Keeping Dry Under Storm Clouds: An Interview with Sleaford Mods

Dan Derks
Photo: Roger Sargent

When asked what can help counteract the worldwide growth of xenophobia and racism, Sleaford Mods' singer Jason Williamson states simply, "I think it's empathy, innit?"

Sleaford Mods

English Tapas

Label: Rough Trade
Release Date: 2017-03-03

Before reading on, whether you're seasoned or green with Sleaford Mods, it'd be helpful to watch two videos of the band. "Jobseeker", performed on Later... with Jools Holland, and "Tied Up In Nottz" are certainly good starting places.

That Jools Holland clip is the quintessential capture of singer Jason Williamson's showmanship and producer Andrew Fearn's casual approach to laptop music performance. At first glance, it'd be understandable to write the Mods off as a snotty gimmick, but the band's authenticity and earnestness are ignorable and infectious. Same applies to "Tied Up In Nottz" -- only Williamson could make a mini-autobiography out of "I woke up with shit in my sock outside the Polish off-license / 'They don't mind,' said the asshole to the legs."

The band's discography is built on wordplay that offends and indicts, each syllable recounting the British class wars that have shaped Williamson's life. Equal parts manifestos and barroom rants, Sleaford Mods songs find power in the amorphous boundary between the two. English Tapas, their newest release, is no exception.

As Williamson revealed in our recent conversation, he was deeply affected by the Brexit results, but working on English Tapas afforded the opportunity to explore his own failings. "I started to really connect with myself in [these] songs," he tells PopMatters. "Stuff that I'd seen around me in friends. The drug culture that captured the mood around the late '80s kind of stuck with that generation. You've got a lot of people in their mid-40s still going out and doing cocaine, still doing ecstasy, drinking vast amounts of alcohol. I stopped drinking around June [2016] and I kind of realized that was something I needed to do. I wasn't very particularly having a good time."

"Drayton Mannered", the halfway marker of English Tapas, captures this ungraceful aging of careless drug use with a sharp tongue: "I remember when I was 21 / Laughing about it in clubs / 'I wonder what will happen, we are the guinea pigs' / But now I realize, few of us grew from guinea pigs."

Though Williamson has been focused on internal analysis, it doesn't take much to coax venom from him on the topic of global politics (the night we spoke, Parliament had just voted to uphold Article 50). When he makes this shift, his voice drops into his belly. He doesn't speak in theory, he speaks from experience: much of Williamson's hometown was crippled by the long and painful closure of its coal mines. "There's been so much oppression and greed. Even in supposedly liberal times, in the fat belly of democracy, [there's] still been this central strain of growing greed. It's got the point now where those that have nothing are completely numb, you know? And they kind of act like a sponge for xenophobic, 'blame politics' -- the politics of blame. And this is sort of what you get, innit? History is sort of repeating itself in a lot of aspects."

Williamson's words paint a clear picture of how extreme ideologies can take hold in the disenfranchised. In the States, many of the rural populations who voted for Trump are victims of the very same corporate greed he and other right-wing figures represent. The cognitive dissonance is staggering, though this does little to soften the darker underpinnings. "I just hated the enclosure of narrow-mindedness," he confesses, "not only in the inner sense, but the exterior. I just didn't want to look at factory walls all my life, or the same road all my life. The same pub and the same friends. And that kind of lifestyle works for some people and they grow to be very intelligent people, who lived on the same road all their lives. I don't want to generalize. But I just saw that going hand in hand with soaking all that bullshit up. Staying in one place, you're really susceptible to fear. I didn't want that. And I only moved 26 miles down the road, you know? I just wanted different things than what was offered, really. I was fortunate to not remain."

When asked what can help counteract this growth of xenophobia and racism, Williamson states simply, "I think it's empathy, innit?"

Though Sleaford Mods is well-loved in England's punk venues, the English Tapas tour brings the duo to the US for the first time in their careers. "I think it's a great thing we've been given the opportunity to do it. But I really don't know how [US audiences] are going to take it. It's so English," Williamson shares with a short laugh. It's true, most Mods songs require a decent grasp on British slang and culture, but the urgency of what is decipherable atones. Williamson reconsiders, "I don't know. I didn't have a problem processing the Wu-Tang Clan and they're people who are a million light years away from me, in a sense."

It isn't long before our conversation about the band folds back into politics as we discussed many of the promises the "leave" vote failed to deliver on. Though Sleaford Mods are often labeled as 'political', there's nothing prescriptive or significantly leftist about their music. There's a focus on the downtrodden, the forced out and left behind -- but these aren't metaphors for something larger. They're documents of his own life, which might be as radical a perspective as Williamson needs. He's wary of others imbuing his music with an agenda that can be touted or condemned. "It doesn't matter if it's right or wrong, if it doesn't make sense. It can be anger, humor, disgust -- as long as it's communicated well, written well. I just hope people feel something from it, that the music has been created for some sense of justice."

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.