Sleaford Mods: ‘People are consciously aware of the fact that life is sh*t’
British duo Sleaford Mods have a simple plan of attack – make something fantastic, something aligned to the times you’re in
Sleaford Mods’ Jason Williamson (left) and Andrew Fearn: “I don’t think people get any aspiration to change things through the music we do.”
“I can’t even look at the Sun. I just can’t do it. You’re better off just reading a bit of toilet roll.”
Mention the British tabloids to Jason Williamson, lead singer of Sleaford Mods, and you get the reaction you’d expect. As the ranting frontman of Britain’s best band, Williamson has taken the bile so often spat out in newsprint and twisted it, turned it back on itself, making a positive force out of a poisonous flow. In an unmistakable midlands accent, Williamson sings of the crushing banalities of modern life. He catalogues the surreal and the sickening parts of Britain today.
On this occasion, the source of his ire is a recent Sun headline: “Psycho Seagulls Keep Out Illegals”. It’s like an imitation of Williamson’s style, keeping the sledgehammer rhyming scheme while eschewing the bitter irony.
“All that stuff just angers me,” he says. “It’s just horrible, it’s just shit. The media spotlight on how many people this week have f**ked off to Syria to join Isis – you know, it just really, really annoys you. These people are running away from something obviously, in the sense of the Calais issue. Or, as everyone says, “crisis”. That really f**ks me off as well. They wanted to interview us a couple of weeks ago, I just told the PR geezer ‘No, I don’t want to do a f**king interview with them’. That’s just how it is, the same old shit.”
Sleaford Mods are a duo, with Williamson’s lyrics crashing over extremely repetitive loops, often little more than a beat and a bass-line, created by Andrew Fearn. The beats and the vocals together have a sort of monolithic, overwhelming effect. Williamson suggests that it’s an attempt to mix the hardcore rap of Wu-Tang Clan with a more minimal sound palate. There are few samples, and songs don’t tend to go anywhere. Instead, it’s one blistering verse after another, with sloganeering one-liner choruses offering a chance to catch a breath and take a swig of your can. Its relentlessness is vital, mirroring the monotony of the lives detailed in the lyrics.
The pair have just released Key Markets, their fourth album together and the seventh Sleaford Mods album overall. Williamson started the project in 2007, and Fearn joined in 2012, during the production of the album Wank. The following album, 2012’s Austerity Dogs, was the one that really began to get them noticed. A rigorous touring schedule and a strangely compelling live show – Williamson “twatting about” while ranting into the microphone, Fearn standing behind him at a laptop, smiling and bobbing along – helped to spread the word. Audiences connected with Williamson’s darkly humorous lyrics, recognising the world around them in stories about desperate nights out in mid-sized towns, bad drugs, worse jobs: “I work my dreams off for two bits of ravioli and a warm bottle of Smirnoff, under a manager who doesn’t have a clue,” he sings on Fizzy. It’s life as we know it, and all the more terrifying for it.
“It’s like when you’re working and taking the piss out of each other and then having these moments of absolute despair because your jobs so shit,” says Williamson. “The music kind of subconsciously copied that, you know what I mean?”
Chink of light
This combination of despair and humour, Williamson’s ability to find the chink of light barely peeking through the gloom, is what defines the band. With this in mind, the band name becomes more understandable. Like the original Mod bands, The Who and The Jam, Sleaford Mods are taking the mundane and making something special out of it, creating a narrative from the things, the people, usually considered beneath the notice of real art.
And, like Weller, there’s an acknowledgement of the futility in the project, of its limitations. Still, their music is an attempt to make it new, to tell the stories of their place and their time in a way that feels honest, and timely. Williamson understands better than most that “mod” comes from “modern”, and he mentions a responsibility to save the term, the idea, from the retro-enthusiasts who see it as a fixed identity they can appropriate.
“At the time when we were coming out, it had been thoroughly murdered,” he says. “So I stuck it in there because it reminds me of wanting to, in whatever field you’re in, creatively anyway, to just make something more alternative, something with a bit more of a contemporary feeling to it, something more aligned to the times that you’re in. To reclaim it back because it’s not about walking around looking like Dave Clarke Five like all these people are still doing, even today. What the f**k are you doing? It’s like people have given up. It’s taking what you’ve got around you, which isn’t a lot perhaps, and doing something good with it, something fantastic with it. Not just wearing a f**king badge, you know what I mean?”
Older music critics have been eager to see a resurrection of a certain type of protest music in Sleaford Mods’ music, but this is a long way from Red Wedge disaffection. Their music exposes an often unpleasant reality, and it offers some glimmer of compassion within that, something for people to connect with, which might help them feel less alone.
It’s not actively political though, not in the sense of parliamentary politics anyway. It’s not advocating a particular change, and neither is the audience. Williamson suggests that the music offers people something both familiar and unusual, a sense of themselves in the work which is so often missing from what they’re force-fed through radio and television.
Kind of enough
“I think a lot of people aren’t actively looking for change,” he says. “They’re just going to work. That’s the whole idea – as long as you can come home to your family each night, that’s kind of enough. People are consciously aware of the fact that life is shit, especially in England. The mentality is ‘as long as I can come home and be relatively happy in my small box, I’m alright’, but I still thing they’re a bunch of c**ts”. And we just communicate that. I don’t think people get any aspiration to change things through the music we do. I think people are just grateful for the familiarity from a band again. It’s been missing for quite a while. I think that’s what people get from our shows.”
Williamson does wonder whether the increasing size of their audiences might see them being received differently. Earlier this summer they played Glastonbury for the first time, and audiences of that scale are naturally more diverse than the small clubs they’ve been playing for years. On a stage like that, it’s easy to see how the performance might falter, how the intensity of the words might fizzle out. The Glastonbury show was a triumph, but over the next few months they’ll be playing bigger venues again, often of a thousand people or more. Shows like these have been coming for a while, but are they intimidating at all?
“The only thing that’s going to be intimidating is if I don’t know the words,” says Williamson, with a typical mix of confidence and humility. “If I don’t know the words, we’re f**ked!”
Sleaford Mods play Hangar, Dublin, on September 19th, 2015. Key Markets is out now