SLEAFORD MODS

Q (UK) - - Contents - PHO­TO­GRAPHS: COLIN LANE

We meet Not­ting­ham’s finest as they per­form in New York, New York. If they can make it there, they can make it any­where…

There’s never been a group like sleaford Mods: mid­dle-aged no-hop­ers who met in their 40s and are mak­ing the most cel­e­brated cut­ting-edge mu­sic in Bri­tain as they ap­proach 50. ted Kessler meets the duo in new York to hear a tale of de­spair, hope, love and rev­e­la­tion. And how eight pints a night is not a sus­tain­able fu­ture.

This is a story of life-sav­ing love. It’s not a love story be­tween a ro­man­tic cou­ple, al­though it is that too. It is a story about the power of love, and cre­ativ­ity, and per­se­ver­ance, of I-am-what-I-am self-love. It’s a story of de­ter­mi­na­tion, and dis­il­lu­sion, and de­spair, and re­ward. It’s a hymn to liv­ing in the mo­ment and the un­ex­plain­able power of pre-or­dained fate as its pro­tag­o­nists be­lieve it to be, or life-chang­ing good for­tune and co­in­ci­dence as we, the read­ers, might see it. It’s a tale of dif­fi­cult truths de­liv­ered in harsh cir­cum­stances to in­cred­i­bly catchy melodies: the story of Sleaford Mods, two no-hop­ers in their late 40s from Not­ting­ham who, un­be­liev­ably, are the most dy­namic, vi­tal band in Bri­tain. And it starts in Brook­lyn, New York. You join us in the lobby of La Jolie ho­tel, on Meeker Av­enue,

right be­side the Brook­lyn/Queens Ex­press­way, where singer Ja­son Wil­liamson, mu­si­cian An­drew Fearn and man­ager Steve Un­der­wood are wait­ing pa­tiently around the buf­fet break­fast bar to help tell this story. It is noon. Wil­liamson has been up since the crack of pre-dawn, en­er­get­i­cally ablaze with con­stant thought and un­clas­si­fi­able emo­tion since he gave up drink, drugs and cig­a­rettes after one fi­nal 25- year­long blow-out that ended in 2016. “I don’t en­joy it,” he says. “I can’t con­grat­u­late my­self. But fuck me, I feel bet­ter when I wake up. It’s the only time I ap­pre­ci­ate it.” Al­ready, he’s been for a long run through the neigh­bour­hood’s parks. He’s sub­se­quently writ­ten both the verses and melody for two new songs. He’s had break­fast. He’s ar­sed about on so­cial me­dia. Now he’s ready for ac­tion. An­drew Fearn, mean­while, op­er­ates on a slightly dif­fer­ent meta­bolic timetable. He ar­rived from the UK last night and al­most im­me­di­ately se­cured a large bag of weed, with­out which he would not be able to make it through to­day’s pre-gig pre­am­ble. Now, he’s hav­ing a nice glass of orange juice. In a mo­ment, we’re all go­ing to stroll through Brook­lyn, stop­ping on the way to sound­check at tonight’s venue, War­saw, for some lunch in a bar called The Richard­son, where we will at­tempt to chap­terise the slow, slow, fast rise of Sleaford Mods. But first, wardrobe mal­func­tion. “I need to change my jacket,” de­cides Fearn. “This is too Mr Byrite. The Pet Shop Boys wouldn’t be seen dead in this.” “If you’re chang­ing your coat, I’m gonna change mine too,” agrees Wil­liamson. “I’ve got a re­ally good new one, great col­lar. Hang on, we’ll be right back.” They head to the lift and Steve Un­der­wood, the phleg­matic co-star of Sleaford Mods’ ex­cel­lent re­cent Bunch Of Kunst doc­u­men­tary, watches them leave. “There they go,” he says, rais­ing his eye­brows. “Kate Moss and Naomi Camp­bell. Right pair of di­vas, as you are about to dis­cover…”

