Matt Helders: Pop Success With Arctic Monkeys

Matt Helders performs with Arctic Monkeys

At 21 years old and with just a couple of years of rock stardom under his belt, Matt Helders already talks about his fame with an air of cultivated boredom usually reserved for seasoned rock and roll geezers. As the drummer for the latest British pop/punk export, Arctic Monkeys, Helders may just be acting a part.

Or it may be that, having suddenly found himself living inside a fortress of wary PR professionals, analyzed by hordes of industry geeks wondering aloud if his band’s debut wasn’t just another Fourth Of July spectacular destined to quickly fizzle out against the star-studded night sky, and chased all over creation by obnoxious media ghouls asking inane questions, Helders has already had enough. Or maybe it’s just that he hasn’t had the unique pleasure of a DRUM! interview yet. I track him down for a phone interview while he’s having lunch in New York’s Greenwich Village at, where else, an English gastro pub called The Spotted Pig. The guys just finished some shows in England where they were working out the kinks in the new songs off their sophomore release, Favourite Worst Nightmare, and are on a bit of a holiday (though not from boiled cuisine, apparently). Over the roar of a lunch-hour crowd, I work hard to decipher Helders’ terse, Yorkshire-flavored responses on things like the recording process, his left hand going numb, dealing with an AWOL bassist, and what it’s like to get “hijacked by the Internet.”

It was only two short years ago when, having just poked their heads through the fertile soil of the Sheffield music scene, Arctic Monkeys were already being hailed as the next British invasion. Their swift transformation from average British teens to international pop icons seemed blindingly quick from the outside (although Helders insists it didn’t seem that way at all from the band’s point of view). At first glance, it was entirely feasible that all of the attention was just a byproduct of the band’s unique, Internet-specific rise to fame, and another overhyped British export would soon disappear into the annals of Where Are They Now? obscurity. Their debut album, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, released in October 2005, became the fastest selling debut album in the history of the British music charts, with 363,735 over-the-counter sales in the first week. Intrigued, the music industry responded with a collective, “Who the f**k are Arctic Monkeys?” — a question the band seemed poised to answer in their follow-up EP entitled, Who The F**k Are Arctic Monkeys. Turns out, they’re four kids who know how to craft a killer pop song. And their much-scrutinized Internet breakout, though seemingly ingenious, was kind of just a fortunate accident.

“All we did was give our CDs away at gigs,” Helders says of the raw demos they started handing out for (gasp!) free. “Pretty soon people were singing along at shows and we were like, ’How’d this happen?’ We were kind of looking for an explanation, and the Internet was the explanation. We’re no marketing geniuses or anything. We just left that up to the fans who put our demos on their Web sites.”

When their first single, “I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor,” rocketed to #1 on the charts, the media began trumpeting Arctic Monkeys as an overnight “Internet sensation.” Their success seemed to mark a turning point in band marketing, with the spotlight focused once again toward those once-maligned, peer-to-peer file-sharing networks that had so recently struck terror into the hearts and minds of the recording industry. But Arctic Monkeys weren’t having it.

“We were a bit pissed off because we were like, ’It’s not as simple as that,’” Helders says. “It’s like, a lot of bands have their songs on the Internet, especially nowadays. But you actually have to write good songs to have your #1. If it’s s**t, nobody’s going to listen to it — whether it’s a free download or not.

“It’s like, a foolproof plan, I think a lot of people think. For us it was just a good combination: good songs reaching a lot of people rather quickly. It worked out quite nicely.” But in the spirit of indie rebellion, Helders claims the band now avoids the crutch of Internet marketing, trying, as he says, to “prove that we’re doing it the traditional way.” Whatever that means.

Beginnings

Then again, what could be more traditional than a few neighborhood kids jamming out in their parents’ garages and suddenly hitting the big time, regardless of how they did it? Helders recites the now well-trodden Arctic Monkeys creation story. “When we left school at 16, that’s when we decided to start a band, more of like a hobby than anything; just for something to do to kill time. In England, the last two years of high school are optional, I suppose. You leave high school when you’re 16, then you do what you want. The other guys already had guitars, and drums were kind of the only thing left. I didn’t want to do it, but I thought I might as well give it a try — and I found out that I really liked it. It was the one for me.”

