Johnny Dream, as he has been known until now, saw it all coming; he and his band of dark rock rebels The Blinders have made the first soundtrack for the post-EU generation, wracked with all the anger, anxiety and despair of the age. “These are some of our darkest and bitterest fears put into writing and music… to almost eradicate them by having them in music form,” says Johnny, aka Blinders singer Thomas Haywood, of the band’s forthcoming second album. “It can sometimes be borderline misanthropic, it’s losing faith in humanity completely.”
Humanity might be a lost cause, but The Blinders are the band to restore your faith in rock. They boast the firebrand political righteousness of IDLES, the visceral atmospheres of Joy Division and the Bad Seeds, the noir melodicism of ‘Humbug’-era Arctic Monkeys and a fierce literary and cultural intelligence that finds them referencing everything from Wilde to Shakespeare, from 1984 to 2001.
Born into Doncaster mining families, the sons of parents who had watched the town “have the life stripped out of it”, the trio – Tom, bassist Charlie McGough and drummer Matt Neale - met as schoolmates. Tom and Charlie were friends from the age of six and found a common bond in music; Charlie’s dad regularly took him to gigs and Tom’s parents, both brass band musicians, encouraged him to pick up a guitar aged ten. At length, the pair courted the school’s (relative) rock veteran Matt – he’d been drumming in a band since he was ten, released his first album at 12 and would randomly end up filling in for the drummer of The Eighties Matchbox B-Line Disaster for a gig in shadowy circumstances. By 2014 they ‘d become The Blinders, anchored, like all Yorkshire bands, by a mutual love of Arctic Monkeys but far more interested in riding the darker wave of The Wytches, Slaves, Palma Violets and Drenge.
Catching “a bit of traction” in Doncaster but stifled by its limitations, The Blinders moved en masse to Manchester University, living in the same student house (“We’ve spent 24 hours a day, seven days a week with one another ever since,” Tom chuckles), juggling their courses with building a buzz on the city’s rock scene and venturing out to London and Scotland to play This Feeling club nights. “We missed a lot of lectures,” Tom admits, but the emotional strains of his time at university hit him far harder.
“Eighteen to about twenty-years-old was not an enjoyable time,” he says. “You’re very confused as to where you are in life and there’s a lot of things that you don’t get taught to deal with. It was a horrendous time for me, I ended up dropping out and put all that energy into song-writing. It was about a year and a half’s worth of clinical depression, really rough going, but I suppose when you have a band it’s cathartic. It’s an output and allows you to express yourself in ways that you can’t to other people.”
Out of this torment was born Johnny Dream, the character Tom would take on while performing, raging his songs of literary, personal and political discontent with smears of thick warpaint streaming down from his eye sockets.
“That served as a bit of a mask,” he says. “This was an exaggerated, embellished version of ourselves. It was all our fears and all of our realistic and cynical way of looking at the world put into this character. That was a really interesting way to be able to write songs, write through someone else’s perspective and put a bit of a fictional spin on it. And the performance element made it massively easier. I remember going on without the face paint one night and I just couldn’t do it. Just couldn’t fucking do it. We went down the rabbit hole a little bit and hid behind it, in a way, because of our insecurities.”
And the Dream paid off. Before long The Blinders were ramming the Manchester Ritz and The Deaf Institute with face-painted devotees. Cabbage took them on tour and the A&R guy from Modern Sky records caught wind. Cue 2018’s debut album ‘Columbia’, a torrent of dark rock wildfire akin to Eighties Matchbox, Shame and The Bad Seeds, named after the utopia which Charles Manson promised his Family but describing a modern day 1984 dystopia of oppression and rebellion, with Johnny Dream their Winston Smith.
“It allowed us to tell the story from a character’s point of view like a novella,” says Tom. “We became so engulfed with the social and political landscape that we were growing up in - nothing had ever gone our way with voting, and still fucking doesn’t. It was looking at the abuses of power, at power constructs and why society is organised the way it is.”
The concept caught on – Radio 1, 6Music, Clash and Classic Rock became champions of the Blinders cause and the summer of 2019 saw them invade the European festival circuit, bagging a last-minute Glastonbury spot and getting a speeding motorcade escort to their slot at Benicassim after breaking down in France. “We had ten hours exactly to get onstage,” Matt smirks, “and the journey was nine hours and fifty-five minutes.” “We’re on a motorway,” Charlie adds, “and we see these scooters come alongside like a fucking drive-by.”
