Taking his cues from guitar giants such as Jimmy Page and Josh Homme, Royal Blood bassist/vocalist Mike Kerr has created some of the greatest riffs of modern times. Better still, he knows how to deliver them, using a signal splitter to route through different amps and effects, filling out the spectrum in a contrast of layers, effectively doubling up on guitar, while the other half of Royal Blood, Ben Thatcher, pounds away on the drums.
The duo’s wall of noise has made them one of the biggest British rock acts to emerge over the past decade, and ever since their self-titled debut album was released in 2014, Kerr has refused to reveal the specifics of his rig. Many interviewers have tried and failed, met with stone-cold answers: “I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you!” Or more direct refusals: “I don’t talk about my pedals... Ever.”
But now – with new album Typhoons just released – he opens up to TG in what turns out to be, by his own admission, the most revelatory discussion on his signal-splitting methods to date. “I’ve never disclosed any of this information before,” he says.
The new album’s first single, Trouble’s Coming, has more of an electro groove than your previous work – almost closer to bands like Justice and Daft Punk at points...
“I think the initial riff came to me on a synth, with that envelope filter kind of sound on this tiny little keyboard, which we put over a simple beat at the time. When I played it on bass, I realised that it translated well and it got us thinking about this style of playing. It just made complete sense at the time.“
The main riff sounds simple, but there’s actually quite a few pushes and pulls in there.
“I think playing off straighter beats allowed me to have more room to bounce off the drums a bit more and dance on top of them. I guess I’m rhythmically more complex on these songs. We didn’t have a rulebook on this one. We were just doing whatever we liked. It was just about being led by the songwriting and not allowing the parameters of what we thought we could or should not do restrict us.“
Limbo also has a big Daft Punk feel to it, with some truly monstrous drum fills from Ben.
“That was a fun one. It felt like all three albums coming together. For Ben, particularly in the verses, we kept pushing it and telling him to play more and more until every time that section comes in it feels like a huge drum fill. That’s something that dance music doesn’t do. That’s where the human aspect of it all comes in... I guess we wanted to humanize that disco feel.“
You started out on keys, and have previously written tracks such as Hole In Your Heart on a Rhodes bass. Would it be fair to call this album more keyboard-inspired?
“A lot of these songs started on keys – like Limbo, which started with that intro on keys. Those parts would become the glue of the songs. Because a lot of these songs were so rhythmic an and lyrics at a piano. To be honest, I could barely play the basslines, let alone start singing at the same time. I’ve only just learned how to play Trouble’s Coming properly for the live shows, it’s so difficult for me.
“Being at the piano felt much easier, but also allowed me to really focus on the words, which is something I really wanted to get better at. By not being blasted in the face by riffs and beats, it meant I could the lyrics under more of a microscope and I guess feel a bit more vulnerable – which is what pianos seem to bring out of me...“
Your bass feels EQ’d a bit differently on this album too, with more of a nasal bite.
“Yeah, I became fascinated by those kinds of tones – almost making my bass sound smaller but deeper. I’d add more sub and bottom end, and then push certain other frequencies too. In the studio we were calling it the stereo wasps, leaving a huge hole in the mix. We wanted the drums to be really fucking loud on these songs, like the driving force of everything.
And you’re using some much lower tunings this time round, too.
“Yeah, it’s funny I’m often playing higher up the neck but actually in B at points – using those really low octaves. I’d almost say it’s an inversion of the first record, more like a bass sound than a guitar sound. But I get the guitar sound by playing higher up the neck rather than playing lower and emulating those higher frequencies.“
Speaking of guitar sounds – simple as it may be, what you’re playing in Boilermaker feels like a homage to Jimmy Page...
“Yeah, and it’s weirdly hard to play! Even though it’s one move basically across the whole song, it has so much personality to it. To be honest, I owe Jimmy Page for that riff because I was harnessing that Zeppelin rudeness. I’m not being modest here – I really don’t know a lot about guitar or bass techniques. My friend showed me how to pre-bend and so I put it to use.
“Honestly, whenever I learn a new technique I always write a song. When I learned hammer-ons, I wrote Figure It Out – which is all left-hand – and Come On Over. I guess I was really stoked by the fact I could play bass with just one hand. My mate, who actually helped me write Boilermaker, suggested using a pre-bend somewhere and that became the whole song [laughs]. So I’m excited for someone to show me what the next beginner’s guitar move is!“
It often feels like you play bass more like a guitar – we couldn’t imagine you going fingerstyle and trying out some slap bass, at least not in this band...
