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Monkeying with success

Arctic Monkeys did some tinkering with their approach to ballyhooed new CD

For a round of recent phone interviews, Arctic Monkeys frontman Alex Turner thought he'd be well-served to sit in a Brooklyn park near the home he shares with his girlfriend.

The press schedule would have him glued to his cellphone for at least the next few hours, so the singer-guitarist hatched a plan to bring a Frisbee along for some mindless escapism.

Turner, 23, forgot one key part of his plan -- the Frisbee. Perhaps it was all for the better. "We're pretty extreme when we play," he said. "You're gonna get an arm-ache from the level that we offer it."

I suggested using the catch-phrase "bring the heat," having just watched Bull Durham on the telly. "The heat," Turner said, pondering the North American expression. "We don't leave home without it."

Turner, a native of Sheffield, England, left his home in late 2008 for London, only to relocate six months later to Brooklyn when his gal pal, Alexa Chung, a former model, scored a gig hosting MTV's It's on With Alexa Chung.

The new zip code has had zero impact on the career arc of Turner's band, whose third record, Humbug, arrives in stores today on a mountain of advance hype and intense publicity, particularly overseas.

In the band's homeland, few acts are bigger. Their 2006 debut, Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not, surpassed Oasis's Definitely Maybe as the fastest-selling debut album in British music history, while its followup, 2007's Favourite Worst Nightmare, debuted No. 1 in the U.K. and saw all 12 tracks from the album enter that country's radio charts.

There was no need to mess with success for Humbug, but Turner thought a little tinkering was in order.

"I think we were a lot more open to start with this time. I think that was a necessity, to approach it with more of an open mind than we have with things before. In the past, we always had this sort of regulation in place, almost like, 'We need to be able to play this live.' We were always conscious of that when we were making records. If we recorded something on Monday, on Tuesday night we wanted to be able to play it live."

Turner, bassist Nick O'Malley, guitarist Jamie Cook and drummer Matt Helders will surely be able to replicate the Humbug material live, despite the complexity of the studio versions.

Three songs off the album were produced in New York by James Ford, who was at the studio console for Favourite Worst Nightmare, but the majority were produced by Queens of the Stone Age braintrust Josh Homme, whose affinity for riff-heavy experimentalism was considered an odd pairing with the Monkeys' brash Brit-rock.

Homme, who produced parts of Humbug at a studio in Joshua Tree, Calif., near the Mojave Desert, came to the project at the suggestion of the group's London-based label, Domino Records. Turner thought it was a weird choice at first, but decided he had nothing to lose by sending demos to Homme for feedback. The band was invited to California for a chat, which they accepted. Soon after, the decision was made to move forward with Homme on the recording of Humbug. "He said, 'Don't leave home without the heat,' " Turner joked.

Though some songs were done at Homme's Burbank, Calif., studio, Turner said the desert looms extremely large. "I think we underestimated that. We had a cockiness, or frothing cynicism about it, like 'He wants to take us to a studio in the desert -- there will probably only be a couple of cacti.' We didn't know what to expect. But when we got there it was pretty special. It certainly did seem to provide a load more possibilities that perhaps wouldn't have surfaced. There was a spark."

Homme left his mark -- he plays guitar here and there, while his former Queens of the Stone Age bandmate, Alain Johannes, mixed the album -- but there's no mistaking the innate Britishness of Turner's lyrics.

The singer suffered a blow early in the writing process when a book of his song lyrics disappeared. It was never recovered, though he was able to recall some from memory. "I have to assume those were worth hanging on to," Turner said. "At least that's what I'm telling myself."

The band's third album is a big departure from the previous two albums, though it has a considerable amount in common with last year's At the Apollo, a frenetic CD-DVD set documenting the quartet's 2007 world tour.

Turner said the scrappy side of the band has been in hiding long enough. "There was a desire to make a more aggressive record. We've been enjoying the rock side of our shows, perhaps more than the melodic-song side of it. After having had a moment away from playing live, we wanted to introduce a bit of diversity, expand a little more."

When Arctic Monkeys played their first live gig, back in 2003, Turner was a 16-year-old with zero experience. Being in a rock band was something he had never entertained, but he has warmed to the idea big-time. Little has changed. He's a little older and a lot wiser, but his head and heart remain pure.

"When I talk about growing up and everything, while I think it is true, I tend to always associate that idea with a band maturing -- like growing up is becoming less fun," he said. "I really don't think that was the case. This album seemed a little more enjoyable than recordings we've done in the past. We played a little bit earlier this year, after having not played for a year, and it was a scream."

Turner, who in the past has spun a tall tale or two when talking with the press, has a good laugh when talk turns to the topic of the new album's title, and what -- if any -- implications that conjures up.

There's a popular U.K. candy by the name of humbug, which had a part in the naming of the album, he said. "Perhaps our other albums were jelly babies. But you've just got to suck this one a little bit more."

The literal meaning of the word humbug, which amused Turner to no end, also came into play. "The thesaurus results for humbug are exceptional. Taradiddle is apparently a word for it. Bilgewater is another one. My favourite is dupery. It's fantastic. I can't wait to use that in conversation. 'That's dupery, mate. Get out of my f---ing face.' We wanted to call it Dupery, but then you wouldn't get the sweet connection. And I think you need that coalition."

devlin@tc.canwest.com