In the run-up to their biggest Nottingham show to date, The Mic sat down with Jason Williamson of Sleaford Mods for a candid dissection of the band’s legacy, and the state of modern life.
If you go to Sleaford Mods’ Spotify page, where you might expect a biography of the band, you instead find the following: “We ushered in a new way for indie bands to sing and approach their music, and now we regret it.” It’s a perfect encapsulation of their relentless efforts over the past decade to present their music with extreme, uncomfortable honesty.
“I’ve been trying to change that, because people have been going, ‘You wanker!’” Jason Williamson laughs, when presented with the quote. For a songwriter who has documented the brutality of austerity Britain with withering cynicism for his entire career, he’s an affable interviewee. Then again, Sleaford Mods are experiencing the most success they’ve ever had as a band – indeed, more success than anyone might expect a minimalist electronic punk band to have. The very reason for this interview is their upcoming gig at Nottingham’s Motorpoint Arena, no less. Sleaford Mods haven’t played a concert in the city since the Royal Concert Hall, three years ago – a slightly staid venue that felt an odd choice for a band with track names like Kebab Spider. “I don't think people have forgiven us really, I think [they] just wanted us to go to Rock City, but we wanted to try and have a bit of a change. We had a good gig, but it was a bit weird, you did feel quite exposed. So I think we learned our lesson there.”
"Rather than just go to Rock City, we just thought we'd try and do the arena"
Then again, what’s the band to do? They’ve outgrown the club venues of their home city, and Nottingham has no other steps on the ladder between club venues and stadiums. “Again, rather than just go to Rock City, we just thought we'd try and do the arena. I'm under no illusion it's gonna be full of 20,000 people or whatever. But, it should be a good laugh, you know, and I think it's something that we can say we've done, you know what I mean.” The band are making a day of it – the city centre is plastered with advertising for the date, and they’re joined by an enviable roster of some of the most exciting bands in the country. “We're really chuffed with it, that we got Dry Cleaning, especially, to come and play. We’ve got Warmduscher, And then obviously, we've got Billy Nomates as well. It felt like the next thing to do really, especially with an album that went to number four, it’s like, why not? Fuck it!”
The Mods had a more successful 2020 than many bands – their latest album, Spare Ribs, was a caustic reckoning of the pandemic in the UK, and was greeted with a level of success that shocked even the band themselves. Jason chuckles, “Creatively it was successful, and also commercially, it really was, which was quite a surprise. I mean, I liked the album we did, don't get me wrong, I was really happy with it, very proud of it. But the response we got was totally unexpected.” He grins. “For anyone that releases albums, it's a fucking dream come true mate. You want people to like it!”
The album’s cover is decked out in the red and yellow regalia of the daily Covid briefings that punctuated lockdown last year, and the band made no bones about the fact that the album was made in, and written about, the pandemic. Given that no-one particularly seemed to want musicians to reflect on the situation at the time, it seems quite the feat that they made a record that people wanted to hear. “I was conscious of that, that I didn't want it to be some obvious lockdown album. But at the same time, it [was] all around us, it was something that you couldn't avoid. When I look back on this in 10 years, I'll be able to say to myself, ‘Well, this was our contribution to that odd period’.”
Then again, the band have never shied away from documenting uncomfortable topics. Their early albums are, in this writer’s opinion, the definitive cultural document of the UK post-recession. Williamson is devoted to making art of the political climate, warts and all. “I think there's going to be a lot more, I think the world's changing so fast now. Whether it is climate, or whether it's brought on by capitalism, whatever. All of these things are intertwined now, let's face it. So I think there's going to be more of it, and I’m really into documenting that, in the way that I want to. In a way that I think is not patronising or ramming it down people's throats.”
"Everyone gets devoured by the machine, you can't help it"
What’s interesting, though, is the way that Williamson’s approach has remained consistent, despite his material position changing. He joins us over Zoom from West Bridgford, a leafy suburb of Nottingham, but when Sleaford Mods began, he was working in a chicken factory. His newly found success is documented in tracks like OBCT, which finds him lamenting his ascension to the “Oliver Bonas, Chelsea Tractor” crowd. Some writers would worry that their credibility relies on their situation, but he’s determined to stick to the course of extreme honesty. “Everyone gets devoured by the machine, you can't help it. If you become successful, at some point you'll start talking about house prices in conversation,” he laughs, before becoming serious. “You just will, it just devours you. There are some people that are very principled, that avoid it, and that's fine, but I don't think I'm one of those people. It's important to be as close to who you are in private, in your personal life, as to what you convey on record, if that's what you do as a living. Without a doubt you've got to, because if not, it's just shit, innit? We know what shit is, we know when people try to ham it up, it’s just depressing. I don't want that.”
Williamson’s honesty has also gotten the band into trouble. They’ve had spats with bands such as IDLES, with Jason having no issue telling people when he thinks they’ve got it wrong. It’s a rare sight in today’s music business, when the precarious nature of the industry leaves bands with sanitised public personas, for fear of the impact on their success. “At the time, I was really offended by bands, and I've got to learn to try not be offended so much. People do what they do, you can't be expected to be thoroughly impressed all of the time. You have to kind of self-regulate, in the sense of how much judgement are you going to cast on people, before it starts becoming more about you than it does about them,” he says, with extreme candour. “Why are you criticising so many people? Is it because you truly don't like them? In all of the cases, yes, I don't like it. But is it needed all of the time?”
