WRITING FOR OLD WOUNDS
IT’S THE UPBEAT ALBUM OF 2017, THEMATICALLY, BUT IT’S BUILT AROUND FEELING UTTERLY AWFUL. HOW DID ROYAL BLOOD GET SO DARK!? STORY AND PHOTO BY
Exhausted. Excited. Burnt out, but blown away. After releasing their self-titled debut in 2014, Mike Kerr and Ben Thatcher’s lives went from zero to 100 almost overnight. The duo from Brighton, better known as Royal Blood, were being hailed as the saviours of rock and roll. Pub gigs turned into mega festival slots with audiences in the thousands; it was a wild ride, and one that the guys aren’t soon going to forget, but years of touring took their toll on Kerr. When the chaos of LP1 was all over, the singer/bassist went home, grabbed his instrument and slammed it into a door. It was obliterated, but Kerr seemed relieved.
“That was probably me saying, ‘You can’t make us do this anymore,’” he laughs. “It was like, ‘We could have done more gigs, but now we definitely can’t.’” Although cathartic, a busted bass didn’t leave him with many options. “But Fender called,” he adds. “I had a chat with them about short scale basses, and they had a Jaguar Squier one on hand. I really liked it, but I also liked the pickup I was using, so they made me, like, a posh version of the Squier short scale. Before, I’d used these Gretschs that were £300 off the shelf, but I just couldn’t go back.”
The lesson? Smash your way to making your dreams come true. Okay, it’s not a great lesson, but it paid off and the Squier became his main instrument on the new album, HowDidWeGetSoDark? This time, Kerr felt confident exploring sounds outside the riff-laden stomp rock and youthful angst wrapped up in rumbling riffs that defined their debut. Sure, tracks like “Lights Out” and “I Only Lie When I Love You” still reach the deafening heights of “Figure it Out”, but Kerr and Thatcher don’t lean on big sounds as much as they used to. Instead, ...SoDark turns your attention towards its bleak subject matter.
“I experienced quite a lot of darkness making it, but I didn’t want to write about what was going on, because that meant addressing it,” he says, alluding to the topics while withholding the details. “But there was a point where I realised I had to be honest with myself. So I got really into the theme of things beginning as something good and then turning into something poisonous, and there were a lot of metaphors about the process of dying.” And just as it starts to sound like the most unexpectedly morbid record of 2017, Kerr smiles and adds, “It might as well be a really upbeat record about feeling like shit.”
Though he keeps the specifics under wraps, you get the sense that …SoDark’s narrative is at least partially inspired by the experience of being in a band that blew up unexpectedly. But despite the hard slog through a period that he refers to as “f***ing mental”, Kerr holds the experience in high esteem. By the end, he felt confident enough to branch out from the core sound of their debut, which meant mixing up the writing style and toying with new gear.
“The way we recorded a lot of the album was through layering things,” he explains. “I had the bass lines, but I was changing the scene with all the guitar tones, which meant a lot of re-amping and adding some extra stuff – two Fender Super Sonics, an 8x10 and a 1x15 – to the rig. There were all of these huge sound changes and amp configurations, but working out how to do all that live was a bit of an afterthought.”
In other words, Royal Blood took a complicated rig and made it even bigger. That seems about right, but Despite Kerr’s insistence that they weren’t considering the stage while writing, the songs lived up to expectations laid by their debut. The live configuration is built to shatter ceilings, rattle ribcages and cack foundations. Even if you’re chilling at the rear with a beer, you’ll see ripples rolling through the cup. And boy, has ...So
Dark done their legacy proud. He admits, however, that the gigs weren’t quite up to scratch until recently, as he couldn’t recreate all the sounds from the studio. Trying to wrangle the bounty of pedals was impossible for anything short of an octopus, which meant compromises had to be made. But that all changed when someone showed him the VooDoo Lab Ground Control.
“Ultimately, what it’s afforded me to do is make some way more impressive guitar sounds because I don’t spend half the show hitting four pedals at the same time,” he explains. “Now I can go into much finer details with the sounds, even on songs from the first record. It’s like we sort of remastered everything.”
So while Royal Blood’s rapid rise to fame and workhorse tour that ensured may have proved brutal at times, Kerr and Thatcher were smart enough to treat their journey as an education of sorts. And sure, they could have cloned their first record for round two, but instead they made a conscious departure from their origins, and it paid off. That said, there are some styles that Kerr will adamantly exclude forever. “My hate for cymbals has grown massively over the years,” he says. “Ben naturally plays a very hip-hop style anyway, but I’m like, ‘Please don’t rock out on a cymbal. Just keep it clean!’ F*** cymbals. They suck.”