IN THE BE­GIN­NING: A TIME BE­FORE MODS

Many, many years ago, in Grantch­ester, Lin­colnshire, where he lived un­til he was 23, Ja­son Wil­liamson had a dream. It lasted 15 years or so. Now, long after the dream’s hope has ex­pired, it’s fi­nally come true. “When I was kid, be­tween 16 and 30- odd, I re­ally wanted to be fa­mous,” he re­mem­bers, rolling his enor­mous cof­fee cup be­tween thumb and fin­ger in the base­ment of The Richard­son. “But that passed.” He thought that if he was fa­mous, he wouldn’t have to work. “Now, of course, I re­alise that fa­mous peo­ple work re­ally, re­ally hard. They don’t just don’t go out and get fucked-up all the time, which I hoped might be the case.” School had been a “cul-de-sac of an ex­pe­ri­ence” from which he’d been ex­pelled just be­fore his ex­ams for pierc­ing a friend’s ear, and so

“It’s mirac­u­lous. I was just down as a use­less c**t. my wife used to con­sole peo­ple by say­ing, ‘Well, it can’t be any worse than Ja­son.’” Ja­son Wil­liamson

he was part of the work­force from an early age, learn­ing that non-fa­mous peo­ple work hard too. “I did a chicken fac­tory. Grim, fuck­ing grim. I worked in hot food fac­to­ries, ready meals, M&S stuff. Shop work. Of­fice work. Every­thing. Done it all,” he says wist­fully, sound­ing al­most as if he’s recit­ing the lyric from a Sleaford Mods song. “I couldn’t stop work­ing. It was drug and beer money.” An­drew Fearn also had a job all his adult life be­fore Sleaford Mods. “Be­ing un­em­ployed and mak­ing out you’re look­ing for work is a job in it­self,” he ex­plains. “Go­ing in and say­ing, ‘I’m a trained sound en­gi­neer and mu­si­cian, find me a job.’ ‘We’ve none of ei­ther, but we do have some­thing in the abat­toir for you…’” Fearn re­sisted, con­vinced that liv­ing be­low the poverty line in Not­ting­ham, where he’d es­caped to from ru­ral Lin­colnshire, and mak­ing trip-hop and elec­tronic mu­sic for him­self and his mates, was a more noble, re­ward­ing ex­is­tence than work­ing hard for a life of quiet des­per­a­tion in a nicer flat. “I lived on the barest of bare min­i­mums for a long time, mak­ing my tunes, DJing in bars,” he re­calls. He’d grown up dream­ing of be­ing a pop star, like the Pet Shop Boys, but only be­cause he wanted to make mu­sic. The money and fame never re­ally mat­tered much. “I’m not say­ing this be­cause I’m gay, but when you are gay, you know that the chances are you won’t have those fam­ily struc­tures that cost and so you live ac­cord­ingly. Well, I did any­way.” While Fearn squir­relled him­self away hap­pily mak­ing beats, Wil­liamson very un­hap­pily tried to find his way mu­si­cally too for the best part of two decades. He moved to San Fran­cisco for a dis­as­trous few months in the late ’ 80s look­ing for band­mates. “Mis­er­able,” his last­ing ver­dict. “My fault. My clothes were wrong, cow­boy boots and tight-ass orange-tab Levi’s. I was a speed freak. Never gonna work.” He moved to Lon­don dur­ing Brit­pop and, play­ing gui­tar and singing with the glo­ri­ously named Meat Pie, again found him­self out of step. “I was in the wrong band and I wasn’t wear­ing the right hat. Also, fuck­ing way too much co­caine go­ing up my nose.” He tried some acous­tic ma­te­rial, just him and a gui­tar, but he wasn’t feel­ing it. “Ba­si­cally, all the mu­sic I made was shit,” he ex­plains. “Fake. False. Who was I?” Then, his friend Si­mon Par­fre­ment,

