The 100 Club, beneath Oxford Street in London’s West End, is as close as British music gets to a heritage site. During World War Two, jazz bands played as German planes reduced the buildings above to rubble. In 1976, a two-day festival united the Pistols, the Clash, and Siouxsie And The Banshees on one stage. Tonight, Jason Williamson, vocalist for the Nottingham, U.K. duo Sleaford Mods sits in a graffitied dressing room sipping from a bottle of water. Tonight is the second night of a two-night residency, sold out months in advance, and Williamson — softly spoken, amusing, rather less intimidating than the twitchy knot of sweat and expletives that takes to the stage a couple of hours later — admits to stage fright. “Always, always,” he says. “I’d be worried if I wasn’t.”
The persona Williamson cuts onstage is not that of a man you imagine to by duly troubled by nerves. His spittle-flecked, free-associating rants about wage slavery, austerity politics, pop cultural ephemera and the awful things that humans do are equal parts raging and horribly funny, driven forth on the sparse bass-and-drum grooves clattering from the laptop of long-time collaborator Andrew Fearn. Nailing exactly what Sleaford Mods do is difficult — “punk poetry” feels broadly accurate, if falling somehow short. Perhaps their music is best understood as the forcible collision of apparently incompatible reference points: The Jam meets the Wu-Tang Clan, perhaps; or Pet Shop Boys crashed into Crass.
It almost never happened. Now 43 years old with a wife and child, Williamson toiled away at music for years with zero acclaim. He tells me of years spent “rotting away” in his native Grantham in the English midlands, working at the roadside restaurant Little Chef and pursuing musical projects on evenings and weekends, frustration slowly building, but a unique voice — colloquial, embittered, absurd — slowly sliding into view.
Sleaford Mods began in 2006 and released five albums on a small-press, CD-R basis to little response. Then, out of nowhere, it happened. Two albums — the 2013 compilation Austerity Dogs and this year’s Divide and Exit — both released on Nottingham-based noise label Harbinger Sound — suddenly found their audience. There were glowing write-ups in NME, the Guardian and Rolling Stone, and a growing list of admirers. Geoff Barrow of Portishead has just released a new EP, Tiswas, on his label Invada. A singles collection, Chubbed Up, sees the light of day on Mike Patton’s Ipecac. Writing in the Talkhouse, Craig Finn of the Hold Steady called “Tied Up In Nottz” his “song of the summer,” while the duo were recently shot for Germany’s Spex Magazine by the photographer Wolfgang Tillmans. The pair recently wound up a U.K. tour with reformed two-tone pioneers the Specials; a collaboration with the Prodigy is in the works. Success has been surprising. “For a long time, I didn’t feel like anybody,” muses Williamson, with the slight disbelief of one concerned he might at any moment awake from a dream. “Now we have an audience. I’m chuffed, really.”
According to a surprising number of tweets that Williamson assiduously retweets, Sleaford Mods are “the new Sex Pistols”. No one is the new Sex Pistols, of course, but you can sort of understand this reception. Their uncompromised, unpretty approach sets the music scene that surrounds them in sharp relief. Next to them, your typical British indie group looks formulaic, complacent, careerist; removed from the real Great Britain of 2014, a land of eternal recession, increasing inequality, doom and gloom. Yesterday, Williamson gave up his day job as a benefits advisor for Nottingham city council, and is now free to pursue music full time. Still, there is little sign Sleaford Mods are watering down their sound for mainstream acceptance — one new song is called “Bunch of Cunts”.
Wondering Sound spoke to Williamson about humour, the beauty of swearing and how he nearly became an actor.
Yesterday you gave up the day job — how does that feel?
No different yet, really. I’m looking forward to having a rest, but I’m assuming that’ll kick in next week. I still have that mindset of having to go to work on Monday. We’ve been gigging lots now for about a year and a half, and it was starting to get to me a bit, the exhaustion.
A lot of Sleaford Mods songs dealt directly with the frustrations of work. Will you need something to replace it?
Maybe, yeah. That remains to be seen. We’ve nearly done the next album, so that’ll keep me safe for another year. [Laughs] I’m sure something will happen — it’ll be a new mindset. You can’t keep doing the same thing. I think I’d feel a bit uncomfortable, ranting about office life forever. I think I’ve covered it quite well.
Is the next record on Harbinger Sound? Have you had other offers?
It’s on Harbinger, yeah. We’ve had no offers — but if someone like Sony came along, what could they do? We had interest from Domino — they wanted to meet us, [scornfully] discuss creative input. You know, fuck off. The lad seemed nice, but he was 15, 20 years younger than me. You don’t know me [laughs]. You don’t know my fucking life. What could you tell us?
A new album is due out early next year. Taking Chubbed Up into account, that’s four albums in three years.
I wonder, are we overexposing ourselves? But fuck it — The Jam did an album a year, singles in between. For bands — or the labels employing them — it’s all about image and marketing, and the tunes come second. We’re going at the speed it feels comfortable. I don’t think I’m deluding myself, I think it’s all good.
What would have happened if this degree of success came to the young Jason Williamson?
