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When Mike Kerr and Ben Thatcher sat down to talk about making a new Royal Blood album, they knew what they wanted to achieve with it, and what they were determined to avoid. The former involved a conscious return to their musical roots, when, in their first band Flavour Country, they had made music that was deeply influenced by artists such as Daft Punk, Justice, and Philippe Zdar of Cassius. (It’s worth remembering that Mike dabbled in the keytar in this period. Don’t @ him.) The latter was easy: they had to relocate the purity, innocence and joy of their early days as Royal Blood, to go back to the basics of chemistry, telepathy, hunger and drive that had made their self-titled debut album, with its brutal and utterly novel soundbed of bass played like a lead guitar and thunderous drums, so thrilling, visceral and original.
Mike uses an arresting analogy to describe the experience of going stratospheric as a band, releasing one of the fastest selling British debut albums this century, topping the charts and being showered with awards and platinum discs – and then realising you’re expected to repeat the magic formula. “It’s a bit like telling the same joke twice,” says Royal Blood’s frontman and bassist, “and trying to get the audience to laugh as hard the second time.” “He’s not wrong,” laughs drummer Ben. “It was like: ‘You’re the saviours of rock’n’roll, here are a ton of awards.’ And then suddenly: ‘Do it again. But better.’”
Two South Coast boys with big dreams that came true pretty much overnight, they hardly had time to draw breath after the vast success of their debut album, and the globe-spanning tour and festival dates that followed. Reconvening to record the follow-up, How Did We Get So Dark, felt like being inside a pressure cooker. “There’s so much riding on you, so much expectation and responsibility,” says Mike. “That was handed to us incredibly quickly, and every day, it went up a notch. Every show was bigger. It felt like we were doing something for the first time, every time. You just have to hold on and not drown.” “It becomes strangely isolating,” says Ben. “Our world was getting smaller and smaller, while everything around us was growing. Look, our job is so much fun, we’ve been taken on an incredible ride, and we’ve loved pretty much every moment. But you can forget that you are allowed to have bad days.”
The first word I wrote down when I heard the band’s comeback single Trouble’s Coming, and three other new tracks, was “relief”. There are a ton of other things to say about Trouble’s Coming, but what the song communicates most powerfully and instantly is that, in the writing and recording of it, the two friends had found what they were looking for – a sort of “Yup, that’s it” moment of recognition. Musically taut, pop-bright and spare, with a riff the late, great Eddie Van Halen would have been proud of, Trouble’s Coming combines the ruthless sonic economy of the best dance music with lyrics that are unapologetically dark. “These holes that I’m digging / Can’t stop my heart when it’s sinking,” sings Mike, ratcheting up the ominous tension that courses through the song.
“It was the moment something started to click – where we started playing over those much more rigid dance beats,” says Mike. “It kind of felt like disco. The breakthrough was realising that there was real common ground between that and what we’d done before, the classic rock thing. It’s that AC/DC aspect: the straight beat, where the quality that makes the riffs seem so cutting is because of that beat. When we wrote the track, there was this immediate chemistry again. Even though on the surface we were stepping outside what we’d done before, it didn’t feel at all uncomfortable or unnatural; it actually felt like we were returning to the really groove-orientated music we’d loved from the very beginning.” “It’s important to remember with all of those bands,” adds Ben, “that the drums were there to serve the beat. When we first broke out, there were only two elements to the band. For me, I didn’t just have to carry the beat, I’d have to colour in the changes, if you like. We were both bearing a lot of freight, sonically.
“With those first two albums, I was carrying more. But this was a different challenge; less varied, maybe, but so satisfying as a drummer. Pure rhythm.” “He puts his whole personality on that concept,” Mike continues. “There’s such a human touch there. It’s all about the beat – which fans of the two types of music insist have little in common, when they’re actually kissing cousins! They’re that close. It felt like familiar territory, but something we’d sort of censored in ourselves.
“We sort of stumbled on this sound, and it was immediately fun to play. That’s what sparked the creativity on the new album, the chasing of that feeling. It’s weird, though – if you think back to Figure it Out, it kind of contains the embryo of this album. We realised that we didn’t have to completely destroy what we’d created so far; we just had to shift it, change it. On paper, it’s a small reinvention. But when you hear it, it sounds so fresh.”
