Royal Blood broke records, made famous friends and toured so hard they ended up in hospital after their debut album. Are they ready to do it again for the follow-up ‘How Did We Get So Dark?’? “We’ll give it everything,” they tell Greg Cochrane
Royal Blood’s Mike Kerr and Ben Thatcher are spoilt for choice when it comes to pinpointing the most surreal things to happen to them during their first three years as a band, but it might be the evening when a childhood hero, Lars Ulrich of Metallica, knocked on their dressing room door at a show in San Francisco. He bundled them into a car, stuck a cold beer in their hands and gave them a private midnight tour of his hometown – they’ve got a photo outside the Mrs Doubtfire house to prove it. If not, it’s probably the time Jimmy Page from Led Zeppelin turned up to Ben’s birthday party. Yep, where most people get a helium balloon, Royal Blood get a rock legend. “I was on the other side of the table looking at Ben and Jimmy Page eat crumble, thinking, ‘This is f**king mental, what’s going on?’” recalls Mike, shaking his head. Summed up: life in Royal Blood 2013-2015 was a blurry succession of pinch-themselves highlights, each one that little bit more ludicrous than the last.
It’s worth remembering where it all started. Just four years ago, they were pulling pints back home in Brighton. The pair, friends since their mid-teens, were making do. Mike went travelling in Australia for nine months. When he flew home early in 2013, Ben picked him up from the airport. In the car, he played him some demos he’d recorded. They formed a duo, rehearsed the next day and played their first gig in a Worthing pub the same week. Having both played in bands before, though, they decided this one was different.
Ironically, Royal Blood was supposed to be less serious – a chance to just have some fun. “I remember putting ‘Figure It Out’ on SoundCloud after we recorded it and being like, ‘This is going to blow people’s minds,’” says Mike. “I got a text from two of my mates saying, ‘I heard that tune – yeah, nice one.’ Basically, no one gave a s**t, and I was like, ‘What the f**k? Ben, times are tough – no one likes rock anymore.’”
But just a couple of months later, their ascension went into hyperspeed. Mike was still living with his parents. Their early shows got the music industry excited – the two-pronged dynamic of The White Stripes meeting the venomous riffs of Queens Of The Stone Age soon had them tagged as mainstream rock’s great new saviours (they still insist they’re not). After a bunch of buzzy support slots, a spot on the NME Awards Tour in March 2014 followed. By May, they were sharing a stage with Arctic Monkeys at London’s Finsbury Park. They had momentum and in August, when their self-titled debut arrived, it became the fastest-selling rock debut in three years, outperforming the first-week sales of first efforts by the likes of The Strokes and Kasabian. They became one of the few bands to have played new artists festival The Great Escape and the MTV EMAs in the same year. Things moved that fast. They were, as they recall, on “a ramp of insanity”.
And their self-created juggernaut didn’t stop. The singles (‘Out Of The Black’, ‘Little Monster’,‘Come On Over’, ‘Ten Tonne Skeleton’) became radio hits, they were festival fixtures and they toured non-stop. According to Songkick, Royal Blood travelled 236,380 miles playing hundreds of shows, performing the same 10 songs for two and a half years. “The work and the schedule was insane, but there really wasn’t a low moment,” says Mike. “We thought, ‘This doesn’t happen to any band ever, so let’s just enjoy it.’ If it ends tomorrow, at least we can look back on it and be like, ‘Well, we took everything we could have possibly squeezed out of this.’”
If they worked hard, they played harder. “We didn’t get any sleep,” says Mike. “We all ended up ill and we all got hospitalised twice. Our sound guy lost a testicle…” Wait. What? “He’s alive and well,” confirms Mike. “We won’t go to into it,” says Ben. Mike adds, “What I will say is that he had it surgically removed and that night mixed the show. Drugged out. And I don’t think it ever sounded so good.”
By the time they played their final scheduled show at Austin City Limits festival in October 2015, the band and their crew needed a break. “Afterwards, I remember just slamming my bass into the door and it splitting into 10 pieces,” remembers Mike. “It felt like the end of that album. We were ready to close that chapter. I genuinely didn’t smash my bass in a ‘this will be cool’ way; it was more like, ‘I need to destroy this machine and start again.’”
