Arctic Monkeys: Too much monkey business

The UK's latest indie superstars have lost a bassist at a crucial time. David Sinclair on the stresses of the music machine

The news that the bass player Andy Nicholson has dropped out of Arctic Monkeys, on the eve of a tour of North America, adds another dramatic twist in the tale of Britain's newest supergroup. A statement posted on the band's website on Monday revealed that Nicholson, 19, was suffering from "fatigue following an intensive period of touring".

"The band have been on a European tour, which concluded last week," says Ian McAndrew of Wildlife, the management company to which Arctic Monkeys are signed. "Toward the end of that tour, Andy mentioned that he was feeling a bit drained, a bit run-down, which is not terribly uncommon, frankly. We have another North American tour starting in Vancouver on Friday and there was a discussion, and it seemed the best thing for us to do was to say: 'Take a break. Have a few weeks off and give yourself time to recover'. And while everyone's now looking at it as a major, significant event, the reality is that it's no more than that."

For the immediate run of dates, which start in Vancouver on May 27 and end in Toronto on June 17, Nicholson will be replaced by Nick O'Malley, a friend from Arctic Monkeys' home-town of Sheffield, who plays in a group called The Dodgems. O'Malley, who has never performed live with Arctic Monkeys before, spent last weekend learning the group's songs by playing along to their records. Nicholson has lent O'Malley his equipment and been on hand at rehearsals this week to give him advice on playing the bass parts. According to McAndrew, it is an amicable, strictly short-term, substitution which will enable the group to honour its commitments, while giving Nicholson a little breathing space.

"After the North American shows, there will be a period of festival activity," he says, "which is not as intensive as touring in the States or Europe where you are on a bus going from one town to the next, the whole time. Some people have got different tolerances than others. I think Andy would have been quite capable of continuing, but I think we all felt in the circumstances, after conversations, that this was the prudent thing to do."

Nicholson is not the first musician to have bailed out from a band under such circumstances, and he won't be the last. One recalls the celebrated occasion when Liam Gallagher announced that he was too busy buying a house to be able to join Oasis for an American tour. And all sorts of stars - from Geri Halliwell to Richey Edwards - have made their exits from groups on the eve of American tours.

But Nicholson's is surely one of the earliest such departures, from a group which seems to be playing out its entire career in fast-forward. For him, the stresses of stardom have doubtless been intensified by the speed with which they have been applied. The bass player was still on the dole when Arctic Monkeys' first single, "I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor", came out, last autumn. The record went straight to No 1, and the group became public property overnight.

"We're just four blokes playing some music together," Nicholson said at the time. "But every night there seems to be more and more people out there. It's kind of like there's this storm around us and we're at the eye of it."

Shift the theatre of operations to America and the storm becomes a raging hurricane. In Britain, Arctic Monkeys have enjoyed the luxury of dictating their own terms to the media. An appearance on Top Of The Pops was ruled out on the grounds that it would be too cheesy. Ditto CD:UK ("We said 'no' - just because it's daft"). But in America there is no escape from the cheesy interview situation and the mandatory glad-handing of everyone from local DJs to record-shop managers.

"I don't think Arctic Monkeys work harder than any other band, regardless of their success," McAndrew says. "In fact, I have to say they probably work less hard than many bands because, as is well documented, they don't do an awful lot of promotion. They do the live shows; three shows in a row, then a day off. Some bands do a show every night. It's the travelling that takes its toll. That is the most tiring activity and that tends to be where the problems start. Obviously in our position... the welfare of people [is] very important to us. We don't want to get into a position where they start an American tour and the problem exacerbates itself to the point that we have to cancel dates or fly people home and things."

The journalist Craig McLean, who spent several months on the road with Arctic Monkeys, recalls a day in Paris when the band were presented with a schedule of interviews lasting eight hours.

"The record company had set up a whole day of press, and they'd agreed to do it. And literally on the day they said, 'No. We ain't doing that.' And they just legged it. And they walked to the Eiffel Tower and had a really good chat about the band and what they wanted to do and stuff. And obviously they hacked off an awful lot of people. That was a pan-European press thing and they just blew it out."

If some sections of the media have been given short shrift by the group, then the group have made no secret of their annoyance at the newspaper coverage of their success. In particular they have taken exception to the way in which they have been portrayed as the lucky beneficiaries of an internet revolution, such that their success was all down to file-sharing and a well-promoted MySpace profile. Of the four of them, it is Nicholson who was most bewildered by this interpretation of events.

"Someone were saying to me the other day, 'Oh, I saw your MySpace profile'. I ain't got a MySpace profile," Nicholson insisted, as recently as last November. "I've never been on it."

Whatever speculation has been prompted by Nicholson's apparently temporary departure, there is unanimous agreement among those around the group that this is not a "Pete Doherty moment". The band's period in the spotlight has yielded absolutely no talk of reckless hedonism or rock'n'roll excesses.

"That simply can't be the explanation," McLean says. "There's not a hint of drugginess about them, at all. In terms of fatigue, they've all got an equal right to be shattered. The reason he's given up is more likely to be the bog-standard thing that he just can't be arsed; it's just all too much fuss. Flying, and staying in nice hotels and being taken for nice meals and whatever, I can't imagine it holds much allure for him. He might think, 'oh, I can't be bothered'."

This explanation is certainly consistent with other reports of Nicholson's behaviour on the road. When the rest of the band trooped off to a star-studded party in honour of Coldplay at the celebrated Manhattan restaurant The Spotted Pig last month, the bass player cried off, pleading "fatigue". "I find that sort of thing right awkward, so I stopped in bed," he explained.

Nicholson is described as the archetypal bluff northerner, very deadpan, with a dry sense of humour. His sole concession to his status as an international rock star is his habit of popping up the collars of his polo shirts before going on stage. He and drummer Matt Helders are a wisecracking double act who constantly take the mickey out of each other, and those around them, in the way that old schoolmates do. And as a unit of close-knit friends, whose connections with each other date back to primary school , there is a strong group identity and a longstanding social bond among the four of them.

But none of them is particularly well equipped, at this stage, to deal with life in the celebrity goldfish bowl. The singer and guitarist Alex Turner doesn't like being fawned over and intensely dislikes being asked endless questions about the lyrics of his songs. But he is somewhat gregarious. Nicholson is neither gregarious nor likely to be asked about the intricacies of his funky bass-guitar lines.

A chunky kind of guy, Nicholson has been prone to the occasional mishap. When the band played the London Astoria in October, selling out the venue before they had released their first single, Nicholson bashed himself with the headstock of his bass, triggering a nose-bleed which caused a brief delay in the set. And when the group took part in a friendly football match against a team from the Italian media (in lieu of undertaking yet more unwanted interviews), a midfield clash between Nicholson and a journalist resulted in a broken ankle for the journalist. But now it is Nicholson who needs a spell on the recovery bench.

"People think that it's a glamorous life on the road, but it's really not," says the band's PR, Anton Brookes. "He's a pop star, but he's also a human being. He's probably just completely knackered."

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