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— by Brandee J. Tecson

Boy, have these high school dropouts been blessed.

The four 19-year-old blokes in Arctic Monkeys have already picked up legions of hard-core fans and garnered praise from Coldplay's Chris Martin — all before releasing their debut LP, which only dropped in the U.K. this week.

"It's all been quite a bit of a fluke," said frontman/guitarist Alex Turner, who describes the recent turn of events as "proper hysterical."

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"If I say 'phenomenon,' it sounds like I'm right up my own arse, but we'd be daft to act like we didn't realize how incredible the last year's been," he continued. "When it all started, we were like, 'F---ing hell, what's going off here?' "

Hailing from the industrial city of Sheffield, England, Turner — along with bassist Andy Nicholson, drummer Matt Helders and guitarist Jamie Cook — ditched high school at age 16 and formed the eclectic outfit. They named themselves after a '70s band Cook's uncle played in, but they're hardly unoriginal; Arctic Monkeys share a love of Brit-rock bands like the Smiths, the Clash and the Jam, and they've also integrated underground hip-hop and even urban poetry into their diverse sound.

Despite the early success, Helders says the band's journey hasn't been that easy. "It's hard at first to get your own sound, because you don't know anything else than what you listen to," he said, noting that the band started out by covering other groups' material.

Arctic Monkeys quickly veered off that path and started churning out their own material thanks to the lyrical styling of Turner, who says he's inspired by Manchester punk poet John Cooper Clarke. The boys jumped into Sheffield's club scene, and soon after landing their first gig at the Grapes, they were playing sold-out shows to diehard crowds; word spread across the Atlantic after the band began handing out free demos at its shows and posting MP3s on its Web site. By the time the Monkeys took the stage at the Boardwalk Club in Manchester, fans started belting out the words to a track the band hadn't even released yet.

"I had to stop playing, I was pissing myself," Turner recalled. "It just erupted into this thing. We had people crowd-surfing and landing on monitors."

"We owe a lot to the Internet because it helped spread the word and the music," Helders added.

In May they released their debut EP, Five Minutes With the Arctic Monkeys, which featured the punchy "Fake Tales of San Francisco" and melancholy "From the Ritz to the Rubble," but still, despite all the hoopla, they were wary about signing to a label. That is until Domino Records, the same indie imprint that snagged Franz Ferdinand (who have had the Monkeys open some dates for them), showed some interest.

"We'd have people say, 'I'm not sure about that record label stuff,' but once we had kind of this family, there was no denying it anymore," Turner said.

To the band's surprise, its first single, "I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor" — an infectious tune about spotting a hottie at a club — entered the BBC Official Top 40 Singles Chart at #1 in October with more than 39,000 copies sold.

"How could that be #1?" Turner quipped. "It's freakin' awful."

Arctic Monkeys' second single, "When the Sun Goes Down," also debuted at the top its first week out. As for their first LP, Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not — the title inspired by the 1960 film "Saturday Night and Sunday Morning" — it's already on its way to breaking the British sales record for a debut album. Released in the U.K. on Monday, the disc sold nearly 120,000 copies that day alone and, if it keeps up the pace, could topple the previous first-week sales record of 306,631 units set by Hear'Say in 2001.

While it remains to be seen whether Arctic Monkeys will score as much success stateside — the album doesn't drop here until February 21 — they'll be giving it the old college try with a headlining North American trek in March.

"We don't find time to get caught up in all the hype or whatever you like to call it," Helders explained. "The people we're working with are usually the ones who get the most excited about things, but we have nothing to compare it to, because none of us have done anything like this before. We're in the eye of the storm."

Arctic Monkeys' North American tour dates, according to the band's label:

  • 3/13 - San Francisco, CA @ Great American Music Hall
  • 3/15 - Los Angeles, CA @ Henry Fonda Theatre
  • 3/17 - Austin, TX @ La Zona Rosa
  • 3/18 - Chicago, IL @ Metro / Smart Bar
  • 3/21 - Toronto, ON @ Phoenix Concert Theatre
  • 3/22 - Montreal, QC @ La Sala Rossa
  • 3/23 - Boston, MA @ Paradise Rock Club
  • 3/25 - New York, NY @ Webster Hall
  • 3/26 - Philadelphia, PA @ First Unitarian Church
  • 3/27 - Washington DC @ 9:30 Club
  • 3/29 - Seattle, WA @ Crocodile Cafe

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