Fun. That is what it’s supposed to be, is it not? Being in a band as a young adult. Meeting new people, going to new places, playing music because you just damn well enjoy doing that? And you know what? People can smell that. They often have a good sense of what is real, and what is not. Being able to tell the difference between what is too earnest, and what is just having a bit of a laugh. Even the most muso lunatics such as Yes or Gentle Giant were having a laugh back in the days of bombastic prog-rock. Even the most epic and earnest sounding like Radiohead, are just having a bit of a laugh amidst all the heavy sentiments and chord progressions.
It’s the same with the dynamic duo, Royal Blood. For sure, thay may sing a lot about being put through the relationship mincer, amidst the dark hammering of strings and skins. But, they are just having a laugh. It’s an essential ingredient of rock’n’roll. Because that’s what we do, as humans. We like to have a bit of a laugh, and a bit of light relief, even if we are being bombarded by some seismic amplified music.
“Ben picked me up from the airport,” recalls bassist Mike Kerr, about how the band first got going. He’d been in Australia for a few months, and Ben wanted to play him a few things he had been working on. Almost immediately they went into a rehearsal room and played a gig that week. “We did the Tangerine Bar in Worthing. We didn’t have any ambition. The whole thing was pretty semi-serious. We didn’t have any pretensions to be in a band to make it or get a record deal or anything. We’d been in bands that strived for that, and they were boring to be in because it all became so serious and pretentious. We just wanted to be in a band that was purely for fun.”
I ask Mike if he remembers a gig they did at the Latest MusicBar, on 11 February 2013, when they were third on a bill of unsigned bands. “I do remember that!” He says from the back seat of a car winging its way to Paris for a live TV show. “I think it was one of our very first gigs in Brighton. After that we played at the Black Lion at the open mic night. I remember we got told to stop. We brought a full drum set. We were those guys, who would turn up with all this gear for an open mic night.”
Indeed. And looking back at their technical specifications for the Latest gig it read: ‘Royal Blood – one vocal, bass DI, guitar amp and drums’. The engineer that night recalls being “extremely impressed,” and so too must have been the small gathering to hear this monstruous sound created by just two guys, using a bass guitar and a set of drums. A sound that like that other famous duo White Stripes, is way beyond what you would think possible within the technical and human resources at their disposal. Herein lies one of the keys to their success. The focus is on just the two players, their extraordinary chemistry, and utterly compulsive. Ben’s sophisticated thrashing of the kit perfectly complimented by Mike’s unique bass sound, one that alternatively sounds like a guitar, and a bass. He has developed a style all his own, and which has had the effect of expanding their sound palette, to the point where they sound like a three, maybe a four-piece. How Mike gets that sound has been of much conjecture for quite some time. In an interview with Brightonsfinest back in 2014, Mike would only say this: “It’s all a secret, a secret recipe. Just like the Colonel’s!”
The reality is simple, if ingenious. He uses an array of pedals including a harmonist pedal with ‘divebomb’ settings, loads of amps – often setting one off against another – a graphic equaliser (often just using one frequency at a time), a tuner that splits the frequency (hence the guitar and bass combo sound) and much more. It’s a sound he basically worked out himself through much trial and error.
And it didn’t take long for people to sit up and take notice, although it wasn’t quite an immediate hit, “Yeah, we had very naive beginnings,” says Mike. “People always ask us if we expected all this. We didn’t even expect to make that £500 back from the recording session,” he says referring to the money they spent in laying down a few tracks that eventually found their way onto their record-breaking debut album. In fact, the first song they put out in the public domain, the aptly named ‘Figure It Out’, was a bit of a damp squid. “I thought it was pretty good at the time. I thought it would at least go beyond my friends. But it didn’t,” he laughs. “It went over people’s heads. Or maybe it didn’t even get to their heads. It’s funny thinking about that.”
The Royal Blood juggernaut was now inching off the forecourt, before very quickly picking up a head of steam, with management and record labels knocking on their door. But even then, no one knew how huge it would all become. A big moment though came when Matt Helders, the Arctic Monkeys’ drummer, was seen wearing a Royal Blood T-shirt on Glastonbury’s Pyramid Stage, in the summer of 2013. They had recently signed to the same management company, and it got people talking. In the meantime they had already started to lay down some tracks. “Our first record is like a patchwork of demos,” says Mike. “We never intended to make an album. We just cut a few tunes for a laugh. It stopped feeling funny, let’s put it that way. The first half of the album cost about £500. It was done in very modest conditions.
“We didn’t even re-record those tracks. We kept what we had. I remember trying to re-record ‘Figure It Out’ in a fancier studio. But we felt that we had a vibe, so we just left it.”
