“A lot of these politicians, they’re not evil. They’re just very detached,”
says Jason Williamson, singer and lyricist of the Sleaford Mods. “I’d like to say it’s not just bounteous privilege, but it is.
People like Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak, they’re incredibly cut off from the world. They’re not serial killers, they’re just ignorant of others. They treat people like they’re asking for change… Here you go, have a bit, tossing a coin while they’re eating a sandwich, looking at their mobile phone. I’ve visited Eton, there’s loads of places like it, and if that’s all you know, then you’ve definitely not had to worry about pulling a tenner out of the bank…”
“I watched this great video and it said that we’ve gone from a nation of people who considered Britain to be Great, to Little England,” says Andrew Fearn, the band’s musician. “Nearly everything’s imported. We don’t produce anything. We’re becoming like a little holiday island that doesn’t do anything. Even countries like Russia are doing better than the UK. But the point is: we’ve called it on ourselves. Our generation didn’t like Great Britain or the flag, we’ve always dissed our own country, so we’ve self-prophesied, in a way.”
Williamson: “The UK is like one of those crazy golf courses, where you’ve got a windmill, and then the next one is a stately home and the next one is a bridge. All we’ve got left are landmarks and characterisations of who we are, and examples of our architecture.”
Williamson thought of calling the band That’s Shit.
Sleaford Mods are an excellent band: surreal, succinct, catchy, hilarious, prolific, brilliant live. But they’re also like those hyperactive children that go round the back of a puppet show and show other kids that the magic isn’t real. At one point in their existence, Williamson thought of calling the band That’s Shit, Try Harder – not a name destined for the Top 40 – and that’s still their approach to the world; a funny, no-compromise manifesto. No wonder they work so well with the artist Cold War Steve (real name Christopher Spencer), another specialist in hilarious political grotesque. Steve made the video for the opening single from their new album, UK Grim, and also created this week’s cover for the ObserverNew Review. “It was so easy working with him,” says Williamson. “We were like, why haven’t we done this before?”.
For the cover, Williamson and Fearn nominated some potential co-stars, a few pet hates of the British political and cultural classes. Rishi Sunak (“a fucking child, like having a 16-year-old boy in charge”); Boris Johnson (“sat at the back, commenting on the war, like he’s one step ahead of everyone else”); Michelle Mone (“absolutely bastard-ish”); Andrew Tate (“It’ll come back at him and he knows it. Right at the end, crushed by his own ego and by the decisions he made”).
All that grief and division, and money gone down the drain.
Those are all from Williamson. Fearn picks Jeremy Clarkson (“absolute knob. Well-educated, 1980s BBC, and he thinks it’s a licence to say what he wants”); Paul Hollywood (“famous for making bread”); Michael McIntyre (“awful, that joke about what we’ve got in our drawer, it’s so upper middle class”). Wetherspoons’ Tim Martin: “He’s terrible. His pubs are terrible. The transparency of it – supporting Brexit for your own ends and then justifying it. So obviously lying, there’s been tons of them doing it. All that grief and division, and money gone down the drain.” He would have liked to pick several Americans: “Half my brain lives in America, because things filter down from there to here. We pride ourselves on our wildlife, but we’ve polluted our rivers with animal agriculture run-off, just like America has. We’re poisoning ourselves in the same way.”
It’s undeniably fun to witness the pair in full flow, particularly Williamson. He’s a ranter par excellence, whether in interviews or via social media, where he’s demolished everyone from Dan Jarvis MP to Alex James. Though he’s recently tried to pull back from slagging people off – “I’ll always say if a band is shit, but nobody is a full cliché” – sometimes he can’t help himself. Here he is on the royal family.
And their old stately homes. Tapestries and carpets, everything stinks, they can only afford to heat one room.
“Not a lot has changed since the 1950s,” he says. “When my son is bringing a Union Jack home from school, it annoys me. But I think it annoys them, too. Charles clearly can’t be arsed. He’s 70, you don’t want that job at that age, you’re wanting that at 50… You know they don’t wash? They don’t feel they have to. They stink. All those mad posh people do. And their old stately homes. Tapestries and carpets, everything stinks, they can only afford to heat one room.”
