How do Nottingham duo Sleaford Mods, a notoriously stripped-back act, perform a main stage headline set? It’s a question that was answered last weekend at Dorset’s End Of The Road Festival, when frontman Jason Williamson and producer Andrew Fearn topped the bill with an uncharacteristically flashy light show and 90 minutes of frenetic punk-rap that leant heavily on their five-star, pandemic-inspired sixth album ‘Spare Ribs’. “It’s like a greatest hits set!” Williamson jokingly promised NME backstage before the gig. “It’s just tune after tune. It’s like: ‘Bang-bang!’”
With that last sentence, he could be describing his own interview style, as he proved while chatting about the return of gigs, the band’s working-class roots, their many imitators, new music and Mods’ unlikely headliner status.
Hello Jason. How does it feel for Mods to have become headliners?
Jason Williamson: “It’s weird! Going from purely a club format for the last seven years to this, it’s good. We’ve worked for it and we wanted it. After seven years, what do you do? Try and get bigger? And how do you get bigger? Try and write songs that are better than the others, or bigger than the others? I think we achieved that. So you’ve gotta have everything else that comes with it, haven’t you?”
But you can’t have ever thought, when you started doing Mods, that you’d end up headlining main stages…
“No fucking chance! What, with just a laptop? I don’t mean to demean Andrew’s part in this – and he would admit it himself – but just with music we’ve worked on at home? How can this get any bigger? But it has, hasn’t it?”
End Of The Road Festival is known for being quite genteel; not a word you would necessarily apply to Sleaford Mods. This isn’t your first time here: why do the band and the festival fit so well together?
“I think it’s because Simon [Taffe, EOTR founder] has had a similar trajectory [to us] with the way he brought this festival up. He used to be a plasterer and just banked everything on this festival. He took a massive gamble on it and he’s nobody’s fool. Obviously he likes our music but I think perhaps part of him saw an underdog in what we do, and that’s probably what attracted him to the music anyway.”
The End Of The Road headline set is your third show after lockdown. How have you found the return of gigs?
“It was like nothing had changed. But I think it’s creeping up, isn’t it? I think there’s gonna be a cultural shift soon, perhaps, with creativity and how things sound. I think we’re gonna pass this post-punk thing and there’ll be the emergence of something else. You can feel that something’s gonna turn over soon. When the wheels of capitalism start moving again, so will new ideas…”
When gigs finally returned this autumn, was that too early, or too late?
“I think it came at the right time. I didn’t wanna go out when people were dying of the fucking thing, but it’s important that things recovered. It affected people’s mental health. I’ve got mates that believe in this anti-vax bullshit. I don’t talk to them any more. I understand if it’s a health thing, but if you think it’s being controlled by an evil greater power, where have you fucking been all your life? It’s fucked people up.
“When the powers that be considered [reopening gigs] safe, I’ll go along with that. It’s a weird one because we’ve got the worst Government the UK’s ever had. Fucking hell! Post-fire of London, post-Black Death. Post-Oliver Cromwell! But it’s also possible, at the same time, for factions of that Government to supply something that is helping people get back on their feet, and we’re talking about the vaccine.”
Before you released ‘Spare Ribs’, did you have an inkling that this would be the album that kicked Mods up a notch?
“No! Fucking no chance. I remember writing ‘Mork n Mindy’; we did an early demo and got Tor [aka future-punk Billy Nomates] to do her bits – it took her about 20 minutes – and we were like, ‘This fits so well’. It needed work, but we knew that tune was gonna be really good. When we did ‘Nudge It’ [featuring Amyl and the Sniffers’ Amy Taylor], we knew that one was gonna be good. So we knew the two singles would elevate it. Everything else around it was good, but I didn’t think it would take off the way it did. I’ll be honest with you: I thought after [2017 album] ‘English Tapas’, we were gonna do a series of integral albums, but it would just remain [at one level]. But it’s gone up!”
Why do you think that is?
“I think it’s the lockdown. With people being caged up and really starting to connect to the hopelessness of that, I think that fed through the songs and connected with people. The songs are good as well!”
‘Mork n Mindy’ getting a lot of play on 6 Music helped, too…
“6 Music has been really close to what we do. And you wouldn’t think it – most of our contemporaries are, like, 25 years younger. It’s like, ‘Oh, fucking hell!’ But I got sick of listening to it on that station, do you know what I mean? It’s like, ‘Fucking Jesus!’ [Laughs] But it’s such an earworm, and we’ve started to realise that there’s nothing wrong with earworms. We resisted that a little bit before because I just wanted to rant. It was important for me to keep it close to that skeletal frame. But from ‘English Tapas’ onwards, we just got a taste for the old sing-song.”
It’s interesting to see Mods, a band vocal about working-class issues, playing what can be quite a middle-class festival circuit…
“I wouldn’t like to think people see us as a spectacle. Because we’re not working-class any more – haven’t been for a long time. We’re quite successful musicians.”
Do you think people can truly move classes?
“I think you do status-wise. If you move to a middle-class area, you can’t really say you’re working-class any more. You’re simply not – you’ve moved up. I wouldn’t say I’m working-class now – definitely not – but I still talk the same way I always have and have that same mentality. I look at things and react to them in the way that I would 25 years ago. I don’t think that leaves you in a lot of respects. You can educate yourself, of course, but generally speaking…”
So moving up in the world doesn’t affect Mods’ righteous anger?
“The only thing that’s difficult is keeping it interesting. My own personal class identity, I don’t struggle with. I perhaps did a few years back, when we started getting big. People are accusing you of selling out and all this bullshit. It’s like, ‘Try touring for two years mate!’”
What’s next for the Mods, then?
“We’ve started writing. We’ve got 10 songs. The lyrics talk about the isolation and the paranoia, things that kept creeping up and – especially in the second lockdown – your relationship with your partner. Not so much that it deteriorated, because it didn’t, but we got sick of each other, so that takes you into a new consciousness of that relationship. I explored that a little bit. [Most of] these [new] songs won’t hold up. They’re not very good! So it’s just a case of trawling through the shit to get to the gold again.”
Is Andrew continuing down the slightly more poppy route?
“He is. It sounds very ‘80s, a lot of it, which I haven’t got a problem with. Very melodic. He’s using more guitars, which again I haven’t got a problem with. Anything he does, I really like – it’s whether or not what I do with it makes it work. You could get anyone on his tunes; they’re waiting for someone to mould them and sometimes I don’t do a great job.”
Partly thanks to Mods, the alternative music scene is in much ruder health now than it was when you and Andrew formed in the early 2010s. Does that make it harder to stand out?
“A little bit, but you kinda think, ‘We got here first, so if you say anything to me, I’m just gonna bite your head off!’ [Laughs] It’s not like we’re walking around doing the same old shit… It’s nice that some bands recognise you and say thanks. And then other bands sound like you and you think, ‘Fuck you then!’”
Care to name any names, Jason?
“No! I’m not doing that! But you’ve gotta try!” [Laughs]
– Sleaford Mods’ will tour the UK from November 17, beginning at the O2 Victoria Warehouse in Manchester