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Mike Kerr: Battle Royal | INTERVIEW

Published 5 months ago on April 20, 2021

By Guitar Interactive Magazine

Mike Kerr: Battle Royal

After two UK number one albums, over two million record sales and an endless array of international acclaim, you might've thought you knew what to expect from British rock duo Royal Blood. However, those preconceptions were shattered with the release of their hit single "Trouble's Coming" last summer. The band's first new music in three years presents a melting pot of fiery rock riffs, catchy hooks and danceable beats, delivering something fresh, unexpected and yet entirely in tune with what they'd forged their reputation on. Now, Royal Blood is primed to push things even further with the release of their eagerly anticipated third album 'Typhoons,' on April 30th via Warner Records. Guitar Interactive's Jonathan Graham talks exclusively to the Royal Blood bassist and frontman Mike Kerr in this exclusive feature.

The combination of bass and drums is an undeniable staple in rock music. The challenge posed to many artists is how to make it their own—how to take two instruments and create a sound that has never been done before while at the same time staying true to rock roots. If you're wondering if that is even possible anymore with all the dilution and bastardisation of rock music of recent years, Royal Blood is here to restore your faith in rock music.

Emerging from Brighton, England, Royal Blood is made up of bassist-frontman Mike Kerr and drummer Ben Thatcher. Originally, the band was formed by Kerr and drummer Matt Swan, and they recorded their first EP in Brisbane; however, Kerr decided to move back to the UK, where he reconnected with Thatcher (the two had initially met in 2005, where they were in a band together called Flavour Country). By 2013, Thatcher officially replaced Swan, and for the next year, they would play at multiple festivals and shows, including a supporting slot with the Arctic Monkeys.

What sets Royal Blood apart from so many other rock duos is the fact that they don't sound like a duo. Due to Kerr's creative bass playing and pedal work, the band often sounds like it has multiple players, each with an integral part—which, granted, is not that far off from reality. Kerr's bass and pedals do the heavy lifting of a couple of other players. His wall-of-sound mix of bass and guitar-like tones are as powerful as they are original.

In 2014, their eponymous debut studio album 'Royal Blood' was released to critical acclaim and was verified as the fastest-selling British rock debut album in three years in the UK. Heralded by rock critics and adored by rock fans, 'Royal Blood' was just a taste of what was to come from the band.

Three years later, in 2017, the duo released their next album, 'How Did We Get So Dark?', which debuted at number one on the UK Albums Chart. 'How Did We Get So Dark?' showcased a slightly softer, more intimate sound than their first eponymous album; however, compositionally, both albums are somewhat similar to each other. Although the album was easily of the same calibre as 'Royal Blood,' some critics began to speculate that the act might be a one-trick pony, but the band has proved themselves to be anything but once again, with their two hit singles from the upcoming 2021 release 'Typhoons,' taking Royal Blood in an exciting new musical direction.

The first single from 'Typhoons' is "Trouble's Coming," a fast-paced, hard-hitting wall of sound that stands out from Royal Blood's previous work. Although it features the heavy bass and strong percussion that avid rock fans have come to associate with the duo, it also takes on a certain kind of danceability—one that is truly welcome. The song juxtaposes lyrics about psychosis and an ominous feeling that trouble is just around the corner with a grooviness and accessibility that Kerr and Thatcher have mastered.

The second single, "Typhoons," the album's title track, features the same spirit that makes you want to drum on your dashboard. The Daft Punk and Justice inspirations are almost palpable in this song, and come together to form a track that is both rock-heavy and club-ready...as soon as they are ready to open their doors to us once again, that is.

We actually have COVID-19 to thank for Royal Blood's reimagined sonic direction—although the band was halfway done with the album when the pandemic halted everything, Kerr explained that the time away urged him towards making something personal to him, yet different from what Royal Blood has released previously.

