Royal Blood's Ben Thatcher on his "crazy year"
Ben Thatcher (right) of Royal Blood
In June 2013, Ben Thatcher was looking on as future tour-mate Matt Helders of Arctic Monkeys headlined Glastonbury wearing a Royal Blood T-shirt. When we catch up with him one year later, he’s about to leave a more indelible mark on the legendary festival’s crowds with his own appearance on the John Peel stage.
“It’s incredible,” says Ben. “It just reminds you of how much of a crazy year it’s been.” Ben, understandably, uses words like ‘incredible’ and ‘amazing’ frequently during our interview.
In the popular rock’n’roll/climate event vernacular, the past 18 months have been not so much a whirlwind, more a global warming-scale sea change. He and bandmate/bassist Mike Kerr have gone from virtual unknowns to recording the most eagerly-awaited debut album of 2014.
Their addictive brand of brooding, elemental rock, evidenced on the likes of ‘Little Monster’ and ‘Out of the Black’, strips heavy music back to its basics: massive riffs and big, groove-laden beats. It struck an immediate chord and the Brighton-based band have had huge support from radio, feverish press write-ups and achieved the near-impossible for a duo: surprisingly few comparisons to the Black Keys and The White Stripes.
Satisfied that we’d ruined his time-off, we asked Ben about his early drumming days, Royal Blood’s rapid rise and why he spent much of 2013 playing sponges...
How did you first get your start as a drummer?
“I was playing when I was six months old – there are photos of me banging on the pots and pans! My brother-in-law was a drummer and so I just watched him play and learned to play through him. Then I started bands at school and it was all I really wanted to do.”
Who were your drumming inspirations at that point?
“My brother-in-law, Stu Smith, was definitely one of them. I remember him giving me a Chad Smith drumming video. It was Chad Smith playing all of Blood Sugar Sex Magik – which was the first album that I really loved drumming along to – and that kind of opened me up to John Bonham and Dave Grohl and all of those big rock drummers.
"Through listening to different music, I got into other drummers. I was a big fan of John Blackwell, when he was playing with Justin Timberlake, and all of that showmanship he does, then later it was Jon Theodore [Mars Volta, Queens Of The Stone Age].”
How did you go from school bands to joining Royal Blood?
“I met Mike when I was about 15 years old. He was playing a keytar at the time for a funk band! I really loved what he was doing and we became mates. Later, when he started picking up the bass a lot, we started jamming and wrote a few songs. He went travelling and came back, and we thought we’d write more and do a couple of recordings.”
What do you get from playing with Mike that you’ve not experienced elsewhere?
“He’s just a really good person to work with. We get on really well and we kind of clicked with what we wanted to achieve from the band. We gelled quite quickly and know what the other is capable of. We push each other, too.
"He will come up with some drum parts and suggest little things that I should do. And I’ll do the same with his bass playing. So we kind of work as a team on the whole sound of it.”
Out of the Black
When did you feel like the band was first gathering pace?
“I reckon it was when we released our first official single, ‘Out of the Black’, in November . We released that on our own label, just to see what response we would get and it was pretty incredible, especially the radio play. That’s when we thought that maybe we should give it a go.”
How did that connection with the Arctic Monkeys first come about?
“In June last year we signed a management deal with Ian McAndrew, who manages Arctic Monkeys, so they got to hear our music. Matt [Helders] became a bit of a fan and he asked if there was a T-shirt, but we didn’t even have one, it was that early on. He was like, ‘It’s for Glastonbury main stage,’ so we knocked one up pretty quickly!”
Your Jools Holland performance also caught a lot of people’s attention. What was it like?
“It was an incredible experience. I’ve grown up watching Jools Holland and never thought that I’d play it, so just being there was such an amazing moment for the band. I was just really excited. I wasn’t nervous at all. It’s all live, so I can understand why people do get nervous, but I just really enjoyed the whole atmosphere of it and had a good time.”
Is Royal Blood your only experience playing in a duo, and have you had to adapt your playing?
“It is, yeah. I find, playing in other bands, you’ve got a lot more to accommodate, so you have to play more simple things and lock in with more people, but when you’re in a duo there’s only one other person to lock into. It means you have the freedom to go off and do what you want to do and not worry too much about clashing or taking the lead. Then, volume-wise, Mike’s got a big bass amp so I play quite hard and quite loud, even using bigger drums or bigger cymbals to kind of match him.”
