Royal Bliss

This "5 and Dime" interview with Royal Bliss was conducted on February 26, 2009, when vocalist Neal Middleton phoned me from his home in Salt Lake City, Utah. Royal Bliss was on an off-day from touring after driving all night from Colorado. The day after our interview, Royal Bliss was to play a radio show in Boise, Idaho, before heading east to St. Louis. Neal joked that it was like his booking agent had a map of the United States in his office and that he threw darts to see where the band would play next.

Hey Neal, thanks for phoning. Tell me how Royal Bliss got started and talk about the band's songwriting process. Don't forget to introduce your band mates, their influences, and their attributes, since chemistry on stage and off stage is so important.

Four of the guys were together in a band, and I went to a neighboring rival high school. I dated a girl from their school, and I was playing solo acoustic gigs around town. Because I was dating that girl, I ran into the other guys now and then. I told them that I could sing, and even though they had a singer, they let me join up with them once at their rehearsal spot. We tried out a few songs, and we wrote four new songs that night. The next day, I woke up, dropped out of college, and told my job that I couldn't work that much any more. I was going to be a rock star! That was 11 years ago, and I'm still working at it as hard as I can.

Regarding our songwriting process, the band comes up with music and I make up stuff until we get into the studio. I don't write down anything until we're actually recording the song. It's then that I'll try to come up with the proper lyrics. Sometimes a song will pop into my head, and I'll head downstairs and add guitar. When I show it to the band, they'll add their parts and little spices to it. Over the years, I've learned about guitars and drums and they've learned about the things I do. We've learned together to allow spaces in our songs. Instead of writing a song that's all based upon music, we write realizing that I'll have to sing over these parts. We've learned to open it up a bit and not put a drum solo or shredding guitar over everything.

As a singer, my main influence is Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder. Taylor Richards, our lead guitarist, would name Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page as his biggest influence. Our drummer, Jake Smith, would pick Carter Beauford from the Dave Matthew's band. Chris Harding is all across the board. He's a steady rhythm guitarist. I don't know if he's mentioned his influences. Tommy Gunn was an upright bass player when he joined our band. He was playing in jazz and blues bands. That's where all of his influences come from. He loves Victor Wooten, but what bass player doesn't?

Collectively, we all have an ear for music and we all get along. We respect each other. We have a weird chemistry that just works when we get together to write or play music. We listen to differing opinions about trying different melodies or different approaches with our instruments. Royal Bliss is like a really good pizza where all the ingredients accent each other.

Individually, I'm the head of the band, who's always trying to drive us forward. I never act like that but I took control right out of the gate. I handle the business end, like doing the interviews, setting up studio time, dealing with management, and finding sponsorships and money. I also take care of paying everybody and keeping us all happy. I was also the primary driver and tour manager and it was getting pretty bad. I was so tired and it was affecting my onstage performance. We added a friend who we trust and who we all like. We're training him to be our tour manager and driver. Our sound guy also helps out with the driving. Now, I'm only driving 20 percent of the time instead of 90.

I'm horrible with computers, but Jake is awesome with computers and graphic arts. He designs the t-shirts and album covers. He handles all of the I.T. stuff. Taylor has taken over all of the booking and routing. Chris was our accountant for a long time, taking in all of the receipts. Nowadays, we're an actual corporation after forming an L.L.C. He also had a knack for building things like the new bunks in our motor home. They really help out with our sleep when we're out on the road. Tommy's our comic relief guy. He's a real free spirit, and he's the only guy in the band with a college degree. There's nobody else like him on the planet.

Since Royal Bliss' inception in 1997, what has been the most memorable show, what have been the biggest obstacles to overcome, and what has been the band's defining moment?

We've had a lot of memorable shows. We play every year at an outdoor amphitheater in Salt Lake City called the Gallivan Center. Our show there last year with Candlebox was the most memorable and the most fun. It was our crowd, and being able to control an audience of 7,000 people was amazing.

One of our biggest obstacles is longevity. It's having the patience and persistence to stick with the career path that we've chosen. We realize that there's a lot of hard work and sacrifice involved and that nothing happens overnight. We've kept our focus and we try to keep moving forward. Royal Bliss had always been independent and enjoyed being our own bosses, yet we signed on with a manager who was the wrong manager, and that's been our biggest obstacle to overcome. He was an L.A. guy with a lot of talk. He made a lot of promises, and he said he wouldn't commission us until the band got a record deal and started to do well. He said that he didn't want to take our money. After a year of that, I found out about things he was doing behind our back and that he was taking money that should have been ours. He took fifty to sixty thousand dollars from us. When his one-year contract was up, we cancelled it, not wanting to be screwed any more. He sued us for all the commissions from the prior year. Our producer, who he also managed, also sued us.

