Music

Sleaford Mods Discuss Music, Politics, Pandemics, and the Need for a New Humanism

Photo courtesy of Rough Trade Records

Outspoken electropunks Sleaford Mods revel in their journey and call for a new humanism while speaking out about how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the music business and the body politic.

"It will stand the test of time." So says Jason Williamson of Sleaford Mods on the band's new record All That Glue. The album, a retrospective on the band's career over the past seven years, arrives after their previous effort, 2019's Eton Alive reached the top ten of the UK album chart and established the band as one the more honest and clever voices in pre-Brexit England.

When the notoriety of the Nottingham duo started spreading in Europe around 2014, concerns raised around them. Would their innovative but minimalistic formula of two dudes -- one pushing hip-hop/electro bases with a computer, the other angrily rapping about crap jobs, isolation, modern life -- be too repetitive over time? How can a duo so profoundly English find such a vivid interest outside their home country, in places where people cannot fully understand the strong East Midland accent or the UK political, urban, and social references crystalized in Williamson's lyrics?

It's a question that still pops up in interviews, although Sleaford Mods prove this time to have defeated any clichéd narratives surrounding them. The biggest through-line currently perpetrated by the media depicts the band as angry saviors for the working-class, and the one by trivial rockers looking for someone to save their dull rock 'n' roll dreams.

Sleaford Mods' roots can be traced in the mix of music, politics, and aesthetics, which Jon Savage defined as "the UK's most successful export product". In the 20th century, it united young generations in subcultures that challenged society's principles and shaped our most precious asset: identities. In the digital age, the economic crisis changed the class structures, and the community is fragmented in online micro-niches. As a result, subcultures are no longer formed as we know it. Young adults have the opportunity given by the abundance of information to express a self-centered point of view and not confronting others.

Without pretending to be in command of anything, less of a revolution, Sleaford Mods music is something you must come to terms with. Records like 2013's Austerity Dogs and the following year's Divide and Exit delivered a harsh reality when nobody did it. Eton Alive shifts on a darker and introspective atmosphere and conveys a sense of individual powerlessness in a present time full of political instances in music -- but Sleaford Mods' potency is fully expressed in the live dimension.

You feel it as soon as Andrew Fearn presses the button of his laptop, and Williamson squeezes the microphone stand. The enthralling rhythm of words, beats, and onomatopoeias is a lead ball throw directly at the guts of your repressed feelings: the ones that our society doesn't want you to look at anymore. Their gigs are funny and collective acts of liberation and legitimation of your identity. The whole experience is so universal that people translated it in their own environments.

In Italy, an after-show recurring comment is how they can picture Sleaford Mods in the Italian province. Seated in a table where a glass of homemade red wine replaces the beer can, spilling outspoken truths and laughs without the purpose of giving life lessons. The province is the place where you have to reckon reality and find a meaning to save yourself. The only way to do it is by concentrate on the same thing that Sleaford Mods deliver in their music and on stage, no matter the signifier of their lyrics, as Williamson firmly affirms: "It's all about the message."


The Call for a New Humanism

Our conversation takes place in the middle of the pandemic lockdown. The UK is one of the countries most impacted by COVID-19, due to the government's late and inefficient policies. After contracting the coronavirus, Prime Minister Boris Johnson is back to work. "I don't think it really mattered if he is at work or not. I don't think he does anything," laughs Williamson.

Williamson's words recently became viral when he criticized the clapping in demonstration of support to the healthcare workers. It can be seen as a spontaneous reaction of unity but also an easy opportunity to shy away from responsibility. "I don't think they [workers] need all [this] 'virtue signaling'. They need help, funding, they need protection. The whole idea of the NHS is people, professions, looking after people. It needs to be re-evaluated. It's OK that people are doing that, paying their respects, but that's all people do. Greed, at the end of day, rules. It's a perfectly justified reason to accept the current situation because obviously greed is a pure emotion. I think it's something that needs to be addressed."

He did it in a short essay for Dazed Magazine, where he discussed coronavirus and capitalism and indicates an old but not outdated philosophical stance as a possible solution: humanism. "It's been going on for hundreds of years, people been crying out for things to be human formed to advance. We need a new way, a new psychology. We need more about looking after each other, for perhaps maintaining a healthy economy. It's money over mind a lot of the time, money over intelligence ... if we went that [other] way, there would be a more harmonious state of existence for the entire human race."

Creativity is a Political Weapon

Williamson's call for humanism shouldn't be surprising since its implementation requires a high level of self-awareness and integrity, two values prominent in Sleaford Mods' career. Also, it's something that Williamson has had to deal with while the press tied them to the archetype of the working-class men who finally made it. "They turned me into a cliché," he tells PopMatters. "That is good for the press obviously, but pointless because everything I do is political."

As he speaks, you feel the weight of every word he chooses to talk about himself, careful to stay true to who he is. I wonder if it comes from his young infatuation for the mod subculture: "Stay true to myself, yes, but mainly it taught me to always be creative." I ask if he thinks that creativity, a phenomenon itself made from divergent thinking, is a political weapon. "Yes, completely," Williamson notes, "But then you enter the minefield of whether your creativity has any value. Or are you just going along with the norm, creative norm of saying 'the government is corrupt!' not actually really applying any serious thought to it."

"You should articulate the message," he adds. "Or [is it] just motivation in order to buy a nice house? You've got to think about it, it's got to have some content. The message has to be integral, it's got to be thought-provoking."

