Back with a new single, Mike Kerr of Royal Blood takes Live4ever through the genesis, recording and finishing touches of their upcoming third album.
“I was laughing at this idea of tyrants dancing, imagining Darth Vader coming back to his headquarters after a long day terrorising the galaxy. What does he listen to when he takes the mask off and pours a glass of red wine? It just made me laugh. It was a stupid thought process that lead to hopefully a good idea.”
So speaks Mike Kerr of Trouble’s Coming, Royal Blood’s latest single released back in September. An unusual gestation for a smash-hit single, one would agree, but Kerr is happy to add some context; “A massive influence for the record was Sam Rockwell.”
“There’s a scene in Charlie’s Angels where he’s the villain and he’s in his lair. He’s dancing in his suit and his snakeskin boots with a can of Coke to Simon Says by Pharoahe Moach.”
“For years that was our walk-on music because I was obsessed with that tune. When Trouble’s Coming came, I thought it was totally what Sam Rockwell would dance to. It’s disco music but I wanted it to be really menacing.”
Yes, Royal Blood are back with a slinky single and a new album to follow in 2021. Trouble’s Coming made a big splash on arrival, hitting Number 1 on the UK Vinyl Singles Chart and garnering Hottest Record accolades on both Apple Music and Spotify, as well as being a contender for Radio One’s own Hottest Record of 2020 as a whole.
Safe to say, it’s been a successful comeback but, despite their previous successes, Kerr is still grateful: “It’s amazing, and not something that’s taken for granted,” he tells Live4ever when we speak over Zoom. “You go and make a record, get lost in your world then come out and think, ‘oh yeah, there’s people out there that like us and want to hear this!’.”
Indeed, Royal Blood occupy a rarefied place in contemporary music. Despite the perennial ‘rock is dead’ arguments (yawn), in their relatively short lifespan the duo have been nominated for both Brit and Kerrang! awards alike, and are able to successfully straddle the line between ‘rock’ and ‘pop’ with admirable ease. Kerr explains his theory as to why:
“I guess, at heart, we’ve always really made our priority about pop songs and songwriting. Perhaps it was more of a magic trick on the first record because it was so well disguised. I think there was this accidental novelty of us being a two-piece, but me and Ben always made music together.”
“Whatever we do we have a very short attention span, and we want everything to be lean and to the point. If anything goes on too long, we shut it down. We’re quite pop-minded, although we don’t enjoy the aesthetic of modern pop that much. We much prefer music with more character and edge, which is where our love of rock comes from.”
“The only compass we have is if the two of us think it’s cool. We both have different music tastes, one of us is always listening to something completely different from the other. Whatever we make, when we both get really excited about it to me it’s a guarantee that someone else will like it.”
And people do like Royal Blood; back in 2014, their rise to fame was stratospheric (‘one of the most incredible experiences of my life, and it will never be like that again’), but the duo paid something of a price when it came to recording their second album, 2017’s How Did We Get So Dark?.
“I love our last record,” Kerr tells Live4ever, “but the context in which we were making it was really difficult, because it was the first experience of making music with an expectation. I’m of the view that expectation leads to some kind of disappointment, somewhere.”
“On the first record we had the element of surprise and there was nothing really to compare it to. It was a different context in being creative and one that we weren’t really used to.”
“We were lucky enough to have the success that we did, and get the praise that we did, but it wasn’t necessarily asked for. It caused a bit of unnecessary pressure, I guess, but I feel like it was a really important record to make, and we got through the other side of it and made something we were really happy with.”
Blessedly, that experience has been put to good use; the recording of their forthcoming third album saw the band adopt a new, unburdened attitude. “Making this record felt like we were making a debut record.”
“It felt back to where we were, making music to make each other laugh. It came from a place of real fun and it felt like we completely got out of our own way. We weren’t thinking about what people would think, it just is what it is. It was very instinctual. As I’ve learnt over the years, it’s not that healthy to overthink it!”
“Before we played Reading & Leeds (in 2019) there was a year or so working on material, but I don’t think we were in a position where we had what we were searching for. Part of the reason for going out and playing some of those shows was a bit of an identity check, and a bit of a reminder of what kind of band we are.”
“I think we needed a bit of waking up. As soon as we came off that tour everything came into place, the record was really made the minute we came back after that show and was only very recently completed. Trouble’s Coming was probably written and finished a month or so after that show.”
The single itself may be sprinkled with liberal pinches of glitter, but the subject matter is another thing entirely, Kerr putting aspects of his own mental health into words. The track refers, via metaphor, to feelings of depression and anxiety that plague so many of us, and Kerr feels some responsibility to their delivery.
“It’s my job to say everything but that and paint the picture of that. Lyrically, it’s quite frantic and it’s about a feeling, about being lost in thought and the terror that can bring. When you’re lost in a thought, you’re in the middle of a storm and you feel like it’s never going to end.”
“I tend to write the words sat at the piano. Once we make music I go and work out what the chords are, and I found that the lyric writing became a lot more vulnerable. Then I’d go back to the music and think, ‘these songs are so uplifting’, and weirdly, the most upbeat and fun the music became, the more I felt comfortable in being vulnerable. I didn’t feel as exposed.”
