"Anything to get away from the Conservatives. Anything" – An interview with Sleaford Mods
Jason Williamson of Sleaford Mods is not afraid to call things as he sees them. In an agreeably frank interview, the lyricist calls out the lunacy of UKIP voters, the lack of political opposition and "embarrassing" 60s throwbacks like Jake Bugg
It has been a hectic week for Jason Williamson. He’s days away from leaving his role as a benefits adviser in Nottingham to concentrate full-time on Sleaford Mods, the visceral project he has poured his creative energies into for the past eight years. When finished at the office, he heads straight to the studio to work on the duo’s latest album, which must be completed before heading off on an extensive tour, beginning this month. Then there’s the small matter of his daughter’s third birthday party to think of.
The latter is not a chore, he explains to The Skinny over the phone while en route to the studio. He always takes weekends off to spend time with his family – gig commitments allowing. What’s more dispiriting is his current workplace, where he sees first-hand the harsh realities of life on benefits in an era of government austerity. We are speaking days after another round of cut-backs were announced at the Conservative Party conference, and Williamson is predicting things are going to get a whole lot worse for some of the country's most vulnerable. “It is tough for people. If you’re going to depend on benefits, then it’s going to be a really hard time for you,” he explains, matter-of-factly. “You’ve got the Universal Credit coming in. I probably won’t be here when it arrives, but it’s really, really going to fuck things up. There’s going to be more people getting mugged on the streets; people are going to be desperate. It’s just fucking state murder, really. These fucking cunts at the conference, raffling on like they're helping humanity. I’m surprised none of them have been shot, d'you know what I mean?”
Sleaford Mods are an unlikely success story. Their music is shaped by producer Andrew Fearn, whose minimalist beats, basic bass guitar riffs and spartan synths are the canvas on which Williamson spits his lyrics; caustic observations of working life, dismissals of posing musicians, blackly humorous vignettes of his friends and enemies, red-eyed reflections on half-remembered nights out, frank descriptions of his bodily functions, raw disgust at the powers that be. “I can’t believe the rich still exist, let alone run the country,” he vents on Divide and Exit, their most recent album, released in April to great acclaim. It’s led to a “year’s worth” of live bookings and a support slot with The Specials. Intriguingly, The Prodigy have also announced the completion of a collaboration with the duo entitled Ibiza, which will feature on the dance legends' new album, due out next year.
"At least there used to be an opposition, at least you felt like you could trust somebody before. Now, there’s no trust at all” – Jason Williamson
There are no stylistic tics or hidden agendas here. Sleaford Mods pile their world on a plate and shove your face in it. You’ll either pull back and grin or retch and run away. There’s no air of fakery, or suggestions of the middle class going slumming. This is music that people can relate to in a straightforward manner, a product of a time when around a third of workers in the UK earn less than £15k a year and employment rights are evaporating.
Even if you’re fortunate enough to be on firmer financial footing, there’s much to savour. Sleaford Mods recall such English belligerents as John Cooper Clarke or Ian Dury, or plain-talking Mike Skinner at his Original Pirate Material peak, but with a much tougher edge – you could never imagine Williamson singing about pulling on holiday, for example. That’s partly because, at 44, as a father with a young family, his priorities are different to when he was a raver in the early 90s or a face in the Mod revival scene.
But that doesn’t mean he can’t still enjoy the prospect of leaving behind the 9-5. “I did agency work, factory work, lots of that stuff,” he explains. “Then I worked in slightly better jobs, like clothes shops, stuff like that. But I always fell back to menial work, because it’s easy. If you’re doing music, the last thing you want is a job you have to fucking think about.
“I’ve worked hard for this, so I don’t feel so bad about getting out. It’s got its claws in all of us, whether you are claiming benefits or not, you know? The belt’s tightening around everybody. It’s just so oppressive; the hatred you feel for the people running the country, and the hatred you feel for the opposition, who are just absolutely nothing. At least there used to be an opposition, at least you felt like you could trust somebody before. Now, there’s no trust at all.”
Sleaford Mods have not arrived out of nowhere. While Williamson was still switching jobs at regular intervals, he released four albums which received little attention outwith Nottingham. Things “began to get interesting” when Fearn got involved. “I met him in a club, at a gig I was doing one night, and he was DJing,” he recalls. “I was outside having a cigarette, listening to this music coming from upstairs, and I just went up and approached him and asked him who it was, and he said it was him. So I just propositioned getting together some time. He was a bit hesitant about it, but eventually we met up and that’s how it started. He liked my stuff, he didn’t have a problem with it. I think he was a fan of it before, to be honest. It was more of a problem getting a sound together, and coaching him in the sense of what I wanted, the ideas I had, and then he came round to it.”
Sleaford is 15 miles from Williamson’s hometown of Grantham in Lincolnshire, and Mods is a reference to the culture he first fell in love with as a teenager. He retains some affinity towards it, but stresses that he has no time for retrograde guitar music or 60s haircuts. “I like it for what it should be, and not for this Brighton Beach image that it’s got.”
What does Mod mean to him? “Forward thinking. Unassuming. Something you can identify with. You should be able to take bits from it, but not come out looking fucking laughable. Like people like The Strypes – fuck off, it’s shit. I might really like it, but it’s useless because it’s been done to death. It’s just a shit plateau. Fuck off, and try again. It’s really hard to find someone with a 60s haircut, posing with a guitar, doing some kind of blues lick, inspiring. People have just grown so bored with that image. People like Jake Bugg – he’s just laughable. He’s not even 25 and he’s embarrassing. These people are wheeled out and they act up to the stereotype. People have a go at us, but at least we’re doing something different.”
A day later and The Skinny calls back to complete our interview. Williamson sounds relaxed after a productive evening in the studio, but is also vexed at the big news story of the day – UKIP’s triumph in the Clacton by-election. “I was listening to the radio just now and people were talking about how they normally voted Labour but had switched to UKIP, and the reason was ‘immigrants, immigrants, immigrants.’ It’s all you hear. It’s a fucking joke. It makes you want to spit in people’s faces.”
The rise of right-wing media in times of financial hardship is one of the themes explored on the Mods' new EP, Tiswas. While some dismiss the power of the press in an increasingly digitised world, Williamson isn’t so sure. “You would be surprised at how many people take it in. People really do think there is a problem with immigrants. It’s unbelievable, they’re just people. We have to face up to the fact that the world will become more and more intermingled as it goes on. It’s not going to become this country, or that country, it’s just going to be fucking places where people are. I think Sleaford Mods is more humanist than political. I find it really offensive when people think that the ills of the world are brought on by a certain group of people coming over from a certain country just to work in a certain country.”
Williamson had hoped Scotland would back independence in an act of defiance against Westminster. “At a Manchester gig, half-way through I said: ‘It’s a fucking Yes vote up here!’ and half the crowd went mental and the other half booed. People have their own ideas about it, but anything to get away from the Conservatives. Anything. We played up in Glasgow and we were talking to people there, and they were like: 'We don’t really care about independence, we just want to get away from the Coalition.' And you nearly did it! It’s a real shame.”
He gives a short laugh. “We’ll all go down the swanney together, eh?”
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