Our defining moment was more like a three-month period. I fell off a 40-foot balcony in California and hit the cement. I was torn in half. The doctors didn't think I'd make it out of the emergency room that night. Then the doctor told my girlfriend at the time that I'd be paralyzed for life. That's the first thing that the band heard. When I was lying in intensive care, our drummer called me to say that his girlfriend was pregnant and he didn't know what to do. I needed additional surgery when I got back to Salt Lake City and I gained feeling in my left leg. To this day, I don't have all of the feeling in my right leg. I asked the band to trust me and believe in me that I would get back up on stage. I dealt with all of the legal issues with our previous management. I came up with a business plan, and I came up with investors to give us the money to record another album. After months in a wheelchair, I got up on stage with a cane for a big concert we organized in Salt Lake City We pulled everything off and sounded great. We looked at our situation and felt grateful to be given that second chance. We paid off our debts to the ex-manager and producer and headed back into the studio. Then our drummer rolled his car over five times. Four days later, our rhythm guitarist put a ski through his face and broke his jaw in half. He couldn't sing any backing vocals because his jaw was wired shut. Then our lead guitarist broke his leg. All of that shit happened in a 3-month period! We were at our lowest as we sat in a multi-million dollar studio for three months, and we couldn't get one track recorded. We finished that record with another producer in his home studio and named it "After the Chaos II." Surviving that brutal period was the defining moment for Royal Bliss. It made us 10 times stronger as a band. After making it through all of that, there was no turning back. We can't quit; we have to see this thing to the end.

Let's chat a bit about your latest record, "Life In-Between." Talk about your musical direction and the band's evolution from Day One, the band and fan favorites on this record, and how radio stations nationally have responded to Royal Bliss.

Terrestrial radio has been great to Royal Bliss. We've been heard in cities that we've never played in. Now that the record is out, we can see where the people are that have purchased it. The radio station by you in New Jersey, WDHA, has been great. They've given us a lot of airplay, which we gladly accept and we're happy to run with it. We're dying to play out there, yet since our tours are self-funded, that's difficult. Satellite radio has also been great. I get so many comments from people that have heard us on XM or Sirius Radio. That's also exciting to our fans here at home who have stuck by us for 11 years.

Royal Bliss is good ol' American rock and roll. On our latest record, "Life In-Between," we didn't try to sound the same on every song. We focused on songwriting, trying to deliver a great album instead of a straight rock album. Listeners will find hard rock songs that they'll like and really mellow acoustic songs that hopefully they'll like. There's a little ballad and some mid-tempo stuff. I personally think that the album has a little bit of everything in it. When we recorded it, we didn't know how the songs would fit together. It works together; they all fit. We want everybody on the planet to hear our music. Hopefully, they'll like it. If they don't, at least they heard it!

As far as fan favorites, "Save Me" is such a strong song and it means a lot to many people out there. It'll always be a sentimental favorite because it's the song that introduced people to Royal Bliss. "I Was Drunk" is another song that the fans love. We were getting a great reaction from that song before the record even came out. "We Did Nothing Wrong" is another one. By the second chorus, everybody in the audience is singing it. Those three songs would be the favorites for people that don't know us well.

"Finally Figured Out" is the band's favorite song to play live because it allows everybody a spot to do their own thing and go off. It has a steady build following its rockin' start. At the end, Taylor's shredding, Tommy's going off on the bass as is Jake on the drums, Chris is playing his parts, and I'm singing whatever the hell I want. We get an amazing response at live shows from that song. We're just jamming! It's not organized at the end, and we never know how long we'll play it.

I mentioned before that Tommy had a background with the upright bass. Our producer, Rob Daiker, utilized it on the record. We actually travel with the upright bass. At headlining shows, Tommy will bring it out for the acoustic or mellow songs. Sometimes, in certain cities, we'll play a Johnny Cash song like "Folsom Prison Blues." You've got to have the upright bass on that song! We loving playing acoustic shows, and it adds an incredible sound. Tommy's amazing when he plays it and we can't take that skill away from him. We want everybody in the band to utilize whatever they can. On the song "Devils & Angels," Tommy plays with a bow on the upright bass. That unique sound added so much to our record. Royal Bliss is an advocate of "if you can't do it live, then don't do it in the studio." Too many bands cheat in the studio.

