The most outspoken, witty and incisive of our Top 100 Albums of 2017 came from Sleaford Mods. Their brutally honest frontman Jason Williamson tells Long Live Vinyl why he has no time for nostalgia…
It’s safe to say that Sleaford Mods frontman Jason Williamson does not view the past through rose-tinted glasses. Instead, he thinks nostalgia is a sickness and, consciously or not, he seems to be on a crusade to stamp it out.
His aversion to looking back is there in the title track from 2016’s five-track EP T.C.R.: “That 50s look can do one/ Elvis has definitely left the fucking building”. It’s there in his memories of growing up in Grantham (“It was terrible, it’s always been terrible,” he says). It’s there, too, in Williamson’s disappointed sigh when he tells us about a recent episode on social media.
The acerbic frontman of one of the UK’s most hilariously incisive and polemical bands wouldn’t usually let a troll put one of his closely cropped hairs out of place. Trolls get short shrift already on the duo’s tracks, such as 2012’s Shit Streets Runny (“I post horrible messages to successful musicians on me smartphone, fucking Twitter”) and this year’s Just Like We Do (“Pretentious little bastard on social medias”). What irks Williamson, though, is when his band’s music is called into question by online warriors who think Oasis are the pinnacle of human achievement and talk in a stream of cut-up Beatles lyrics.
“I went on his page and it was Beatles this, Beatles that,” groans Williamson, when we speak to him halfway through Sleaford Mods’ latest (and biggest) UK tour – the last hurrah in a year that’s seen the band’s music reach more people than ever.
“If people feel comfortable walking round in a Beatles T-shirt with a mop top and a short leather jacket, then fine, more power to them. But personally, I think it doesn’t energise contemporary music. It doesn’t energise creativity in a valuable sense, in a here-and-now sense, you know?” – Jason Williamson, Sleaford Mods
“I think that is the driving force… it has to be the driving force behind any musician. Someone else’s idea has been hijacked enough, hasn’t it? Why would you want to play the same chord sequence that Lennon and McCartney did?”
Williamson does, however, have residual sympathy left for those who do. Sleaford Mods may have laid down a distinctive, brutalist path over their last four albums of clipped, minimal beats and pulverising rhymes about the state of the nation – never better than on this year’s brilliant English Tapas – but Williamson understands perfectly well the allure of seeking out mythical golden eras.
Growing up in dead-end Grantham, east of Nottingham, Williamson was a Jam- and Style Council-chasing mod, and after that he followed the herd down to Camden during the sequel to Swinging London: Britpop. But it got him nowhere for far too long and now living in the past is anathema to what Williamson and Andrew Fearn do as Sleaford Mods.
“Like, what are you looking at today that you might get the same thing from?” asks Williamson, aiming his question at anyone who thinks Ray Davies and Ringo have something relevant to say about life in zero-hours Britain. “These people have done their bit. But there’s been piles of other people who have done comparable things, but in a more contemporary age, in an age when it says more about people’s lives today, you know what I mean?”
Williamson, who is now in his late 40s, freely admits that his hip-hop true loves Wu-Tang Clan, Raekwon, Ghostface Killah and Kool G Rap – the acts that really started him off on the journey to where he is now – are long in the tooth these days. It’s why he and Fearn are always seeking out new inspiration from modern electronica, soul and grime. Williamson cites UK rapper Giggs and grime MCs such as Stormzy and Roachee as the sort of artists that have that hunger he needs to hear.
“I read a thing with Steve Jones the other day and he was like: ‘I don’t listen to grime, I’ve never heard of it, why should I? It’s a young person’s music’,” says Williamson about the Sex Pistols guitarist. “But I wouldn’t think twice about listening to anything. I’m constantly listening to street music, because that’s what’s the most vibrant, interesting stuff. You’ve just got to be careful to honour that music, and if you’re inspired by it, it’s important not to blatantly rip it off. There’s ways of sewing it into your music to make it yours.”
So what does a man who eschews the past for the present think about vinyl? Even the most ardent collector has to admit that there’s something nostalgic about buying records, even if it’s new music. Does Williamson feel the same love for it as we do? His fans certainly do. Sleaford Mods’ CD-R albums – from the time before Fearn turned up with his drum machine – sell for huge sums. Not as much as the band’s early singles, though. A 2013 7″ release of Jobseeker, on Belgian label KRAAK, is listed from £90, while Tied Up In Nottz, on German label Little Teddy, goes for £70-plus. Both releases were the result of early European tours when, says Williamson, “the UK just didn’t want to know”.
Fourth Dimension’s 2014 seven-inch of the Ian Beale-baiting Mr Jolly Fucker will set you back a mighty £150. Even the duo’s 2013 Austerity Dogs album on Harbinger Sound – the label set up by their manager Steve Underwood – is worth at least £75. These prices might be candidates for the @VinylStupidity Twitter feed, but they show just how revered the band have become. What do Williamson and Fearn make of it all?
“We laugh about it constantly,” says Williamson. “I know that’s a record collectors’ thing, you know. Some of the records Steve buys… I’ve known him to spend 500, 600 quid on an album. He’s always been into it. He’s always had these ideas about how music should be presented. He’s got a lot of concrete opinions about it. So it was only right for him to get a record label going, and I guess that’s how Harbinger Sound started. He’s always been a leader, Steve. Two things combine – and alakazam!”
Williamson’s own relationship with vinyl is, it has to be said, much cooler. After chasing his mod, punk and indie-rock dreams in the 80s and 90s, he was involved with Nottingham’s hip-hop scene in the early 00s and would lift samples off his favourite records on early Sleaford Mods tracks before Fearn brought his beats to the table in 2012. But vinyl is less significant to Williamson these days: “I haven’t got any, really, apart from when I was a kid.”
Instead of a massive record collection, Williamson’s ideas are gleaned from a life lived through bleak times. “Work’s crap, full stop, but when you can’t afford to live and you’re still working full-time hours… it’s a real drag,” he says, reflecting on the life he led before Sleaford Mods took off. “It’s a real heavy thing. People don’t realise that. They think: ‘Oh, this band has come out of the last seven years’. But no, this band has come out of a life.”
He’s all too aware, then, of how hard things are for people. He doesn’t shy away from fans with their own stories to tell, and he and Fearn raised funds for homeless charity Shelter on their latest UK tour.
“It’s been a catalogue of bleakness and that’s all connected to capitalism. Connected to working to live. It’s ongoing, innit, and I don’t think it will get any better really, whatever government gets in.” – Jason Williamson, Sleaford Mods