Over 2013 and 2014, the one-two punch of ‘Austerity Dogs’ and ‘Divide and Exit’ helped push Sleaford Mods – deemed, for admittedly understandable reasons, to have nil commercial potential – into unexpected crossover success.
In the half-decade since, Sleaford Mods have been diligent and indignant observers of a nation busily engaged in its own decline – though just because Sleaford Mods will always sound exactly like Sleaford Mods, the scale of their progression and of their reach in that half-decade can often go unexamined.
Primarily, they’ve had a curiously profound effect on a genre they do not occupy, British guitar indie. As Clash suggests to Jason Williamson below, you don’t have to like Idles, Shame or Cabbage to note quite how much Sleaford Mods have set the tone for how a certain kind of British band relates to the world around them.
In the meantime, Williamson himself has progressed as a writer in unexpected ways. The furious speed poetry that typified 'Divide and Exit' has faded from view with each subsequent release, and similarly you can observe a drop-off in Williamson referencing celebrities and public figures around the time that contemporaries got wise to this trick.
"It was something we said at the time because I think it needed saying", explained Jason when I put this to him in a 2016 interview, "I've eased off, you say it once and you don't want to repeat it."
Though a Corbyn supporter, he wrote despondently on ‘Carlton Touts’ of a Labour party that looked like ‘a three quid tube of vending machine Smarties’, before exalting ‘bring back the Neo-Libs, I’m sorry!’. Tracks like ‘Dad’s Corner’, or the urban psychedelia of ‘Drayton Manored’ (memorably sampling a corner-shop door bleep) took a forensic look at Williamson’s own generation advancing towards middle age and struggling to make sense of their continuing alcohol and drug use.
In contrast, ‘Army Nights’ was a curiously sympathetic portrait of the pumped up gym-nut – “what’s the matter with that?” Williamson asked in earnest. That song’s protagonist, explained Williamson at the time, was "the kind of guy anyone cool would hate and think to be a vacuous person. It occurred to me there was nothing negative about what he was doing, it was completely positive."
With a new album scheduled for 2019, Sleaford Mods are releasing a self-titled EP via Rough Trade on September 14th and comes ahead of a pair of live shows at London's Roundhouse on September 21st and 22nd. Those shows will be followed by a homecoming gig at Nottingham's Concert Hall on September 30th.
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Hello Jason. There’s a lot of violence on the new EP isn’t there? You’re not describing actual violence but certainly it’s below the surface on nearly every track. The statistics show we live in a much less violent society in Britain than 30 or 40 years ago, but a lot of that impulse has moved online hasn’t it?
J: It has yeah. The character in the track is me really, and I thought about why things are making me so angry and I think everything that’s happening politically – as well as historical flaws in my personality – have all conjured up to create this character. There’s definitely a blanket presence online of hatred. That comes from all areas, from supposed intellectuals to obviously the idiots that are enabling all of these forces.
Do you genuinely get frustrated by what gets directed at you on social media?
J: Of course yeah, right from the off. For up to a week it can send me into spasms of absolute…all I can see is red. This isn’t a crusade against trolls it’s just an observation about the whole thing. I used to do it – I did it before Sleaford Mods and I still do it. It can send you into an absolute spiral. There are certain levels of trolling though; there’s people’s opinions and then there’s the dumb attack that are disguising that individuals whatever they’re going through – depression, jealousy, envy whatever. It’s a complex one really.
I used to really enjoy Twitter, then that started to stress me out and I found myself viewing Instagram as quite a nice escape, but that’s started to annoy me too.
J: They’re all just as bad and I agree with you totally. I’m not sure one will come along that will eclipse Instagram – they come along and it’s just like different lager manufacturers or different drugs, they all end up doing the same thing you know what I mean? Twitter’s horrible, someone described it the other day as a shouting factory which hit the nail on the head. Instagram’s more subtle, but they still get in there don’t’ they?
Your last album, ‘English Tapas’, came out in the shadow of Brexit. Two years on things are actually quite a lot darker – Tory ministers talking about bringing the army in for food and medical supplies after Brexit, the rise of Tommy Robinson, even more so than just two years ago people seem willing to take politics to more extreme and more nasty places. Your writing seems to pick up on that, and the kind of deep pain that’s underneath all of that.
J: I think it’s down to experiences from the word go with individuals isn’t it? Childhood, but also with fascism – which Robinson is starting to enter into the dark alley of fascism. You’ve got this nemesis with him but sooner or later hubris will come round and chop him up.
Fascism is about money, is about greed, is about power – a lot of these people are motivated by that. That’s been injected into people in a real concentrated way in the last thirty years with the rise of neoliberalism. I’m using sketchy loose points here and I’m not an expert but everything around fascism, the main ingredients are hate and a need to acquire lots of power and money, so I think that’s within a lot of people.