Smart move. It would have been easy – with more money and resources at their disposal – to tinker with a formula that seemed to be working very well.
With their self-titled debut album making it to number one, Royal Blood then spent the next two and half years playing pretty much the same set of ten songs around the globe, gathering tonnes of fans, including many who wouldn’t necessarily see themselves as fans of loud rock music, but who nevertheless took to their combination of great songs, a down-to-earth demeanour (long gone are the days of when bands such a Led Zep would court controversy and publicity via their extra-curricular activities) and this over-arching impression that they are just ‘having a laugh’.
When I talk to Ben, it is the day of the release of their second album, How Did We Get So Dark? A massive world-wide tour lies ahead, including a prime slot on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury, perhaps the most famous stage in all of music. “It’s a special day for us. A big moment,” says Mike. Were you guys worried about not be able to repeat the success of the first album, or that you wouldn’t be able to write the songs? “‘Ben, what do you think’?” Mike asks his drumming partner who is taking in the scenes of Paris. “Ben says he was! I don’t know if I believe him. He’s wearing his poker glasses. I can’t tell. We’ll get back to you on that one. I feel as a band we can’t answer. We can’t quite agree or make a decision on that, until Ben reveals if he is actually telling the truth or not.”
Is he saying something now? I ask Mike as I detect murmurings over the phone. He’s saying he can see the Eiffel Tower. He’s getting very excited.”
What about the songs, how did you start getting those together for the album? “We had a few songs. We had ‘Where Are You Now?’, and ‘Hook, Line & Sinker’. We already had those tunes in the bag. I built a bit of a studio at the back of the bus during the Foo Fighters tour (whom they supported), just so that if I felt inspired I wouldn’t get frustrated. And as soon as we got back to Brighton we headed straight to Brighton Electric, the rehearsal studio, where we always go to. We went back into the same room we always go to, began fishing for ideas and seeing if we could get excited again.”
How do you feel about this album, compared to your debut? “I feel like it’s a more refined and sophisticated record. In a weird way it feels like a debut. We had the opportunity to craft something, like a body of work. It’s a relief to have it out there. We’ve lived with this album for so long, and some of those tunes are so familiar to us now. They are like our best friends now. It’s like we don’t own them anymore. I don’t have any children, but I imagine it’s like sending your kids off to school.
“I don’t do much social media stuff, if I can help it. But I’m told the reaction has been good so far. That’s the most important thing to us, the people who come to the shows, who have invested in the band. They are the ones that matter to us. It’s a nice feeling that our hard work is being enjoyed and appreciated.”
A few weeks back there was an almighty scrum to secure tickets for a hastily arranged warm-up show at Brighton’s Concorde 2, with queues snaking around the block from Resident Records on the morning of the show. That must have been a big moment for them too, showcasing the new material for the first time. “It was our first show back. We had to do a first gig back at some point, so we thought it would be cool to do that in Brighton (where Mike lives). The majority of people there were friends and family, and fans who had got tickets early that morning. It was a nice environment to come back. It’s quite nerve-wracking to have not played a show in 18 months. You’ve got to remember how to do it all over again.
“I was a bit self-conscious at first because no one knows the music, so people aren’t necessarily participating in the show. They are more like watching you. And they are new, so there’s that unfamiliarity but it’s great to have new songs in the set and have those dynamics to play with. The show now has gone to a whole new level.”
You’re touring the States with Queens of the Stone Age, a band who have obviously inspired and influenced you and your sound? “It’s a huge honour to do that. The amount of respect I have for that band, words do not exist yet. That is the dream scanario for us to go on a tour with a band like that. It’s going to be an absolute masterclass.”
So, the Royal Blood juggeranut is back on the road again, looking to explore new pastures, win new fans, and demonstrate that their debut album was no flash-in-the-pan. But, Brighton and Sussex (Ben and Mike are from Worthing and Rustington) is where their heart seems to lie, with the final show of the UK tour touching down at the Brighton Centre at the end of November. “That’s going to be amazing. I’m also excited to go on the i360 before and after the show. I’ve got a ticket, and that will be the time to do it, just to get me in the mood.”
Your base is still Brighton? “I’ve got a few basses,” says Mike. “Sorry, that was bad, (it was). Yeah, I live in Brighton, although I’m only here about one day a year. Although it is my birthday on Monday, so I will head back there to see my family and have a bit of a shindig.”
Are you turning into a diva? “I was a diva before all this nonsense kicked off. I’m a massive food snob. We’re in Paris now, and the amount of Googling of restaurants is hideous. Slowly, but surely, I’m turning into an awful person to be around!”
Royal Blood. Makers of a beautiful noise. And having a laugh with it.