Sleaford Mods: flagbearers of authenticity

We caught up with the world’s most unpretentious band to chat about their raw live show, eating dog food, and heaps more.

“Your music is so full of hate, have you ever thought of being constructive for a change?” someone once asked Sleaford Mods frontman Jason Williamson in an open forum Q&A.  “We don’t sing about solutions,” he replied. “I would find that really patronising. There is no answer.”

It’s true, Sleaford Mods don’t pretend to have any answers, because as Williamson notes, there aren’t any. There is, however, a lot of painfully sententious music being made these days; bands hell-bent on changing the world, if only because the words “politically charged” look good in a press release. But Jason Williamson and Andrew Fearn have no time for virtue signalling of any kind. They’re not telling people how they ought to behave, only capturing situations they’ve lived through — even if those situations are a little grim.

They’ve also got no time for all the other kinds of excess associated with bands of their popularity. Their live show is one of the most raw you’ll ever see; Williamson shouts profanities into a microphone while Fearn stands back, pressing a button or two on a laptop between each song. That’s it. No instruments, no fancy lighting or production, just vocals and a laptop. It’s the perfect setting, really, for a band so devoid of any pretentiousness.

Shortly before coronavirus took hold and the world was plunged into lockdown, we sat down with the band for a coffee and to chat about all these things, as well as their new retrospective album All That Glue, and what it’s like to eat dog food.

HAPPY: I saw you at Farmer & The Owl Festival in Wollongong on the weekend…

JASON: Oh yeah, what’d you think?

HAPPY: It changed the way I view live music.

JASON: (Laughs)

HAPPY: I’ve always thought that production and lighting were so important, but now I realise that’s complete horseshit.

JASON: Yeah it is. Well, it kind of depends on what kind of band you’re with. If you’re with a big band, you might need it… but even then, not really.

ANDREW: No, you don’t need it. You just need to be focused. What we do is very minimal, so it’s very focused. A lot of indie bands, for example, have too many things happening. It’s too much effort. They’re trying too hard. And you can tell it in their personalities if you ever get to meet any of these people… they’re all really good musicians, but they’re trying so hard. But really, no one’s paying any attention. It’s a waste.

HAPPY: Most bands start off with a stripped-back live show out of necessity, but it’s rare for a band to keep doing things that way even when they’re playing big festivals. Did you ever consider adding elements to the show?

JASON: No, we never wanted it. I met Andrew in 2010, and I’d been doing it on my own for a few years. I was deadset against doing anything traditionally, and so was Andrew. He was not that way inclined.

HAPPY: And by ‘traditional’, you mean that standard way of producing a live show?

JASON: Yeah, we weren’t happy with what had come before, so we had no interest in recreating that. So when we started making music, it took a while, but eventually, we agreed to go out as we do. The rest is history.

HAPPY: I was chatting to mate from Nottingham on the weekend who said he used to see you guys live back in those really early days. I’ve forgotten what the name of the local club was…

JASON: The Chameleon?

HAPPY: Yeah, I think that’s it. Was that a regular spot for you?

JASON: We played there a few times, but I don’t think we ever had a regular spot anywhere.

ANDREW: In 2013, it was all about the noise scene. Everything had gone back to anti-production, or even lower than that. It was music by people who weren’t even musicians, and it was pretty awful.

JASON: It wasn’t even music.

ANDREW: A lot of the people doing that in Nottingham were artists, rather than musicians. It was quite a low ebb for music, really. There were no tunes. After 20 years of dance music, it kind of hit a brick wall.

HAPPY: Do you think your early music was a reaction against that? Or were you operating independently of all the noise stuff?

JASON: I think we were operating on our own.

ANDREW: But we’d be wedged between two noise acts when we were really small.

HAPPY: So you still used to play with those kinds of acts?

JASON: Yeah, and I quite liked it. Andrew was immersed in that scene way before I was. We both enjoy aspects of it.

ANDREW: You’d see a lot of guitar bands and electronic bands playing together, which you never really got in the 80s and 90s. Back then, rock music and electronic music were two separate worlds.

HAPPY: Yeah, well whenever I’ve listened to you guys, I’ve always categorised your music as some kind of punk music. But I feel like the new album was the first that really started to challenge my perceptions of what kind of music you actually play. It felt a lot more influenced by hip-hop. Was there a conscious effort to establish some point of difference in sound with this new album?

