Mike Kerr: Putting Bass Front & Center With Royal Blood

How disco, costume parties, and new-found sobriety influenced Royal Blood’s new album, 'Typhoons'

Mike Kerr: Putting Bass Front & Center With Royal Blood

How disco, costume parties, and new-found sobriety influenced Royal Blood’s new album, 'Typhoons'

In two perfect words, Howard Stern once summed up what you might be thinking after watching a Royal Blood performance. The British duo had just thrashed their way through a live rendition of “Figure It Out” on his radio show. As the dust still hurtled around the room, shaken up by Kerr’s multiple speaker cabinets and Thatcher’s six crash cymbals, Howard spat out the words: “Holy mackerel.”

It’s the reaction most people have to the unapologetic racket that bass player and vocalist Mike Kerr and drummer Ben Thatcher manage to produce as a duo. Kerr has unearthed a way to wield his bass guitar as if it were an entire band, and Royal Blood’s two-part punchline certainly wasn’t lost on Stern. Nor many others in the music industry; Dave Grohl booked them to open for Foo Fighters after watching their Glastonbury performance, and Jimmy Page declared, “They’re going to take rock into a new realm”after seeing them perform in 2014.

Six years on from that Howard Stern Show performance, the twosome, often hailed as the “saviors of rock music,” have been enjoying the ongoing success that began when their self-titled debut album went double-platinum. They have firmly held onto the bull’s horns through various headlining tours, award ceremonies, and the recording of their sophomore album, How Did It Get So Dark? The duo now find themselves at album number three. Typhoons was born out of costume parties with Queens Of The Stone Age frontman Josh Homme, a writing technique Ben dubbed as “AC/Disco,” a global pandemic, and Kerr’s new-found sobriety. Mike cites the latter as the most crucial factor for him and shares, matter-of-factly, “I honestly don’t think I would have made an album had I not sorted out that side of my life. I was going nowhere.” He was in the middle of a recording trip with Homme, one of his teenage heroes, when it dawned on him that something had to shift for album three to emerge: “I was beginning to understand what it would take to make the record I wanted to make.”

Kerr & Thatcher (photo by Mads Perch)

Mike had taken a breather from the studio for a weekend trip to the home of neon-lit debauchery, Las Vegas. Staring into an espresso martini, he decided this would be his last brush with alcohol. His foresight of a future-gone-wrong imagined a life without music or his band, and his decision to throw in the towel was driven by the fear of losing them.

The six-year party had finally come to a close, but it made way for Mike and Ben to create an album that sounded like one. Kerr describes the record as seeing Royal Blood “in color” for the first time. While their solid rhythm-section union is still the foundation of Royal Blood 3, they have dressed up this collection of songs with layers of dramatic synth sounds, string lines, female backing vocals, and vocoders. These additions nod to influences that haven’t yet been reflected in Royal Blood’s music — bands such as Daft Punk, Justice, and Philippe Zdar of Cassius. The record sounds like it’s covered in glossy lacquer and is easily their slickest yet. Their experiments with rhythm created a “danceable friction” — it’s near impossible to sit still during the opening track “Trouble’s Coming.” It feels like Royal Blood invited rock music on a blind date to the disco, and it’s going really well.

Kerr’s tactile approach hasn’t steered him wrong yet, and the new album boasts a roster of reliably fuzzy, heavy riffs. He is known for keeping the secrets of his tone close to his chest, but surely we can get some details out of him?

You have described your first record as “meat and potatoes,” and your second record is where you brought in some “side dishes.” How would you describe this record?

Remaining on the food analogy, it’s definitely dessert. It’s more fun and colorful than anything we’ve ever made before. The principle of the first record was to keep it really simple, and we actually found so much creativity in that, but by the time it came to making the third record, the idea of continuing that on was so dull to us. I’ve been in this band for nearly ten years, and I wanted to explore where we could go. But to do that, we had to make a bit of a shift. By letting go of having just bass, drums, and one vocal, it was like seeing in color for the first time. I felt so inspired to make the record. Suddenly, all of the music I’ve grown up loving had a place in our music. Before, I would have restricted or oppressed those influences because they didn’t fit into what we were doing. It was really liberating to make progress.

Did you consciously try to inject some of this color into the bass lines?

