SLEAFORD MODS: THE UNJUST NATURE OF EVERYTHING
illustration by nathan morse
Nottingham’s Sleaford Mods are a band at the very edge of being a band: Andrew presses play on the laptop with the drum loops and Jason splits the difference between John Lydon and George Carlin on high-speed no-future rants about paycheck-to-paycheck half-life in the last days of late capitalism. (In other words: two shit jobs and a microphone.) They have extremely detailed opinions on wankers and fakers and their latest album English Tapas is out now on Rough Trade. Here co-founder Jason Williamson is at his happiest when he’s talking about revenge on everyone who’d written him off. They play their first-ever L.A. show on Sun., Apr. 9, at the Echoplex. This interview by Kristina Benson and Chris Ziegler appeared in print last fall.
You used to work as a benefits advisor—the U.K. equivalent to getting food stamps or disability or welfare here. What things did you see there that made their way into Sleaford Mods songs?
Jason Williamson (vocals): I always got that kind of a thing from any job that I did. [The people] were always quite real, so to speak, and sort of at the bottom end of things. What did stick out was the effect certain policies from the government had on certain groups of people: people with depression problems, mental issues, people with injuries—work injuries—that simply couldn’t work. Single mothers trying to find work, getting work and then finding that they were much worse off, actually, working than they would have been claiming benefits. I got an insight into the pointlessness of existence in that level—you know, people who just had enough. Life was not something that resembled life, you know?
They had to think about the present—short-term survival.
Jason Williamson: You’d get some people that were brilliant at managing what little money they had, and it was unbelievable. Some people would come in and calculate what they needed to do. They had it all worked out, and bearing in mind, they were claiming very little income with lots of other responsibilities—two or three kids. This is mainly women. I was in awe at this resilience. But then the other end of that was people with depression problems—a lot of ex-servicemen who were completely disoriented and just alienated—let down—and so would direct their anger at the implements that the government would put into the psyche of the general public. Which would be the immigration problem—stuff like that. So people, such as ex-servicemen or people in general, would be depressed and pissed off and vent their anger at these targets put in the propaganda machine by the U.K. media. You saw how it worked, from a local government point of view. That’s what differentiated that job from all the others.
This has to be what ‘Face To Faces’ on the new album is about: ‘Free money, mate. / Just fill in the form and if you can’t I can help you / Put yourself in the queue and I’ll come out to you.’
Jason Williamson: Yeah—you would sort people out on the phone and take phone calls in the morning, and then in the afternoon you’d be on the phone but also take people actually coming in, so it would be a face to face thing. That’s what they were actually called: ‘Face To Faces.’ The first line was actually something one of my colleagues said to someone, that it was free money: ‘If you can’t fill in the form, then I can help you / put yourself in the queue and I’ll come to you.’ That’s something that we regularly said because people— a lot just couldn’t be bothered, a lot of people were frightened of forms … I’m sure it’s the same in your country. The application is purposely complicated.
By the end of that song you seem absolutely disillusioned: ‘The passive articles on political debate / the implications are fucking meaningless, mate.’
Jason Williamson: I just find politics and everything about it—the people—disgusting. The various sort of repairs they could do on politics are absolutely pointless. It’s all self-serving. At the minute it’s completely one-dimensional, it’s full of careerists. And as an actual mechanism, as a social mechanism, politics is just dead. All I keep going back to is it needs to be abolished—I mean, it’s stupid. There really isn’t any other way. But then again, I’m sure something else will come on top as well. I just find it so tedious and crap and it’s just pointless. I can’t find anything in it whatsoever.
In your music, you’ve given yourself permission to be brutally honest about the problems that you see around you. And here in the U.S., at least right now, there’s this relentless push for people to be positive.
Jason Williamson: My time in America, any time that I’ve ever gone, I’ve noticed that. There’s this big push for positive thinking, and people are very polite and blah-blah-blah. I think in England, as you’re probably well aware, people are ‘Ughhh.’ That kind of thing is pushed in the sense of keeping yourself fit, trying to eat well—yoga, stuff like that. And also in consumerism, as well. Like if you’re wearing certain things, that’s going to make you feel good about yourself. That’s going to make you look good in front of people, and that’s going to create an air of positivity.
Are Sleaford Mods responding to that?