Or how about Saturday night TV, Jason? “The Masked Singer? It’s terrible! What are people doing? I know it’s hard work in our game, and you get to a point, 15 years into a career, where you’re not bringing in much dough. But it’s proper bottom of the barrel, a celebrity Britain’s Got Talent. Everything’s falling down around you and you’re jumping out of the cake… ”
Williamson’s lyrics are furious, funny and insightful. Fearn’s music is punchy: deceptively simple, made on synths and samplers,
We could do this all day, but there’s music to discuss. Sleaford Mods, now on to their eighth album, think their fans like them because of their music’s British-ness, how it’s “kitchen sink”, “wildcard”, “the wrong thing is the right thing”. But they’re far more art than that. Williamson’s lyrics are furious, funny and insightful; to-the-quick clips of everyday conversation that remind you of the Fall, Samuel Beckett, Coronation Street. Fearn’s music is punchy: deceptively simple, made on synths and samplers, it’s got progressively more melodic as they’ve continued. And on stage, for Williamson at least, “there’s a lot of parading about. I love it. There’s sexuality in performance, definitely. Camp could be the right word.”
Williamson’s vocal technique can tend towards “shouty bloke by the pub bins”, but inside there’s emotion. Anger. Or maybe: distress. “There’s loads of emotions going through it,” he says. “The options for emotional release are very limited. Anger can be a way of expressing other stuff, and the anger is mostly at me really. I write about the state of things and the state of me.”
Jason is naturally trigger-quick in response, emotionally driven but trying to self-edit. Fearn is thoughtful and deeply alt.
We’re at a photographer’s studio, where their session has just finished, and they’re in their dress-up gear, provided by themselves. Williamson has on a Moncler puffa – he takes pride in his clothes, and is a sucker for casual favourites Moncler, Stone Island, CP Company – and Fearn is looking a bit “prepper”, in army jacket, baseball hat and enormo-beard. No band uniform, then; and they’re quite different from each other. Jason, the more well-known face of the band, is naturally trigger-quick in response, emotionally driven but trying to self-edit. Fearn is thoughtful and deeply alt (“I’ve always been an oddball”), less demonstrative but more confident.
“My missus says that Andrew’s the sane one,” says Williamson. “I can get quite obsessive and bully about things, but when I get wound up about someone online, Andrew’ll be like [mildly] ‘Oh, really? Why, what have they said?’ He’s just not bothered. And it helps.”
Williamson is coke and Fearn is weed – and these used to be their drugs of choice.
If you wanted a shorthand for their personalities, then Williamson is coke and Fearn is weed – and these used to be their drugs of choice. Williamson had a cocaine problem for several years, from his 30s into his 40s: “I’d use anything really, but I loved cocaine,” he says. He’s not used for many years now, and recently, he talked to Iggy Pop about it. Iggy said the knack to sobriety was to understand that it can take 10 years before you feel right. It stuck with Williamson, who gave up alcohol too, seven years ago. “Once I gave up alcohol, it was like a walk in the park. Everything became clear.”
Fearn’s weakness was marijuana: “I used to smoke so much, I would wake and bake, I would smoke straight after stage, tons and tons.” He used to function brilliantly on it, set up equipment perfectly, but he gave up a year and half ago. Williamson says he notices the difference: “You’re more flat-lined now, not so up and down.” Now, if Fearn smokes, which he does “once in a blue moon”, he’s all over the place. “You can’t go back to drugs, you’re not that guy any more.” Though he does say he found micro-dosing with his friend’s depression drugs “really helpful. You get a bit tripped out on them, not massively, just tweaks your perception a very small amount. You don’t need comatosing, do you? You just need your mind calming down.”
Both of them slogged away in other bands for years before they got together.
Anyhow, for such different people, they clearly get on well; there’s no tension or ego-jousting when we talk, and they don’t argue when they create songs, either. Partly, it’s because they know what they have. Both of them slogged away in other bands for years before they got together. Williamson, who grew up in Grantham, went to San Francisco and London for a bit, tried his hand at indie and rock; Fearn, from the more rural Saxilby, hung around Nottingham making tracks on cheap equipment.
They met in 2009, when Williamson heard Fearn playing his tunes at a Nottingham bar, and started making music together sitting on the sofa after work. For their first three LPs, they continued in their “proper” jobs: Williamson at a benefits office, Fearn as a cold-caller for a gym. Being paid for music felt “like Robin Hood”, says Fearn. “We would just go in, make money and run away with it.” Gradually, things got more serious. Williamson: “After the second album, we got locked in. Locked into the idea of: ‘Right. The creative side has got to be good.’ And then we locked into gigs. It gets to a point where you’re like: ‘I’m not making an arse out of this. This has got to work. I don’t want to go back to a fucking job again.’”
For around 10 years, from 2012, they made an album at the end of a year, and then the following year they toured it.
