Over the past few years the two-piece guitar-and-drums combination has become a dominant force in main stage rock. While certain critics denounce it as a limiting format, a significant number of two-piece acts have managed to carve out their own niche. Right now, hard-rocking UK upstarts Royal Blood are etching an especial imprint into the two-piece canvas. The burly pair merges with such voluminous effect that many listeners are incredulous to discover it’s the work of a duo. Still the band’s basic set-up prompts miscued comparisons to The Black Keys and The White Stripes.
“We get it a lot, mainly because we’re a two-piece,” says drumming powerhouse Ben Thatcher. “I’m a huge fan of both The Black Keys and The White Stripes, and a lot of other two-pieces, so it really doesn’t bother me. What I would say is that we get compared to them a lot quicker than we do to bands with more people in them.”
Despite Thatcher’s easygoing perspective, there are a few essential components that distinguish Royal Blood. Firstly, rather than the conventional six-string electric, vocalist Mike Kerr wields a meanly distorted bass guitar. Secondly, and more importantly, a focus on stern riffing and soaring vocals pushes Royal Blood closer to the likes of Soundgarden or Black Sabbath than the aforementioned two-piece megastars.
“We’re massive Queens of the Stone Age fans and big fans of Nirvana and Led Zeppelin,” says Thatcher. “Dave Grohl’s drumming [is an influence] for me, and Foo Fighters. And a lot of Jack White’s other projects – like The Dead Weather and The Raconteurs – we’re really into.”
Stylistic specifications aside, Royal Blood’s handful of released tracks have already generated considerable buzz. It was only last September the Brighton duo’s first single ‘Out Of The Black’ surfaced online and by the end of the year the song had penetrated radio playlists both at home and abroad. The follow-up single ‘Little Monster’ achieved even greater success when it dropped in February, emphatically buoying the hype. Both tracks will appear on the band’s hotly anticipated (and recently completed) debut full-length, due for release in the second half of 2014. Royal Blood’s rapid ascent suggests a masterfully wrought plan preceded the band’s launch. But that’s not quite the case.
“It’s a total surprise,” says Thatcher. “When we were making the songs, we were making it for ourselves. We didn’t have any fans back then, so when we were done we only had our friends to show. They thought it was cool, I guess, but they didn’t give us much of a huge reaction. It was only when we released it that it got a bit more wild than we thought [it would]. It’s an absolute privilege to have other people interested and downloading it and listening on YouTube or whatever. It’s mind-blowing for us and we’re still just so excited about all that happening.”
Meanwhile, the duo’s entrance into the live arena has been anything but tentative. At the SXSW music conference in Austin, Texas last month, Royal Blood garnered masses of praise from critics and fellow artists for a stack of roof-raising performances. Then, immediately after the US jaunt, the band hopped on the NME tour through the UK alongside Interpol and Temples. In fact, since launching ‘Out Of The Black’ there have hardly been any gaps in the gig schedule. It’s a wonder they’ve managed to finish recording the album.
“We started recording it in January last year,” Thatcher explains. “We’ve been writing four or five songs and going into the studio and recording them, and then writing another four or five songs. We kept on doing that for the whole of last year.
“Our sound was still developing at the start of the year. Obviously, playing live has changed it. We had some songs that we recorded early on that we’ve re-done to make them a little more up to date with what we’re doing now.”
Indeed, even though Royal Blood emerged into the public sphere sounding like a fully formed entity, Kerr and Thatcher had fairly modest objectives at the band’s inception. “We set out to have fun – to just play music together and have a good time. There was no specific plan to make an album. Over the year we’ve kind of tricked ourselves into writing an album.”
In line with the organic and almost accidental song development, the two good friends didn’t fool around with any artificial effects in the studio. “Everything that we recorded is stuff that we’re doing live,” Thatcher says. “We wanted it to sound as live as we could. The guitar sounds and stuff are all coming from Mike’s one bass and I’m doing all the drum bits. We’re quite passionate about keeping it like that and having raw tracking, instead of putting loops in or triggers. We want it to sound as raw as possible, really.”
Australian audiences will get an opportunity to experience the duo’s raw power when they come down for a two-show tour at the end of next month. Now, this is the band’s first official visit to our shores, but it’s not actually Australia’s first mention in the Royal Blood narrative. A couple of years back Kerr spent six months meandering around the country, which is when the spark for the project ignited.
“He started writing some of the songs out there, some of the original ideas,” Thatcher explains. “He was just getting his feet on the ground out there and trying to create something for himself. But things didn’t really work out for him.”
A selfish instinct wants to posit that Kerr’s time here is grounds enough to nominate the band as honorary Aussies. However, Royal Blood are most certainly a dually dependent beast and things really surged into life once Thatcher got involved.
“He came back to England and I picked him up from the airport and we started it from there, really. We actually played a small gig the day after he got back from Australia. He had written structures for a few songs and we had a rehearsal together and played in a little club the next day.”
The band’s proactive stride hasn’t dithered ever since. The calendar for the impending northern summer is already comprehensively filled with a mammoth run of UK and European festival appearances, leading up to the album release. The ride is truly just beginning for rock’s newest two-piece sensation and Thatcher looks ahead with cheerful ambivalence.
“It probably will freak me out. I haven’t really thought about it. I know it’s going to be a lot of fun and we’re going to play a lot of good shows. I’m really looking forward to being out in Australia with you guys.”