Interview with Matt Helders - Arctic Monkeys
Interview with Matt Helders - Arctic Monkeys
From the fastest selling debut album in the UK, to playing with P Diddy and being a DJ in his own right, Matt Helders has had an interesting few years. However, there have been a few ups and downs. Mike recently had a chat with Matt to see whats been happening.
So then Matt, how have things changed since four friends had the fastest selling British debut album?
I suppose a lot’s changed but we have grown up from the 19 year olds that we were when the first album came out. You obviously change a lot. We are now 25/ 26, it’s a different lifestyle to what a lot of other friends, or other 19 year olds have done, and coming from Sheffield it was quite unheard of.
We have always had our old mates with us. We take them on the road doing jobs for the band so that really helps us keep grounded. We have four on the road with us now. We are all enjoying it at the moment and we seem to be getting more comfortable with all that goes with being in the Arctic Monkeys.
Do you find that you’ve had to change your friends?
Not really, the ones that were close, like these were, still are and there’s obviously others, newer friends that you’ve met through this. You can tell, maybe to do with our upbringing or where we’re from, you can judge a character, you can see through it if people are in it for the wrong reasons. If we don’t notice our friends will tell us.
The band have also gone through some changes as well. Has that been tough, as a group of lads, as mates?
Well obviously when Andy left it was a bad time, quite devastating and hard for us all. And it would have been a completely different story if we hadn’t have got Nick in, who we also knew, longer than we’d known Andy. We went to college with Nick, he lives in his mum and dad’s house, behind my mum and dad’s house. He was like the perfect guy to step in because we already had that relationship with him as well. So it can still be that tight unit. If we’d have done that tour and got a guy in for it, just like a session guy, it would have been a completely different story.
As a drummer you got quite a lot of success and the magazines all voted you their number one drummer. Did you find that affected you or did you ignore all that?
No, I definitely enjoyed it. I never imagined it for a start. However, I just fell into the role of the drummer because it was the only thing left to do - we had the four people before we decided what were gonna happen with this band. It was like let’s start, let’s be a band, and they had guitars lying around that they’d never even picked up, from Argos or whatever. I suppose I was kind of interested in the drums, I’d see a drum kit at school, but I didn’t know what each drum was called, or what you did with your feet. So then it was quite lucky that I could do it.
But you were DJing, so you had good sense of rhythm. When you got to the end of that first album, then the start of the second album all the magazines were raving about you.
When we started on the second record I had to catch up with myself, like I''d done everything I could do on the first album. It wasn’t like I wanted to show off or anything, but as a band we were playing to our limit - I just couldn’t play any faster, I didn’t know any more fills, which in one way was good because it kept it tasteful. Then on the second album, I felt I could do it, I could hit a bit harder. I suppose I was always keeping up with what was expected of me, or what I thought was expected of me.
Did that drag you down do you think?
No, I think the opposite. It was kind of exciting and encouraging when I realised I could do certain things. In a way before our first ever gig we were conscious that we wanted to be good, we stayed in a garage for a year practising and didn’t do a gig for a year. So by that time we’d all been playing for a year and as a band really got to know each other and what we could and couldn’t do together. This was the only band we’d been in so the fact that we learned together made us quite tight straight away. I think it was beneficial that it worked out that way.
So, two albums done and you get Josh Homme in to produce your next two albums.
Yeh. Another level of pressure.
Why did you find that you needed to change direction and sound? It really is, as you said, another level of pressure.
I think we were kind of wanting to do something different. The second album was different to the first one in a way, but we still worked with the same or similar people. When you do your third album it’s another fresh start in a way, it’s like we’ve done the first one, done the difficult second one, now you can do something else. It was quite liberating to do that, to build something different, to go outside England.
We had an idea that we wanted to work with Josh before we’d met him. We had been fans of what he had done with ''Queens Of The Stoneage'' and Laurence at Domino brought it back up when we had conversations but it didn’t seem quite realistic then. We met him a couple of times and we’d done some demos of some of the songs that were on Humbug and he had ideas straight away what he wanted to do with these songs, so it just felt right to be working with him on our next album.