These days, they approach their work with a mixture of pragmatism (Fearn) and paranoia (Williamson). For around 10 years, from 2012, they made an album at the end of a year, and then the following year they toured it. Covid threw a spanner in the works, and it led, for Williamson anyway, to a confidence wobble. He always slumps when they finish an album; he immediately beats himself up about whether it’s any good or not. Fearn is more practical: “Don’t think about that. Don’t focus on that. Just get on with it.”
There are high expectations for UK Grim since their last LP, 2021’s Spare Ribs, was a lockdown hit. This album was kicked off in lockdown, too, by – of all people – Perry Farrell of Jane’s Addiction wanting to make a song with them. The result is So Trendy, a bright track that sounds very different from most of the rest of the LP. The title track, UK Grim, was the last they wrote, a state of the nation song that takes in Putin (“got his top off… he’s so fit, big banger”), city types (“white shirts and lunch bellies, threesomes and wealth measles, I want it all like a crack forest gateau”) and everyone else (“in England, no one can hear you scream”).
“Excuse me mate, you’ve just dropped one of your tattoos, I just seen it over there.”
There are others in a similar vein, but also funny ones, such as DIWhy, which opens with Williamson saying: “Excuse me mate, you’ve just dropped one of your tattoos, I just seen it over there.” (He likes messing about with silly characters: on Instagram, he sometimes plays a game show host or celebrity interviewer. Interviewees include Robbie Williams, naked but for a strategically placed pink sock.)
A couple of songs reference Williamson’s childhood, including I Claudius, inspired by Christmas Eve when he was little.
“Being slumped in front of the TV when all you’ve got is these Hollywood, epic, biblical Roman films, which I used to get really drawn into,” he says. “They were an escape. My mum and dad weren’t alcoholics, but everybody drank and on our street and next door, they had lots of alcohol problems. And then seeing Santa with a bag of chips [a lyric reference]: that’s about asking your parents questions, but them just ignoring you. Very negative a lot of the time, lots of issues. But also, at the same time, feeling absolutely, completely happy with my new Superman sweatshirt.”
The same song describes Williamson beating someone up at the gym but that’s “a fantasy.
That knowledge of how life can be both horrible and happy, boring and violent as well as joyful, is what feeds the band’s fire. Jason is very sensitive to it, even now: Smash Each Other Up describes the street atmosphere post-Covid, fights started by drivers getting “narky” with each other. “People can be vicious, they’re just ready to kick off at any minute, and have been for quite a while.” The same song describes Williamson beating someone up at the gym but that’s “a fantasy. It’s how you feel sometimes: ‘If anyone says anything to me, I’m just going to tell them to fuck off.’”
He knows he’s easily triggered; he’s always getting into rows on social media with people who he feels haven’t suffered. With one band singer, Joe Talbot from Idles, it got so bad that he had to send an email apologising. “And then they emailed me back, saying: ‘Thank you for that.’ I felt better, but I was expecting to talk more with him. But then you think: ‘Well, they’re not going to discuss it, because I was just a cunt.’
It took me and Andrew years and years, we never got anywhere, just doing hopeless projects.
“I was jealous [of them], I felt like my narrative was hijacked. I get really envious of bands that I feel have had an easy ride. It took me and Andrew years and years, we never got anywhere, just doing hopeless projects and people not taking any interest. If someone overtakes you and they haven’t had it hard, I can’t let it go. That goes back to self-doubt, back to being a kid.”
Then there’s Apart from You, with its New Order-ish bassline, a tender song about trying to survive on very little. From there, we end up talking politics. They’re both going to vote Labour, though Williamson (who joined the party in 2015 as a Corbyn supporter but was suspended the following year for “online abuse” – possibly relating to him tweeting that Dan Jarvis was ‘“a posey cunt”) is less certain: “Obviously, Labour would be better than the Conservative party,” he says. “And I can quite confidently say that, because [the Tories] have just lost their minds. But I have a problem with Labour because it’s quite centrist, so you get Keir Starmer saying something reasonable and you think, OK, but then he starts rattling on about the royal family. He’s got his affiliations with the infrastructure of traditionalist England, with the aristocracy. He’s a bit of a bootlicker.”
“Voting Labour is the only option,” says Fearn, who comes at politics from a different angle. He didn’t have a TV for years and he got out of the habit of watching the news; the last time he did, he couldn’t believe how much time was spent on football. Now, he gets most of his information via social media (he likes NowThis News) and documentaries.
