One of the most remarkable music stories of the last few years has been the exponential rise of the Nottingham-based duo Sleaford Mods. You may have seen them. There’s Jason Williamson spitting rhymes and raps while Andrew Fearn stands there, pint in hand, head-nodding to the beats he has made on his laptop. He doesn’t do anything except click the next song. He’s done all his work. It’s Williamson though who gives it 110% live on stage. A force of nature, with a fine line in footwear, it’s a miracle his voice isn’t shot such is the near-shouting vitriol, sarcasm, wit and anger in his heavily-accented outpourings. Not only are the lyrics by turns acerbic, sarcastic, rude and poetic, like a more angry and less dry John Cooper Clarke, they are utterly contemporary in their personal dissections of the socio-political-cultural English landscape. They have also ‘made’ it in their 40s, a rare feat in the youth focussed world of rock’n’roll; whereby if you haven’t already made it by the time you’re 30, then it is extremely unlikely you ever will. But Sleaford Mods aren’t your normal rock’n’roll act and these aren’t normal times. “Yeah, it is a bit weird,” says Jason. “It still winds people up. Which is good, I suppose. People rubbish it or look down their noses at it, you know. Because we’ve tied it in with this political thing, it gets people’s backs up if they think you’re giving out half-educated information in your songs. It can wind people up to say the least. It’s a tough one. What do you do? Some people are never fucking happy.”
Drawing upon a rich heritage of British spoken word music that includes legends such as The Fall, John Cooper-Clarke, Shaun Ryder, Ian Dury, The Streets, Linton Kwesi Johnson, and bearing more than a passing affinity with another contemporary socio-politico poetess, Kate Tempest; Sleaford Mod’s hard, fuck you, minimalist electro-funk has energised and excited old punks, new punks and music lovers in general. They sum it up well by calling what they do ‘electronic munt minimalist punk-hop rants for the working class’, with Williamson rapping about unemployment, criticism of modern working life, criticism of celebrities and pop culture, capitalism and society in general.
And like the aforementioned Mark E. Smith (The Fall) et al the words and messages are given more life and meaning by virtue of the accent of Williamson. In this case it’s a profanity strewn, decidedly working class, East Midland’s voice. You can’t imagine a Middle Englander having anywhere near the same impact. It’s all in the delivery and the sound: a razor-sharp vocal dissection that amplifies the meaning; the subject matter therein, Williamson’s grimly hilarious lyrics exploring the dark underbelly of austerity-hit Britain, often via the medium of random abuse launched at politicians and celebrities including Boris Johnson, Nick Clegg, Russell Brand, Noel Gallagher, Blur and David Cameron. As he sings on ‘Rupert Trousers’, off the Key Markets album of last year: “Idiots visit submerged villages in 200 pound wellies, spitting out fine cheese made by the tool from Blur. Even the drummer’s a fucking MP. Fuck off you cunt, sir.” As Williamson has said, his lyrics reflect the rage that goes on in his head. “That’s why Sleaford Mods is. Definitely.”
But although the likes of contemporary urban punk poets act as reference points, Sleaford’s are in no way copyists, despite the minimalist repetitious nature of the music, a feature of bands like The Fall. Fearn’s music is sometimes stripped down to the basics of just very simple looped drum and bass, often relentless, but usually imbibed with a foot-tapping rhythm, somehow underscoring the venomous outpourings that come from Williamson’s mouth, these oscillate between direct rages against the cold realities of surviving (“I worked my dreams off for two bits of ravioli and a warm bottle of Smirnoff”), the stream-of consciousness outbursts that talk of shitty consumerism, shitty people and shitty lives, and some angry politics here and there. “The loneliness of life, the alienation, the concrete is being more and more drawn in. There isn’t a lot of fresh air,” says Williamson about his general feelings on life for the many. “There’s not a lot of blue skies. People assume that you are political, but all we are doing is sounding off. You’ve got a responsibility to be intelligent, and to think about things, be thoughtful and compassionate.”
Although based in Nottingham, Fearn and Williamson both grew up in Lincolnshire unbeknownst to each other, hence the name Sleaford Mods, Sleaford being a market town in Lincolnshire. “Well, Grantham Mods sounds shit,” Williamson has said. “And Sleaford sounds a bit sleazy, like a lot of the early songs. With the mod thing, I was just always into it. Still am.”
Williamson decided things weren’t working out too well for him when he was in his mid-30s, as friends started to shun him, “because I couldn’t hold it together. I was doing agency jobs, and being frowned upon.” But because of that he started to look at his life and his surroundings in a different light, becoming in effect inspired and empowered by his situation. It seemed he was going to make something good out of a bad situation. “That’s when I started to look at things differently.”