Helders bought a budget kit for about $300 and, without knowing a tom-tom from a snare, started banging away. (Times are a bit different these days; with Zildjian and Premier endorsements and his pick of several different kits, Helders is learning his way around the drum set in style.)

Arctic Monkeys started out, naturally, as a cover band until the inevitable creative impulse compelled them into exploring more original territory. “We never had a plan,” insists Helders. “We didn’t think, ’We want to sound like this.’ When we started to do our own sounds, it probably just sounded like The Strokes or someone. So then we had to start doing things that we hadn’t heard before, even if it was, like, playing a riff backwards or something, just so it sounds completely different.” This is, in fact, the crux of Helders’ drumming philosophy, which he employs to startling effect on the new album.

“When I try and analyze how I do it, I really can’t put my finger on it,” he says. “But when we’re working the songs up, there’s something in me that tells me I never want to do a straight beat. I never try to do the same beat in two songs. But I know eventually I’m going to run out of grooves.” He doesn’t seem too worried about it yet, though, shunning a conventional practice schedule because he “just hasn’t gotten around to it.” So how are new beats born? “When I sit doing nothing and I play something in my head or with my fingers, usually by the time I get to a kit, I’ll have forgotten it, so I’ll try to record it into my phone, tapping on something, to try and remember it. I do that quite often.”

Matt Helders Drumset

Spontaneous Composition

Arctic Monkeys’ creative atmosphere is one of those perfect expressions of democratic principle that, sadly, is often present only in the early days of a band’s existence, before all the VH1 drama starts fracturing bonds. Lead singer and guitarist Alex Turner is, according to Helders, constantly writing, formulating most of the band’s lyrical content. But the onstage backup vocals and offstage musical ideas flow evenly from everyone in the band. Helders serves as the main backup vocalist, comfortably occupying that rare and coveted singer/drummer territory. But his drumming itself is often the key element in a song’s creation.

“The way we work, it’s like, sometimes the drums are a massive part of it, like the starting point. Like, I’ll have a beat and Alex’ll be like, ’Play that again,’ and he’ll record it on his phone or whatever, and he’ll say, ’I’ve got a part for that,’ like a riff or something that fits it nicely. So in a way, it’s like helping out with the writing.” Then, after a pause, he chooses to clarify that thought. “I think too many chefs spoil the broth. I don’t want to get too involved [with the writing], and end up changing the band or something. I’ll stick with drums. That’s working out nicely.”

Indeed, but the writing process Helders describes is pretty much the same one utilized by every garage start-up band the world’s ever known. They basically get together, jam, and see what comes of it. “There’s never a theme,” Helders says. “There’s not really a formula for how we write songs. It’s always quite different. The songs are part of the lyrics, or it might just come from a rhythm we’ve done, and before we know it, we’ve got a song.” They’ve also never written anything down, instead learning and playing everything by ear. Thumbing through a tablature book of Arctic Monkeys’ music that was recently published in England, Helders simply noted, “They did it more technical than we actually did it. When people listen to it, they play more professional, I think. So it always looks a bit harder than it really is.”

But Helders didn’t come to the set entirely free of musicality. Long before picking up a pair of sticks, he was spinning records as a basement DJ. “I think that when The Strokes came along, when they came out in England when we were starting out, that got me into guitar music and out of the dance and hip-hop, I suppose.” But that background has left him open to the possibility of exploring more electronic elements in the band’s music. He owns a basic set of Roland V-drums and says he enjoys playing around with its weirder noisemaking capabilities, but has yet to see a clear signal that anything like that is needed in Arctic Monkeys’ sound. “I like the idea of quite minimal things at the moment; same with the other bandmembers. They’ve gradually got more pedals and everything, but it’s nothing major. It’s another thing to rely on, I guess, another thing to go wrong. There’s a bit of a fear, I guess.”