So what’s in the kit you’re using currently?
“Actually at the moment, I’m using a new Gretsch Renown kit and the drums on it aren’t too big. I was using a DW kit on the NME tour [February 2014],but we went into a music store in Manchester and it was just one of those ‘Wayne’s World moments’, like when he sees the Stratocaster.
"I saw this kit and was just like, ‘Man, I want that!’ It’s only a 22" kick, a 12" rack and a 16" tom, but they just sound brilliant. Then Morgan Davies, a company from Brighton, have created my own custom snare: a birch/walnut/eucalyptus 14"x7", which has been named the Black Mamba. I worked on it with Matt Davies and he created a masterpiece of a drum.”
What is it about that combination of woods?
“Originally I was a big fan of brass snares, but then Matt let me try a 14"x7" birch drum, The Cobra, and I loved it. It has a really great range – I can tune it really high and get a great crack or I can get a massive thud from the low end. Then we chose a hybrid between birch and walnut to get that fat, lively tone.”
As a ‘quite loud’ player, do you have to use specific heads?
“I use Evans G2 Coated heads on everything. They’ve got really good tone and I also think Evans has done really well with the new 360 thing [the firm recently tweaked its design to enhance contact and balance]. They’re very durable. I was going through the G1s quicker – I’m a hard hitter, I need that extra ply!”
Do you have a cymbal allegiance?
“I’m all Zildjians. I’ve always been Zildjians since I was a kid. I’ve experimented with others but I’ve always found that Zildjians are just really good all-round cymbals. They have a lot of different tones.
"I’m a big fan of the Ks especially. I use 15" hats and the bottom is a K Light and the top is an A New Beat, so it has a kind of dark but crisp sound to it. I use a 19" K Thin crash, which is one of the best out there, I think, and I just changed to the 23" Sweet ride. I crash my ride quite a lot, and I find it’s got a good ping to the bell and a nice washy crash sound.”
Royal Blood by Royal Blood
You recorded the album at Rockfield Studios in Wales. Could you describe the sessions?
“Rockfield is great. It’s just in the middle of nowhere. There’s nothing to be distracted by, apart from the horses! We’ve been producing the album ourselves with an engineer called Tom Dalgety. We know the sounds that we want and how we want the record to sound, and Tom is brilliant at the technical side and helping us get those sounds.”
Did you learn any good recording tricks?
“Yeah, I actually recorded the whole album’s drums without cymbals. It means you can really push the drum levels without the overspill of the cymbals. I actually used sponges as cymbals! You’ve got to really rehearse and learn every fill, so when it comes to recording the cymbals you play exactly the same but with the actual cymbals, and replace the drums with cushions. It’s a strange set-up but it works!”
So it’s paid dividends, listening back?
“Definitely, because you can have songs when the drums are quite low and it gives you more to play with. We rehearse them all with a normal kit, but it’s really strange because when you’re recording like that, you don’t actually know it’s working until you go back [into the control room] and hear it for yourself. I’d always go over and play it all with the whole kit after, just to make sure!”
How long did you spend in the studio?
“Last year we wrote a bunch of songs, like four or five [at a time] and went into the studio to record them [on and off] throughout the year. I think we went to Rockfield about four or five times, just doing batches of songs, so you’d come back out and four of them would be really good, or two, or one... You kind of trick yourself into recording an album, doing that.”
What’s your favourite beat on the record?
“I’m really happy with all of the sounds. There’s a drum fill in ‘Little Monster’ that was really fun to do. But I think every song has something really nice about it and I’m really pleased with the drum parts.”
It’s probably good you can’t pick a favourite…
“Exactly, because there’s only two of us, I’ve got to like all of the bits on there, you know? It’s not worth me doing them if not. Fortunately, there was a lot of room for crazy fills and good head-bopping beats.”
Finally, why do you think Royal Blood got to this point so quickly?
“I just did it for fun! It’s about having a good time and drumming. I started Royal Blood to write songs with a friend and be creative and drum, because that’s what I love doing. I think when you have an agenda on making it big, you lose the plot. It’s the love of music. I’m in my dream job now and I don’t know how I got here! It was a hobby and I loved doing it, so now to do it [professionally] is incredible and I don’t take it for granted at all.”