From DRUM! Magazine’s September 2017 Issue | By John Payne | Photography By Neil Zlozower/Atlas Icons
Bass and drums duo Royal Blood made a huge splash with their eponymous 2014 debut album, which hit #1 in the UK charts and Top 20 in 12 countries, to date selling over a million copies and copping several awards, including a BRIT for Best British Band in 2015. With an amazingly full-spectrum blast that’s supremely melodic and very, very heavy at the same time, the band’s follow-up, How Did We Get So Dark?, now comes roaring out on Warner Bros. Records, again showcasing the tunefully thunderous sound of bassist-vocalist Mike Kerr and drummer Ben Thatcher.
Two Peas In A Pod
Straight out of Brighton, which is about 50 minutes south of London, Thatcher and Kerr first met and started playing together in school bands and wedding combos. “We met during college at a gig, started making music together pretty much straight away,” Thatcher says. “We were together in various bands, experimenting with different styles, and then created Royal Blood in about 2013. And it just took off from there.”
For his part, the self-taught, exclusively matched-grip Thatcher didn’t have much in the way of a musical clan (“Neither of my parents were into music”), though his brother-in-law was a drummer and Thatcher used to watch him play. “I’ve played drums most of my life,” he says. “Other instruments I didn’t really care for too much. Drums was always the thing I played and the only thing I really wanted to do. I started around six months old, getting the pots and pans out and crawling ’round, banging.”
He got his first real drum kit (’80s Ludwig) from a family friend when he was six years old. Later, playing with a series of local bands led up to his and Kerr’s steady employment in wedding bands in the Brighton area. “He used to play keys and I used to drum,” he says. “We cut our teeth on that stuff, but it wasn’t what we wanted to do.”
Thatcher and Kerr’s decision to try the duo format came about for reasons both artistic and practical. “We had been in many bands with many different people, and when it came to writing original material with Mike, we realized that Mike had this massive bass sound, and our energy together just complemented each other. So we said, ‘You know what? We don’t actually need anything else right now. This is way more interesting and more fun if we just do it together.’ So we decided that that is what we were going to do.”
Somewhat augmented with Mike’s array of effects on his bass and Ben’s small collection of triggers/samplers — though basically arising from the explosive dynamic the pair generate when up close to each other — the duo’s sound can take the casual listener quite aback. It’s almost strangely fully fleshy-bodied. Their pairing was the first time either of them had tried a duo format, and they hit a bloody goldmine.
“It was the first time we ever did that,” says Thatcher. “But then, Royal Blood was the first band we decided to do for fun, really. We had been in so many other bands, trying to make it, and then we kind of gave up on doing that and decided to just do what we wanted to do, and that was when it all kind of happened for us.”
A New Musical Democracy
The band’s decision to forego all instruments but two invariably presented some big advantages, plus a few minor drawbacks. For one thing, with a duo there’s a lot less personal and musical politics involved.
“It has its ups and it has its downs, but the disadvantages are actually our advantages as well,” says Thatcher. “Obviously, band practice was easier, because it was only getting the two of us together. But other things, like trying to write music, wasn’t as simple. You know, we have less elements to use, but then that pushed us with our creativity: Well, we haven’t got a guitar, so we’re not going to do a guitar solo here. What are we going to do, then?
“We obviously only have two sets of hands and we can only do so much, though of course when it comes to recording you can do a lot of overdubbing and really go to town there that way. But our whole thing is playing live — that’s what we want to do primarily, and we want to project all our sounds playing live. So when it gets to the studio, there’s bits we need to think about: How we going to do that live? What’s a way around that?”
As evidenced by the sheer hugeness of their live sound and the glorious How Did We Get So Dark?, what these two guys manage to pull off with merely a bass and drums must have required the acquisition of playing skills above and beyond those needed in a larger band. “We both have room for each other, we don’t have to complement anyone else, and with that freedom we can go into spontaneous riffs live and just work off each other instead of trying to work off four other people or whatever. Things like that are really good dynamically for us.”
Unsurprisingly, as many of their live sets are built on what technically could be called spontaneous composition, Royal Blood conceives much of their new material onstage. “Oh yeah, every show has something different that pops up,” says Thatcher. “The last ten minutes usually is anything kinda goes, and every single time it’s different. There’ll be like little licks that we do to throw each other off, then we just play around with each other a bit. It’s a lot of fun throwing things at each other that we can both try and carve into a song. The things that are really good that we do improvisationally are the things that we can then do again — ‘That was really cool when you did that, let’s do that again tonight’ — and then it becomes more of a fixed thing.”