Besides, fans of the type of indie pop/punk that Arctic Monkeys create — not to mention fans of its skeletal core of rock, pop, and punk — are prone to celebrate the conspicuous shunning of excess equipment and theatrics. (It’s the music that counts, mate.) So it’s no surprise that Arctic Monkeys chose early on not to (please forgive this) monkey around with any of that stuff. “It was pretty conscious at first because we didn’t want to hide behind anything else, I suppose,” Helders says. “A lot of things look impressive live, but then you’re taking your mind off what’s actually happening. For this new tour we’ll be doing a bit more in terms of lights. But it’s all old stuff, not like lasers and everything; tasteful stuff, you know.”

Lights and electronics aside, it’s clear from the first notes of Favourite Worst Nightmare that neither Helders nor the rest of the band has given up on dance-floor sensibility. With a giddy exuberance that sometimes borders on Austin Powers-esque, retro wackiness (in a good way, though), the new album soars with a nonstop barrage of gleefully catchy hooks driven by Helders’ surprisingly intricate breakbeats and primal, tom-laden thunder. It’s music that demands movement.

“I think [the new album] is a big step up for us,” Helders says. “We’re always getting better, I suppose, just from playing hundreds of gigs and playing together for four or five years or whatever it is.” But it wasn’t that long ago that they walked into 2 Fly, a tiny, but illustrious studio in Sheffield where bands from Def Leppard to Pulp have laid down tracks, and asked owner and resident producer Alan Smyth to help them record a few songs they already had written. It was just a week after their first show. “We kind of went in and did a full day, about ten hours, and that was it,” Helders remembers.

“After that first demo is when we got management and every couple of months we used to go in and do more. That’s how we built up that big library of demos.” And what about those maiden recordings, those seeds of stardom that bore such amazing fruit in the hard drives of adoring fans? “Those songs don’t exist anymore,” claims Helders. Or they do, if you believe the purported originals now being sold over the Internet for a few hundred bucks are the genuine articles.

Next came their first record deal, with Domino Records, and the subsequent debut album, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, also recorded at 2 Fly over the course of about 15 days. “The first album, we did almost everything live,” Helders says. “We didn’t want to go too live though, otherwise you might as well just record a gig.” The new album, by comparison, took more than four months and involved five different studios, as well as a bit more instrumental isolation. “There’s been a few cases where we’ve rerecorded the drums when we decided to change something. I kind of liked doing that. It’s like backwards, but if something went wrong, I didn’t have to worry about them starting over. I wouldn’t want to do it all the time, though,” Helders says. “We never want to do too much stuff that we can’t reproduce live. We always bear that in mind while we’re recording. It was a bit harder this time around because we had more guitar sounds and harder drumming. So it’s gotten a bit more interesting and a bit more challenging, I suppose.”

The biggest challenge, of course, is translating the stratospheric energy level that carries most of the 37.5 minutes of Favourite Worst Nightmare to the stage. It’s something Helders, despite his tendency toward understatement, will admit has given him some trouble.

Matt Helders

Growing Pains

On Favourite Worst Nightmare, Arctic Monkeys waste no time in announcing their intentions, with Helders burning across the toms and hi-hat at 176 bpm in a veritable endless crescendo of thirty-second-notes. This is the essence of “Brianstorm,” which Helders plainly admits is the hardest thing he’s ever had to play on drums. “Our first practice session out of the studio, I was thinking, ’I don’t think I can do this,’ playing sweating and out of breath and everything. A lot of times we speed up quite a bit when we play live, just from, like, adrenalin, or whatever. But then that got me thinking that if I have to do [“Brianstorm”] faster than this, it’s going to be pretty difficult.” No doubt, this kind of material is an exhausting proposition for anybody, but when you’re a self-taught rocker with a naturally adolescent aversion to practice who’s always looking to push the music beyond the limitations of your technique, it can even hurt a little.

“When we play live, my left hand seems to eventually feel as if it’s gone numb,” Helders says, “like I’ve lost control of it, and I have to grip on like I’m going to drop my stick or something. That’s been happening recently. I don’t know if it’s because I’m holding on too hard or something.” Seeking professional advice for this malady, Helders contacted Mike Dolbear, a London-based drum instructor who operates the UK’s popular Young Drummer Competition. With he and Helders both juggling busy schedules, Dolbear suggested Helders film himself playing and send him the video for a remote diagnosis.

