Royal Blood and the Hipster-Industrial Complex
How did a band so boring get so fucking big?
Everyone's cool nowadays. Gone is the age when most pop stars seemed like they'd just been yanked off stage at a Pontins talent night, in their pedal pushers and ill-fitting belly tops, with their unreconstructed Lancashire accents and tabloid sex busts forever hindering the chances of that big American break. The likes of Kerry Katona, an ex-lapdancer from Warrington who quit music at the height of her fame and married her mother's coke-dealer, are no longer to be seen. They've been replaced by the likes of Rita Ora, the terrifyingly ambitious ex-child actress who's already worked with everyone from Karl Lagerfeld, to Drake, to The-Dream.
Bieber might have gone a bit weird recently, but can you imagine him falling out of a Range Rover on the M1? Similarly, no member of One Direction is going to do a Paul Cattermole any time soon and basically drop out of life to start a band with a "Limp Bizkit vibe". Pop stars simply don't fuck up any more; music has become slicker, better controlled, more conscious of fashions, and as much concerned with brand collaborations as big hooks. Pop stars today are so heavily managed and considered that Britney Spears, the original petri-dish pop star, now looks like Scott Walker in comparison.
The music itself has become more transient, harder to pin down, more obsessed with emulating underground culture than ever before. The stars of tomorrow – your BANKS, your Twigs, your Iggys, Charlies and Sams – hang out at the front row of London Fashion Week, work with producers who are as at home on Rinse as they are on Radio 1 and namecheck Young Thug. No one's making number ones with Lulu or fucking about on a Routemaster with Meat Loaf these days. Avant-garde producers can sell aftershave now. Music and fashion have become more or less interchangeable, and this stylised, androgynous, post-racial, post-modern culture trickles down faster than ever before, with the help of trend forecasters, fashion bloggers and increasingly "on point" advertisers.
But in the midst of this, there have been a few strange anomalies; spanners in the works of the hipster-industrial complex. Bands (usually bands, but a few solo artists too) who almost seem to want to appear as uncool as possible. Uncool not in a Jarvis Cocker, Stuart Murdoch, Jobcentre advisor-chic kind of way, but uncool in a "volunteer paintball marshal" kind of way. Acts whose idea of anti-fashion is more Scrapheap Challenge than Seditionaries.
Royal Blood playing "Little Monster" at Reading this year to thousands of people who love them
The latest and perhaps most extreme example of this cultural-ludditism comes in the form of Royal Blood, a two-piece band from Worthing, who have become nothing short of a phenomenon in recent months. They sold an astonishing 66,000 albums in the first week and packed out their assigned tent at Reading like it was Kid Rock at Woodstock '99. They were handpicked to support the Arctic Monkeys on tour. Their own sold out in two minutes.
But not only are Royal Blood quite underwhelming as a musical force, they're also astonishingly, impressively off-trend. Having heard about the fervour surrounding them before I heard any of their music, I assumed it'd be something hard, nasty; something that had perhaps taken on the broken beats of grime, the clownish bombast of late-era dubstep or the pounding 4/4 of techno: something a bit "street". A hipper, wordlier interpretation of Rock Sound metal. Perhaps they had famous dads or modelling contracts, as a few of these bands seem to.
But in actuality, they're nothing like that whatsoever. What they did remind me of is one of those half-hearted A-level rock bands you'd walk past belting out "No One Knows" from the music room at college; out of tune, out of time, desperate to be from anywhere other than the home counties, yet so utterly defined by their suburbanism. The music was full of horrible, naff guitar licks, cymbal crashes and a mega-phone vocal; they rocked black T-shirts and pube-beards. Like those bands, Royal Blood sound more like The Subways than the UK Subs, more like The Datsuns than Darkthrone, they have everything in common with a thousand terrible Kerrang! TV also-rans. To me, Royal Blood sound very little like the saviours of rock they're proclaimed as being. To me, they sound like Wolfmother.