He buys all his stuff secondhand now, apart from trainers, and has his own Instagram selling page,
Still, it’s not all politics: we spend quite some time discussing the track Pit 2 Pit, which concerns Williamson’s secondhand clothes habit. During lockdown, he found himself on Depop, Vestry and Instagram, buying the labels he liked, especially coats (pit to pit is the chest measurement from armpit to armpit). He buys all his stuff secondhand now, apart from trainers, and has his own Instagram selling page, @Tilldipper, where he sells the stuff he’s bored of. Not that he does much of that. He can’t let go, and he can’t let a bargain go to someone else. “It got to the point where I couldn’t tell my wife, Claire, because I’d bought that much. I mean it was Covid, I didn’t know when I was gonna earn again…” The other day, Claire asked him how much money was in their PayPal account, and he lied, telling her £100 less than there was, because he wanted to buy something. “She looked at my phone and went mad,” he says. “But there’s worse morning-after hangovers than a coat.”
Claire has been the band’s manager for the past few years – “she’s good at cutting work off at home. She’ll say: ‘I’m not talking about you any more’” – and they live in a nice part of Nottingham, which Williamson is happy about, with their two children: a girl aged 11 and a boy of seven. He enjoys being a parent but finds it hard, sometimes, to let his kids fight their own battles. “I identify with my son, I project myself on to him. I put myself in his position, and it makes me think about how I was as a kid. I try not to. I say: ‘This is not Jason, he’s his own person.’ I had a horrible childhood, it’s an improvement what he’s living in.”
He also thinks that the “brutality” of 1970s and 80s culture plays into it.
Williamson’s horrible childhood was caused by his mum and dad arguing – “at war with each other constantly” – mostly about his dad’s infidelity. They separated when he was 10, but it had an impact into his adulthood. As a younger man, he took on some of his dad’s attitudes. “My attitude towards women was very much the same,” he says, and he had a bad porn habit for a while. “I can’t lay my own misogyny [from that time] on my father, but I do a bit, I think. I wanted a father figure and he disappeared in many ways.” He also thinks that the “brutality” of 1970s and 80s culture plays into it, though he wonders if today’s culture for kids is any different.
Fearn’s home life is, currently, less settled. During lockdown he lived at his parents’, planning to buy a house nearby, but the sellers strung him along and put up the price by £30k, so he moved, on a whim, to a rented house in Warwick, opposite the castle. He likes being somewhere beautiful, but he hopes to move in with his partner soon, and then maybe get a rescue dog. He needs space for all his synths.
They have adult concerns. It’s interesting to see a band hit their stride in middle age. Williamson is 52 and Fearn is 51, a couple of years younger than, say, Blur or Suede, but because their success didn’t come until they were both fortysomething, they’re seen as older, somehow. No pretty boy pictures from their youth for our subconscious to superimpose on these two.
“The thing of, ‘I’m too old to do this now’, when we started playing live again, I had a bit of a crisis about,” says Williamson. “All our contemporaries are 25 years younger, most of them, and you get quite a lot of ageism. But what can I say to them? I was doing the same thing 20 years ago.”
“You can question yourself and that’s important,” says Fearn, “but more important is the reality. Like Kate Bush, her latest is probably even better than her early stuff. It’s good, I think, to be around still. You’re sending out a great message to people in their 30s and 40s to say, ‘You’re never too old for creativity’. Also, I remember when I was nobody and was constantly making music and putting it out on social media, and it wouldn’t even get one ‘like’… That’s a lot tougher. The only thing to stop you making music is depression, not wanting to get out of bed.”
They’ve been through a lot, these middle-aged men, and it gives them insight. They understand what it’s like to be wrecked and ignored, poor and hilarious, how life can twist people’s personalities, how things can come out sideways, funny peculiar, funny haha.
When we play live, we can see lads laughing because they fucking know. It’s not black and white.
“When you’re at the bottom, you see life for what it is,” says Williamson, “and it certainly isn’t being macho with a Union Jack tattoo. But all the people that walk around like that, people I know who are like that, they aren’t like that at all, either. They’re playing a part. So why not bring all that out, all the things simmering under the lid? When we play live, we can see lads laughing because they fucking know. It’s not black and white. It just isn’t.”
Fearn: “Age helps with that, but also it’s crap to just be serious all the time. You can talk about serious things, and a lot of the songs talk about serious subjects. But you can’t be completely that because you’ll just look stupid and patronising.”
Williamson: “It’s that thing that if you don’t laugh, you’ll just cry your eyes out. But also you get to a point in your life where it’s like, ‘Well, there’s nothing else now, I just don’t give a shit.’ And you start to fly across the rules a bit, and you live your life, and it opens your mind.”
The article was adapted from theguardian.com.