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Interview: Jason Williamson from Sleaford Mods

Interview: Jason Williamson from Sleaford Mods

“I like the naivety of it as well as the “Just fuck off, you posh bastard” type of thing.”

“This idea that you’re happy is just bullshit.”

It’s a surprisingly cheery statement from Jason Williamson. There’s a bit of a smile to it, though the core, dour content is instantly recognizable with anyone with a passing understanding of Sleaford Mods. Alongside producer Andrew Fearn, Williamson has turned Mods into one of the most vicious, political and important U.K. acts of the decade, vividly describing the boredom, hatred and weariness of working-class Britain in an age of widening political divisions and strife.

Their newest, Eton Alive, has plenty punk moshers, but finds itself in more sober, depressed moods, the scene after the Molotov has burned down the storefront. We spoke to Williamson about singing on the album, the media’s infatuation with mediocrity and telling everyone to “fuck off, you posh bastard.”

Being from the states, the title Eton Alive has a frustrating and interesting parallel over here, to hear rich folks constantly tell other folks they need to stop spending money. All this from people who have never had to worry about money. Do you think that’s a part of modern life’s frustration, hearing that rhetoric all the time?

Well, yeah, and also being thrown around by the idiots that have got absolutely hideous policies. Policies that aren’t really going to fix things. Apart from contenting to stay the lives and wealth of the rich, wealthy few. There’s been an argument that people find the album title a bit obvious, that this ongoing discussion about the elite is a bit boring. But I don’t think so. I like the naivety of it as well as the “Just fuck off, you posh bastard” type of thing. I like that, and that’s something we’ve always had. I don’ think there’s anything wrong with that. To be aware of that, because things haven’t really changed. These people are always going to be at the front, fucking things up. So, why not call the album that? I don’t care for anything abstract or, you know, intelligent. I like direct things. It’s very much still part of the landscape.

I remember a couple of years ago there was a video interview with you and some woman in a very fancy suit, asking “why all the cursing in your music?” And I thought, “because they’re angry?”

The English are obsessed with not cursing on the radio—well, they’re not obsessed with it, but the gatekeepers like to censor everything. So, on the radio, you can’t have swearing on the radio, you just can’t do it. And it’s the same old bullshit with media platforms. They want to try to pigeonhole you and talk about the violent things in your music or the things that are quite unsavory. But life’s moved on, really. the public don’t give a fuck about it. That’s how people talk. It can be quite tedious sometimes.

I first got into Sleaford Mods through the Retweeted compilation and a lot of that music was focused on dealing with media people, publicity people who are gatekeepers. They aren’t saying terrible things, they’re doing terrible things. It seemed like saying the thing was worse, but of course it’s not.

This is the thing isn’t it? It’s this suppression. You need to be a bit more introspective. You need to be a bit more educated, intelligent, no! (laughs) Fuck off! I get that the atmospheric, deeper music can cause emotions, can remind you of the world you live in, can connect you to the day to day, just as much as music like we do. But I don’t prefer to do that, I prefer to do this. It’s kind of sometimes frowned upon, especially now that we’re five years-old as a band. Certain media outlets won’t interview you anymore because their narrative has changed, and they’re no longer bothered about the working class. They’re no longer bothered about instruments of railing against whatever authority. They’ve moved on to other things. So, it gets a little bit frustrating and sometimes you get to really resent these organizations.

You’ve gotten great responses around Europe, but the US can be impossible due to visas and hotels. You get a really good reaction over here, but do you think that’s just a reality for music from Europe? You can be heard anywhere, you can have fans anywhere, but you can’t go anywhere?

Yeah, the States is a real problem because it’s so big. I mean, if you want to do the North American circuit, you can. But it’s so expensive, and you’ve got to make tickets affordable for people as well. So, the last American tour, we didn’t make any money off it. That’s partially due to the fact that we don’t know how much we got paid from it (laughs)! We’re having management issues currently, and hopefully that will be resolved. But, you know, it was $10,000 per working visa. So that automatically cuts off at least two of your gigs, for profit. You’ve got air travel, hotels on top of that. All these things mount up. I imagine we wouldn’t have gotten that much from it, if anything.