But critics and the public seem to love the album, and I suppose I can see that maybe there is something visceral and enticing about the production, their clattering drums and six-string bass format. But in essence, bands like this are 10-a-penny; you'll find them in every youth club in the country. I think I was in a few of them in my formative years – at some point, everyone was. The songs, which fall readily into cliche, don't seem to justify the sales, let alone the hype.
What Royal Blood fans actually look like close up
I got to wondering how a band like Royal Blood had inexplicably found themselves in this position. After ploughing through just about every interview they've ever done, and plenty of live footage, I started to think that Royal Blood are less a band and more a personification of a backlash. A backlash against the transient world that the rest of modern pop seems to sit in.
You've only got to watch this NME interview, in which one of them unashamedly declares what they make to be "real music", to see that the band themselves and their PR team are positioning themselves as an antidote. If they sounded like Swans, or Death In June, or Burzum, you could argue that they were trying to distance themselves from a guitar music culture that has grown increasingly staid. But they don't. They sound, in fact, just like an increasingly staid guitar music culture. They sound, as a friend of mine put it, "like the background music in an Xbox advert".
Royal Blood aren't the only ones. While they look like Le1f compared to Royal Blood, Bombay Bicycle Club had a number one album last year, possibly because they seem to be a band that favour consistency and live performance rather than "nice world, we'll take it" PR bullshit. Foals – who to me, in my Fader-saturated mind, will always be the 2007 hype band who gave us "Hummer" – have almost silently sold out two nights at Alexandra Palace. They've become one of the biggest bands in the country, seemingly in direct correlation with a drying up of hype. Frank Turner is another example of a guy with a guitar who's quietly become enormous. Just look at this year's Reading line-up, and you'll see plenty of bands a long way up the bill – Dry The River, Young Guns, Deaf Havana – whose music you'd normally expect to live and die in small-town alt pub battle of the bands competitions. Bands who exist in this sweaty, overtly macho world that the cool industry has little interest in.
The modern godfathers of this are probably Biffy Clyro, the Scottish trio who've sold over a million albums and 400,000 UK singles to a fanbase that has remained staunchly loyal to them and their anthemic, post-hardcore Simple Minds sound. Having formed in 1995, they seem to have existed at the fringes of British popular music for as long as I can remember, yet their fans seem to comprise a strange, silent majority. Much like film critic Pauline Kael, who was ridiculed for the metropolitan ignorance of her (widely misquoted) statement: "I can't believe Nixon won. I've never met anyone who voted for him," I've never knowingly met any Biffy Clyro fans, but that doesn't mean they aren't out there. It just means they live outside of the hipster-industrial complex.
For me, the popularity of these bands – and in particular, Royal Blood – lies in both a backlash, and a longing for predictable continuity in a culture that doesn't stick around for long. Looking at the guys in RB, you can tell that they aren't going to start poncing about in Rick Owens any time soon, or do a collaboration with Mykki Blanco. They exist to service their fans, and what their fans are interested in is the sturdy, reliable exchange of loud guitars, sweat, anthems and booze.
The economies these bands are based in don't rely on syncs, branded content or fashion mag covers, but on solid relationships between band and fan. The very same relationship that's made millionaires of James Hetfield, Bruce Dickinson, Francis Rossi et al and sent countless hype acts back to their media internships. They want a band you can rely on, and a band as unceasingly uncool and out of time as Royal Blood aren't going to blow that relationship. They're built to last, something to believe in, the tepid face of solidity. A Shire horse band, a chubby but bubbly life partner, a Volvo estate in a world of matte black Lamborghinis.
Although clearly indebted to the desert dwelling, fist-fighting drug Valkyries Queens of the Stone Age and The Eagles of Death Metal, much of Royal Blood's schtick is about how normal they are. They talk about their nans, how much they love playing festivals, how they don't trash hotel rooms.
They aren't into fashion, drugs, electronic beats, macho-posturing, career hyperbole or rolling deep at Shoreditch House with Rich Hil and Poppy Delevingne. Royal Blood are what they are, a band for people who are sick of being told what they should be into and why. They're the Stereophonics with more tats; InMe without the eyeliner. Regressive and tedious, yet sturdy and believable, and – most importantly – absolutely, inconceivably fucking massive.
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