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Cover Story: Royal Blood • “No More Dirty Mirrors”

| May 31, 2021



When you’re young, the adages you get handed as advice from your elders might sound cheap and corny — ‘Be careful what you wish for,’ ‘Adversity often leads to great art,’ ‘What doesn’t kill you will only make you stronger.’ “Uh-huh,” most kids always nod begrudgingly, with a ‘Whatever’ eye roll, “I’ll be sure to watch out for that.” But the older you get, reckons Mike Kerr, who will turn 31 this month, the more you realize that these sagacious sayings have endured throughout the years for one very good reason — they all ring remarkably true. And this bassist/vocalist for Royal Blood — a British duo he formed a decade ago with drummer Ben Thatcher — has just felt the telltale cut of roughly a dozen old saws. He’s settled on one in particular as his future artistic credo: “This above all: To thine own self be true,” a line originally spoken by father Polonius to his son Laertes in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

The end result of all these metaphorical ravens coming home to roost is rather Shakespearean itself —Typhoons, Royal Blood’s rollicking, altogether revitalized new third album that was conversely based on the tragedy overtaking Kerr’s young life. It slams open with the melodic death march “Trouble’s Coming,” in which the singer somberly observes, “In my reflection, I see signs of psychosis.” But the track is so rah-rah appealing musically; it’s already been soundtrack-licensed by EA Sports for its latest video games NHL 21 and FIFA 21. The record continues in a similar fashion, coupling minimal but mighty AC/DC-retro riffs with Kerr’s dismal diary-disarming entries, a la the punchy “Limbo” (“I need savin’ — I’m fadin’”), the machine-gun rhythm-ed “Who Needs Friends” (“Come inside my fallacy/ See the other side of vanity”), and the stadium-shaking “Boilermaker,” name-checking the beer-and-whiskey cocktail that the musician no longer orders at the bar now that he’s completely sober; It’s a recent Las Vegas-made decision that turned his life around and inspired he and Thatcher’s impressive new flurry of creativity, a knack they thought they’d lost on their last outing, 2017’s aptly-dubbed How Did We Get So Dark?

Hindsight, of course, being 20/20, Kerr can see it all so clearly now. How the fun, experimental duo he started with Thatcher upended all expectations by conquering overseas charts with its thumping, double-platinum Royal Blood debut disc in 2014 and addictive singles like “Little Monster” and “Out of the Black.” Next thing the chums knew, they were: Playing Coachella, Rock in Rio, and the coveted main stage at England’s annual Leeds and Reading festivals; Being handed the Best British Group BRIT Award by Jimmy Page himself and then returning the favor by handing Page his later Kerrang Icon-Award trophy. But beneath the sleek surface, tensions were simmering as sophomore-jinx pressure mounted around Dark. What happens when all your childhood dreams of rock stardom come true? And it’s based on a basic drum-and-bass schematic that just might have painted you into a conceptual corner? And when the public wants more of the same, can you deliver another chart-topping hit while still pushing the aesthetic envelope?

Yes and no, it turns out. Almost on anticipation alone, Dark debuted at #1 on the UK Albums chart. And Royal Blood went on to play Glastonbury and then headline its own 2018 U.S. tour with Queens of the Stone Age (whose founder Josh Homme helped produce a portion of Typhoons at his Pink Duck Studio in Los Angeles). But the sessions had taken a toll on Kerr, and he was secretly miserable, drinking too much, and headed for a potential fall. But after ditching the Homme sessions for a planned solo Lost Weekend in Vegas, he miraculously was moved to lose the bottle itself instead. In return, he got his mojo back. So those Pandora’s box aphorisms do indeed have that ring of truth, Kerr admits. “But I will say that I think it’s possible to make great art without tragedy because there can be a misconception that you need to go chasing darkness and tragedy to make art. “But I always think that’s a poor excuse for a lack of creativity. But for me? I think I’ve always used my dark experiences. Or rather, I’ve always used music to deal with my dark experiences.”

‘Write what you know,’ goes another vintage saying. And that’s just what Kerr cathartically did on Typhoons. He details his descent in the following candid chat.

IE: When did you first notice yourself as a kid using art to deal with uncomfortable experiences?

MIKE KERR: It was probably over a girl, you know? Wanting to be with a girl and using songs to express myself in that way. In a lame, teenage, angsty way. It’s like, I never really wrote a diary, so I guess that’s just my way of expressing myself.

IE: Do you look back later on convoluted songs you wrote and understand exactly what they mean now?

MK: Yeah. And I think it’s always served that purpose. It’s funny, what you’re saying because sometimes certain songs don’t make complete sense, but sometimes more sense comes out of the song after some time has passed. So listening back over stuff I’ve written in the past, I realize what they’re about, or I can at least make more sense of them lyrically.

