I Like the Idea of Being Unreasonable: A Conversation with the Sleaford Mods' Jason Williamson
Jason Williamson of the Sleaford Mods says what he thinks about punk, hip-hop, politics, and modern life, and if you don't like it, fuck off.
22 February 2019
"It's public knowledge that celebrities and rock stars are essentially stupid, vacuous, and not realistic -- people know this," says Jason Williamson, speaking in the flat East Midlands tones and staccato rhythms that will be familiar to anyone who's ever cracked a Sleaford Mods album. You half expect a stutter bass and drum vamp to click in behind him as he confronts, in signature contempt and disbelief, his own brushes with rock and roll celebrity, award show speeches and empty sentiment.
"There's a lot of these rock stars, a lot of these personalities that survive in the industry for 20 or 30 years. Every time they bring an album out, especially now, certain individuals are trying to align themselves with the political climate, and, you know, fuck off," Williamson says. "You're completely detached from any kind of financial struggle so to speak. Employment struggle. How can you comment on this?"
"Kebab Spider", the first single from the Sleaford Mods' new album Eton Alive wrestles with this very question, repeatedly asking "Who knew they let the film stars in?" and getting off acerbic verses like: "We ain't shoeshine boys for fakers / Bingo punks with Rickenbackers / You've had a record deal for nearly 30 years / What do you know about agencies?"
"I like the idea of being unreasonable," Williamson states. "I like saying things that could be heavily criticized. Apart from the obvious things which shouldn't be said, you know, singling out minorities or misogyny or things like that. But a lot of things, attacks on people's integrity, why not?"
A Tougher Sound
With his partner Andrew Fearn, Williamson has been making Sleaford Mods' rage-spiked, beat-driven, working-class punk-spliced-with-hip-hop screeds since 2012. (Williamson also made four pre-Fearn albums under the Sleaford Mods name, starting in 2007.) The duo gained an international following with the 2014 album, Divide and Exit, which the Guardian called "essentially angry swearing atop rudimentary bedroom synth sounds. But that would be reckoning without Jason Williamson's supremely entertaining delivery." Key Markets, a year later, garnered less ambivalent praise and landed the band on year-end lists at the Guardian, Rough Trade and the NME. Since then, the band has released EPs and albums at a rate of a bit more than one a year, including 2016's TCR, 2017's English Tapas, last year's self-titled EP and now, Eton Alive.
The new material sounds sharply different from previous Sleaford Mods songs. There's less of a punk snarl and more of hip-hop's looming threat. Williamson says he noticed the difference immediately when he got the tracks from Fearn. "They were obviously familiar, but they seemed a lot tougher and richer in sound, a lot thicker, for want of a better word," he recalls. He got the music in March of last year and worked on lyrics until June. Williamson says he was on a heavy diet of 1980s soul as he wrote the songs -- Cherelle, Luther Vandross, and Chaka Khan. "I wanted to give over that kind of soul-y thing with it," he notes, observing that he's singing, rather than speak-singing, more than usual on Eton Alive. "It was important, obviously, to not distance myself too much from what I'd been doing previous, because there's every chance that could fall on its ass, you know what I mean?" he adds.
Eton Alive is the tenth Sleaford Mods record and the first since the duo left Rough Trade Records in 2018. It's on the Sleaford Mods' own Extreme Eating label, a move which Williamson now characterizes as "premature."
"In hindsight, we left too early. We should have waited at least a year to go independent because at this level, there's lots of infrastructure that Rough Trade gave us that really made the music more popular," he explains. "When we left Rough Trade, we had none of that in place really. It was a bit of a car crash."
Williamson says that he has since sorted out distribution and promotion, but he's replaced the manager who convinced him to go independent. "He said it was the right thing to do, that labels were dinosaurs," he says, bemusedly. "But Rough Trade really aren't Warner Brothers. They don't get involved in the music. They just help spread the word. The only dinosaur was my manager. We parted company with him and we're trying to find our feet again, we're trying to form a new team. It was bad information, really."
Punk and Hip-Hop
Ask Williamson about songwriters he admires, and you'll hear a long string of hip-hop artists, American rappers like Pusha T, Roc Marciano, West Side Gun, and Conway Machine, and UK drill artists RV and 67. (For "guitar music" he likes a Swedish band called Viagra Boys.) And indeed, there is something very hip-hop-like about the way he and Fearn make music, the raw, minimalist thump of the beat under a machine-spray of words.
Yet from the beginning, the Sleaford Mods' most rabid fans have been disproportionately drawn from punk rock circles. In a 2017 interview with Rolling Stone, Iggy Pop enthused, "I love Sleaford Mods. I think they're just about the most credible new group going that don't rely on the old conventions to make the music feel good." He has since featured the Sleafords on his BBC 6 Radio show. And the same year, Mark E. Smith, in one of his last interviews, called the Sleafords "about the only good thing".