Royal Bliss has evolved as a band by becoming more professional. We look at the music business as a business. I don't want to say that we're role models, but we are the big band in Salt lake City. A lot of younger bands look up to us. We're always in the spotlight. We take things more seriously because we're on a major label and we don't want to screw things up. Music-wise, we've gotten so much tighter by touring our asses off. Our perspective on music has also changed. If it's mellow and it's a good song, so what if it's not rockin'? A song doesn't need crazy chords and wild changes that only musicians can respect to be a good song.

How has Royal Bliss responded as a band to the challenge of getting its music heard?

We talked before about the radio airplay Royal Bliss has received and that's been awesome. Hitting the road supporting bands like Candlebox will get us into cities that we couldn't tour by ourselves. The Internet is a great tool, but it does interfere with our creative processes of writing and recording music. We had a discussion with our record label about that a while back. They thought we should be on MySpace eight hours a day hitting people up. I forget how they described it but it was like "that's what rock and roll is." We disagreed. Sitting on a computer, typing, and adding random people, is not rock and roll! Call me old-fashioned, but I'd rather spend eight hours in the studio than on MySpace. Yet that is the way of the world. So many younger bands are building their fan bases that way. I don't enjoy it, and I don't spend much time at it. What I do enjoy about MySpace is reading the comments and e-mails and responding directly to people who have taken the time to listen to the music of Royal Bliss.

What's the local music scene like in Salt Lake City, Utah? Also, what is the next logical step for Royal Bliss and where can fans reading this interview listen to and/or purchase the music of Royal Bliss?

There's definitely a music scene here in Salt Lake City, but it was much stronger back when we got started. There were so many bands selling out all of the great music venues all around town. That kind of died out. Royal Bliss is the last band standing out of a dozen great bands. Most of them signed horrible record deals and got ruined once they were caught up in the machine of the major record label business. Most of the local clubs in Salt Lake City have switched to deejays and cover bands. One of the local clubs that we used to play featured live music every day of the week. Now, local original bands can only play there on Tuesday and Wednesday nights. Cover bands and rock and roll karaoke dominate the weekend slots. It's been disgusting watching that happen. Every live music venue crumbled, but a younger underground scene is coming up and doing well. I hope it continues to build. Salt Lake City will always have Royal Bliss. We come back through and let the good local bands open for us at big outdoor concerts. The laws here are stupid. If you're not 21, you can't enter into a bar and play. When we were coming up you could. That limits a lot of younger bands to the places that they can play.

Salt Lake City will always be home for Royal Bliss. We love it here! We turned down a development deal with Warner Brothers when they wanted us to move down to Los Angeles. We're proud to be a good rock band from Salt Lake City, a small town that everybody talks shit on. Salt Lake City needs a band like us that lets people focus on music and on local art. That will help build up the city and the music scene. Salt Lake City is a beautiful and awesome city, despite what people hear and say about the Mormon and Latter day Saints culture.

One of the next logical steps is to continue pounding the road. We'll be doing two tour legs with Candlebox. We can learn a lot from a band that's been there, done that. They've been super nice and supportive to us. They answer all of the questions that we throw at them about the music business. After those tours, Royal Bliss has to keep pushing out singles and staying out on the road until we run out of money or one of us croaks.

Music fans can hear Royal Bliss music and keep up with the latest news by visiting our website, our MySpace page, and our Facebook. The best spot to buy our music, if you can, is at any independent record store. They've been on your corner for years, and they need your support these days. If they don't have our record, ask them to order it because they can.

Our new single, "We Did Nothing Wrong," just came out. People can help us out by calling their local radio station and requesting it. Bug your local station and tell them to play the hell out of us! If we're in your area, come out and give our live show a shot. It'll be a good time; we play our hearts out.

Dimebag Darrell and his band Damageplan played near my home in New Jersey a few days before his tragic death. I'm trying to keep his legacy alive by asking people to share a story or a memory about Dimebag Darrell.

I was always a Pantera fan, yet I never met Dimebag. I played in Abilene, Texas, and I met a cousin of his. All of the stories that he told about Dimebag were amazing. I pride myself on trying to stay real and trying to be genuine. I watched a DVD guitar lesson that Dimebag recorded. He had such a passion for his music and his instrument. He loved life. He made me want to look at my instrument, my voice, with the same passion. I want to love what I do all of the time. Dimebag taught me that if you can play music and tour around the country, you're not better than anybody else. You're not special. You're blessed!

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