Back for album three, and sounding bigger than ever, Royal Blood are a band reborn.
Words: Ali Shutler.
“Touring with Queens of The Stone Age nearly killed us,” Mike Kerr told The Evening Standard at the end of 2017, recounting a run of shows where he and drummer Ben Thatcher tried to keep up with the party boys of rock’n’roll.
After being hailed the saviours of the scene before they’d even released their 2014 self-titled debut, Royal Blood had quickly become accustomed to that feeling of trying to keep up. Second album ‘How Did We Get So Dark?’ was written with the live show in mind (anything to keep the party going) but as the pair headed into the studio with QOTSA leader Josh Homme to start work on album three, things quickly began to fall apart.
“I saw Josh in his producer role when I went out to do The Desert Sessions. I had ‘Boilermaker’ up my sleeve, and it felt like a very natural decision to go and cut that track at his studio,” says Mike. The rumbling track, a live favourite from the moment it was played during their 2019 festival run, “is such an exciting song, but we didn’t have enough material to make the record.”
Their brief trip wasn’t a complete waste, though. “Josh is such a strong-willed character. He gave us such confidence in ourselves,” continues Mike, who credits that work on ‘Boilermaker’ as “the catalyst to get this record going”. Not only does the self-produced album three embrace a love for groove but in the middle of recording, Mike made the decision to get sober. The story goes that he made the call while sat in a Las Vegas bar, waiting for the expresso martini that would become his last drink. “I think he felt like he couldn’t go on,” says Ben. “You know when you’ve gone too far.”
Mike is still “pinning down the reasons why my drinking got so bad. The music industry runs on alcohol, and I was caught up in a certain lifestyle,” he tells us. “I totally respect that some people want to live that life, but for me, I just tapped out. The party was over.” He knows what inspired him to make that change, though.
“In the studio, Josh knows what he wants, and he knows exactly how to get it. I wanted that confidence for myself, but I knew I just wasn’t in the right place in my life. I knew I had to work on myself, I knew I had to go and get my shit together before I wrote or recorded any more music.”
Months later, Mike felt ready to try making Royal Blood 3 again. However, soon after they started work in the studio, countries started banning international travel and imposing mandatory lockdowns to stop the spread of coronavirus. In a bid to protect themselves and the studio staff, Royal Blood decided to return home.
Bored, they continued to write, and their third album changed shape. It’s in those extra months that ‘Typhoons’, the title-track to the record, was written alongside a few more of the album’s bigger tracks. A song full of lyrics like “My thoughts becoming parasites that live to keep me terrified. I tell myself I’ll be alright” and “I’m doomed, and I’m waiting for light in my sky,” it’s a song that cradles hope. “The whole album revolves around that track” explains Ben, despite it being one of the last to be written. “We didn’t want to write music about what’s going on at the moment because, let’s face it, it is shit.” So alongside driving disco-rock songs, Mike got introspective.
“I didn’t want this album to be ‘woe me’. That isn’t really the point. It’s more just me being honest.” Talking about it now, “I feel like we’ve made a really miserable record, but it’s probably the most fun, energetic and vivacious album we’ve ever made,” says Mike. “It’s just strange timing that while the world fell apart, I finally got my world together.”
Formed in 2011, Mike and Ben didn’t expect Royal Blood to ever be the festival headlining goliath it is today. After various teenage bands fizzled away, both men were still involved in music but on a part-time basis. “I totally abandoned those rock star dreams, to be honest,” says Ben. “You need to make money, and hopefully, you can find a way of doing that while doing something that you love. In music, that’s becoming a teacher or playing in a covers band [Ben did both]. So while the rise of the Royal Blood was quick, we had actually had a lot of training in our 50 other bands that toured shitty venues around the UK for raisins. We knew what that was like, and that’s kind of why I gave up on being in bands for a while.”
“We didn’t plan for any success whatsoever,” continues Mike who pre-Royal Blood played music on the rare evenings off from his day job of being a chef. “We didn’t think anyone other than our mates would hear our record and we didn’t anticipate playing anything larger than an open mic night.” Instead, the pair did it to fulfil a creative itch. There’s not a hint of ego to either Ben or Mike. Polite, they still carry themselves with the gratitude that anyone is even listening to their music. “For it to go as far as it went and to still be here, it just feels miraculous.”