What exactly is it that draws the punks? "I don't know really. I think it's just the disregard for what, at the time, was supposed to be a certain set of ideologies towards approaching life and music. You know. A high compression, really busy, glossy style was stretching to rock and into electronica, into everything," says Williamson. "When we came out, it was really minimal and sparse. It went against the rules a little bit, although a lot of the characteristics of Sleaford Mods have been done before. I think that's how people kind of connected with the punk thing."
Early on, too, the Sleaford Mods sounded punk. "Especially with the vocals, because I was inspired at the time by various punk records, and I didn't try to hide that fact," says Williamson. "It's still very aggressive even though it's grown up a lot. The aggression is still there. I think people connect that with it. And, the subject matter which was quite anarchic and based around an anarchism that can be associated with punk."
Out of the Pub
Early Sleaford Mods songs were often set in pubs, celebrating, if that's the right word, a hard-drinking and drug-using culture distinctive to working-class Britain. Now that Williamson has been sober for three years, these songs are getting somewhat less common, though "Top It Up" is one.
"That's about a funeral. Last year, there were quite a few funerals. People I knew or didn't know or knew about," Williamson explains. "And everybody celebrates that life and their passing by getting off their face on drugs and alcohol. A lot of these people that pass away prematurely pass away because of drugs and alcohol. So, it's a vicious circle. I tried to talk about that, tried to explain the pub, you know, and that business and sentiment and feeling during the night."
But mostly, Williamson is drifting away from writing pub stories. "There's only so many jaunts to the pub until you realize that every jaunt to the pub is pretty much the same and every time you take drugs is pretty much the same," he says. "It's getting to a point now where I've been three years sober, and it's like other things come into play. I don't necessarily have to talk about that anymore. Eton Alive talks about more introspective things."
Alienation and Technology
One theme that threads through the new album concerns technology, consumerism and the way that modern life isolates people from one another. "Into the Payzone", with its insistent touch card beep, evokes the emptiness of buying. "It's about consuming, about leaving your car and your property and going into town," says Williamson. "As I earned more money and as I don't have a full-time job anymore in the sense of going to work everyday sort of thing, my partner and I would go into town. We would leave our private property, go into town, buy things and come home. And it's been quite a solitary experience. Although there's people around you in town, you're quite separate."
The oddly fragile, inward-looking "When You Come Up to Me" also evokes a sense of separation. Williamson explains the incident that inspired it:
"A drug dealer was standing outside of my house, and the dealer had an epileptic fit. So, I had a knock on the door and these two people were like, 'We need some help, can you call an ambulance?' He was selling drugs to these two people. And they stood with him whilst I came out and called an ambulance on the phone. It struck me how distant everybody was. The two people were distant from me. I was distant from them. Obviously, this guy's having an epileptic fit, but when the ambulance people came, the paramedics, there was so much space between everyone. It struck me how modern life has become even more clinical, more separated from each other."
Don't Buy the Narrative
Sleaford Mods have never shied away from politics, though more in the sense of generalized disgust than any sort of policy discussion. Asked what he made of the current state of things -- we talked shortly after Prime Minister May's Brexit plan was rejected and she narrowly survived a vote of confidence -- he executes an almost audible shrug. "I don't know where things are going really. They're talking about martial law now in England. I don't know if that will come out. There's a lot of fear politics going on, and a lot of fear messages being put through the media," he says.
"Strictly speaking, I don't know ... I don't know how Parliament works. I could look it up and read it, but you know what, I can't be arsed. There's a level of boredom with it as well. This is boring."
Williamson isn't a big consumer of news, either. "I just don't want to see how bad the world is. I know it's bad. You know what I mean? I don't want to ... I think it would just add to it, and I'm angry enough as it is. Plus, all these messages that come through the TV, the bleakness, it's just editing. It's a narrative, you know what I mean. And you get suspicious as well."
I point out that he, himself, is a maker of narrative, and he concedes the point. "I suppose I've been using the word narrative a lot lately, in the sense of criticizing it. But I make a narrative. I do. Completely. I think what I'm going against is believing other people's narratives too much," he says.
So, Williamson will continue to provide his acerbic, blistering commentary on the world, regardless of what people think. "People say, oh, yeah, we can always rely on these lot. I bet they're going to talk about the government again. Yeah, they're talking about the government. So what? Why not? What else is there to talk about. I'm not just going to talk about some whimsical bullshit. If it's not edgy enough for them, then they should look elsewhere, you know what I mean?"
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