“It does feel like a higher be­ing in­tro­duced us to each other. It took long enough. I was a lyric to a Smiths song for about 10 years! You get spir­i­tual about it when some­thing like this hap­pens.” An­drew Fearn

a sound en­gi­neer, sug­gested mix­ing his words with a Roni Size sam­pled loop. “That was the eu­reka mo­ment. I’d landed. I’d found my voice. I could do this any­where, I didn’t need a band.” Wil­liamson made four al­bums like this un­der the Sleaford Mods name, be­tween 2007 and 2011. “But even that caved in,” he says rue­fully. The loops he was work­ing with were be­com­ing repet­i­tive and he couldn’t work any beats into the picture. He needed to take the mu­sic for­ward but felt stuck. He was sink­ing again. He needed help. “Then An­drew ap­peared…”

THE DY­NAMIC DUO

They met at The Ram­mel Club, a Not­ting­ham night that lo­cal mu­sic don and then full-time bus driver Steve Un­der­wood pro­moted. Fearn DJed down­stairs in the venue while that night Wil­liamson per­formed up­stairs. Fearn had seen his act be­fore and re­ally liked it, but Wil­liamson had al­ways stomped off be­fore Fearn had man­aged to say hello. Tonight, though, Wil­liamson came down for a smoke after his gig. “That’s when I heard this ter­ri­ble mu­sic. I thought, ‘This is ideal. It’s re­ally good. I could use this.’” They swapped num­bers, hooked up and wrote their first song to­gether. “All That Glue,” says Wil­liamson. He starts singing. “‘With all that glue, it doesn’t re­ally mat­ter what I say or do!’ Over a dub­step beat. It was too busy.” Sens­ing that this new chap­ter wasn’t go­ing to be as easy as he’d hoped, Wil­liamson parked the idea. It was nearly Christ­mas, after all. But Fearn had given him an al­bum he’d made for his mates and over the fes­tive pe­riod, Wil­liamson found him­self play­ing it all the time. “It was the last Christ­mas be­fore my mis­sus fell preg­nant, I had this new coat and I was feel­ing quite chip­per,” ex­plains Wil­liamson. “We’d play his al­bum when­ever we were drink­ing and tak­ing drugs, which was all the time in my case. She’d be like, ‘This is re­ally good. You should get back in touch.’ ‘Yeah, yeah, I ought to…’” It wasn’t an easy part­ner­ship at first. Mainly be­cause Wil­liamson was not an easy char­ac­ter and Fearn, de­spite his gen­tle de­meanour, is not a push-over. “I didn’t ap­pre­ci­ate An­drew’s ca­pa­bil­i­ties at first,” ad­mits Wil­liamson. “I in­sisted on bring­ing in bass play­ers and mak­ing him go to a stu­dio. Load of bol­locks.” Fearn waves this away. “The crux of it is that we stuck to our guns,” he says. “I’m proud of avoid­ing em­ploy­ment all my life to do what I have with it. Even if we hadn’t been suc­cess­ful I’d still be proud. I’ve en­joyed my life. Peo­ple talk about liv­ing in the mo­ment but very few peo­ple man­age it. We do.”

