Sleaford Mods: "I’m not a believer in music changing anything…”

Condemning class tourism, Tory hegemony, and infamous political aids, Sleaford Mods have become a totem of the UK music scene by taking a stand for society’s dispossessed. GigList writer Miles Ellingham spoke to Mods' frontman Jason Williamson and got his prognosis of the current moment.
Posted: 20 January 2021 Words: Miles Ellingham

Sleaford Mods don’t really sound like anyone else, and a lot of that’s down to the spasmodic, lyrical-bombast of frontman, Jason Williamson, whose thick Grantham accent has become an iconic totem of the UK music scene. Part political soapboxing, part jaded poetry, always caustic and often self-deprecating, Williamson’s verses come in strong.  During his Tourettes-like monologues - backed by bandmate, Andrew Fearn – Williamson takes a stand for society’s dispossessed and hits out at corporate greed, austerity barons and squishy bourgeois elites. 

GigList’s Miles Ellingham caught up with Williamson, sampling his thoughts on the band’s new LP, Spare Ribs, and his prognosis of the current moment.

Jason Williamson, welcome. Tell us about the new album, how did it come about? Is there a conceptual through-line to the work? 

I don’t know really; we didn’t make it for any other reason than just wanting to write again. We recorded some of the songs last January before we went to Australia – four early versions of ‘Mork n Mindy’, ‘Short Cummings’, ‘Nudge it’ and ‘Elecution’ – so we had an idea of what was happening but it didn’t really complete itself until we went back in July. Obviously we were mid-pandemic, but there was a strong idea of how we were going to address the album, the theme of it and so on. 

You’ve got a couple of collaborations on Spare Ribs. Billy Nomates and Amy Taylor both feature, why did you choose them and what was it like working together? 

We’re massive fans of both really. We worked with Billy Nomates before, I did a collaboration on her debut album so we’ve really got to know her. I wrote ‘Mork n Mindy’ but I couldn’t quite decide if me singing alone on the chorus was good enough so I asked her if she fancied doing it. Amy as well: I really like the way she writes her lyrics, the way she puts things in a real matter-of-fact way. Amy’s on Rough Trade like us, so we got that sorted quite easily. 

There’s a lot of political messaging on Spare Ribswhat does it mean to be “Tory-tired”? 

Just exhausted with it all: With the corruption, with the smoke and mirrors, with the lies, with the creeping suspicion that they really aren’t connected to the idea of governing at all. They’re not evil, but they’ve been conditioned to not really take anyone else into account.  This comes through and yet people still vote for them. So, it’s just the exhaustion of that y’know what I mean. 

"A lot of people say, “you must have a lot to write about”, but we don’t want to write about these things y'know."

It’s interesting you should say that because I remember when I first heard your stuff around 2014 there was this palpable anger to the output, it felt like a high watermark. But now, we’re seven years on and, if anything, Tory hegemony has rigidified. How has that reality affected your work? 

Well it was of no surprise that it would carry on. I’m not a believer in music changing anything apart from opening a few people’s eyes. But yeah, no surprise, it just felt like in 2013 the gate had been locked. We were trapped within the confines of the village, so to speak, with the high walls and nobody was getting out. And that’s how it’s gone, it’s got progressively worse. A lot of people say, “you must have a lot to write about” … but we don’t want to write about these things y’know. 

Really? Because you often do. 

Yeah, all the time I do but it’s not something you revel in. It’s something that is at the forefront of your mind and so you get it on paper. If you step back from that, nobody wants to be in that situation do they y’know. Does somebody really want to talk about buying five pairs of trainers and going out in a car and having sex with seven or eight people? I don’t think they do but that’s all they’ve got, that’s all some people have to play with. I think, for people in that situation that do that, it’s a subconscious act to try and get this un-agreeable existence out onto paper. I’m the same when it comes to politics. 

Your lyrics ring with this distinct poetic skill. I always wonder how you go about writing them and whether you have any poetic or lyrical influences. 

No, none really. It’s just been self-taught, I’m my own kind of quality inspector where I won’t let anything past that isn’t up to standard. I don’t know how to explain it really. I’ve not been brought-up with poets or anything like that, I just think “ooh that slick…” If it’s really slick it usually gets a pass. I think I got a lot of that from rappers in the sense that a lot of them are really good at chartering the miserable state of their existence but in a really, really cool way. People like Ol’ Dirty Bastard, “Jacques Cousteau could never get this low”. He’s so cheeky but so miserable and bleak. He tells the sad story of his life in a way that’s (a) funny and (b) slick – and that’s what sets it apart from anything else. So those are the things I try and look for. 

Do you ever improvise? 