Williamson’s progress through his 20s and 30s was not easy. He had spent some time trying to find musical soulmates in San Francisco, came home and played guitar and sang in a succession of bands, and ended up trying to ride the wave of late-period Britpop in a group who were almost called Sunday Dinner, before settling on Meat Pie. Their aim was to combine Small Faces and Guns N’ Roses, but cocaine got in the way. “Meat Pie finished ‘cos I got into sniff and started acting like an arrogant bastard,” he has previously said. “People were telling me I had this great voice, and I should be signed.” He did have a great voice but he just didn’t have the right vehicle for it.
One day it was suggested to Williamson that he combine his vocals with a Roni Size sample. “I had no money. I’d just have enough for a Mars bar and a can of Special Brew. I wrote a song called Teacher Faces Porn Charges, about going to the shop in my pyjamas, to buy the Mars bar and the can. I stopped listening to fusty 70s guitar bands, and started listening to the sound of people at last orders, the sound of people arguing outside coming down off drugs, the sound of people in the office at lunch time, or on the warehouse floor. And that combined with the hip-hop influence. I was taking note of the fact that I was failing, and taking mental snapshots of it: remembering all the times that I fucked it up and went even lower. That started to build up, and build up. I started to get curious about why I was doing it. I started to view the situations I was in as inspiring.” And crucially, as Williamson knows, it’s the humour of it that has helped it along. “Some of it is funny. If it doesn’t make us laugh it’s not a very good tune.”
Along with Simon Parfrement (who is still involved with the band as their video director), these two called themselves That’s Shit, Try Harder, before taking on their present name, and for the first four albums Sleaford Mods developed a very minor cult following without denting the nation’s consciousness. It wasn’t until Williamson came across Fearn DJing his own grime-electro music at a club, that they developed a friendship and joined forces in time for their album, in effect Sleaford Mod’s fifth album, Wank, which was released in 2012. Much more post-punk in sound back then, it saw Sleaford start to develop a major cult following, thanks to the likes of tracks such as ‘PPO Kissing’ Behinds’. “Plenty People Outside telling you that you don’t need it. But you will. And you do. And you always will. I get the feeling sometimes I better watch how I speak my mind. There’s plenty of people outside, kissing behinds.” Thankfully Williamson took no notice of what people thought, and instead decided to ratchet up the ranting and railing against almost anything and everything on the Divide and Exit album. However he crucially toned down some of the questionable Viz-style sleaziness and pornographic outpourings he had committed on tracks such as ‘Armitage Shanks’ (check it out, it’s really jaw-droppingly funny, but with next-to-zero appeal beyond the outer fringes due to the lyrical content).
Instead, Williamson fine-tuned his wordsmithery, cut out some (but not all) of the expletives and took his work to another level. Still funny, though, “The smell of piss is so strong it smells like decent bacon” ‘Tied Up In Nottz’, and “Sat around the bloke’s house. He liked me because I made some informed comment about the early history of his fucking country. Big mirror, lumps of drugs, his own private lift, shit pieces of art, matter-of-fact statements about how he’s picking his kids up in about two hours. Twat, as if.” ‘You’re Brave’. Just two hilarious excerpts from tracks off the Divide and Exit album of 2014, the album that really propelled Seaford Mods into the open to become the surprise hit of the last couple of years, with the 2015 album Key Markets reaching number 11 in the album charts. Its success enabled Williamson to jack in his job as a benefits advisor: “It’s great that I don’t have to work now, but I did go through a period of feeling really guilty about it. I missed having the routine – clocking on and off, going out in the morning with your coffee in your hand, getting the bus to work. When I left I was directionless for about two months.”
Now, he gets to be a chronicler of the times, as he sees it: “There really is no future for a lot of people out there. Some of them fuck it up by getting into drugs or crime, but most people manage to keep it together. They work shit jobs all their life and take the piss out of each other to get by. That’s their lives. That’s their reality. And it’s that experience I want to articulate and that humour I hold close to myself.”
Earlier this year they signed a deal with Rough Trade Records and have just released their debut with that label, the five track EP, TCR. “The idea behind the ‘TCR’ video was to show and use the actual 1980’s toy racing kit in its original environment which would of most probably been the living room floor for most kids at that time. It’s a pretty crap device and I thought it married perfectly to the idea of life’s (at times) rotating dross. The narration/vocal over the song is just that, an account of a bloke reacting to what he feels is a routine-laden existence by ‘escaping’ for the night to the pub only to realise this is also a limited experience and in turn all options kind of merge into a circular experience of never ending repetition that he tries to navigate. As he so brilliantly puts it in the song: “I can’t sit here and enjoy a drink. I want the lot. Have you any numbers? And, how much has he got? The trappings luxury can’t save you from the nail biting boredom of repetitive brain injury.” While the humour shines through in lines such as: “Everyone still looks like Ena Sharples and Ray Reardon. People need to move on. That 50s look can do one. Elvis has definitely left the fucking building.”
