They’ve been called the unluckiest band in rock, and with a slew of mishaps – a car wreck, near paralysis, a stabbing, and record company promises unrealized – they’ve rightly earned the title. Sitting on their bus before a show in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Royal Bliss’ Neal Middleton (lead vocals), Taylor Richards (guitar), Dwayne Crawford (bass) and Jake Smith (drums) talked about the band’s beginning, Middleton’s appearance on NBC’s show The Voice and some of the experiences which shaped their nickname.
It was 1997, Middleton was 19 and studying Communications at Utah’s Salt Lake Community College. His girlfriend went to guitarist Richards’ high school. Richards, along with a few other guys including drummer Jake Smith, had a band. When Middleton struck up a conversation at a party with original guitarist Chris Harding, Middleton asked if they needed a singer, and they did because their singer was leaving on a church mission. Middleton told the guys to come check him out at his solo gig at the local pizza parlor. He vividly recounts how Richards and Harding took a bunch of mushrooms and came to watch him. “I was making up songs about them the whole time and freaking them out. They were sitting in the corner and I was like ‘they’re so fucked up right now.’ My show was five songs I knew and for the next hour and a half I would just make up stuff about people in the audience. They wouldn’t know I was doing it, but I’d just sit there and make up a story about the couple that was eating over here and kinda awkward and not really talking to each other. So the guys liked the way I sang and asked me to come over that night. I went over and started singing with them. The chemistry was awesome.” So the next day, Middleton says raising his voice and with a grimacing smile, “I was like screw it. I’m going to be in a rock band, drop out of college. I told my boss I had to cut back on hours because I needed to focus on the band. I met these guys and it changed everything.”
In wasn’t until about 2009 the band met current bassist Crawford. He was playing as a fill-in bass player with another band on their tour. Crawford hung out with Royal Bliss more than the band he was touring with. When their bass player quit he told them to call Crawford, basically picking out their new bassist.
Considering their beginning, it comes as no surprise their name has a drug connection. Middleton explains, “We were smoking a lot of weed, and trying drugs like acid and mushrooms. There was nothing like taking a hit of acid and listening to Floyd, or smoking a bunch and laying in your bedroom jamming out to the classic rock. We liked the word bliss because the definition was the peak of a hallucinogenic drug or a euphoric experience.” Middleton says in a stoner voice, “We’re like ah that’s so awesome. We love the word bliss” But they thought it needed to be “something” bliss. Someone mentioned the word “royal bliss.” “We were all at the same time like ‘that’s it man.’ It’s like the king of the highest you can be.” And returning to his normal voice explains, “that’s what we wanted our music to be for the fans. We wanted to be that drug for them. So they could come and get away from whatever they’re getting away from and listen to music and forget about it while we’re playing. Or to sit in their room and press play and listen to our CD like we listened to all the classics.”
But their propensity for drug usage didn’t prevent them from getting right to work. They released their first single Brave and a second single, Devils and Angels, independently. When Devils and Angels shot up the charts to 26, labels like Atlantic, Roadrunner and Capitol started flying out to Utah to check them out. But it was Jason Flom from Capitol who won them over, as Middleton details, “We thought signing with Jason Flom would be our best move because he was the president of the label and and he had a really good history. He signed us, Katy Perry and Saving Abel that year. We did the record and he loved the record, and thought it was absolutely amazing, and was so proud of it.” But the guys felt abandoned quickly after the signing. “Then we didn’t really hear anything for a month and EMI got bought out from some other dude in the UK. Jason Flom left the company and everybody we were associated with. We were just left in limbo, like floating in the abyss. So we basically forced it ourselves to master it, started pushing the single anyways. Then we figured out a way to release it under a sub-label of Capitol. When we released it, it was pretty much on our own, and we hit 151 on the billboard charts in the first week.”
Their multiple mishaps have garnered as much publicity as their music. Shortly before Middleton joined the band, he was stabbed. Richards goes white saying, “that kinda grossed me out for a second” as Middleton divulges, “I got in a fight at a Wendy’s. Some douche bag was being a prick to some elderly people. I just gave him the eyeball.” A fight ensued over the incident with the guy and his friend. They came at him with a golf club, which got dropped at some point during the fight. The guy’s friend came up behind Middleton and stabbed him three times in the back with a 6-inch buck knife.”I turned around and went after him, and then picked up the golf club. When I picked up the golf club, blood just came off my chest. And I was like, ‘Oh shit, something’s wrong.’ Then I was squirting a big stream of blood all over. Then I turned around and was looking at everybody. And all these people were just white faced. I stuck my finger in the one hole in my back. I got extremely lucky. The doctor was amazed. He missed three vital organs by centimeters. I was in the hospital for a week.”
