The Sleaford Mods Will Never Be Satisfied
The Sleaford Mods have grown up — as much as they can in a tempestuous post-Brexit world where art is an increasingly devalued commodity. Front man Jason Williamson has upgraded his house, his neighborhood and his groceries since the band broke out in America with their 2017 album, English Tapas — but that doesn’t mean his confidence has caught up with his wallet.
“I can’t sit down and enjoy the fact that we’re doing a successful tour or that we’re a successful band,” Williamson tells TIDAL during an interview about their upcoming album, Eton Alive. “A lot of the time, I don’t see that. I don’t view the accomplishments as comforting.”
Perhaps that’s because the singer-songwriter has been toiling so long at his craft; the 48-year-old formed Sleaford Mods in 2007 after a string of less than successful projects. The other half of the band, Andrew Fearn, didn’t join the lineup until a few years later — and even then, it took nearly 10 years for them to have any kind of impact abroad.
English Tapas, released via Rough Trade, saw the band embarking on their first American tour; their politics-laden, austerity-era, post-punk, rap-punk struck a chord as the U.K. muddled through Brexit and the U.S. saw President Donald Trump ascend.
“We were struggling, really struggling, weren’t we?” Williamson said of the pre-Tapas days in a previous interview with TIDAL. “There was no way we could have done any other music. We were just down and out. Surviving on the bare minimum. So we are a product of that and I think we’ll be known for that forevermore.”
For Eton Alive, the Mods left Rough Trade label and struck out on their own, self-releasing as they did in the old days. But that doesn’t mean the content of their music is old-hat. While the Sleaford Mods will always rail against politics — “I’m not bored of what [Brexit is] doing to the people,” Williamson says — Eaton gets more personal than previous releases. “Negative Script” depicts the singer’s lingering self-doubt; “OBCT” touches on his guilt at suddenly have more money and means.
And then there are the jabs at the music industry — the trappings and falsity of a business that previously overlooked the Mods, only to accept them with open arms when their message was commercially applicable. No one, not even Williamson himself, is safe from the band’s barbed and brilliant verse.
Read on for more on consumerism, why America is terrible and crippling self-doubt. Eton Alive is out on February 22.
Why did you decide to leave Rough Trade and put this record out on your own?
We started [Extreme Eating Records] in October. It’s not really a label label; it’s just a vehicle for us to release the album. We left Rough Trade to basically go it alone again, because that’s where we thought we best operated. We had done the first three albums independently.
We felt that we were best suited in that arena, in that environment. We got back to the same mechanics that we had before. The only difference is that we’re a lot bigger now.
How have your feelings changed about the music industry since you got more popular?
It’s terrible, isn’t it, really? For anyone that works in it, it can be quite a hostile place. It can make you mad if you let it. I think that’s what I was dealing with a bit when I wrote those songs [on the new record]. Seeing it for what it is. We all know the clichés about how it’s a shit business and that rock stars are really just myths. When you’re actually faced with that, face to face with the reality of it, that blows it up even more.
To witness that firsthand was quite something. It was something that surprised me and something that steered a lot of sentiment in the album.
The record also seems to be about other people’s reactions to your newfound fame. I’m thinking of the song ‘OBCT.’
‘OBCT’ stands for Oliver Bonas and Chelsea Tractors. Oliver Bonas is a middle class chain store in England. You can find it in affluent areas, airports, etc. And a Chelsea Tractor is a nickname for a Land Rover, a Range Rover. A big car, a four by four, basically, that parents and families drive in.
Basically, I moved to quite an affluent area now. The song kind of discusses my disorientation and guilt, for want of a better word, at being in this environment in quite a big house and thinking about how this is affecting me. Am I really worthy of writing the music I do now?
But it also discusses the myth, again, of celebrity, of the almost absurdity of the awards ceremony and how they work. It was a real eye-opener to go to some of these things and see how they work and how awards are given out. Not necessarily because the album or the group or the solo artist deserves it, on some occasions it’s merely because they turned up and it’s good promotion for the magazine or whatever organization is putting on the awards ceremony. These things were unknown to me before.
