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.”
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.
If the hat fits: Andrew Fearn, musical mastermind and houseboat dweller.
Say cheese! Jason Williamson, lyrical genius and reformed reprobate.
(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.