SALT LAKE CITY — Royal Bliss founding member Neal Middleton shook his head as he recalled reading a recent article naming Imagine Dragons as the best band in Utah 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 the 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.”
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. 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, guitarist Taylor 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.
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.
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.
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.’"
That night, Royal Bliss played a sold-out show to a 1,000 seat room.
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.
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.”
But 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.'"
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.
But to Middleton, it’s all Royal Bliss music.Comment on this story
“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.”
If you go …
What: Royal Bliss
When: Friday, May 18, 8 p.m.
Where: Toadz, 432 N. 100 West, Cedar City
When: Saturday, May 19, 8 p.m.
Where: Salt Creek Sports Lounge, 22 Sheep Lane Drive, Nephi