I think so. Something changed on this album for me, rhythmically. I started playing with this idea — Ben called it “AC-Disco.” It made me laugh, but it also got me really excited; I thought it was a great through-line that I hadn’t thought of before. It’s like the way [AC/DC’s] Angus Young writes his riffs and plays his rhythms — how much fun I could have playing over much straighter drum ideas. Before, Ben and I have moved together in this animalistic way, whereas on this record, it felt like we were bouncing off each other for the first time. It created this kind of danceable friction, similar to the way that most AC/DC songs are composed, where the riffs feel like karate jabs over the top of the drums. It makes the music so danceable, more “roll” than “rock.”

You’ve added a keyboard player to your live lineup, too. Was it challenging to make that decision, perhaps feeling like you had an obligation to keep the live show strictly a duo?

Adding an extra musician onstage wasn’t a big deal, although I think it would have been a while ago. Those restrictions and limitations were no longer serving us, and we just had to put the music first. For us, it’s really important to play live. We could have easily just put it all on a backing track, and maybe no one would have cared, but for us, it’s important that it’s real and has that human aspect.

How did adding all these extra layers affect the writing of your bass parts?

Before, I was always trying to inform what the chord would be, but on this record, the actual chords are often in there. On some songs — “Limbo,” for example — I had the chord sequences written before the bass line. That was so fresh for me. I’m so used to bouncing off just drums, so to have another melodic part to consider was a lot of fun. It was inspiring because it was something I’d never done before and the most I ever felt like a bass player on a record. That also gave me a lot of freedom, because there was a structure there already; I could make my bass sound a lot more playful. It could also be extremely heavy without feeling harsh or overwhelming, because these chords were kind of… smoothing it all out.

I know that you’ve experimented with your sound on previous records by doing things like putting guitar strings on your bass. Did you get into any new experimentation this time?

There were a few more tunings than before, but it’s weird … before, I used odd tunings as a way to confuse myself on the bass and kind of get lost on the fretboard and write a riff I wouldn’t usually compose. Whereas, on this record, the different tunings are actually a result of clumsy demo-making. I may have played one bass in one tuning on a verse but then returned the next day to write a chorus riff and just grabbed a different bass in a different tuning. I got to the end of the song and thought, “How am I gonna do this live, on one bass?”

There are also more tunes where I’m playing higher up on the fretboard but using an octave pedal to emulate the lower octave, which I’ve never done before. So, that was a new spin on things. I think every new sound or every new pedal can be like its own instrument and can inspire new ideas.

Did you take inspiration from any new gear?

Yeah, I bought a little practice amp off eBay; I won’t say which one, because I feel like I found absolute gold-dust. It cost me 30 quid [about $40], and it’s on the whole record. I bought it so that making demos would be really simple and I wouldn’t have to lug around my whole rig — but if you turn it all the way up, it blows out and sounds incredible. At the end of the demoing process, I thought, “It kind of sounds rad. I don’t really want to record it again.” So, I just left it, and this tiny little amp has become the star of the show. It’s interesting how the sound of a pedal or an amp can inform how the rest of the record can be mixed. Sounds that are really narrow and buzzy — we always call them “stereo bees” — that also have a really rich deep end, leave a gaping hole for the drums in the mix. It’s a happy accident, really, because it allowed the drums to be so loud. That’s what we love about dance music: how upfront and loud the drums are. Usually, in rock music, loud drums are just too much or too harsh. So on this record, we could be more beat-centric, all because of this shitty little amp.

Did you track bass on the record live with the drums, or were there lots of overdubs?

We recorded most of our parts separately. Weirdly, lots of drums were recorded at the end, which is obviously not very traditional, but that was because I accidentally captured so much magic in the demos that I didn’t want to go back and re-record everything. Also, I honestly couldn’t remember how I got some of my sounds, so we had to work around it. That’s not very fun for a drummer, but Ben did an amazing job of fitting in around my wonky demo playing. On some songs, we did a “test drive” and played them together before recording. I think for us, we have to feel it out together. In the back of our heads, we need to ask ourselves, “Is this fun enough to play a thousand times?”

When you’re in the demo stage, do you program drums? Or has Ben given you his personal collection of drum loops? 

I’ve got a catalog of beats that Ben has made, but it just depends. Writing “Typhoons” — I just made a dead straight beat; I have the mentality of seeing if I can make the song survive on just the riff and the vocal, so by the time Ben comes in and lays down a drum track, we’ve already won. Keeping it simple from the beginning puts the knife on my back to make sure things are hooky and catchy enough, and serious enough. But on other songs, like “Limbo,” I programmed drums. I showed Ben this demo drum track I’d made, and he just had his head in his hands. I’m not a drummer, so I hadn’t thought about the actual logistics, how to physically play it. Then one day, he said, “Mike, check this out” — and he could just play it. It was like three drum parts at once, and he was playing the whole thing. I was like, “Holy shit! That’s amazing.”

