Two years ago Mike Kerr became a different person. The Royal Blood singer/bassist was in Las Vegas when the dark shadow that had followed him for some time crystallised in one simple decision: he was done with drinking.
Amid the neon and noise of the world’s gambling capital, he experienced a moment of clarity and downed the espresso martini that would be his last alcoholic beverage to date. Although that martini was technically a relapse of sorts.
“I kind of had this moment where I was like: ‘Wow, I think that’s it, I think I’m done,’” he remembers today. “And then I was so drunk I forgot I’d already ordered an espresso martini, and the guy gave it to me and I was like: ‘Maybe one more.’ And that was my last one,” he says with a wry half-chuckle. “But I basically immediately failed. It was quite funny.”
Looking fresh and serious, Mike Kerr has the polite, if slightly short manner of someone you expect to make a sarcastic comment at any given moment. Which he does at times, in the sort of deadpan tone that makes even the daftest remarks fleetingly believable. But he’s an engaging interviewee, pausing to consider his answers and seldom fluffing his words. The solemnity of his personal shift, and the weight of the dark places that led to it, sit somewhere behind his eyes.
“I think there came a point where I was… sick and tired of being sick and tired, and bored of the same internal monologue, and I just… Yeah, I guess [pause, small laugh] ironically I gave up, and I had to tap out, you know?”
Ben Thatcher, Kerr’s permanently baseball-capped bandmate, is easier company. Immediately flouting a wealth of ‘silent drummer’ stereotypes, today he’s the warmer, chattier of the two.
“I’m quite tame when it comes to all that stuff,” he says when asked about his extravagances since Royal Blood made it big. “I mean, I have a lovely car and a lovely house… and I have a dog. Her name’s Penny, I’ll get her for you if you want?”
He darts out and returns with a panting, tail-wagging armful of cuddly cockapoo. It’s easy to see how Thatcher could be considered to be the rock of Royal Blood. The friendly stabiliser. The anchor for Kerr’s off-the-wall, bass-that-sounds-like-a-guitar theatrics. The propulsive beat-keeper of British rock’s most incendiary two-piece of the last decade, with a slew of hits to their name that were too heavy for radio – then got played on the radio. A lot .
“I think it was just needed,” Thatcher says simply, of Kerr’s decision to get sober. “We were so in the moment and having a lot of fun with it all, it was just something that we knew was coming, and we knew he had to make some changes."
Ultimately, it was Kerr’s lifestyle change that paved the way for the duo’s most danceable, most feelgood album yet, this year’s monstrously groovy Typhoons. You could imagine Queens Of The Stone Age and Muse cooking it up in a disco, with Chic and Daft Punk on the decks and (in the psych-infused Either You Want It) Tame Impala popping in for a dance and a spliff.
Where their head-turning self-titled debut and 2017’s similarly successful follow-up How Did We Get So Dark? leaned on relatively familiar, grizzled blues rock tropes, Typhoons pushes a more colourful mix of buttons. It’s still heavy as hell, but this time that weight comes at least as much from French electronica and 70s disco as from rock and metal.
“We’ve found that heavy music isn’t just in rock music,” Thatcher reasons. “Actually the heavier stuff, most recently, is hip-hop artists, and people like Kendrick Lamarr who, when certain shifts [happen] in the music, it sits and the bass becomes larger-than-life and it gets into you. Actually in rock music, in the early stuff which we’re really influenced by, there’s hardly any bass in those songs. Sonically, anyway.”
Effectively ‘completed’ pre-COVID, with songs tracked in California in 2019, Typhoons was half-recorded when the world shut down in March of 2020. Figuring out what they actually wanted to do with the album hadn’t been easy. A lot of “searching” was involved. To put it simply, they were worn out. Not surprising when you consider that they hadn’t had any real time off since starting out in 2013.
Lockdown provided a rare, unexpected opportunity to reflect and reassess. Writing additional songs (including boot-stomping, hip-shaking single Trouble’s Coming) and producing it themselves, the two friends gave the whole album an invigorating facelift. Excess tweaking and preening of demo versions was kept to a minimum, much like their debut. It was fun.
“The way Mike’s riffs were sitting over the top of the drums became this quite euphoric music,” Thatcher enthuses. “It made us smile, it made us dance, it made us move. But then… it gave us this opportunity to write darker lyrics, but which don’t bum you out so much with the music. So there are real messed-up things going on, but also you can’t help but dance to it.”
Indeed this buoyant framework gave Kerr the freedom to write his darkest words yet. Allusions to the build-up to his sobriety – the hazier, shadier side of show business – are peppered throughout the album’s muscular yet sassy tracks. There were extremes to reflect on; in a career that’s involved a robust quota of red carpets, A-list praise and rivers of tequila with longtime friend/fan Josh Homme, among other things, the highs have been very high and the lows… well, very low.
“I felt like I was functioning at an incredible level,” Kerr remembers. “I could play a show, pretty well, and you would have no idea, you know? You just evolve to your surroundings. You rewire some things, so you’re able to do this for an hour and a half every evening.”
Now, he says, he can’t see himself having a drink again. So how excessive did things get?
