Royal Blood rewrite the rules of rock
Brighton's Royal Blood are about to release one of the most anticipated rock albums of the year. The two-piece, who play an unusual combination of bass and drums, tell the BBC about their meteoric rise, playing in wedding bands, and why they replaced their cymbals with sponges.
A little over a year ago, Royal Blood were on the hunt for a record contract.
Sharing management with the Arctic Monkeys guaranteed the duo a few open doors, but they were still forced to audition to secure their future.
"We were so nervous about it," recalls singer and bassist Mike Kerr.
"When you're playing in a room full of rich people, the atmosphere is so different from a normal gig. A part of you dies a little bit."
But the soul-destroying showcases paid off. Royal Blood were snapped up by Warner Bros and released their first single - the pulverizing, riff-heavy Out Of The Black - in September 2013.
Their subsequent rise has been so fast it's a surprise that Kerr (bass, vocals) and Ben Thatcher (drums) don't have whiplash.
They featured on the BBC's Sound of 2014 list, topped the US rock chart, headlined the NME Awards Tour, played Finsbury Park with the Arctic Monkeys and drew huge crowds to their mid-afternoon set at Glastonbury's John Peel stage.
"We didn't actually know how many were outside because the tent cut off our view - but I couldn't see any grass," says Kerr. "I could just see people. It was ridiculous."
The audience, which approached 12,000 people, spilled outside the tent into the campsite and beyond - a feat made all the more impressive because Royal Blood had only released three songs at the time.
"That crowd felt like they'd either heard a rumour, or a bit of a song on the radio, that made them wander into the tent," Kerr says. "To have that was great. It felt like we had the right amount of respect to earn.
"It's different when someone knows every song - it's almost a bit easy. You could go out and play half-arsed and they'd still enjoy it.
"But for a festival like that, there's so many bands to go and watch, I wanted to make sure whoever came to that show walked away going 'that was the best thing I saw.'"
This weekend, Royal Blood will play what could be their last concerts for the uninitiated. Hours after they leave the NME/Radio 1 stage at the Leeds festival, their self-titled debut album will hit the shelves.
So, will Kerr miss that feeling of having something to prove?
"We're almost looking forward to people knowing the other songs in the set," he says. "Already, the atmosphere changes when we play Out Of The Black. It feels like you're pulling out a hand grenade and everyone knows when it's going to go off.
"There are other songs on the album which, when people get to know them, are going to be great to play live. There's a song called Ten Ton Skeleton which, to me, would be enhanced by people singing along to it.
"It requires some participation, a bit like a We Will Rock You."
The reference to Queen might come as a surprise, given that the band are more often compared to Led Zeppelin and Queens of the Stone Age - but Kerr shares a melodic instinct with Freddie Mercury, which gives Royal Blood's stadium-shaking rock a radio-friendly feel.
Kerr says the monster choruses were not only deliberate, but a necessity.
"With so few [musical] elements, the vocals have to be strong on their own.
"A lot of the time I'm just playing one note at a time - I'm not even playing chords - so there's a bit of a picture to paint between the bass and the vocal.
"The philosophy behind this band was 'can a riff be a chorus?' Can you make verses, choruses and bridges - classic, standard songwriting - out of riffs, without it being disgusting?"
The answer is a resounding, loudspeaker-busting yes, with Royal Blood already anointed the "saviours of rock and roll" by several music publications.
It's a vindication for the duo, who only officially got together in 2013 after years of playing in wedding bands and lacklustre side projects.
"I'd been trying to start Royal Blood for a very long time but I didn't know who was supposed to be in it, or even what I was supposed to be doing," says Kerr.
"But when I ended up in that room with Ben… The only way I can describe it is that it was really funny. We were literally laughing at how exciting it was.
"And what really made me excited was watching Ben, having been in wedding bands for so long, coming out of his comfort zone and doing all these mental drum fills and pushing his abilities to the max.
"We felt like we were doing that to each other - this childish egging each other on. The whole chemistry was just fun."
Indeed, they were having so much fun they played their first gig a day after forming the band.
"The songs weren't even written!" Kerr laughs. "We played [new single] Figure It Out, and I didn't even have any lyrics, I was just making it up on the spot."
The building blocks of the band's bombastic sound are shrouded in secrecy. Creating a wall of noise with just two instruments requires a complex system of effects pedals, amps and a guitar that, on occasion, is fitted with both bass strings and regular guitar strings.
In the studio, the band "tried to pull all the tricks out of the bag" to replicate their live sound - a notoriously difficult feat to achieve.
"We would spend an unusual amount of time recording the drums, just to make sure every detail was as Titanic as possible," Kerr says.
"We'd have Ben actually hitting sponges on stands instead of cymbals, then he'd go back and record the cymbals separately - which means you can have the other drums crazy loud."
The result is a blistering debut - albeit one whose heavy metal armour hides a badly broken heart (most of Kerr's lyrics derive from a recent relationship that went from "magical and comforting" to "a very cruel and hard thing" in the space of 18 months).
Interestingly, the majority of the songs clock in at three minutes or less - making for an unusually taut, focused record.
"Everything we've ever done has been very lean," says Kerr, "but, to me, every song is exactly as long as it should be.
"For us to look back at the album and say 'we've got way too many songs that are three minutes' and cut them short or make them longer… Anything contrived like that, I'm nervous of.
"I guess every song has its own personality - and maybe these songs are such intense characters that they'd become too sickly if they were longer. You want a slice of nice gateau instead of scoffing the whole cake."
Royal Blood's self-titled debut album is released on 25 August. They play the Reading and Leeds festivals this weekend.