These Streets Are Ours
It was a fickle moment, near 10pm on 7 May. A flickering moment of gut-churning disbelief.
The perceived collective consciousness, the sense of mutual understanding, disappeared. That collective consciousness had been imagined, it was an illusion, it had never existed. It was false. What a sickly, selfish, scared ideology it was that had taken power. All in a moment.
It’s later that month, and two rough-hewn characters stand onstage in front of a couple of hundred people. The one at the back – taller, gaunter – wears a baseball cap and grips a beer bottle like a mascot. His body bounds from side-to-side on the balls of his feet. At the front, a shorter, broader, pitbull of a man. His expression is livid, his posture tense. If it weren’t for the eyes set on them, the tinny bass and drum clatter seeping from the speakers, you’d never guess that these two men from Nottingham, both in their mid-40s, were one of the country’s most important bands.
To see Jason Williamson (words) and Andrew Fearn (music) in the flesh is to see a seething, writhing depiction of working class ire. It’s theatrical and thrilling. Williamson tics and tweaks, clawing at his head, neck jerking involuntarily like cathartic punk icons of the past. It’s a performative caricature of the plight of the underclasses; a fuming, feral, uncontrollable manifestation of deep-rooted discontent.
The Jason Williamson I met earlier that day wasn’t the confrontational, furious character from onstage and on paper. How could he be? He turned up for our shoot on time, a ball of confidence. Andrew Fearn turns up half an hour later, stubbing a pungent joint out next to the studio door. He’s equally self-effacing, conversational and keen. As they pose for photographs, the duo’s faces switch to stern for the camera.
Williamson throws on a freshly-purchased Burberry bucket hat as they stride outside into the drizzle: “I look like a cunt, don’t I?” he asks Fearn. “Nah mate, you look good.” The two are warm, to an extent; Williamson swears, constantly. When our conversation turns to topics that rile him – and of course, I nudge it that way relentlessly – he starts to tweak and twitch a little, like the version I’d see later that evening. The separation between the performance and the everyday is slender; the anger is very real.
The timing of Sleaford Mods’ upcoming album, Key Markets, coming barely a month after the disarming election results that saw the Conservative party win a majority in UK parliament, has amplified its importance. The band’s last two records, 2013’s Austerity Dogs and last year’s Divide And Exit, were surreal, embittered visions of life on society’s muck-riddled, slippery bottom rungs in Cameron’s Britain, relayed over rigid, mottled no-fi beats.
“Key Markets is an album about beigeness, the nothingness of life in England,” says Williamson as we sit down at a table, him sipping on a throat-soothing herbal tea. “Everything’s packaged and covered in logos, and since we’ve been touring all you see is Wagamamas and Pizza Express and … and all the old town centres are dead.”
The album’s name – which refers to a supermarket at the centre of the East Midlands town of Grantham where Williamson grew up – recalls, for the frontman, memories of sickly 70s interiors and sipping on plastic cups of pop. It’s the banality of British life, the sapping of colour and character from our towns, and by extent, our people. It’s a sense of resignation and passive acceptance which offers a change in tone from the more livid, dissident imagery of their previous work.
“I see it as a more direct, more graphic album,” offers Fearn, whose sound palette has gained a refined focus: Key Markets is defined by the almost omnipresence of a loose, organic bass pluck and a wincing, snappy snare. “I had the word ‘progressive’ in my head,” Fearn says, “alongside the nostalgia of the obvious punk ideas. Punk to me is doing something different.”
It’s this view of punk as a progressive rather than retrogressive concept which sees Williamson reserve particular distaste for the use of punk ideals as a hollow marketing tool. Specifically, when he brings up the band Slaves. “I think they’re a pile of shit,” he snarls. “They’re doing my pose in photos, ripping us off. We met them at Beacons festival last year and they asked if me and Andrew would be interested in writing something for the album, and I said no. They looked like a Matt Bianco sort of thing, and now they’re trying to play this working class game. I think they’re fucking appalling.”
The parallel significance of the words Key Markets is, of course, one of business and marketing; the cynicism of consciously selling people things they don’t need. In part it feels like a stab at the ‘industry’ which Sleaford Mods have strived to avoid. Over the years they’ve released via labels including Geoff Barrow’s Invada, and in the US, Mike Patton’s Ipecac – hype-free, artist-led imprints. Key Markets and their previous two albums have found a home on the noise/punk label Harbinger Sound, run by the band’s manager/mentor Steve Underwood.