IE: So do you look back at your second album now and go, “Whoa! What was I going through then?”? It sounds like it was a very grim, high-pressure time.

MK: Yeah. It was a strange era. Because it wasn’t the most enjoyable record to make, in all honesty. I think we weren’t really used to the expectations and the pressure of surpassing what we had just done. Everything had happened very quickly, and I don’t think I’d really caught up. So it was just a strange era. But making this record was just so different — it was actually really enjoyable because I think I just got a lot more comfortable in my own shoes, and I felt a much greater sense of identity. And I think identity comes down to trust, and if you can trust yourself, then that’s really the key to creativity — to be able to trust your own opinion without seeking the validation of others.

IE: Adage-wise, was the sophomore album a case of too many cooks spoiling the broth? Is the band getting pulled in several directions to come up with another hit?

MK: I wouldn’t say so, no. It felt more like a lose/lose situation, where we had to follow in the footsteps of the record we’d just made, but we felt kind of tethered to it, also, in that there was a limit as to how far we could progress. And I think that’s why second records are traditionally so difficult. And ours was made all the more difficult based on the success of the first one — we’d never really experienced success, and the first one was just such an explosion, you know? And they say that success and failure are equally as disastrous.

IE: Did you at least spend the royalties well? Buy a house, maybe a new car?

MK: Yeah, but I’ve never been a materialistic person, and I grew up with the experience of not ever having much to my name. And I was okay with that. And I never saw the band as something I would make money off of. Initially, my only goal for the band was to make that 300 pounds back that we spent making the first record. I thought, “I wanna get that back, and then I’ll have done a lot!” But I actually got a small flat in Brighton, which I’m very grateful for. But I never expected material things to satisfy me because I never placed much value on them, anyway.

IE: As I recall, you know how to cook. Did that come in handy during a lockdown?

MK: I DO know how to cook! And Yes, 100% — it was a blessing. So I’ve been doing lots of cooking. And not only that, but I’ve been doing a lot of baking, as well, which isn’t so good for the waistline. But it’s been a good hobby.

IE: If someone dropped in for dinner, what is the go-to dish that you would surprise them with?

MK: My specialty? Well, I wouldn’t actually bake if someone came ‘round, but if I were to cook, I would probably make lobster ravioli. It’s impressive, and it’s totally made from scratch, you know? And my secret is, you need to have salmon and egg whites whipped into a mousse, and that’s what holds the lobster meat together. And you want to cook it in that raw mousse — it’s a wonderful thing.

IE: You’ve said that while you were in L.A. recording “Boilermaker” with Josh Homme, you suddenly took off on your own to Las Vegas, where you made a crucial decision to get sober while sitting at a bar one night.

MK: Yeah. I think I’ve had multiple opportunities in my life to stop drinking, and I’d done stints of sobriety before, some as long as a month. And every time I did them, I enjoyed them. But not enough to stay sober, because I always returned to drinking because it was just such an ingrained part of my life, almost part of the job. But that night in Vegas, I just decided that not only was I going to stop but that this was going to be a life choice rather than a detox. I think I’d come to the end of the road in my relationship with alcohol — it wasn’t serving me anymore, and I knew how much better off I’d be without it. So it was almost like a breakup.

IE: How did you go about it?

MK: Honestly, I did it on my own. But I wish I didn’t. I sort of wish I’d just gone and used a twelve-step program or entered into a facility for treatment. I sort of regret not doing that because it was incredibly difficult, and there was so much I didn’t know, so I was kind of working it all out for myself. But look — in the same breath, It also worked, so if there’s anyone out there that is troubling over the same thing, I would say DON’T do it on your own, even though I did.

IE: That’s another spinoff from the adversity-equals-art trope — that decadence, and drugs and alcohol, can aid you in your vision quest.

MK: Yeah. But no — there’s never a success story with drugs, where someone who had never had a hit or made anything successful or creatively prosperous, well, there’s no one like that for whom drugs were the answer. The story — or the argument — is always that someone that was already very talented and creative took drugs, so I guess my argument is that drugs didn’t make the art — it was the person, and they were already creative in the first place. And it’s a skill that you’ve spent years honing in and working on. If it was as easy as getting high and suddenly being able to write “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” then everyone would have done it already.

IE: But your coolest revelation on this record, I think, is you understood the fundamental importance of AC/DC and how they’re not this wall of sound people seem to think they are — they leave a lot of space between those riffs.

MK: I couldn’t agree with you more. And it’s something, I think, that you don’t pick up on until you’re older. When you first start playing an instrument, there’s almost an insecurity about leaving gaps. And for me, putting space in music takes confidence and experience, and the more I realized that Angus Young is the master of making these riffs sound huge, the more I understood that it’s because of all those gaps he puts in his riffs. It just creates such a rhythm. And that’s exactly what’s on this album, and I tried to do it with every single song because it works very well, and it makes everything so much more musical.

