NME Tour – 2006

On The Road

The NME charabanc recently rolled into town. PLUG sent Steph Coole to check on the progress of Arctic Monkeys – who featured on the cover of our October/November issue – and to quiz tour headliners, Maximo Park: what’s it all about?

“They sing about the things I think about. And in a language that me and my friends use. Dodgy bouncers, scummy men.” As he talks about Arctic Monkeys, my friend’s smiling eyes wander up and right and then return to my field of vision. “You know. That’s what I like about them. I feel a connection.” At work, John was known as The Finger of Wisdom, despite his diminutive age. The shadowy hands of hype are not at work here. He means it. And judging by the reaction of Rock City’s undulating masses, as the Sheffield quartet takes to the stage, he’s not the only one.

Arctic Monkeys are met with an uproar, full of warmth and familiarity. There’s little sign of pant-wringing hysteria as hundreds of beaming, baked-bean faces perch on the edge of the Rock City vortex. A wall of beer goes up, forward and then down, around the band. I can only see singer/guitarist, Alex Turner and bassist, Andy Nicholson. They shrug and grin at each other and then launch…into what? I’m not sure in a red-faced way. In an effort to secure a better vantage point – and mesmerised by the writhing, apparently fun-fuelled frolicks erupting about twenty feet away – I find the find band’s first song washing over me. But not without sending seismic vibrations through once static legs. The latent energy stored within Arctic Monkey’s debut album – Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m not – bursts into life. Chopping, syncopated, six-string rhythms are anchored by watertight, booming bass and drums. Turner’s colloquial turns of phrase take on universal meaning in the city of rock, as a 2000-strong chorus line mirror his every word and intonation. By the time the band open the gates on Fake Tales of San Francisco, the pit-lane bouncers are struggling to prevent the connection between stage and crowd becoming a physical one.

Arctic Monkey’s rise has been well documented during the last few weeks. Already aroused by two, consecutive number one singles, the nation’s media erupted in a frenzy of flushed flashes as Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not became the fastest selling debut album in the UK. After one day in the shops it had broken Oasis’ record of releasing the fastest selling rock debut, with Definitely Maybe. Many journalists have attributed the band’s rapid ascent to the internet, a belief echoed by Arctic Monkey’s bass hoon, Andy Nicholson when he spoke with PLUG last year. But what most reports fail to mention is that the band played little, active part in their web-based acceleration. Digital word-of-mouth did the job, with fans at early gigs taking free demo CDs and swapping them with friends on websites. As Jarvis Cocker recently commented: “The only reason people have got into it (the music) is because they’ve listened to it and they like it, so it’s something real. I guess all the music industry will think ‘how can we emulate that or what can we do?’ I think that there’s nothing that can be done about it because it’s something that has happened naturally, there’s no way to apply spin-doctorism to it.” Arctic Monkeys have not been cleverly marketed, they’re simply very popular.

Park Life
With a penchant for naming new genres, the NME has kept surprisingly quiet when it comes to categorising Arctic Monkeys. ‘A very popular band.’ Or perhaps, even ‘a pop band’ doesn’t have the weight of something like, ‘New-Rock-Northern-Maoists.’ But headlining the NME tour is a band that seems comfortable with the notion of pop music. When Maximo Park sent a 7” disc to Warp Records, the words, “Pop music that isn’t popular yet,” were etched on the inside sleeve. Paul Smith, singer with the Newcastle quintet, has since said: “It was kind of a laying down the gauntlet to ourselves, and defining ourselves as a pop band rather than saying ‘this is indie’ or something, which doesn’t really mean independent anymore, it means a lifestyle choice.”

Chatting with Tom English, Maximo Park’s drummer, before the Rock City show, I blush a little. I’m suspicious of the NME’s predilection for lifestyle-choice sloganeering. But there’s no doubting the popularity of the, now yearly NME tour. “It’s something they need to do,” states Tom. “Something they’re in a position to do. These tours sell out quickly so there’s obviously a big demand for it. I think it’s going to get bigger and bigger as well because the British public’s appetite for live bands is growing.” In the past, the tour has proved to be a considerable platform. Tom maintains a balanced perspective. “I wouldn’t like it to get too rudimentary. You know, that if you do get this certain slot on tour then you will, in this amount of time become this big, it shouldn’t be like that. We’ve had a lot of people say, you know, Franz and The Killers, you must have it in the bag but we don’t want to treat it as a gateway to massive commercial success, necessarily. If it comes it comes but it’s got to be for the right reasons. You know it’s like, did the industry manufacture this position…but we have had to work our tits off to get to where we are.”

Tom acknowledges that the format is a change from Maximo Park’s usual on-the-road experiences. “(The bands) are in it for themselves, more so that if it was a tour of our own and we got our mates to support us. So it is slightly higher pressure but I suppose it’s what you make it. These are bigger venues and obviously there is a lot of hype following a certain band on the line-up. You can take that two ways. It’s up to us to live up to the position we’ve been given on the bill, or it makes our life a hell of a lot easier as all of the pressure is on them.” Laidback, open and witty, Tom doesn’t sound like a man feeling the pressure. But he does highlight one side effect of Maximo Park’s hectic schedule. “I love playing gigs,” he continues. “So playing once a night is good but exhausting. It’s a different type of gigging from previously where we played every few weeks. Now it’s every night but I don’t think we’ve lost the ability to inject all the energy we have on that night into a show. It’s all down to the crowds really.”

As Maximo Park close a powerful set with the hook laden Apply Some Pressure and Going Missing, it’s clear they are now performing pop music that is popular. Very popular. But has constantly treading the road diffused the band’s emotional tension? “It does strange things to you,” offers Tom. “I mean, it’s Paul’s love life that features heavily in the lyrics, certainly not mine! And I think touring certainly hasn’t reduced the amount of drama in his love life. Nor in mine. Touring can take its toll on relationships: family, friends and girlfriends. But personally I’m surviving, still happy. I think everyone else in the band is dealing with it but it certainly fuels the fire, or it can do. I don’t think there’s going to be any lack of source material for the next record.” Pop on!

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