Royal Pain 

SLC’s Royal Bliss hits the comeback trail after Behind the Music-worthy tribulations.

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On Easter Sunday 2003, Royal Bliss singer Neal Middleton slipped from a Redondo Beach, Calif., balcony and fell four stories to the pavement below. Forty feet. He was initially considered a sure dead-on-arrival case but was soon upgraded to paralyzed.

Naturally, all he could think about was the next gig.

“I was lying in the emergency room, trying to get out of the straps, saying ‘I’ve got a show Saturday! I can’t be in here!’” Middleton recalls with a smile and a trace of resignation. “I was in such shock, just so pissed at myself. ...”

Pissed because the accident brought to a grinding halt over five years of nonstop work building the business of Royal Bliss, at a time when it was all just beginning to pay off. The Salt Lake City band (Middleton, guitarists Taylor Richards and Chris Harding, bassist Brent Bruschke and drummer Jake Smith, all original members) had established a solid touring base throughout the western United States, not to mention the most loyal of local crowds, most of whom have followed them since the beginning. A high-profile national sponsorship with Budweiser’s True Music program had fallen into place and major labels were knocking at the van door. If it all sounds eerily like a Behind the Music episode, just wait until Middleton unwittingly quotes hair-metal casualties Cinderella:

“It’s actually been a positive experience for me, totally straightened my mind up,” he says. “It’s made me respect what I have—you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”

Now almost three months after his fall, the story has taken more of a Rocky turn. Having defied both his death and paralysis sentences, Middleton is working to get his game on for the Big Fight against the grinding halt, Royal Bliss’ hometown comeback concert headlining their self-produced Salt Lake City Summer Music Festival over Universal Records refugees Acroma and a handful of other local pals. After a more low-key sit-down acoustic set the band played in Reno at the end of May, he’s raring to stand and deliver.

“The show in Reno was awesome,” he says. “We hadn’t played in two and a half months, so it was good just to get back together and out in front of people again. I’ll be up for the next show; I’m in crunch time right now. It’ll be almost 12 weeks then, so the surgery and all of the metal inside of me should be healed. I still can’t feel my right leg, but no matter what, I’m going to be standing for the whole show.”

Then he adds with a sly grin, “I’ll just flip my hair around to make it look like I’m moving more.”

For a guy who’s torn his pelvis in two, essentially breaking off the lower half of his body and now pieced back together with four steel screws in his spine and still suffering extensive nerve damage, Middleton’s in pretty good spirits. Royal Bliss’ ever-evolving brand of everydude commercial hard rock hasn’t received much critical respect (they’ve taken lumps from the local press, City Weekly included), but no one can accuse them of being whining slackers—least of all RoboNeal.

“I’ve had to learn to walk again, so I won’t be getting too crazy for this show on the 19th,” Middleton says. “They don’t know if I’ll ever get the feeling back in my leg; nerves are hard to predict. But, our money comes from playing shows, so I’m putting everyone else in the band out of work—I’ve got to get back and running as fast as possible. After this show, we’re right back on schedule.”

Which includes more touring, more label showcases and even a Royal Bliss feature in an upcoming issue of Rolling Stone alongside five other Budweiser True Music bands; you’ll be hearing their national Bud radio spots soon, as well. It’s a far cry from the days when they were just another party band too young to play local bars (but did anyway) or write songs worth hearing outside of a club. Middleton, who turned 25 two weeks ago, chalks Royal Bliss’ sharpened music skills up to simple maturity.

“All of our old CDs would have two reggae songs, three rock songs, then two other softer songs. Our songwriting has become more advanced,” he says. “Back then, we were just kids partying our brains out, listening to Sublime, 311, all those bands. All of our lyrics were about drinking and hanging out, girls, whatever.

“Over the last five years, the lyrics have gotten a little deeper, because I’ve had a million things happen to me personally. As a band, we’ve dropped the bouncy teenage party thing. We’re all into our music more deeply now, because it’s what we want to do for a living. We’ve invested five years into it, there’s no turning back. None of us went to college or have had steady jobs. It’s this or nothing.”

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