A royal return
It’s a bright afternoon when we meet up at Leicester’s O2 Academy with Ben Thatcher ahead of Royal Blood’s intimate, sold-out show there later that evening.
Just 24 hours previously, a freak blizzard battered parts of the East Midlands with flash floods and flurries of thick snow. By contrast, today is very much the calm after the storm. The same description could sum up the point in their career that Royal Blood find themselves at as we settle down in a small backstage room with Ben.
The band - comprised of the affable drummer and bassist/vocalist Mike Kerr - were shot into the eye of an all-encompassing hurricane at the back-end of 2013 thanks to their explosive debut single Out Of The Black. Their almighty Queens Of The Stone Age-meets-Muse sound earned accolades and hype in equal doses. It was quite the turnaround for Ben who up to that point had been playing the function band circuit and working as a drum teacher.
“I worked in a bar and I was teaching drums in a school,” he says. “I was playing weddings at weekends. I didn’t enjoy teaching. I loved the people I taught but I don’t have the patience for it. I just want to go wild and play, so teaching wasn’t my thing even though it was rewarding and I got to hang out with people who were into drums.”
While enjoying earning a few quid playing weddings, the opportunity to join a two-piece with old mate Mike reared its head and the drummer jumped at it.
“Mike and I have been in so many bands. I have played drums in wedding bands with nine people. You have to accommodate everyone and you play differently. When it came to Royal Blood we just wanted to have fun and write some songs. At that time I was consumed with wedding music. I loved doing that, it was a way to get paid as a drummer. Royal Blood was a way for me to be creative again and write drum parts.”
If writing creative drum parts was the aim then it was very quickly mission accomplished. Out Of The Black immediately showcased the power that the Brighton-based twosome were capable of delivering. Much of the track sees the duo lock in tight, creating a thick groove that transforms an infectious chorus into a super-charged beast.
By the time they released their self-titled debut album we saw that any White Stripes comparisons extend only as far as the number of members in the band. The hard, heavy and wonderfully technical beats and fills found on tracks like Little Monster and Come On Over proved that Thatcher is less Meg White and more Dave Grohl. That self-titled debut hit Number One in the UK and charted all over the world, becoming one of the fastest-selling rock albums of the decade. They promoted the record with a two-year tour, which included slots at festivals, headline shows and a batch of stadium-support dates with Foo Fighters. For a rock’n’roll two-piece that only formed in 2013, their ascent was astonishing. But, after hundreds of shows supporting the Royal Blood album, breaking point was just coming into view.
“It was a quick rise,” Ben admits, “but when you’re living it every day it feels like a gradual thing that just happened for us a little bit quicker than it does for most. But we still played all of those small venues and toured in a minibus with just me, Mike and one other guy.
“We were on a roll. We had just done the Foo Fighters tour. We had been on tour for three years because we were touring before the album came out. We did ACL [Festival in 2015] and I saw a glint in Mike’s eye and I knew he was done. That was the end. At the end of the set he broke his bass in half, he slammed it down. It wasn’t a rock’n’roll thing, it was more a symbol of we were done with this album, let’s get onto the next one.“
We wanted to keep on going but we knew we couldn’t do any more on the 10 songs that we had,” the drummer continues. “We had grown so quickly and were playing big venues and people are expecting a longer set. We were like, ‘Well, we can’t. We only have 10 songs and we don’t even play one of those live!’ We went straight into the rehearsal space and we were on fire. Looking back, we could have and maybe should have taken some time just to calculate what had happened to us. We didn’t do that. We went straight in because we were buzzed.”
While they went straight into working up a new record, they also did something that many ‘new’ bands feeling the pressure for an album from fans and their label would not do - they took their time.
Rather than jumping into the studio and knocking out an identikit follow-up that would shift units rather than define a career, they took a full 12 months to work on a new album. You see, when we meet up with Ben, the best part of three years on from the release of their debut, there’s another storm brewing on the horizon, and this time it has nothing to do with the unseasonable Leicestershire weather.
Instead, at the time of our interview taking place, the band are about to release the follow-up to that stunning debut. That said, it seems that, as with many of the finer things in life, this didn’t come easy.
