Photo: Roger Sargent

Keeping Dry Under Storm Clouds: An Interview with Sleaford Mods

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
Rough Trade

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.”