If "Trouble's Coming" and "Typhoons" have anything in common besides their high energy, it is the way they have ramped up the excitement for this new full-length release, out April 30th, 2021. Mike Kerr talks about the making of 'Typhoons,' and more with Gi's Jonathan Graham:

 

Jonathan Graham: Mike, I for one, am extremely excited to hear what you've got in store for us all with 'Typhoons.' The "Trouble's Coming" and "Typhoons" singles have given us a hint of a much more sonically layered album than your previous records? Was that the goal from the outset?

Mike Kerr: I would say it's much more of a studio record than before. This time around, we recognised the undeniable difference between the live show and listening to a record at home, and trying to get that energy of what everyone loves about the live show seemed a bit counterproductive. We spent a lot more time trying to figure out how to give everything its own space. In particular, the guitar sounds, which have ended up texturally quite different than previous albums, and not just relying on flat-out distortion the whole time. Sometimes when you just distort everything, it doesn't make it sound very heavy and actually starts to become smaller and smaller. So, this time it was like, how clean can we get everything? In a way, cleaner is sometimes much more raw for this type of music.

JG: That's always been something that's particularly impressed me about your voice, especially from the perspective that you're never drawn into distorting it just because the music is heavy. Was that always the case, or did it take you some time to get to a vocal style that worked for you?

MK: At the very beginning, I just wanted every effect possible on my voice. I don't think it's an uncommon story that the singer of the band didn't really want to be a singer, but I just did it as I wanted to be in a band, and we couldn't find a singer. I felt like I was taking one for the team a little bit, so I wanted everything on there, and it needed to be quiet and buried. As time went on, though, my confidence built as a singer and now I just want my vocal louder and dryer. Especially after I realised so many of the records I love have vocals that are all kind of dry...and they're loud. I think it's to do with confidence, but as my writing has improved, I think I've written better vocal parts that, in a way, I'm happier for them to be louder.

JG: What were some of those records that you drew the inspiration from then?

MK: A lot of Rick Rubin produced stuff, like Rage Against the Machine that's just classicly dead. There's no reverb on anything, and very dry, which some people don't like, but I've got a theory that this type of sound ages much better. It's harder to identify the era without a reverb sound, I think. 'Songs for the Deaf' is a great example as it's just timeless, and the vocals are so dead. I also enjoy this characteristic in pop music too; I prefer it over the vocals being buried in the mix.

JG: You have a tremendous, and most importantly, a stand-out bass tone on your tracks. What's been the key to finding that signature sound?

MK: I guess it's grown over time, really. I feel like my production ideas really began with my rig set up, as it's not just a case of plugging in three amplifiers and turning them all up. For every sound and section of the tracks, I've dialled in specific layers and textures and used different pedals to create sounds to suit each part of the song. So I feel like my brain was already in production mode with my rig. With the band just being bass, drums and vocals, getting that right felt like 33% of the album was done. Being in the studio and making records makes you realise just how much control someone else has over the sound of your instruments and your vocals and everything else, so as we got to grips with making the first few records, by the time it came to do this one, we really knew what sounds we wanted. I know the tonality of my vocal; I know the kind of take I want to get, so we we're ready to just not have anyone in the way. In a way, the production really comes from the songwriting as well. I think we are very pop-minded, and everything is very lean. Like, suppose something is in the song that is not really doing anything. In that case, we'd just take it out, or if there is any moment in the song where your mind could wander off, it just gets removed. We like very dense, lean songwriting. I guess a producer would be the one removing that, but by the time we get to recording, we've already trimmed the fat.

JG: What have been your go-to's gear-wise during these recording sessions? I'm sure the collection has expanded over the last 12 months?

MK: Yeah, I guess. I mean, I have always just stuck with my "Supers," really. I love my Fender Supersonics.

JG: Talk about the great cleans, eh?

