Royal Blood talk Typhoons, sobriety and headlining Victorious Festival
It was at a bar in Las Vegas while on a break from recording Royal Blood's third album that frontman Mike Kerr realised something had to give.
He decided that the espresso martini in front of him would be his last alcoholic drink. He downed it, returned to the studio, and hasn’t looked back since.
And with that album, Typhoons, released last Friday and currently on course for their third number one in a row (it's at the top of the midweek chart), things are looking distinctly positive for the duo, completed by drummer Ben Thatcher.
The album sees the Brighton-based band stretching out too – embracing dance rhythms and textures while maintaining the fuzzy rock riffs and thundering drums they’re known for.
They are also closing this year’s Victorious Festival – a headline slot carried over from last year’s pandemic-pulled edition.
Looking back on that day in early 2019 when he decided to stop drinking, Mike tells The Guide: ‘It wasn't the first time I'd had that thought, but it felt like the last time I was going to have that thought.
‘I just got really bored of attempting to get my act together, and just felt like enough is enough.
‘They say “nothing changes if nothing changes”, and it was time for a big change in my life.
‘It was really a crescendo of lots of things coming together in my mind and realising that this was going to have to be the beginning of a new journey.
‘It's not like you wake up in the morning and all of your problems have gone away – it's day one of cleaning up.’
The band's self-titled 2014 debut propelled the pair to instant stars. It went double platinum and saw everyone from Kerrang! to The NME, Q Magazine and The Brits throwing awards at them.
Their follow-up How Did We Get So Dark? also went straight to the top of the chart, but behind the scenes things were unravelling, and Mike's enthusiastic embrace of the rock’n’roll lifestyle was not helping.
‘In any other industry – or most other industries – it would be fairly unacceptable to live and behave the way I was.
‘Being the lead singer in a rock band, you're applauded for doing what I was doing. That certainly didn't help.
‘But ultimately you can't blame everyone else around you – it was my thing to sort out.’
When he decided to call time on his drinking, did Mike feel he’d hit rock bottom?
‘Rock bottom is wherever you choose to stop digging,’ he points out. ‘It's hard to identify – but I think I threw the spade away.
‘You can just keep going, but the destination of where I was heading, would eventually mean losing everything. And when I say "everything”, I mean everything.’
That final drink came while the band was working with Josh Homme, the Queens of The Stone Age main man, at his Californian desert studio. The session yielded one of the album’s key tracks, Boilermaker, but it also provided the first real test of Mike’s newfound sobriety – Homme is renowned for having a hard-partying reputation.
On being offered a tequila by Josh when they returned to his studio, Mike says: ‘I said: “I'm not drinking any more, I'm going to stay sober and see what happens”.
‘That was met with nothing but encouragment and positivity from Josh.’
Royal Blood had previously toured with the Queens and Mike was later invited to work with Josh on his Desert Sessions project.
‘Much like my experience, you become known for being someone who drinks and parties, in the same way people have done that with Josh. But he's a human being, he's actually a lovely, lovely man – he's a friend as well. The person you see on stage, that's just one side of anyone.’
‘I believe it's a part of your personality, being on stage, that's where to exercise that side of you.
‘The person you're talking to now isn't the same person that walks on stage and plays a Royal Blood gig.
‘In the same way that a heavyweight boxer has a different mindset when they get into the ring than when they go for a coffee with their mother-in-law – if you were to switch them around, you'd probably lose the fight and get kicked out of the cafe.’
If it hadn’t been for the pandemic, we could have had a very different third album from Royal Blood.
‘We did have an album written that we were halfway through recording. But when the pandemic hit and lockdown began, I kept working on new song ideas, and these demos ended up being master recordings – and those songs were Typhoons, Limbo, Mad Visions and Oblivion, which are probably my favourite tracks on the record.‘So when we walked back into the studio, we said: “Hang on a minute, we've got a much better album on the way here”.’
Aside from Homme producing Boilermaker and Paul Epworth working on another track, the pair produced the rest of the album.
The experience of making Typhoons was a stark contrast to the creation of How Did We Get So Dark? In hindsight, even the band hadn’t realised just how apt that title would prove to be.
‘We probably didn't realise how ironic it was,’ he says of making their second album.
‘Recording that album was absolutely awful. We were in rainy Belgium, in a studio on the outskirts of Brussels, far away from home and under a lot of pressure to live up to that expectation that had been thrown on our shoulders.
‘The actual recording sucked. Everything about it couldn't have been worse.
‘But it's all a learning curve – you have to work out how you don't want to do something in order to know how you DO want to do something.
‘We learned a lot making that record, and that's the reason why this record is our best one.’
How Did... was also the first time they’d tried to create new music with people scrutinising their every move.
‘It's not a normal thing to be subject to everyone's opinion – that's a strange feeling. And it's not just the negativity, it's also the postive things. It's just strange to be objectified in that way. And it's something that takes a long time to sit down, think about and get my head around.
‘But I'm in a good position now, I know what it is, and I get it. I'm very comfortable in this band and in my own skin again and it's all good.’
Perversely, even though Typhoons’ subject matter, which tackles Mike’s demons head-on, is often pitch-black it had a much more pleasurable birth.
‘When I was making it, I felt amazing. I'd come out of the darkness, I felt like I'd come out of a coma.
‘I've never written about someone I haven't met, in a place I've never been. I'm just horrible at making up songs about things I haven't experienced. The only experience I had was what I'd just come out of and what I'd been through, so there was this weird juxtaposition of uplifting powerful feelgood music, laced with horrific darkness.
‘I'm glad I didn't overthink it, because I might have thought that was a bit weird. Even saying it loud just there doesn't sound quite right, but when you listen to the songs it's actually quite an interesting counterpoint.’
Given that both previous albums went to number one, is he worried about whether Typhoons follows suit?
‘That's never the creative drive for making a record. It can't be. God, if it was, I wouldn't be a musician, I'd be in sales,’ he gives a wry chuckle.
‘I know that loads of people have pre-ordered it before they've even heard it, so I hope that those people aren't let down. But they've invested in us – I only care about what the fans think.’
With Victorious looming and their own arena tour in spring 2022, how does he feel about getting back out there?
‘We cannot wait – it's going to be epic!
‘We've been in rehearsals, and sort of prepping for the touring, we've definitely dusted off the cobwebs – it felt great.’
And to help recreate the record’s more widescreen sound they’ll have a third musician joining them on stage.
‘Luckily we know lots of very talented people, so we've got an absolute musical genius called Darren who’s playing keys for us and filling in the gaps, basically.
‘It saves people having to watch me play a cymbal between my knees... No-one wants to see that!’
Of course the bedrock of Royal Blood is the friendship between Mike and Ben, and the two have stood side-by-side throughout.
‘It's about playing great music together. I'm coming up with the best material I've ever done in this new state, so Ben's all for it. Especially once he heard Typhoons!’
Victorious Festival is on Southsea Common from August 27-29. Royal Blood headline the final night. Tickets from £35 a day (fees apply). Go to victoriousfestival.co.uk.
A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron
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