Sleaford Mods might eschew the role of spokesmen for the downtrodden but they do add some grit to the prawn-sandwich of popular music, writes Ed Power
SEVERAL weeks before the UK general election, Sleaford Mods singer Jason Williamson posted a passionate defence of British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn on Facebook. His reward was a deluge of abuse.
“It wasn’t very well received,” he sighs. “There are a lot of idiots out there. What can you do? It’s worth supporting the Labour Party. Jeremy Corbyn is a grounded man, a man of principle. Look at the alternatives — she [Theresa May] is despicable. Anything but that.”
He chuckles. “Mind you, they don’t need any intervention from me. They [the Conservatives] seem entirely capable of mucking things up on their own.”
At age 45, Williamson is the closest thing in British pop to an angry young man. In a thick Nottingham accent he vents against austerity economics, the inefficacy of Britain’s opposition parties — he is a fan of neither Ed Miliband or Nick Clegg — and the toxic legacy of Britpop icons such as Blur (“Even the drummer’s a f**king MP”).
“I feel a certain amount of pride in being working class,” says Williamson, ahead of the group’s headlining appearance at the Body&Soul Festival in Co Westmeath next weekend. “There’s nothing wrong with acknowledging that.”
Williamson and beatmaster/ producer Andrew Fearn have had the good fortune to come along when people are crying out for music that speaks to this age of economic upheaval. Ours is an era of strife and social turmoil — tensions with which music has been singularly unengaged. Can you imagine Mumford and Sons singing about austerity?
With Sleaford Mods 2015 album Key Markets charting at number 11 in the UK and basking in five star reviews, Williamson was in the right place at the right time. Journalists hailed him the voice of the downtrodden underclass, with comparisons from Ian Dury and The Streets to the Happy Mondays and Public Enemy. Finally, British music had rediscovered its anti-authoritarian swagger.
Yet, for all the grittiness there’s also a fairytale aspect to the rise of Sleaford Mods. Williamson has spent the past 20 years passing in and out of bands and, until 2015, had a day job as social welfare adviser in Nottingham. When he met Fearn — supplier of the bare-boned rhythms over which the singer raps and wails — he was considering packing it in. Middle-aged and obscure, there didn’t seem any point in slogging on.
“At the start Sleaford Mods was just me,” he says. “It wasn’t working. I need someone to bounce off.”
Ironically, the working class aura that marked the pair out has becoming something of an impediment. Williamson had to be talked into publicly endorsing Jeremy Corbyn — not because he was reluctant to get behind an old school socialist but because he has started to feel like a performing monkey, forever banging on about politics and the plight of Britain’s forgotten.
The problem, Williamson quickly discovered, is that, in the UK, class continues to frame perceptions. Because he supports Labour and sings in his own accent, he has been pigeonholed as the designated spokesperson for “Broken Britain”. The mantle does not always rest easily. He is a musician — not a human loudhailer.
“I thought long and hard about the Jeremy Corbyn thing,” he says. “The difficulty is that class has become the elephant in the room. It’s how people see us. That isn’t needed. It shapes people’s perceptions of you and your music when what you really want is to move forward.”
English Tapas, Sleaford Mods’ latest album, is also their least political. Williamson reflects on personal relationships and on the mid-life blues suffered by the friends he grew up with in Nottingham, many of whom have fallen into alcoholism and depression. It is a conscious attempt to push past their agitprop reputation.
“It’s definitely more introspective,” he says. “As we move forward there will be more of that. I’m talking about issues that maybe we dress up and don’t talk about. It [depression] is a worthy subject matter — something we don’t discuss as often as we should.”
Williamson may be an unlikely pop star but is comfortable in the role. On stage, he radiates a curmudgeonly charisma.
He doesn’t quite bask in the attention — yet nonetheless is entirely at ease under the spotlight.
“You get nervous occasionally, “ he says. “I don’t have a problem with success. It’s quite easy most of the time. I remember back to what it was like before. It was hopeless — completely hopeless.”
He is pleasantly baffled at achieving fame in middle age — but also understands how lucky he has been. “I’m becoming used to doing alright now. We have as much right to be here as anybody.”
BODY AND SOUL HIGHLIGHTS
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