Short

Arctic Monkeys’ Matt Helders at 16 – he left school and spent his savings on a drum kit stored in Alex Turner’s garage

"Turns out it was a good investment"

I was 16 in 2002, which was when I left school. I still lived at home, in a village that’s between Sheffield and Barnsley. It was a village where there was a couple of pubs, a small supermarket and a butchers – the usual things. By that time I was going into town with 10 pound and seeing what I can get.

I turned 16 in May, left school, had the summer off and went to Barnsley College in September. I only went because everyone else did, so when I got there I cheated my way onto the music course by learning one song on piano. And I did Photography and Media Studies.

It was that summer that I started playing drums. I’d never played until then. I had some money that my grandparents had given me when I was born – a thousand pound from a children’s bond – so I went to the Cayman Islands for four weeks, because my brother lived there, and then bought a drum kit when I got back, which was all my money gone. Turns out it was a good investment.

It was very inconvenient for me to buy drums because we didn’t have anywhere to put them in our house, but it was the only choice because the others had already got their guitars. If I wanted to be in the band it was drums only. So I used to keep them in Alex’s garage, and we practiced there. It meant that I could only practice whenever we all practiced. It was a slow start. I just didn’t want to be left out.

The others hadn’t started playing together, yet – they’d been learning Oasis songs in their bedrooms and didn’t pick it up much until we decided to do it altogether. We didn’t play a show until we’d rehearsed for a year, until we were really ready. In the first rehearsals the goal was to get to the end of a song without stopping – White Stripes songs and Strokes songs that we thought we could have fun playing. Alex hadn’t decided that he’d sing at that point – we were just playing and no one was singing.

Me and Alex went to the same primary school and lived on the same street. The other two – our parents’ houses are all within 50 feet of each other, so we grew up on the same estate. We all went to the same college as well. We’d hang around in the street after school and started talking about a band because some of our other friends were in bands. We didn’t realise before then that it’s something you can do – we just thought that bands were on TV – it didn’t seem like something that people who lived near us did. Then we saw friends do it and it became more accessible.

We played our first gig in Sheffield, at a pub called The Grapes. It was good. We’d been patient enough to know that we’d be good enough to do it. We had four of our own songs and four covers, and we just went on and nothing went that wrong. The covers were ‘Harmonic Generator’ by The Datsuns, ‘Hotel Yorba’ by the White Stripes, an acoustic version of ‘I’m Only Sleeping’, and ‘Teenage Kicks’ by The Undertones. We had a bias crowd of friends and family there – there were a lot less people at our shows 6 months later.

I wouldn’t say that I was instantly good at the drums but I was good enough to know that I should carry on pursuing it. I think I got decent quickly and then stayed the same forever. I remember thinking that I couldn’t wait until I’d been playing for a year, and then I couldn’t wait to have been playing for five years. I was trying to learn stuff that was too difficult and feeling put off by it.

My other interests were skateboarding and basketball. I played basketball at school but didn’t grow enough. And BMX. Me and my brother used to race, and although I didn’t by the time I was 16 I still had my bike. I wasn’t bad at skateboarding – I got to a kickflip and then gave up; I went to the skate park and dropped in on a half pipe and thought that’s good enough – if that’s as good as I am, that’s fine by me.

Musically, it was a transitional time from being at school listening to rap (Eminem and Dr Dre) to getting into guitars. There was a danger there, for me, of getting into Limp Bizkit. All the kids that were into rap got into that, especially as I was into skateboarding. I don’t know how I narrowly escaped that but I got into The Strokes, The Hives and The Vines instead. I could be in a very different band right now.

As told to: Stuart Stubbs

Check out previous Sweet 16 columns, and listen to our Sweet 16 podcast series.

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