“We were touring our first album for two years,” Ben explains. “We tried to start writing a little bit on tour but we found it really difficult. It was obviously the first time we had ever tried to do that and we found that the two worlds of touring and recording were not really working well together. I think that was because we were putting all of our energy into the live performance so our creative energy was suffering. It wasn’t until we stopped and got into a studio and a writing space together that the ideas started to come again. It took its time. Mike would describe it as fishing. You cast your rod and you just have to wait for the ideas to come in.”
Thankfully, it wasn’t long before they caught a few bites. Written in Brighton, Nashville and Los Angeles before being recorded in Brussels and London, How Did We Get So Dark? saw the band join forces with producer Jolyon Thomas (whose previous studio credits include Daughter and SCUM). After those transatlantic writing sessions, the band headed to the renowned ICP Studios in Brussels for the bulk of the recording. It’s a venue that Ben describes as a “Willy Wonka factory of equipment”. Even so, it seems that the band’s extended winter stints in the Belgian city became a little much.
“We basically lived there from November until just before Christmas and then we went back for the whole of January. We hated Brussels by the end of it! Brussels is beautiful but with the language barrier and it being winter and cold and bleak, it was difficult for us to do anything other than be in the studio. That was also a good thing, though. We were able to focus in on what we needed to do, but there wasn’t any getaway. In the end we used that to our advantage.”
But, how do you go about writing the follow-up to one of the hottest records of the last decade? Well, when it comes to Royal Blood it seems that trust is at the centre of everything that they do.
“A lot of songs start from drums up. I send Mike a load of drum ideas and he will send a demo back with something he has played over it. But then a lot starts with Mike and maybe lyrics. The first album was a bit of a fluke. It was the first time we had ever written an album. It was the first time Mike had written lyrics and been a frontman. On this second record we were aware that people will hear it, we didn’t know that on the first record and we were just bouncing ideas off each other and making demos that turned into an album.
“With this record, we really focused on the songwriting. Mike had to put a little more time into it because he creates the melody and then I create the song with him. We have to just trust each other that what we are doing is good. If one of us is not really feeling it then it is a sign that we should move on to something else.”
Aside from infinitely higher outside expectations, there was one major difference for Thatcher this time in the studio. While the band’s Tom Dalgety-produced debut saw drums and cymbals tracked separately, this time live takes were the order of the day. Well, the order of many days, as it turns out.
“[Tracking drums] was frustrating for me that it took so long for what I did,” Ben says with a smile. “I was in and out of the studio within three takes. But then they would move a microphone slightly and get me to do it again. We were two or three songs short and went into RAK Studio with our old producer Tom Dalgety and he knows the DNA of the band. He was less precise with those things. He said to just set up the drums and the mics and do my take. My takes were done in a day with those last songs. I thought, ‘Why couldn’t I have done it all like this?!’ I had spent two months tracking drums and then I did the Hook, Line And Sinker and How Did We Get So Dark? drum tracks in a day. I just want to get it done, I want it to sound good but also in that moment and raw.”
It certainly sounds raw to our ears - Ben’s matching of his Gretsch USA Custom kit and Zildjian cymbals, in fact, sounds absolutely monstrous.
Jolyon had a big part to play in the drum tones,” Ben says. “We worked together on it. He is very tuneful, especially with the toms. He liked the toms to be in key whereas I wouldn’t care as much. I was more into the different snare drums and how I wanted them to sound. Mike’s good for that as well as while I’m playing in the studio he will be listening and then we’ll swap and he’ll play drums so I can hear how they sound.”
While earlier in the interview Ben alluded to a treasure trove of gear at every turn within ICP Studios, he opted to track the bulk of How Did We Get So Dark? with a very familiar kit.
“We just changed the snares up and cymbals. The actual kit was the same one that I use live - my Gretsch USA Custom. I’m using a 24" kick. It was between that and a 26" but before I was using a 22" so I thought I’d make my way up gradually. I’ve fallen in love with the 24". I change my snares quite a lot. At the moment I’m using a Morgan Davies snare. My drum tech makes those, he’s the guy that makes those drums. He swaps out my snare drums but he’s not biased, he will often put a Gretsch snare on the kit, but at the moment I’m using this 14"x8" Morgan Davies birch snare. I like quite big drums and cymbals. I like thuddy, tubby drums and the tone of dark cymbals. I like the cymbals to be a bit more authentic.”