MK: Oh Yeah. I kind of work around them now because I think if there are too many variables and I could spend all day and just get lost in amps and pedals and not actually get anything done. It's endless, like opening Pandora's Box a little bit. So, yeah, I have kind of stuck with the Supersonics, but pedals are always changing, but to be honest with you, with this record, I tried to make bolder decisions. So, instead of having like eight pedals per song for different sections, I wanted to have two or three sounds per song to make it bolder and sound a little simpler. On the first couple of records, there's a lot of octave pedals and a lot of effects, whereas, on this one, I wondered how far I could strip it back. It probably sounds the most like a bass on this record than it has ever done.

JG: Am I right in thinking that there was a time in the early days when Ben and yourself would have expected to add some more members to the band, but after jamming together for a while just realised that this sounds amazing as it is? At what point did the realisation hit that for you that you could just do this thing, just the two of you on your own?

MK: Yeah, well, It was a kind of slow process really because I had been in bands before where I'd just be playing bass, and before that, I was a keyboard player. I always used to use two amplifiers at the same time, and I would switch between the two amplifiers. So, even then, I was already kind of cooking up this idea of making one thing sound big. By the time it came to me and Ben getting in a room together, which we did a lot, as soon as we started playing, I was just like, well, we don't need to add anything. We didn't even try anyone else just to find out. It was just a case of like, first of all, who's even around? No one we knew wants to be in bands anymore; everyone has gone off and got proper jobs. So, even if we did want someone, we didn't know anyone, so it was a case of really just working with what we had.

JG: It is amazing when something so great comes out of necessity. I have heard you speak in the past about how moving from the keyboard to the bass was a real revelation for you in the sense that you were kind of looking to get out of your own way and not lock into tried and tested routines that you'd used on the keyboard. With the bass, you felt a little bit freer to explore? How has that developed over the years? I mean, obviously, you must have learned an awful lot of theory just by playing so much. Are you still able to feel that you can be as spontaneous with the bass when it comes to riff creation and songwriting?

MK: Yeah, that's true. I can't say I feel as lost as I did at the very beginning. I mean, in the beginning, I was truly lost in the woods and kind of playing by ear and stumbling upon things in a beginner's luck kind of way. But to be honest, now I find when I am writing, I have to switch off. I'm sure there are some videos of me writing this record where it looks as if I have never written a song or ever played bass before because I am kind of letting my hands do whatever they want to do and stumbling around trying to find the riff. It always comes back to that primal thing for me, like how I want to move around the beat, and since these songs are more dance-oriented, they were a lot more spontaneous in a way. It was less about theory and more about instincts. I have never written a thing from turning on my bass player brain. I've only written anything from actually turning everything off.

JG: Since you've had such success with that process, have you ever tried to apply that to another instrument?

MK: That is a good question. I guess I have started doing that with production, really. I don't know nearly enough about it to be doing it, which is why I like doing it. It's probably a lot of beginner's luck has helped it come out the way it has.

JG: Well, that's an incredibly humble way of putting it. You guys are the real deal, that is for sure and have been from the start. Thinking back to that first EP release and then the build-up to the self-titled album, it definitely seemed like you guys could do no wrong and had such a clear vision of how the band should be marketed. Was there ever any pressure from the studio at that point to work with other songwriters or artists to shape the album in a way that suited them more.

MK: I think one of the reasons that we have had such a good relationship with our label is they have given us creative freedom, and obviously being in the position that we have got the band into opens up doors to writers and producers, and that list is fairly endless. In my experience of that world, which I've gone into for other things and even written with lots of incredible writers, like these people who just bust out pop songs on the radio. Still, I found it's a personal thing for me because I want it to come from me, whether it is perfect or not. Diluting it with another writer kind of just knocked the edges off. It may have made better songs, but it strayed away from who we are.

JG: Do you think we will ever get to hear any of this material you were collaborating on?