Meanwhile, in their new rehearsal space in a renovated Manchester mill, they set about moulding a more sophisticated second album. Their new musical touchstones were solo Lennon, Joy Division, The Fall, Nick Cave, their aesthetic ones Hitchcock, Kubrick and Twin Peaks. They composed initially on piano and, as fans of his work with Marianne Faithfull and Anna Calvi, hired Rob Ellis of PJ Harvey fame to produce, alongside Adrian Bushby, who has worked with the likes of Foo Fighters and New Order. Half an album had already been pieced together in the wake of ‘Columbia’, loosely revolving around the narrative of a song called ‘Fantasies Of A Stay At Home Psychopath’, involving a “stereotypical lone psychopath” inspired by Hitchcock’s Psycho. Another mask, to help them express the cynicism, anger, anxiety and misanthropy that tormented them.
“We were looking at ourselves as opposed to the outside world,” Tom says. “When you get to that age, 19, 20, 21, you start to know that you know nothing. So we took a leaf out of Nick Cave’s book with this one, trying to exaggerate our own personalities.”
So tracks such as first single ‘Circle Song’, a Beatledelic blues rock waltz, approached one of life’s confusing crossroads steeped in suicidal despair. The sinister ’Forty Days And Forty Nights’ detailed the collapse of a relationship into murderous animosity, and the doomy, Cave-like ‘Black Glass’ used surreal, impressionist imagery to confront drug use – “you write what you know,” Tom shrugs.
Over the course of 2019, however, the outside world inevitably crept up on them. Having vowed never to write another political song after ‘Columbia’, Tom overheard a conversation on a train straight from the forked tongue of Brexit Britain. “Some of the stuff that was coming out of their mouths, and they were having a conversation like it was normal, this anti-immigrant, EU rhetoric that the British media and British society is drenched in. I had to say something.”
The result was swamp rock epic ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’, channelling Eighties Matchbox and ‘Humbug’ to rage against the right-wing uprising and the inequality between rich and poor which feeds it. And Tom found he still had much more to say. ‘Lunatic’ attacked the ascendance of money-grabbing despots like Trump, out to destroy the world for profit, and the guilt of the complicit societies that vote for them. The brooding ‘I Want Gold’ was written from the viewpoint of the uncaring one-percenters stockpiling their offshore fortunes as the world burns, all the better to highlight humanity’s inherent greed. Then ‘Rage At The Dying Of The Light’ flicks the script, zooming in on the desperate victims contemplating killing themselves before the seas rise up to swallow them.
“It’s ‘let’s go and drown ourselves before we are drowned, basically’,” Tom explains. “It’s the direct fear of climate crisis. We’re gonna face a massive problem with people trying to flee countries and it’s going to be absolute bedlam. It’s gonna fan the flames of what’s already an anti-immigration rhetoric, and you don’t want there to not be a planet for the next generation, almost to a point where it’s more humane to not bring a child into the world.”
Matt nods. “The main thing is people think it’s tomorrow. It’s not, it’s today.”
“It’s so frightening seeing governments across the world not just refuse climate change but directly support these companies when they know it’s wrong,” Tom continues. “It is bitter, it puts a bad taste in your mouth, that these kind of people exist. I’m the kind of person that watches the news and when you see the stuff on climate crisis, you get a pit in your stomach. You genuinely can’t speak for fear. It does feel that poor mental health is rife nowadays and I genuinely believe that’s because of the state the world’s in.”
So, after 16 days in Manchester’s Eve Studios, The Blinders emerged with ‘Fantasies Of A Stay At Home Psychopath’, an album which echoes and encapsulates its time more pertinently than any other. For it doesn’t just reflect the fears, frustrations and social fractures of 2020, it captures the hopelessness of facing a post-Brexit decade set to slip ever deeper into hardship and hopelessness – The Blinders have seen it first hand, having become volunteers at local food banks and toured in support of the 2019 Labour election campaign: “We thought it was going to be an incredible opportunity to build a better society, which we genuinely believed in,” says Charlie. “I feel like I’m turning into a cynical old man, I just don’t have any hope,” Tom adds, but is proud that the album “looks everything in the eyes of what we deal with. It’s drug use, it’s lack of faith in humanity, its fears and anxiety and dealing with depression. It’s everything we wanted to talk about.”
Despite its bleak outlook, though, the record brims with the pure rock rejuvenation of Fontaines D.C. and their ilk, launching the new decade of rock with a righteous roar, knowing its time has come. Consider the glimmer of optimism on closing ballad ‘In This Decade’. “In the last decade we’ve gone from being children to teenagers to adults,” says Charlie. A glint of superstardom appears in Tom’s eye. “What’s gonna happen in this decade?”