- 21 Sep 23
Returning with the barnstorming Back To The Water Below, rock heroes Royal Blood talk creative freedom, Irish memories, Dave Grohl, Josh Homme and Jimmy Page.
Brighton blues-rock duo Royal Blood have returned with their fourth LP, Back To The Water Below, another collection of rip-roaring stompers, which also demonstrates their impressive melodic flair to perhaps the greatest extent yet. When Hot Press catches up with Royal Blood’s Mike Kerr, the bassist and singer says he found making the album an enjoyable process.
“It was probably the most fun I’ve ever had making a record, but it’s never easy,” he notes. “In terms of the creative space of writing songs, 95 percent of it is just feeling very uncomfortable, insecure and defeated, with nothing happening, and only fleeting moments of glory.”
It sounds like being a journalist!
“That’s kind of it,” laughs Mike. “But maybe now, my expectations for the process are more realistic, and I anticipate sitting in that space for longer. As bleak as that sounds, I was very clear-headed making it, and very open to all possibilities. That’s only because of the record we’d made before, which jumped into something pretty fresh and different to anything we’d done. I left with a taste for freedom.”
As mentioned earlier, the melodies on the record are frequently superlative, with a timeless and classic feel – not a bad trick to pull off.
“Every song has a fairly different process from the others,” muses Kerr. “The more piano-y, song-based stuff on the record, the starting point was me sat at a piano writing in a much more traditional way. That allowed me to explore melodic choices much more – I felt I had more options. Sometimes, being at a bass, you don’t have the same voicing as a piano and you can easily limit yourself. Honestly, the piano is what opened me up to those melodies.”
Do Kerr and his Royal Blood bandmate, Ben Thatcher, ever feel the two-piece line-up is too restrictive?
“The idea of being of limited is what turned us on the most about sticking as a two-piece,” counters Mike. “That was the excitement. As time’s gone on, we’ve made songs that have had more layers, with pianos and keyboards and so on. We’ve added a member to our live shows for those songs, but it doesn’t necessarily mean everything has to be like that. I still think we enjoy jumping to both sides, going very raw and then much more widescreen.
“Honestly, endless options of layers and sounds can be the most limiting thing ever. You can be drowning in choices and decisions. Sometimes, there’s something much more progressive about having fewer components.”
Notably, Back To The Water Below is entirely self-produced, as opposed to Royal Blood’s previous album, 2021’s Albums, which was co-produced by the band, the hugely in-demand Paul Epworth and Josh Homme, the main man in one of my all-time favourite groups, Queens Of The Stone Age. How did Kerr find working with Homme?
“Amazing and life-changing,” he enthuses. “I’m like you really, the minute I heard that band, it changed my life and how I thought about rock music. It invited me to be a singer, because I didn’t know you could sing melodically over things that heavy. Working with Josh was insane. It really gave me the confidence to be completely myself, actually, and lean into what made me, me. Around that time in my life, I was so desperately trying to fit in.
“I got sober in that session and I felt like I was stripping the armour away a little bit. The reason we produced this album and made it the way we did – that experience was a big part of it. It equipped me to be myself. We made it in Josh’s studio in California. I don’t know LA that well, so everywhere feels like the middle of nowhere!
“But it’s an amazing space. Again, it really inspired us to create our own studio, because we saw the value in creating your own playground.”
In the weeks before interviewing Mike, I’d caught some of Royal Blood’s performance at Glastonbury on the Beeb’s TV coverage. The festival also found QOTSA on the comeback trail after a number of years away, though Mike and Ben didn’t get the opportunity to catch them in action.
“We weren’t there on the Sunday, we had to leave,” he explains. “So unfortunately, I wasn’t around, but I saw the footage and it was amazing.”
In what was a hectic weekend for major league comebacks, Glasto also found another group of Royal Blood’s A-list buddies, Foo Fighters, returning to the UK live stage, with Dave Grohl and co. filling the mystery guest slot under the name The Churns.
“We toured with the Foos for a long time in the States,” Mike reflects. “It was wild, we were kind of shellshocked for the entire thing. They were the biggest shows we’d ever played, and it was a musical masterclass, watching our favourite musicians shred for three hours a night. An unforgettable experience, really.”
Were Nirvana an influence on the nascent Royal Blood too?
“I think there’s a big element of that band in what we do,” Mike nods. “I feel like this band is a big Frankenstein of everything we love. That’s kind of what you should be, particularly at the beginning. As time’s gone on, the small fractions of the monster representing us specifically – we’re turning the volume up on those now.