We didn''t know what he was like as a person, but we flew there, pretty much lived with him and recorded. Then the rest came into it - people he’s worked with, every drummer he’s had, he’s got a high standard. Ever musician he’s worked with is like top of the game, so that was a good thing and when you got compliments from him you knew it must have been good.
Did he change your playing?
Maybe. He didn’t get involved. He’d sit down at kit though as well and get involved because he can play a bit and he has an interest in a different approach to drums. I suppose everybody does in a way. I suppose we’re both a bit unorthodox in a way, because I haven’t been taught certain things and he does what’s necessary and then I’ll have a weird idea. He doesn''t like a lot of white noise, he doesn’t like a lot of crash cymbals.
The crash cymbal thing was interesting, because we always did a lot of recording where we would overdub the crashes so that they could be treated differently. That way, the drums can be compressed as much as needed but you can also have as little or as much cymbals as you want. They’ve done that a lot on QOTSA tracks with V-drum cymbals - do a drum take, then swap V-drums with a real crash. We only did one or two songs where I didn’t play cymbal, I just put a cushion on it so I could go for the cymbals but it didn’t make the sound.
Then we’d get all various types of cymbals and percussion out like a massive china with rivets in it and we’d do more interesting cymbal sounds so you could kind of concentrate more on the cymbal sounds separately. That was what we were more up for on this album, having extra instruments on it that we couldn’t do live, but it made the album better in a way.
That was all down to Josh, because, for a long time we were afraid to deviate too far from just us four, we’d want to be able to record a song and then play it next day if we were on tour, including backing vocals and everything. But with that he said ''You’ve got enough of an identity to be able to do this and you’re still Arctic Monkeys''. For a long time we were like ''We can’t put an organ on because that’s not us'', or whatever, but he kind of made us realise that. In terms of changing our playing I suppose maybe subconsciously I felt I needed to bring more to the table or try and impress him.
Certainly what I noticed, I felt you grew up and you matured as a drummer.
Yes, well it comes down to band decisions, making the drumming suit the song, and everybody kind of gets involved. When Alex is writing songs he’ll have an idea for the drum feel and he just maybe can’t express what it is but I’ll interpret it. But a lot of songs before that, and to an extent on this record, evolved from the drum beats and he’d apply something to it, like a riff that would go with it. I’d have a library of beats that I’d be playing in sound checks and he’d say ''Can you do that one?'' and he’d like try and describe it. Then we’d write a song around it.
I think that was just a way of working that seemed to work for us, so when it came to going from Favourite Worst Nightmare to Humbug the songs had changed as well, so the drums had to change a bit. It was a bit darker and moody. The drum sounds that Josh gets, big and quite dirty sometimes, were always in the back of us minds as well. But all I ever wanted to do was something that I hadn’t heard before. Obviously I’d play a straight beat, but then I never want to repeat myself too much, even if that just means moving one kick drum.
So when you recorded with Josh was most of that stuff done live?
Yeah, a lot of it. We recorded it in the desert at the Joshua Tree studio and then we did some of it in Josh’s studio which is actually in Burbank in LA. He’s got more space there to do live takes, but the desert one is like a house, a small house, it’s like the desks in the kitchen, drums in the dining room, amp in the toilet.
So for four northern lads it felt more suited there?
Yeah, it’s more humbling I suppose. A lot of the time we’d just go for drum and bass takes, that’s the least we ever do together and maybe a rhythm guitar. Then we’d just listen to drums and bass and if he needed to do a little overdub it was fine. So drums I suppose were a priority. If there was a good drum take then he’d sacrifice everything else I suppose because that were easier to sort out.
So when you were recording the drums and coming up to the second album with Josh he didn’t expect you to play like Joey Castillo you’d already come to the table knowing what you wanted to do?