If you were hoping to find Williamson on the warpath, the reality couldn’t be further removed. “That’s something that lockdown has also posed to me, after having days upon days with nothing to think about apart from myself. Most criticism of other bands comes from highly principled psychology, doesn't it? But at the same time, this is mixed in with your own feelings of self-worth, and jealousy, and envy. You tend to just not like a lot of people because they're getting somewhere where you think you should be, perhaps. So all of these things are in a melting pot.” He pauses. “If bands were slagging other bands off, to me it would mean that they're alive. A lot of bands don't do it, because they're quite happy with the status quo. They don't mind. Which is fine, but where's the bite coming from? So it's a tough one.”
Even the band’s most high-profile disagreement seems to have been resolved, in an unexpectedly touching turn. “I recently apologised to Joe Talbot from IDLES, for the years of abuse that I've given him and his band. We’ve been talking a little bit over email. I think I needed to just put a cork in it. I still stick with the criticisms of the band, in some respects, and we talked about it, and he knows that. But in the end, you’re just fucking repeating yourself. Who gives a fuck? You've said what you said, but you still keep saying the same thing. So in the end, it just eats itself, and you just look like a twat. I've just got annoyed with the idea of me talking about it constantly, it's just boring. I'm not sucking up to anyone, I'm not kissing anyone's arse. But I think sometimes you have to do the decent thing, and hold your hands up.”
It’s strange, revisiting Spare Ribs a year on. It suddenly struck me (while listening to the track Shortcummings) that I couldn’t remember the last time I’d thought about Dominic Cummings. Every political scandal seems to just wash on by, leaving no trace. “Yeah, it does. It’s interesting about Dominic Cummings, same with Donald Trump, it's almost like they didn’t exist. The machine has had its need for them, and now they've been they've been erased. But they aided and abetted the greater political model, the aggressive neoliberalism, and with Donald Trump especially, the rise of fascism in the United States. So they played their part, they did it well, they did their little bit. They contributed to it although, without trying to sound like a conspiracy theorist, these people aren't connected. They're not part of a greater plan. All of this chaos works towards the greater domination of late capitalism. It accidentally works towards it, it's quite interesting. They're all floating down the same river, and it's going to come out with the same result.”
It’s one of the few points in our interview that Williamson seems genuinely despondent. He makes no bones about the fact that he feels completely alienated by the political system. “Personally, I've washed my hands with it all, I don't think I'll vote this next time around, there's nothing to vote for. I can't even see myself just putting one in the net for Labour. How are they going to be if they get in power? It will still be as clinical, I think, in their handling and relationship with the lower classes, with the poor.” He looks out of the window. “It shouldn't even be a thing, [the UK] is a very rich country, and there’s just pockets of it that are absolutely depleted. It’s just all really, really mixed up at the minute, it’s so confusing. Where do you look? I don't want to be too cynical about things, I don't want to be too fantasist about things. But the more I think about the election system and the voting system, I just despair. There is nothing to put my vote to currently.” I ask Williamson what he made of Jeremy Corbyn. “It was really tough for Corbyn. I was pro-Jeremy Corbyn, and I wanted him to win. But there was a point in his leadership where it went quiet on Brexit. I think that alienated a lot of people, [who] were looking to Jeremy Corbyn to bring some reason and balance to this insane idea of leaving the European Union. And it just went quiet. I wanted him to get in but really, the way that the media were treating him, fucking imagine it if he got in, they wouldn’t have let him breathe! He would have been shot probably. You’re getting nothing out of this country, for a long time. It’s really hard. I've just kind of cocooned myself, I've just got to look out for myself and my family, and try and make as much money as I can so this is passed down to the kids, and they've got something, they’ve got a bit of a better start in life. Because all I'm seeing around me is just ruin.”
"You’ve got to keep daydreaming and believing in a place that you will feel so secure, and warm, and happier in"
It’s hard to know what to say when someone presents you with such a brutal level of honesty. So, I asked Jason about one of the few positives I see in the world at the moment, the return of live music, and art more generally, into day to day life. “It is yeah, I totally vibe off, always have done, creativity, fashion. All of these things have been a life jacket for me. They still are, in fact, I'm even worse. I'm like a fucking 22 year old kid, my wife just despairs sometimes. But what can you do? You don't ever change really, it's just that the carriage just gets a bit older.” I put it to him that it’s over if you ever lose that teenage love for culture, and Jason laughs. “It’s over, you’re right, you have to keep dreaming. It’s just as important as vegetables. You’ve got to keep daydreaming and believing in a place that you will feel so secure, and warm, and happier in. That place is there, and I think that’s one of the real beautiful things about existence.” He pauses one final time. “Good things do happen, you know?”
Written by: Louis Griffin
Edited by: Gemma Cockrell
In-article images courtesy of Sleaford Mods via Facebook.