I think I’d have fucked it to be honest. I’ve always been a whippersnapper for booze. Back then I was a car crash. I don’t think I would have had the confidence to see it through. If I’d have done it back then I’d have been in a different band, signed to a major, and we know what usually happens there. Touring, I wish I was 15 years younger, go out tour and take 80 pills and a few grams of whizz. But that’s when disaster strikes [laughs]. It’s a job.
Why has it happened for you now? It feels like something about Sleaford Mods has chimed with the national mood, in the U.K. at least.
I think because it’s put across in an original way. People respond to the aesthetics of it — just a laptop and a microphone. And we’re not trying to please anyone. You always get the impression bands are trying a bit too hard.
So it’s honesty?
I think so. You need that. In Britain at the moment, there’s a lot of degradation, isn’t there? Despair in the atmosphere. Things feel grey a lot of the time.
Your music deals specifically with class, and not a lot of British music outside of grime deals with that.
You’ve got a point there. Grime, I think, deserves a lot more exposure. I’m turned off sometimes by the misogyny, but it should get more attention. I listen to Roachee, Roll Deep, a couple of others. Who’s that guy, Wiley? He’s hit and miss, but I like him.
He’s funny. I like grime when, like Sleaford Mods, the angry bits are leavened with jokes. You have these pop cultural references — [British Saturday morning kid's TV show] ‘Tiswas’, for example.
Humour is totally important. If me and Andrew are laughing in the studio, we know it’s good. That’s part of the “fuck off” element of it — because you’re not supposed to have humor in a song, are you? Music is supposed to be really emotional. Total bollocks. For me, it’s a mindset that comes from work, where the only thing that gets you through the day is taking the piss out of the fucker next to you.
It’s said that swearing is a lazy means of expression, but you use swear words with a sense of intent. You’ve elevated it to an artform.
It does feel natural. We have been talking about it, the idea that two or three songs without swearing in might help the cause of [promoting] the next album. But then you start to get back into this basic songwriting thing again — your whole [sings] “The sun is shining…,” and that reminds me of the old days. I probably need to get over it. The way the word “fucking” sounds is great, isn’t it? Unbeatable. The word cunt — cunt, cunt, cunt. The way it sounds in a Midlands accent, it’s not exaggerated — it’s quite soft. It just fits in there.
So how did the collaboration with the Prodigy come about?
Liam [Howlett] just got in touch, and said, “Do you fancy doing it?” It was done over the internet. I sent over two rants which were neither here nor there. But then he got back in touch, like, “Jason, you know what I’m really fucked off about? Ibiza.” I said I’ve never been, but it looks shit. [Laughs] And he said I’m sick of these cunts flying over on their Lear jets, sticking their memory sticks into a laptop — let’s write about that. He reminds me of my old man — “It weren’t like that in my fucking day.” The song is called “Ibiza.” Keith does a backing vocal. But it’s good because my identity is still in there, you can hear me in it. I rate the Prodigy. They’ve done some great songs. They’re hilarious, running around in all this leather shit. They remind me of an old English punk band.
You would have been too young to experience punk as it happened, but when did you hear it?
I was young when my parents got divorced, and my step brothers were a little bit older, they were big Sex Pistols fans. I would have been 11. Through that I got into the Exploited, Anti-Pasti, all that. Then when I went to secondary school I got bang into The Jam, Motown, became a mod. The first single I bought was that Sid Vicious record, Something Else. It scared me, I remember. It looked so ferocious and horrible.
But you’ve moved through subcultures over the years. You were a raver too.
Yeah, when I was about 21 — about 1991. My mate was bang into it, took me along to a club. I remember going along, just having a drink and just being sat on a stool all night, looking at all these people off their tits. Next time, did a pill and I was like, boom, gone [laughs].
I know you haven’t really spoken about this side of your past much, but I know you trained as an actor.
I did it for GCSE and A-level, and my tutor said, you’ve got the ability — go do it. I fucked it off for a bit, went to live in America for a while, then came back and got a job in a local factory. It used to be £5 for an audition, and I did RADA, the Poor School, Bristol Old Vic. I didn’t really like Shakespeare. I liked Pinter, modern stuff — Brecht, Artaud. I had the ability, but I really let myself down on the academic side. I wasn’t very academic, I had trouble writing essays and spelling and all that business. Half the class were posh, from grammar school, the other half were from comprehensives. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot. I’m as intelligent as those guys, just didn’t have the education. But I wasn’t disciplined, either. I got into clubbing around the same time.
Sure, I don’t know too many people who do acting and…
And loads of speed! [laughs] The two don’t go together.
Earlier, you said no one ever asked you about your political position. Is there anything to be optimistic about? I hear Sleaford Mods as a kind of anti-politics, a sort of musical none-of-the-above.
Someone said to me earlier, Sleaford Mods is quite humanist — it’s more about human beings than political policies. But I’m suspicious of people like Russell Brand saying, “Oh, I don’t vote,” because he’s fucking rich. That’s the worker coming out in me, the cynicism there. Still, at least he’s saying something. The problem is a lack of options. Me and the missus are talking about voting Green. Although I said that to somebody the other day, and he [said], “No, vote Labour — anything to get the Tories out.” Maybe. You get a slightly softer feel from Westminster when Labour are in. But they’re still pulling the plug out. We’re still going down the drain.