A dark masterpiece
If Royal Blood was a confident, swaggering opening gambit, then How Did We Get So Dark? is a career-defining masterpiece.
On more than one occasion the record reminds this writer of Queens Of The Stone Age’s Songs For The Deaf. That comparison comes not least because the tom breakdown that hits two-thirds of the way into the record’s title track is a ‘No One Knows’ moment; a piece of playing that will have air drummers soiling themselves with excitement. Ben acknowledges that the space afforded to him by being in a drum-and-bass duo rather than, say, a five-piece means that he is able to stretch out and lay down such drum moments.
“If we were a four-piece there wouldn’t be room for those fills. There’s more freedom in this band. Referencing Rage Against The Machine, normally the guitar and bass might be playing the same riff together and when that locks in with the drums that is great. But what is really amazing is when Tom Morello goes off and plays a solo and that perks your ear. When Mike and I lock in it is really groovy and has a lot of feel to it. Then we can go off and do our separate things and that is when those moments stand out. You play to the song and luckily for me I can go for a big sound and do some nice bits that drummers might not normally be able to do. Mike and I are both show offs and we get to live that out on the album!”
Somewhat surprisingly for a self-confessed show-off, Thatcher names one of the record’s more caveman-like fills as his favourite. The ba-dum, ba-dum, ba-dum, ba-dum simplicity found on Lights Out doesn’t immediately grab you as technically impressive, but on second listen it stands out as a brilliantly bonkers and brave choice of fill. The drummer explains its origin.
“It is the silliest drum fill and it goes on that little bit too long, that makes people feel a little bit uncomfortable,” he laughs. “That was done in the studio. Mike asked me to do a fill into the next section and I did this really cool but quite complex, very drummy drum fill. It was one that you would have to have tabbed out. Mike said it was really cool but asked me to try the worst drum fill I could play. I thought I would do something really silly and I did it for ages and he was crying with laughter in the control room and I said, ‘That’s the one!’ The first time you hear that fill you just don’t know when it’s going to stop.”
And that is far from the lone example of simplicity triumphing over flair. While there’s more lightning-fast rolls than you can shake a pair of 5Bs at, sometimes - as Ronan Keating very nearly once said - it’s best when you do almost nothing at all. “I play to the song but sometimes we know that it might need spicing up and that is when I’ll come up with some fills and ideas. On this record as well we did the most simple, basic thing I have ever done on She’s Creeping. The verse of that song is so simple but very hip-hop, almost Bill Withers in the chorus.
“It’s about making every hit count. There is a hip-hop influence on my beats as well. I have that influence with the rock thing going on as well. It’s a little like what Rage Against The Machine did. Brad Wilk’s stuff is simple and if you break it down it is hip-hop and really groovy.”
Be it down-the-line groove or over-the-bar fills, you won’t struggle to pick up on Ben’s playing on How Did We Get So Dark? Right there we have another benefit of playing in a duo; with just drums and bass to contend with, the tubs can be right up in the mix.
“Yeah, they’re really loud!” Ben laughs when we question him on how high his drums are in the mix. “That is important. Drums and bass should always be really loud on any record. There’s nothing worse than the drums being quiet on an album. Drums are normally the loudest thing in the room.”
Joining the big boys
Given that between the Songs For The Deaf comparison that we have drawn and talk of supporting the Foos in 2015, Dave Grohl has become something of a recurring theme in this interview. As it turns out there’s a good reason for Grohl’s name cropping up…
“Dave Grohl is a huge influence on me,” Ben explains. “Taylor Hawkins as well, he was phenomenal when we toured with them. Grohl, Bonham, Jon Theodore, I want to be up there with those boys.”
Now we’re talking. And with his first Rhythm cover interview in the bag, we ask how it feels to be joining such illustrious company to grace the cover of the world’s finest drum mag.
“It’s great,” he says. “I just hope I can inspire people as much as those drummers have inspired me. I remember seeing Chad Smith on the front of Rhythm and thinking he was the man. Drumming is a small world but there is a big respect for one another.”
While we are sure that his first Rhythm cover will be pretty hard to beat, we ask Ben about some of the other highlights that he has enjoyed in the last few years. There’s the little matter of winning the Best British Group Award at the 2015 Brits, for starters.
