The quick progression and growth in the work of Sleaford Mods, the grime-punk duo from Nottingham, England, has been one of the more remarkable storylines of the past decade. Ever since producer Andrew Fearn joined forces with vocalist/lyricist Jason Williamson, the pair have rapidly evolved and improved in both of their chosen arenas.
The former’s approach to beats has taken his rattletrap beats, built from overdriven bass lines and drums that sound as if they were constructed from plywood and tin, into a more club-ready headspace. Tunes like “Drayton Manored” from 2017’s English Tapas and “Kebab Spider,” the first single from their recently released new album Eton Alive, reveal the influence of house music and warm tones that feel inviting rather than bludgeoning. Williamson has responded in kind. His speak-singing vocal manner is still omnipresent, spitting out wound up, often hilarious rants on the ugly state of British politics and the struggles of everyday Britons. But through Eton and the self-titled EP the group released last year, the 48-year-old has shifted into singing—apparently inspired by a love of ‘80s and ‘90s R&B—and his lyrical tone feels more resigned and tired. “You’re getting older,” he sings on the chittering “Firewall,” “You’re getting slower to the point where you’re no use…you don’t know you’re crying at all because of your firewall.”
Sleaford Mods’ evolution has been all the more impressive for the speed with which it happened and the massive amount of material they’ve put out along the way. Since Fearn joined the project full time in 2012 (it had been a going concern for about five years before that), the duo have released a steady stream of singles and EPs, five full-lengths and participated in sessions with fellow musical agitators The Prodigy and Leftfield. Their consistency through it all—as well as their distinctive, minimalist live performances, which consist of Fearn playing the music through his MacBook and sipping on a beer while Williamson spits and twitches nearby—has marked them as one of the most exciting acts of the 21st century.
Paste spoke with Williamson recently as he sat in his kitchen in Nottingham about the sound of Eton Alive, the decision to self-release the new album and the present state of the music scene in his native England.
Listening to Eton Alive, you’re singing a lot more on songs like “When You Come Up To Me” and “Firewall.” The harder edges of your vocals have been smoothed out. Was that done on purpose this time around?
Yeah, I just got really bang into old soul stuff, the ‘80s stuff like Cherrelle, Luther Vandross, Alexander O’Neal. Chaka Khan to a certain degree. And I was also listening, oddly enough, to a lot of Drake, particularly his second album. And also a lot of trap and drill where that kind of soul vocal sneaks itself in there. That music is really turning me on at the minute and not a lot else is. I’m certainly not listening to anything punk-like and haven’t been for a long time. So I wanted to try and get that in there but in a way that really worked with the Sleaford Mods formula. The kind of ranting/rapping thing. I think we’ve achieved it. I’m not sure it’s a two fingers up to the expectancy of what we should do. But I certainly like to think it’s a clear departure.
I’ve always been curious about how the songwriting process works with you and Andrew. Is it simply him making music and beats and then sending them to you to work on or do you have a say in that side of the sound?
No, Andrew just sends the music through. Since we did the [Sleaford Mods] EP last year and he was in a mindframe of…he was in a real good place. He came out of a relationship and the stress of that was leaving him. He was moved back in with his parents for a while and he was able to really concentrate on the music. I would just work on the tracks at home, take my time with them, contemplate them. It took about three months to write 10, 11 tracks.
Lyrically, it feels like this tone of exhaustion has crept into your words on Eton.
A lot of people have picked up on that and I’m really happy about it. I wanted to not talk about fucking Brexit or go on about the usual shit. I just wanted to talk about the atmosphere that was around me, and it’s one where people are beaten. People are absolutely horrified at being shown this irrelevant idea of being English. The people who have voted Remain, they can’t believe it’s being thrust in their face. And then the people on the Leave side are becoming more nationalist.
Oh, I’m talking about Brexit now… But it really has thrown a shade on the country and I wanted to communicate that. Both sides are exhausted. They haven’t really got any answers. My leanings are toward Remain. I voted Remain because what’s the point in trying to fix something that’s fucking knackered anyway? As my wife said yesterday: “austerity fatigue,” which I thought was a really good term for it. Everything’s so completely negative and I don’t think that’s great, but I really do veer more towards those energies.
You’ve talked in other interviews about how you tend to write in the voice of a character. But is that really just you talking or is that a way to put your thoughts at a kind of remove?
They’re kind of characters but they’re not. More, I’m talking about people who I see who I find incredibly twisted. I’m trying to turn them into characters. I’m dressing them with insults and characteristics of a made up, absurd being, so to speak. I’m not really talking in character. At least I don’t think I am anymore. I probably did with the other albums.
But I suppose you’re right with songs like “Top It Up” talk about a funeral. I kind of put myself in a pub in a working class area and all of the lyrics are connected with the various personalities there. So my language becomes even more erratic. I almost put myself in their bodies. It’s a mixture of dressing up people, talking about people, but dressing them in a fantastical, absurd, really insulting way.
I’m impressed with how much music you and Andrew have released since this project began. How are you able to maintain that level of activity between the touring and trying to live your own lives? Are you both constantly working?
