A few weeks into the UK’s first coronavirus lockdown, Sleaford Mods’ Jason Williamson suffered a serious injury. After giving up drugs and alcohol a few years ago, he’d become “addicted to the gym,” as he puts it, “which is certainly better than taking loads of cocaine,” but with fitness centres closed indefinitely and under mounting pandemic stress, he began working out obsessively at home: “I overdid it, pulled something, and was out for the count.” He had badly aggravated existing back problems caused by his having spina bifida as a child, which led to chronic pain until he had a major operation aged 12.
Afterwards, the pain was so agonising that he spent his days on intense painkillers and was waking up almost hourly at night. He had to sleep alone in his spare room for the sake of his wife: “It was quite bleak. Two months before that I was playing sold out shows, having smoke blown up my arse every single day, being told I was the saviour of this, that and the other. Then I’m stuck in a bedroom with spina bifida and my wife’s concerned it might not get better.”
This began to influence his writing for the Nottingham post-punk duo’s upcoming sixth album, ‘Spare Ribs’: “I became quite inward; I started thinking about me, my childhood, my family, my upbringing.”
Williamson, now 50, grew up on an estate in the small town of Grantham, Lincolnshire. “My parents were dead young,” he remembers, “and you can forgive them for making mistakes, but it was quite bleak. There were a lot of domestic problems with other families. You could see it. You could feel it. The school looked like the houses we were born in. The pubs looked the same. [With this album], I wanted to bring across the claustrophobia, the disappointment.”
He began drawing parallels between the frustrations of his childhood and the dual confinement of lockdown and his injury, demonstrated on ‘Spare Ribs’’ deeply melancholy closer ‘Fishcakes’ and the frantic, suffocating ‘Top Room’, named after his dwellings during the worst of his pain.
It was only after Williamson had spent decades trying to make it as a performer in a procession of failed guitar bands and low-key solo projects that Sleaford Mods took off. In 2010, he had a spot performing ranting spoken-word over aggressive beats on a crowded line-up at 60-capacity Nottingham venue The Chameleon. That same night, another long-time grafter Andrew Fearn, an electronic music obsessive, was DJing pop hits that he’d remixed to the point that they were unrecognisably twisted.
They hit it off and started working together, Fearn taking over completely from the project’s previous beatmaker Simon Parfrement in 2012. From the outset, there was a fizzling tension between their two styles that remains the band’s core to this day. “It was just very instant,” Fearn tells NME in a separate phone call. “It didn’t need a lot of thinking about.”
Williamson had already released a slew of lo-fi tapes under the Sleaford Mods name, but Fearn’s relentless instrumentals elevated his furious streams of consciousness – channeling all those years of exasperation and spleen built up over a career’s worth of knock backs – to until they finally started to gain the attention they always felt they deserved. By 2013’s ‘Austerity Dogs’ they were underground music darlings, and by the following year’s ‘Divide And Exit’ they were circling the mainstream. As Britain buckled more and more under the austerity of endless Conservative governments, and as populist demagogues rose to actual political power, their ability to so viscerally describe the reality of life on the brink saw Fearn and Williamson emerge from the margins as essential voices.
On ‘Spare Ribs’, Sleaford Mods have lost none of that ire, but its increased introspection makes it unlike anything the band have produced before. In the past, Sleaford Mods’ music thrived on pure ferocity, Williamson’s breathless, ranting vocals and considerable descriptive power combined with Fearn’s primal instrumentals. Their most enduring tracks, such as ‘Jobseeker’ and ‘Tied Up In Nottz’, are also their most rabid. Although 2019’s ‘Eton Alive’ saw the occasional foray into the dark and downcast with tracks such as ‘When You Come Up To Me’, ‘Spare Ribs’ opens up vast new emotional palettes.
