If you’re not familiar with the work of Sleaford Mods, they mostly do scathing social commentary on the state of modern society set to the drilling thrum of electronic beats. There’s also quite generous use of the F-word and chums. Before my conversation with vocalist Jason Williamson I found myself listening to the addictive ‘Jobseeker’ on repeat. By the time I picked up the phone I was properly bricking it. What if he just hollered an expletive and hung up?
He didn’t, of course. His lyrics might embody the rage and bile of the unemployed and the underpaid, fusing eloquent dissent with a venomous passion that seems to be sorely lacking in the music of the younger generation, but in person he’s measured and polite. He also used the word ‘buffoon’ at least once, which puts him top of my favourite insults leader board.
When we speak he’s snatching a family holiday in Ireland. This in itself is pretty impressive, given their schedule. Over the next few months Williamson and his music partner Andrew Fearn are off to France, Germany, Switzerland, Spain, Greece, the Netherlands, and of course the UK. He concedes things are hectic. ‘The things is,’ he says pragmatically, ‘as long as you keep tour habits to a minimum you can pretty much gig every night.’
‘Tour habits’ being coke and other commodities, of course. Ironically, this seems to have been more a feature of pre-tour life – he’s spoken in previous interviews of the drink and drug habits of earlier years. The sudden exposure to a racier pace of life that afflicts so many bands when they start to get acclaim is unlikely to be a sticking point for the Mods, who have probably seen it all already. An industrious work ethic is the hallmark of his approach now, evident in their prolific output and commitment to fostering a grassroots following.
‘We’re doing it the old-fashioned way,’ he tells me. ‘Spreads the word. Not some record company putting your face on buses – and then you play about four gigs a year.’ He enjoys going out front after a gig (‘it’s a laugh and you get to meet people’) – although with dates coming up in such venues as Camden’s not-quite-intimate Koko, it’s unlikely that will be as feasible. The connection between the band and their audience is something they are passionate about. They try and keep the prices down where they can. ‘You’ve got some influence over ticket cost and it’s good to use that.’
But with an ever-growing fan base and a recent collaboration with The Prodigy under their belt, they are entering that perilous territory through which it can be hard to carry your principles unscathed. Does he worry there will come a point it will be impossible not to compromise?
‘Financially, yes,’ he admits. ‘I’ve been thinking about what I’ll do – how I’ll put money back into society. But creatively, no. Some people might think I’ve compromised, but I won’t. I think with the right road of planning and awareness you can avoid slipping down the rocky road of egotistical bollocks.’ Interestingly, it’s the trademark swearing which might get the axe. ‘Ranting and swearing – you’ll get bored of it eventually. Our music came from anger, but we’re full time musicians now: that anger will change into something else.’
Don’t expect them to get soft though. His is a uniquely articulate anger that will not be mollified by a simple payoff, in money or acclaim. He has a contempt for commercialism and a hankering need to stay connected with the reality about which he has so much to say. Somehow (my bad), we wind up discussing the left-wing writer Owen Jones, whose recent article decrying the lack of political music nowadays also paid its dues to Paloma Faith, who got the writer to open for her as a political speaker on her latest tour.
Williamson read the article too, and is wearily dismissive. ‘The problem is, he’s detached. He’s in the upper echelons. And Paloma Faith is employed by a massive corporation – I mean fuck off. It’s like being led out by Kanye West.’
When I tell him (red rag flying in the wind) that Jones’ latest book was endorsed on the front cover by none other than Russell Brand, he snorts. ‘Sorry,’ he says, ‘that’s turned me right off. I can’t stand that backslapping.’
So are there any musicians he thinks are worth their salt in that respect? He muses. ‘Fat White Family are good,’ he decides. ‘I was a bit sceptical at first, but I think they’ve got something to offer.’ I tell him that when they supported Palma Violets at the Leadmill earlier this year, most of the crowd seemed to head straight to the pub once their set was over. The rage flares up again. ‘See! That’s what I mean. We were offered that tour – but…look no offence to them, but Palma Violets, come on.’
I sense it’s time to move things in a lighter direction. Is he looking forward to the election?
‘I’m not looking forward to feeling hateful towards people again,’ he replies. ‘You do don’t you? You get hateful towards people – you think, you voted Tory didn’t you?’ In his view, the Tories ‘need to be arrested’; and unsurprisingly, he’s not a fan of Labour either (‘so full of dross’). His vote will go Green – though ‘they haven’t got a chance’. However, he respects the to-the-point pledges on their website, upfront where the two main contenders are opaque.
Frankness in a person’s political stance is something he values. Going back to Russell Brand, he’ll give him his due, but he’s not sold. ‘His heart is in right place – but I get confused that he’s really rich. He’s in the top 1%.’
And so we come full circle to the question of how to put the cash back into society. Himself, he’s thinking about dry houses – ‘Stuff that tackles addictions – things that have affected me, affected a lot of people. That’s a long way in the future though.’
By his own estimation, there’s a question mark over a lot of things at the moment: but the rise of Sleaford Mods seems irrepressible. Summarising his current success, he puts it in pragmatic terms: ‘I can get a tenner out of the banks and not worry.’ And acquisition and wealth? The great spoils of musical success? ’Well, I bought a pair of trainers the other week and that was me happy’.
Catch the Sleafords landing at the Leadmill on June 4th, troops of Sheffield.
By Sarah Sharp.
Pics by Duncan Stafford.