Jason Williamson: A little bit. With Sleaford Mods, I’ve always tried to soundtrack what I see around me, which most of the time was not positive and was a very different picture painted to what you see in the media programs. But I’m no different from anybody else. I take great enjoyment in buying things and thinking about buying things. I’m a complete victim. I’d like to think that there’s a certain bit of rationality with it, as well. I think a lot of people are that way inclined.
The Guardian said Sleaford Mods reflect the character and condition of the country. Specifically, something like ‘England’s completely fucked, and these guys are talking about it.’
Jason Williamson: Yeah, it’s fucked. It’s really fucked. You’re alright if you’ve got some money, but if you haven’t got any money, it’s hard work. I know it’s always been like that, but it’s more so like that these days. There’s a lot more crooks coming in. There’s a lot more fear that’s being heaped on minority groups, on people earning low wages—obviously women. So it’s definitely like that.
You don’t pay for healthcare yet, do you?
Jason Williamson: No, you don’t.
Notice I said ‘yet.’
Jason Williamson: It’s getting to the point where it certainly helps if you can.
In the city I live in, the city council just passed a measure that said if you call 911 and they come and offer you any medical help whatsoever, you owe them $250.
Jason Williamson: You’re fucking joking.
Reporters and reviewers will engage with you and your music about the topics that you’re writing about, and then you have the opportunity to talk about stuff like gentrification. But other musicians have blocked themselves in, in a way. The image they’ve developed is one of a person who doesn’t talk about those things, so now they can’t talk about them. Like … Lupe Fiasco, two years ago, tried to start a conversation about Marxism on Twitter, and then his team just pulled him off right away.
Jason Williamson: You’ve hit the nail on the head with the word ‘team.’ Was he connected with a major label or something? That’s the thing. If you’ve got a team, it’s like you’re working for a company, and you’re basically an employee, and as much as you think that you’re this free agent writing music and taking your abilities and talents to its pinnacle, you’re just an employee, really. That’s what I’ve noticed over here—nobody says anything. Primarily because they’re told they can’t. And so I started to look at that a few years back, and I thought, ‘Well, you’re not musicians, you’re not artists. You’re not honoring the idea of creativity. You’re just willing to be paid a bit more money to do what somebody else wants you to. As much as you think that you are exercising your own interests, and whatever else you think comes through your music, at the end of the day, you’re working for somebody else.’ I believe that—if you’ve got a team, you’re fucked. Some people want a team. A lot of people just want a team, and they want fame. But what they have to remember is that it comes with a price, and that price is that you just look an absolute wanker. I’m not saying that Lupe Fiasco is—not at all. But in a sense, well, if you’re getting paid for pulling off what you say on Twitter, it’s not right.
Especially because it’s his own image, you’d think he’d be able to control it—
Jason Williamson: Completely. It’s not right. I don’t agree with it.
Is there a flip side to this? Where now the only stuff you get—‘get’ in quotes—to talk about is all this depressing reality? Do you feel you’re locked into this image now in a similar way?
Jason Williamson: That’s a good question, actually. It’s still important to talk about the things we have been talking about, so it doesn’t really bother me. It’s what motivates me to write music, at the minute.
Is this what ‘No One’s Bothered’ is about? ‘You’re trapped, me too / Alienation, no ones bothered …’ About how no one is able or willing to say something is wrong?
Jason Williamson: Someone pointed out—a critic—they said they really liked the song, and was floored that people actually are bothered. He had a point, but we still don’t seem to be collectively, though. People may moan against things, but to proactively do something about it is a completely different matter. That’s what that was about — one minute you’re watching four hundred people in a boat off the coast of Syria capsize and they all drown, and then you look up the road and someone is driving in a gleaming brand new Range Rover that cost £80,000. When you put those two things together it’s absolutely insane. I was just trying to capture something like that. I suppose the world has always been that way but it still doesn’t make that feeling any less diluted. It’s quite an oppressive weight to carry around.
I think about how if someone showed me Sleaford Mods on paper—‘They’re kind of aggressive and confrontational; they’re very minimalist, and they talk about capitalism and critique austerity.’—I’d think, ‘This sounds like something I’d be super into and no one else will like it and it won’t go anywhere.’ Obviously that’s totally wrong. So what does the success of Sleaford Mods reveal about the way we’re told the music industry works?