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Sleaford Mods interview pt 1 – Jason: “People are just waiting for us to fuck up”

In the first part of our two part Sleaford Mods special, we chat to frontman Jason Williamson about Trump, pop and the fear of messing up

sleaford smaller

It doesn’t take us long to get onto the big stuff.

“It doesn’t look like he’s got a lot of life left in him, does it?” says Jason Williamson, singer with Sleaford Mods (above, left), talking about Donald Trump. “I mean, Joe Biden, no offence but he don’t look great either. But he (Trump) looks fucked. You find that the people who aren’t corrupt seem to be a bit better placed, spiritually, than people who are just ravaged by greed and god knows what else.“

It’s a theory that certainly seems to be backed up by Williamson’s apparently chipper form as he chats to us on Zoom from his living room. Tattooed arms on show, the only interruptions to his conversational flow coming from his affectionate – but very noisy – dogs, Williamson is looking fighting fit.

Fighting fit and eager to chat, too, partly to keep the duo’s recent Top Five album Spare Ribs in the public eye. But mainly, we get the impression anyway, to keep the frustration and boredom of lockdown at bay for a while. “What else am I up to?” he answers, laughing, to our general enquiry. “Erm, nothing. Nothing! Just slowly rehearsing the album and getting familiar with the lyrics and trying to keep my muscle memory sort of active. After not gigging after nearly two years, I’ve got no idea what it’s going to be like. So I’m practicing like that, so it’s not so much of a strange transition.”

More of Spare Ribs – the album that has undoubtedly proved catapulted the Sleafords into new and genuinely unexpected areas of mainstream acceptance – later. But first, we have to put the world to rights.

Back on the subject of Trump, we point out that more people voted for him in the last election than the one he won. “It’s worrying really,” says Jason, “But it’s only worrying in the sense that they’re not getting any information, nobody’s giving them any information. The parameter that set this up was neo-liberalism, people like Joe Biden really. It’s all people have experienced for the last 30 or 40 years, since Reagan I guess. In effect, this is what you get when people are in this system and their backs are against the wall, they turn to nationalism, to fascism, to some kind of identity.”

“There is no choice, literally,” he says of the dominance of that same neo-liberal status quo, both in the US and here in the UK. “It’s got to that point now that I feel quite confident in perhaps not voting. I’m saying perhaps because it seems wrong, you know.

“You’ve got to think about what creates each pool of despair, when it’s just so bleak – the system creates it. This two party system where you’re either red or blue. As time goes on they get less and less distinguishable from each other, don’t they? Where do you draw the line?”

“You had this excitement with Jeremy Corbyn and then it went. It went to the ground. I thought it was the media but the media wasn’t giving him any air so it wasn’t that. The anti-semitism thing. But I wanted clear messages and I wasn’t getting any. I wanted a second referendum. But what I wanted was sort of selfish because of my new found career and my new found love of Europe. It was an experience I’d never had before. I’d never been to Berlin, I’d never been to Hamburg, I’d never been to Madrid, you know what I mean? I’d tasted real life and it was brilliant and I wanted to sustain that and I knew leaving the EU would distance me from that. So my own interests are self-interested I think, obviously. But in a lot of respects I haven’t really got an argument, have I? You’re just concerned about yourself – yeah, you’re fucking right!”

All this is a far cry from the Williamson who was loudly voicing his support for Jeremy Corbyn and urging fans to get out and vote for him back in 2015. Williamson is not unaware of the irony when we point this out.

“Yeah, this is the only issue of being In the spotlight, I guess, from time to time. Because you’re ever changing in your beliefs and your attitudes. It can kind of look like you don’t know what the fuck you’re on about, basically. I dunno.”

However distasteful, the rise of demagogic figures like Trump and Farage is understandable, he says. “People want an answer don’t they, and if someone’s confident enough to give that answer, regardless of whether it’s right or wrong, a lot of the time people go for it, don’t they?” When the UK had its Trump moment, voting for Brexit, “it was just the nationalism that came with it that just pissed me off, basically. The flags and Farage – Farage fucking everywhere. He’s got no political gumption, has he? Alright, he’s a member of the House of Lords. He was a member of the European whatever. But for fuck’s sake. It’s just what it evoked and encouraged in people, particularly people from the lower classes, from working class backgrounds, who looked at it as an opportunity to voice their concerns. But what concerns? You found that there wasn’t any really. It was just an insane energy, you know what I mean?

“But this will carry on, won’t it? This deception will only just carry on. I don’t think in the long term there’ll be an exodus of class consciousness, this deception will just simply carry on. The papers aren’t picking up on it, are they, apart from maybe The Guardian. With the rest of them you just get this simplified, positive message that we’re slowly getting there. But totally, it will come to a point – people will find out when it’s far too late, and there’ll be other forms of deception on top.”

The idea of last sections of the British public being thrown under the bus – that bus with the 350 million written on the side quite possibly – ties in very much with the title and concept of the Spare Ribs album. We, the public, are the thoroughly expendable spare ribs ready to be sacrificed at the whim and convenience of the political class, whether that’s through the pandemic or economic grind.
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That said, although Williamson’s lyrics have always mixed the personal and political, the Spare Ribs album shows a certain lyrical maturity, venturing into new, more personal territory than the trademark Sleafords hi-octane vitriol. Songs like the album’s closing track ‘Fish Cakes’ and probably its most high profile single ‘Mork n Mindy’ see him looking bad to re-examine seemingly long buried childhood memories.