“On our first album, the influences and references are very obviously to the fore, which isn’t unusual for a debut record. But particularly on this record, there are things that feel closer to the bullseye of who we are.”
Indeed, since releasing their self-titled debut album in 2014, Royal Blood have enjoyed the kind of career trajectory most young bands can only dream of. Aiming for their fourth consecutive UK number one with Back To The Water Below, the band’s list of legendary touring buddies further extends to Iggy Pop, who was also part of the bill when Royal Blood toured with Foo Fighters – talk about a heavyweight line-up.
“It’s nuts,” Mike acknowledges, shaking his head. “We’ve toured with the Pixies and Queens Of The Stone Age. It’s like, who’s left?”
Having viewed extensive footage from the era, I have come to form the opinion that the 2002 QOTSA line-up – featuring Homme, Grohl and the late Mark Lanegan – might actually be the greatest rock band of all time. I appreciate it’s something of a hot take, bound to be controversial in plenty of quarters, but I encourage sceptics to consider the evidence.
As a musical proposition, this iteration of QOTSA is pretty much unimpeachable, performing pulverising takes on classic material from the early QOTSA canon. Then there’s the visual and aesthetic component – the band in that era look like characters from a noir movie, fittingly given the noir element to the QOTSA sound. Grohl himself told Bill Simmons a couple of years back that since he left QOTSA, he still regularly looks at their performances and considers them the best band around, going so far as to say “it’s not even fair”.
So what does Mike make of my “best ever” theory?
“To me, it’s always got better,” he counters. “You were talking about Glastonbury, and the line-up at the minute is fucking insane. Jon Theodore is unbelievable, and Shuman is just a fucking force to be reckoned with, in terms of what he’s able to do with is vocals. I kind of agree with Dave Grohl really, they’re the musical standard.”
In an era when most mainstream rock bands favour a sanitised stadium sound, Royal Blood stand apart for the raucousness of their records.
“Yeah, when it gets too polished and perfect, it gets sterile and boring,” suggests Kerr. “As with most things in life, it’s the edges that make it interesting. I still think we have quite hi-fi sounding records, I don’t think we make particularly raw sounding albums. We still have a certain pop sensibility and we like that clarity. But I also think, particularly with records from the ‘70s, it seems to me they were trying to make the most modern thing they could with what they had.
“I don’t think our approach is much different, but there’s a line there you can cross. When the computer gets involved and technology starts interfering, it becomes robotic, Autotuned and time-coded. It’s like listening to a piece of data from an algorithm, not a human. The human experience seems further and further away from the recording, and I’m not really interested in that.”
Speaking of ’70s legends, Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page is another of Royal Blood’s many high-profile admirers.
“Yeah, which is nuts,” says Kerr. “I spent all of 2012 listening to Led Zeppelin. I was putting my face as close to the speaker as possible. Again, they’re a part of our Frankenstein – they’re probably the legs!”
It all all adds up to Royal Blood inhabiting a rather unique place in the current rock landscape.
“Yeah, we’re the last of the Jedis, desperately holding on for dear life,” says Mike. “It does feel a little like that. I’m very proud to represent rock music, and I sometimes feel the weight of the responsibility. But part of me just wants to make the music I want to make and not really think about it, because I’m not on a pursuit to uphold a genre. I’m on a pursuit to be as creative and honest with myself as I can be. That may mean that the sound evolves into something else, we’ll see.
“One of the things that obsesses me about rock music is the primitive style of playing. It’s music that requires eye contact – I just don’t have the desire to play anything that doesn’t involve sweat and eye contact.”
Does Mike have any ideas on why rock has slipped in the cultural pecking order?
“There’s quite a lot,” he replies. “Maybe it has something to do with the fact that we’re more isolated than ever. Pre and post-lockdown, we still seem to live in solitude and do things on our own. Your online presence is just you and it’s all very singular. Whereas, bands are about creating a monster together and making a new sound. Being in a band is being a cog in a machine. Perhaps that idea of being a group – a tribe – is sort of dissipating a little and becoming a bit more rare. Just a theory.”
Finally, does Mike have any Irish memories that have stayed with him?
“We played the Workman’s and that gig was fucking legendary,” he recalls. “We played a song for the first time there – I want to say it was ‘Little Monster’ off the first album. After the show, it turned into a karaoke night. I think we were all onstage with the support band, all singing ‘Copacabana’ on repeat!”
Back To The Water Below is out now.
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