The glut of Sleaford Mods releases between 2007’s self-titled debut and 2011’s S.P.E.C.T.R.E consisted of strange collages of sound and dank, antisocial streams of consciousness with an almost outsider quality: a scratchy bassline here, a ripped Who riff there, largely manufactured by associate Simon Parfrement, or ‘Parf’. Those first four records contained some of Williamson’s most searing one-liners and avant-garde wonderings. Des Walker, from 2009’s The Originator, is a wonky, lo-fi hip-hop track named after a Sheffield Wednesday centre-half which quotes David Lynch’s Eraserhead; The Mod That Fell To Earth, from the same release, is outlandishly bratty, referring to Williamson’s own wayward prolificness: “Why you having a fucking EP launch for, useless prick” he grunts, allegedly in reference to Notts psych-peddlers The Cult Of Dom Keller, “I’ve done three albums in eight months, I don’t fucking brag about it.”
“I knew when I was doing all that stuff that it was stepping stones,” says Williamson. “I didn’t see it as bona fide. In the true sense of punk it probably was, y’know, using samples and lobbing them out, didn’t care. I was selling probably 10, 20 copies of the first four albums. People just couldn’t get their heads around it.”
Having been spotted playing abstract sounds to a poor reception at a Nottingham gig, Fearn was initially invited onboard as a producer. Under Underwood’s suggestion, he later joined Williamson onstage. He now provides a merry counterpoint to the eye-boggling rage of his partner; he’s a vision of slightly uncomfortable happiness onstage, swigging bottles of beer and taking photos of the crowd. Besides pressing play on his laptop to kickstart each track, he doesn’t even pretend to do anything else.
The current incarnation of Sleaford Mods band has a voice: one that is political in its representation of tangible issues, but anti-political in its wholesale rejection of the systems in place. While in the past Williamson could be guilty of scattergun ranting, he’s now found a way to centre his ire, to prioritise his disdain. And while he finds it almost impossible to engage with party politics in any sort of constructive way, his opinions on the recent election flood out of him in waves.
“It didn’t really matter who got in,” he spits. “Ed Miliband is David Cameron and Cameron is Boris Johnson who’s Ed Miliband and he’s Nick fucking Clegg. They’re all the same.” Williamson, in a decision with which he still doesn’t seem entirely convinced, voted Green. Fearn didn’t vote at all.
“It’s the lies,” Williamson continues, sitting up in his chair. The rhythm of his lyrics begins to emerge. “The constant lies. It’s lies, lies, lies, lies, lies. It’s total, absolute lies. All of it. Everything. I can’t believe a word they fucking say. There’s no talk about looking after people, if there is it’s a short paragraph done without any sensitivity at all. It’s all about getting Britain back on the business map, making Britain an attractive place for investment and big business. What about the people that are dying? The people that have died because of these policies? There’s no talk about that. People haven’t been arrested because of it who should’ve been, there’s people dying, disabled people, people hanging themselves. Not right. Not right. It’s fucked. That, in itself, is bigger than anything they can say.”
Such giddy fury is what’s made Sleaford Mods one of the most galvanised reflections of the working class condition in British music. The anger is powerful, yet is too rarely voiced. “You can read, you can self-educate, that’s all you can do,” says Williamson. “You can’t fight against this tide in a physical sense, cause you’ll get your fucking arms bitten off. It’s much bigger than us, and the only thing you can do is to educate yourself, be aware of it, be suspicious, constantly.”
The worryingly popular response to distrust of the political system has been to turn to the ‘alternative’: namely, UKIP. I ask what they see as the difference between the disillusioned, invisible, regional working class person who becomes a Sleaford Mods fan, and the one who turns to UKIP. The party were firmly established as the third largest in Sleaford Mods’ hometown of Nottingham; second, in fact, in Williamson’s birthplace of Grantham.
Put simply, he doesn’t know. “We can’t offer any answers,” he insists. “We just talk about stuff and communicate a feeling that people feel.”
“You can read, you can self-educate... you can’t fight against this tide in a physical sense, cause you’ll get your fucking arms bitten off"
What Willliamson can offer is a real, relatable image. He’s been there, he knows where the bodies are buried. He’s been unemployed, and for a period ending last October, worked as a benefits advisor at the local council.
