Don’t tell Jason Williamson he’s a spokesmodel for a generation.
“No, not at all, no. Absolutely not,” says Williamson, the well-coiffed, working-class anti-hero and piss ‘n’ vinegar vocalist of U.K. punk-hop duo Sleaford Mods, on the phone from his home in Nottingham.
“Kind of the wrong road to go down. We just do what we do, you know? There’s not a lot of people doing that and that’s fair enough but I’m certainly no spokesman. I don’t have that high of an opinion of myself, to be honest.” [Laughing]
Hardcore fans of the neopolitical electro-rap assault Williamson and beats programming whiz Andrew Fearn have been spitting out would beg to differ.
For the last decade, Sleaford Mods—originally a Williamson-only vehicle—have been the staunchly DIY, establishment-smashing and blue-collar voice for those getting the shaft in austerity-era Britain.
In his thick accent, Williamson turned out to be the unwilling champion of the working class with barbed wire statements like “Job Seeker,” “Tied Up In Nottz” and Jolly “F*cker” serving as anthems for the disenfranchised found on absolute essentials such as Divide and Exit (2014), Key Markets (2015) and singles collection Chubbed Up (2014).
Now, after years of balancing a host of dead-end day jobs with recording for small labels and limited touring, Williamson and Fearn are chartering unknown territory: success.
They’ve signed on with the legendary Rough Trade record label and after the late-2016 release of the excellent T.C.R. EP (the title track easily made Observer’s 2016 best songs list), Sleaford Mods have swiftly followed that up with the just-dropped and even better English Tapas.
Their second effort for Rough Trade may signal a somewhat kinder, gentler Sleaford Mods (Williamson even resembles a singer instead of a ranter at times) but the fits of vitriol in its singular punk-hop vision remain intact. English Tapas is still littered with trademark Williamson rage amid Fearn’s dance-heavy, laptop-tweaking manipulations from the Boris Johnson takedown of “Moptop,” the BBC-bashing “Carlton Touts” to the social media slam, “Just Like We Do.”
While the duo were prepping for their first American tour in forever, Williamson—making no apologies for his band’s success—took a break from his parental duties to chat about rap’s influence on his work, what it’s like living in Brexit-era England, and how Sleaford Mods wouldn’t be where they are today without his pals Fearn and manager and Harbinger Sound label owner Steve Underwood.
You’re here in New York for the first time in a few years. You’ve talked about New York rap as being influential to your aesthetic.
Definitely. Wu-Tang, Kool G Rap, Nas…stuff like that was quite influential.
Were you more of a rap/hip-hop enthusiast rather than a punk?
Not really. I got into Public Enemy in 1998 and LL Cool J and a lot of the other stuff on Def Jam. But then kind of lost interest. Much more indie stuff like the Stone Roses back in England. I kind of left it. I didn’t really rediscover it until about 2003 when I started listening to the Wu-Tang Clan. I got really quite taken with the possibilities of working in that way.
Did listening to the Wu-Tang Clan pave the way to what you ultimately would do in Sleaford Mods?
Yeah, a little bit. I didn’t view it as a possibility, really. I thought that kind of music was out of my reach because I wasn’t living wherever in New York, I wasn’t that person, so I thought it was best to leave that alone. U.K. rappers are O.K., but…
What is the rap scene in the U.K. like?
Grime, really. Grime’s taken over and that is our version of it. You get a lot of rappers here that would probably scream at me if I said that ‘cuz you’ve got a lot of U.K. rappers that do believe in it but U.K. rap is very close to Grime anyway.
Did you ever have the chance to see NYC rappers you dug on tour in the U.K.?
No, not really. I never really bothered going to gigs. Gigs weren’t really something that I was into seeing. I was just interested in exploring the music; not even exploring it that extensively. I did study the Wu-Tang a bit but there are still some albums that they’ve got that I haven’t listened to. I take the idea and obsess over the idea and then try and replicate or duplicate that in my own way.
Let’s hit on the new record, English Tapas. It’s great. Lyrically you’re still doing your shtick, railing against the establishment, but you sound a bit less angry than on previous records. Are you mellowing with age, especially after getting a taste of success?