Yeah. I think the reason he agreed to even make a record with us is I think he understood that we didn’t expect him to make us sound like QOTSA, it was the last thing he wanted as well. You hadn''t gone there to sound like them, so he was very conscious of us having our identity still and that’s kind of what he wanted to do - make a different record to what he’d make for himself. He does self produce a lot, but there is no point in making another carbon copy of a band. Obviously there’s bits of that in there, like some sounds and guitar sounds, but the songs are not like theirs.
Let’s talk about your outside projects, because there’s quite a few of those and I’m not sure if too many people know about this one. First thing, Diddy’s Dirty Money. What’s your involvement and how did that come about?
Well, I met him randomly at his house. While we were recording Humbug we had the weekend off. Some other band members had there girlfriends out to visit and mine wasn''t coming, so myself and a mate (James) who was DJ''ing in Miami decided to go and hang out, because I’m interested in dance music. He was DJ’ing for P Diddy at his party, but he weren’t necessarily gonna be there, it was just hosted by him. Then he invited me and James back to his house because they were having a party and I was introduced to him, he had heard of us and was like “Oh, Arctic Monkeys”. But I thought he was just taking the piss and being nice - “Of course I know who you are”. And then he knew our B sides and stuff, he knew the name of one of the B sides and I went “Wow, it’s for real!” He really did know our stuff, he gave me his number and we stayed in touch. We had a weird text relationship and I saw him a few times after that.
I went to his studio when we were in New York once, while he were making his album. So he was coming over to do Jonathan Ross and I texted him and said I’m in London on Thursday if you want to hang out. I kind of did it just pushing my luck to see if he’d reply. He texted back saying ''Yeah, come to show if you want, come and watch''. I said that’ll be nice and he text me back straight away saying “Why don’t you play?”. I was out bowling somewhere with family and I get this message from P Diddy! ''We are filming it on Thursday''. ''Right can you send me track?'' and I didn’t get the track until Tuesday and it was first time I’d played to a click live. I normally do that in a studio where you get another chance, so this is playback, like 808 drums on it as well, but he wanted live drums and my kit. He said ''wear what you want because I want your style, I want this''. So I practised the track in the attic of my house. It weren’t like it was a difficult song but just the pressure, it was the first time I’d done any sort of playback, so I went down and did that.
Did just the sound check with his band. He turned up for one sound check just before we did the show and he were like looking and he said “I like this”.
Lets talk about your your DJ’ing.
I haven’t done it now for probably about a year but, it’s still something I’m interested in. I kind of lost touch with what I want to play now. I always play electro, hip hop and stuff and then in terms of new music that has kind of blended into pop now. Even like Black Eyed Peas sounds electro now, so it’s like what am I gonna play now?
I have been doing it since I was around 14 years old so a couple of years before I started playing drums, so like you were saying earlier that’s what got me to keep in time, like the beat matching. I have done a few big clubs like Ibiza Rocks. It’s quite scary though I think, there’s like more to go wrong in a way than there is at a gig because at least when we do a gig we know that people are coming to see us and they like the songs. When you’re DJing they don’t know what you’re gonna do and you could do something, or a CD skips or something . I know a lot of friends who are DJs who tour all the time and have a few nightmares.
You’ve also had an album out, haven’t you, with remixes?
I did that Late Night Tales album. I did like a cover of an old dance song which was a compilation series that was quite interesting to do. Like a list of songs that you like listening to when you get in from somewhere.
Yeah, I did that, I still do a few. At the moment I’m doing some for a mate’s band. I still have an interest in that. Especially when we’re on tour, I like doing it on the laptop like a rough version.
Ok. Your clothing line.
Yeah, I did a bit of that. I had some time on my hands there!
I did a couple of things last year with Goldie. It were like a me-versus-him collaboration on some clothes. Every year they’d come and say ''do you want to do a bit more?'' and it gradually developed into a whole line. They’re always happy for me to do it whenever I want. It’s a bit of fun as well.
And your boxing. Is boxing something you’ve always been in to or did you do it to help you with the drumming?
I first started doing it when we were on NME tour and it was the first time we’d had security. I was talking to one of the security guards about it one day about it. I’d always wanted to do something like that but never had at school or anything, whether it be martial arts or boxing and he was like “I’ll do a bit of boxing with you.” I started it then, that was obviously, five years ago or something.