Yeah because we work fast. We don’t spend too much time on songs. We haven’t got any producers. As far as I’m concerned, when [Andrew] sends the music through to me, it’s done. Nobody can come near what we’re doing. I think it’s still fresh and contemporary. That could change. I could think, “Oh, fuck this. It’s not very good.” But I don’t think so. I think Andrew’s constantly upping his game, moreso with Eton Alive. It’s really coasting on a different realm of production. And a lot of people probably won’t see it like that. They’ll probably say, “Oh, they sound just like they always do.” From our point of view, we’re moving into a production realm, a creative realm where we’re completely disconnected from the older stuff in a lot of respects.
The stage presence that you both have is something that I think took a lot of people by surprise. Especially the way you move your body and your hands and arms while you are performing live. Is this something that you’re aware of as it’s happening or is it completely involuntary?
I’m aware of it and I play it up a bit. Initially, my arms just went and did their own thing because I was trying to get the words out and my body was doing whatever it did in order for me to do that. Because I didn’t really have an idea of how to breathe properly. I had some singing lessons early on and I was taught how to breathe properly. So when I got the hang of that, I then started to manipulate the abilities and put a lot of theatrics in there. Why not? I think what we do and who we are, you’re not supposed to. Where we come from, you’re supposed to be lads. You’re supposed to be macho men. You’re supposed to be modest. You’re supposed to be subtle. But with the performance, I like to think that I smash all that. We look absolutely stupid. I want to try and aggravate that even more moving forward.
But you’re at the mercy of your energies onstage. Your energy will dictate to you what it wants your body to do. You just follow that. I know that sounds a bit stupid, but it does. Night after night, you get your head around your set for two or three gigs when you’re on tour and then after that, you’re fully immersed in it. You can connect to the performance. It’s quite a weird thing, really.
I’m sure you’ve heard this a lot before but what I love about your performances is that the artifice is completely stripped away. Andrew is just on stage, hitting the spacebar on the laptop and drinking a beer, and you’re just singing. There’s no crazy stage sets or bells and whistles involved.
It’s got to be that basic. What’s the point of having a big banner at the back of the stage that says your name? We’re thinking about getting lighting actually. Me and my wife have been talking about getting proper lighting in because that could work. But apart from that, I don’t want to do anything else. It doesn’t need it. I get so put off by bands where it’s just full of things on stage. It looks shit. Unless they know how to use it of course, which a lot of bands do. But the majority of bands that I see just aren’t very inspired. To keep it minimal and to keep it quite empty, it still works for us.
You didn’t really start to have any success with Sleaford Mods and your music until you were older. Do you think that has helped you handle the craziness of what’s expected from a modern artist?
Yeah, we wouldn’t have lasted two minutes if I was in my early thirties with it or early twenties. I think it would have gone on for a couple of albums and then we would have started to repeat ourselves and become parodies of ourselves. I didn’t really benefit from life until I had gained a lot of experience. I was in no person’s land really and so was Andrew to a certain degree. He really didn’t come to grips with his own music until he reached a similar age. And I think it’s a sign of the times where the human being as an animal is progressing. Your forties are your new thirties. The way people are living their lives is a lot healthier than it was in the ‘90s. It’s a combination of those things, I think.
Eton Alive is your first record on your own label, Extreme Eating. What made you want to go down that road rather than sticking with Rough Trade or one of the other labels that you’ve worked with in the past?
It was a premature move really. Our manager communicated to us that we didn’t need a record label. We didn’t need to be signed. But it was a premature move because when we got this album sorted, there was nothing in place. No campaign in place. We suffered for it because of that. So we parted with that manager and we are trying to get this campaign off its feet, which it has been. My wife is overseeing the operations alongside the distributor. I wasn’t necessarily dissatisfied with Rough Trade. I’ve got my reservations with some of it but it was a little bit of an early move. We should have perhaps given it more thought. Moving from that to an independent label, I’ve really not an opinion about at the minute. I certainly don’t know if it was the right thing to do. But as I’ve said, we’ve managed to rescue the operation so to speak.
What effect do you think the political upheaval of the last few years has had on the arts and music scenes in the U.K.?
Well, it’s made it more bland. Award shows are basically centered around corporate acts. So the corporation thing really fully has its arms around anything that might be of interest for people watching from the outside. Awards ceremonies, festivals, the charts as well. Everything is infested with monotonous acts that aren’t very good at all. The indie underground isn’t that interesting either. Music needs to find a new route. We have exhausted all the avenues of genres. The old genres: rock ‘n’ roll, punk, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. At the minute, hip-hop seems to be the only one progressing with trap and drill and grime. There needs to be a musical revolution. The kind that comes up and it’s, like, “Whoa!” Although I’m critical of the commercial industry, it does harbor great acts and these acts…they might have a lot of flaws, but they push things on a little bit. In the arena of hip-hop, especially. But anything to do with rock has just been exhausted. It’s made the DIY/indie circuit exhausted too. You’ve got a lot of guitar bands and it’s just same old. There needs to be something that sticks out to really push it along.