IE: In “Limbo,” you lyrically admit that you’ve become someone you don’t recognize, someone you actually despise. There’s a lot of guilt and self-recrimination on Typhoon.

MK: I wrote the album in a very clear headspace and from a very positive place. And I think that allowed me to actually look very honestly into the darkness from which I just came. And it was a…a very dirty mirror to go and look into, you know? So yeah — I think it allowed me to be that honest, and that critical, of just how bad things were. I mean, rather than writing from the frontline of it, where it would be easy for me to almost romanticize that era of my life.

IE: Looking back on it now, are there any scary moments where you nearly passed the point of no return?

MK: Oh, multiple. Multiple situations, just where I went too far. I just really tested my body, and I didn’t treat my body with much respect, you know? I almost treated my body like a machine, really, just in the sense of running myself into the ground, physically and mentally, and not allowing myself to come up for air, you know? And it comes from a place of just not looking after yourself. But my life couldn’t be any different now — I spend all my time and energy focusing on my health. I just ran my first marathon a couple of months ago, on Brighton Beach, and it was epic. And I ran another one three weeks ago. So I’m writing from a different space.

IE: What is your health-conscious routine now? You get up in the morning, and…what?

MK: Well, the first thing I usually do is go for a run or do some kind of boxing, usually to music. And then I go in the sea, and I go straight into the water, no wet suit, and the water is eight degrees Celsius, and it is fucking cold! And I go in all year-’round, even when it’s snowing. And then I come back home and shower and have coffee, and then I go into the studio — that’s how my day goes.

IE: But it’s not a home studio?

MK: I did have a bit of a home studio at one point, but I chose to move it and have a space that wasn’t in my house because I like the separation, and I want to associate my house with switching off, whereas the studio is somewhere for me to work. And it’s a great place to be, you know? It’s like a little playground.

IE: Musically, what was the turning point on “Typhoons”? Where you thought, “I’m BACK, bitches!”

MK: Ha! The I’m-back-bitches moment was, I think, “Trouble’s Coming,” which was definitely a Eureka moment. But it could’ve been a fluke if that makes sense — I needed to have one more thing, so I didn’t feel like I’d just gotten lucky with that song. So it wasn’t until the song “Typhoons” itself came along, where I was like, “This one of the best songs I’ve ever written!!” It just felt so magical and so electric, and honestly, I put work into it, but I wasn’t banging my head against the wall to get it to work. It was really kind of fun to make, and I think once I had that, I was just like, “This is a different ballgame now — now I’m on a different level.” So that’s when I knew. I knew we were onto a winner.

IE: Well, you’d kind of painted yourself into a stylistic corner from the beginning, restricting Royal Blood to only bass and drums.

MK: Yeah. And I feel like, on this record, we’ve managed to wriggle our way out of that now. And it feels great. I feel like on the first record, that limitation — that set-in-stone kind of attitude — really served us well at the beginning, and we were really creative. But I think we just ran out of steam after the second record, and it was time to change. So this record now I feel was almost an escape mission, and I now feel very liberated. So it’s a very exciting time.

IE: Did you have a faithful pet to keep you company through all this?

MK: I didn’t fall into the trappings of having a pet, and I think that’s been a good thing. But Ben, however, did — he got a puppy.

IE: In the new album’s opening track, “Trouble’s Coming,” you clinically diagnose yourself as having psychosis. How do you know?

MK: They always say, “How do you know when you have ‘dain bramage’”? But I think I’d expected a very low standard for life, a very low standard of living. And I think I got acclimatized to it, and I don’t think it was until months of sobriety — when I realized how good I felt — that I could identify how bad it was if that makes any sense. So it’s not to say that I didn’t feel bad or have dark experiences in that period, because I really did. But I didn’t think I really knew how bad because they weren’t really highlighted. And it’s exactly the same with fitness, as well. I never did any fitness until I was 25, and when I started doing it, I was like, “Oh, man! How was I existing like that before?” You just become acclimated to a certain way of feeling.

IE: And turning 30 is a big deal — it’s when the carnality of your 20’s segues into a more spiritual decade.

MK: Yeah. And I can’t help but blame that on sobriety, really. I entered my 30’s completely clean and sober, so everything has gotten better since then. I’m 31 in June, but being 30? It’s been the best year of my life, quite honestly, even though it was in the middle of a global pandemic.

IE: What has the pandemic itself taught you?

MK: It reminded me not to underestimate the power of boredom. Because when I’m bored, I get VERY creative….

-Tom Lanham

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