Whether they’re playing live or in the studio, the duo’s limited instrumentation allows them to play a bit more busily than they might in a larger group, though they’ve learned to be judicious about all that. “There’re definitely parts where I can do whatever I want and play quite busy,” Thatcher says, “but there are also parts where I really like to play the most minimalistic thing I can think of, because sometimes that brings so much room and power to the songs.”
With Kerr doing the lyric writing and both guys composing the music together, Royal Blood’s approach to songwriting is nearly as elastic as their live performances. Inspiration can come from literally any direction.
“All of our songs come from very different places,” says Thatcher. “For example, we’ve tried starting tracks from drums up, then sometimes it’s the lyric that might start something off. But how they all come together is with Mike and I together in a room — we notice if we both like what we’re hearing, and we’re both laughing or it’s putting a smile on our faces.”
Thatcher’s super-badass, heavy-duty thwack derives from inspired encounters with a wide array of drummers modern and fabled. “The first drummer I really loved was Dave Grohl,” he says. “When I heard Nirvana, just the way he played, it was hard as nails. It was rock, you know? It was a big, big, thumping, out-there sound.” Eventually people like Jon Theodore, Chad Smith, and Taylor Hawkins made huge impacts on Thatcher, along with Darren King of Mutemath, whom he calls “an absolutely phenomenal drummer.” Yet towering above these giants was John Bonham, Thatcher’s favorite drummer of all time.
“Bonham had the feel of both a rock and a jazz drummer,” he says. “He could do the technical stuff, but then he’d come up with these, like, triplet fills that just filled the whole room — it was so big. And hearing him, I think it was the first time that, recordingwise, I really loved a drum sound. Early on, Bonham came up with this massive backbeat, and it was something I could feel more than anything.”
The very essence of Bonham’s sound resides in Thatcher’s own caveman-clubbing rhythmic architecture. It owes a lot to his favored super-flat-toned drumhead tuning, which he finds is accommodated well within the duo’s relatively airy double-dude orchestration. “I’ll use different drums depending on the band, as well,” he says. “For Royal Blood I use quite big drums, which really suit the music, and they’re tuned quite dead. I use Moongels on them to make them really thumpy and thuddy, a really tubby kind of sound, so they’re all quite low in tuning. For Royal Blood, it’s the big drums, big cymbals, big sound.”
On the road and in the studio, Thatcher’s big-sound kit of choice currently is a USA Custom Gretsch kit. “I used that kit on the recording of the new album, and it just sounds fat and brilliant. Actually, we were in a studio with so many drum kits and so many snare drums to use; I tried a Ludwig Vistalite kit and various other smaller drums, but for the Royal Blood sound that Gretsch USA Custom was just perfect.”
The bulk of How Did We Get So Dark? was recorded at a studio in Brussels with producer Jolyon Thomas, with some tracking done in Brighton, Los Angeles, and Nashville, and a couple of tracks laid down in London with the band’s previous producer, Tom Dalgety, who had produced their eponymous first full-length album in 2014. Dalgety knew the sound Thatcher favored quite well, and did the mixing for the entire new album.
“On this new record,” says Thatcher, “the drum sound is a lot more live and authentic. It took just one or two takes for me to get the parts down — which doesn’t mean we worked fast, exactly. Actually, it was quite a long process, just sorting out the mikes for the drum sound, setting the kit up in different places in the room, putting different mikes on; that was the grueling bit. But I let the engineer and producer deal with that, and for the London sessions, Tom Dalgety knew exactly what to do.”
In Brussels, the sessions were recorded with Kerr and Thatcher playing together, albeit in separate, glassed-off rooms “because we wanted to get a really clean drum sound, with absolutely no spill from his bass. But we could see each other, and that was important.”
Thatcher’s boomtastic drum presence on the album must tip a hat to the exacting microphone placement in the recording studio. Eschewing ambient miking for the most part, the team favored a wide selection of mikes jammed up close and personal on the drums. “We used a few of the room mikes on some of the songs,” he says, “but to be honest with you, what I wanted, to get my true sound, was with the closer mikes. And I found that close mikes, when you crank them up and get a real good tone on a drum, well, it’s as simple as that. Even so, we basically put on way too many mikes for what we wanted, so we could pick and choose the sounds in the mix.”
For just a couple of fellas slinging bass and wacking tubs, the Royal Blood sound is freakishly expansive. That fully zoomed-out sound is easily achieved in the studio with post-production effects and mixing. For their live sets, however, the pair has had to figure out how to re-create that colossal studio sound in real time. Kerr’s solution has been to augment his bass with an array of digital effects to fill out the harmonic field, while Thatcher fattens the band’s sound by triggering samples from behind his rig.
