Wednesday’s BRIT Awards will be a night of glittery pizzazz, red carpet glamour and superstar admiration – unless you happen to be in Royal Blood. The three-times nominated, none more minimal rock duo will be performing on the night alongside Madonna, Taylor Swift, Take That and Sam Smith, but don’t expect them to incorporate a confetti explosion, never mind a celebrity duet.
“We’ll just get up and do our thing and let the cameramen and presenters do their thing,” says drummer Ben Thatcher from beneath his glued-on baseball cap. “We don’t do this to get awards. We don’t do it so we can eat fancy meals. We do this because we love playing music and we’re fortunate enough to get recognised and thrown into this strange world of celebrity and televison. When we started a band we never even thought about doing anything like that.”
Don’t get him started on the medleys that the BRITs occasionally present, as when Lorde appeared with Disclosure, and Bastille mixed their hit with Rudimental’s, last year. “What’s the point? It’s either gonna be bad, or all right, but it’s never gonna be good. We just want to do our own thing.”
Coupled with singer and bassist Mike Kerr, 24 (that’s right, no guitar), the pair from Worthing and its environs are now reaping the rewards of a monster 2014 and sound understandably cocky about it. A self-titled debut album went straight to number one last summer and has since gone gold. It was the fastest-selling debut rock album in the UK for three years – since Noel Gallagher, who wasn’t strictly a debut artist. A Mercury Prize nomination followed in the autumn, so they have experience of big awards ceremonies. “It was good. A free dinner, got to have a chat with Damon Albarn which was awesome. It was as exciting as playing to loads of wigs in suits could ever be,” says Kerr with a well-timed sneer.
In a Marble Arch hotel bar, soon to depart for a BRITs warm-up gig at Camden’s Koko, he’s slow to warm up in conversation and quick to cool back down to yawning mode too. With his leather jacket and sculpted hair, he has the air of a man who would like to be wearing sunglasses indoors if he thought he could get away with it. Thatcher is chirpier, clearly having a ball infiltrating the world of mainstream success. He’s a married man of 27 who’s had to accept that he’s now in a long distance relationship. Kerr officially lives with his parents in Worthing but is never there. Royal Blood have been insanely busy, in demand all over the world, especially in the US where they’ve landed a prestigious support slot with Foo Fighters in the summer.
As practice for their BRITs appearance, they also performed at the MTV Europe Music Awards in Glasgow in November. “It was quite funny turning up, playing in front of teenagers that just watch this manufactured plastic pop on TV,” says the singer. “For us to be in front of that kind of audience was interesting. People in that kind of world aren’t necessarily exposed to real, raw rock.”
It’s a bit of a cliche to claim that guitar music is more “real” than other kinds, especially when newer, supposedly authentic musicians such as Jake Bugg and George Ezra have made no secret of their work with older songwriters, and numerous rock bands complete their line-ups through adverts, record company matchmaking and audition processes – not the X Factor, sure, but manufactured in their own way. Kerr and Thatcher were teenage friends who have performed together in several band incarnations around the south coast before deciding to strip things down to bare bones. “For us, anyway, it’s very real, as real as it can get. There’s not a lot going on, it’s all live, things can break and that could be the end of the show. So it feels very real,” says Kerr.
There are echoes in their big talk of Alex Turner’s hand-on-hip, microphone-dropping speech when Arctic Monkeys won the Best Album award at the BRITs last year: “That rock ‘n’ roll – it seems like it’s fading away sometimes but it will never die.” Royal Blood are up against Sam Smith, George Ezra, Ed Sheeran and Alt-J in that category next week and are also nominated for British Breakthrough Act and British Group (against One Direction, which they must be having a right old laugh about).
Arctic Monkeys are a key element in their back story. Royal Blood supported the Sheffield band at major shows last summer, and the summer before that, Monkeys drummer Matt Helders wore a Royal Blood T-shirt on stage when they headlined at Glastonbury. The two bands share management, but Kerr is at pains to play down the effect of their early support. “It’s a misconception. It’s been looked on in hindsight,” he says. “After that moment, we still only had 200 friends on Facebook. It was another five months before we put out any music to the public. One guy in New Zealand sent us a message saying: ‘I saw Helders wearing your T-shirt and checked you out.’ So we literally gained one fan from it.”
Their music has more often been met with American comparisons. As there are two of them and they’re heavy and bluesy, naturally The White Stripes and The Black Keys get mentioned a lot. Royal Blood’s music moves more narrowly within the limited parameters than those bands. It’s not really about doing a surprising amount with barely any equipment, more about dropping a musical boulder on your head. There’s a primal appeal to their sound, and they won’t be adding string quartets and gospel choirs when they finally finish touring and start to think about a second album. “We’re more interested in progressing as songwriters. The quality of the song doesn’t have to be any less because there’s less people.”
Kerr choosing to play the bass, which he runs through an octave pedal (famously used by Jimi Hendrix) to make it sound bigger, seems to have been a deliberate attempt to avoid unwelcome comparisons. He has tried the guitar. “I’ve tried it, but it’s been done before. I just thought, that sounds like this person.”
And now they’ve found their sound, they won’t be changing it, not even for the BRITs. “There’s much to explore without adding any weirdness yet.” Madonna, forget that duet – rock’s most uncompromising award nominees are ready to make their acceptance speech.
March 13, O2 Academy Brixton, SW9 (0844 477 2000, o2academybrixton.co.uk)
BRIT Awards, Feb 25, O2 Arena, SE10. 8pm, ITV1