The positive side? I don’t think there is a positive side to politics is there? We completed the new album last month and there’s a song on there that addresses that – this idea that policies are these shining beacons of hope, because they’re not. They’re a band-aid on a knackered trap. There needs a complete overhaul but I don’t think that’s going to happen.
I’m still of the opinion that it’s going to get really bad before it gets better – if it ever gets better. Look at the historical lifeline of the human race, we’ve been through a lot fucking worse. Climate change is something that is starting to bother me but my carbon footprint is as big as fucking whatever so I don’t get on my high horse about that one!
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Sleaford Mods as a project always progresses but it does so within a minimalist framework – I can’t ever imagine a radical change of direction, or a big press campaign with a new image – but that does mean you really tune into these micro-progressions on tracks like ‘Jokeshop’, which is a bit more dancefloor than anything you’ve previously done.
J: Yeah we’re not into that – there seems to be a lot of that at the minute where there has to be an angle on an album and what it means. Of late there’s been a lot of massive sloganistic statements about what people are doing, but with something that is basically absolutely shit. Hiding a big product with all these big words and a blanket of compassion. We definitely wouldn’t do that, absolutely not. We veer more towards the cheeky side of things, it’s subtle, the music should speak for itself.
‘Jokeshop’ wasn’t going to go on the EP – I chose the lineup and Steve (Underwood, band manager) said we needed something on there that showed we were experimenting as well. In my mind, all the tracks are experiments a little bit but yeah ‘Jokeshop’ is one of the ones that sticks out. It works – it’s really good.
In the last couple of years you’ve published short stories and also your lyrics as text – listening to ‘Gallows Hill’, that track struck me as one of the more literary things you’ve done under the Sleaford Mods name. It’s a really vivid evocation of just one location, and really exploring that from a few angles, is that something you were trying to do?
J: Yeah definitely – I’ve written another thirteen short stories coming out this year sometime. Gallows Hill is one of those short stories, it was a song first but then I started writing it as a short story.
It’s based on an old war cemetery in the heart of Nottingham and back in medieval times – or around then, I’ve not properly researched it (laughs) –the authorities would hang whoever they deemed to be a threat to the surrounding townsfolk whether it be murderers, rapists whatever. Crowds would congregate and watch, which was as common as football matches I guess.
The place is really dark and it now is a place for sex workers, pimps, there’s a lot of cottaging going on – I’m not saying that there’s anything dark about cottaging, not at all, but the whole area has got this overall dark feeling about it. It’s quite beautiful but it’s quite scary and oppressive. That has always really inspired me that place so I thought I’d bring it out in a song.
You’ve spoken regularly in interviews about having been sober for a few years now – on the track ‘Dregs’ you’re still writing about pubs and about alcohol, does your sobriety affect how you approach that as a writer?
J: Yeah I kind of look back to memories – that was based on when I was a glass collector in this bar, that would have been around the time of bands like the White Stripes and New York, all that business. So I was working in a bar at the time, I was absolutely skint, I wasn’t working apart from that job and it was terrible. They didn’t pay me for like five months, it was disgusting, I was living on people’s sofas and doing things I shouldn’t be doing.
When I used to collect glasses I’d keep any decent pints that people had left and keep them next to the pot wash. And then they’d empty the spit tray – excess lager having fallen out when people would pull it, I’d empty that into glasses and drink it. If people were there that I didn’t like, I’d make out to the bouncer that they were smoking weed and get them kicked out – local feuds in Nottingham.
So yeah it’s about memories but you can connect it to this overall feeling of dread which affects not only the working classes but the middle classes now also – they’re starting to worry about their position, their jobs. I thought it was quite interesting how it connected to that.
There’s a debate going on within the music industry about the responsibility that the industry has to the mental health of those who work within it, especially around alcohol…
J: We played a festival in Spain recently and we all got little gift bags and in them they had a fan and a small bottle of vodka, it’s like fucking hell – it’s strong stuff vodka. I wouldn’t go back – it’s not even a young man’s game, I don’t think it’s any person’s game the amount of drugs and alcohol people consume, it’s just dangerous and shit and not good for your output. It might have been alright in 1968 but look at all them anyway? They all choked on their own vomit.
It’s bad news, I wouldn’t have any nonsense though – if anyone comes up to me acting like that they’ll get fucking told. I wasted too many years dong that shit, I don’t regret it but it wasn’t the one you know?
Sleaford Mods are now in a place where you’re regularly covered by pretty mainstream publications, and moving up to venues like Brixton Academy or Camden Roundhouse, is it a challenge maintaining that position?