“For sure. I don’t really have any bass heroes. I often get asked that and, as much as I appreciate brilliant players, they were never inspirations to me. It was always guitarists. The fact that we’re a two-piece means the bass is very upfront and a prominent feature. So guitars and guitar sounds feel a lot more relevant to me. I also didn’t really understand a full-sized bass,
“I went straight to short-scales. Even now, when I play a full-sized one it feels ridiculously big. I like instruments that feel like toys and there’s something very professional about a Precision bass. Whereas the [Gretsch] Junior Jets were a couple of hundred quid and if they broke, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. That allowed me to not be too precious about them.
“Otherwise, instruments can be like a brand new pair of shoes that you never wear, and then you outgrow them and they never fit you. I like the idea of using an instrument that gets played all the time.“
What advice do you have for all the two-pieces out there hoping to fill out the sonic spectrum?
“It’s all about understanding space, more than anything. Being a two or three-piece, your immediate insecurity will be about filling space and sounding as big as possible. You might think the way to do that is to have all of you playing all the time and filling every part of the spectrum. Whereas it’s actually the opposite.
“It’s about putting space in everything and using rhythms to counteract that. Put dead silences in the middle of your riffs. Whenever I write, I naturally fill all the gaps, but then I go back and delete notes or slice sections out on the computer. Typhoons is a good example. I found ways to have parts with no drums, bass or vocals whatsoever – just pure silence in the middle of sections. It’s like getting slapped in the face with air.
“It made me realise that a lot of my favourite artists, like Prince, Michael Jackson or Daft Punk, do it that way. I mean, AC/DC are the masters of putting gaps in riffs. Look at Back in Black: the thing that makes it so powerful is the gaps in between the riffs. It’s about the anticipation of not knowing when it’s going to come back in, which can feel like someone karate chopping in your face. So don’t play all the time. See how confident you can get with using as little as possible.“
You’ve been accompanied by two session musicians for recent television appearances to promote the new album. Was that a difficult decision to make?
“It’s funny you mention that... A lot of these new tracks have more parts firing off, more production and keyboard lines. So when we start touring, that’s what we’re going to do. We really want it to be live. We don’t want to play to a track or a click – we never have done that. So we’ve been trying that out and it’s actually been great, it serves the songs a lot better.
“For anyone who feels it’s not the same with just two of us anymore, we have 24 songs we can play just as the two of us. This record was about chasing the best ideas and letting go of that concept. We’ve proved to ourselves and the world that we can do it with just the two of us. That point’s been proven, you know?“
On the last album you mainly stuck with your short-scale Fender Jaguar bass, using your Starcaster four-strings on a couple of tracks. Was it the same this time round?
“Yeah, I actually played most of it on my custom-built Jaguar, which Fender made for me about four years ago. They just made it and put it in my hands, and I fell in love with it. It’s become my main go-to bass and I have a few of them in multiple tunings, so most of the album was using those.
“There is also a new instrument, which is on Who Needs Friends. I don’t really know how to describe it – basically it’s a baritone guitar with a bass string and guitar strings, all tuned to F. So it’s just five F’s in different octaves on a baritone! I just came up with it one evening and that song came out immediately. I don’t really know what to call it yet, but it’s really fun. It’s like playing a giant bagpipe!“
And as for amps, it’s mainly been Super-Sonics and Bassmans.
“I actually bought an amp off eBay for £30 but I’m not going to say what it is... I don’t want everyone to go out and buy them, because I might want spares! But there’s loads of them left. And it sounded magical. I did all the guitar stuff using that one amp, and I only had one of them, so any double-tracking was actually re-amped through that, to achieve the second layer.
“It was a much cheaper experience on this record! I got so into that thing we were talking about earlier, where the guitars sounded like they had a bit of a cold, with this nasal and angular kind of thing. We were chasing smaller sounds my end to make the drums sound bigger.“
Transposing up from bass seems to work really well for you – arguably better than if you were doing it the other way round.