Drummer Jake Smith fell asleep at the wheel coming home from the studio in 2003, rolling his car five times before hitting a tree. “I came to after. My horn was going. Everything was all messed up in the car. I got out and I was just in a daze. It was horrible timing. I had just left the studio. We were doing some mixing at the studio. My first wife was out of town. She was actually pregnant at the time. Since I was asleep my body was totally limp. I had some cracked ribs and some minor burns from the airbag. I almost went through a house. I went up over the curb, over this little retaining wall and took out the fence and a tree. It wasn’t good. Richards breaks in laughing, sarcastically mocking as though he’s channeling Smith, “I don’t really like talking about it,” and then he becomes more serious and says, “that’s the most I’ve ever heard you talk about it.” And a serious look comes over Smith’s face as he divulges, “It was a horrible experience. I still get the smell of the tires every now and then. I lucked out.”
But the accident gaining the most publicity in 2003 was Middleton’s fall from a balcony on the 9th floor of his friend’s condo in Long Beach, California, resulting in temporary paralysis. Middleton admits to being intoxicated that night. “I was fucked up to be honest. I had taken some pain pills that day. Drank mass quantities of booze that whole day. I don’t remember falling or what happened. Definite demons involved.” His voice gets quieter and there’s a sense of pain and regret in his eyes, “I remember laying there on the ground trying to get up and just kinda moaning, and then trying to crawl and figure out. I didn’t know what was wrong with me. Then the paramedics came. After that I woke up in ICU. I was just trying to move, but my body was in shock, in such pain. All my nerves were just totally fucked up. My pelvis had separated and had came back at a different angle. My body was basically torn in half. I was just in constant pain so I just screamed for five days. It tore my pelvis in half, broke my sacrum in half, lost the feeling in my legs. Had some internal bleeding.” But while the doctors warned him he needed to take it easy and remain confined to a wheelchair for some time, he felt compelled to do otherwise. “I started to try to learn how to walk again after I went home because I wanted to do this show with Unwritten Law. I didn’t have any feeling in my right. My right leg was completely dead, but my left had came back. I was supposed to be in a wheelchair for six months to a year. I was in a wheelchair for three months. Then I had to get back up and just learn how to walk and piss and poop. But I got back up on stage because that’s when Jake found out he was going to be a dad. We had no other options for money. I was just like I have to get back and be able to do this or else everybody is going to starve to death and this little kid is going to come into the world with no food. So I got back up on stage. Just hopped around on my left foot for awhile. I still don’t have all the feeling back in my right leg. I just don’t think about it.”
After the fall, Middleton swore off pills. “I never took pills again. Even if I get majorly hurt, I still don’t take pills.” But drinking is another story. “I binge drink every once in awhile, where I’ll drink for a 48-hour period and just go absolute crazy. It doesn’t happen as much anymore. I did really good for awhile. Then I kinda got sucked back into that world. Touring is really tough. It’s a coping mechanism a lot of the time. It’s not as easy as everybody thinks it is. You want to be all that you can be for your fans every single night. If you’re tired or beat up or just you didn’t get sleep the night before. I’d be driving a lot of our tours. I’d drive and just be completely so tired. And the only way I could get into it is by pounding Red Bull vodka. So I’d drink and then party with everybody and have an amazing night, and made all these friends. And when you do that you gotta do it almost every single night. You just kinda get sucked back into it. Then everybody just looks forward to you coming back to their town again and getting fucked up with you again. Then if you don’t they wonder what’s wrong with you or why you don’t like them anymore.”
But even when things don’t work out so well, the band sees some value in getting their name out. Middleton tried out for The Voice, which aired in February 2012. “I tried out because we were in kind of a weird situation. Me personally. I was having my second baby. The band didn’t have a CD coming out. We couldn’t afford health care. The band said go for it, it could be beneficial.” But it wasn’t until his son was born, and things didn’t go well that he got his wake-up call. “After me and my wife had our baby, it was a really scary situation. I didn’t know if I was going to lose them both because she was bleeding out. He wasn’t breathing. It was one of those realizations as I’m sitting there watching my family die. I was like I should be in a better situation in my life and be able to provide more for them, be able to afford insurance or have a regular job.” The experience was the push for Middleton to try out for The Voice. “It was cool. They were nice to me. It wasn’t what I was expecting. It wasn’t all about the music. But I met a lot of great people. Like 40,000 people auditioned, and only 85 of us got to do the blind auditions. I felt pretty good about making that group of extremely talented individuals. I would never do anything like that again. It worked out perfect because I didn’t get picked and they still put me in front of 18 million people. Richards chimes in, “I was for it just on the fact that it got our band out there whether we meant for it to or not. People are still going to look up the band. If anything we’re going to sell more records just on the fact that he was on there for a split second.”
Watch the video for Crazy. It’s a post-apocalyptic approach to the song, depicting Middleton leaving his family because they are touring as one of the only bands still alive. The video also features Middleton’s wife and son.