SALT LAKE CITY — Royal Bliss frontman Neal Middleton shook his head as he recalled reading a recent article naming Imagine Dragons as the best local band in 2017.
Sure, bands like Imagine Dragons, Neon Trees, The Used, The Killers, Panic at the Disco and Rancid all have ties to the Beehive State.
But with the exception of the Osmonds, it’s hard to find an act outside of Royal Bliss that not only got their start in Utah and grew into a nationally touring band, but still calls Salt Lake City home 20 years later.
“We’re proud to be from Utah. Our friends are the ones who put us on the map. There were enticing moments to uproot and go somewhere else. But really, at the end of the day, this is home,” said singer/songwriter Middleton in a recent interview with the Deseret News. “I consider us Utah’s band.”
It’s hard to argue with that when one considers that all five members of Royal Bliss not only live in Utah, but they are also business entrepreneurs in the state, donate hours of their time to charity locally, can be found hanging out regularly at local restaurants, clubs and sporting events, and still play the biggest clubs in Salt Lake as well as smaller venues in rural areas across the state regularly.
And yet, Middleton said that even today, some locals are just discovering Royal Bliss. Their latest single, “Devil With Angel Eyes,” has been well received by local radio stations. But Middleton said the song has prompted some to ask: Is Royal Bliss is a new band?
Recently, the band celebrated its 20th anniversary at the Royal, the nightclub Middleton owns in Salt Lake City along with founding Royal Bliss guitarist Taylor Richards and longtime Liquid Joe’s owner Kelly Peterson. All five original members were in attendance to mark the occasion, as well as many fans who were at Royal Bliss’ first show back in 1998.
“It was just like a big family reunion of people who made our career possible from the beginning,” Middleton said.
Today, the band still has three original members: Middleton, Richards and drummer Jake Smith, in addition to brothers Sean and Brian Hennesy on guitar and bass who not only joined the band, but moved from Nashville and California, respectively, and are now full-time Utah residents.
Skyline and Highland students form a band
While a lot of people helped Royal Bliss get their career off the ground, it was Middleton and his bandmates’ hard work that was the catalyst for their success. In the days before Facebook, Royal Bliss did business the old-school way by posting flyers all over town and driving to venues throughout the West to personally hand out press kits.
The Royal Bliss story began when Skyline High School student Middleton was playing solo acoustic sets at the old Gepetto’s Pizza in Murray. Highland High School students Richards and original guitarist Chris Harding were looking for a new singer for their band and went to watch Middleton play.
After his set, the three went back to Middleton’s home and immediately wrote three or four songs that night.
From that moment, “I was sold on it,” he recalled.
Knowing this is what he was meant to do, Middleton dropped out of college, cut back his day job hours, and spent all of his Christmas money from 1997 on the new band.
“I spent it all on soundproofing the band room behind Jake Smith’s house,” he said.
Then it came time to pick a band name.
“I remember sitting there in the room and somebody said ‘Bliss,’ like the peak of a euphoric experience and just this amazing feeling and we’re like, ‘Yeah, we love that. That’s what we want our music to be.’ Because we were playing some reggae kinda stuff back then, very happy and party music. And then someone said, ‘Royal Bliss’ and everybody in the band goes, ‘Ahh, oooh, ahhh. That’s it.’ The king of the highest you can be. We wanted to be that drug for people. To be able to have our music take people away. Our goal is to make it so that nobody thinks about anything else except that moment. If you’re having a bad day, a bad week, or a bad year. At least for that hour and a half you’re on stage, you’re not thinking about it,” he said.
For Royal Bliss’ first show, they rented out the basement of the old DV8 club in Salt Lake, hung flyers all over the University of Utah and Graywahle CD. Three hundred people showed up that first show.
“It was addicting right off the bat,” Middleton said.
By 1998, Royal Bliss had their first studio CD out as well as their own press kit.
“I remember just handing CDs out just left and right to whoever I could and telling everybody, ‘You gotta come see our band.’”
As the band’s popularity grew, so did their invitations to play in bars and clubs across the Wasatch Front. In those days, bands with minors could still play in bars. But Utah laws still gave the young band plenty of hurdles to jump through. Middleton recalled playing the Holy Cow (where the Urban Lounge currently stands) and an extra women’s bathroom was converted into a green room that night for the band who wasn’t allowed anywhere near the bar.
“‘This is your green room. You have to stay in here. You cannot leave this room,’” he recalled venue management telling them. “And so we got locked in there, and I remember (saying), ‘Can we decorate this a little bit?’ And we went to Wal-Mart and bought like beads and random crap and hung stuff all over the bathroom to make it look like a green room instead of a girl’s bathroom. He wouldn’t let us out of there. And when we went to the stage we had to put our heads down and hands up and walk right to the stage because you’re not allowed to look at anybody with alcohol. It was pretty funny in those days. But at least we could play in bars,”
At another show, Middleton remembers being asked to open for a nationally touring act at Salt Lake’s Zephyr Club. But once Royal Bliss was done, management wouldn’t let the youngsters stay in the venue. Middleton said Royal Bliss brought about 300 of their own fans with them that night. So before the undisclosed national act took the stage, he announced to the audience that his band was being forced to leave, and all 300 followed him out.