Over the course of our conversation, it becomes clear just how proud and enthused Kerr is about the new album; “It’s like Royal Blood in colour,” he gushes. “It’s like we see those old war movies that start in black and white and then it becomes HD colour.”
“It’s an ultra-example of the first record. The real running theme is the lyrics, it all really takes place in my own head. It’s psychological – about anxiety, depression and this idea of being lost in thought, and all my experiences of that. It’s lyrically claustrophobic, but musically it’s a simple idea, which Trouble’s Coming proved to us, that we could make AC/DC riffs over disco beats but still be completely ourselves.”
“The biggest fear for us was doing something uncomfortable. There’s the expression of ‘doing something outside your comfort zone’, but I don’t want to watch anyone being uncomfortable, it’s awkward. It was about finding something that was already in us.”
“It wasn’t like we researched finding new sounds, it was music we loved for years, like French disco, ABBA, The Bee Gees. With Trouble’s Coming, I was just thinking what it would be like if The Bee Gees were really aggressive. It made us laugh, which is the best beginning for a Royal Blood song.”
One also gets the sense that Kerr is eager for the next few months to pass quickly, so the world can hear the full fruits of the band’s labour; “I have to remind myself that people have just heard this one thing, but it’s a part of a real world that we’ve created.”
“There are other tracks on the record that are examples of the same initial idea that we were excited about, but they are quite different. They are all an expression of this idea that we were got excited about initially, which was playing at this pace in this style.”
“Ultimately, we are a band made up of a rhythm section, and on this album, we feel the most like a rhythm section we’ve ever played, which is awesome! It’s a strength that we weirdly haven’t played to until now. There’s examples of what we’ve done on this new record all over everything we’ve done before, I just don’t think it was as indulgently explored as it has been now.”
Not that the record will be completely new by the time it arrives. Another single will hit the airwaves in a few weeks (‘my favourite thing we’ve ever made’), and for fans lucky enough to have seen them back in 2019, one track, Boilermaker, will also be familiar, although it’s unlikely that anyone will have understood its importance at the time.
“Looking back, it was the first idea we made that made the cut. When we were making it, we didn’t necessarily have this vision of what we were going to make, it just came out of nowhere. It was great to be able to play it live, as that’s when you work out what you’ve got.”
“I remember the first time we played it live, it’s interesting watching the crowd listen to a song they’ve never heard before. It’s a bit like being a comedian as you found out if you’re joke’s funny very quickly, and in a really harsh way! As soon as the punchline of the song landed, I was like, ‘this is good, no-one knows what this is and they’re moving to it’. That reinforced our confidence, that we half knew what we were doing.”
Of course, there is one huge hurdle to overcome before we can regale in such a splendour as live music again. Despite the positive news about vaccines, the live agenda for 2021 is still clouded in apprehension, and as Kerr explains, ‘Usually we’d be on the road by now, playing these songs in our set and getting them ready’.
“We’re ready to roll, we just need the green light. It depends on how we can go ahead. If there’s small-ish shows, then that’s what we’ll do. If we can go all at once, then we’ll go straight in and get the fire cannons out.”
Whenever it comes, it promises to be a visual treat, but not in the way you would think: “Ben is doing so much onstage it’s unbelievable. He has these trigger pads, so on Trouble’s Coming he’s playing drums and the string parts at the same time. It’s more fun watching a drummer being on the edge of a panic attack for three-and-a-half minutes.”
But what of 2020’s new avenue for exposure, the livestream? Kerr puts it better than your writer can: “It’s never going to be love making, it’s always pornography. It’s trying to emulate an experience that can’t be emulated. I totally get why people are doing it, and if this goes on much longer it’s something that we’ll do. But we’re planning for rain, praying for sun.”
As the year draws to a close, we all know what a toll it’s taken on everyone. Fortunately in Kerr’s case, he was able to tune his personal frustrations to a positive outcome: “I’ve thrown myself into this album. This situation has only made for a better creative experience. I’m lucky enough to be able to say that, and I’m aware of that.”
“We were in the middle of making the record when we went into the first lockdown, and it was really frustrating because it felt like we were finally cutting the record. It was a victory to get into the studio, and then two weeks in we had to stop.”
“We went back home, and after a week or so I felt like I had to do something. I have a small studio near my house where I write, so I went in there. I was like, ‘I’m just going to make songs for no reason, the album’s done. I don’t need to write anymore so I’m just going to write songs’.”
“Then, as a result of making art for the sake of it, it resulted in a couple of tunes that felt really good. We made two songs in about a month and I sent them to our record label. They said, ‘it’s the best thing you’ve ever done,’ so we went back into the studio with these new songs, and it was like adding nitrogen to the record. It suddenly went turbo, and it continued like that.”
“The record has just got better and better as the year has gone on. It’s probably been the most creative I’ve been in my life.”
2021 had better watch out then. Armed with fire cannons, the usual gargantuan riffs and added disco beats, Royal Blood and their new album are coming for it.