Gamechanger Audio artist
Royal Blood is an English rock duo formed in 2011 in Brighton, East Sussex, consisting of Mike Kerr (vocals, bass) and Ben Thatcher (drums). Kerr’s playing style is notable in that he uses several effects pedals that allow his bass to sound like a standard lead guitar.
Mike: The tour has just begun. So this will be our fourth show. We haven’t actually played live for over a year I think, so it’s really nice to come back and remember what it’s like to be on stage again. The past year we’ve been spending in the studio so it’s nice to kind of live it again, you know.
GCA: So, are you ready? Is everything set?
Mike: Yeah, it feels good, it feels really good, we’re playing a couple of new songs as well and they’ve been going down pretty well, so, yeah, we’re at a really good spot at the minute.
GCA: Thanks again for coming out and chatting with me. I wanted to start this interview by going back in time. I remember when me and my friends started a band 10 years ago and even before that our musical journey started with our dad’s record collection and lots of classical rock – Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Hendrix, CCR, Bob Dylan. Then digging even deeper and trying to find out what influenced those guys, we discovered blues, rock n roll, rockabilly and guys like Chuck Berry, Eddie Cochran, Elvis and so on. How did it start for you and what was your influences?
Mike: I was playing piano from the age of 6. I had to do lessons and I kind of didn’t enjoy that, but I remember rifling through the family CD collection and there was Elvis Greatest Hits CD. I have memories of just putting that on and just running around and kind of losing my mind and going crazy, and running all over the chairs and the sofa and just taking my clothes off. So, that’s my earliest memory of music really. Yeah, it’s just always been a part of my life. By the time I was 12 I ditched the piano lessons and I was learning The Beatles and Queen. And that’s all I’d do all day. At school I’d do that at lunchtime as well, I’d just learn Queen songs. And then, I guess, around 14 and 15 I was starting bands with friends, and a couple of years after that I met Ben and he was playing in lots of other bands, being such a good drummer so young. He was in every band, you know.
GCA: At what point did you understand that you want to make music, write songs etc.?
Mike: I think for me it was just something I was already doing, there was no thought process. I never enjoyed reading music very much and I guess I always got more drawn towards songs and things I could sing to, cause that’s what I liked listening to – pop songs and rock’n’roll songs and I think I probably started it without giving it much of a thought. It just seemed a natural thing to do to make music. I guess it must have come from a place of wanting to be part of what I was listening to – wanting to join the club, wanting to be part of that gang, you know. Identity.
GCA: Some people got dragged into making music by a band that they really like or the fact that it just looks cool to play the guitar.
Mike: Yeah, well… My mother is a guitar player and she was kind of always teaching me how to play my first chords and stuff. And then.. I don’t know.. I guess that’s part of the reason why it’s called playing an instrument because it’s playful and it’s fun, you know. I have most fun not copying someone else.
GCA: I know that in your first bands you started out as keys player and you had a quite a crazy setup for that. You’d put it through two bass amps and a lot of distortion/fuzz. What went through your mind musically back then? What did you want to express?
Mike: I first read about this idea using more than one amplifier, I think, through a Jeff Buckley show, and I must say that I’m a massive fan. I just read that somewhere, that he uses two amps – one for drive and one for clean. It just never crossed my mind that you’d do that. He obviously likes the “drive” on one amp and “clean” on the other. And I thought – oh yeah, that’s cool. But then I was like – yeah, but then how do you do that? And that’s when I discovered a switcher box. And then it wasn’t really the amps that I was interested in, it was the switcher box, cause now it was like a magic trick – you can make something happen over here and then you can make something happen over here. And then I learned more about the recording and I learned more about these techniques of recording bass – I think it’s called tic-tac bass recording, where you’d record on an 8-string bass, double it over. Then I found out that other bands, like, Muse, were using 2 amps as well – guitar amp and bass amp.
GCA: So was this the “magic trick” you wanted to implement in to your own sound?
Mike: So yeah, then in my first band, having read about that, I was playing bass synth and then I thought – wouldn’t it be funny if we started a song on an amp on a riff on a keyboard on a.. I think I just used a little Roland Cube – wouldn’t it be funny if we started a song on the smallest apm, on the quietest sound possible and when everyone kicks in I’ll hit my switch pedal and we’ll switch to 8 by 10 and we’ll all play the same riff at the same time. That’s where it kinda came in. I guess Royal Blood is a similar pan now. It was this idea of – we can start something small like this and not only does it go over there, but goes on the other side and behind you and we can sort of, like, smother you in sounds and amps, you know. It was all for just having different sounds using a switch like that. So, I think it’s evolution, really.
When was the first time you plugged in bass guitar and why do you think this instrument has stuck with you?
