A punk rock prophet once sang ‘something has to die to be reborn’. For former BAD SIGN vocalist Joe Appleford, a truer word has never been spoken. Disillusioned by record labels acting like puppet masters, Joe covered the band in Kerosene and lit a match to his life in the music industry.
“We got let down by a lot of people involved with us, and that’s partly our fault for letting those people have too much control,” Joe reflects soberingly from his home. “I just wanted to pack up music because I’ve never been a fan of the industry. If I thought something wasn’t right, I would say it and that got me into verbal altercations with people, just because I’m straight up.”
When everything’s bleaker than an episode of Twin Peaks, you can easily forgive Joe for being weary of the music world. The fact he’s still standing, with his towering debut solo album Dystopian Dreams, Utopian Nightmares behind him, feels like a small miracle since he staunchly told himself to “get out and never come back.”
But songwriters don’t sleep without songs to sing, and soon the guitar slipped into his hands once more. Armed with an amp, a pedal board, and GarageBand, Joe let the good times roll. Songs don’t become albums overnight though, and if it wasn’t for two major moments, Dystopian Dreams, Utopian Nightmares might not exist.
“In late 2019 I went teetotal, which was a big thing for me because I was a big drinker – I had an unhealthy relationship with alcohol and that just made me focus even more, it let me knuckle down on this project.”
The project in question were the demos he’d been cooking up, which led to major moment number two: nailing down producer Neil Kennedy’s [CREEPER, MILK TEETH] opinion. “We’re good friends so I knew he’d be honest and say ‘Joe, it’s shit, just leave it’ but he messaged me back like, ‘this has got serious legs.’”
With the Mickey Goldmill to his Rocky Balboa firmly in his corner, Joe was ready to get rolling. The fuzz-rock fever of The Fugitive was the first song out the gate, but it was single Silver Lining that set the pace. “Fugitive is pretty special, that’s the first riff I wrote and started to build a song around, but Silver Lining was the one where I was like ‘fuck, this is a serious banger!’”
And by the order of Joe Appleford, Dystopian Dreams, Utopian Nightmares delivers bangers by the bucketload. Traversing sonic plains like Eleven in the upside down, Joe throws together scuzzy grunge, punky garage rock, funky blues and psychedelia into a mould made for arenas. But it’s just one part of the masterplan – one that’ll see him release four albums in five years.
“I think this record acts as a magnet to the wider world and pulls people in, and the next album is when people will be like ‘okay, he’s not fucking about’,” Joe asserts defiantly, having not stopped writing songs since finishing the album back in mid-2020. “The one thing I’ve learned from years of doing this is when you’re in a writing cycle, keep writing because you will get a block where you just don’t, and it might last two weeks, or it might last six months so I’ve just not stopped writing for the last two years.”
Like PRINCE before him, Joe’s got a vault full of songs he’s been slamming down in sessions at The Ranch Production House with Neil. According to Joe, Dystopian Dreams… is the starter to a Michelin-star taster menu of music. “These songs are just me figuring out who I am as a solo artist – they’re brilliant songs but it’s just me warming up. Hopefully it just excites people for what’s next, because every record is going to be me upping it and upping it and upping it”
And if you’re wondering where next Joe could possibly go when his debut isn’t even in our ears yet, all you need to know is it’s a labyrinth of influences to get lost in figuring out. “I sent Neil the record and he was like ‘mate, this sounds like a fucking three way between PRINCE, RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE, and FLEETWOOD MAC’ so that’s fucking perfect for me.”
But it’s not just those festival-headlining, world-conquering legends he’s inspired by, it’s the independent artists taking the power back that stoke the fire he has firmly lit in himself. “LITTLE SIMZ, BOB VYLAN – these are the artists that inspire me, like I love rock music but I’m more inspired by these independent artists finding a way to do something different.”
Even though he knows it’s a hard road to headlining stages at Glastonbury like LITTLE SIMZ or breaking into the UK Top 20 like BOB VYLAN, Joe’s followed suit in forgetting about record labels, choosing to self-release through AWAL Recordings. “I wanted to have full control so that if everything goes right, I can feel extra proud; but in equal measure, if things don’t pan out I can only blame myself,” he says. “I spoke to four labels, and three of them were really cool and wanted to put it out, and then one of them was like ‘maybe you could do a 10-track album and maybe do a bonus thing a year later’ and I was like ‘absolutely fucking not’ – it’s not how it’s written and it was that conversation that made me go to AWAL.”
It’s a good thing there’s no labels cutting Dystopian Dreams down to size either, because it’s 12 tracks tell a story of modern life’s juxtapositions. It’s a holy bible of the world according to Joe Appleford, a people watcher’s dream that captures the state of the nation in the wake of a global pandemic. “It’s conceptually about characters – each song is told from the perspective of a character, and that was quite fun because BAD SIGN was very personal to me, but this was more fun because it was observational, and there’s personal stuff spliced in there but not blatantly.”
Whilst no subject is safe across Dystopian Dreams…, it’s ultimately the crutch technology has become in our society that sent Joe spiralling down its rabbit hole. The catalyst? Spike Jonze’s sci-fi drama Her, which sees Joaquin Phoenix develop a relationship with an artificially intelligent virtual assistant.
“I felt that Her really encapsulates just how far humans have fallen in their connection with reality. The disconnect between humans, and how it’s easier to connect with technology and fuck people off out of it – that’s basically Joaquin’s character, he feels isolated, he feels cut off from human contact, and so The Escapist is inspired by the film, and by observations of people in society, like I have a friend who can’t get his phone out of his hand, we’re out and it’s like ‘give it a rest’ but that’s the way society is now.”
Whether it’s technology taking over the world, or industry leaders looming over him, Joe’s fired up and ready to get going. Dystopian Dreams… might well be his debut, but it’s merely a stepping stone on his way to stardom. When he got booked for 2000trees, he told his agent he’d headline it in five years – and he believes it, too. Because for him, he’s taking old-school attitudes and applying it to modern music.
“I saw THE EAGLES last week and I was so inspired. They’re in their 70’s opening up sets with this four-part harmony that’s fucking perfect but then other artists playing Glastonbury are fucking shocking. In the EAGLES era, you had to be good – there was no autotune, no digital recording, but now you don’t have to be good, you can be shit and do well.”
Of course, he takes inspiration from acts like LITTLE SIMZ, BOB VYLAN and HOLDING ABSENCE as proof that the “cream always rises to the top.” In fact, as Dystopian Dreams… arrives, it’s the mission statement driving his future.
“We’re so blessed in the UK, we seem to be shining with undeniable talent. But we’ve got a lot of fucking shit getting forced down our throat too. There’re bands where it’s ‘daddy used to be in a band in the 70s, so they got a label and some money but they’re shit’ – I just want to get on a bill with these bands just to teach them a lesson.”
Dystopian Dreams, Utopian Nightmares is out now via AWAL.
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