“When we come to play it live now, there are elements that Mike can’t do on his own,” he says. “We’re very strong with what we do live, and we don’t want to have any rules about what we do. So, live, we don’t play to prerecorded tracks — and on the records, too, you can hear there’s a lot of vocal backing parts. I can’t personally do a five-part harmony, so how do we do this? So I have four triggers: one’s on my auxiliary snare drum, one is on my rack tom, and one’s on my floor tom, and then I have a foot pedal next to my hi-hat stand, which does the stuff that I can’t physically do with my hands.”
Their fully, authentically rocking live-band sound might be explained by the fact that Royal Blood refuses to play to a click; thus, the precision of their aural attack is all the more impressive, and, coupled with Thatcher’s intricate triggering, is a bigger hassle than Thatcher and Kerr have been credited with.
“Not playing with a click, it’s a bit of a task, really,” he says with a laugh. “If you’re playing slowly or too fast, then you’re going to absolutely mess up, but without that click, when you’re playing live to a lot of people, it’s like you get that adrenaline rushing so you’ve really got to zone in on what you’re doing. And audiences watching me play don’t really notice what my feet are doing a lot of the time, so when you hear those vocal harmonies coming in you’re like, what’s going on here? Well, it’s quite clever little tricks, is what it is.”
Triggering Made Not So EZ
Mastering emerging technology is pretty much a required skill for today’s professional rock drummers. Thatcher feels that by embracing high-tech, he has also significantly expanded his playing skills. “I’ve really had to learn to play drums in a different way again — which has been a lot of fun.” Meanwhile, his playing continues to evolve. When he feels he’s getting into a rut, he turns to a number of remedies to pull himself out of it.
“I really try and force myself to learn new things and play things differently, for one by using different techniques to do things, such as mastering the acrobatics of playing and hitting triggers simultaneously. And I like to put myself in a different musical headspace genre-wise: The music Royal Blood is playing is rock music, but there are definitely some hip-hop groove elements in it, and it is really fun to play both genres almost together — which is kind of like Bonham with the swinging thing. And my music taste is very schizophrenic. I’ve been listening to some rock bands, yeah, but I’m into hip-hop and R&B, and I’m into old Nancy Sinatra, Jeff Buckley, a lot of different stuff. I get inspiration from all angles.”
As Royal Blood’s tour schedule has been jam-packed since day one, and doesn’t look to let up for at least another year, Thatcher doesn’t have a practice regimen as such, and doesn’t feel he needs one. “I’m just focusing on the shows and putting all my energies into doing that,” he says. “I’ll play a little bit in sound check, but I want to have enough energy to hit the drums hard and really put on a good performance for the shows. And I don’t have a warmup routine; I just do a few stretching bits before I go on. I should mention that my thumb at the moment has got three blisters on it. But the more you play, the more your hands toughen up, and the more you get used to it. But in the initial stages, yeah, you suffer sometimes.”
One thing this affable, easygoing drummer does not suffer gladly, however, is a mediocre stage sound, for himself or his audiences. For accuracy in his stage mix (and to extend the life of his hearing into a ripe old age), he wears in-ear monitors and uses an electronic low-frequency thumper in his drum throne, which aids his overall balance and timekeeping by direct-injecting sub-bass tones. “Then I have my in-ears for everything else. What’s really good with in-ears is that you hear everything very clearly. It’s quite reliable — the sound is the same every show, wherever you play.”
On tour, with the help of the band’s ace monitor engineer, Thatcher relies on a finely tuned sound mix to keep him on track. “It’s quite a neutral mix, very balanced, with the drums a little bit higher in the mix,” he says. “And I like it all panned correctly, so it’s just how I’d hear it if I was in the crowd. I don’t actually like hearing the overheads, so I normally have them off. The vocal mikes normally pick up a lot of the high end anyway, and I hit the cymbals very, very hard, so I can hear that frequency quite easily.”
A Royal Feast
If we haven’t yet made it clear enough, let us officially state that Ben Thatcher is having the time of his life, and that’s something you’ll see when you witness his joyful pummeling at a Royal Blood show, coming soon to a town near you.
“It’s been a great experience, and a privilege,” says Thatcher, “and something I don’t take for granted. When this band is performing, it’s a well-oiled machine, and we and our crew have such a good time with each other. We love playing music to any number of people, from small clubs to huge arenas, and we love having people enjoy it with us and party with us.”