You also talk about the falsity of the music press in ‘Big Bert.’
Yeah! And also you can’t blame them. People need to earn a living and writers are passionate about writing. They’re passionate about music and they like to write about it and they like to discuss it. There’s nothing wrong with that.
But in today’s market, as you’re well aware, it’s shrinking all the time because of the digital thing and people have to be more cautious; they have to probably look at celebrities or bigger names that they think might pull people in to buy whatever product they’re selling.
It’s understandable, but at the same time, it still doesn’t make it right, but that’s the way of the world, I guess, isn’t it?
Since your last record, you’ve dealt with Brexit and the U.S. has dealt with… all manner of things. Which country do you think is worse off?
I think you are, right? Yeah? People talk about America and England, but with England, you need to go over there to see it. It’s two different worlds, isn’t it? The gap between the rich and the poor [is bigger in America]. You’ve got entire communities that virtually live on the streets.
When we toured over there two years ago, it was like Mad Max almost. You’ve got these massive cities, beautiful cities, with large areas full of people living on the streets. Then you’ve got your day-to-day blue-collar workers about their business — then everyone else. There is that here, but it was bigger there.
I think definitely Donald Trump is probably a bit more unhinged than Theresa May is. You just don’t know, do you?
The last record was written around the same time as Brexit. How has it been writing in this kind of climate?
It’s quite easy to write about it, but in England, people are bored of Brexit. They’re bored of politics. But I’m not. I’m not bored of what it’s doing to the people. I really home in on the general mood; the mood inspires the writing more than events.
The events, they’re all calamities, they’re all acts of massive corruption, they’re all ill-judged and very rarely think about people. They’re all for personal gain. You get these every week and you just become numb to it. Eaton Alive talks about the mood of things more than actual events.
In ‘Into the Payzone,’ you seem to be touching on modern consumerism — buying things to be happy. Can you elaborate on that?
Yeah, like the refined consumerism. I’ve got a bit more money these days, so you start to act in a different way when you go out and consume. You don’t have to necessarily think about how much you’re spending. You go to certain shops. You eat in certain places. The experience of consuming becomes a lot more insular. It becomes a lot tighter. Slicker. I think that’s what I tried to do with ‘Into the Payzone.’ … It’s a higher class of existence.
And there’s some discomfort to being in this position?
There is, yeah. You’re aware of it. I wouldn’t say there’s a discomfort, because I like consuming, I am a proper consumer, but there’s a certain level of unease about it. It’s something that I’m not particularly enthralled with. But at the same time, I am. You know what I mean?
It seemed a little more of a self-reflective album than usual for you guys. ‘Negative Script,’ in particular, struck me as being softer than your usual fare.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s kind like hearing a voice, your ‘negative script.’ I’ve been reading this book about the script inside, which is basically made up of your own experiences. If you have quite a lot of negative experiences, if you have a low opinion about yourself, which I have, then your script is mainly negative and you tell yourself negative things all the time.
I have feelings of inferiority. The song talks about that and how I’m not willing to give that up, because I’ve spent so much of my life listening to that. It doesn’t come to any conclusion, but it’s there as a statement.
Does the negative script make you work harder? Or is it destructive?
It can be quite oppressive sometimes. For instance, this album campaign has been really successful, but I don’t think of it like that. I can’t sit down and enjoy it, you know what I mean? I can’t sit down and enjoy the fact that we’re doing a successful tour or that we’re a successful band. A lot of the time, I don’t see that. I don’t view the accomplishments as comforting.
Is it because you’re worried they’ll be taken away?
I think it’s going to be taken away. I think it’s won’t last. I think we won’t be able to go to another level. People will leave the band. All types of things. Most of the time I’m thinking about those things rather than the actual reality of it, which is great.
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