It’s 9:15 on a Wednesday morning, and Royal Blood’s bassist/vocalist Mike Kerr is feeling jetlagged at home in London.
The last gig the two-piece played was the Bonnaroo Music Festival, Tennessee, but the fatigue suddenly fades from Kerr’s voice as he contemplates heading to Australia to play at The Metro and Splendour next month.
“I love it! Australia’s one of my favourite places to go, to be honest,” he gushes. “We love it for lots of reasons, mainly the food, the weather and all the water sports. I actually spent some time in Australia, I did a little backpacking thing. Every time I go back, I feel like I’m on holiday or something. I was familiar with triple j and that kind of world, so it feels cool to be a part of that whenever we go to Australia, probably more so than anywhere else.”
The sunny vibes continue as the musician reflects on sophomore album How Did We Get So Dark?. The pair enlisted the ears of producer Jolyon Thomas (M83, Maps) during the initial recording session in Brussels, before going back to Tom Dalgety (Pixies, Ghost) for their final round back home. As Kerr puts it, lead single ‘Lights Out’ was when confidence hit its peak.
It was a bit of a ‘eureka moment’… It was clear what songs we should continue to work on or leave behind
“From that point onwards, we found the sound of the new record. It felt like a blueprint, weirdly. We’d written a lot of songs but none of them felt like we’d gone to another level, in terms of the production and feel of it. It was a bit of a ‘eureka moment’… It was clear what songs we should continue to work on or leave behind. Also a lot of new material came together. So that song was the spark really, for the whole thing,” he concludes.
Rewinding to 2015 and the headspace Kerr was in before making the album, there was something symbolic about him smashing his bass into 10 pieces after their last scheduled gig at the Austin City Limits Festival. Reminiscing, he chuckles, “It was the first time I’d ever done it, and I haven’t done it since.”
“I only did that because I knew that was it. We were done. It was quite a euphoric gig because it was like closing that chapter, which began the story for the whole band really. So in the last 10 minutes, I was like, ‘I’m going to fucking destroy it’,” Kerr laughs here.
“I could’ve just quit from that point onwards, and I didn’t know what was going to happen.”
After joking that the singer-songwriter’s best songs come out when he’s “having a shit time” with relationships, the chat turns to just how dark writing the new album got – both figuratively and literally. Thinking back to those days, Kerr begins, “It was pitch black all day and raining, freezing outside, and we were just locked up in the studio.”
“I guess I was pouring everything into these songs, and I knew we weren’t going to leave until it was done. So it was a pretty intense feeling with a lot of shit, basically,” he relates bluntly. “I think the first half was pretty dark, to be honest with you.
I was pouring everything into these songs, and I knew we weren’t going to leave until it was done. So it was a pretty intense feeling with a lot of shit
“In January when I came back, I just stopped drinking or doing anything, and went on this massive health kick. I was up at 8am at the gym and eating really healthily. We had all these songs and they just needed finishing, and I went in to execute the record. So that half was amazing, and everything came alive suddenly.
“It’s hard to do that though, to feel something and execute it at the same time.”
At the end of the day, we all need someone to keep us sane sometimes, and for Kerr that person has always been drummer Ben Thatcher.
“Ben is a very practical person to work with, and sees things very logistically. So you need someone like that to pull you to the finish line sometimes. Also he’s not like my colleague, he’s my best friend, so it’s easier to have him around than a bunch of people that you don’t know very well.”
That’s certainly important, with the duo struggling to balance their inherently limited sound with their constant desire to push the envelope creatively.
I think it takes a bigger pair of balls to do less sometimes… We’re like the Italian cuisine of rock ‘n’ roll. We’re about good ingredients
Reflecting on how difficult that’s been to reconcile in writing the new album, the musician sighs and says proudly, “I think halfway through writing, I just accepted that that’s the band’s sound, and there’s nothing wrong with it.”
“I guess we have added stuff this time around and it is more of a sophisticated production, but I lost interest in trying to add things. I was more interested in what we could do with what we still have. Every time a new song came about, that was exciting for me, and felt more like a step forward than just putting an organ on it. There’s nothing clever about that.
“I think it takes a bigger pair of balls to do less sometimes, and that’s the heart of our band, really. We’re like the Italian cuisine of rock ‘n’ roll. We’re about good ingredients,” Kerr finishes dryly, chuckling.
That’s certainly a fitting analogy, and it’s the quality of those ingredients that stood out for the legendary Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin) when he turned up to their gig at Grasslands, New York three years ago.
“It was a pretty exciting day because we knew he was coming, and I just thought, ‘Fuck, this is huge’,” Kerr starts. “We were playing this tiny show in New York, and all of his security came and scouted the venue out. He was by the sound desk, and the dressing rooms are at the back of the venue, so we had to walk through the crowd to get to the stage. So we walked directly past him and we were just like, ‘This is terrifying. We have to play right in front of him’,” he laughs.
It’s a big deal to have my biggest influence as a bass player or musician, ever, acknowledge that what we’re doing is good
“So the first couple of tunes in, he was banging his head and getting into it, and after the show we hung out quite a bit. It’s a big deal to have my biggest influence as a bass player or musician, ever, acknowledge that what we’re doing is good,” he slows down drastically here as emotion drips from his words.
“We had a lot of interesting stuff to talk about… I still listen to Led Zeppelin all the time, and so much of his playing is in me. I think I fell in love with them before I could even play a stringed instrument. I was playing piano, and was suddenly so drawn to that kind of feel.
“It’s still something I can’t get my head around, but it’s definitely cool.”
Royal Blood hit our shores for a sold-out gig at The Metro in Sydney on July 20, and then the sold-out Splendour In The Grass on July 22. If you missed out on tickets, you can still grab a copy of the blistering new record How Did We Get So Dark? here.