It’s frustrating because we really loved America. We really loved playing there. It was just so good. I won’t ever forget it. I got to see parts of America I hadn’t seen. You get to know the people. Because American people are given such a hard time, especially in England and Europe, generally. You’re kind of talked about in a bad way, you know.

We deserve it sometimes.

Well, you don’t in a lot of respects, because most of you aren’t like that. You’re just people that come from another part of the world. It would be great to come discover more of the culture, but it’s just not accessible at the minute, purely because of the money. We’ll hopefully try to do it again in 2020. But we need to sit down and talk about it and decide what we want from it. I mean, if we could do a month out there and come home with a few thousand pounds each, (sighs) fine you know, if it meant spreading the word a bit more it could be worth it. But who knows?

There have been a lot of American rock personalities—Iggy Pop, the Mars Volta, Steve Albini—that are all really into Sleaford Mods. Obviously, the anger transfers, but it’s a very specific anger. It’s very entrenched in your own culture, lexicon. Did it surprise you when people from the States got it?

Yeah, it did a bit. Not so much in a way, because America has got a history of punk, a history with hip-hop obviously. It’s got a history with reacting to good music in a positive way. We write good songs! And we were different at the time. It was a break from the norm because, in England, the music scene was stale. America is pretty much like that as well. So, it was welcomed with open arms. I’d like to think we’ve got a real good connection with the States, in a fringe way. To break in commercially, to get to the Billboard, I don’t think that’s possible. But to come over and have a stronger presence than we got now is more than feasible.

One of the themes I’ve been picking up on the last couple of records has been being constantly frustrated and surrounded by uselessness.

(laughs) Yeah!

And that taking a toll, like this background anxiety that’s always there.

Yeah, definitely. And more so on Eton Alive. I wanted to bring that across more. Where it’s worn people down to the point that you’re unresponsive, you’re numb, you’re not shocked by anything. For instance, online, if there’s ever a shooting in America, Twitter and Facebook would be alight with messages of sympathy, of concern. Now when there’s a shooting, there’s hardly anything. It’s like you’ve been kicked into some unresponsive submission. People on the streets here, around here, just walking by, sometimes you don’t even register. People have been beaten into a reluctance to even connect with their emotions. And I wanted to try and bring that across on Eton Alive.

It does feel like a less vicious, more depressing album.

Thank you! I wanted to achieve that because that’s how I see things. There’s no time for trying to be positive, I don’t think. Positivity’s a bit like happiness, isn’t it? It’s kind of make-believe almost. As a race of animals, we’re largely lost, solitary. And sure, we can feel good in the morning, throughout the day. And we can be confident all of the time. We can make decisions, strong decisions in a very short space of time. But this idea that you’re happy is just bullshit. (laughs) No, it doesn’t exist! I don’t know if I got that bit into the album. I wanted to be realistic and not do another album where I was just shouting (laughs).

The less vicious nature came with you singing more often. It feels more vulnerable. On “Firewall,” when you’re talking about the anxiety around aging, that’s a classic thing you would shout about, but here you’re singing.

Thank you! “Firewall” talks about people’s habits, drug habits and alcohol habits that eventually just take over them and they don’t see it. They’re just a vessel for the amount of things they consume, in a narcotic sense. They can’t see it, and they’ve become totally soulless, almost. So I wanted to talk about that, especially people of my age who are now having problems because of it. People are going to keel over, you can’t keep taking cocaine! The way some people do, it’s just like, “You’re just going to fucking die, mate!” (laughs). So yeah, it’s a “Firewall” between yourself and your actual self. This feeling of not being able to get through the “Firewall” to touch your actual emotions. I’m glad you picked up on that.

