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Royal Blood Continue to Rewrite the Rock Rulebook—Without a Guitar

Royal Blood Continue to Rewrite the Rock Rulebook—Without a Guitar Mike Kerr (left) and Ben Thatcher

Mike Kerr, who is one-half of the British-based rock duo royal blood (he’s the singer-bassist component; ben thatcher handles the drums), has two distinct views on being in a two-man band.

“On the one hand, the duo thing forces us to be creative because we can’t rely on other people to fill up the space,” he says. “That allows me and ben to improvise more because it’s all on us. In a bigger band, you have this big ship you have to guide and turn around. That makes it hard to go off, so you have to stick to the tune and follow a lot of rules. We don’t have that, so it’s cool.”

On the other hand, Kerr sees the band’s limitations as sometimes being, well, just that—limitations. “There’s a certain amount of impatience that we feel being just two people,” he says. “Sometimes you can feel stuck. You want to do those other tricks that other bands can do. Maybe it would be fun to share what we do with other musicians onstage, or it might be cool to just let somebody else pick up the slack while I concentrate on singing or whatever. But we don’t dwell on that. We are what we are, and it’s what we want to be.”

On their pummeling eponymous debut album from 2014, Royal Blood were routinely compared to the White Stripes, but their aesthetic actually owed more to the metallic/stoner rock wallop of another power duo, Local H. But whereas that band’s frontman, Scott Lucas, runs a hybrid guitar (outfitted with bass pickups) into bass and guitar amps, Mike Kerr opts for a bass that he sends into pitch shifters and other various stomp boxes (including one that’s a closely guarded secret).

The resulting sound is as thick and lowdown as EDM’s bottom frequencies, and when matched with Kerr’s sweet tenor and the band’s crafty way with pop hooks on tracks like “Little Monster” and “Out of the Black,” it’s a recipe that sizzles.

Royal Blood’s debut album hit No. 1 in the U.K. and landed in the Top 20 in the States, and thanks to high-exposure tours with the Arctic Monkeys and the Foo Fighters they established themselves as a powerful live act. Conventional wisdom would have the band issue a speedy follow-up, but Kerr and Thatcher opted for a different approach, spending over a year to record How Did We Get So Dark?

“There was no reason to rush something out,” Kerr insists. “We had been on the road for so long and were in people’s faces so much. We wanted everyone to kind of miss us a bit. There’s nothing wrong with that. That’s what a band should do. You gotta go away for a while.”

Musically, How Did We Get So Dark? is every bit the earth-mover as its predecessor, but in some ways it’s lighter, too: Ear candy background vocals brighten the tumult of bruisers like “Look Like You Know” and “Hook, Line and Sinker,” and there’s a frol-icky air of psychedelic weirdness that permeates tracks such as “She’s Creeping” and “Where Are You Now?” While Kerr and Thatcher never stray too far from the sound of their bass/drums dynamic, they open things up significantly on the irresistible dance-rocker “Hole in Your Heart,” which is built on a hypnotic, Doors-like keyboard riff.

“I’m playing a Fender Rhodes on that one,” Kerr notes. “It wasn’t a conscious thing, like, ‘Okay, let’s try to sound different.’ The keyboard was just sitting there in the studio, and I started fucking around with it one night. I happened upon this riff, and it sounded cool. I don’t know if it’s something I’ll continue with. It’s hard to tell—this is only our second album. We’ve got a long way to go.”

Photo: Perou

Here you guys are with your second album, but it comes at a time when full-length records aren’t as meaningful to young people as they once were. Do you feel like you missed out on the golden era of albums?
I mean, yes, in a way. It’s interesting, isn’t it? Obviously the way that people consume music now is through streaming, and I’m kind of guilty of doing the same thing. The album format is like a rare breed now, and it just is what it is. That said, I believe that because of the type of music we make and because of the type of fans that we have, the album format has a lot of value.

Also, there’s vinyl—that’s where the format lives. A lot of our fans are into vinyl. They’re dipping back to that ritual of buying a record, going home and listening to it, flipping it over. It’s not as big as streaming, but it’s there. So as long as we have that, we’ll make albums, even if less people appreciate them.

Are you a little surprised at how quickly things happened for you? You made a big splash in the States, you played stadium shows with the Foo Fighters—all on the first record.
Yeah, we achieved a lot on that first one. I think it’s down to a combination of the fact that we toured like crazy and we tried to make every show count. We’re so grateful to the Foo Fighters for having us out on that tour, and that really helped us in America; we got to play to thousands of people every night. It would be mad if I were to tell you that I wasn’t surprised at the rate of acceleration we’ve experienced.

You and Ben wrote some songs separately for the new album. What brought about that change? Was there any kind of conflict?
No, there was no conflict. It was curiosity, kind of a “What if…?” Ben and I have been playing and writing together for years, but I think the idea for this album was to try and maintain our sound while going in some new directions. What’s that definition of madness—doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result? It actually felt fine and kind of natural to try writing separately, and we got some great tunes out of it. But we also wrote some pretty great tunes in the same room together. There’s are no rules for songwriting anyway, you know?

You were going through a bad breakup in your personal life while writing the record. It’s often said that pain is a catalyst for good material.
I mean, that’s just there, isn’t it? I think some of my favorite records have been written from that viewpoint. The experience made it very clear what the record was going to be about and what the concept was. That was just something that happened naturally and organically, and I was just being true to myself. I can only write lyrics from an honest place, so there was no getting around it.


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