Music

Royal Blood reigns over British rock

by Shaun Curran

Special To The Japan Times

The dressing room of Camden’s Electric Ballroom in London is hardly the most glamorous of settings at the best of times, and for Royal Blood it is the early evening after the night before. The previous night, the blues rock duo played its biggest ever headline show at the venue and, preparing for an encore later tonight, are disgruntled at the untidy state that greets me. “I’m sorry about the mess,” offers drummer Ben Thatcher (26), politely.

But stacked away in the corner among the remains of last night’s decidedly un-rock ‘n’ roll rider — empty salad packets rather than empty bottles of Jack Daniels — is a framed gold disc that’s almost hidden from view, awarded to the band for over 100,000 sales of its eponymous debut. That release cemented Royal Blood’s rapid rise from Brighton’s pubs to the forefront of the British rock scene.

“Oh yeah,” deadpans singer and bassist Mike Kerr (24), dressed completely in black, “we take that everywhere with us just to remind us.” The truth, in keeping with Royal Blood’s demeanor, is far less aggrandizing: The guys were only handed the disc yesterday, as a surprise, by the crew and view it how they tend to see most things that aren’t essential to the act of playing music.

“It doesn’t validate us,” Kerr says, “it literally means what it says. It validates how popular we are, but it doesn’t validate how good we are.”

“But it will look good on the wall”, Thatcher adds.

Kerr and Thatcher don’t do wild excess or outlandish bravado (“we’re here to play music”), but if any rock band could lay claim to owning 2014 it would be Royal Blood. A mammoth 12 months saw the pair start the year with just one single to its name and finish it having supported the Pixies and long-time champions Arctic Monkeys (with whom Royal Blood shares management), land a chart-topping album and gain the endorsement of Muse’s Matt Bellamy and Led Zeppelin duo Jimmy Page and Robert Plant.

“It’s like having your dad be proud of you,” says Thatcher.

Japan has caught the fever, too: AXN Japan’s “AXN Tunes” program rotated the video for “Out of the Black” constantly during October, ensuring a sold-out show in Tokyo next week.

It’s a whirlwind they are just about getting over. They use words like, “madness,” “mental” and “nought to a million” to describe the last 18 months. Kerr and Thatcher have known each other much longer — “friends through music” since their teenage years on the Brighton scene. Their respective failed bands meant they fell into forming a duo when Thatcher picked Kerr up at the airport following the latter’s return home from a nine-month spell living in Australia. They played a show two nights later.

“We didn’t sit in a pub and plan this whole thing out,” Kerr says. “But we soon proved to ourselves the kind of songs we want to write are achievable with two instruments. There is nobody else that would fit in. What would they play? What would they do?”

There is nothing radical about the pair’s sound — Jack White and Queens of the Stone Age are obvious influences — but it’s done with such breakneck intensity, its energy can be electrifying. Live, as it showed in Camden, Royal Blood’s sheer power is so overwhelming you’d swear there were more than two people on stage: Thatcher smashes drums with subtle precision, while Kerr, with the aid of his favorite POG2 effects pedal, makes his bass riffs sound like a guitar — one that wouldn’t be out of place in a stadium.

“I make the sound I want to make,” he says of his distinctive technique, “it just so happens to be with a bass. I don’t want to play the guitar because I’d probably begin to sound like other people. I want to sound like me.”

The racket is complimented by the melodrama of Kerr’s lyrics. Titles such as “Ten Tonne Skeleton,” “Little Monster” and “Blood Hands,” as well as couplets such as “I’ve got a gun for a mouth/And a bullet with your name on it” all suggest some level of personal darkness, but Kerr reassures me “it’s just art, it’s just imagery. It’s not literal. Led Zeppelin writes songs about Vikings and having sex with Vikings and rowing boats of war into foreign lands. You can sing whatever you want to sing about. I like the imagery and the drama of it, I guess.”

I assumed the name Royal Blood was also picked for its provocativeness; apparently not.

“Is it provocative?” Kerr asks, slightly nonplussed. “I can think of more provocative names. It doesn’t particularly mean anything. It’s an aesthetic thing. There’s no reason why you should name your child anything, but you do it anyway. Plus, it gave off the impression that we were English, which was important to us.”

Why so?

“Because we are! Not that we’re particularly patriotic, but it’s good for people to know we’re English when we’re playing quite American music.”

In truth, people don’t seem to care either way. Since we spoke at the start of November, Royal Blood’s 2015 now includes its biggest tour yet, with support slots at Foo Fighters’ gigs Stateside in the summer. Japan comes first (“everybody that we’ve spoken to says it will be our favorite place,” Kerr says), although for Royal Blood, it’s always one gig at a time.

“We don’t think too far ahead,” Thatcher says. “Mike’s focus now is on soundchecking. My focus is on getting ready to put on the best show I can tonight. And that’s as far as our brains can really go.”

“All I can think about now,” Kerr says, “is this riff I need to figure out.”

Suddenly, he’s gone to do just that. You wouldn’t expect anything less; Royal Blood want the music to do the talking.

Royal Blood plays Liquidroom in Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, on Jan. 21 (7 p.m. start; ¥5,500 in advance; 03-3499-6669). For more information, visit www.royalbloodband.com.