I’m mellowing definitely but I’m mellowing in a way that isn’t putting myself off from things. I’ve learned to control it a bit and I’m more responsible these days. You’ve got to control your anger a little bit, haven’t you? You can’t keep up that level of anger because it would be boring. It would be stupid. The whole idea about existing is to change and grow. I’ve changed, so has the energy on each record. If it weren’t it would be a little bit odd, really.
There is plenty more to be pissed off about, though, here in America and over there in Great Britain.
Yeah, yeah, sure. But before it was out and out just going at it but now it’s all about understanding your enemy and understanding the kind of sick environment and landscape and discussing it in that way. But I wouldn’t want to repeat myself like I did on other records with that volume of energy in the same way because it wouldn’t be natural. Things have to move on.
The Sleaford Mods M.O. has been one of staunch working-class beliefs and your lyrics have touched on many of the jobs you’ve had over the years in order to make ends meet. When were you able to quit your day job and be a musician full-time?
About three years ago so it took me until I was about 43, 44, think it was 43. So, I finally managed to leave work. We were just getting more bookings and the amount of money that we could make from gigging when we totaled it up far outweighed what I could earn working.
Have you gotten any blow back from hardcore Mods fans who’ve cried sell out, that you’ve become more commercially viable and signed to Rough Trade?
Yeah, we have. Not too many but we do get them. We also get the people who seem to think that your music should change dramatically, like “How can you keep doing the same thing?” which really irks me because we don’t just do the same thing. It changes from album to album but it doesn’t dramatically change. People have been spoon-fed this kind of corporate idea [that] each time a band releases an album it’s like “Major thing! New direction!”
People are almost being nannied into that kind of mindset. People have forgotten about the old days were bands would slowly sort of improve with album after album and I think that’s how we do it. But going back to your original point, we do get people wanting to, sort of saying, “You’ve sold out, you’ve don’t this, you’ve done that.” It’s mostly jealousy, innit?
I’ve got nothing to apologize for. I’ve worked my ass off all my life and have gone through lots of sacrifices to stick to my original plan of wanting to do music and we’ve done it.
Is your signing to Rough Trade the pinnacle? What could be better than that with the history of that label?
Yeah, definitely, it’s good but we’ve built it up ourselves. Our manager Steve Underwood with his label Harbinger Sound, we had a relationship with lots of European independent labels who helped us, we had Mike Patton from Faith No More and his label Ipecac, so we’ve had this infrastructure.
But Rough Trade, what they did, was they pushed it further with the muscle that they’ve got and that’s what we were looking for. It helps that they’ve got such a rich history and it was kind of a perfect label. I don’t think we’d work on a big corporate label; I just don’t think it would work at all. These places are like factories. I like to feel like we are on a one-to-one with somebody we’re working with.
Are there any bands on Rough Trade, past or present, who were a big deal for you?
No, not really. There’s no one really. I’m not really a big fan of a lot of contemporary music. Obviously some of it’s good but there wasn’t really anyone on Rough Trade that we thought “Oh yeah!” Me and Andrew like music but we’re not massive music fans or record collectors. We’re not obsessive about a certain genre. It was great that they asked us, they’ve got some great bands on there. Smiths, they worked with the Libertines, they got the Strokes on there, all these old bands. Some of them are all right; some not my thing but I can understand their cultural importance.
You mentioned Andrew and I wanted to talk about the rapport you and him have. You originally started Sleaford Mods as a one-man band then he eventually joined the group. Could you be where you are now without Andrew?
No, no. Andrew and our manager Steve are two people that came into the mix together really. Andrew and I met at a gig where I was supporting a noise guy. I used to support a lot of noise artists and the promoter of that was our manager Steve. He would come to the gigs and that’s when he noticed me doing it on my own. Andrew would DJ at a lot of these gigs so we met each other that way.
So you and Andrew hit of off.
Yeah, we always got on. Andrew’s a really easy person to get on with. It would be really odd to fall out with Andrew or make an enemy of him. He’s one of those guys that just gets on with people.
Did Andrew instantly fit in seamlessly with his beats and programming?
It took a while, it took about eight months but it did eventually just click.
When you guys are working on material, does he just come in with beats and bass grooves?
Yeah, that’s how it works, basically. I kind of leave him alone, I just let him get on with the music and I do the words. I’ll formulate a song. He’ll put his two peas-worth in if he feels he needs to. That’s how it works in the minute. You know, we’ll see what happens. It might change, it might not but in the minute, that’s how it works.