J: It is yeah because I don’t like the mainstream a lot, it’s disgusting and I don’t want to be associated with it. And you think, do we need it? Did we need it before? We didn’t then so why now? The thing is with the mainstream is they let you in but only to a certain point – the shit gets all the accolades. It’s just like getting dirt rubbed in your face a lot of the time but the mainstream has a set of rules where you must get dirt rubbed in your face for a few years but then they reward you at the end of it.
If you’re a patient servant it will reward you, like an OBE or something. It’s a tough one but it’s not hard to exist in that because we just do what we do. If the market changes and our sound becomes dated overnight – that’s the boy, that’s the one that will sort you out.
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And how does the material translate to larger spaces for you?
J: Good yeah! We’ve settled in with it, you know what I mean? It’s not been a problem. Sometimes it can be a bit…festivals, for example, you just think people are there and they don’t give a fuck who’s playing. It can be very nerve racking sometimes too. It’s good for business though I guess.
I was thinking recently – and I don’t know how much you’d agree with this – but you don’t have to like bands like Idles, or Shame, or Cabbage to realise that what you’ve done with Sleaford Mods has really set the tone in how a lot of bands in this country write about politics or society. It’s hard to imagine any of those bands existing without you having released ‘Divide and Exit’.
J: Yeah I like to think there probably is…I would agree with you. Me and my wife speak about this quite a lot and whenever I insult any of these bands she’s like “they probably look up to you, why are you doing this?” And she’s right, and like fucking hell I think we probably have and it makes you feel really proud but at the same time I’m really precious about it and if I feel it’s being appropriated in the wrong way I get angry about it – and all my flaws come out in a bad way. It’s double sided, you’re meant to think it’s the biggest form of flattery, but it’s not.
You want your thing to be your thing but you want other people to have it – it’s quite a complex thing. I would agree, probably, that perhaps we kind of initiated that. But that’s no bad thing is it? Regardless of what I think of other bands, it can only be a positive if people are starting to think about things in sociological terms and political terms. That can only be a good thing in a lot of respects.
It’s interesting hearing you talk about being so guarded over what you do, because I always felt Mark E Smith was very much the same in never praising anyone who happened to sound similar – and yet in the last few interviews before he died he was openly enthusing about Sleaford Mods. Did you find that interesting?
J: I did. I thought about it and thought if somebody’s appropriating what you’re doing and been inspired and they’re doing something that is inventive and different but kind of related to that then you wouldn’t have a problem with it – and I think that’s probably why he said those things. Now I couldn’t name an album by the Fall but Andrew knows that stuff quite well. It was just accidental how our sound came about in that sense but yeah, it’s a tough one innit?
You were barred from voting in the 2016 Labour leadership election, do you have any reflections on where the party is at right now?
J: They’re really hammering Jeremy Corbyn aren’t they, but you just really don’t know. I will vote Labour, I will, I went through a period of not wanting to vote a while back but there’s no other option in the game of politics at the minute. I don’t think not voting is going to help the lighter forces, not voting would go in the darker pot at the minute. It’s really hard though, he’s just been hammered by the press and the anti-Semitism thing has taken hold – without sounding uncompassionate you do just think ‘really?’.
Compared to what’s going on in this country it, we need to be thinking about that, thinking about ways to get the Conservatives out. I think a lot of this has been cooked up to take our minds off the idea that we’re going to have a hard Brexit – and there’s nothing on that unless you want to read Guardian long articles. I always look at what’s trending and there’s fuck all trending about what they’re doing at the minute or whether they’re going to try and pull it back so they’re just flooding the media with all this shit. It’s pretty bad really.
Hard Brexit is more profitable for the elite and that’s been since day one –since the Coalition.
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Jason Williamson recommends:
Drill - “I’ve been really listening to drill, but I’ve taken it right back to trap. I’m having a problem trying to find any English drill outfits – Giggs’ last album, there’s bits like that, but I’m just going on Spotify and listening to various stuff and trying to check that...”
Pusha T – “Fucking unbelievable. The album’s called ‘Daytona’ and it’s fucking brilliant. You realise why Kanye West (who produced ‘Daytona’) is who is he is, in a lot of respects. The production on it is really good.”
Davy Graham – “Yeah the old folk guy – ‘the Complete Guitarist’ is an album he’s done which mixes English sounds with folk and I’ve been listening to that mainly. That and Luther Vandross, and bits of 80s stuff. I haven’t touched indie at all, I can’t be doing with it, in a lot of respects I perhaps don’t understand modern indie – white people with guitars, guitar led indie music for me is not good at all.
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'Sleaford Mods' EP will be released on September 14th.
Words: Fergal Kinney
For tickets to the latest Sleaford Mods shows click HERE.
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