of reminder for the finale. A lot of the time it seems to be spent traveling. Just going to connection flights and stuff like that. You don’t get a chance to do anything other than travel and play. But you know, you get days off here and there, do a little bit of sight seeing an go out and find some bars or whatever. But yeah most of the time its watching you know, HBO and AMC while traveling on the bus.
What’s your favorite tour memory? The first one that comes to mind?
N: Probably Glastonbury. Headlining that, and it going well. It felt really good. As soon as we knew we were heading that, you know, I got total butterflies. The week before your like..not a wreck, but not far off. And then we did it, and it went really well, it couldn’t have gone any better for us, and all the press in the UK said it was good. I thought I was going to be really nervous but while we were playing I really enjoyed it. I felt really calm and really enjoyed doing the performance even though I knew tens of thousands of people were watching it live on TV. That was probably the highlight for me this year, if not the highlight of my playing career.
I’m sure the Olympic Ceromony was right up there as well.
N: Definitely. I wish that could have been longer. 2 songs, you know? That felt like a blur.
What do you guys have planned for next year?
N: I think we will take a couple months off at the beginning of the year, and then probably tour until next summer. We’re going to be doing plenty in the U.S. and there’s places we haven’t been yet on this album like Japan and Australia. So yeah, we got a pretty busy schedule.