But that self-titled record was heard around the world. Topping the UK album chart, it also got nominated for the Mercury Prize, picked up a bunch of very famous fans and saw the band play third on the Reading & Leeds main stage below Metallica and Bring Me The Horizon.
Visceral, noisy and to-the-point, it’s easy to see why the pair were hailed the saviours of rock’n’roll, even if it’s a title the band themselves have never been comfortable accepting. “I take stuff like that with a pinch of salt,” Mike says. “You can’t think you’re the saviours of rock’n’roll when bands like Queens of The Stone Age, Foo Fighters and The Dead Weather are still going. Get in line, bro.”
Instead of leaning into the hype, Royal Blood “just let the live performance do all the talking. When we came out the gates, I’m sure we angered or confused a lot of people,” says Mike. Not only had they achieved the sort of overnight success that most bands spend decades working towards but Royal Blood refused to pretend that every day was a fairytale come true or that their meat and potatoes rock’n’roll was going to take over the world. “I guess we didn’t act the way we were supposed to,” he shrugs. “We looked like a couple of roadies, but the one thing we were confident in was that as soon as we started playing in front of people, we would have their attention. That’s the most important thing to us.”
“We’re cool to some people. I love that my sister, who is a bit older than me, loves our new song, but that’s not cool, is it?” asks Ben. “Then my nephew will text me and say how much he and his mates love our new tune. Instantly my cool factor is back up.”
“I have no interest in being cool as a person,” starts Mike. “But I think our music should make you feel like you’re the most fucking badass motherfucker in the world. I hope that someone can listen to it on their way home from school and know that if anyone picks him up, they can fucking win that fight.”
After that snarling debut made Royal Blood the most exciting thing in rock and the most dangerous thing in music, three years later they released ‘How Did We Get So Dark?’. A half-step forward, it felt like more of the same than anything revolutionary especially sandwiched between that debut and the neon evolution found on ‘Typhoons’. “The second record was really difficult and making it wasn’t that enjoyable,” says Ben. “I think we did play it safe to an extent. We were overwhelmed by the whole experience of that first album. It was such a special thing we did at the beginning, and then you’re told, ‘you’ve got to do that again but better this time’. You can’t recreate that.”
For the first time, Royal Blood had people expecting things from them, which they both admit was really daunting. “Suddenly, everyone was watching and waiting. It was stressful, and it’s much more difficult to make music for ourselves, knowing people are going to hear it,” Mike says, before Ben adds: “We tried to just do the best we could. I am really proud of that second record, there are some great songs on it, and without it, we wouldn’t have been able to push ourselves to do what we’ve done on ‘Typhoons’.”
The album, a snarling blend of their thrashing, guttural rock blended with a relentless disco groove, sees the band recapture whatever magic they stumbled upon with that first record and takes it someplace new. “If we had tried to attempt what we’re doing now back then, it wouldn’t have been very good. We weren’t experienced enough to take it as far as we have on this record,” says Mike, who also doesn’t think the fans would have been ready for what he calls “the most exciting record we’ve ever made. It’s so colourful, so powerful; it’s Royal Blood: The Luxury Package.”
Part of ‘Typhoons” progression comes from Royal Blood’s ability to now deal with the pressures of being a critically acclaimed, globally adored band. “You need to be able to shut out the world,” says Mike. “With this record, I genuinely didn’t care what anyone thought, even if it was positive. I had to come to a place in my own mind where anyone else’s opinion was respected, but irrelevant to me.” Last night, the band finally released the title track to their third record. “It was such a joyous moment when the track ‘Typhoons’ was finished because I knew it was great. We put it out yesterday, and if the world thought it was shit, it wouldn’t have changed how I felt about it. It’s taken me a long time to manage my emotions in that way. I think at the beginning I cared about what other people thought of our music, but now I don’t.”
“If I’m being honest, we don’t really think about satisfying anyone,” he continues. “That’s just such a dangerous game to play, and it usually results in poor material.”
“If your last record was a success, it’s a safe bet to do more of the same, but artistically and creatively, you want to create something different. That’s what we’ve done with this new album,” says Ben who describes ‘Typhoons’ as “a bold step into doing what you believe in. If people like it, then they’ll follow you, and you’ve totally won. If they don’t, that’s fine as well. We’ve got two other records, and you can go and listen to other rock music. We’ve just tried to do something a bit different.”