Live, Andrew always has a beer in hand. How many does he drink in one gig, dancing in front of that laptop?
He used to get through about four or five, six, which was pretty bad really. I’d be like, “Ya know, you need to watch out.” He would come off stage absolutely levered. He takes it easy now, he’ll probably do one or two, maybe three. It’s a good night out for Andrew, you know, a bit of a party. He’s got a lot to think about as well. He’s got to keep looking out for me in case I go wrong or whatever.
What is a day in the life of Jason Williamson when you’re not touring?
I take my kid to school, come home, I put my other kid to sleep, he wakes up and then I feed him, then I go out for a coffee, then I come home and give him some dinner, then we go to the park then I get another coffee then I come home and give him something else to eat and then I go and pick my daughter up from school, come home and then my wife gets in. So it’s like a full-time job really.
Do you ever bring your family on tour with you?
Sometimes, yeah, if it’s right, I do, yeah, if we can. My wife works and sometimes it’s not really easy trying to rendezvous, you know what I mean? She’s gonna meet me in Los Angeles when I play America.
I want to ask you about Brexit and how it’s played a role lyrically. Has your approach changed since Brexit or do you just think of it as something else that adds fuel to the fire?
It’s just another kind of victory for the right wing, for the elite basically. They’ve had plenty of victories over the last seven years so they constantly keep up with the victories. But it just so happens that things are really been shaken up for the minute. The world is getting a lot smaller and it’s like every country is closing its door. It’s pretty bad at the minute so Brexit is just another happening and people have accepted that that it’s going to happen now.
But even without Brexit, things weren’t good. We weren’t going to avoid some kind of hardship with all that Brexit anyway so it’s only made things worse. It made things worse because it put a lot of stupid people in a lot of high places and it’s also lodged into people’s heads this idea of somehow England’s gonna be this great country again and it was never been great like that, it’s just stupid.
Any levelheaded person would know but there’s a lot of idiots around as you well know. It’s fuel the fire for a lot of idiots, really, so moving forward, the atmosphere’s not going to be great. It’s just another peg or another nail in the coffin, really.
Do you pay attention to what’s going on here in America? You have Brexit, we have Trump…
Yeah, it’s pretty much hand in hand, innit? You have got leaders that are completely…they shouldn’t be leading countries for a start, you know. The similarities are there, definitely, although the kind of racial tensions in your country are a lot higher, a lot more visible. Over here it’s small pockets of incidents but over there it’s almost like a full-scale war going on, innit? From what we’ve seen. With the black protests, the shootings, there seem to be almost some kind of civil war going on, a race war or something. Yeah, there’s lots of similarities.
What is the vibe where you live in Nottingham?
It’s all right, it’s not bad really. I don’t experience any of the idiots who keep their thoughts to themselves. Occasionally you’ll get an outburst but I don’t see much really. For the minute it’s not so bad.
What would your vision of an ideal leader be, one that you’d accept in England?
None. I’ve known it in a minute. It’s fucked, innit? You can’t have any kind of sense under capitalism, can you? You gotta play this game and you gotta make sure you’ve got money. If you haven’t got money, then you suffer. I can’t see any leader making things better.
You get leaders that might make the quest for labor easier, it might make the benefit system easier for people that depend on it but that’s as far as it goes?
In the pursuit for a decent leader then my attention would be towards a leader that can probably supply work and could supply a good benefit system for people that obviously rely on it and then to inject an amount of intelligence and reason into life, into society. But that’s not happening, is it? So you have to make the best of what we can under capitalism. If you’ve got a bit of money you’re all right, it’s not too scary. But if you haven’t got any, you’re fucked.
Your lyrics are always being dissected, what they mean and where you’re coming from. Do you feel the need to clarify the actual meaning of your words?
Yeah, you do, but people take their own meanings from it anyway. A lot of reviewers kind of tell people that are reading the review what they did think the song is then it’s actually not that at all. So you do find yourself trying to explain things sometimes.
Lastly, there’s a Sleaford Mods film coming out called Bunch of Kunst. What’s that all about?
A German film crew that followed us around for two years. It just documents that really and the fans getting bigger, the crowds getting bigger. They asked us and we said “Yes, no problem.”
Sleaford Mods play tonight at Warsaw. Purchase tickets here.