With two NME Awards in their pockets, Royal Blood last week set off on the most anticipated tour since the early days of the Arctic Monkeys. Barry Nicholson heads to Hamburg, Berlin and Glasgow to soak up the mayhem…
This time last year, Royal Blood were preparing to set off on the NME Awards Tour, where they were a humble third on the bill, the raw, unreconstructed meat in a Temples-Circa Waves sandwich. They were mere contenders back then: full of promise, certainly, but still just another hopeful young rock band in a world which had seemingly grown ambivalent to their cause. Tonight, they’re standing on a stage with Jimmy Page, the Lord of the Riffs himself, who’s telling a reverent Brixton Academy about how honoured he is to be receiving an award from them, and how he “trusts so much” in what Mike Kerr and Ben Thatcher are doing. Tonight, they officially make the step up to heavyweights.
“I was incredibly touched by what Jimmy said,” a shocked-looking Mike Kerr tells me, clutching his newly-won award for Best Live Act. “I was very, very moved by it. I know he’s said nice things about us before and everyone’s read about it, but when you’re actually there and he’s saying it… the feeling is just absolutely electric.”
Tonight belongs to Royal Blood, of that there’s no question. From the pile-driving rendition of ‘Figure It Out’ which opened the show, to their never-in-doubt triumph in the Best New Band category, to their wresting of Best Live Act from heavy-hitters like Kasabian, Arctic Monkeys and Foo Fighters, the story of the night – of the whole year, in fact – is the story of their ascension to the big-leagues.
“We’ve never actually won anything before,” grins Kerr, a little sheepishly. “Ultimately, winning awards isn’t what motivates us to write a good song, but what does feel great is just to be acknowledged amongst these people who we really respect. Take this award, Best Live Act – I’m really grateful for it, but I couldn’t honestly say that I think we’re the best live band. Every one of those other artists is incredible. Once we’ve swallowed the concept of being acknowledged, the winning doesn’t make that much difference. Does that make sense? It’s like, that feeling, that sense of pride – we’ve already got that just from being nominated. The winner could’ve been anyone. For us, it’s more about being considered amongst those people.”
Royal Blood have earned their place in the firmament; the question now is, what are they going to do with it?
A month before all the Awards madness, Royal Blood are in Hamburg on an inauspicious, drizzly afternoon. It’s unlikely they’ll pitch up anywhere quite like Große Freiheit 36 again on this tour. The venue is situated just off the Reeperbahn – the city’s notorious red light district. Outside there are peep shows, strip clubs, sex museums and burlesque theatres; the dingy downstairs bar, meanwhile, is where the pre-fame Beatles first honed their live act, subsisting on a diet of cheap beer and over-the-counter slimming pills that kept them awake for days at a time.
Die sündigste Meile (‘the most sinful mile’) is mostly deserted at this hour, but it won’t stay that way for long: by tonight, the 1200-capacity upstairs room will be so busy that you can barely draw breath. Here, as in the UK, Royal Blood’s crowd is a curious mix of kids and middle-aged rockers; the former enraptured by the shock of the new, the latter seduced by the lure of the old. Come showtime, it’s pan-generational bedlam, with the young and not-so young alike losing their shit. Royal Blood are very much not just a British phenomenon; a fan spots their PR’s tour laminate and pleads with him to get the band to autograph his copy of their album. “Can you get them to write, ‘Howlin’ Wolf, Led Zeppelin, Royal Blood’?” he asks. “You know why, yes? You understand?”
While the fan’s intentions are clear, Mike and Ben would be the last people to place themselves in that lineage. Triumphalism simply isn’t their style.
Royal Blood can be a vexing band to interview because you naturally assume they would be enthralled, or overwhelmed, or even mildly traumatised by everything that’s happened to them over the last year, and they’re just… not. Instead, they are frighteningly well-adjusted: almost everyone around them expresses admiration at how well they’ve handled their success, how strangely unaffected they seem.
“We don’t particularly feel any different from anyone else,” insists Mike, who wears a permanently quizzical expression. “We don’t get recognised unless we’re outside our own show. We can still go to the shops. I like to think that our music is more popular than our faces, which is a good thing. I’d be a bit concerned if someone came up and said, ‘Oh, you’re that famous guy… what do you do again?’ That’s when you know that you’ve got things the wrong way around. I’m really not interested in becoming a celebrity.”
Money holds no great allure for them either: Mike claims not to know how much he’s worth these days but says doesn’t even own the shirt on his back (it’s borrowed from a crew member), “so you do the maths.” Ben, meanwhile, says their most extravagant purchases to date have been “bass strings and petrol.” Every so often, however, excursions into the world of celebrity are unavoidable. Back in November, for example, they played the MTV Europe Music Awards in Glasgow to a television audience numbering in the hundreds of millions, sharing a stage with people like Ed Sheeran, Ariana Grande and Nicki Minaj. They weren’t exactly thrilled at the prospect.
“When we showed up to that,” remembers Mike, “I was the one who was like, ‘Oh man, what are we even doing here?’ But it was Ben who pointed out to me, ‘No, playing alongside all these pop acts is actually great for us.’ That was when I realised that there’s no point in us just preaching to the converted. I’ve no idea if anyone watching even knew who we were, but it felt good to be gatecrashers. It felt good to be the big sore thumb.”