“Yeah, I totally know what you’re saying. I fluked out really. I noticed a lot of other two-pieces were doing it the other way, using guitars and then going down... Which is more difficult to emulate. But, then again, so is emulating a guitar through bass. You’ve got to pick a side! The kind of octave up sounds I like are so distorted or fuzzy, that even it was a guitar being used, it’s undetectable what kind of guitar was doing it.“
You’ve kept pretty tight-lipped about the pedalboard over the years, but the Electro-Harmonix POG2 is definitely one you are closely associated with. What makes it better than, say, a DigiTech Whammy?
“To be honest with you, it’s just the first thing I had. I think it was more about how the bass works with the POG. I actually don’t like the POG sound on its own. I can always detect it on a guitar and for lack of a better word, it always sounded eggy! There was something unpleasant about it. I think my disgust of its sound caused me to drive it harder so you can’t really hear it’s that pedal.
“I have a love/hate relationship with it, you know? But I owe it a lot, and at the same time I’m not a massive fan of it, traditionally speaking. I think I only use two settings. I don’t use the others. Also, so much ground has been covered by other bands using that pedal, you don’t want to go treading on anyone else’s toes.“
We've spotted a Boss Harmonist in the mix, too...
“That’s really just a divebomb thing. The first time I realised I could divebomb the entire rig was very exciting! I had no desire to buy a Whammy pedal because Tom Morello absolutely nailed it and essentially owns it. I also didn’t really like the idea of fucking around with the expression pedal. For me, I want to just kick it in and know it’s going to work.
“But the Harmonist is what I used to write Ten Tonne Skeleton, because I was enjoying using it the other way round, screeching up to the top rather than down. So that song was the result of that pedal.“
As for fuzz, is it still the Z.Vex Mastotron you’re using?
“Not really... Other than Loose Change, I don’t think I’ve used it anywhere else. I wanted to protect the tone of that song and not repeat it – that song is almost an anomaly on the first album. It’s its own little creature. I didn’t want to play another song with the same sound.
“On that first record, we were so conscious of each song having some tonal difference, even if subtle. I didn’t want to have exactly the same tone over and over again, because when it’s just two of you, there is that threat of it all sounding the same. Which is why we used different tunings, pedals, amp combinations and anything else we could to give it a variation.“
This is going better than we expected, so it would be remiss not to ask if there’s anything else that’s integral to your tone...
“Okay, yeah, there’s a pedal... I can’t believe I’m telling you this. I’ve never disclosed any of this information before. It’s a worldwide exclusive. You’re a good interrogator! Anyways, there’s a pedal called the [Tech 21] Red Ripper – which I didn’t discover myself, an assistant engineer showed it to me. It’s a bass distortion pedal and it’s wicked.
“For anyone out there who plays bass and wants distortion, all bass distortions are a bit shit in my opinion. They sound cool in a YouTube video or when you’re on your own, but when you’re with the band, it makes your bass sound thin and not very nice. Whereas the Red Ripper is just rad. It stays really subby and warm, but has this squelch to it. I would say it’s a very good one.“
Good to know! A lot of this stuff is actually easily available and quite affordable.
“There are some brilliant videos on YouTube on how to sound like us, but on a budget. One thing that made me laugh is the budget they work with – usually around £1,500. And I’m always thinking, ‘Man, you could do it with £600!’ It’s more simple than that. I did get a bit of a buzz from keeping it all secret at the beginning.
“Also, people making videos on how to sound like us actually gives me ideas I wouldn’t have thought of. Different paths to get to a similar conclusion... It’s not how I do it, but I find it very cool and actually get something back out of someone explaining how to rip me off.
“Ultimately, there’s no wrong way of doing anything. Emulation is how creativity begins anyway. We all start from emulating our heroes and usually do a terrible job of it, but then we end up at the beginning of somewhere completely unique.“
Speaking of heroes – which guitarists do you think left the biggest mark on you over the years?
“There are so many. There are so many elements of each player I’ve absorbed but for me it’s all about Jimmy Page, Tom Morello, Josh Homme and Jack White. Those have been the ones who seemed to have their own style and let their personalities bleed out through their playing.
“When I started out, I was influenced by all of them so much, at times I was probably playing things that weren’t even mine. It’s a mixture of those heroes. Over time, I’ve found the areas where my sound doesn’t cross with those players and I’ve found my own unique little gems. That’s what it’s all about – learning about who you are and what you can bring to the table. So yeah, Jimmy, Josh, Jack... Anyone whose name begins with a J!”
- Typhoons is out now via Warner Bros.