Live review: Royal Blood, London The O2
Rock duo Royal Blood prove they’ve got what it takes to go all the way to the top at London mega-show.
On July 23, 2019, at the Schlachthof club in Hesse, Germany, for the very first time Mike Kerr stepped onto a stage as an abstinent man. The decision to quit drinking, and to forego drugs, had been taken during a break in the recording of Royal Blood’s third album, Typhoons. After boarding a flight from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, in a bar in Sin City the singer, bassist and keyboardist with one the century’s great British breakout bands arrived at the decision that it was time to stop bending the elbow.
He’d always imagined that one day he’d stop, just not as early as this. Forty – that would be the age at which he’d step away from the kinds of liquids that fuel the music industry. That was his dream. But in a hostelry in Nevada, aged 28, a voice in his head warned him that if he wanted to carry on writing songs, releasing albums, and touring the world, the time for drastic change was now upon him. The barman brought him an espresso martini. Mike Kerr hasn’t had a drink since.
“There wasn’t a bereavement or a particular trauma or tragedy of some kind,” he says. “It’s more something that crept up on me. To be honest with you, what I have to be honest about is that it was extremely fun at the beginning. But it was something that was damaging my mental health. It just became a vicious cycle, really, where it became a way of medicating that mental health, but it was ultimately just getting worse and worse. So for me it became very obvious that continuing on this path would result in losing everything.”
Losing everything. And there was a lot to lose. In an era when people were falling out of the habit of buying albums in physical form, Royal Blood’s titular debut LP, from 2014, sold more than half a million copies in the United Kingdom alone. Three years later, its successor, How Did We Get So Dark?, cracked the American Top 30. Out on the road, Mike Kerr and bandmate Ben Thatcher, on drums and percussion, were by now playing the largest indoor venues in the country. Good evening Birmingham Arena; we love you Alexandra Palace (over the course of three nights, no less). Preparing the ground on which to record their third album, the duo successfully enlisted the services of Josh Homme as co-producer. It was a period of remarkable elevation. Not just this, but in an unpredictable industry, Royal Blood had maintained their footing.
“For us it was all rather exciting,” says Ben. “Getting this attention, and getting to play gigs every night and having people there. And it just kept on escalating. We kept on meeting these famous people, and our idols.”
All successful bands are required to graft harder than you might reasonably imagine. As well as this, they do so in an environment awash with booze. Unlike every other place of work, the professional musician is invited – actually, encouraged – to help themselves to crates of beer and bottles of wine and spirits provided for free in their dressing room. This year, Frank Turner told the American Podcast Bradley’s House that, “I’ve spent my entire adult life existing in an environment in which alcohol is considerably more readily available than food. And indeed if you drink it all, someone will get you more.” This is the reality of Mike’s surroundings, and of the surroundings of every professional musician. Is it any wonder that many of them drive their needles into the red?
“[Mike] didn’t make it a big thing [out of becoming sober], like, ‘That’s it, I’m done,’” says Ben. “It was almost a step by step thing for him. He kind of realised as he was doing it how bad it was. And I think it’s the same for me watching him do it. You don’t really realise because we’re both together all the time, we’re both always out, and like Mike said, it was fun. But you don’t realise sometimes that you’re in a self-destruct mode and you can keep going and doing that for a long time. But Mike would take it to another level. He would be the last man standing and encouraging everyone. And no-one could beat him. Whereas I have this kind of off button where I can just stop. When Mike had stopped [drinking], I saw a total change in him. I’m just so pleased that he’s come so far with it. It’s a proud thing, really, for me, with him.”
At first, it wasn’t easy. Today Mike wonders if perhaps the “heavy lifting” might not have been so arduous had he enlisted the services of recovery meetings and support groups. Never mind, he did it. Not long afterward, Royal Blood took to the road for a slew of dates at clubs and festivals in Europe. On August 23, 2019, the band took to the stage at Reading Festival. Mike was at first concerned that without grape and grain he might not be able to do, or at least enjoy, his job as well as he had before. He felt as if he’d emerged from a coma only to be told that he was in a popular band who were about to perform to 50,000 people. Wait, what? But as the Sussex duo struck up the fearsome Hook, Line & Sinker, he realised that his fears were unfounded. His job was different only in the sense that it was better.
