Bassist and vocalist Mike Kerr chats about the UK duo's pivot to the dancefloor for our April/May cover story.
One thing was clear to Royal Blood at the end of touring their second album: something had to change.
Of course, 2017’s How Did We Get So Dark? was not without its successes. It went to number one in the UK and Scotland, just like its predecessor. It spawned two number-one singles on the UK rock chart, just like its predecessor. It boasted leather-jacket cool and capital-R rock, just like its predecessor… are you starting to sense a theme here?
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Despite achieving so much commercially, creatively it was an album that ultimately achieved very little. In hindsight, it committed the worst crime a second album can commit: it didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know.
Lead vocalist and bassist Mike Kerr is the first to admit that Royal Blood was all at sea for a period there – and it was up to him and drummer Ben Thatcher to reclaim it as their own.
“I didn’t really know where I wanted it to go,” Kerr confesses from his Brighton home.
“I was pretty lost in terms of where the band was going. Once I got sober, though, my whole life changed. It wasn’t ‘til eight months after that clarity descended upon me. I had a kind of awakening of what kind of album I wanted to make and where we should go.”
Said clarity prompted Kerr to write the song ‘Trouble’s Coming’, which would end up as the lead single to album number three, Typhoons.
As both a mission statement and a comeback single, you couldn’t really ask for a better concoction.
The snarling bass and pounding drums of Royal Blood’s past was present and accounted for, but with it came a new spring in the step. Groove-oriented, incessant and unfathomably catchy, it quickly turned heads upon its release in September 2020.
“To me, it just made perfect sense,” says Kerr of the song. “I felt like the language I was using was what I needed to say. Suddenly, I found that I wasn’t really scrambling for words anymore. In fact, I found I had a lot to say.
“Before that, I was barely staying afloat as a human being. I felt like I was trying not to drown in the band. I saved myself in order to save the band – and the other way around. It was like my mind was full – it was fully powered for the first time in ten years.”
With ‘Trouble’s Coming’ in the can, Kerr and Thatcher returned to the well to see what else they had coming. Their timing of working on the new album, however, coincided with the world entering lockdown – which, as you might guess, isn’t the most fertile creative environment for rock & roll.
If anything, however, this pushed the duo to double down on their dancier musical direction for Typhoons.
“I was having this weird juxtaposition between what was going on in the outside world and what was going on internally,” he says.
“Suddenly, these songs felt like a bit of an antidote to the chaos and depression that was outside of the studio. Everything got fucking grim last year, but I felt great within myself after getting sober. I had this spring in my step. It definitely was this weird juxtaposition.
“It’s funny… if you go back and look at the covers of the first two albums, they’re both in black and white. If you look at the cover for this album, it’s like a fucking acid rainbow.”
For all the changes afoot in the Royal Blood camp, one thing has stayed the same: Mike Kerr’s bass still sounds as churning, distorted and guttural as ever. The band’s sound is still centred around it, just as it was when they rose to prominence in the mid-2000s.
The heaviness in Kerr’s playing, however, has more to do with volume rather than anything to do with the pedalboard.
“When I was making the demos to the songs, I didn’t have any of my pedals on me,” he says. “I was just plugging straight into this tiny little amp that I got for like 30 quid on eBay.
“It sounded like a wasp in a crisp packet. I would just point a mic in front of it, go straight into Logic and start playing over these really dancey beats. I was drawn to the simplicity of that, really – especially when I had it on really fucking loud. Because there were no pedals, it meant that all my playing was just like tighter and quicker.
“Everything felt like more like a fist, rather than an open hand. I started changing my behaviour as a player around the way my bass sounded. The parts suddenly sounded tight as nails, and they made me really lock into these beats. I was like, ‘wow, I’m playing riffs – but I’ve never heard it like this.”
This back-to-basics approach would filter into the rest of Typhoons, with Kerr opting to maintain a consistent tone throughout.
“I found myself using like one pedal on a whole song, rather than five or six,” he says. “On the second album, I was so into shape-shifting my sound every ten seconds.
“On this one, it felt like every song had its own aesthetic and I stayed true to that throughout. I felt like more secure as a bass player – I didn’t need to keep changing the sound.”
Soon enough, Thatcher coined a name for the band’s new sound: ‘AC/Disco.’ Think the brute-force of the Young brothers in their prime matched with the dancefloor-filling urgency of Studio 54 and you’re just about there.
If you’ve been intrigued by the singles thus far – ‘Trouble’s Coming,’ the Supergrass-aping title track and the upbeat inferno of ‘Limbo’ – Kerr is happy to report that you’ll love the rest of Typhoons.
“I think once we had that term – AC/Disco – it was like, that’s the album,” he says.
“It started out as this happy accident, and then it became this total revelation. I was like, ‘let’s just fucking make this.’
“I hate when you hear the first two singles from an album, and it has a sound and a vibe, but when you buy the album it’s not there for the rest of it. My attitude was that if we were gonna do this, we had to commit. Let’s make a party playlist.”
As Kerr and Thatcher burrowed further into their niche while making Typhoons, it also became apparent that they would have to take on an additional role in the process.
Though the pair have co-produced on previous albums, it’s never been as comprehensive and hands-on as it has here – which, as Kerr attests, is entirely by design.
“I don’t mean any disrespect to anyone we’ve worked with in the past,” he begins. “Having said that: It was a bit of a relief to produce this album ourselves. This was the clearest vision we’ve ever had for a record and for our sound.
“For us, we knew what we wanted to do. We knew how we wanted to do it. We knew where we were going to do it. We didn’t need someone to blame if this went wrong, and we didn’t need to put anyone in our way.
“I would love to work with a producer again at some point, because I think it’s an incredible dynamic to have.
“For this record, though, it immediately felt different. It was almost like we were producers by default. We’d get to the end of the demo, and suddenly it was like, ‘…oh, it’s done.’”
Kerr points to the title track as a key example of this. “I finished the demo, thinking it was maybe a little scrappy but it got the point across,” Kerr recalls.
“When I showed it to Ben, though, the very first thing he said once he’d finished listening was ‘don’t change a fucking thing.’ I was pretty shocked – I was like, ‘I could play that part a little better’ and ‘I could sing that part a little better.’
“Ben immediately shut me down – ‘Just leave it,’ he said, ‘I’m gonna play drums.’ We tracked the drums the next day, and that’s what you hear on the album.”
Typhoons is out now via Warner Music Australia.