By Rob Barbour
Spend any length of time writing about music, and certain patterns soon emerge in the way that musicians describe their art and aspirations. The new songs are heavier, but also more melodic; the new album is the best thing the band have ever made; the artists write songs only for themselves, and if other people like them then that’s just a bonus.
“I hate it when bands say they don’t care what other people think,” says Bad Sign frontman Joe Appleford. “If you didn’t care what other people thought, you’d just stay in your bedroom, writing music on your laptop, for yourself. We want to reach as many people as possible.”
In July of this year, the Croydon-based post-hardcore trio – completed by guitarist Jonathan Harris and drummer Kevin Miller – released their début album, Live & Learn. While their previous EPs, Destroy and Rebuild/Unbeliever, displayed a prog-metal sensibility, their sophomore effort is virtually a pop-rock record by comparison.
Gone are the lengthy songs with distinct movements and (some of) the hardcore-inspired brutality. In their place, a focus on songs that remain heavy but which are shorter, punchier and – you guessed it – more melodic. Much more melodic. Songs like single ‘Square One’ combine riffs that could take down a rhino with choruses the size of one.
“I love everything that we’ve done, but I think we could have got to the point a lot more quickly in the past. Dave Grohl has this expression: ‘Don’t bore us, get to the chorus.’ [90s pop-rockers Roxette might have something to say about this particular accreditation] So we wanted to get to the point of what we wanted to say in a more succinct manner. That’s what we set out to do with the songs on Live & Learn.”
That’s not to say that they aren’t still a heavy band. Bad Sign live and die by The Riff, and Live & Learn has those in abundance. In fact, there are times when the record feels like a sonic menagerie, a play-through guide to the biggest names in popular heavy music: a sprinkling of Rage Against The Machine here, a dusting of Deftones there.
“The goal was to blend everything we liked into something new. You can hear our influences, but I think it’s hard to pin us down to a particular band. And that was a big thing for us, to come up with a sound that became us. The album is just a first step – we know we’re not the finished product.”
Maybe not, but it’s unequivocally the sound of a band making a purposeful stride towards the mainstream, and there’s a disarming candour to the way Appleford describes their lofty ambition. A candour made all the more affecting by his sincerity. And his no-fucking-about, South London accent.
“We want to become one of the biggest bands in Britain, and then eventually one of the biggest bands in the world.”
It’s the sort of thing you’d expect to hear from the Gallagher brothers (or even worse, the rarely-lamented and inexplicably-revived Viva Brother); the cocksure ramblings of Britpop bores. But Bad Sign don’t think they necessarily deserve to be huge – they just don’t see the point in aiming any lower. And unlike flash-in-the-pan industry-darling outfits, they know how much hard work is involved.
“If you look at the bands who have become successful, they’ve applied themselves. Stretched themselves. We can do the same thing. We want to stretch ourselves, and hope that these songs connect with as many people as possible.”
That ambition demonstrates why Bad Sign will probably never be a trend band. For an industry whose achievements are measured in records sold and whose bands are classified by the size of room they can fill, it’s remarkably uncool to admit to wanting to sell those records and fill those rooms.
“It’s such a weird thing,” Appleford agrees. “Sometimes when I say to people that in five or six years, we want to be one of the biggest bands in the world, you hear that sort of snigger. And I think, ‘snigger away’. People probably sniggered at Slipknot when they first came out. People sniggered at the idea of Biffy Clyro becoming one of Britain’s biggest bands.”
Of course, one of the key differences between Bad Sign and the aforementioned arena-bothering Scotsmen is that Biffy spent five years sneaking huge choruses into awkward, angular alternative rock. They confounded expectations that they set themselves. Whereas Bad Sign’s début – heavy though it may be – makes no bones about its desire to worm its way into as many ears as possible.
“We want to write songs that people sing back to us in the biggest possible setting,” he confirms. “But we’re not stupid – we’re realistic. We know how much hard work is involved before we get to the levels we want to get to. But we have to try.”
Throughout our conversation, Appleford name-checks everyone from Every Time I Die and Rage Against The Machine to Fleetwood Mac, John Mayer and even U2 (“Putting out a record like Pop was such a massive risk for a band that big. But they had the bollocks to do it.”) And he walks the walk. A glance at his Instagram account tells the story of man who loves music, of all genres: Paramore. KoRn. Stormzy. He was brought up, he says, “Thinking there are two genres of music: good, and bad.”
It’s clear that affiliating with any particular genre is of no interest to Bad Sign. Appleford has no time for the kind of heavy music fan “who thinks it’s a cool thing to limit yourself.” They might have started out operating in the world of metal, and Live & Learn might be a very deliberate occupation of the riff-driven middle ground, but with such clear-cut ambition, don’t be surprised if their next release moves even further away from their origins.
“There is no way we would go back two steps to try to stay successful,” Appleford says, emphatically. And he reserves yet more opprobrium for bands who “churn out the same record every two years. Why would you want to stay in the same place forever? I don’t understand it one bit. What are you adding to the musical landscape?”
While it’s a fun and impressive début, Live & Learn is far from a perfect album. Full disclosure: I gave it 6/10 in a magazine review, something Appleford cheekily acknowledges when he tells me there are some people who “don’t get” the record. But there’s nothing wrong with not appearing on the scene fully-formed, and Bad Sign’s drive and passion is undeniable. It’s a rare act who achieve their full potential on their first release, and Bad Sign are ones to watch. As anyone who’s seen the band’s incendiary live shows will know, Appleford’s professed focus on hard work, on sheer craft, isn’t just hot air.
“If someone had said to you in 2006 that Biffy would become the biggest rock band in Britain, you would’ve laughed. And you can laugh at us now, and pour scorn on us, but it’s not going to stop us. And if we fail, then we fail. At least we tried to be ambitious.”
Live & Learn is out now on Basick Records.