“I think I can say that I’ve toured sober,” he says. “We did about two months of shows. Got on a bus, got on a plane, and a train. Did all of it. There was definitely a moment when I thought, ‘It’s going to be alright.’ Especially when people were saying, you know, that it was actually better. So, yeah, I think we can tick that one off now.”
As well as giving up drinking far sooner than he expected, alongside Ben Thatcher, Mike Kerr got something in else in early, too. Stepping away from their brief stint on the road, at the end of summer 2019, Royal Blood began limbering up for the truly heavy lifting of making their third album. Recorded in Los Angeles and London, the band were determined to free themselves of all outside distractions. Were he speaking to his younger self, Mike says that he would advise himself to shut out the chatter of expectation that permeated the sessions for How Did We Get So Dark?. Recorded in Brussels, for that album Ben remembers the pair being “in Belgium, together in the cold, just drinking our way through the winter”. He also recalls it as being the point at which “we started to get a bit stuck, really”. For its successor, they got rid of the baggage. In this sense, Royal Blood entered quarantine a good six months before the rest of the world.
“I think being in a band that tours as much as ours, coming off the road and writing music… it’s not dissimilar to a lockdown,” says Mike. “Because you’re so used to moving around and being on this rapid pace of touring and moving and commuting. I guess it isn’t too dissimilar from that feeling. You mentioned my change of lifestyle. It’s funny hearing people say that they’ve had the time to reflect and look inwards a little bit and take stock of their own lives. Funnily enough for me I thought I’d done that for a whole year in my sobriety. So it was interesting. When the lockdown [came] in the way it did, I felt very prepared.”
Inevitably, Mike and Ben are speaking to Kerrang! via Zoom. In the environs around Brighton, on England’s south coast, the two live a 90-minute walk from each other’s homes. They were talking about this just this morning, actually; the drummer popped round to the singer’s for a natter and a matcha latte (whatever that is). Once more at their respective addresses, Ben speaks from beneath the brim of a baseball cap. He recently got a dog, he says, a cockapoo called Penny, named after The Beatles’ song Penny Lane. Cleaving to sobriety, along with learning French – “badly” – his bandmate has run a couple of marathons. Now in their 30s, both men are noticeably more open and less guarded than they were at the start of their career.
It suits them. More than this, it suits their third album, too. Released on Friday, with remarkable deftness Typhoons sees Royal Blood escape from the thunderous corners into which they had painted themselves. Varied and textured, they’ve also pole-vaulted free of the ostensible limitations of a two-man band. At work in the sweet spot between rock and dance music – it’s not Muse, it’s more claustrophobic – the 11-track LP seems perfectly timed for a country, if not quite a world, that is at long last beginning to scent optimism in the air. Not quite Here Comes The Summer, but certainly a bit of sunshine in spring. Propelled by the remarkable metronomic precision of Ben Thatcher, not for the first time the pair’s timing might just be perfect.
“I think the music that we wanted to make wasn’t reflective of the music that was going on at the time,” says Ben. “It’s the same with our gigs. We’re not a big political band. We want people to come to our gigs and feel that they’re accepted there, and anyone can be there. They’re there to forget about those things and have a good time. No-one wants to be reminded of what’s going on right now, really. But the light at the end of the tunnel is that there’s going to be gigs and there’s going to be festivals where we can play this new record.”
Ben is right. Royal Blood are not a political band. But in its way, Typhoons might just be a political record. In the context of the times, its refusal to live under the shadow of COVID-19 is a bold stroke; striding of the darkness with dancing shoes shined bright, its propulsive powers of persuasion are a resonant rebuke to anyone quick to dismiss the idea that music as escapism is a valid proposition. In light of you-know-what, the need for escape is an honourable pursuit. Those who offer it are providing a valuable service. So let’s face the music and dance.
