Up & Coming
Royal Blood’s percussive half avoids excess at all costs—and the payoff has been handsome indeed.
Who said the blues is dead? British power-rock duo Royal Blood has earned success on both sides of the Atlantic with its blues-drenched thunder grooves, with a bass-and-drums attack so mercilessly heavy that rock god Jimmy Page told the British magazine NME, “Absolutely riveting. They play with the spirit of the things that have preceded them, but you can hear they’re going to take rock into a new realm—if they’re not already doing that. It’s music of tremendous quality.”
Comprising bassist/singer Mike Kerr and twenty-seven-year-old drummer Ben Thatcher—that’s right, no guitar—Royal Blood performs with a deadly lead-footed interplay that draws on Led Zeppelin as often as Queens of the Stone Age. On the band’s self-titled debut album, head-bashers like opening track “Out of the Black,” bluesy monsters “Come on Over” and “Figure It Out,” the tom-thudding driver “You Can Be So Cruel,” and the skull-submersing “Ten Tonne Skeleton” reassert rock music as a potent force thankfully not resigned to the dustbin of history.
Thatcher cites John Bonham, Dave Grohl, Chad Smith, Chris Dave, John Blackwell, and Jon Theodore as influences. Drumming since age six, he’s largely self-taught, with long bouts of playing to the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Blood Sugar Sex Magik cementing his love for pummeling a beat into submission. Thatcher also studied the twenty-six rudiments and graduated from Chichester College in West Sussex, England, where he majored in music. “A diploma in music is about as useful as a book with no pages,” Thatcher laughs. “It doesn’t mean you will get a job in music, necessarily.” Still, it seems not to have hurt; at press time Royal Blood was in the top ten of Billboard’s albums chart and the duo was looking forward to Grohl recovering from a severe onstage fall in time for the duo’s scheduled opening spot on the Foo Fighters’ upcoming U.S. tour.
MD: On “Out of the Black,” you and Mike Kerr are in lockstep. It’s like one musician with five arms. The unison riffs are so tight. What’s essential to being rhythmically as one when performing as a duo?
Ben: Mike and I have been playing together for ten years now. We know what each other will play before we play it. Just through a lot of rehearsing you naturally become better at playing together.
MD: Your sound is huge, but you’re playing smaller-than-average drums. An 8×12 mounted tom is unusual for rock drumming. Conventional wisdom might dictate that bigger drums equals bigger sound.
Ben: For the album we recorded the drums first without any cymbals. That helped us achieve those big, fat rounded tones. We could turn the drums up in the mix without the cymbal spillage you would normally get when recording drums and cymbals together.
MD: Maybe that accounts for a couple songs that are very tom-driven and feature a thick, powerful groove.
Ben: Mike noticed that Dave Grohl had recorded his drums that way with Queens of the Stone Age. But you really have to know what you’ll be playing and rehearse your parts. When recording the cymbals, you have to play the exact same thing that you did in the drum takes. So I played the songs twice through, once hitting all the drums and having sponges in place of the cymbals, and then once with the cymbals but with cushions replacing the drums.
MD: That sounds like a maddening process.
Ben: It was a good experiment, and it gave us a great drum sound. When you’re playing the cymbals without the drums it’s really a strange sensation. It feels disjointed when you’re actually playing it, but when you hear it back in the control room everything comes to life.
MD: Your drum parts sound composed.
Ben: I am very OCD with drum parts. I look at them as if they’re guitar riffs with different parts—holding back at some points and taking the forefront at others.
MD: How does drumming in a two-man band differ from playing in a typical four-piece?
Ben: Though Mike and I have been together for ten years, Royal Blood is only two years old. Before then we were in a ten-piece wedding band playing indie covers like Foo Fighters as well as ABBA and Madonna songs. So when it came to writing for a two-piece, it was freeing. We only had each other to listen to. We could each do our thing and the other would follow.
MD: Are you playing more, or less, in a duo setting?
Ben: I think there’s room to play more, but I don’t. I have plenty of freedom, but I still play to the song. I didn’t want to have it as this huge drum album. Songwriting is the point, not a lot of drumming. There’s a lot more space to be creative, but we always play as a team. You’ve got to make the best sound you can. And we don’t discuss our parts or songwriting more—we just play. We know very quickly if something is not working.
MD: You play a larger-than-average ride cymbal, but the other cymbals are fairly standard dimensions.
Ben: I like bigger cymbals because they’re louder, but you need a little range. These cymbals work well in the music we play.
MD: In “Better Strangers” it sounds like you’re playing behind the beat. Is that conscious?
Ben: Definitely. I really like the drum sound there. And I wanted it to sound quite laid back and lazy.
MD: Can any drummer play in a duo and make it work?
Ben: Probably not. Some drummers rely on a bass groove, where I obviously don’t. Mike plays the bass more like a guitar. I can relate to it as a guitar or a bass.
MD: How has Royal Blood achieved success at a time when pop music and hip-hop rule radio?
Ben: We’ve found a space in time where we can bring something to the table that is quite refreshing to people, especially in the U.K. The radio here plays a lot of pop music, but we’ve come on the scene as well, which is an amazing opportunity for us to play rock music in more of a commercial sense.
MD: What’s your biggest challenge as a drummer?
Ben: I don’t find anything too challenging. I enjoy drumming and I like pushing myself to do different things. It’s all about enjoying the shows and seeing people go crazy when we perform these songs.
Drums: Gretsch Renown maple
A. 7×13 Ludwig Black Magic snare
B. 7×14 Morgan Davies Bespoke snare
C. 8×12 tom
D. 16×16 floor tom
E. 16×22 bass drum
1. 15″ hi-hats (A New Beat top and K Light bottom)
2. 19″ K Dark Thin crash
3. 23″ A Sweet ride
4. 20″ K crash/ride
Heads: Evans G2 Coated snare and tom batters, EC Resonant tom bottoms, and EMAD2 Clear bass drum batter
Percussion: LP Stealth Jam Block (not shown) and mounted black Cyclops tambourine with nickel jingles, Meinl Professional series hi-hat tambourine
Hardware: Gibraltar stands, DW 9000 series bass drum pedal and hi-hat stand
Sticks: Promark TX5BW