Royal Bliss’ first out-of-state show was in Burley, Idaho. A radio station in the area was playing “Fine Wine and Champagne” and an early version of “Devils and Angels” in heavy rotation. The band was also scheduled to do an autograph session at the Magic Valley Mall before the show.
“I remember walking down the mall and there’s a line of people all the way down the mall. And we’re walking by and like, ‘What’s going on today?’ I remember stopping and asking someone, ‘What’s this line for?’ (They said) ‘Oh, Royal Bliss is here. We’re going to meet Royal Bliss.’ All of us kind of look at each other like, ‘What the hell is going on?’”
That night, Royal Bliss played a sold-out show to a 1,000 seat room. The energy from that show drove the band even more.
“We can do this,” Middleton remembers the band walked away from that evening telling themselves.
After, Royal Bliss started booking more regional dates. Then, a week after having knee surgery for tearing his ACL while playing soccer, Middleton loaded up a Geo Metro with press kits and CDs along with Richards (both tall dudes) and one other to let the west coast know Royal Bliss was ready to play in their town.
“Me and my crutches and a straight brace drove to every city in the western United States for two weeks,” he said.
Reno, Sacramento, San Francisco, San Luis Obispo, Santa Rosa, Las Vegas and more, In each city, in those days before Facebook, Middleton and crew would get a copy of the local paper, find out what the local venues were, find out where the bands similar to them were playing, and then go personally visit those venues.
“That was just how we did it. It was ambitious,” he admitted.
But the work, the miles, and a pair of lost crutches somewhere in Southern California, paid off.
Two weeks after getting, home Middleton called those venues back and booked a tour. In 2002 Royal Bliss played a sold out crowd at the Key Club in Hollywood and headlined a show at the Roxy Theatre in 2003.
Making a Sweet Pizza
By now, it’s been well-documented that several years into the group’s career, the members of Royal Bliss ran into a streak of bad luck, highlighted by Middleton’s 34-foot fall off a balcony in Southern California in 2004 that left him in a wheelchair for months and in jeopardy of never walking again.
But Middleton came out of it walking and Royal Bliss came out swinging. They released the appropriately titled After the Chaos in 2005 and After the Chaos II in 2006. That was followed by a signing with Capitol Records and 2009’s Life In-Between. The album landed at No. 151 on the Billboard 200 and hit No. 4 on Billboard’s Heatseekers chart. The album produced the rock radio hit “Save Me” and contained some of the band’s most popular songs, “Devils and Angels” and “I Was Drunk.”
Despite lineup changes — at one point Royal Bliss performed as a quartet for several years before returning to a five-man band — the band continued to be a regular on the alternative rock charts with 2012’s Waiting Out the Storm and 2014’s Chasing the Sun which included the aggressive “Cry Sister” and “Turn Me On.” Both songs are quite different in style from the band’s early laid-back “Fine Wine and Champagne.”
Middleton said as the band grew up, so did their music.
“I think life had a big effect on the songs,” he said. “All of us collectively growing up, I think we have more to say than just, ‘let’s party and hang out with chicks.'”
When Middleton looks back at some of his earlier material, he admits he was indulging a little too much in the partying, and his songs and their lyrics reflect that.
But Middleton, who was influenced by bands like Pearl Jam, Korn and Sublime growing up, said Royal Bliss has always had the harder rock songs open all their albums in addition to their slower songs.
In 2016, Royal Bliss released the EP The Truth, a collection of songs co-written by country music powerhouses Monty Powell and Anna Wilson. The album took the band to the country music charts, and their video for “We’re All Livin’ the Dream” debuted on CMT. Some have told Middleton they think the band’s latest single, “Devil With Angel Eyes,” is also a country song.
Middleton says it’s a rock song. But more importantly, he said it’s all Royal Bliss music.
“We’ve always been all over the board …” he said. “At the end of the day, we’re a rock band. Even when we were playing country shows, we didn’t change it up too much. It was a rock show. These five members for Royal Bliss have a very unique style together. It’s not one member writing songs, it’s all of us writing songs together and having input. I always look at it like a pizza. You have five ingredients to a pizza and I think we’re making a pretty sweet pizza right now.”
The Petty Project and New Music
Last year, Royal Bliss put together a show doing all Tom Petty songs. Although Middleton was originally opposed to the idea of doing the tribute band thing, once he got into rehearsing, he said he learned a lot about song writing and song structure from the iconic artist. Plus, he admitted, it was a lot of fun.
As for the show itself, it was immediately a smash.
After the first show quickly sold out, another was added and that sold out just as fast. Royal Bliss then did a two night stand at The Royal, playing all Tom Petty one night and Royal Bliss songs the next. The Petty show sold out long before the RB show.
In April, Royal Bliss sold out The Depot in Salt Lake City doing their Tom Petty Tribute Experience before taking it on the road to Colorado where it also sold well. In the future, Middleton wouldn’t mind seeing Royal Bliss do two night stands in other cities, playing Tom Petty one night and Bliss the other.
As for new Royal Bliss music, Middleton and crew have been busy writing and recording. Because of the ever changing industry, he said “there’s no road map anymore” on how to put out music. The band may release a single each month, he said, and then at the end of the year release an album of all the songs for those who still buy albums.