Royal Blood on new album 'Back To The Water Below'

Interview Blood & Guts: Royal Blood

Earlier this year, Royal Blood found themselves in the middle of a major social media pile-in following a viral festival appearance. Ahead of LP4, they’re dusting themselves off and focusing their sights forwards.

We’re called Royal Blood and this is rock music. Who likes rock music? Nine people? Brilliant.”

These were the words bouncing around the online echo chamber following Radio 1’s Big Weekend back in May. The Brighton duo faced a tough crowd, sandwiched between the twin pop behemoths of Lewis Capaldi and Niall Horan at Dundee’s Camperdown Park. The Venn diagram where fans of buzzsaw garage-rock fretwork and former One Direction members meet encompassed seemingly, well, around nine people.

It was possible to feel frontman Mike Kerr’s twitchy frustration through the screen. By the end of their set he threw his guitar down and walked off stage with his middle fingers in the air. The clip quickly sparked a litany of conversations on everything from quote-unquote rockstar behaviour to what an artist really owes the people watching them, if anything. Mike and drummer Ben Thatcher appeared on BBC Radio 1 days later to both explain themselves and apologise.

A few months on, Mike’s feelings remain much the same. “The scale of that story was not in proportion to the severity of it,” he says calmly over Zoom. “It blew up in a way that I didn’t feel was in proportion to how bad it was. I think we were the cocktail of the moment, and when something spikes on social media, you have to form an opinion on it. It’s going to be black or white – expecting a nuanced view from social media is asking a lot.”

Is he concerned the incident will follow the band around, or overshadow things they have done or go on to do? “I’m not in control of that. We produced our own record – we quite enjoy being in control. But I’m also aware of the things that I can’t, and I’m not in control of what someone wants to think of me and my character,” Mike considers. “And I certainly don’t take validation from people that don’t know me. If someone wants to continue to use that as a reference point then honestly, they have every right to. That’s OK, I can’t decide that.”

Perhaps the immediacy of the explosion could be due to how unexpected their reaction was. Royal Blood are not a band known for causing controversy – indeed, they’re arguably one example of an artist whose music is better known than the people who play it. Mike is conscious of this discrepancy. “[Causing controversy] is not our reputation as a band, and that’s not my reputation as a person. That’s not part of the gig; it’s not what we do,” he says. “There’s obviously times on stage when you get something wrong and sometimes you say things that are unnecessary, but that isn’t the atmosphere of a Royal Blood show. They’re incredibly fun and there’s a really positive atmosphere, and anyone who’s been to one will testify to that.”

“I’m aware of the things that I can’t control, and I’m not in control of what someone wants to think of me and my character.”

— Mike Kerr

Onwards and upwards then, and the pair are intending to stride on. They sub-headlined Glastonbury on the Friday night as Arctic Monkeys, some of their earliest and best-known backers, returned to Worthy Farm, and today Mike is calling in from a sweltering Rome, where the duo are opening for their musical heroes, Muse. Once the summer packs up meanwhile, they’ve got a new era to usher in with their fourth album, ‘Back To The Water Below’.

A mere month after they’d signed off on their third album, 2021’s ‘Typhoons’, Royal Blood picked up their writing pens again, still buzzing with inspiration and the excitement of finishing a project they felt especially good about. “It wasn’t necessarily pointing towards an album. There’s one song from that period which is on the record,” Mike notes. The groundwork wasn’t properly laid, however, until August last year. The band had three weeks off after finishing a tour and, in need of some deserved R&R, Mike went on holiday, purposely leaving his guitar at home. It didn’t stop him working completely, however. In a spate of boredom, he started writing but, in what was a complete first for him, he was writing lyrics without any music to set them to.

Writing an album the opposite way round and without intention had a substantial effect. “I think it made me approach the creation of songs in a much more traditional way,” he reasons. “I found myself staring at the piano with lyrics in front of me, and writing songs in a very pure way, without any riffs, without recording myself.” This approach also evoked a liberating feeling. “When you write a lot of the music first, there’s a sense of restriction. You need the words to fit the mood of the song, and there’s melodies and rhythms [already there] and you can feel locked in before you’ve even begun. By not having that, there’s more room for expression and what I wanted to say could take more priority.”

It afforded Mike the space to spread his wings more than he had previously felt he could. He admits he hasn’t always been the world’s most confident lyricist, having started his days in Royal Blood feeling somewhat underdeveloped. “I hadn’t been playing bass very long; I hadn’t been singing very long; I had a bit of impostor syndrome,” he admits. This time around, with more experience and more assurance, he found himself genuinely having fun putting words on paper. And, as a product of that experience, Mike wrapped his feelings more in metaphor, conveying emotion in more abstract terms.

Royal Blood on new album 'Back To The Water Below' Royal Blood on new album 'Back To The Water Below'

“I found myself staring at the piano with lyrics in front of me, and writing songs in a very pure way, without any riffs.”

— Mike Kerr

Where ‘Typhoons’ made for a lyrically heavy listen, excavating the emotions that sprung from his journey to sobriety, this time Mike is hoping to leave a little more to interpretation. “I always feel like I kind of ruin it when I explain it. I’ve never felt like my lyrical content has been that cryptic, so I felt like I was doing it a disservice by re-explaining it again,” he says. Ask him, however, the reasoning behind the album’s title – a lyric from the gritty, piano-laced single ‘Pull Me Through’ – and more light is shed, albeit in a sideways sort of manner. “I felt like I was writing from a destination that was submerged, and that was in darkness, and was alone,” he nods. “That theme keeps popping up in the songs, and the image of being somewhere hidden. It felt like a fair representation of the record.”

It wasn’t, however, just in the lyrics where Mike found a sense of liberation. He describes the entire process of stitching together the record as “ruleless,” in which their vision wasn’t dictated by him and Ben beforehand, but shaped itself. The prescriptiveness with which they made ‘Typhoons’ - a shiny dance-rock behemoth, made not for dancing the anxiety away but for dancing within the feelings themselves – may well have been to a fault. “It restricted us, it meant that ideas were coming up and we were throwing them away because they didn’t fit what we thought the album was going to be at the time.”

Even the decision to self-produce for LP4 came unconsciously, with the band writing and recording at the same time to such an extent that Mike estimates 70 per cent of the album was done before they’d put a thought to who they’d get behind the desk. “Our vision felt clear enough to pursue that independently,” he states, confidently.

Across ‘Back To The Water Below’, this freedom exerts itself in subtly new and forward-facing ways for the duo. On ‘Pull Me Through’ the sonorous harmonies of piano intertwine with the band’s trademark ultra-distorted scuzz. The album contains one of the fastest songs - single ‘Mountains At Midnight’ - that Royal Blood have ever made (“We realised one day we didn’t have any fast songs, they were all slow!”), and there’s even one - ‘The Firing Line’ - with no distortion at all. “They all felt like missing links,” says Mike. “It has to feel fresh to feel like you’re progressing. I think that’s the point of making a record, to progress.”

‘Back To The Water Below’ is out 1st September via Warner.

Tags: Royal Blood, Features, Interviews

As featured in the August 2023 issue of DIY, out now.

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