UN­CHARTED TERRITORYTERRI

There are no other bands in his­tory quite like Sleaford Mods. Ob­vi­ously, you may hear echoes of other bands in their mu­sic. Lis­ten to their new­est, fifth LP as a duo, English Tapas, for ex­am­ple, and you’ll note strains of early-’ 80s English geezer-punk in its bouncy, give-a-fuck­ness (what do you mean you’ve never heard Peter And The Test Tube Ba­bies’ Banned Fro­mom The Pubs?); there’s the sparse shake and dust of Wu-Tang’s RZA pro­duc­tions oduc­tions in there, On-U Sound dub re­ver­ber­a­tions rber­a­tions and post-punk, too, plus the kind of rep­e­ti­tion and word wiz­ardry that made the first 10 years of The Fall so good… and yet. There’s never been a band like Sleaford Mods. By that, we mean a band who formed in their 40s and re­ally started hit­ting their stride crit­i­cally and com­mer­cially now, both aged 46. Mid­dle-aged men who are mak­ing the only cut­ting-edge mu­sic in Bri­tain with a point of view be­yond its im­me­di­ate emo­tional needs, the only mu­sic that seems to be about the world we are all liv­ing in, rich in ob­ser­va­tion, in psy­chol­ogy, in black hu­mour and sing-along cho­ruses – and that seems to be fill­ing out large con­cert halls across the globe de­spite be­ing parochial, rough and blunt. Just two blokes from Not­ting­ham. A lap­top. A beer crate. And a mi­cro­phone. Amaz­ing. Bunch Of Kunst sketches out in lovely strokes the evo­lu­tion from the two mem­bers be­ing fer­ried around the coun­try in the back of Steve Un­der­wood’s car and play­ing to 50 peo­ple in sweat­box pubs, to an enor­mous tour­bus fer­ry­ing the three of them around Bri­tain’s big­gest con­cert halls and are­nas… and the show re­main­ing two blokes, one lap­top, a beer crate through­out. The per­for­mance re­mains con­stant, be it in pub or arena: lap­top is placed on beer crate, Fearn presses play, stands back, opens a can and dances with hands in pock­ets, while Wil­liamson the­atri­cally re­cites his words over the beats. That’s it. There have been no con­ces­sions

along the way to suc­cess, no new pro­duc­ers, no py­rotech­nics. Swap­ping Un­der­wood’s own la­bel for Rough Trade for English Tapas is their most com­mer­cial act so far. There are no gim­micks and, apart from some nice coats, no thrills. They’ve bent the world to face them. “It’s mirac­u­lous,” says Wil­liamson, with awe. “Un­be­liev­able, re­ally. I was just down as a use­less cunt. My wife used to con­sole peo­ple by say­ing, ‘Well, it can’t be any worse than Ja­son.’ But I was al­ways work­ing on this idea of Sleafords. I’ve got the notepads to prove it, filled out in de­spair in the cor­ner of a pub. Hard yards, mate.” An­drew Fearn feels that there must be a divine pres­ence. “It does feel like a higher be­ing has given us this op­por­tu­nity, in­tro­duced us to each other,” he de­cides. “It took long enough. I was a lyric to a

“A lot of my life has been spent con­grat­u­lat­ing my­self on eight pints and a cou­ple of grams of coke. I don’t do that any more. There’s al­most an abyss, a void, be­cause I can’t con­nect to it any more.” Ja­son Wil­liamson

Smiths song for about 10 years! You do get spir­i­tual about it when some­thing like this hap­pens. You can’t help it. It’s not re­ally for me to say, but English Tapas…” It’s great, isn’t it? It’s easy when de­scrib­ing it to fo­cus on Wil­liamson’s hi­lar­i­ous, acute ob­ser­va­tions of Bro­ken Bri­tain and mid­dle-age en­nui, the songs about Brexit, Philip Green, out-of-con­trol nights out, and a na­tional fu­ture that is “a flag pissed-on and a king-sized bag of Quavers”. English Tapas was the first post-ref­er­en­dum al­bum and judg­ing by the speed they work at, they’ll prob­a­bly de­liver the first post-elec­tion al­bum too. But there’s a deeper mu­si­cal skill at work here, one that lay­ers hook upon hook and tricks the lis­tener with sleeper-cell ear-worms that will sud­denly start awak­en­ing you daily with the mantra of “a trip to Spar is like a trip to Mars” on a loop un­til Dray­ton Manored is re­played and the itch scratched. It is sor­cery. “I thought when [ 2015’ s] Key Mar­kets came out that we’d peaked,” says Wil­liamson. “I thought that Aus­ter­ity Dogs [ 2013], Di­vide And Exit [ 2014] and Key Mar­kets were the tril­ogy and that we’d have to rein­vent every­thing to go for­ward. But English Tapas makes those sounds like demos. It sounds like the first al­bum. It sounds like the start.” He shrugs apolo­get­i­cally. “Bloody hell!”