Eighteen months on, they’re in London beginning the campaign for new album ‘How Did We Get So Dark?’. Both dressed in black, they look healthy and well rested, even if Ben was out until 5am after seeing Banks play live. They drink herbal tea and sit together on a red-wine-coloured Chesterfield sofa in the backroom of an east London photography studio. They’re relaxed, funny and self-deprecating. “If our record completely bombs and it’s the worst album ever, at least we had a pretty good time on the first album,” jokes Mike at one point. “We can always do a reunion tour – we’ll do a 10-year anniversary!”
After playing so many gigs, when they did finally return home to Brighton it was a struggle to “readjust to normality”. They enjoyed catching up with family and friends, but couldn’t sit still for long. Conditioned from the road, each night they’d get a rush of adrenaline. “You’re super-pumped watching Countryfile and you’re like, ‘What the f**k is going on?’” smiles Mike. “‘I feel like I’m absolutely buzzing for no reason.’”
So they took off again, to the States – LA and Nashville. They already had some ideas, having previously built a studio on their tour bus while supporting Foo Fighters. They rented a rehearsal space in Burbank, LA, recorded in the day and partied at night. At first, they had “no rules”. They were open to experimentation, extra musicians and different styles, but they kept coming back to the primal foundations of Mike’s bass – channelled through a bunch of pedals and effects so it sounds like an army of guitars – and Ben’s thunderous drumming.
“The songs we felt really excited about didn’t involve having synths or guitars. It’s funny, the moment we added anything like that, our songs went from sounding huge to really not that cool and small,” says Mike. “It made it ordinary. We’re a pretty tight-knit team. It’s kind of like bringing your mate on a date. They’re just going to kill the vibe.”
After the sunshine and swimming pools of LA, they took themselves back to Brighton and knuckled down. “That’s when we really got on a streak and everything started coming together,” recalls Ben. The final product is ‘How Did We Get So Dark?’, released in June. Like their debut, it’s a huge-sounding record. First single ‘Lights Out’ is a reliable indication of the rest of it: sharper riffs, bigger beats and deeper grooves.
While it’s most definitely a rock album, this time Royal Blood were determined to bring in all of their influences. Take, as an example, ‘Lights Out’: “We were going for a Daft Punk thing quite a lot and trying to f**k with the rock thing, I guess,” says Mike. “What would Daft Punk do if they wrote a rock tune?” Then there’s the album’s closing track ‘Sleep’, which they describe as a “Black Sabbath hip-hop tune”.
“I don’t really like a lot of rock music,” says Mike. “I mean, obviously I love a lot of it, but the tour bus is pretty spicy isn’t it? It’s pretty R&B-heavy. There’s a lot of things where you’d be like, ‘What the f**k? You like that?’”
“Got a bit of Usher going on,” nods Ben. “The parties on the bus get wild. We’re all dancing to ‘Work’ by Kelly Rowland by the end of the night. I love Drake and all that lot. In their shows and their production, you can really get something out of it and put it into your own interpretation and music.” Mike picks up, “Those guys are the new rock stars – they’re the new punk, far more than rock. They’re the ones taking all the risks and doing things for the first time. To be elitist about your genre is closed-minded and mad.”
If that sounds concerning to any rock purist’s ears, they needn’t worry. Musically, album two is harder, but lyrically it’s also more honest, centring around Mike’s personal relationships. It sounds like a break-up record. Just look at the song titles: ‘I Only Lie When I Love You’, ‘She’s Creeping’, ‘Hole In Your Heart’.
“It’s been three years, you know? So I’ve had relationships throughout that period,” says the frontman. “It’s a subject matter I love writing about. It comes quite naturally to me. I definitely don’t believe in writing about one person in particular or one experience because it kind of ruins it. Talking about lyrics and explaining songs – to me, you sabotage your art.”
There’s a knock on the door; a car is waiting to take them to the train station. They’re due to film a music video in Paris later that day. Before they go, they help their manager tweak the new album artwork on a laptop and take a peek at their upcoming diary (clue: it’s packed). Soon, all the interviews and gigs will begin again. There’s a summer of European festivals and a show at the Eden Sessions in June. Then, the minor matter of introducing their new album on the biggest of platforms: Glastonbury. “To have the slot we have on the main stage is such a privilege,” says Mike. “We’re going to give it everything we have.” This is Royal Blood – they always do.