Mike Kerr: The Other Half Of The Story
By Bob Doerschuk
Mike Kerr and Ben Thatcher gigged together long before either thought about forming Royal Blood. Their bass-and-drum dynamic lay in the future. Initially, in someone else’s band, Thatcher was the guitarist and Kerr performed on keyboards.
”Then, one day their bassist was unavailable, so they asked me if I could play bass,” Kerr recalls. “At the time, I couldn’t. I mean, I really couldn’t! But of course, I said yeah. That show is a bit of a blur for me now, but I do remember falling off the stage and landing on the back of the bass, snapping its neck. I also remember feeling that night like I’d found my true instrument.”
A while after that, Kerr left to spend some time in Australia. When he returned, Thatcher met him at the airport. As they drove back to town they talked about starting a band. “It was never our intention to be just a two-piece,” Kerr says. “But as we started rehearsing some songs I’d written, we found out quite quickly that we didn’t need anybody else. We could do better without the outside stresses of having other members. Besides, I have a ton of pedals and effects, so with a lot of experimentation I stumbled across this sound that’s so full on its own that we didn’t need a guitarist. It was like a shining-light moment when we realized that, okay, this could work.”
Of course, this decision required some compromise. At the same time, it challenged them to rewire the connections that drummers and bass players traditionally make. For Royal Blood, that meant balancing raw power and musical intricacy. As a result, while allowing themselves some room to stretch out onstage, they spend much of their shows playing parts verbatim. And for Kerr, this means listening differently.
“I kind of slip in and out of paying attention to what Ben is doing,” he says. “Mainly I focus on what I have to do because the parts are so defined and I have a lot of work to do with the pedals. But because Ben is always on the mark, that’s a real weight off my mind. The most important thing for us both is to just have fun, and with Ben there’s never a dull moment. I’m incredibly lucky to be in a band and tour the world with my best friend.”
Tom Dalgety: It’s In The Mix
By Joe Bosso
British producer Tom Dalgety worked with Ben Thatcher on some of the drummer’s pre–Royal Blood bands, and right from the start he realized that he was dealing with a world-class sticksman. “Ben was always annoyingly good,” Dalgety says with a laugh. “He’d give me a proper performance even when I was just getting mike sounds. It’s one of the things that appealed to me about producing Royal Blood. When I heard Ben was involved, I said, ‘Count me in.’”
Dalgety produced Royal Blood’s self-titled debut album, and he returned to work with the guys on a couple of new songs after they recorded the bulk of their follow-up, How Did We Get So Dark? with Jolyon Thomas. With an eye toward expanding Thatcher’s drum sound without changing it completely, Dalgety added subtle splashes of electronic percussion, along with utilizing some drum loops that Ben programmed on Logic. The song “She’s Creeping” features finger-snap samples triggered from the snare, and the kick is dispatching a big Roland TR-808 bass drum sample. “That made for more of a hip-hop sound from an acoustic kit,” Dalgety notes. “Overall, we tried to inject a bit of a synthetic approach while maintaining the sound of a real drum set.”
Tracking sessions took place at London’s RAK Studios, where Dalgety and the band recorded several songs for the debut album. While Thatcher laid down his drum parts in the spacious live room, bassist-vocalist Mike Kerr thundered along in the control room. “They always had a clear line of sight between them for tracking,” Dalgety says, “although the truth is, those two guys could play well together a mile apart.”
In the past, a good portion of Thatcher’s cymbals and select drum fills were punched in, but this time the emphasis was on all-live takes played straight through. “Ben did a lot of great work in preproduction,” Dalgety observes. “He had all of his parts written out, and he just blazed. There wasn’t any need to rethink what he was doing.”
Dalgety’s bass drum microphone setup consisted of a Neumann U47 FET just outside the front head and an Audix D6 placed halfway inside the shell. His top snare mike was an Audix i5 and underneath he ran a Beyerdynamic M 201 TG. For toms, he used Audix D2s, and overhead he positioned a pair of Neumann KM84s in the “Glyn Johns formation” (one microphone pointed down toward the snare, the other pointed down toward Thatcher’s right shoulder). “You can really make a lot of the kit’s width with this setup,” Dalgety says. “The snare is in the middle of the stereo image.” Two more KM84s were utilized, one as a hi-hat spot and the other close-miking the ride.
Capping things off were a pair of Coles 4038 ribbon mikes for the room, placed “not too close, but not too far,” Dalgety says. “I try not to get full-on Zeppelin with them. Some guys take room miking to the extreme, but I try to go for a more accurate depiction of what I’m hearing. And with Ben behind the kit, it always sounds great.”
For more on Thatcher, check out the Groove Analysis for “How Did We Get So Dark” and “Lights Out”: