sleaford mods: raging against the austerity machine
They’re writing the soundtrack for our fractured society and now, after filming their tour of the UK’s forgotten towns, they’ve made Broken Britain The Movie too. Ahead of the film’s world exclusive screening at Doc N Roll Festival this weekend, i-D...
"And this pig fucking thing," Jason Williamson spits down the phone line, "You've got this fucking twat Tory donor who was pissed off because Cameron fucking snubbed him, so he's basically fucking slapped Cameron's arse in the press, the Mail have gone for it. The elite don't give a fucking shit, the rich fucking hate each other, more than they hate us, you know. It's pathetic, and it makes me mad that I have to see this elevated fight in the press, when these people are towering over the corpses that their policies are leaving, while they bicker about some fucking sexual prank". It's the kind of expletive-laden rant that the Sleaford Mods frontman has become known for -- as crude as it is insightful.
Williamson's lyrics, rap-shouted in a plume of spittal, do not resemble wordy dissections of the political situation (thank god), but they do give voice to its miserable effects with a uniquely plain-spoken eloquence. Gaping-wound-raw poetry about the spirit-crushing minutiae of a working life lived at the behest of middle management, the bleak landscape of broken down pubs, and the commodification of counterculture, it's been dubbed the soundtrack to our fractured society.
Sleaford Mods' breakout success certainly stems from Williamson's talent for writing lyrics about the lives of people that the weekend papers' culture supplements left behind, but it was definitely accelerated by the band's genius decision to tour around the towns that those same people call home. The Small Towns tour Sleaford Mods embarked on in January this year took in the knackered pubs and working men's clubs of Scunthorpe, Barnsley, Colchester, St Albans -- the kind of venues that bands visited in the past, but have been long forgotten by the major label rock bands of today.
In hindsight, the tour looks like a political statement in itself, but Jason says the initial decision was purely pragmatic. "The small towns thing was something we discussed one night, about how, in the 80s, you had all these bands going to small towns that were quite common on the gig map that aren't now. We thought it would be good for the sense of spreading the word, also, our forte is small gigs, we're a club band, so to us it was just like the correct thing to do. Yeah, why not. Five gigs a week over a month, you know, it killed me, but it was well worth it". The gigs were packed to the rafters, sold out weeks in advance. "We got the impression after about four dates that people really did appreciate you coming out to them," he says, "the level of warmth we got when we played these places was just unbelievable. Places like Burnley, it was rammed, absolutely rammed; and it was a word of mouth thing, [some] people in the audience hadn't necessarily heard of us but they were curious and the other half were obviously fans."
I wonder if Jason, who's from Grantham, can identify with that feeling of being off the cultural superhighway, ignored by the major touring bands, but he tells me it isn't something he ever valued. "I never went to gigs, I never go to gigs really, except for my own, I never have. I just can't be bothered," he explains. Perhaps some of Sleaford Mods' fans felt that way too, until a band writing songs that speak to their everyday existence decided to put a gig on in the pub down the road. "A little bit yeah, I suppose, that familiarity… I think people did identify with it. The predominant image in music is just so far removed nowadays from what actual human beings are," he muses.
A world away from the dazzling stage shows of many of the artists who fill the charts, Sleaford Mods' live shows are notoriously visceral, raw, and, well, human. Often at the same level as the crowd, Andrew Fearn stands drinking a beer behind his laptop, which is propped up on three plastic beer crates, and Jason rants and raves in a tourettic style behind a mic stand, and that's it. There's nothing to hide behind, no frills, just the music. "Yeah, that's how we wanted it. And I really couldn't believe it when it started gathering momentum, you know what I mean? We knew it was good, we wanted that effect because everything else was so completely opposite to that -- even stuff that pretends to be edgy! It's been done 80 times!" he says.
Jason has become known for his scathing criticisms of various rock acts, labelling Kasabian "fakes, complete arseholes," calling Miles Kane a "pretender" after Kane complimented Sleaford Mods on Twitter, and saying the Arctic Monkeys' Alex Turner should "go out to the garage, get the electric saw, saw his legs off and then eat them". "We're in a period now in music, I think, where originality is the only way forward. We've rinsed the idea of the guitar band, and hip hop's on the back heel. Grime is having a resurgence, and that's obviously very interesting to me," he notes, adding that grime is really all he listens to at the moment. Good music, honest music is being made, he says, but it isn't breaking through because it isn't in the interests of the music corporations that have got their "claws in the shoulder of creativity in this country".
Like grime's bars, Sleaford Mods lyrics have given voice to the frustrations, alienation and disenfranchisement of the 'underclasses,' but they've claimed they aren't a political band. However, with the world exclusive preview of their tour film slash social documentary, Sleaford Mods: Invisible Britain, at Doc N Roll Festival in London this Saturday, that claim has started to look a little thin. If you make a film about 'Invisible Britain', presumably with the goal of making its inhabitants more visible, it does start to look like a kind of activism. "Yeah, it does," he admits, "and people are like, 'Why have you made yourselves out to be apolitical when you're clearly not?' and that's fine, but I don't want to attach myself to some kind of ideology or anything like that. All I know is that there are a lot of things that aren't right and it's just responding to that".
The film isolates some potent examples of those things that just aren't right, with filmmakers Paul Sng and Nathan Hannawin speaking to fans and community groups about the social issues that affect them. They interview the sister of Mark Wood, a man who had serious mental health problems and starved to death soon after his benefits were cut, and speak to campaign group JENGbA in Liverpool, who are fighting against the controversial charge of "Joint Enterprise," which is used to convict more than one person when it can't be proved who in a group actually committed the crime. It's a very old law that had fallen out of use, but campaigners say the Conservative government have reintroduced it to deal with 'gang' crime, resulting in the conviction of a disproportionate number of black and minority ethnic men -- around 80% of cases.
"Those things really do concern me," Jason says, "So yeah, I wanted to be associated with that". Even though they didn't set out to be a political band, now that they have had some success and have a public platform, does Jason feel he has a responsibility to use it? "I'm not sure. I've not thought about that," he says, sounding slightly pained. "I've been more thinking about extending the longevity of the band, where the music's going, how do I feel about it, what am I going to write about next? I've been thinking about those things; I haven't been thinking about any form of activism."
He does, however, also have strongly held principles about the promotion of the band, saying he recently turned down an interview with an (in)famous lads mag: "I was like, 'No! Why the fuck am I gonna do that?'!," he says, adding thoughtfully that, "the war on women certainly isn't over". But he does admit that, "when you're independent, you've got to keep it going, and what I've noticed is you start turning into a bit of a businessman, you start making moves to keep afloat". "I know now why people call it a 'game'," he adds.
But what if they win that game? Having branded Noel Gallagher a "withered victim of luxury," isn't he worried that Sleaford Mods' success could make him that way too? "You do think about it, don't you. You do. But I don't see how I could get that bad! No Way! I wouldn't be doing tours for the sake of making £8 million," he says. Sounds tempting though, doesn't it? "Yeah," he agrees before correcting himself, "Well, no actually. I'm alright with money at the minute, you know, I've got a bit of cash". Does he worry that the more successful the band gets, the further his life will be from the lives of his fans? "Depends if you make that choice," he says, "You can decide to go down that road if you want, or you can decide to earn the kind of money you earn playing a gig to 3,000 people and stay in touch with it and stay credible".
So he's not going to pop up in photo op with the Prime Minister, as Noel Gallagher did after a drinks party thrown by Tony Blair in 1997? "Fuck. That. Shit!," he laughs, adding generously, "In his defence, he didn't know what he was doing, did he. He's a working class lad from Burnage. It's a tricky situation that, you don't go meeting someone who's been privately educated and is lying through his back teeth. But it was 1997 -- I was a fucking dipshit in 1997! I was a wanker!"
Blair cosied up to britpop bands and at one point Cameron wanted to hug a hoodie, but, as the aforementioned "pig fucking" scandal revealed, "Call me Dave" was also a member of a university dining society that was "all about despising poor people," according to his accuser Lord Ashcroft. For these reasons, and so many more, Williamson is furious with the current political elite. "There's this new strain of politics where they don't even hide what they're doing, but they'll put on some relaxed smile about it in press conferences, they'll use words that won't exactly say that they're doing fuck all about misery, but what they do say, doesn't say anything else... Politicians have always talked in code and bullshit, and have ignored the actual issue, whatever question is thrown at them, but it's got even worse lately. It's fucking unbelievable -- it doesn't skirt around it any more, they just use words that sort of fly over it; it's weird".
But he doesn't think all politicians are the same. "If I was going to lean anywhere I'd obviously lean towards this kind of curious socialism that's going on at the minute with Corbyn and stuff," he says, "because it's better for the society we live in. People will probably get a fairer deal". Does Corbyn's election as the Labour leader give him hope that politics can be different? "Yeah, a little bit, yeah. It's good, you know: he's a republican, he doesn't believe in any of that shit, he wants to withdraw nuclear funding, great -- fuck it, why not? The infrastructure now, the way neoliberalism has grabbed hold of everything, there's no room in there for a feeling of compassion, it's all about the free market, go out there and get it, and he's almost quite opposite to that. So yeah, I think it is good."
In the Sleaford Mods film, there are several shots of some graffiti that reads, "Apathy in the UK," and the feeling of hopelessness and futility of engaging with a system designed to keep you down has a constant presence in both the band's lyrics and the words of the fans who are interviewed. With 200,000 people signing up as supporters of the Labour party, many purely to vote for Corbyn, does that bring hope? Is that hope starting to chip away at the apathy? "Yeah, course it is. It'll be an interesting few years; it's going to be an interesting future to be honest. They're not going to give it away for nothing," he warns, "They're not going to go down without a fight."
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Text Charlotte Gush