MK: Probably not. Otherwise, it would have made it to the record. But I mean, we definitely don't get any pressure from our label to kind of do those things. It's more like as if you were studying any other profession, or if you were going to be a chef and suddenly someone came into your cafe or restaurant said, hey, go and work with Gordon Ramsey for three days. You'd be like, hell yeah, and that is kind of how I saw it. In many ways, it verified my self-belief, and it kind of gave me the confidence to continue doing my own thing. What is funny though, is that kind of pop sensibility and that catchy kind of thing that's on some of these new songs doesn't come from our label. It comes from us. They are probably more like, can you keep doing your old stuff because it works. There's a weird thing in rock music, where if it starts becoming catchy or sounding good, people automatically don't like it. I am over that kind of concept. I am just like, why would we be afraid of this being catchy? That seems crazy.

JG: It is bizarre that some fans never want to see the band they love evolve or become too popular. In some ways, it seems like they only want the same record again and again. With that in mind, is trying to write for the audience ever something you consider when composing, or are you only happy to put music out if it is something you guys love, no matter what the style?

MK: Yeah, it can only be the later for us really, because otherwise, I would choose another job. I don't want to be in the business of designing music for other people; it is impossible. The only compass we really have is, do we like it? That is the only thing that keeps us going, and the only reason why we do it. In all honesty, I think this record is probably our most indulgent in the sense that it is mixed and finished, and I put it on all the time. That is why we made it. I made it because I felt like that album did not exist in the world, and I wanted it. I wanted it in my life.

JG: That's a beautiful way of putting it. Obviously, as I'm yet to hear the finished article, it still doesn't exist to me. So, as a fan myself, what do you think I'm going to be most surprised about on this release?

MK: My guess is that it's very much like hearing the band in HD colour. Like those kinds of reworks of old war movies, where it is all in black and white, and suddenly, it swipes across and this 4K multicoloured shot appears, like Royal Blood, but in hyper colour.

JG: So, from how did we get so dark, to how did we get so colourful?

MK: Yeah, I think exactly that. Yeah.

JG: Well, I am looking forward to hearing that for sure. I feel like, in many ways, you guys are one of the last big bands to really build your following from gigging hard on the live music scene. If you were doing this today, would you feel as confident about taking that approach and what would be your advice to new acts that are looking to make an impact right now?

MK: I still think there is so much value in being a live band. I understand that it's impossible right now to play a show, but it is not impossible for bands to be in the same room within reason. Everyone is making music on their own on their laptop, which means that even if you did want to look at it from a success point of view, you shouldn't be doing that because you'll only blend in with everyone else. Chemistry is what makes a great band, and chemistry comes from interacting with other humans. I think the reason me and Ben have had any success is because of our chemistry, and I believe ultimately people come and watch our friendship musically. That is part of what they are drawn to. Playing live is also what makes you a great player. When we first started touring, I sucked. I didn't know what I was doing. I couldn't sing in tune, I'd lose my voice every three songs, I was out of time, and always so nervous. One day you just suddenly get it and realise, oh, I don't suck anymore. I also think there is something really important about failing on stage. Anyone can sort of fail in their bedroom and in private, but I think there's something about putting yourself on the front line and taking risks, and that's exactly what playing lives about. You are kind of putting it all on red and spinning the wheel every night, and that is the buzz; that is the thrill.

JG: Well, with that in mind, I cannot wait until the next time we get to see a live gig from you guys once it's safe to do so again, of course.

MK: You can see me failing miserably in front of a massive audience once again.

JG: Well, I am yet to see that, that is for sure. But look, Mike, thanks so much for taking some time to chat and congratulations on 'Typhoons.'

MK: Thanks again. You too, man.

 

Royal Blood releases their eagerly anticipated third album 'Typhoons,' on April 30th via Warner Records.

Royal Blood – 'Typhoons' Tracklist:

  1. Trouble's Coming
  2. Oblivion
  3. Typhoons
  4. Who Needs Friends
  5. Million & One
  6. Limbo
  7. Either You Want It
  8. Boilermaker
  9. Mad Visions
  10. Hold On
  11. All We Have Is Now

For more tickets or more information on Royal Blood, please visit:

royalbloodband.com

 


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