Hailed as the new voice of Britain's disaffected working class, this angry duo are riding high in the chartsby Serena Kutchinsky / August 11, 2015 / Leave a comment
Sleaford Mods shouldn’t be successful. They make an uncompromising hybrid of hip-hop and punk. They rant about politics in a coarse stream of consciousness. They are both in their forties, which is pushing it to be considered hip. Their lyrics are distinctively doom-laden and their stage presence is best described as swaggering. But somehow, it works.
It’s been a gradual rise for Jason Williamson, 44, and his partner Andrew Fearn, 43, with several stints on the dole, countless crap jobs and a minor drug habit along the way. Now, the Nottingham-based duo are enjoying critical and commercial success—their Glastonbury Festival performance was among the top five most shared clips on BBC iPlayer, and their new album, the intriguingly titled Key Markets, has just reached number 10 in the UK album charts. The critics have lined up to lavish praise on this, their third studio offering, with Q Magazine calling it “the finest album of its kind since (The Streets’) Original Pirate Material” and The Independent predicting that it will “catapult them into the mainstream”. On the record Williamson rails against the duplicity of modern party politics and spits insults at the liberal elite in a broad Midlands accent, while Fearn uses simple loops and drum-heavy basslines to craft an electronic interpretation of the punk sound they grew up with.
Sleaford Mods’ increasingly broad appeal suggests that in this age of austerity, with traditional political structures increasingly under scrutiny and a resurgent left-wing movement looking likely to propel Jeremy Corbyn to the helm of the Labour Party, there is an audience for a band pushing a more socially conscious sound. But are they as politically savvy as their lyrics might suggest, or is it all an affectation of working class rage designed to generate headlines? I sat down with Williamson to find out.
Everyone in music is talking about your surprise success, while everyone in politics is talking about Jeremy Corbyn’s rise from obscurity to become the frontrunner in the Labour leadership race. Do you think he would make a good party leader?
It’s the honesty of him, and the fact that he’s an authentic Labour politician who stands up against the tide of neoliberalism which is swamping the party. It’s disgusting. The [other leadership contenders] all look really punchable. I’m sorry, but it makes me really angry. People say we don’t need to shift back to the left, but what is the Labour Party if it isn’t left?… Let it become a grassroots party that people can believe in, instead of something they feel shut out from.
How did Sleaford Mods come about?
I started it about five or six years ago on my own. By the time I met Andrew I had sharpened up my technique and had got better at putting my words together. I was moving away from self-pity and starting to talk about the world around me.
You are from the East Midlands town of Grantham, but the band is named after another neighbouring town. Why did you choose Sleaford specifically?
The word “Grantham” is a bit stodgy, it stops and starts, whereas “Sleaford” rolls off the tongue. I also have childhood memories of the town from the 1980s. As a kid my parents would take me to the cinema in Sleaford. We got chips after. It was a real treat. I liked the idea of staking a claim to the bit of the country that I come from.
Was it a conscious decision to start writing about politics in your lyrics and use them to give the band a distinctive angry edge?
It was more born out of a feeling of alienation. I felt like a failure because I hadn’t acquired a decent job and couldn’t afford to do what everyone else around me was doing. There was this complete passion for making money among people—people would sit in the pub and talk about ways to make money, or how much money they had. At the time I was completely skint, so I had a different point of view.
Do you think your desire to speak out against the Conservative government is in any way tied to you being from Margaret Thatcher’s hometown?
No, not at all. I didn’t care about anything politically related until maybe a few years ago, and that was only due to my own bad experience of trying to survive on nothing. I drive past the house she grew up in [which has a blue plaque] every time I go to visit my family…the local museum even has a Thatcher area, it’s unreal.
Your lyrics often lampoon prominent political figures such as Ed Miliband who you call a “chirping cunt”, are you trying to educate your audience or are the words more of a rallying cry?
I wouldn’t like to say I’m rallying people because that takes it into the realm of me being some kind of leader which is silly. I’m not the voice of a generation—it’s just me spouting off about all the things that are doing my head in. We are musicians at the end of the day, so it’s about trying to find that perfect song which says something about you. I think that’s every musician’s mission, everyone that takes it seriously anyway.
The Sleaford Mods sound marries hip-hop and punk cultures, which is an unusual mix. How did you hit on that combination?
We didn’t sit down and draw up a plan. The punk part was accidental—we just started listening to [certain songs] again on YouTube, some I remembered from when I was about 10 or 11 years old. I just thought “Gordon Bennett these sound great—the aggro of it and the don’t-give-a-fuckness of it.”
Your new album Key Markets appears to challenge the economic status quo more vocally than your previous work, did you choose that title specifically because it could be interpreted in that way?
Yes, it’s an on-going theme from our previous album, Divide and Exit, but the ideas have become a bit sharper. The title actually comes from an old supermarket I used to visit in my childhood. I would go in there and it would be brightly lit, with cheap food on the shelves and points of sale, trying to entice you to buy. So, I was purely referencing the supermarket, but once we had decided on that as the album title then we did spot the potential to spin off it in a political sense.
You left your job as a disability benefits officer earlier this year to work on music full time, did your experiences in that job help shape your songwriting?
A bit, yeah. There would be times when people had their benefits slashed and couldn’t afford to live but also couldn’t go back to work, those cases really affected me. In my writing, I dressed it up and made it more poetic to make it more powerful. Those feelings are littered across the whole album.
You are 44, which is quite late to be making it big in music. Do you think you will keep going indefinitely?
I got brought up on bands that released an album a year until it wasn’t working anymore, so I share that mentality. At the same time, I’m aware that the next album has to move our sound on just as our new one has. I love the expression of being a vocalist and a writer. I’ll keep going until it stops being interesting.
Did you have points when you thought this wasn’t going to happen?
Oh yes, every day of every month. But, I was over this wanting to be a rock star bollocks, and was thinking more about the structure of each song and how it was engineered. I was able to move forward and explore different ideas. Life experience helped shape me too. I like myself now and that also helps. All of those factors put me on the right course to discover the formula that is Sleaford Mods.
Do you find it hard, now you’re successful and I presume your life is more comfortable, to keep the rage going?
Not really. I’m a bit of an angry person. I get wound up by a lot of things. Artists such as Oasis, Mike Skinner and Eminem didn’t properly think about how to keep [the rage in their lyrics] going. I’m trying not to make that mistake. Our whole operation is very grounded, there are peaks and troughs but generally speaking we are a tough unit.
Your stage presence can come across as slightly aggressive. Do you get some negative reactions?
No gig has ever fallen completely flat on its face. At the start when it was just me alone on stage with a CD player some people couldn’t get their heads around it. I wanted to get the message across that the presentation could be crap as long as the songs carried, and they did. People have accused me of being everything—homophobic, sexist, racist or even mad. You’d be amazed how much people can derive from the fact you say “fuck” all the time. But I knew I was onto something because that kind of reaction is exactly what you want.
There is a lot of swearing in your lyrics, do you feel any pressure to tone it down as you move more into the mainstream?
I used to rehearse in front of my [three-year-old] daughter, she constantly listens to [swearing]—it’s not something my wife and I are particularly concerned about. It’s intelligent music. If we signed to a major label then we might have to tone it down because the music needs to be tailored to the market, but that would be the death of it.
What do you think the next five years holds for Britain?
The same bullshit that will be received by the public in a passive aggressive manner. I’d like to think that something else might happen but I’m not holding out much hope.
Would you call yourself a socialist or is some of the anti-establishment rhetoric in your lyrics just posturing?
Do you have to be a socialist? I hate all [those labels]. A wanker is a wanker, regardless.