You blink twice and Sleaford Mods has been in the business for over a decade. Jason Williamson and Andrew Fearn have been making angry British music for angry British people since 2007. From Austerity Dogs to English Tapas: the proven formula of the duo from Nottingham has never really changed much. But now? Now Theresa May & co. ensured that every mediocre punk band suddenly makes angry protest music about political misery. In other words, in 2019, Sleaford Mods must do its best not to become a parody of itself and the working class. And so Williamson and Fearn take refuge in surrealism on their fifth album Eton Alive, although they secretly still sound like Sleaford Mods.
Written by: Dirk Baart
Illustrations: Melcher Oosterman
Just listen to lead single 'Flipside', where Williamson shrills and sings hilarious phrases about one of the hardest beats his buddy Fearn has made in a long time. “Graham Coxon looks like a left wing Boris Johnson", and more of that ilk. Vintage Sleaford Mods. But still, on Eton Alive, Williamson also looks further than he has before. He doesn't (just) ridicule politicians in a similar fashion to drunkards in the pub, but describes them in a way that is more original and imaginative. In the world of Eton Alive, the rich are monsters who eat kebabs with spiders on them, digest the people in their colons and finally shit them out. “Straight from the arse of rulee," Williamson jokes. The record’s title refers to the elite boys' school that educated, among others, Boris Johnson, David Cameron, and Princes William and Harry. "Just about the entire policy that has been causing misery for years was devised there”, Williamson explains. His sharp accent crackles on the phone line. "People are now being mentally eaten by it.”
During the conversation, it is clear that Brexit has influenced the new Sleaford Mods album, but the word itself is only mentioned once. The subject is so ubiquitous that it simply no longer provides fertile ground for an interesting record. "The idea was to make an album about the atmosphere in this country, not necessarily explicitly about what creates that atmosphere." Williamson prefers to focus on the underlying problems, the causes of the discontent that led to the infamous referendum. The fact that one in five Britons lives in poverty, for example, or the continued use of cocaine among young people or the increased murder rate in the country.
“The press are only occupied with one thing right now, because it's easy to build a narrative around that,” Williamson says. “Of course we all use narratives in our lives, supposedly logical stories to bring order to our heads. The narrative chosen by the press is simply very influential. An important part of the media here also still consists of the so-called red tops, tabloids such as The Sun and the Daily Mail. They use that narrative to preach nationalism and convince the working class that it has something to do with pride. The usual press bullshit.”
Farewell to the working class
Williamson himself has not felt part of that working class for a while. “Its existence is also a bit of a myth perpetuated by the media, you know. But I now live in a nice neighborhood and haven't really worked for about three years. The last time I got a minimum wage credited to my account was a long time ago.” On Eton Alive, Williamson even makes fun of someone who has had a big record deal for thirty years, but still pretends to be working class. He won't say who it is, but anyone who is a little familiar with the past of Sleaford Mods knows who Williamson could be talking about. “Some rock stars pretend to be the biggest Labour supporters with every album they make, but in the meantime wear the most expensive clothes. Perhaps they are really involved and their oversimplified statements were the result of an inattentive editor. But I'm just not that interested in their stories about how hard life is.”
No, most British rock bands today don't like 'Big Jay'. A few days after the phone call, in a Q&A at The Guardian, he lashes out at IDLES, who according to Williamson appropriate a working class voice that does not belong to them. He prefers to listen to grime or drill, the even harder genre adjacent to grime that causes a lot of controversy. Only last month, rising drill stars Skengdo and AM were arrested as one of their songs allegedly provoked violence against a rival gang. “What they do is so much more real than all those punk bands that are coming out of the BRIT School now,” Williamson says. “But people don't want to know about it because it's black music and the topics can be quite disturbing. It's not pop music, it's gang shit. But it is music that is about what life on the street really is like. I don't know if it will ever make the same crossover as grime, but it is exciting.”
"I am very aware that the sharpness of my observations decreases as I get older"
In addition to drill, Sleaford Mods allowed influences on Eton Alive from styles that normally never had a place in their universe. There is a bit of krautrock and some Mount Kimbie-esque electronica, but mainly eighties R&B, based on artists like Alexander O'Neal, Chaka Khan and Luther Vandross. “I listened to that a lot when I was young,” explains Williamson, who is at times also reminiscent of The Streets’ Mike Skinner. “A few years ago, Andrew and I found out that it's a common interest, since then it's become a lot more prominent in our music. Just like Drake's first albums, by the way.” You can't really hear that in most of the songs, although Sleaford Mods do make conspicuous use of poppy song structures on Eton Alive. With 'When You Come Up To Me' and 'Negative Script', there are also more moments of introspection on the record than usual for Sleaford Mods. Oh, and then there are those marimba synths on 'Discourse Dif' and the kazoo solo that just falls out of the sky on 'O.B.C.T'. "I'm very happy with that," Williamson laughs. “It makes it all a little less serious. The only thing that bothers me now is that someone told me yesterday that The Fall also did something with a kazoo. And I just thought we finally got rid of that comparison.”
A parody of Sleaford Mods
To be Sleaford Modes in 2019 comes with more nuances than Williams had ever expected. It all seemed so simple: one person for the beats, one person for the lyrics. Put a can of beer in your hand and yell. After four albums and two EPs, the recipe had become so proven that Sleaford Mods were on the brink of becoming a caricature of themselves. An angry record about British politics, that is not only what Sleaford Mods is good at, but now also exactly what the audience expects from the band and what every British band seems to be doing at the moment. “I was afraid of becoming a parody of Sleaford Mods, yes,” Williamson admits. “I am also very aware that the sharpness of my observations diminishes as I get older. I no longer refer to specific locations as much as I did and instead try to express myself a bit more poetically. But in the end I also concluded that I am just who I am. That I love what we do and that I now want to get out of it what's left in it. That doesn't rule out the fact that we wanted to do it differently this time than usual."
They succeeded because Williamson and Fearn discovered that they didn't necessarily have to be realistic to say something meaningful about reality. That they could instead convey a certain feeling or a kind of energy. “A lot of instrumental electronic music succeeds in this. And we also found out that the number of words in a song doesn't always have anything to do with how much you can say in a track. I think that's also one of the problems young bands have to deal with: they're so busy saying what they are, that they forget to actually be it."
Now that the eyes of Sleaford Mods are so open, the end is far from in sight. “We are a fully operational machine,” Williamson laughs. “Of course we want to change, but you also have to prepare for change. That's what we've tried with the way we've approached this album. It's very important to challenge yourself: I started acting and writing, but I want our music to remain as good as it is. To be honest, I'm already curious about what we'll be making next year." Editor's note: this article was originally published in Dutch. Some quotes may have been altered in the translation.