Perhaps Sleaford Mods’ most important statement is still Jobseeker. Having appeared in various forms as far back as 2007’s The Mekon, it grabbed the attention as the second track on the exceptional 2014 singles collection Chubbed Up. The song’s central mantra is worth quoting in its entirety:
“Jobseeker / Can of Strongbow, I’m a mess / Desperately clutching onto a leaflet on depression supplied to me by the NHS / It’s anyone’s guess how I got here, anyone’s guess how I’ll go / I suck on a roll-up, pull your jeans up, fuck off. I’m going home”
“If you’ve ever been unemployed for any sort of period of time, you never forget it,” says Fearn. The deficiency of self-esteem caused by the system is infectious, dangerously cyclical. The track was written before the contemporary Tory era of grim employment statistics and zero hour contracts. “It was agency work back then,” says Williamson. “That was zero hour contracts by any other name. They’d treat you like cunts and the people who used to run them were fucking cunts.” He fumes, suddenly tics. “I’ll still see one of the cunts about in Notts and give him a look. Driving his BMW around town, fuck off.”
So the danger is that now, removed from this daily exposure, Williamson will struggle to evoke it in his words. What hits so hard about Jobseeker is its hyper-specificity: the conversation between the advisor and the embittered subject; the monologue, barked, which references plunging thermometers into pallets of chicken on delivery. “19.4 top / 18.6 middle … Rob?”
One of the artists Sleaford Mods are most frequently compared to is The Streets. When Mike Skinner experienced widespread success, his observational leanings meant third album The Hardest Way To Make An Easy Living focused on the trials of new-found fame. He quickly found out it’s difficult to ask for sympathy from an audience who’d give anything to be in your situation.
“The spirit will always be there with me,” insists Williamson. “There’s parts of this album which are observations of being in airports and stuff like that, the loneliness of travelling, but the despair will never leave my lyrics. I did 25 years of prodding thermometers into pallets of chicken. I’ve done my time.”
Williamson is still sufficiently attached to experience those emotions on a day-to-day basis: the intrusive stares of the police, the feeling of violation and encroachment which exists in the current government, where distrust and intrusion is encouraged; where privacy is a rapidly dissolving concept.
“You get to a point where you’re walking down the street and you think, if a fucking copper looks at me I’m gonna tell him. You get that anger and you wanna vent it. Fortunately for us we’ve got this, but a lot of people haven’t, and for a lot of people it goes like that” – he signals a pint being downed – “and like that” – he mimes a bump of powder to the nose – “and a lot of hatred is created because of it. People feel powerless.”
"I did 25 years of prodding thermometers into pallets of chicken. I’ve done my time”
Williamson has done his time with that and that. He’s previously stated that at some of his lowest ebbs he was getting through as much as three or four grams a night. Last April, when the Sleaford Mods hype was gathering exponentially with each ferocious gig; each explosive interview; each mention of their name over a drink, Crack sent a writer to review their appearance at Brighton’s Prince Albert. The gig never took place. Williamson had gone missing, last spotted in the aftermath of the band’s show at London’s 12 Bar the previous night. At the time, an apology on Twitter put the no-show down to ‘old demons’.
Williamson was, and is, unyieldingly remorseful. “It was a pinnacle gig, that one in London. Stewart Lee turned up, it was just a bit weird,” he says. “A bit out of the ordinary. And I got a bit excited and got fucked up and just carried on getting fucked up and felt really bad about it, and still do. It wasn’t on, it was not on, and it dawned on me – it’s not happening.”
The band’s multiplying status has added a weight of perspective to his shoulders. On the day we meet he’s already been for a run around the city, a session of acupuncture, and invested in some herbal tea. He’s off the booze and the substances. A few days previously he’d been forced to cancel a gig in Skegness, one of a number of appearances in towns off the beaten track of the accepted gig circuit. “There’s just so many dates,” he says. “If my voice goes we’re fucked. If I break down we’re fucked. I could keep on like this for three years but after that – forget it. The idea is to keep making music. I love a drink, and I miss it, but this is my job.”
Both Williamson and Fearn have home lives to consider, too: Williamson married with a daughter, Fearn settled down with his partner. “I ain’t 25. This is my fucking job. Drugs have always been the same: if you’re 25, 45, makes no difference. They still make you feel like shit.
“Without meaning to sound like a wanker,” emphasises Williamson, “this is a business. It’s my livelihood. I’m not gonna fuck it up.”
Five hours later, Sleaford Mods plough through an almost unbearably intense Tied Up In Nottz. Williamson stalks the stage, his shoulders rotating like a panther. Fearn stands behind his sticker-mottled laptop, beaming. As the song finishes, the vocalist marches off the stage and into the crowd. I’m stood near the front.
As he bounds past, I see the navy polo shirt he’d worn for the shoot earlier that day is several shades darker with sweat. I cautiously, unwisely, grab him by the arm. He looks at me at first confused, then with a flicker of recognition. “Why d’you do it, Jason?” I ask. It’s a wonder he’s ever done anything else.
He sneers. “There’s fuck all else for me to do, is there?” I let him go.