THE ODD COU­PLE

Apart from the mu­sic they make and the time they spend to­gether record­ing and per­form­ing it, Ja­son Wil­liamson and An­drew Fearn do not have masses in com­mon. You won’t bump into them win­dow-shop­ping for new coats to­gether on a Satur­day af­ter­noon. They have other plans. Wil­liamson is cen­tred around his fam­ily unit, his wife Claire, whom he met in the late ’ 90s when she was work­ing in a clothes shop op­po­site the one he was work­ing in in Not­ting­ham, and his two young chil­dren. He stopped drink­ing so that he could be more present in their lives and one senses the ab­so­lute im­por­tance of this unit in his well-be­ing. “She has been in­stru­men­tal in chang­ing my life for the bet­ter,” he ex­plains. “Claire is a very in­tel­li­gent, com­pas­sion­ate per­son and she helped iron out some ex­cess stuff that would’ve caused con­tin­ued trou­ble. She loosely ex­plained how they were ru­in­ing my life and even­tu­ally I got it.” He never believed he would have chil­dren, but now he has. “It’s all com­pletely changed my life.” Fearn, mean­while, lives on a house­boat with his boyfriend, and is slowly and a lit­tle hap­haz­ardly mak­ing his way around the coun­try’s canals. The boat, he says, al­lows him a vision of free­dom. “It sounds ob­vi­ous, but a lit­tle money makes it eas­ier to grow up.” Fearn says that any­one watch­ing Ja­son Wil­liamson per­form his full Sleaford Mods shtick live – ba­si­cally, Richard The Third be­ing at­tacked by wasps as he at­tempts to en­ter a rave – will be sur­prised by him off-duty. “He’s very lovable,” Fearn says. “He’s funny too. A gen­tle soul. For him, the ex­pe­ri­ence of writ­ing has been re­ally ther­a­peu­tic. Be­fore, as Claire says in the film, he was dead. So was I. Sleaford Mods saved us.” Wil­liamson isn’t quite so sure. “There’s still a big part of me that likes say­ing things that are cun­tish,” he de­cides. He’s like this on Twit­ter. He thinks, “Fuck it”, and just does it. In many ways, it’s his motto. “My wife is like, ‘Don’t be like that. It’s neg­a­tive.’ ‘Oh, they need telling.’ ‘Why? You’re just pick­ing on peo­ple.’ ‘Oh, they need fuck­ing telling.’ ‘Why? They’re just young lads, you were one once.’ ‘I don’t care…’ And then I think about it and I do care. She’s right. I try to ease off. I feel guilty. But then I’ll do it again. I’m a cunt some of the time. What can you do?” Stuck with it, prob­a­bly. “Stuck with it. But the beauty of it is that I’ll try and over­come it by mak­ing these ideas at­trac­tive to lis­ten to. That’s the up­side of be­ing a cunt.”

The down­side is that when the mu­sic stops and you’ve given up al­co­hol, you’re all alone with your nat­u­ral buzz and nowhere to put it. At 11pm, in a room high above War­saw, where 1500 New York­ers have just gone nuts watch­ing Sleaford Mods’ sec­ond ever Amer­i­can show (their first was three years ago), Ja­son Wil­liamson is on his own in his dress­ing room with some drunk ex-pat in a Stone Is­land jacket bash­ing his ear. He smiles wanly over his shoul­der and ges­tures gen­er­ously at the crate of beer. If he can’t drink it, you might as well. An­drew Fearn left for his ho­tel and that bag of weed with Steve Un­der­wood a while ago, a pit stop be­fore the rest of the night calls, leav­ing Wil­liamson alone here with the crate of beer he won’t touch. How does he unwind after such phys­i­cal and in­tense per­for­mance? Does he do press-ups or some­thing? “Fuck off!” he shouts. “Press-ups!! No, no press-ups.”