JASON: No, I don’t think so. There were just heaps of new ideas.

ANDREW: And it depends what you mean by ‘punk’. Because the sound wasn’t so punk, but ethically, hip-hop basically is punk. Our generation has been influenced a lot by hip-hop. We’re 80s kids, so that’s our era.

JASON: Also, the earlier albums were a lot more cut and paste. Andrew would send through a beat and I’d just throw lyrics at it. Since then, it’s progressed quite a lot, especially with the last album. It got poppier, perhaps. We just started thinking about the songs more. But with the way I sing, there’s always going to be that punk element.

ANDREW: I just like variety, so if you get the chance to make another album, you don’t want to make a carbon copy of the last one.

HAPPY: Is it difficult balancing the process of creating something new and appeasing the rabid fans of all your old music? Is that a consideration?

JASON: Yeah, a little bit. That’s definitely a thing.

ANDREW: That’s always a bit of an unknown though, really. We’re ticking off the boxes of music we want to make. You’ve got to make the music you want to make, but then whether people like it or not is another issue.

HAPPY: When you say you’re “ticking off the boxes,” does that mean you’ve got some kind of list of different types of music you dream of making?

ANDREW: Yeah, definitely.

HAPPY: What kind of things are on that list?

ANDREW: Anything.

HAPPY: Reggae?

JASON: (Laughs) God no!

ANDREW: Well, even dub has a lot of crossover with disenfranchised musical movements.

HAPPY: Is it still the same process of Andrew sending over beats and you writing lyrics?

JASON: Yeah, well it depends. We don’t live together, so he sends me stuff and then we decide what we’re going to do with that. We either record over the top, or chop it up, or add to it, or don’t use it at all, or start again from scratch.

HAPPY: And this last record was the first record you out on your own label (Extreme Eating), right?

JASON: Yeah.

HAPPY: What differences did you notice in the process of releasing music on your own?

JASON: It’s a lot harder work.

HAPPY: What was it about the label way of doing things, then, that you wanted to get away from?

JASON: Well, we didn’t really. There was some confusion in the camp. Our then manager was convinced that it’s be better for us to go independent, because we’d been independent before, and he couldn’t see how we were gaining anything extra with Rough Trade. But we kind of flipped that on its head, parted company with him, and realised that the label is where we wanted to be. It’s just too much work on your own. And for the amount of extra money you get for it, which ain’t a lot, you may as well just be signed to someone. For a band in our position, at least. If you’re a new DIY independent band, then maybe not. But we’re in a fortunate position, really. They don’t tell us what to do. We have meetings with them and they express their ideas, which we take on board and think about. But they’re not dogmatic. We can pretty much do whatever we like.

HAPPY: So Extreme Eating is done then?

JASON: Yeah that’s done. Well, I guess it’s still there.

HAPPY: In what sense is it still there? Are there any plans to go back to it?

ANDREW: I don’t know, maybe.

HAPPY: When a lot of bands launch there own labels, there’s often an intention to release other people’s music as well. Was that ever an idea?

ANDREW: No, I don’t think so. Also, a lot of these labels are quite fleeting. None of them seem to last very long, which just shows how hard it is. I’ve put out music on independent labels in the past, and none of them exist anymore. You’ve really got to be doing it for the love of it on that level.

HAPPY: It’s got to be a passion project.

JASON: It really has, yeah. And then other people do it because it makes them look busy and impressive. It’s a PR stunt for a lot of people.

HAPPY: I loved reading about the origins of the name Extreme Eating. It’s brilliant.

ANDREW: (Laughs)

JASON: Oh, we had a good laugh about that.

HAPPY: For the sake of this interview, could you tell us where the name Extreme Eating came from?

ANDREW: It just came from people who do things like the cinnamon challenge and all that. I used to have a mate who’d just neck all the pepper out of a shaker. He took the top off and just necked it.

HAPPY: Do you have any examples of your own extreme eating?

ANDREW: I used to do a lot of weird stuff when I was young.

JASON: I used to eat raw bacon.

ANDREW: Really? Fuckin hell man. That’s pretty dangerous as well.

