"Hey baby, how are you?" Alex Turner coos over the phone from his New York hotel room.
It's early February and Turner, one half of the on-again symphonic duo the Last Shadow Puppets, has been cooped up at the Bowery Hotel for a whole day talking about the group's belated second album, Everything You've Come to Expect, which arrives a whole eight years after their first.
In the intervening years, Turner's other group, the Arctic Monkeys, has become one of the biggest in the world; he’s relocated from Sheffield, England, to L.A., befriended Josh Homme and cultivated a style and persona heavily indebted to the Beatles' Teddy boy biker phase.
Likewise, for Shadow Puppets, Turner and his collaborator Miles Kane adopted a mask of 1960s Lotharios, resplendent in Italian threads and accompanying Gainsbourgian soundtrack. As Pitchfork’s Laura Snapes put it in her review of the album, "Everything You've Come to Expect makes very clear that Turner and Kane are sexy men with sexy lives having lots of sexy sex with their sexy girlfriends.”
Back at the hotel room, Turner laughs. “Go on, baby,” he urges. He knows that I know it’s a persona. We’re five minutes into our interview and I haven’t asked a single question about the new album or the band. One gets the feeling this Turner persona likes it that way. (Later in the interview, Turner would describe this as a coping mechanism, "the part in the day you become a big fat liar.")
“This is a serious album and a serious interview,” he continues, rolling his “r”s like he’s a Tim Horton’s addict on LSD. “But where shall we be getting dinner?”
By the time I get a question off, about recording in Los Angeles — which appears to have changed the Puppets sound from baroque to a modern take on Sinatra in palm springs: a cool customer who shadows his darker side with a smooth charm and an easy smile; backed by a 29-piece orchestra deftly swung to life by Owen Pallett, whose fingerprints are all over the place here — Turner’s voice takes a sudden and rather shocking turn to the mundane. His accent has softened, his contestants flatten and suddenly the lines he’s practised seem forced, less off-the-cuff and breezy.
“I was under the impression that Rick Rubin was part of the deal when we rented this room,” he says of Rubin's Shangri La Studios, where Everything was recorded. “Surprised was I when we walked in there and saw producer James Ford and Owen Pallett sitting there, ready to receive us.”
By the time we get to Pallett’s contribution to the album, Turner’s dropped the humour, almost, to become a guy talking about his music, which he obviously cares deeply about.
“I think Owen thought that some of his stuff got lost on the first record so he made an attempt to simplify [his arrangements] for that reason. He did an amazing job and he makes a wonderful Pad Thai.”
Watching live videos from the era of the first Shadow Puppets album exposes two young men, barely in their 20s, playing grown-up. Turner, still reeling from the instant teen fame brought on by “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancfloor,” and Kane, playing it cool in front of gigantic rooms, fronting orchestras armed only with acoustic guitars and a faux-bravado. It was, in retrospect, a fond pastiche for a musical era neither would get to appreciate.
“It was the first time we tried to write lyrics like that, tried to sing like that,” Turner recalls. “Even before we'd written songs together it was the idea that we were chasing after this Scott Walker, Morricone, John Barry, David Axlerod, Melody Nelson... that world that we were just getting into then. “
“The point that's worth making is when we did it the first time there was never an intention to take it on tour and make it a big hoo-ha. It was a bit of a runaway train for us. It was an enjoyable, and liberating to some degree, experience. Which then did open us both up for the subsequent records that we made after that.”
In other words, it led to the Arctic Monkeys’ current success.
Nearly a decade later, the Last Shadow Puppets are, to a certain extent, their own influence. “[In the writing proccess for Everything…] We started searching for that and it became apparent that actually it was more about the two of us writing the songs together. The stylistic debate could wait until later.”
Which brings us back to the Bowery and the “babys” and the fine Italian shirts. Shortly after our interview, Spin writer Rachel Brodsky spoke with Turner and Kane, and wrote a profile criticizing Kane for propositioning her during their interview. Publicly, both Turner and Kane were told the space they created for their personas wasn’t a safe one for others. They had, in a sense, learned the lesson in life that they did previously in music: that in order to mature they must transcend their idolatry — and its implicit patriarchy.
In subsequent interviews, Turner and Kane have muted the seductive tones, choosing instead to let their more awkward, real personas out, while the music lives onstage, in the bubble of its own making.
The Last Shadow Puppets play the WayHome music festival on July 23