Mike: For me, I think, I didn’t know what I was doing on a bass guitar and that opened up a lot of creativity. I sometimes feel like you have beginners luck and there’s a naivety to not knowing where you are and being a bit lost. On keyboards, I kinda knew enough to hold that back, but when I got on bass I knew what a “G” was but I didn’t know where it was. So, suddenly I was following my ear instead of following what I do, so it was just so creative that every time I picked one up I couldn’t play very well but I would come up with weird melodies and weird riffs that I would have never thought of, you know. And I still try to do that now, I still, well, just make up a weird tuning and put it down and pick it up and try and make something because then I’m not.. yeah, then I’m lost again.
GCA: So in a way you put yourself in a situation where you make your instrument to lead the way to new ideas and new songs.
Mike: Yes, exactly!
MIKE ON PLASMA PEDAL
“As soon as I plugged it in I started writing some really big riffs for our new album straight away. It was really inspiring and it was behaving in a way that was unique."
GCA: Let’s talk about the instruments then. Some people are very specific about the gear they use, some people just don’t care that much. How important is the gear to you and how has that changed over the years – from the moment you started till where you are now?
Mike: It’s just been a great natural evolution for me. The initial sounds that I found and felt were mine, that I created, were very simple, and naturally, over time it has become more complex. The essence of it is very simple but I think for me – I don’t know a lot about gear really, I barely understand how the pickup works and I almost don’t want to know too much because, again, of that thing of feeling and being lost, feeling a bit naive about it, because… I Wanna do things wrong, I don’t want to do things right and I’d do everything by the book if I knew what was going on. You shouldn’t really put bass into a guitar amp, but that sounded better to me so I did it, you know.
GCA: Sure, why not!
Mike: So, I think with the gear I got to feel compelled that it sort of… it just really got to go by the sound and if it’s a pedal I kinda have to be sold straight away. There are so many pedals in the world now and it’s all getting cooler and cooler, and I feel like I’m getting to know less and less about more and more. So for me, it’s become very functional and things that work kinda stay there, and until something comes along that does the same job but better, it doesn’t really go any further than that. So I try not to change too much.
GCA: Everyone including myself probably would be interested to know how do you find the gear that will create your sound? Is there someone who helps you with that?
Mike: You know what, I usually think of the sound I want first and then go and find a pedal that does it. A lot of the time I’d use pitch shifters and, I was like, what if the whole rig could shift down and kinda go like …ewwwwww and then it’s like – ok, what does that then? It’s kinda like going to a restaurant and not looking at the menu and think “Ok, what do I want to eat..” and only then reading the menu. That’s kinda how I find gear. Otherwise it’s just endless amounts of time spent and then you can’t really differentiate what you’re listening to. But saying that, there have been times when someone is like – “You have to try this!” and if they’ve been compelled enough to show me then – ok, I’ll check that out!
GCA: Was that the case with PLASMA Pedal?
Mike: Yeah, my tech was always talking about it. He was like “It looks so cool!” [Smiles] and to be honest that’s a big part of it as well – it’s got to look cool, it’s got to sell itself. It feels like a piece of machinery and it feels functional rather than a gimmick, but I can only go so far because it really is the sound of it and what it does that entices me to keep hold of it and then use it in the studio and live now. So yeah, he brought one along to sound-check, and, for me, there has to be a creative thing with it as well. If I start writing riffs as soon as I plug it in, then I got to have it! I usually play to the style of the pedal, so the pedal, depending on how its behaving, would inform me how to play. So if it’s really messy I’d try to control that and if it’s really tight you can play tighter riffs or whatever. So as soon as I plugged it in I had the sound and I started writing some really big riffs for our new album straight away. It was really inspiring and it was behaving in a way that was unique.
GCA: Yeah, the look of it is not something you can find on your typical fuzz-box.
Mike: I like things like that. I like things that could be easy to fake, but they are actually real. They’re interesting to me. Because it would be easy to make that pedal and fake the lightning, but that makes it even better because when you find out that it is real, it’s cooler, you know. We have that with our band when people think we use a backing track and they think we play it to the metronome on a click. And I don’t have the time to go around telling people that we don’t. So I just let them find out and leave them with that thought if they want it.
GCA: Take it as a compliment.
GCA: You said you’re using the pedal on the tour now. What was the process of implementing the new sound into the older material?
Mike: Because of its nature using the voltage and ability to gate it, those other pedals, that I was using, have a similar process, but there was something about the way the sound kinda cuts off and exits. It has this crackle sound and fuzz – I don’t know, it just sounded cooler. So it could fulfill the role of other pedals and better – kinda what I was saying earlier – there has to be an improvement, it can’t just be the same. So that’s how it’s been implemented into older material and then it’s used on a new tune we’re playing at the moment. We’ll play it tonight actually. And that was an example really of the sound of the pedal performing riffs.
GCA: What’s the name of the song?
Mike: Boiler Maker – it’s a terrible terrible terrible cocktail, I don’t recommend drinking it! [Smiles]