JASON: I’d chop up raw bacon and have it with garlic. I used to think it was like prosciutto. I used to do that quite a bit. Then one day at work, someone came up to me and said, “that’s really fucking dangerous.” I did it with sausages a few times as well.

HAPPY: Raw sausage? Jesus.

ANDREW: I used to eat dog biscuits.

JASON: (Laughs)

ANDREW: Yeah, I used to eat Winalot. I’d eat Bonios as well.

JASON: Fuckin hell (laughs).

HAPPY: What are Bonios?

ANDREW: They’re a bone-shaped dog biscuit.

JASON: Fuck mate. What were they like?

ANDREW: Mealy. I was only six. I loved the dog so much that I wanted to be a dog.

HAPPY: I’ve always been curious about dog treats. In my head, they taste like beef jerky or something.

JASON: No! God no!

ANDREW: Well they’re all tested on humans, these things.

HAPPY: Really?

ANDREW: Oh yeah, they get humans to taste test them all.

HAPPY: Well, I guess someone’s gotta do it.

ANDREW: I had a mate who’d eat anything. I was feeding my parents’ dog once, and they had this meat they’d feed him… it was like meat-jelly stuff. It smelled like gravy, so I suggested he try some of it. He got a big forkful and said it didn’t taste like anything. But dogs don’t really have a sense of taste, they’ve only got a sense of smell. They just put loads of aroma into it.

HAPPY: I was reading a Q&A you did recently. You’ve done a fair few of those actually… and people really lay in, don’t they?

JASON: Oh yeah.

HAPPY: In this last one I was reading, someone asked you why you make such hateful music, and why you don’t ever come up with any pragmatic solutions.

ANDREW: We should be singing about meadows and flowers.

JASON: I remember that one, yeah. What did I respond to that? I can’t remember…

HAPPY: You said it’d patronising to sing about solutions because there aren’t any.

JASON: (Laughs) Yeah, that’s quite a good answer actually.

HAPPY: There are quite a few bands around, and bands in the UK, who do pretend to have answers.

JASON: Yeah, they’re wankers.

HAPPY: Viewing the UK music scene from the other side of the world, it seems that all musical discussions are centred around some kind of class issue. I’m not sure if that’s accurate or not.

ANDREW: Yeah, that’s fair to say. That’s definitely fair to say.

JASON: There’s a lot of austerity, I think. It’s also become quite trendy, you know? A lot of people are hijacking it. There are people singing about these issues that shouldn’t be going anywhere near it. It gets your back up. A lot of people get pretty pissed off at that kind of thing, because there are a lot of poor people in the country. You can’t represent a group of people that you’ve got no connection to. It’s fucking wrong.

HAPPY: You’re obviously making more money now than you were in previous years. What has that done to impact the way you make music?

JASON: You just carry on. You’ve just got to roll with it.

HAPPY: Is it difficult to stay in touch with particular topics?

JASON: No, because you just don’t cross that line. You don’t sing about things that you don’t know anymore. I’m not going to sing about work because I haven’t worked in five years.

ANDREW: It’s a complicated issue. All the time that I was skint, I was still going to the pub and getting people to buy me a drink. Unemployed people are still going out boozing. They’re not having the best of times, but it’s not that divided. It’s not like we’re living in a world where if you’re skint, you don’t get to have any fun at all. It’s all multi-levelled. Modern life has given everybody an option, even if it’s a shit one. You could go buy a lamb shank from Iceland if you wanted, but if you’re skint you probably shouldn’t be eating lamb shanks.

JASON: Thing is, we were doing music before this, then with this happened and the main theme was talking about observational stuff, people forget that you spent 25 years learning how to write songs. We did it because we were passionate about music. So we’re going to keep writing music, because that’s what we do. We’re getting more and more into the idea of music.

ANDREW: It’s a difficult issue. You know, I’ve always struggled with life anyway. It’s not like having money is going to solve all your problems.

HAPPY: I watched a video the other day of this bloke Lord Buckethead, who introduced you at Glastonbury. I had no clue what was going on.

JASON: Yeah, he was running for local MP in Theresa May’s constituency.

HAPPY: Yeah, I watched a video of them standing next to one another during a debate. I think it’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever seen.