“It’s hard to measure, because everyone in my industry does it to such excess that… ” he pauses. “I mean look, I’m in a rock band that’s been on tour for seven years so [laughs]. I’ve drunk more than anyone will ever drink in their entire lives. We were essentially on a seven-year stag do. But I guess what I’m getting at is even if I hadn’t done it to such excess, it wasn’t making me feel very good. It wasn’t making me feel alive. If anything it felt like it was slowly killing me.”
That kind of confessional depth pours into the slick beats and grooves of Typhoons, bringing to mind the minor-key drive of, for example, Chic’s classic Le Freak – no doubt boosted by his sharpened, booze-free senses.
“We realised it was quite an interesting counterpoint,” the singer says thoughtfully, “because danceable music tends to be… the subject matter tends to be quite fleeting and quite fancy-free, about ‘let’s have a good time’ and ‘let’s dance all night’. And I guess for us those kind of beats weirdly gave me more confidence to be more vulnerable, because I felt like there was more of a mask up.”
Tellingly, as the writing process progressed the songs were transposed on to piano, and it was here where Mike wrote many of the lyrics. “That helped bring out a vulnerable side of me that perhaps wouldn’t reveal itself when everything’s really loud.”
That vulnerability embeds itself in the pensive tone that comes through even on such disco-ready toe tappers as Million And One and Trouble’s Coming, shifting gear slightly in full throttle rockers like Boilermaker (a co-write with Homme) and Limbo. All of which makes All We Have Is Now a surprise. A quietly devastating Marc Bolan-come-Gaz Coombes piano ballad – that Kerr had had in his back pocket during their last tour – it’s dropped in, without warning, at the end of the album.
“It was something I was playing in soundchecks on my own,” he says, grinning, “and just bumming everyone out. But again, I felt a bit like: ‘Does this really have a place?’ One night I played the song to Ben in the studio – he was the other side of the piano, cos I was a bit shy – and he just popped his head up and was like: ‘That has to go on the album.’ So we set up three mics and I literally just played it there and then. Yeah, putting it at the end, it’s kind of clichéd, but we also knew people genuinely wouldn’t see it coming.”
Arguably they’re just making good on the influences – all the influences – they’ve been citing since day one. Between them Kerr and Thatcher readily sing the praises of AC/DC, Daft Punk, Tame Impala, T. Rex, Justice, Jimi Hendrix and more in the same breath, with the same enthusiasm. Is there something that these ostensibly very different artists have in common, that Thatcher and Kerr strive to capture in Royal Blood?
“Maybe one thing would be that things are catchy,” Kerr muses. “Being in a rock band, you always get slapped on the wrist for making something catchy. It’s so fucking stupid. We have no interest in that. We like music that kind of keeps you up at night.”
Right from the beginning, Kerr and Thatcher understood each other. They both came from churchgoing families (Thatcher’s early drumming inspiration was his brother-in-law who played in the successful Christian rock band Delirious?). They are both the odd ones out in sets of five siblings; Thatcher’s are all much older, while Kerr has only sisters (“Yeah, I haven’t got that far with the therapist yet,” he says, grinning. “I’ll have to read up a bit more on Freud to see where that puts me”).
They grew up in small, dozy towns on the south coast, Kerr in Worthing, Thatcher in Rustington. Prior to forming Royal Blood, they’d played together in a wedding band and other short-lived groups. Kerr had been gearing up for a career in catering; rockstardom was genuinely not on the cards.
“I think it’s a…” Kerr pauses, choosing his words carefully, “unique experience that is shared by few, and I think it can be an isolating experience. There’s very few people I can go to the pub with and moan about the same shit with. And it’s also such a fantastic way to live your life; you get to see the world and it’s such an exhilarating experience.
"But I certainly felt like there was no room to complain about it, cos no one wants to hear me moaning about anything when, from the outside, everything’s going great. And I think people around me abandoned how I was feeling as well. So I just didn’t really look after myself.”
Has there been a moment where the surreal ‘celebrity’ side of the business really hit you?
“I guess so. You have moments of it,” Thatcher says. “But my friends and family and girlfriend bring me down to earth so quickly. I know who I am and where I’ve come from.”
It’s an odd kind of fame that Royal Blood, and others like them, experience. Kerr tells us he doesn’t get recognised anywhere. At shows he’s able to go out front and watch the support band, unbothered by anyone in the audience, without hiding at all.
“I think the band is more famous than us,” Thatcher observes, very reasonably, “and the music is way more famous.”
“I have a nice place to live in, I have enough, and that to me is incredible,” Kerr says. “I didn’t really grow up expecting to make anything of myself, so to have more than forty pounds in my bank account is always a relief.”
For the singer, going sober (and then having to stay at home for the first time in years) has perhaps offered him a chance to come back to that mindset. To face, clearly, what does and doesn’t make him happy.
“I think being creative makes me happy, and being happy makes me really creative so… [he thinks for a moment] I think in times like these, it couldn’t be more relevant for me personally, because I began making music out of sheer boredom. I grew up in a pretty boring town, there was nothing to do. And it was like… access into another realm, you know?"