Also on the bill that night were U2, and upon returning to their dressing room, the pair found a handwritten summons to their inaugural ‘Bono talk’. “He’d slid this note under our dressing room door, so we went to go and find him to say hello,” laughs Mike. “It was actually pretty funny: I was sat watching my mate Ben from Rustington chatting to Bono for half an hour. I don’t even know what they were talking about; I decided that I liked the mystery of not knowing. I just sat there watching them, thinking to myself ‘This is brilliant.’ Then I went over and chatted to The Edge for a bit, but I wasn’t really sure how I should address him…”
Mike’s momentary etiquette-dilemma (is it Edge or Dave?) aside, Royal Blood are unfased by the presence of rock royalty. They’ve hosted Jimmy Page in their dressing room in New York, gone on a private tour of San Francisco with Lars Ulrich, been called “the future of riff-rock” by Tom Morello and had Dave Grohl – who invited them on tour with Foo Fighters this summer – sing their praises. They tend to roll their eyes when the ‘saviours of rock’ stuff gets thrown around by journalists, but when it’s coming from people whose music they grew up listening to, surely it carries an extra weight?
“I don’t think they expect us to do anything, other than carry on with what we’re doing,” says Mike. “Having met our idols, we’ve come to realise that they’re not made of gold. They’re just regular people who had a similar thing happen to them a long time ago. When we made our record, it was done in an environment where we were convinced that no-one except our friends would hear it, and it’s taken us this far, so I don’t think we’re about to start adhering to anyone’s expectations.”
After Hamburg, I follow the band to Berlin, where you might expect the crowd to be a little more stand-offish. In fact, the scene here is pretty much identical to the night before: once the lights go down, it takes until roughly the first chorus of ‘Come On Over’ for any remaining agnostics to be converted. The setlist is also unchanged, but over the course of 12 months during which they’ve barely been off the road, Mike and Ben have built the perfect live beast, one which requires minimal fine-tuning from gig to gig. They’re onstage for 50 expertly paced minutes that are lean, indomitable and punishingly loud. There are no encores. Theirs is a machine designed to run and run.
Which is just as well, really. Spend any amount of time with Royal Blood and their love for doing this night after night quickly becomes apparent. They’ve played somewhere in the region of 130 gigs in the last twelve months, but for Ben, “those 130 gigs were the 130 greatest moments of last year.” Mike, meanwhile, claims that they “don’t even like going home. We just want to play every single night.” Any new band in their position would, but there are cautionary precedents to consider: their mates Arctic Monkeys didn’t make it to album number two without losing a founder member; by the end of the ‘Is This It’ tour, The Strokes had come within a hair’s breadth of splitting up and even Franz Ferdinand wound up throwing punches (and chairs) at each other over something as trivial as a light switch. You look at Royal Blood’s itinerary for the rest of the year – more European tours, jaunts around Britain and America with the Foo Fighters (their Wembley show falls on the day of Mike’s 25th birthday), the inexorable run of summer festivals culminating with Reading & Leeds – and wonder whether Mike might feel rather differently by the end of it.
“I don’t think that’s ever the band’s worry,” he grins when I ask if he’s concerned about burnout. “There’s always a part of you that goes, ‘Fuck it, let’s play Wembley!’ But that’s what our management is for, to make sure we don’t rush into things, to make sure we do it properly. I don’t know if there’s any way you could orchestrate what’s happened to us. You can only try to control it.”
Two of the people they’ve won over are Lauren Pole and Amy McKethnie, both 15, who I find camped outside Glasgow’s Barrowlands for the first night of Royal Blood’s UK tour, the Sunday after the NME Awards with Austin, Texas. Huddled together under a duvet in the pouring rain with only a multipack of crisps by way of sustenance, it’s early afternoon when I meet them but they’ve already been here for hours. Tonight is their first Royal Blood gig. “We tried to get tickets for the last tour but they sold out so quickly,” says Lauren. “For this one I set about a million alarms and got up really early on the morning they went on sale. I wasn’t missing them again.”
What is it about this band that makes them worth waiting for all day in the rain? “Because they’re different from all the other bands out there right now,” says Amy. “They’re heavier than most of the music we’re into, there’s something special about them. It’s hard to explain, but they’ve got something that no-one else does.”
That indefinable something is in full effect when Ben from Rustington and his mate Mike from Worthing finally take to the stage, a little after 9pm. At this point, I’m pretty familiar with Royal Blood’s show, but the spectacle is no less impressive for it: Jimmy Page recently likened it to “lava coming from a volcano,” and the Barrowlands feels close to erupting tonight. They even throw a couple of surprises into the mix, with B-side ‘One Trick Pony’ and a searing version of T. Rex’s ‘20th Century Boy’ both given live debuts. “Fucking hell, this is insane,” says Kerr, catching his breath. “It’s really escalated, hasn’t it?”
It really has. The duo have recently started working on new songs during their soundchecks, but they won’t get properly stuck into the second album until after Reading & Leeds in August; it’s dizzying to think about where things might have escalated to by then. “When we did the first one, we didn’t even know if anyone was going to hear it,” says Mike. “We never even thought people would come to the shows. We made that record with no expectations about anything; we were just doing it for the sake of doing it. Now, we’ve had the experience of touring and playing and meeting all these incredible people, so if anything I’m feeling confident about the second album.”
Of course he is. Royal Blood might be living in a whirlwind of awards and pipe-dreams come true, but they’re also the calm at the centre of it. There’s no stopping this juggernaut of theirs – either climb onboard, or get out of the way.
This feature originally appeared in the February 28 issue of NME.