Jason Williamson may not want to be the spokesman of his generation, but Sleaford Mods still have more to say than most other bands, writes Ellie O’Byrne.
When he’s performing as part of post-austerity punk duo Sleaford Mods, Jason Williamson is a snarling, posturing creature, a conduit for rage and frustration.
But over the phone, he’s gentle and genuine, taking time to consider each question and his responses. Maybe the contrast is just the difference between real life and his stage persona or maybe — just maybe — he’s mellowing a little?
“Yeah, well, there’s only so much you can scream about, really,” Williamson says, sighing.
Eton Alive, the Nottingham duo’s latest album, certainly contains several songs that kick against the Mods’ usual minimalist formula of bass-heavy beats from Andrew Fearn, the other half of the outfit, overlaid with Williamson’s trademark rants on the ugliness and injustices of modern Britain.
Sleaford Mods’ distinctive self- described “spit’n’sawdust aggro act” first started making real waves in 2014. They generated a loyal following amongst fans in the UK and further afield in Europe, who, it seems, saw their lives reflected in the grimy mirror Williamson’s lyrics held up.
It’s sweary, shouty, energising music but in another way, despair-laden. Although he had been in several bands, Williamson was in his forties and had worked a variety of dead-end jobs, including chicken factories and knicker-packaging warehouses, before teaming up with Fearn and starting to pen the gritty material that provides a rare commentary on austerity Britain.
Pre Order ‘Eton Alive’ The new album out February 22nd on Extreme Eating. Also check ‘Flipside’ the album taster. https://t.co/DmSOonIUN0 pic.twitter.com/LM9DDRRj08— Sleaford Mods (@sleafordmods) December 24, 2018
As a lyricist, Williamson is inventive in his invective, almost aligned with punk poets like John Cooper Clarke or the current wave of spoken word artists like Kate Tempest; a published collection of Sleaford Mods’ lyrics, Grammar Wanker, reads like rough-hewn poetry.
In a 2015 documentary on the band, Iggy Pop is featured reading aloud some of the lewder turns of phrase and chuckling to himself.
Eton Alive, set for release in late February, has singles that remain true to form, but B-sides like ‘Discourse’ and ‘When You Come Up To M’e are decidedly more introspective and musical and see Williamson wrap his vocal chords around a style that he describes as “more singy”.
“I was listening to a lot of 1980s soul and song-based stuff on tour. Alexander O’Neill, Luther Vandross, Chaka Khan. The grime and the hiphop are still in there, but it was a definite decision.”
Sonically, too, the album stretches its wings, with Fearn incorporating everything from marimba-eque synths to a kazoo.
Williamson says they are conscious of having to push the boundaries to keep their sound fresh.
Fearn and Williamson are prolific collaborators, releasing seven albums since they first joined forces in 2012. Onstage, there’s a calculated theatrical element to Fearn’s presence.
His sole job is to press play on his laptop, after which he normally slugs a can of beer and nods along to the music as Williamson contorts, twitches and roars: they are polar opposites, twin stars of calm and rage.
It’s such a marked contrast that when Williamson took a pot shot at Noel Gallagher in the press, calling him an elitist apologist, Gallagher responded by referring to them as “two guys, one clearly mentally ill.”
Having signed a deal with record label Rough Trade in 2015, the Mods have returned to their independent roots just one album and one EP later, forming their own label, Extreme Eating, for their forthcoming release.
Williamson says there are no hard feelings over their split with Rough Trade. “We just wanted to go independent again, so we just left.” he says.
“I didn’t want to upset them or piss them off, but some of us felt we operated better independently.”
These days, Williamson lives in Sherwood with his wife Claire and their two children.
With the heavy social commentary running through Williamson’s lyrics, one might expect he’d be happy to be described in the press as a sort of modern-day Robin Hood, robbing music from the rich to give to the poor, but he says he’s not a mouthpiece for a class or a generation: his music is, he says, purely personal.
At the same time, it is intensely political. Even the album title Eton Alive is a purposeful attack on Britain’s class structures, a reference to how Britain’s poor are “at the mercy of the privileged” in the climate of fear that has emerged after the Brexit referendum.
“These are ideas and policies shaped by people who have been educated in places like Eton,” he says.
“Why is there a place where people go to be educated and they aren’t any more intelligent than you and me, and then they get into government and pass terrible policies? It’s just insane.”
Sleaford Mods’ upcoming Irish dates are:
February 7 in The Limelight in Belfast; February 8 in The Academy in Dublin; February 9 in The Róisín Dubh in Galway; and February 10 in Dolan’s Warehouse in Limerick.
A pacy rant from the duo’s 2014 Chubbed Up album that falls on the punk end of the band’s sonic spectrum. Most of the lyrics are unquotable here, but it does include the memorable lines “Baa baa crack sheep, have you any rock.”
From 2014’s Divide and Exit, this track takes aim at the dual targets of the inanity of social media and Britain’s worsening race relations: “This is the human race, UKIP and your disgrace, Chopped heads on London streets, All you zombies tweet, tweet, tweet.”
A song that’s been doing the rounds since an earlier incarnation of Sleaford Mods without Andrew Hearn, Williamson charts the frustration of being a numbered jobseeker in the dole queue.
From English Tapas, the only album to emerge from their stint with Rough Trade, B.H.S. nails the sinking-ship despair of the I, Daniel Blake generation. BHS was a chain of department stores that closed in 2016: “We’re going down like BHS, While the abled bodied vultures monitor and pick at us.”
Andrew Fearn works his bass riff magic on the catchy freshly released single for their next album. Despite the slightly lower-key direction of the album as a whole, ‘Kebab Spider’ is sure to go down well with original fans of the more angsty edge of their sound.