No. Once I know a song inside-out I might ad-lib something at a gig but I don’t generally improvise on the spot. 

So it’s all quite meticulous? 

Yeah, I’d be useless in a rap-battle or whatever (laughs). 

So, we’re now in the second – arguably the third – lockdown. The prevailing emotion the first time around was probably fear, but now that seems to have dissipated into this depression. How’s it been for you? 

Yeah depression is right. But my depression is manageable. I’ve never been afflicted with manic depression or anything like that, but I do spend long periods of time being mildly depressed. It’s kind of an undercurrent. The heating on in the house is just enough to keep you warm and that’s what the depression’s like: it’s just enough to keep you in that grey area. On top of that, and not to sound contradictory, I do have a lot of resistance to totally falling into a hole. I try to make myself feel positive which works most of the time. But aside from that it’s the anger, it’s the frustration at the management of this thing. Also the reactions of other people: the many splinter groups, the anti-maskers and so on. 

With this new plague-era reality, the people who have been among the most fucked-over have been performing-artists. Do you see the music industry bouncing back from this and what steps would you like to see taken? 

I think we’ll eventually get back to it. It will be another few months of this perhaps before I think things’ll start to change. At least, they’ll be a lot of unrest if there isn’t change – things will dive into an even more fathomless void, though even I don’t think they’d allow that to happen. Something will be resurrected at some point. But yeah, this free movement thing has got to change. It’s alright for bands like us – we’re quite established – but for people starting out or mid-level the idea that it’ll cost so much to tour going forward needs to change.


"I’d be useless in a rap-battle"

Have you got any tour plans? 

Yeah, we’ve got one that starts in November/December this year so we’re looking forward to that. We’re doing an arena show in Nottingham, we’re doing the Barrowlands, we’ll be doing Printworks in London. So, we’ve got all year to rehearse for that. 

Having such an authentic, distinctive sound must sometimes make it hard to keep things sounding fresh? Is that a problem for you? 

I’m pleased that it sounds authentic because it is – what you see is what you get. A lot of the time people can’t believe you are who you are y’know. They think it’s a stereotype, which says a lot about the way people perceive the working class or those with localised accents –who haven’t been converted yet. But we try to keep things sounding new, people really seem to like Spare Ribs which is nice; we’ve had some good reviews. 

Do you read reviews? 

Yeah, I don’t buy into this “I don’t read reviews” thing because that’s just silly. It’s always interesting to see what people’s opinions are, it just so happens that a lot of reviews are… well they’re not very good y’know (laughs). It’s probably not something you’re connected with but people often just rubbish us – today I got one that said, ‘shit old man shouts at the clouds’, stuff like that. 

Well I promise it wasn’t us. Anyway, you’re from Nottingham, a city that boasts some famous residents: you’ve got D.H. Lawrence, Robin Hood, and now you guys… Has Nottingham refined your sound? 

I don’t know. It’s hard to know if the same thing would’ve happened anywhere. If I’d have been different anywhere else. 

Well you talk about people’s responses to your accent, and Nottingham is historically a very under-funded part of Britain… 

It’s a good point. I’ve been here for twenty-plus years. I come from Grantham which is down the road, but the Grantham accent is a little bit different to the Nottingham one. I worked in Nottingham and it is bleak – even the architectures bleak – but it’s nice as well, it’s a beautiful city in many ways. I don’t know if I’d be different – I don’t know. 

You could’ve been one of the London ‘wine twats’ your work details? 

Well, I did live in London in the 90s and 00s for a bit. I lived on the Old Kent Road, in Brixton and in Shepherd’s Bush. It was good but I had to move back because I just couldn’t afford it. It was incredibly expensive even back then. I mean, it’s all been gentrified now and whenever we play down there we get the impression that it has just completely changed. 

I read recently that you were planning on not voting anymore – why not? 

Yeah, I’ve been getting a lot of grief for that over the last two days. (Laughs) Sure, we’d get a little bit of alleviation with a Labour government, of course we would, but that little bit, is that little bit worth it? Are we just going round in circles and, if so, where do we stop? I just don’t know if traditional politics is right for us anymore. This two party system of ‘one’s slightly better than the other’, I don’t feel like that’s enough. I’ve always been pressurised into voting, mainly by myself thinking I’ve got to because it’s only going to go to the conservatives otherwise. I saw that thing with Alan Moore where he said he actually voted for Jeremy Corbyn, because the policies seemed to connect with the idea of human advancement. And he was right. I understand that people thought Corbyn was unrealistic but you have to be unrealistic sometimes. Some people are quite happy to just let the shoebox shuffle along but why can’t we just get rid of it? 

Spare Ribs is out now via Rough Trade Records. For our full review of Spare Ribs, click here.

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