I want to make it quite clear, this isn’t pad work, it’s actual contact?
At that time it was, I didn’t really take it seriously until two, maybe three years ago. So in 2006 we were just on tour and had pads and gloves and all that, although when we went to Brazil we had two guys with us and they bought whole body gear, so we all had a bit of a go at one point, and we could actually try and hit them. Then when we were off between albums, I joined a proper gym at home and could start training with professionals and that led on to getting a bit too into it. The day I moulded my gum shield I thought, ''this is it, I’m gonna get hit now''. I did body sparring for quite a while, where I could try and hit them because they were professionals and they were like ''we won’t hit you in face''.
Tell us about your arm.
I snapped my humerus while fighting. We’d already been training doing pads and bag and skipping and all that and then we did some sparring and it was the sixth round and we were both knackered. I was boxing with a kid who was a similar level to me, he was just doing it again for fitness, he weren’t a pro so it made it good because he were quite competitive. So he would win a round and I’d win a round and get him in a corner or whatever. And then I jabbed him, landed it, went straight for a left hook and he got his hand up just in time and pushed my arm up and it just snapped.
I now have a metal plate and seven screws in my arm. That was in July and we had to be ready by September to record, to start writing records, so that was a bit scary.
Were you concerned?
Straight away. For a day I was in shock and giddy about it in a way. I put all me stuff away, as soon as I’d done it. I’d folded all my stuff up like towels and put my gloves away and took all my wraps off and everything. Why did I do that? I should have been, like, shit! Then it sinks in, that night in hospital, I just sat thinking for ages. Then you’re having the operation and now that’s not even it because anything can happen in the operation like a nerve gets touched or whatever.
So yeah, that were quite scary and then straight away, as soon as I had my operation, because I had a metal plate it meant as soon as I felt like I could move it, but it had all tightened up, so I couldn’t straighten my arm for weeks. I had physio and it was ''oh I can do it now''. I couldn’t get it up there, it would only go so far, but then doctors were like, ''as soon as you feel it doesn’t hurt do wrist stuff, keep that going'' Obviously it’s gonna hurt for a while. So you don’t lose any speed.
You’ve started breaking America.
Yeah, we go a lot and you can kind of still notice progress there. Here we do arena tours and we’ve done some festivals which is great obviously, but then you do that again the year after. It’s still fun obviously, but there’s not much else to go other than record sales which is difficult now as well. Whereas America you see more and more fans coming and younger kids who were like ten when the first record came out and they’re going back rediscovering that, or discovering it for the first time for them.
The American market’s a little bit different as well isn’t it? For a start there’s no one major radio station, so you have to get round to all the radio stations. There’s not many bands actually doing the big stadium gigs like there is there?
No, it’s only the bands that are big like Foo Fighters obviously, so it is strange. And to be able to do that in every place that they go is unbelievable. It varies, we’ll do like a club show in one place and then do a nice big theatre and then do Hollywood Bowl, or whatever. In New York and LA we can do quite big gigs, then you go into Middle America, Salt Lake City and it’s like 900 people, which is again, you’d never imagined it, so you can’t complain about doing that. It’s just the variety of it, it’s quite interesting and then you come back and do two nights at London''s O2.
Final question then, at 19 years old it’s very easy to come off the tracks. You’re 25 now, so any young drummers out there that are beginning to get a bit of success, any advice you’d pass on?
It’s hard because we haven’t really gone out of our way to keep it real, or whatever, it has just been natural. It must be down to our upbringing and I suppose it is down to having your friends around you quite a bit, or at least staying in touch with them. We’ve all had that as a band, I don’t think we’ve found it hard to stay grounded. You have your moments obviously, where it’s a bit overwhelming and you’re like ''this is mad'', but at least you know it’s mad! It’s not like we’ve ever been in a situation like this and we think it’s normal, at least if you still think it’s a bit mad then you’re alright.
Words: Mike Dolbear
Photos: The ever brilliant James Cumpsty who helped at the last moment. Thank you James
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