How does it feel to be on Rough Trade? “They approached us at the end of last year. I wasn’t really that bothered. I didn’t think we really needed it, but as you carry on I kept thinking about it. My manager Steve (Underwood) had a few email interactions. It gives us a bigger market so to speak. We thought that would be good in the sense it would be a lot easier to tour America, get records around America. We found that quite problematic. We had stuff with Mike Patton’s label, Ipecac, which was quite a slimline operation. We didn’t have the capital to fund a big tour.
“We did that EP over three days and we did about 12 tunes. Rough Trade came down and said ‘TCR’ is definitely the single. I was a bit reluctant to be honest, I thought it was a bit too poppy. But I came round to their way of thinking. It’s interesting to sort of sit there and learn about those things, how they approach it.”
The EP also features Dads Corner, “That’s about touring really, about the grim realities of flying. I had a massive problem with flying for the first year or so. I really needed to get my tour habits in check, you know, going out all night, then having to get your stuff together, going down to the hotel reception, get another flight, or a car. It proved quite problematic. I had to rein myself in. It touches on the realities of touring. It’s not a bed of roses.”
‘You’re A Nottshead’ is another song with the Nottingham reference in its title, “That is about a meeting I had a long time ago, with a particular record label that wanted me to remix one of their songs. I went down to the label with said remix and there were piles of cocaine on the table, and you had the main guy and all these people around him. He took me up to this photo montage, and he said ‘do you know who this is?’ ‘It’s Jimi Hendrix. Of course I know who he is’,” he laughs. “It was a little bit patronising, he didn’t quite know what I was trying to do. It’s kind of an account of that. There’s certain people who used to come up to Nottingham a lot and tour around the bars with their entourage, when the label thing was very good, hold court and pull people in and sign bands, fuck them about and drop them very quickly. That kind of thing went on in the late 90s and the start of the noughties.”
‘I Can tell’ is musically blindingly simple, a repetitive bass/synth beat that lays the foundation for Williamson’s lyrical discharges. Williamson says of his bandmate’s music: “It’s really simple, to the point it’s infuriating. I get really wound up by it. Some of it is so unappealing that it makes it appealing”
So, how’s the writing going at the minute? “It’s not really. I’ve not written anything for three months now, although I have started again. I always think I’m not going to be rude this time, but it always comes out the way it does, you know. I’ve told Andrew the name of the game is to keep writing and not stop. We’ll try it like that and see if we can put it together with any better results, but we’re happy with what we’ve done this time around.
Sleafords have carved out such a strong sound for themselves that Williamson’s recent collaborations with dance giants Leftfield and The Prodigy have come across as not quite right, somehow. Not up to Sleaford’s standards. “There isn’t really any music about that I would want to put my vocal to,” says Williamson. “I think (what we do), it’s one of the best sounds around at the minute. What I sometimes do is record a melody on my phone with my voice and I will send it to Andrew, and he’ll base a track around that. We find that works very well for some reason. It’s quite basic but it works. At other times he’ll send me stuff. The thing with Andrew is that he needs to sit down and get into it and once he does that he starts coming out with some great stuff, you know what I mean?
“He lives on a narrowboat. I don’t know where he is at the moment. I think he is down south. It took him about a month to get down there. He seems quite happy.” And he should. He recently got married. “Yeah, a civil partnership. He got married in Las Vegas. He wore a shirt and tie, which was a novelty.
And how about life post-referendum? The atmosphere around where you live, do you notice anything different? “It’s horrible, really. Financially, it’s not touched me. I’m earning a bit more money now but I feel really sorry for people at the lower end of wage scale. It’s really gone fuck them up. You’ve got these fucking idiots in charge. I was reading an article in the Guardian today where they quoted Boris Johnson at the Tory conference last week, that every time he walks into the map room at that big mansion he’s now working in, it reminds him of how we invaded 187 countries or something. For fucks sake,” he laughs. “Oh my God. “Fucking imbecile! It angers me. He’s managed to con a lot of people, with this pride. This fact that Little England was once an empire.”
Sleaford Mods are about to embark on another tour of the UK. playing some of their biggest venues yet. Williamson sounds bit tired though. A man known for burning the candles at both ends, he’s been dealing with a very young child as he gets ready to hit the road, while his bandmate is enjoying life as a newly married man, living on a barge child free with his male partner. “I’ve been up since six o’clock with my son who is reaching his tenth month this month. As you can imagine I’m not getting much sleep at the minute. I know it gets easier, I have a five year old as well. They might come down for a couple of dates, see what happens, y’know, be exposed to that kind of thing. I think that’s quite good really. I don’t mind the language thing. Not at all.”
But he has finally achieved the dream, as it were, of pursuing music full time, although of course there are anxieties related to that: “I really fucking hope it takes off. Now that I’ve gone full time, it feels like there’s a lot more at stake suddenly. But, I’d rather do this than be in some some shite fucking band. Hey, what can you do.”