"We're a pop band": An interview with Sleaford Mods

Image credit: Libertinus

For those familiar with the minimalist, abrasive punk sound of Nottingham-based duo Sleaford Mods, affluent Cambridge might not be the first tour destination to spring to mind. Indeed, frontman Jason Williamson agrees that further north, the crowds get ‘a bit more boisterous and energetic,’ but the fact that they’re playing Cambridge at all is testament to how well the band are doing at the moment, performing to full houses on every leg of this current tour, and gaining a raucous fan base across Europe.

Recognition on this scale has been a long time coming for Williamson and Andrew Fearn, the other half of the duo: ‘it’s hard work, definitely,’ Williamson says of the music business, an industry he’s been part of for twenty-five years. Only ten of those twenty-five have been with Sleaford Mods though, and even fewer with the band in its current incarnation, but the rapidity of their recent success doesn’t make him any less grounded. ‘It’s a job like any other job. It’s brilliant, but it’s work, and you’ve got to treat it with that kind of respect, because if you don’t it’ll just go.’

Much has been made of Sleaford Mods as a ‘working class’ band, a reputation which stems mostly from the caustic bitterness of their lyrics, especially on earlier albums like Austerity Dogs. Williamson’s fervent tirades and relentlessly bleak narratives are borne of lived experience, but even so, you can’t help but wonder whether so many critics and journalists are eager to slap the ‘working class’ label on the Mods’ sound purely because Jason sings with an East Midlands accent. For his part, Williamson believes that ‘the class thing got thrown onto us just because of what we were talking about, and the way I talk - but it was never about that. It was about my own experiences, coupled with Andrew’s music.’ As a native of Grimsby myself, it’s easy to understand what he means. These days, a lot of high-brow media outlets try to be progressive by associating themselves with representatives of the ‘working class’, but these cringing gestures almost always feel patronising. ‘There was this consciousness about it that I resisted,’ says Jason, ‘and I tried to remember why I’d been doing this, and writing those lyrics in the first place.’

Perhaps a willingness not to be typecast as a purely vitriolic band has prompted Sleaford Mods’ recent flirtation with what is, by their standards at least, a more radio-friendly sound. ‘We’ll move on and forward with new stuff to make it more accessible, not as angry,’ says Williamson. His writing process begins with ‘just the odd line - sometimes it can be fantastical, sometimes it can be very funny - it can mean nothing a lot of the time.’ He’s not afraid of using mainstream labels either, eschewing alternative music’s traditional contempt for the conventional: ‘we’re a pop band. We do verses, choruses, hooks. That’s what pop music is.’ That said, there are definitely parts of mainstream music culture that Williamson isn’t a fan of - so-called ‘manufactured music’, for example - which he argues ‘isn’t really music, is it? It’s just compressed noise with very youthful-looking people fronting it, and massive amounts of money stuck behind it, like a marketing campaign.’ For Sleaford Mods, social media can be an antidote to this sense of artificiality:  ‘MySpace really made us, it was a great source of getting to do stuff, and it’s kind of smashed this myth of “the rock star” of a nameless, faceless person that nobody knows apart from when they leap onstage.’

That’s not to say that Williamson doesn’t affect a persona when onstage himself, though. In fact, one of the band’s unique selling points is the manic, frenzied way that Jason conducts himself at gigs. When I watch them at the Cambridge Corn Exchange later in the evening, he jumps and wiggles around with moves reminiscent of Madness - or, in his own words: ‘like an idiot - like a panto horse. [The live sets] are getting more and more ridiculous.’ But he’s also very enthusiastic about engaging the crowd this way. ‘You’re not pretentious or arrogant with it. It’s important to involve people and cultivate that live show vibe. Make sure people know that you know they’re there.’ And they certainly do: as I walk out of the gig, Jason’s onstage antics are as much a topic of conversation as the music itself, which is just as well. ‘Live shows are where you make your money,’ Williamson says. ‘You’ll never make money off records … unless you’re Coldplay. It’s really gone down the spanner.’

Even so, the band are keen to look to the future and see where they can take their sound next. Jason doesn’t believe that you should ‘dwell on old formulas too much. You need to keep them in place, but not relax in them too much. It’s important to change it.’ It seems the crowds they play to are responding to this attitude; over the past few years, they’re getting a ‘lot more young people, a lot more women’, which is a welcome change from the older, deeply male crowds they started out with. ‘It’s a real honour,’ Jason says sincerely, towards the end of the interview. ‘The more young people turn up, the bigger the achievement.’

This, I have to agree with. When at the gig, I’m still in a minority as a female student, but the vibe is much more welcoming than at others I’ve been to. Maybe the charm of Jason’s rowdy stage presence is that it keeps the ranting within the music - something which he is more than happy to do. ‘I’ve spent a long time trying to get here,’ he tells us. ‘It’s been fucking great. Dream job.’ There’s no bravado to his words, either; just enthusiasm that at the moment, for Sleaford Mods, ‘everything’s hunky dory.’

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