“When I see myself on a video or something, I kind of like the way [my form] looks,” Helders says, before quickly acknowledging the irrationality of that statement. “I know that’s not the way to think about it, but it doesn’t look like I’m doing it wrong, I suppose.” Still, with songs on the new album like “Brianstorm,” “Balaclava,” and “This House Is A Circus” indicating a speedier, drum-intensive direction for the band, Helders may find himself wanting to hold tight to sound advice.

Personnel Problems

With all the attention garnered by their first single alone amounting to more than most bands will ever receive in a career, it’s hard to believe that Arctic Monkeys haven’t been on the popular radar longer. But enough has happened even in that short time to reinforce the perception of their having spanned a larger chunk of time, including the somewhat mysterious departure of original bassist Andy Nicholson.

After the success of their first album, the band, heady from the subsequent whirlwind tour around the UK, was preparing for its first American tour. About a week before they were set to leave, bags nearly packed, tour all squared away, Nicholson dropped the bomb that he would be staying behind.

“We still don’t really know why,” says Helders. “It’s not for everyone, the traveling, I suppose. He said he got a bit fed up at being away, a bit homesick and stuff. He didn’t get specific. We didn’t want to drag all of that out of him.” Nicholson’s decision took the band off guard, but they respected it, and made plans for him to rejoin after they got back from America. It never happened.

“We had a replacement, Nick [O’Malley], and he’s been with us ever since,” Helders says. “We took him out to America and we just couldn’t see going back to the way things were for whatever reason. The Andy situation was a bit strange, like, the fact that he gave us, like, a week’s notice to find someone else. As far as we’re concerned now, it’s fine, when we see him out and stuff.”

O’Malley took half a second to ditch his grocery store job and hit the tour circuit with the band. The only stipulation was that he needed to learn the entire Arctic Monkeys catalog in a week. His second show was the Sasquatch Music Festival, held in Washington State, where he was put to the test in front of 20,000 rabid Monkey enthusiasts. “He had to play all of our songs in front of existing fans, so it was a bit of a challenge for him,” remembers Helders.

When they returned to England, they hit the ground running. And with the tour following the release of Favourite Worst Nightmare now gearing up, they show no signs of stopping. “You don’t want the heat to come off you,” Helders says. “You want to come back as quick as you can while you’re enjoying it.” And on the subject of his growing fame, Helders, naturally, continues to play it cool. “It didn’t just suddenly come to us. Ever since I was 19 it’s been my job.” He pauses, “Obviously it’s still weird no matter what I say.”

Helders’ Kit

Matt Helders Setup

Drums Premier Series Maple (Arctic White Sparkle Finish) (except where noted)
1 22" x 16" Bass Drum
2 14" x 5" Ludwig Vistalite Snare
3 13" x 8" Tom
4 16" x 16" Floor Tom

Cymbals Zildjian
A 14" A Mastersound Hi-Hats
B 18" A Fast Crash
C 20" A Crash/Ride

Groove Analysis

Matt Helders is a liar!

Well, he must be! Considering the cool beats he devises that power the pop/punk sound of Arctic Monkeys, we absolutely refuse to believe that he has only played drums for a mere handful of years. Don’t believe us? Well, check out a couple of Helders transcriptions for yourself (taken from the band’s latest CD, Favourite Worst Nightmare).

DRUM! Notation Guide

Arctic Monkeys Brianstorm

“Brianstorm”
This is the first single from the new album, and it starts like a crazed Dick Dale surf tune. Helders plays a fitting fast tom groove that sounds like a variation of “Wipe Out.” Then he launches into a fast two-handed hi-hat groove, and in the last couple of measures, plays a simple but clever fill that mirrors the song’s kick rhythm.

Arctic Monkeys Do Me A Favor

“Do Me A Favor”
This song has four basic groove patterns. The first tom groove is a cool tribal beat that you might find a little difficult to play unless you try a sticking pattern of RRLRLLRL. The sticking pattern becomes much more obvious when Helders later moves the accents to the snare. For the bridge, he pounds out quarter-notes with unison crash, kick, and snare notes, then varies the pattern during the last chorus emphasizing the & of 2 on the snare along with the previous quarter-note pattern.