Indie Music Should Be Working Class

But yet, messages are everywhere. In the last decade, our opinions become more polarizing. We demand every entity in the society, including brands, to align their point of view to topics that affect our lives. The same happens in the music scene, both mainstream and independent, since an increasing number of artists match their image to political and social issues. Often, committing only in the perpetuation of a stale message. "There is a lot of clichés today because a lot of messages are very soft," observes Williamson. "So people they just rely on images, historic images to convey their music. It's boring and it's clichéd."

A lover himself of clothes and shoes, he has a clear vision of the limits of an artist's affiliation with brands. "I think there is nothing wrong with branding and consumerism, to affiliate yourself with a clothing label, as long as you're doing something that I would consider to be integral music. I think what becomes a problem is if you pull somebody from the street and you plop them in a position where they are making big money straight away, but they really haven't managed to collate their experience in life properly yet, that's when there's a problem. Because they are being used as puppets to make money for a certain genre of music."

Getting back on the clichés in the music scene, Williamson expresses concerns about bands taking advantage of working-class values. "It's really hard to pinpoint," Williamson observes, "because [the brands] wanted to be working class, but if you are not doing anything interesting, who cares what class you come from? But at the same time, it would be nice to see more working-class acts talking working-class stuff, talking about stuff from the street. And you do get a lot of that with English music in the sense of hip-hop and grime, which is kind of the hotbed home for working-class music at the moment in England. But it would be nice to get some more out in indie music."

"Bands up in the northern area of England, doing just middle of the road guitar-y stuff -- it's all about where your antennae is," Williamson says of bands emerging from the same mindset. "Sometimes that can transcend class. But if you're doing the work or selling a working-class message in an interesting way, that really appeals to me."

I point out that it can also be a problem of class voyeurism. "I do agree there is a lot of voyeurism," Williamson agrees. "Actually, there's a fine line between voyeurism and observation. Yes, it's definitely prevalent."

New Album All That Glue

The first and last tracks of All That Glue -- "McFlurry" and "When You Come Up to Me" respectively -- are the antipodes of the consistent Sleaford Mods production. The songs demonstrate how their formula grows instead of repeating itself over time, summarizing influences from different musical styles. Especially in the last album, which introduces sort of pop harmonies, the stream of consciousness rapping is replaced by singing and the lyrics become more introspective. "It is just not about attacking the exterior all the time," Williamson points out.

"As I get older, I find talking about my own emotions more interesting in some respects and some of the songs ... really called out for something a little bit more selfish," he continues. "Some of the songs are particularly the latest stuff that Andrew's been doing are a lot warmer. They call for something a little more personal."

All That Glue is a work for the fans -- new ones can easily underline a path in the extensive band catalog of five albums in seven years. Fans who have been there since the beginning will finally have the cult classic song "Jobseeker" in a physical format. There are unreleased tracks are from past radio show sessions and outtakes that stand out, especially the utterly potent and defiantly lo-fi "Blog Maggot".

"It was quite fun choosing these tracks," Williamson beams. "There was definitely some from memory I knew I wanted on the album. But there were others that Andrew found and we went back to. Generally, if I think something is good, I'll take that very seriously. More often than not, we will decide to go with it. There is a bit of disillusion with it sometimes, but we are really proud of this album. Everything about this album -- the coverage, our manager Claire, the cover art, and everybody working on it -- has been a real joy."

The album comes out in a limited gold vinyl edition with a bunch of goods, including a Flexi disk and an A5 booklet on the Sleaford Mods' story written by Williamson, all for a reasonably low price. An odd choice, that pricepoint, since nowadays the market tries to make profits from the vinyl resurgence. Then again, Sleaford Mods take in count the political side of their actions and their integrity towards their fan base. "We consciously don't overprice stuff. We don't wanna do that. We have always been like that. You know, I'm not gonna say that we don't need money. You gotta be realistic and don't fool anyone. A lot of people that listen to us are working unskilled jobs, a lot of people, they have regular jobs, you just don't want to overprice it."

Why Not Us?

Artists had to find ways of relating with fans during the COVID-19 lockdown. For Sleaford Mods, it wasn't a relation built around streaming live shows but in the format of mock video clips sketches "to make people have a much-needed laugh." There's "Late Night with Jason", a series of hilariously redone interviews with musicians like Robbie Williams and Amy from Amyl and the Sniffers. I asked him if musicians will need to act more like influencers on social media to gain attention due to the Coronavirus impact on the music business. "Yeah, I think, on the social media side of things, [this] will change musicians definitely," Williamson observes. "It is a really bad time for a lot of people who would otherwise be living their lives hand-out-mouth. A lot of organizations, a lot of clubs, a lot of bands -- it was literally a hand-to-mouth existence. That network is gone now. So, yes, it's quite upsetting, really. People will have to look for other ways to make money if this [epidemic] carries on. Definitely, I think it will change."

At the moment, The biggest impact on Sleaford Mods activities is the cancellation of their America tour, including their planned appearance at Coachella, which is such a big event it could easily attract criticism on the band. "So stupid," Williamson scoffs. "Coachella was basically allowing us to go over to do an America tour. What we were getting paid from Coachella was funding the US tour. It made perfect sense. And why not? It's got a bad rep, Coachella. I think they were trying to turn it around and give [the festival] a new image. Which, you can't fault them for that. Why not invite us? There were loads of other English bands going over. We are just as good. So, why not us?"

We study the past to understand our times, and so will our children. They will look for a message to explain the disarticulation of our modern life -- in need of no life lessons, but truths. In an era full of artistic offers, it will be hard to choose one voice. So yeah, why not Sleaford Mods?

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