But the trick isn’t just to ignore the outside world. You also need to believe in your own decisions. It’s something Mike saw when working with Josh Homme and getting sober allowed him the self-confidence to do that. “If you’re gonna do something progressive, and do something someone’s never heard you do before, you’ve really got to be on your own team first,” he says.
“Getting sober had a massive impact on the sound of the record. Suddenly clarity descended upon me in the most profound way. Part of being creative is trusting yourself, and for the first time in a long time, I really knew who I was. I knew what I was capable of, and I could trust what was good, what was terrible, and what was amazing. I felt like I just had this kind of accuracy, and as a result, it allowed us to go further forward than ever before.”
‘Typhoons’ might be “a different beast” to what’s come before and Royal Blood may feel “like a different band”, but like everything they’ve done before, all the tracks started with bass, drums and vocals. “A lot of the time when we added more backing vocals, extra keyboard parts and bits like that, it made the song sound worse,” Mike says. “It’s about maintaining that chemistry and making sure that if we were adding things, they weren’t taking away. I feel like we could do anything as long as you can hear the chemistry between Ben and me. It was important for us not to lose that edge.”
That trust in their chemical reaction means Royal Blood can spread their wings within their own band, and on collaborations with the likes of Run The Jewels. Their remix of ‘RTJ4’ track ‘The Ground Below’ has their stick fingerprints all over it. “Us riffing over those guys rapping? It’s just fun, isn’t it?” asks Ben, with Mike adding how “it was just a no brainer. It sounded so good. We’re all really excited about the idea of doing some more stuff together.”
Royal Blood are a band that offer escapism with their music, while Run The Jewels are far more political and outspoken. “We do stay away from that stuff,” starts Ben. “But that doesn’t mean we don’t have our own opinions or are afraid to support people speaking up.”
It’s coming up to 18 months since Royal Blood last played a live show, with no end in sight. The complete shutdown of gigs “put a healthy pressure on making this record that much more immersive,” says Mike. “For the first time, we fully accepted the idea that the record and the live show are different. They can communicate with each other, but ultimately when you put your headphones on, it is going to be a different experience than being at a gig. This pandemic has highlighted tremendously that the live experience cannot be emulated. There have been noble attempts to keep it going, and I don’t criticise that whatsoever (the band are hoping to do their own livestream in the near future), but I think we can all admit it’s not the same.” That realisation opened the door to making ‘Typhoons’ a more versatile record. Live, it’s going to sound incredible, but it’s also got something to say for itself.
It’s a strange irony where I had to get sober in order to write about being incredibly fucked up,” says Mike. “It’s a record that’s really about feelings and thoughts taking over. There can be times in your life where you can be completely consumed by your thoughts,” he continues, before admitting that ‘Typhoons “is a very personal album.” It explores the idea that “nothing is permanent, nothing lasts forever, and those consuming thoughts will pass. It’s just about holding on. I know those feelings will come again, but when they do, I know they’re not going to last forever. That’s why I think, ultimately, this record has a positive sound to it.”
“I don’t think I would have been able to sing about it as openly as I have, if the music wasn’t so upbeat. It would have been a real bummer.” At times the lyrics are full of self-hatred and loathing but, as Mike reasons, “that voice in your head is brutal as well. You wouldn’t talk to anyone else the way you talk to yourself. For some reason, we struggle to give ourselves a break though so I just wanted to be open about how brutal that voice is because I know I’m not alone.”
Getting sober meant Mike had to ask for help. “It means calling on your friends, your family because no one should be on their own.” Even famed booze-hound Josh Homme was incredibly supportive of Mike’s decision. “The truth is, no one’s alone. It’s an illusion you sometimes tell yourself.”
Royal Blood have no high hopes about what this disco-rock album of turbulent mental health will mean to others but for Mike, “It changed my life really. I had to change my life to make it, and then once I made it, I changed it again. I’ve played it down in the past but being in this band, and the responsibilities that come with it, it’s something that I’ve always secretly dreamed of. After this album, I can see more records being made now and with joy.” For the first time in a long time, Royal Blood aren’t just trying to keep up. “I see a way forwards. We don’t really want to get caught up in ambitions for anything else,” says Mike.
“We don’t think about trying to be the biggest band around, we just want to push ourselves to be the best that we can be and do stuff that makes us feel good,” says Ben. “It’s always nice to be liked, isn’t it? But I’m really not worried about what other people think about our music. There are better things to care about.”
Royal Blood’s album ‘Typhoons’ is out 30th April.