“Ja­son’s very lovable. Funny too. A gen­tle soul. For him the ex­pe­ri­ence of writ­ing has been re­ally ther­a­peu­tic. Be­fore, as Claire says, he was dead. So was I.” An­drew Fearn

He stops laugh­ing and rubs his soak­ing head. He shrugs, think­ing about ex­actly what he does have to do with him­self now. “We are a great ex­am­ple to peo­ple,” he says mea­suredly. “Good things do hap­pen. Stick to your guns. It’s a suc­cess story purely for that, re­gard­less of the mu­sic, but purely be­cause of that pos­i­tive mes­sage. I’m proud of that. But…” He pauses. “A lot of my life has been spent con­grat­u­lat­ing my­self on eight pints and a cou­ple of grams of coke. I don’t do that any more. There’s al­most an abyss, a void, be­cause I can’t con­nect to it any more. I can’t re­lax with it and go…” He makes the sound of a can be­ing opened. We talk again about how good the morn­ings are now. We re­mem­ber what the morn­ings used to be like, es­pe­cially the co­caine morn­ings, morn­ings that would blend into night into dawn for days on end. We talk about how im­por­tant it is to have a good home en­vi­ron­ment with small chil­dren, about how hav­ing a cou­ple of beers down the pub is fine, but he wasn’t hav­ing a cou­ple, he was hav­ing week-long binges. We talk about how fit he is and how out of shape he’d have be­come soon. We talk about how bril­liantly cre­ative he is and how much there is to come… “But,” he says, “the con­nec­tion with do­ing some­thing great isn’t there now. I feel alien­ated from it be­cause I can’t sit down at the end of the day and have a pint and a cig­a­rette. I do miss it.” Iggy Pop told him that it took him about 10 years to “start feel­ing good again” and now he drinks ex­pen­sive wine when he eats some­times. That’s some­thing to look for­ward to, says Wil­liamson, “but I’m not there yet.” Out­side in the cor­ri­dors, men in flu­o­res­cent jack­ets are bang­ing doors loudly and shout­ing in Noo Yoik voices. It is time to leave Ja­son Wil­liamson here in his dress­ing room as he con­tem­plates the walk back to the ho­tel with his sound­man. We step out into the night, cross the road in the op­po­site di­rec­tion to Wil­liamson and walk to the cor­ner bar, where there’s an un­of­fi­cial Sleaford Mods af­ter­show un­der way. All the la­bel are here, along with var­i­ous mem­bers of the NYC in­die il­lu­mi­nati, An­drew Fearn, Steve Un­der­wood and a few of Un­der­wood’s mates. Glasses chink, num­bers are ex­changed, and peo­ple spill on to the pave­ment to smoke. It is a fine old time. Ja­son Wil­liamson, mean­while, slips his key card into his La Jolie door and lets him­self into his per­fectly still ho­tel room, the triple glaz­ing pro­tect­ing his sleep from the rum­ble of the Ex­press­way be­low. No­body said be­ing a ma­ture Mod was easy.

Say cheese! Ja­son Wil­liamson, lyri­cal genius and re­formed repro­bate.

If the hat fits: An­drew Fearn, mu­si­cal mas­ter­mind and house­boat dweller.

(Top) This year’s English Tapas and (above) 2013’s Aus­ter­ity Dogs.

Pole po­si­tion: (far left and this pic) Sleaford Mods bring their spe­cial brand of Bri­tish bile to Brook­lyn’s War­saw, 30 March, 2017.

“Good things do hap­pen. Stick to your guns”: (from left) man­ager Steve Un­der­wood, Ja­son Wil­liamson and wife Claire in this year’s Sleaford Mods doc­u­men­tary Bunch Of Kunst.

They came, they saw, they con­quered: Fearn and Wil­liamson, Brook­lyn, 2017.

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