It’s not the only new ground they’re breaking. For the very first time, they’re featuring guest artists – “ a way of pushing the production,” as Williamson puts it. Woozy and dark lead single ‘Mork N Mindy’ features outspoken Leicester-born newcomer Billy Nomates, an ally since she sent Sleaford Mods her music on Instagram (Williamson appeared on her self-titled debut album, released last year). Amy Taylor, frontwoman of Aussie punks Amyl And The Sniffers, spits a boisterous verse over the hammering ‘Nudge It’. At the start of ‘Top Room’, there’s a fragment of a monologue from Dr. Lisa McKenzie, an anarchist and academic in working-class culture.
On the music inspired by his childhood, Fearn’s instrumentals are cloying, choking and bleak, and there’s a desperation to Williamson’s voice that feels more panicked and precarious than on the political fury of old. As well as his established ranting delivery he’s employed in the past, there are moments where he sings with abandon or lets himself play daft. The collaborative tracks even border on poppy. Billy Nomates’ slick soulfulness provides the perfect foil to Williamson’s staccato. “Andrew said the end of ‘Nudge It,’ when me and Amy are singing together, reminded him of Grease,” he laughs.
Although the record is a marked step forward for Sleaford Mods, their process has barely changed since Fearn joined the project. Thanks to their spartan set-up, the pandemic had little effect on their approach to making music. “I make a load of ideas and send them over, then when Jason’s got enough ideas we’ll just go in and record it, and the place we record in was made pretty Covid-free,” says Fearn. “Before Sleaford Mods I was always sitting in a room and not going out anyway because I didn’t have any money.”
There’s not much explicit conversation between the musicians about conceptual steps forward. “We’re not in each other’s pockets too much creatively,” Fearn continues. “I’m aware that there’s nothing worse than a band just bashing out album after album that sounds the same, [but] I think a lot of bands’ songs can feel laboured. There are bands who’ve recorded better songs than the [new] ones they’ve released, but they’ve got too many people blowing smoke up their arses.”
‘Spare Ribs’’ colossal expansion of emotional range makes it the best album of Sleaford Mods’ career, featuring some of their most creative beats and vocal performances of remarkable range. Yet they’ve always been far more complex than one man ranting and another pressing play on a laptop. The sparseness and spikiness of their music, and Williamson’s provocative lyrics, can often disguise their thoughtfulness and subtlety; they process the sheer confusion and strangeness of existence in the 21st century as often as they attack those responsible.
In conversation Fearn is laid back and easy-going, while Williamson is attentive, thoughtful and softly spoken. ‘Spare Ribs’ was written partly before lockdown, but from the outset his writing had already been turning towards the introspective. ‘Mork And Mindy’, which he’s said was intended to capture “the sound of the central heating and the dying smells of Sunday dinner in a house on an estate in 1982,” was written backstage during the band’s 2019 UK tour.
“We’re all spare ribs, depending on our financial status” – Jason Williamson
There is, however, still plenty of anger on the album. The vicious ‘Short Cummings’ is a direct swipe at the cronyism and ineptitude that’s defined the British government’s bungled response to the pandemic – aimed in particular, of course, at once-de-facto-PM Dominic Cummings. The album’s track takes its name from the way in which, just as a person can survive without a few ribs, under capitalism some people are simply expendable. It was an idea the band had been toying with before the pandemic, but one brought into stark relief “by the amount of people dying from Covid in this country due to the government not doing anything,” Williamson says.
He explains that when they returned from their Australian tour in mid-March, as the severity of the pandemic was unfolding, “Heathrow was just dead, there were no checks, no signs up, nothing. It was fucking weird. All they think about is the economic model. The amount of homeless people around [Nottingham] – I know some of them – they’re all ex-prison, on spice, and nobody gives a fuck. It’s sink or swim; the strongest survive. We’re all spare ribs, depending on our financial status.”
On the searing ‘Nudge It’, Mods take aim at ‘class tourists’, “stood outside a high rise trying to look like a gangster”. He doesn’t want to name names, he says, but there’s a specific target that seems obvious. In 2019, Williams accused Bristol punk band IDLES of “appropriating, to a certain degree, a working class voice,” and described their politics as “cliched, patronising, insulting and mediocre”.