(photo by Mads Perch)

You have a somewhat punk approach to playing bass; you just picked it up and rolled with it. How long had you been playing when your first record came out?

I think two years. I did feel pretty out of my depth. But it was okay, because I only had to be good at playing my own songs! My biggest nightmare is being in a bar with a covers band playing, and one of them saying, “Hey, come up and play!” That would be the worst thing ever — I would be found out in an instant.

There’s some beginner’s luck with not knowing what you are doing. I approached bass with such nonchalance and almost a lack of respect for what it is or what it stands for, or what my role in a band should be because I’m playing one. I just saw it as a bit of wood with wires on, and I was more interested in the sounds I could get out of it. I liked how simple it was. Whenever I play guitar, I’m always thinking, “Man, this is so intricate.” I have to be so delicate when I play, so careful, whereas on bass I can be so heavy-handed, and it feels more primal than guitar. I could throw myself into it. Slap it about it bit.

Now that you’ve been playing bass longer, are you trying to be more technical now?

I’ve never had an interest in being technical in any way, because I would hate for a song to be about that. I remain interested in the art of “out-dumbing” people, which is something Josh Homme taught me about years ago. He once said to me, “It’s better to out-dumb people than out-smart people.” It’s something that totally aligns with my philosophy of playing. I’m so interested in the parts that you could teach someone straight away — “Seven Nation Army,” for example. That’s the riff you could teach someone as their first-ever riff and simultaneously the riff every guitarist wishes they wrote. I love the duality of that. I’m always climbing and searching for things that are both really stupid and really effective. Having said that, I always find that learning a new technique seems to lead me to write something new. The first time I learned how to hammer on and off, I wrote “Figure It Out” and “Come On Over.” I liked the idea of playing with one hand — like, “Cool, I can just point to the audience with the other one now, right? This is rad.” On this record, my friend Tommy, an insane guitarist, taught me a pre-bend, where you bend the note before you play it, and then you un-bend the note. As soon as he showed it to me, I wrote “Boilermaker.” The whole song is just pre-bend; I play that riff for three and a half minutes. Sometimes learning a new technique unlocks a new riff or a melody. What’s exciting is there’s so much I don’t know.

But you don’t feel the need to seek out those little tricks you just want them to happen upon you?

Yeah, I want them to drip-feed over my career, so I don’t run out of ideas!

You’re in the business of making riffs. How do you keep coming up with new ideas?

I don’t know the answer to that, honestly. But it’s the bit I think I’m the most experienced at, so on this record, I’ve actually been trying to double-down on the bits I’m not as experienced at, like lyric writing and top-lining. That’s been my focus, because I feel like I can write a riff at the click of a finger now. Riffs are the fun bit, so I try to leave it until the end of the writing process. Otherwise, all I’m left with is the burden of finishing the song. On this record, I tried to remain disciplined and wait until I had a fully formed song idea. Then, it’s like, “Cool, what are the riffs going to be?” and there’s a real inspiration and excitement to it. Also, having unique-sounding drum beats is always a turn-on; that’s something that always brings a riff out of me and makes me want to run for a bass and start writing.

Did any of the songs in this record come about that way — you bouncing off a drum beat first?

Yeah, “Typhoons” was one of them. I think I wrote about 15 riffs to that beat, and honestly, it was making me laugh. I don’t know how to describe this, but it was making me think of someone with a mustache wearing leather gloves. There was something very slick about it — like silver aviators; very Freddie Mercury. At riff 15 I’m thinking, “This is stupid,” so I closed the session and left the studio. But when I came back in on Monday morning, I listened through and thought they were sick. I just picked out which riff belonged to each section of the song, and I had the whole song mapped out.

I suppose when riffs are your forte, you could write so many that it’s hard to pick one. How do you settle on a riff?

I go around in circles a lot on it. I have to explore every single corner and possibility of what could be in there; sometimes I’ll try playing it backwards, or cut bits out, or I’ll take a snippet of the riff and repeat it. I really prod at it and pull it apart until I find something that’s my favorite. Sometimes, I end up back where I started, but on that full circle, I’ve maybe taken one thing around with me, and then that’s the finished product. There’s a real physicality for me, too: a riff has to feel good under my hands while playing it. There has to be something satisfying about playing it, if that makes sense. It has to feel like your own dance moves. You have to be comfortable doing it; otherwise, it won’t have any charm.

