INTERVIEW: Sleaford Mods | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Three years ago, Sleaford Mods played to a tiny crowd at the Tyne Bar. This month they’re back in Newcastle at Northumbria University on the back of their strongest album yet. It’s been a remarkable few years for Sleaford Mods, the divisive but absolutely essential Nottinghamshire duo who’ve earned almost as much press for what they say as how they say it. I spoke to vocalist Jason Williamson ahead of this month’s Newcastle date and was again impressed by his openness and warmth, his humour and quick wit.

The duo had just got back from Bestival so I kicked off by wondering how that went.

“Well, some of these festivals… Look, you get spoilt – we get big crowds at our own gigs – but when you go to festivals it’s hit and miss as to whether the tent fills up, and Bestival was a prime example of that. It was full, but I don’t know if it was the right festival for us. It all looked like some sort of A-Level celebration party. It was good, we played well, and these festivals are good in the run up to the tour, we’re just getting warmed up, because we’ve had six weeks off. After banging it out hardcore night after night and then nothing is a bit odd, and we’ve got new songs to put in the set so they act like rehearsals in a way, without wanting to sound like a wanker because they’re obviously big gigs! But I wouldn’t say no to it again, it’s just a bit of a weird demographic. Supersonic would definitely be one of the ones that’s more interesting, you’re not faced with all these hyped up, overblown fucking bands – like us!”

Even at Supersonic though, some of the audience were clearly there just to watch the ranty man.

“I got that angle at Glastonbury too, people just coming along to see a spectacle, and it quite wound me up, but that just aided and abetted the performance. It can be disappointing – “oh, he’s so funny.” Well there is humour in there, but there’s a lot of craft as well, I’d like to think, and a lot of dedication to what we believe is decent music… And you get people who are there just to say they were there, especially with bands that are just coming up. I mean we’ve been around for a couple of years now but it takes a long time to get into the consciousness completely. And people are still saying, “oh you’re coming up” and it’s like, “what you on about? We’ve been around for two years.” As far as I’m concerned, we’ve come up and now I’m trying to figure where to go next with it. But a lot of people still think we’re still ascending. It’s interesting, these people have funny ideas about how big the industry is.”

Their latest album Key Markets is probably their best yet, musically and lyrically, and Williamson had described it as more song-based. Was that conscious?

“Touring is great for listening to music – I’ve started listening to music again! Because I left work, and I discovered iTunes – well, that’s debatable! – and I’ve got a few extra quid these days so I can afford to buy music now. It got me excited about it again, I started listening to all the stuff I used to be into, coming back from gigs pissed up – Oasis was one of them, funnily enough – and the singing stemmed from that. So there’s always something else you want to try out when you go back in… It’s not been a massively conscious move, every album has always been slightly different, but that’s how all the bands I was brought up on used to be, not like a massive, absolute change. There’s nothing wrong with that, obviously, unless it’s done really badly, which is usually is when bands make a massive conscious effort to change everything.”

And how do Mods records get made? I can’t picture the two of you hunkered down in the studio jamming!

“Andrew [Fearn] has got this idea now of just sending me a stripped down track but he always did that so I don’t know what he’s on about… he sent me some tracks the other week and I’ve just been trying to get vocals for them, playing around with different approaches and different rhythms and the idea is I’ll get in the studio with him and he’ll dress them up. I want things to be a little bit busier next time, veer away from just straight bass and drum loops.”

“there is humour in there, but there’s a lot of craft as well, I’d like to think, and a lot of dedication to what we believe is decent music”

I mention Tweet Tweet Tweet, perhaps their catchiest, “songiest” track yet.

“That was actually recorded at another friend’s studio and his way of engineering is obviously different to Andrew’s, he had a bit more of a pop sensibility; Tweet Tweet Tweet is very much a kind of pop ditty. I’ve got a couple of other people I bump off if Andrew’s not around, I’ll take the beat down there or an idea down there, and if it works I chuck it on the album.”

Last time we spoke, Williamson had mentioned being compared to all sorts of artists he’d never even heard, including Crass, but there’s definitely shades of anarchopunk in the Mods’ sound – the unadorned vocals, the tense basslines, the minimalism of it. No One’s Bothered on Key Markets is a prime example.

“I bought that first Crass EP, Feeding Of The 5000, it’s brilliant. His vocals! I’ve still not got past that first album to be honest. But that was the idea, yeh. Stuff like Attack of the Zorchmen by The Meteors really stuck with me and I really wanted to achieve that sound. I kind of had it with some of the basslines and vocals we’ve been doing. Nail got that drum beat – he’s a different producer – and we did the vocal. There’s a slow version that came out on a 7” [the B-side of Talk Bollocks], but I wanted to speed it up because it was really catchy so I took it down Nail’s and that’s what it turned into.”

It’s often discussed that Williamson is in an odd and possibly tricky position – playing festival mainstages to big crowds but taking potshots at celebrities and wannabes (usually the right people). How’s that working out these days?

