SALT LAKE CITY — Neal Middleton’s phone won’t stop buzzing.
The co-founder and frontman of Royal Bliss for the past 18 years looks anxious as the numbers and messages continue to flash on his phone.
But he is also filled with excitement.
His band has just rolled back into Salt Lake City from a Midwest tour, only to get up at 5 a.m. the next day for a local TV appearance. After he eats lunch, the busy Middleton will meet up with Royal Bliss for another performance at a radio station.
The appearances are all part of their effort to promote their 13th annual pre-Thanksgiving Bash at The Depot on Wednesday night, one of Royal Bliss’ biggest shows of the year.
“It’s always a show we try to pull out all the stops. We try to showcase some local talent,” Middleton said.
The calls, however, are from record companies and booking agencies.
Record execs have seemingly taken a renewed interest in Royal Bliss due mostly in part to six new songs the band recorded earlier this year.
But when the songs are released on an EP sometime in 2016, they won’t be labeled as active rock or alternative rock or post-grunge rock or whatever rock radio would call them. The band’s new material takes them in a different direction: country.
“We’re calling it heartland rock. Because it’s still rock. It’s like southern rock. It’s got a Lynyrd Skynyrd kinda vibe but it still sounds like Royal Bliss. We’ve been playing this songs on tour and everyone is like, ‘I love these new songs,'” Middleton said during lunch at a downtown Salt Lake restaurant the afternoon before The Depot show.
Royal Bliss gave a hint of their new musical direction earlier this year when they released the single, “Drown With Me,” something Middleton said was really by accident.
But the feedback the song generated was tremendous.
Earlier this year, Royal Bliss found themselves in Nashville with acclaimed songwriters Monty Powell and Anna Wilson.
“It wasn’t necessarily with a focus on going country, but I just wanted to write with them. ‘You don’t have to write rock, you don’t have to write anything. Just write songs the way you want to write,'” Middleton recalled of his meeting with the songwriters. “I showed them a bunch of songs I had written and we worked on them, and they turned out freakin’ amazing.”
Suddenly, Middleton said he was getting a lot of attention from many of Nashville’s big wigs.
“You guys just accomplished more in three days than people do in their entire lives in this town,” Middleton was told.
Middleton admits he’s a little nervous about going from being known as a “rock act” to a “country act” and fears some will unfairly label the band as a “sell out.” But he believes the songs the band has recorded are more reflective of the true Royal Bliss.
“I’ve been a little bit nervous because they are different. They’re definitely not like our heavy rock songs like we’ve been known for on certain stations. But some of our more popular songs, like “I Was Drunk,” “Devils and Angels” and “Crazy,” all have that kind of vibe. So this record has that kind of focus where it’s good times and music and not angst and pent-up frustration songs. It’s just songs about love and drinking with friends.
“I think it’s Royal Bliss more finding our sound finally. It’s more comfortable on my voice. I’m not stretching my voice or screaming or anything like that, because I’ve been screaming for years and worried about losing my voice. Now these songs are all writing in the key that’s comfortable for me. I don’t know, I’m excited about it. It’s definitely a little bit of a change,” he continued. “I think we’re just going to be ourselves. I don’t think it’s a big stretch for us. Our show, I think, relates a lot more to country than it does rock. I mean, I’m telling stories and blabbing and having a good time. We don’t take ourselves too seriously like a lot of rock bands do. We’re up there having good time and having fun and that’s what country fans like.”
Over the summer, Middleton attended a concert at the USANA Amphitheatre.
Royal Bliss was not playing that night. But there were many in the audience wearing Royal Bliss T-Shirts. Middleton recalled he was frequently recognized by many of the concert-goers as he walked around – even more so than at other concerts he’s attended – all of whom were having a fun, festive evening. On stage, the show production was like an 80s rock concert.
The headlining act that night? Country supergroup Lady Antebellum.
“Country has a lot of rock elements to it anyway. Most of the guys in country can shred harder than most guitarists I’ve seen in rock bands. And the vocalists, I mean, no offense, but we’ve toured with a lot of rock bands and there’s so much backing tracks and everything else, it’s kind of hard to even watch,” he said.
Nowadays, Middleton said country acts are becoming more rock, and active rock is going metal.
“We are not stretching that direction anymore. It’s almost a stretch for us to play those heavier tunes,” he said. “It’s like, I’m sorry, I’m not going to scream and we’re not going to do double kick the entire frickin’ song. It’s just not us.”
The stories of Royal Bliss being the “unluckiest band in rock” in their early years are well documented. But after years of cramming in a van and driving laps around the U.S., Royal Bliss today has a very nice tour bus, sponsorship, and a lot of interest in their new songs.
Middleton has also been completely dry now for two months. Something he said he hasn’t done since he was 15. He said it just takes one time being irresponsible to mess up all the good fortune the band has received this year, and he doesn’t want to do that.
“If I can’t control myself 100% of the time then I don’t get to do it. And I’ve kind of used up all my fun bucks for awhile. I’ve gone completely sober,” he said.
Middleton said being a band that likes to have a good time with its audience, it was very easy for him to go out on tour and just “drink all weekend” to keep the party going. He figured he’d just stop drinking once he was off the road.
“But it’s kind of created me to lose focus because I’m spending too many days hung over and not wanting to do anything. And my physical appearance as well, I gained a bunch of weight, and I was just like, ‘OK, I need to get in shape.’ I’ve really got to just take care of myself, and mentally and physically be prepared for everything that’s happening.”
As for switching to a more country-rock sound and the possibility of playing to new audiences in 2016 as openers for established country acts, “I know there’s going to be people who aren’t going to like us there. But I know there’s going to be a ton who do,” Middleton said. “It’s not like starting over, but it’s a little like starting over.”
One thing Royal Bliss fans can be assured of, is the band won’t be moving to Nashville.
Throughout their careers, even when they were briefly signed to Capitol Records, Royal Bliss has been one of the few bands on a national touring level to not only remain in Utah, but aren’t ashamed to openly call it home.
“We’ve always been proud of it. We’ve had a lot of opportunities in the past (to move). We’ve always been pretty adamant in showcasing and highlighting the talent that is in this town and surrounding areas. This is our home and these are the fans that have built us. Without them we don’t get to go around the country and follow our dreams and play music and pay our bills. I love this city.”