You had two major things impacting this album, a global pandemic and a journey to becoming sober. How do you think those aspects played their part?

The album wouldn’t exist if either of those things hadn’t happened. I think getting sober was probably the most crucial one for me. I honestly don’t think I would have made an album had I not sorted that side of my life out. I was going nowhere; I wasn’t able to function as a human being, and I certainly wasn’t able to write any good music. The biggest alarm bell was the idea of music being taken away from me. The reason for having to get sober was driven by that fear. I love what I do — I love making music, and I’ve got a lot to live for, and that way of life wasn’t serving me anymore. But it’s not like the day after I decided to become sober, I woke up and suddenly everything was fine. There was a lot of repair work to do; I had to get under the bonnet and rewire some things and, honestly, re-learn how to do everything. I had to re-learn how to write songs, how to play bass. I had to re-learn how to walk into a room and say hi to people I didn’t know. I attached every aspect of my life to alcohol and drugs. About eight months in, there was a moment when it was like a light turned on, and a clarity ascended upon me. It’s hard to describe, but it was an amazing moment in my life. Suddenly, something changed. When I was writing, I felt like a kid again.

I have a theory that when you start drinking, you abandon that person at that point, and you begin a sort of destructive journey. And for me, I was probably 16, 17? When I got sober, it’s almost like I went back and picked up that baton from where I left off. The person I was then was really into the music and sounds that are on this album. It’s really weird — my friends who have heard the record are saying to me, “This is the most ‘Mike’ album we’ve ever heard.” Because they know me, they know where I’ve come from, and they know what I was into. It feels like a real return to who I actually am.

The pandemic was interesting because we already had a pretty good album, and we were recording it when everything went into lockdown, so we had to stop. A week went by, and I just decided to keep writing songs. I thought, “There’s nothing to lose here.” The conditions were so pressure-free that it allowed me to enter this creative space that felt so lawless compared to anything I’d done before. Some of the best songs came out of that period of time. And it’s mad to think that these songs — “Oblivion,” “Typhoons,” “Limbo,” and “Mad Visions” — weren’t even written for the record. When we came back to the studio, we were like, “Holy shit, can you believe we didn’t have these songs?” So, creatively, it really served me. Both the pandemic and getting sober have been really positive for the album.

(photo by Mads Perch)

You guys produced this record yourselves. What were your biggest takeaways from that experience?

It was fun. It wasn’t something we particularly set out to do; it was just something that was already happening. We’ve always co-produced our records, so it wasn’t a completely alien idea. We had such a clear vision for what we wanted to do, and we knew how we practically wanted to do it as well. I think if we had a producer, we would have been employing someone to get in the way, or to blame if it went wrong. Neither seemed a very fair thing to do to someone. We thought, “If it ain’t broke” … we were kind of flying in the studio, and it was fun. One of the many benefits of having a producer is having someone to challenge you, so it definitely made us keep the knife on our own back, making sure everything was as good as possible. We were just so stoked over the material. It was almost like, you could put this chorus wherever you want — I don’t really care. It all just feels like winning at this point!

What did you learn from working with Josh Homme on “Boilermaker”? I hear he has a fancy costume box in the studio.

Yeah, he has lots of wigs, lots of costumes. Oh, man, I learned so much in that session. I learned a lot about myself. There was a big gap between our recording sessions, probably a year or so. In the first session, I felt like I was beginning to understand what it would take to make the record I wanted to make. It dawned on me that nothing great is achieved without some form of sacrifice. I think Josh helped me come to realize that, and the thing that needed sacrificing was my drinking. I decided to get sober during that recording session, when I went to Vegas for the weekend — I went to meet someone for a date, and I got sober on our second date. We’re still dating now, actually. I went back to the studio, and Josh helped me understand the task at hand. When I left the studio, I felt really equipped to handle myself in a studio environment and ready to take on the challenge.

How are you going to celebrate the album’s release?

I’m gonna jet-ski along the Brighton sea-front. BM

Listen Royal Blood, Typhoons [2020]


Bass Fender custom Jaguar Basses, Fender Starcaster

Rig Fender Super-Sonic 22 combo, Fender Super Bassman head, Fender Bassman 810 Neo cabinet

Effects Z.Vex Vextron Series Mastotron, Electro-Harmonix POG2 Polyphonic Octave Generator, Boss LS-2 Line Selector, Boss PS-6 Harmonist, Strymon Flint Tremolo & Reverb

Strings D’Addario Custom EXL sets

For more visit: Royal Blood

Vicky Warwick   By: Vicky Warwick

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