Back when you released “Army Nights,” which was about gym culture, it seemed to pop back up with body image on “Firewall,” “Top It Off” and “Big Burt” as well. If I’m reading those correctly.

“Top It Off” is about a funeral. Where everybody’s getting off their faces on drugs and alcohol. And the person who died, died prematurely because of that. It’s essentially a working-class funeral. They’re in a pub. It’s largely cheap food and cheap alcohol.

In regard to “Big Burt,” that’s more a dig at the media. Magazines have to survive now because the industry’s so tight, I understand why they do it. But, at the same time, it doesn’t make it any less frustrating. It’s this journalist, press guy, fat on mediocrity. He’s doing it just to line his pockets, to keep himself within that world to translating what is essentially dead news. The print world is becoming ever smaller because of the digital world. It’s kind of like a naive pop almost, an unreasonable criticism in a lot of respects. But I don’t mind that. I like the fact that things are unreasonable on this album. And every other album we’ve done. I like to have an unintelligent go at things.

My favorite song on the record is “Flipside.” It feels like the most energetic song on there. I wanted to ask about your writing process with the production. Because the production sounds like the start of a racing video game and the beat switches a few times. How’d you match up with that beat?

I just get Andrew to send the songs over, and I’ll work on them at home. To take more time with them, to get the best out of them I could. After a while, it occurred to me that the stuff he was sending over was great and already finished. So, I’d just write a song over the top of it. Especially “Flipside.” He sent me that and it was mad. I was like, “Mate, this is too messy, it’s too much.” But I liked it, though. He said he’d tidy it up a bit (laughs). He sent it back and it was pretty much the same. There were just a couple of bits in it that allowed me to write a song over the top. And I treated a lot of them like that.

On English Tapas there were a couple of things I briefly worked on in the house, before we went into the studio, but largely that was improvised. Although it’s a great album, I thought, “I don’t need to be doing that again, it’s too stressful.” I wanted to take my time with these songs. To really think about them.

“O.B.C.T.” sounds a lot different from the other stuff you’ve done. The low bass and the chorus sound like a stadium filler. And then there’s a kazoo?

It reminded me of the Sisters of Mercy or something. Or the Mission, or Fields of the Nephilim, those ‘80s goth bands from the U.K. I wanted to put a vocal that was similar to that, more atmospheric, a bit more haunted. And the kazoo just kept coming into my head with it. The more I thought about the kazoo, the more I thought, “It’s gonna work!” So, I went out and bought a kazoo, much to everyone’s horror.

Forgive my ignorance, but what does “O.B.C.T.” stand for?

It stands for “Oliver Bonas Chelsea Tractor.” Oliver Bonas is a middle-class chain store in England. It’s typical of middle-class consumerism. It’s definitely not a working-class store. It’s quite expensive and it’s quite particular, quite tasteful. And the Chelsea tractor is slang for the SUVs, the big cars that people take their kids to school in, in the morning. And because I live in a more affluent area now, you see a lot of this. And the song discusses not only the absurdity of celebrity but also my discomfort with living in an area like this. My worry, that I feel alienated—I did at the time, but I don’t now. I’ve embraced it. I’m easy with it, it’s good, it’s lovely.

To wrap up, on the closing track, you talk about your “tiny mind” and all this anxiety going around. Why did you decide that needed to be the ending statement?

Because it’s quite a solemn track. There’s a lot of upbeat stuff in the album and I wanted to close it with a dark undertone. An almost unremarkable goodbye. A way to finish the album that wasn’t upbeat or spectacularly punkish. I just wanted something solemn, and I think “Negative Script” really did suit that. It talks about your inner script, how you tell yourself negative things all the time, because in your life your experiences have been largely negative, they’ve helped feed your insecurities and your doubts and your self-image. I wanted to talk about how you’re not ready to walk away from that because you spend your life reading from that negative script. To try and break away from it, to try to be someone else, is something that’s extremely hard, it takes a long time to do. And although people have done it, it’s certainly something I can’t manage.

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