“If people are having a shit time out there, this is a great record to put on,” says Mike. “Bring some sunshine into the house.”
But if the music is escapist, the words are something different. A glance at the lyric sheet for Typhoons features a series of snapshots from the terrain Mike Kerr decided to escape in the spring of 2019. ‘All that time I was out of control, all I needed was someone to take me home,’ is one of the sentiments on Million And One. On Oblivion, he reveals that he ‘can’t live like this forever’ because he’s ‘running out of lifelines’. On opening track Trouble’s Coming, he sings how ‘I let my demons take hold and choke on me – can’t fill these holes that I’m digging.’
So this is it, a two-person band, one of half of which is now a lifelong designated driver. This might be seen as quite the change. The first time Royal Blood graced the cover of Kerrang!, in 2014, we were all in San Francisco. Hungover and just a little tetchy – a little guarded, actually – the previous night, in Los Angeles, following a show at the famous Troubadour club, the young musicians had done what young musicians do on their first spins on an American race track. The following day, the pair were expecting a day off in which to the see the sights of the City By The Bay. Nothing doing. Supporting the Pixies, at the end of their set at the Masonic Auditorium they were paid a visit by Lars Ulrich, who gave them the tour of the city they were convinced they’d missed out on in ‘favour’ of speaking to your reporter.
As it so often does, back then being in a fast-emerging band might have seemed like a working holiday. For any band built to last, this feeling always passes; the key is to find enjoyment in what is an arduous environment even after the initial rush of novelty and euphoria has faded. Musicians who fail to do this sometimes drink and drug themselves to death. In turning his collar to these dismal options, Mike Kerr has walked himself across the rickety rope bridge separating permanent adolescence from something that looks a bit more stable. It is good news for him, and for Royal Blood.
“We were just on this ride together [but] we knew each other very well before all this happened,” Ben says. “We’d played in bands before, and played shit venues and open mic nights.” After playing together in the badly named four-piece Flavour Country, Mike formed Royal Blood with original drummer Matt Swan. The pair then relocated to Australia. Returning home alone, the singer was picked up from the airport by Ben Thatcher. The two have been together ever since. In this light, the singer’s decision to change his style of life is simply another opportunity “to start finding out who we are again and what we want to do”.
In this new environment, Ben says that Royal Blood are “thriving”. He says that “we’re really pushing to play live music again”. Even now, perhaps especially now, “it’s just so much fun being in a band. When you get behind a drum kit and there’s a bass player and a guitarist or whatever, and you’re really gelling and you’re jamming, it’s a feeling you could never get on your own as an independent artist if you were behind a computer. Those moments are so precious.”
For Royal Blood, they still are. Listening to Typhoons, it’s hard to cling to the notion that rock music is at its best when its practitioners are pissed. A masterful record sung by a man who these days gets his kicks from kite-surfing, sea-swimming, boxing and running, it’s hard not to deduce that the change is for the better. Emerging into the light, Mike Kerr is thankful for the strength of his relationship with Ben Thatcher. For a less unified whole, the prospect of drastic change might just have spelled trouble. “To kind of sever that side of it requires a good friend,” he says. “Because it could easily have fallen apart because I think you are turning into a slightly different frequency, you know. [That it didn’t] is testament not only to our friendship but to our musical connection. It still functions.”
For the time being, freshly energised Royal Blood are filling their boots making yet more new music in their practice space in Brighton. With a splash of luck and a following wind, they’ll be back on the road within the year. Picking up where they left off in Europe in 2019, by then audiences in the UK will see the group’s improved iteration in a headline capacity. Until then, Ben Thatcher and Mike Kerr can think back to their experiences at the Schlachthof club in Hesse, Reading, and elsewhere, and wait as patiently as their able for the return of a part of their job that they’re now able to do better than ever before.
“I think we both love those gigs more than anything,” says Ben. “I was still drinking, I still do drink, but it showed [us] that that had nothing to do with our friendship. And it had nothing to do with how we perform onstage together.
“It had nothing to do,” he adds, “with our connection.”
Typhoons is released on April 30. Royal Blood tour the UK in March 2022.
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