He’s contemplative when we broach the subject now. “There’s certain bands,” he says, “that front a kind of music that’s been created by people from the lower division in society. But as long as these people are treating it with respect, there’s no problem with that. Some bands who appear to be quite middle-class are posing against concrete pillars in half-mast jeans, but I don’t think that’s the problem. They’re not insinuating that they’ve been hard done by; it’s just the imagery of the modern world. But then there are some bands that play with it. I’ve come to the conclusion that perhaps they’re not even conscious of it. I don’t think anyone wants to go out of their way to misrepresent themselves. Or do they? Are people that cunning and careerist?’”
With a hint of rising exasperation in his voice, Williamson says he’s baffled by the way certain artists “keep repeating themselves,” despite those concerns. “These people come across as perceptive, observational, talented to a certain degree, so why are they then not getting this? It’s a really simple thing. It’s not even down to exposing yourself to political books, social critique, philosophers, whatever – it’s down to common sense and respect. I come from a working-class background, but I wouldn’t pose in front of a high-rise,” he continues. “Generally they’re inhabited by people on low wages. That can’t be a very nice experience for them. Why would you infringe on that?”
On the taut ‘Elocution’, Sleaford Mods broaden their attack to encompass music business cliques. Williamson the track in his finest indie posh boy impression: “Hello there – I’m here today to talk about the importance of independent venues. I’m also secretly hoping that by agreeing to talk about the importance of independent venues, I will then be in a position to move away from playing independent venues.”
Today, he tells NME: “I think that people who’ve got a limited vision generally tend to connect themselves with campaigns, to be representatives of musical equipment. What I find interesting is that you find these people winning awards for ‘Best Album’. But who’s fucking heard it? You see the timeline. They’ve done this, that, now they’ve won an award.”
Fearn is similarly reluctant to be drawn into espousing a ‘cause’. “You want to sell records, but you don’t want to pander to an audience,” he says. “I think that’s when you become part of the furniture. Unfortunately that still works in this industry, [but] it’s important for us to keep it interesting.”
Williamson says he’s recently started to feel like an outsider from the larger music industry, though adds: “I don’t know if that’s just down to my paranoia.” He reflects on his and Fearn’s initial rise to prominence in the early 2010s, after decades of graft on their respective solo projects. Although there were plenty who didn’t take the band seriously at first – “there were a lot of Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine comparisons, which is obviously just terrible” – they felt invincible.
“You want to sell records, but you don’t want to pander to an audience” – Andrew Fearn
“Strangely I didn’t feel like an outsider then,” he says, “because I knew we were carrying a lot of weight creatively.” he continues. “I think we were making a lot of bands look dated. I think post-Oasis fallout, after The Libertines fizzled out, it just seemed like that whole culture had smashed itself on the head with a hammer. But now we’re a permanent fixture on the landscape, and not the buzz band, then you feel like an outsider. I think a lot of people get over that by including themselves in those [music business] cliques.”
Nevertheless, the band are conscious of the responsibility that comes with growing public profile. In June they handed over their Instagram profile (and their 71,000 followers) to the young Nottingham poet Leon McKenzie, who shared work concerning his experiences as a mixed-race, working-class man. The following month, they did the same for fan and transgender man Oscar Rees, who had been verbally abused at one of their shows.“We thought it would just be a good thing to do, really,” Williamson says, seeming to choose his words carefully. “It’s about helping people, but also about educating yourself.”
Does Sleaford Mods feel they have a duty to use their platform in this way? “Completely. Absolutely. But you’ve got to do the back work with it. You’ve got to be careful and not attach any ego to it. We live in such a cynical time that you start to question yourself and why you do it.”
So how do they keep doing it? “People ask us that all the time,” says Fearn, “But that’s like asking a baker how they’re going to keep on making bread.”
The key is not to overthink it, he says. Six records into their career, the duo’s workmanlike approach is key to their relentless progress. At the same time, Britain’s gradually worsening socio-economic situation – a decline set into overdrive by the coronavirus calamity– is throwing the gulf between classes that Williamson writes about into starker and starker focus, injecting the band’s work with round after round of vitality. As things get worse and worse, Sleaford Mods are only getting better.