“That was huge,” Ben admits. “We grew up watching the Brits and then being the odd people out there was great and then Jimmy Page gave us an award. On those things there’s your Taylor Swifts, your Katy Perrys; you see singers and celebrity. That is not Mike and I. Last night Mike was standing outside the front of the venue and people were asking him if he wanted a ticket. We’re not celebrities. You wouldn’t recognise us. To see drums and the bass being played at a show like that is a different thing. There is Ed Sheeran as well, he’s really good at being both because he’s creatively very good. But I don’t know anyone that wants to be Ed Sheeran. When I watched Queens Of The Stone Age I wanted to be Dave Grohl or Jon Theodore. Normally people want to be the lead singer or the guitarist but I wanted to be the drummer.”
Ah, another mention for Mr Grohl. It’s little surprise that Ben holds the Foos frontman in such high regard, as he goes on to tell us that supporting the biggest rock band on the planet acted as perfect preparation for the huge arena headline tour that Royal Blood are setting off on later this year.
“We cut our teeth with the Foo Fighters shows. We’ve done big festivals as well. We know what is coming. It will be special though being our own shows. But in terms of filling a stage, that isn’t something we worry about. We play as hard as always. We go on and play like it’s our last show.”
Thankfully, Ben confirms that just because Royal Blood are moving up to arenas, that doesn’t mean they’ll fill the extra space up there by sneaking a keyboard player onstage. Neither will they fill out the sound by stashing a guitarist behind the curtain.
But, the ambitious textures found on How Did We Get So Dark? do mean that he has had to delve into the world of hybrid drumming ahead of touring the record.
“There are some production things that we have to think about with the new album. It’s nothing too big. There’s no guitar on the album, it is just bass and drums. But there is a part where Mike starts a song on keys in Hole In Your Heart. He changes halfway through and we’ve had to rehearse that. There’s a lot of backing vocals and some harmonies on the record as well. We tried getting singers in to work with us live but it felt like we had lost a bit of our sound by doing that, it went a bit gospel. It was a bit too musical. We definitely didn’t want to use tracks. We don’t play to click either.
“Luckily the SPD-SX came into play. I’ve got the bar triggers as well and I have one on my side snare, one on my rack tom and one on a floor tom. I have a foot pedal as well. I have four triggers around, which I trigger off the backing vocals. If you see us live you will think we’re playing to track because you don’t notice me triggering with my foot. We don’t play to click so if we play a little too fast or too slow then it can go very wrong. That’s what we like, we like the risk. I’ve got my work cut out for me with all of this going on.”
This kick-started a process of plate-spinning that made Ben go back and unpick his own playing.
“I’ve had to learn to play drums again, basically,” he says. “It has been fun though. It was enjoyable picking apart what I had to do. Even during songs, because there are only four triggers, the song She’s Creeping, I have these claps and these pitch-bends that go up and sound like sirens. Halfway through the song I need to change them to backing vocals so you will see me playing and hitting the SPD-SX to change the triggers and I’m having to flick through it during the song.”
By the time you read this, album two may have only just been released, but this hybrid awakening already has Ben pondering percussive possibilities for the future.
“We totally can add percussion to songs in the future. When I write a drum part I want to hear things that I don’t normally do. I want to challenge myself with my playing. We’re not thinking too much about the next album but now we can do this and we’re thinking about what else we can do.”
Given what they have achieved in the last four years we wouldn’t be surprised if ‘what else they can do’ is something pretty special. As our time with Ben draws to a close we ask him to cast his mind back to some of those special moments that have littered the last four years for Royal Blood.
“The day that Lars Ulrich knocked on our dressing room door in San Francisco was a big moment for me. Meeting Tommy Lee was incredible as well. When I met him I clicked with him. He’s an infectious character, he’s a lot of fun and that is exactly how I am, well, hopefully! I’m not as destructive as Tommy Lee but it comes out in my playing. I get his energy. I love his craziness. Another moment was meeting Dave Grohl and Taylor Hawkins and then my biggest drumming moment was supporting the Foo Fighters in New York. I was playing and looked around and at the side of the stage was Dave Grohl, Taylor Hawkins and Chad Smith standing behind me. That was surreal. That was big.”