As on past North American tours, Arctic Monkeys drummer Matt Helders made sure he had one absolutely vital piece of documentation in hand before taking off from his native United Kingdom.
"I can't legally drink here, which makes it a lot different from home," the Sheffield-based timekeeper says, on the line from the sunbaked streets of Los Angeles. "But that's never been a big problem. I've got fake ID that has worked every time we've come here. People that work for us who had been to America knew we would have a problem before we ever played here–we were only 19 at the time."
That Helders still isn't old enough to legally get into the clubs that the Arctic Monkeys play down south speaks to what his band has accomplished in a short time. The quartet's 2006 debut, Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not turned the group from an Internet-based sensation into NME poster boys with the best-selling debut in British history. Suddenly Bloc Party, Futureheads, and the Kaiser Chiefs had some legitimate competition.
The just-released Favourite Worst Nightmare proves, if nothing else, that the Arctic Monkeys pay keen attention to what's going on around them. In the wake of Whatever People Say I Am's platinum-gilded success, Helders, singer Alex Turner, guitarist Jamie Cook, and bassist Andy Nicholson suddenly found themselves headlining all the European mega-festivals that mattered. Having a side-stage view of some of the biggest acts in rock made Helders realize he was nowhere near being the drummer that he could be.
"I've seen quite a lot of bands now, but I think the one thing that changed me most was seeing Queens of the Stone Age live at a festival last year," he says. "As soon as they came off I was like 'Fuck–I need to start hitting harder.'"
The drummer does just that on Favourite Worst Nightmare, a record where he steps up to claim the Arctic Monkeys' most-valuable-player award, coming on like a caffeine addict with five extra arms on the jittery "Balaclava" and proving himself metronome-steady on the tribal spaghetti western–ized thumper "Do Me a Favour". Helders, who has a thing for hip-hop geniuses Dr. Dre, Eminem, and Jurassic 5 and who names Led Zep's John Bonham as his all-time god, isn't the only one rising above and beyond in the Monkeys' rhythm section. Helders and new bassist Nick O'Malley (who replaced an overwhelmed-by-the-attention Nicholson in early 2006) come across as graduates from the Rage Against the Machine school of bombast on the cannon-ball of an opener, "Brianstorm", which sounds like the Arctic Monkeys going toe-to-toe with Steve Albini.
"I think because I've gotten better at drums, and Nick and I have played together so much, that there's just been a natural progression in our sound," Helders opines. "At first, through lack of experience, I don't think I ever really listened to what the bass was doing when we played."
As much as parts of Favourite Worst Nightmare play out like the Monkeys' Mach II, the band hasn't totally forgotten what got it here in the first place. What made the Monkeys' debut live up to the hype wasn't just the group's unmistakingly British take on dance-party postpunk but also Turner's conviction that the common people of England can be fascinating. Exposing the rest of the world to Chav culture long before Lady Sovereign punched in for her 15 minutes, Whatever People Say I Am tracks found him singing about Topshop princesses and poseurs from Hunter's Bar. On Favourite Worst Nightmare, the band hits bouncy Britpop gold with "Fluorescent Adolescent", a slice-of-Sheffield-reality song that, thanks to lines like "You used to get it in your fishnets/Now you only get it in your night dress", would impress filmmaker Mike Leigh. It's enough to make you think the Arctic Monkeys have it in for the UK's unwashed masses, which Helders stresses isn't the case. In fact, touring has helped convince him that there's no place he'd rather live than Sheffield, where he's happy to report that, despite being a BBC–approved rock star, he can still go about his business without being mobbed on the street.
"After touring the world, I think that I came back to Sheffield more appreciative," he notes. "And all around you, there's still plenty of things to write about. Touring lets you see a lot of places that you realize you wouldn't want to live in. And when you come home, it's pretty easy to slip into your old ways, to all the places you've always gone. If we all go out together at night clubbing, it's difficult, but alone you don't get recognized much."
Best of all, in Britain Helders doesn't have to worry about getting busted every time he approaches the door of a bar. He's happy to report though that he can already see a time when that won't be a concern in America, where the Monkeys are aiming to prove they are more than just another U.K. flavour of the month. Yes, he's almost at a point where he can throw away his fake ID for good.
"I'm the only one in the band who's not 21, but that's going to change in another week or so," Helders says with a laugh. "What's funny about my ID is that you'd never get away with it in England–everyone would be able to tell that it's fake."
The Arctic Monkeys play a sold-out Commodore on Friday (May 4).