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Some rides are so fast, so wild, so vertiginous that you never want to get off. And when they do end, they’re all the more dizzying once you’ve disembarked.
“Going home was so weird,” says Mike Kerr, only now beginning to comprehend the incredible, inconceivable two-year ascent of Royal Blood, the Brighton bass-and-drums duo who shot to the stars between 2014 and ‘15. “I got so fidgety in the same place, really anxious. You’re hanging out with your mates in the pub and it’s really good to see them but you’re staring off like you just had the weirdest dream ever.”
The ultimate rock dream, in fact. When, at the start of 2013, Mike returned from nine months of travelling, and reunited with his old drummer mate Ben Thatcher in the car home from the airport, the pair could have no idea what awaited them.
After a year of honing their sound, built around Mike’s unique doctoring of his bass guitar to sound like an entire band of dark, blues-chewing desert rock psychopaths, they found themselves with Arctic Monkeys’ management (and their t-shirt on drummer Matt Helders’ chest at Glastonbury 2013), a major label deal and a spot as the only rock band on the BBC Sound Of 2014 list. As their gargantuan early singles – ‘Out Of The Black’, ‘Little Monster’, ‘Come On Over’, ‘Figure It Out’ - gained traction and acclaim in the UK, they struck out to America. “We spent most of our time over there, slowly going away at it,” says Mike. “We’d just done the Finsbury Park support with the Arctic Monkeys and it was like day one in America for us. It was back to twenty people in the room, there’s a leak in the ceiling, there’s a guy with an American flag tattoo, we’re in the middle of nowhere. I remember thinking ‘fuck, we’ve got to start again and this country is fucking huge’.”
They can laugh about the time they left Mike behind in a New Jersey gas station now, but at the time America was terrifying. Then the numbers got big, fast. Their self-titled debut album, released in August 2014, was the fastest-selling British rock debut in three years, hitting Number One in the UK and going Top Twenty in twelve countries, including the US. Before they knew it they were singing for Howard Stern (“our record was probably number 300 in the iTunes chart and about two minutes after our Howard Stern interview it was Number Three - playing on that show is like doing a thousand tours”), holding dressing room audiences with Jimmy Page in New York and being presented with a Best British Band Brit in 2015 by the very same guitar god.
“The Brits was definitely a big moment,” says Ben. “That was the first arena we played, the O2.”
“Before, I felt we were climbing a ladder and being successful in our world, in the rock world,” Mike recalls, “so when we were selling out these little shows and we felt it growing it was like ‘cool, but this is in this world’, but with The Brits it was like ‘this is everyone’. It’s pop, it’s a very broad show, lots of people would tune in and probably see us who would never have known what we were. We definitely felt like we were in front of the unconverted.”
By the end of 2015, Royal Blood had – in debut album terms – pretty much conquered the world. They’d played stadiums with Foo Fighters and sold out their own theatre tours deep into the US heartlands. “It was all pretty full-on and florescent and exciting,” Mike remembers. “At the time we had no clarity on what was going on. It’s like when you put a frog in water and slowly boil it, it’ll just die, it won’t know the temperature is changing. We were the frog in the water and it was raging. We were just in survival mode; every gig was getting slightly bigger, we were doing everything for the first time. There was no end goal even, it was like ‘when’s this tour going to stop?’ It was like this ramp that was getting steeper and steeper and steeper. There wasn’t any low, it was very exciting. We’ll never have that experience again.”
“It was like getting in a car and putting your foot down and not knowing when you’re going to stop,” Ben adds.
So when the time came for the tour to end and the pair to take a projected couple of months off before starting work on writing their second album, the world just seemed to keep spinning. “At that time I was so into it that I didn’t want to stop, we wanted to do the next album,” says Ben, and Mike agrees. “The idea of stopping was weird and scary because that was reality now. That’s my one regret.”
Despite the intense touring adding an unpredictable kinetic energy and clairvoyance to their captivating live chemistry, what Mike calls a “swag” to their sound and a tighter bond to their friendship – “Part of our survival mode is keeping each other warm emotionally in the cave,” Mike explains – once writing began back in Brighton in November 2015 they initially struggled to conjure a fresh new strain of their music. “We were still on the road,” Mike says. “The thing we learnt was it’s healthier to divide those two worlds because they are so different. Being creative and writing is dreamworld and the more it can be dreamworld the more creative it can be and the more limitless and fun and imaginative it can be. Touring is very much like cold reality, there’s a real work ethic and responsibility to it. I find it very difficult to go between the two. So we’d come up with a few ideas but it felt like we were still in the world of the first album because we were still in the live mindset. So everything we wrote, it wasn’t bad but it was of the same era.”