“I don’t know if that many people are offending me these days, you know? I sound like a cunt, don’t I? There’s people I come across and I think, ‘I don’t like that and I don’t like you, but I don’t really want to slag you off.’ There’s only been a few obvious ones where someone’s taking the piss out of the thing I do, you know? I got asked by somebody at The Times whether it bothered me when I ran into them, but I don’t put myself in that position where I’m going to run into them. And in reality, if these people are in close proximity, nobody says anything to you. I’d be very surprised if someone had a pop, even a verbal pop. We played The Who gig and Johnny Marr was there, Weller was there, and nobody said owt. I just kept out of the way because I didn’t want to mix with them people. If you’re going to go along and act all matey and try and get in with the crowd, you’ll probably get your neck bitten off. But we don’t need those types of people, without sounding arrogant, we’ve done our own thing, we’ve carved it out ourselves. We just carry on the way we do, you know?”

And how does Andrew react to it all?

“He just grins, he’s just bemused! I think Johnny Marr had a pop at us at The Who gig, something like “not all of us have got beards and laptops, some of us actually know how to play an instrument”… I thought that was just weak, I mean, come on man, you’re being a twat. But then again I didn’t have a direct pop at him in that song, it was more about his fans, you know, we just mentioned his name but he’s not supposed to know that, is he? Either way, that quite upset Andrew because he was a Smiths fan. He gets really irate, he’s worse than me. But he stays out of the way.”

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“I’d be very surprised if someone had a pop, even a verbal pop”

On the back of Williamson’s collaborations with The Prodigy and Leftfield, I asked if there was anybody else he wanted to work with (all part of a scheme of mine to get him to work with The Bug).

“Some of the grime people I’d quite like but it might be hard work. And I might be too fucking fanboy. It might not be the right thing to do, but that’s the only music I really like at the minute. It’s having a resurgence with people like Skepta and JME and all that. They’re kind of old school grime I think, I’ve been listening to a lot of the early noughties stuff, as opposed to the new stuff which I’ll probably get my head into at some point.”

A discussion follows about how to be a mid-40s white guy listening to grime and not feel like a dick.

“Nottingham’s got quite a big grime scene anyway, but I get over all that by detaching myself from the stereotypes and just listening to it for its musicality, and then you start to see something else in it. Apart from the funny one-liners, it’s just the rhythms – it’s so English, it’s almost like Madness. It really does remind me of fucking Madness! The next time you wanna listen to some, just think ‘Madness’, it might make you feel better about it!”

Aside from an endless stream of one-off seven inch singles with any number of underground labels, Sleaford Mods have loyally stuck with tiny label Harbinger Sound but presumably there have been offers from elsewhere.

“Steve [Underwood, Harbinger’s boss] has been with us from day one and we’re all learning together at the minute, this is all new territory. I mean, Steve’s managing us too, and getting the experience behind him slowly but surely. So there’s a little bit of loyalty, but it’s also quite a good deal with Harbinger: there’s no contracts, it’s dealt with amicably, we’re just happy with the deal we’ve got.”

There follows an off the record chat about young bands fucking themselves up, and how Sleaford Mods are long enough in the tooth to avoid the obvious pitfalls.

“Don’t get me wrong, there have been moments over the last year or so where it’s been a bit “ooh, we need to calm that one down” and you see how it could go wrong. Touring is a bit of a trap, you know – before you know it, you’re drinking every day or whatever, it’s just getting too much. Especially at 45, it’s only gonna go one way, innit? So I’ve had to rein it in a bit, which has been better, definitely. I got in some professional singing lessons, and it was interesting. She said, “look, you can carry on the way you are but then you’ve got two or three years”. You’ve only got to listen to someone like Liam Gallagher as an example, his voice is kind of there but it’s shot. But if you put in some little bits before a show and think about it on a daily basis, you can pretty much keep your voice for the rest of your life. The way I just rant about all night, it’s needed really.”

Key Markets was recorded before the disastrous May election. How do you see the political landscape now, after that blow but also Corby’s election?

“Dunno, it’s still as desperate because there’s been no U-turns in some of these suicidal policies, people are still getting it in the neck. The idea of Corbyn on the horizon has probably filled people with a bit of hope. The fact that he’s approaching the job like you want and expect somebody to approach it is really good. It’s not hard is it? I just want people who are really suffering not to suffer. I’m not suffering, because I’m earning money now, but I know a lot of people that are. The idea should be for people not to feel discomfort, they shouldn’t have to. We’re one of the richest countries in the world, it’s disgusting… we’re hosting an arms fair, there’s the refugee thing and the fact we’re only letting about four in. It’s disgusting, it’s really showing Cameron up, you know? I was worried that his second term would strengthen the idea of David Cameron, and for a few weeks it did, the right wing press saying he was the man for the job and confidently describing their idea of that, and it was quite powerful to read because there’s nothing else, there’s no opposition, so it’s quite convincing. But he’s not the man for the job, he’s a cunt and all this has shown him up as that.”

And what’s in the immediate future, after promoting Key Markets is done?

“I’m working on some stuff at the minute that sounds alright. I think we can carry on for two or three years at this level, provided we keep our eye on the steering wheel so to speak. And not turn into cunts.”

Sleaford Mods play Northumbia University on Friday 25th September. A film about the band, Invisible Britain, is imminent.

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