Is he aware of his lyrics changing or is he too close to the subject to really tell? “I’m really close to it and I find it hard to decipher or gauge how things have changed with it,” he says, “The personal attacks on whoever I don’t like are still there, whether that’s a band or whoever, but in general perhaps they have become a little bit more introspective. A little bit more talking about me in a way that could almost be… well, there’s a bit of self-pity in there. But constructive self-pity. Not annoying self-pity!”

Does writing help you work out issues?

“No, not really. I don’t know really, perhaps. It’s whatever I feel is important, or whatever I’ve been thinking about that I’ll tend to put in a song.”

Does it get harder?

”It doesn’t become harder. It’s just, well, you’ve covered whatever you’ve covered already, you don’t want to repeat yourself. And you try to adapt that now to whatever surroundings there are, which are far better these days than they were. I don’t see that as a barrier, I see that as a challenge. I want to see what I can get out of this, you know.

The subjects on Spare Ribs talk about my immediate surroundings, but the state of the world, even in middle class areas, there’s a lot of homeless people about, you’re not too far from the rot, do you know what I mean? You can just feel it. It doesn’t have to be burnt out buildings, or job centres or whatever, it can be people’s expressions in shops, it can be the mood in the park or whatever. I’ve started looking into that a lot more and going back to childhood memories, past experiences, regurgitating past experiences and exploring those. It’s a bit of a dangerous one in some respects , because you can then be seen as using those past experiences. Because they are far more interesting than your current situation. But I don’t think so, to me, anyway, my life has been much more interesting, the most interesting, when it’s been on its knees. Why can’t I forever explore that? I experienced that, so for more I’ve got a right to explore that, do you know what I mean.”

It’s also true, we add, that the more popular you get, the more people are waiting to knock you down again.

“Yeah, all the time, literally all the time. A lot of it is obviously based in jealousy, because I was one of the people pointing the finger not too long ago and to be honest I still do, you know.”

Along with a lyrical evolution, Spare Ribs also sees the duo moving on musically, while or at least constantly honing their art of keeping the highest possible earworm quotient while reducing songs to their bare structural bones, something which Williamson says comes from the ’intricate space’ of late 90s drum & bass like Photek and Roni Size.

“I got really pissed off with complex songs, with busy songs with too much going on in them, and up until the birth of Sleaford Mods that’s what I had to contend with, you know. I just found it really boring. I remember writing demos with bands and being really excited by the bare demoes before anyone overlaid shit on them. I couldn’t understand why nobody else saw that. It really used to piss me off and disappoint me. By the end of it I was veering more towards a minimal set up anyway.”

Simultaneously, as rough edged as they may be, Sleaford Mods songs are memorable, and he seems unafraid to go as far as mentioning the P word – pop – that is taboo to so many making underground or left of centre music.

“I’m edging more towards that kind of thing. embracing a more pop formula, I think that’s become more apparent with the later stuff. And that’s definitely something I want to try and master. It’s not enough for me any more to just rant. I’ve done that. I think I’m starting to see pop music as a possible vehicle for my need to write music, do you know what I mean?”

The album took about a month in the studio, starting with a week’s recording in January 2020 and then finishing off with a further three weeks in July of last year. “I had a load of ideas between when we came back from Australia in March and July. Andrew sent me a load of stuff.”

Williamson admits that the band felt the pressure to deliver something really special this time round, especially as they’d also released a compilation in the second part of 2020.

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“You can overkill it, can’t you?” he says with a vulnerability you wouldn’t guess from his formidable onstage persona. “ I was worried that people had had enough of us. We’ve released an album every year, or at least every two years. But especially this time round, we did the All That Glue thing, the compilation, that came out in the summer. So, we’d already done a round of press for that and then we did Spare Ribs, and I thought people are not going to have this, they’re going to be sick of it. And lo and behold they weren’t, it was really well received.

“I think we just hit a really good album, it was an album that – it was a result of the last two albums, English Tapas and Eton Mess. We were working towards Spare Ribs with those albums. There was a lot of talk about people not liking English Tapas especially. Then Eton Alive came along and it was slightly more interesting by all accounts.”

He says, again, he’s too close to the subject to be objective “I love all of them.”

“I was just lost in the world of it,” he says of Spare Ribs, “because it’s such an intense period recording an album and especially over this summer, this one, it had to be good. It couldn’t be anything less than really good, because if not I was convinced we would be forgotten about. So you push yourself, you have no choice. I think people are just waiting for us to fuck up, you know what I mean?!

“It’s probably paranoia. I’m sure people have got more important things to be thinking about than my concerns with my fucking band. But I would imagine it’s very annoying to a lot of people, so the moment there’s any sign of weakness it will be leapt on. So for me and Andrew it’s important to try and turn it around every time we do a record.”

There’s no doubt that Williamson is not being paranoid – the band do have their haters. Let’s not forget that it was attracting the anger of Liam and Noel Gallagher that brought them to the mainly none-the-wiser public However, anyone waiting for Jason and Andrew to put a foot wrong will just have to carry on waiting, because Spare Ribs is the sound of a band at the very height of their powers. Long may it continue.

Ben Willmott