When seeking new horizons, take to the skies. After experimenting with new ways of writing songs in Brighton – sometimes working separately for the first time, sometimes building tracks from the drums up, always trying to explore ways of stripping their enormous sound back to give it more space and impact to “take people’s heads off” - Ben and Mike spent 2016 visiting new friends in America for their writing sessions because, Ben explains, “it felt exciting to keep it moving… subconsciously, we weren’t very comfortable staying still.” They made several trips out to the studio in Burbank in Hollywood where they’d previously written their first second-album song ‘Hook, Line And Sinker’ (premiered live at Reading & Leeds 2015), and then hit Nashville for some further sessions. They focussed, by necessity, on filling in gaps.
“Every song for us is like a live weapon,” says Mike. “On our first album we know that all of these songs do a certain thing live, they have a certain character, but we have a lot of key set moments missing. We never have a moment where it chills at all, and there’s no way we can do this for an hour and a half or two hours, it’ll just be dynamic-less. So we need a song that does that, so let’s explore that. We also need a song that goes even more ballistic than anything we’ve done. That made every song have a character.” They even allowed a smattering of effects to invade their strict drum/bass dynamic, dropping submarine pings over the monstrous groove of ‘Lights Out’ and tempering the riff firestorms of ‘Hole In Your Heart’ with some Doors-like Fender Bass Rhodes keyboard. “That was probably a subconscious thing,” Mike muses, “it’d be cool to have a moment where I’m not on the bass and something changes.”
Ben grins. “Everyone will know what song that is when the keyboard rolls out.”
A few comedy misadventures later, they returned with ten sensational new tracks falling firmly into place. Besides the lyrics. The sour, visceral and vengeful romantic anguish that had fuelled Mike’s writing on the debut had dried up in the face of global success. “It was strange after the first one, which was very much about a singular relationship,” Mike admits. “We went out and toured it and our lives changed. It was amazing, I had a very good life and nothing to say or write about. Writing about love and relationships is what comes naturally to me as a songwriter. So I didn’t know what to write about, I was in a relationship and fairly content. I was trying to make stuff up, which I swore I’d never do, trying to write about things I didn’t really care about.”
Then, bingo: heartbreak. “My relationship fell apart and basically that was when I was like ‘I know what this record’s going to be about’. I went through a break-up and then we went into the studio. There were songs I’d written while still in this relationship where I didn’t quite know what the lyrics meant. When I look back at them now it’s almost like therapy. You can see what’s going on in what seemed quite cryptic at the time.”
So, come November 2016 Ben and Mike, along with producer Jolyon Thomas, decamped to an “insane” studio in Brussels decked out like a New York diner and featuring a warehouse of antique gear that was “almost like where Bond and Q have their meetings”, and spent six weeks making a chronological ten-track open diary of Mike’s splintering love life. From the first nagging suspicions that cracks are beginning to appear (‘She’s Creeping’, a devil-on-the-dancefloor tune about “where you realise something’s going wrong because you’re thinking about someone else”), the album goes on to dissect the lies that we tell ourselves to shore up the façade (sinuous blues groover ‘I Only Lie’), the inevitable dulling of the initial flame (‘Hole In Your Heart’) and finally reaches a point where “something so brilliant and beautiful and fun and life-changing and amazing” has become “something so horrid that you wish you’d never experienced the good thing in the first place to get to here” (‘Dark’).
“I’ve definitely been honest,” Mike admits. “Where I could have said something that sounded really cool and badass, I went for the vulnerable line. I know people have been through all the experiences I’m talking about.”
Six weeks of cabin fever creativity so intense that Mike could barely sleep for “buzzing from the tunes”, one further session in London with their first album co-producer Tom Dalgety, and Royal Blood emerged with ‘How Did We Get So Dark?’, a second album that finds them squaring up to Queens Of The Stone Age and Muse in terms of sheer melodic might while refining and expanding the mystical two-man voodoo that will keep Royal Blood at the very forefront of millennial UK rock music.
“This one spreads the cards out a little bit,” says Mike. “The first one established our sound, this one goes to places we haven’t been before, in lots of different directions, but it all still very much sounds like us, I don’t think we’ve abandoned what’s good about us, that was the main focus. It’s all about playing with our tools, sharpening them, refining what’s good about us.”
And as they get back on the ride for another go, this time set to rocket around arenas, they’re determined to maintain the up-close ferocity that always made them such a magnetic spectacle. “As long as the emphasis of the show is around me and Ben playing together and our chemistry, and it isn’t about some fucking cannon going off,” says Mike. “It’s almost like the record is an advert for the show. We want it to feel as real and intimate as possible, no matter how big the gigs are gonna be.”
Hold tight, Royal Blood are about to pump faster.
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