JASON: English politics has always had a few of those people floating about. Anyone can run.

HAPPY: How did he come to introduce you at Glastonbury? Do you know him?

JASON: No, he asked us. I think he overstayed his welcome, personally. He stayed up there for like 10 minutes. I was thinking “fuck off then”. The idea of him was mildly funny for a bit. It was a bit of a piss-take, I guess.

HAPPY: You guys did a regional tour of the UK while Brexit was happening, right?

JASON: Yeah, we did.

HAPPY: You would’ve been playing in a lot of places that were probably voting to leave, right? What was that like?

JASON: Nobody brought it up. People weren’t thinking about politics.

ANDREW: Brexit went on for a long time, and it was bullshit. It was just this big period of time when no one was listening to anyone else.

JASON: People just wanted to watch the band, I think. No one was interested in the politics. We still get a lot of ‘leavers’ who are fans of the band, because we’re quite a traditionally sounding English band, in some respects. But we didn’t really touch on it. It was pretty grim really.

ANDREW: When it first happened, I remember us saying that a Brexit song would be too trite and too obvious, so we didn’t go near it. It was all so horrendous and embarrassing.

JASON: It was more about the experience of going to these small places and seeing how left behind they were. They were really forgotten places.

HAPPY: How were the shows themselves?

ANDREW: They were great, yeah. All the shows have a similar vibe. People kind of leave their troubles at the door for an hour.

HAPPY: Do many bands do regional tours in the UK? Because we don’t see too much of that here… mainly because we’re such a large country.

JASON: Oh really?

HAPPY: Yeah, if you don’t live in a major city, you don’t really get to see live music. Not any touring bands, at least.

JASON: Seriously? Too expensive I guess. So nobody really thinks about visiting all the small places?

HAPPY: They do occasionally, but it’s pretty rare.

JASON: That’s really interesting. It’s a shame. We’ve been doing those kinds of tours ever since we first started. Our old manager suggested we go follow the trails of all these bands from the 80s. It was a really unique idea.

ANDREW: It was a really good idea. Again, at the time, there were lots of little things that a band could do that no one else was doing. And it’s become a bit of a weird culture, like people reviewing equipment and influencers and all that kind of thing. That’s the kind of the new rock n’ roll. Just doing music is a bit weird, isn’t it? Because it’s just a commodity for some other technology. I watch a lot of videos of people who review gear, and these people are really famous. They’re more famous than we are.

HAPPY: Are you guys doing Coachella this year?

JASON: We are, yeah.

HAPPY: Have you ever done it before?

JASON: No, we haven’t done that one yet.

HAPPY: I’ve heard that’s a similar vibe. You rock up and everyone’s a lot more concerned with the influencers, because they’re far more famous than any of the bands.

ANDREW: I only found out recently that that’s what’s happened to that festival. Because the guy who started it, started it with the goal of bringing British bands over. But it’s been watered down into this weird spring break party thing, rather than being about bands.

HAPPY: They still get some really decent bands on though.

JASON: I think they’re trying to pull it back. Because yeah, we’ve heard some horror stories about it, but they’ve basically financed our US tour, so it’d be stupid to say no.

ANDREW: It’ll be an experience. It’s quite nice when you get the exposure. When we did Glastonbury there was quite a big spike. I think a lot of people who didn’t know us were thinking “what the fuck is this?”

HAPPY: You’re releasing a b-sides and rarities album, All That Glue. What was it like looking back through all that material? Did you trudge through a heap of material and pick out the best stuff?

JASON: Yeah, a little bit. Andrew had a look in the vault and pulled out a few that we’d forgotten about. So we’re mixing those in with key tracks from throughout our career.

ANDREW: It has worked out really well because we’ve made so much stuff.

HAPPY: What was the thinking behind doing a record like this? Was it because there was too much material that had never seen the light of day?

JASON: In a way, yeah. I think it felt right to do some kind of retrospective. A lot of people aren’t aware of a lot of that stuff.

ANDREW: Yeah, like McFlurry and stuff. They haven’t really been acknowledged because there’s been so much music.

JASON: Yeah, it’ll be nice to introduce a lot of that earlier stuff to a larger market. To you lovely people here in Australia.

All That Glue is out now. Get a copy here.