Lyrically, each of the new songs explores and addresses, sometimes directly, sometimes allusively, the flipside of success as experienced by both of them, but Mike especially. As he sings at one point: “Almost surprised I survived.” It’s the sound of someone looking into their soul, and beginning to understand that you need to learn to recognise the warning signs: that success is much more complicated than it seems, that life on the road is a slog as much as it is a victory lap, that having the time to regain perspective is a precious commodity which becomes ever more elusive as the scaffolding of huge success assembles itself, stealthily and invisibly, around you, without your bidding.
Dawn finally broke while the duo were beginning to write new material for the new record, but they had endured a long, dark night to reach that point. “Coming off the road after the first album felt like crashing back down to earth,” admits Mike. “I got a little bit lost. We’d shot to the top and when you get there you put yourself under this intense pressure to stay there; you can’t allow the quality to drop. I was scared shitless making that second record. You might still have the skill set to do the same thing again – but the context has changed. I love most of that record, but I didn’t enjoy making it. And looking back, it caused a lot of damaging behaviour. I was really hammering it, I’d acclimatised to a lifestyle that was haywire, to be honest. And trouble loves company.
“The tour around the second album, it was worse, if anything. There are shows I just don’t remember. I don’t remember playing Brixton Academy when Jimmy Page was there. And when that tour finished, I kept going.”
Ben was aware there were problems. “I knew it was making him unhappy. But it’s not for me to tell Mike what to do or what not to do; he had to find that out on his own. I’m quite a happy person in general, and quite stable. I knew that he had it in him because … well, because I know him, and I knew that I didn’t have to worry about that, even when it got pretty dark.”
“I had to really look inwards,” Mike continues, visibly moved by his bandmate’s words. “You know: ‘I’m not doing a job I hate, I get to travel the world with my best mate. So why am I doing this?’ What it came down to was realising that it was impossible to go on living like that and to make the record I really wanted to make; they couldn’t both occur. So it was one or the other. People call it a crossroads but it’s not, it’s a T-junction, and I was at it – I was like: ‘That’s got to go, I’ve got to sack it off.’
“We were writing in LA, and I went off to Vegas. I was just sat in the bar, I’d always thought I was going to be sober one day, but I was surprised it was this early. I had this dream of hitting 40, getting sober and just playing fucking golf and talking about the good old days. And here I am, 28, thinking, ‘Fucking hell, it’s now.’ It was like this voice in my head going, ‘If you want to carry on with this and not fuck it up, this has to happen.’ How surreal is that? Making that decision in a bar, in Las Vegas. And the guy was like: ‘Your espresso martini, sir.’ I downed it, put down the glass and went: ‘That’s it; that’s the last drink. I’m now going to put my happiness first.”
As ever, Ben was there for him. “I remember thinking: ‘He’s got this.’ So it was kind of a case of sitting back and letting him work it out for himself. And just be there for him.”
New challenges presented themselves, however. “All the fear comes in,” says Mike. “Can I write a song sober, can I play a show sober? I felt like for the first time I could properly reflect on what we’d been through, like the lights were turning back on – like waking up every day and each day I was a bit more awake. I could finally appreciate what we’d done, and feel proud of it.”
They put together a short run of dates, to plug back in to what bonded them in the first place. For Mike, the tour was a revelation. “Playing those shows was bizarre, it was as if everything was in HD, as if I’d been woken from a coma and someone was going: ‘You’re in a band called Royal Blood, Mike, and it’s going great. You’re playing to 50,000 people on Reading’s main stage tonight, these are the songs, we’ll see you tomorrow.’ My initial thought was, ‘Christ, these songs are loud.’ It was like all my senses were now heightened. How could I have not wanted to be present in that?”
“It reminded me of why we’d first started playing together,” says Ben. “And making these new songs has been the same, almost like a return journey. They feel ready now. We feel ready.”
The pandemic had delayed the release of the new album. No worries, they say: more time to refine, distill, perfect. “These new songs gave me this incredible freedom, vocally and instrumentally,” says Mike. “I got to dance across the groove, if that makes sense – it was something to slice over, and that felt exhilarating. We realised that there was a genius in just deleting stuff, paring things back. You’d suddenly get hit with air, with space. We kept cutting parts and sounds. It was such a revealing and thrilling experience.” Less is more, then? “Less is definitely more,” says Mike, as Ben laughs beside him. “Of everything.” Except? “Passion, purity, reality.” “And beats,” says Ben, a man of fewer words than his old friend but clearly determined to have the last one.
Better put on your dancing shoes, then. Royal Blood are back. And their future starts here.