How Sleaford Mods’ one-man Wu-Tang Clan and bard of Broken Britain brought belligerence back, along with himself, from the brink of bitter irrelevance. “It’s my way of getting the last word in,” says Jason Williamson.
SLEAFORD MODS’ JASON WILLIAMSON OPENS the door to his Nottingham home sporting a flourspeckled apron, accompanied by a welcoming waft of baking. He’s just conjured up a tray of cinnamonsweet mince pies. “Paul Hollywood’s recipe,” he says, modestly crediting the portly star of TV’s The Great British Bake Off. “He’s a horrible twat, but he knows how to bake.”
Williamson lives in a handsome terraced house on a wide residential road, with the floodlights of Trent Bridge cricket stadium overlooking his garden. He resides here with his wife Claire, who also manages Sleaford Mods, and their two young children.
“Once, we’d be in the boozer, sneaking in the bogs for lunchtime lines,” he says ruefully, leading us into their smart kitchen extension. “I always imagined it’d be like that doing a MOJO interview, but now…” He places the mince pies on the table, dusting them with icing sugar. They are absolutely delicious.
Nobody is more surprised – nor happier – about Williamson’s changed circumstances over the last decade than the Sleaford Mods singer himself. In 2007 he was a long-serving member of the UK’s unskilled workforce, having spent decades toiling on zero-hour contracts in factories, warehouses, shops and kitchens since leaving school as a teenager. He was 37. His dream of fame, first as a wannabe actor and later as a musician who’d sung with several unheralded groups in the ’90s and ’00s, appeared long dashed. Then, in a flash of despairing inspiration, he hit upon the idea that would save his life: write what you know.
Working initially with an engineer who helped him loop sampled beats, Williamson poured all of his resentment and furious anguish into a series of self-released Sleaford Mods albums that showcased the profane poetry of his East Midlands rant-rap. But it wasn’t until he teamed up with Nottingham beat-maker Andrew Fearn for album number five, Wank, in 2012, that Sleaford Mods started to fashion something truly their own, solidifying their status as a duo with Austerity Dogs in 2013 and then on 2014’s critical breakthrough, Divide And Exit. Sketching a uniquely local and punky kind of spooked hip-hop, Sleaford Mods became the voice of a huge swathe of Britain that felt left behind, the canary in the pre-Brexit coalmine.
They struck a chord. Each of Sleaford Mods’ last three albums have found berths in the UK Top 10, subtly refining their sound with every release. Their twelfth and latest, UK Grim, is perhaps their most polished, a compelling portrait of Britain’s evolving identity crisis chiselled into taut electronic slabs of barbed melody and rhythm. It’s a lesson in controlled fury.
“Personally, I’ve never been happier,” says Williamson, who adds it’s no coincidence he’s been sober for seven years. “But everyone tells me I sound really angry. It’s hard not to, living on this melting tyre of depression.”
He raises a pie to his lips, then pauses. “What have you got for me, then?”
When you were growing up in Grantham, you wanted to be famous didn’t you?
Big time. I saw how people lived in films and thought I’d like my life to be like that, which obviously was a really bad miscalculation. They’re films. There’s a script. It’s not life. I just wanted to escape. I don’t know if that was because of the dreariness of small-town life, but I remember experiencing feelings of extreme boredom from six. You slip into your own fantasy world. I think because my parents were splitting up I felt alienated from the family unit, moving into a different environment with my stepfather who was a completely different person to my dad.
In what way?
He was obsessed with work. He’d just started his own bricklaying business, so he was constantly busy. And that bothered his ex-wife; she had an affair with my father and that’s how my mother met my stepdad. He was building an extension on the back of our house.
Not a euphemism?
No! It was like a partner swap, which must sound weird – and it was. But my life was very dreary.
You thought fame would save you.
I thought fame would alleviate a lot of the problems. I saw people in normal jobs and I didn’t want that, the bitterness and the narrow-mindedness. My family were terrible for that, particularly the Williamson side. My mother’s side… my grandmother was Greek, my grandfather brought her back to Grantham after World War 2, and they have always been more open-minded. But the Williamsons were terrible. So it put me off normal life. Fame was the way out.
Did the idea of fame arrive before the idea of music?
I didn’t marry the two. When my parents split up my oldest stepbrother was a big Sex Pistols fan and I got into punk music from the age of 10 because of that. I’d been aware of the Sex Pistols before then, because in ’77 they were in the news all the time. I had this memory of them doing stuff that was considered to be disgusting, people hating them. But when I met my stepbrother Martin a little later, I started listening to them and felt really inspired.
I never married the idea of music with the i dea of fame, though, only with films – that’s where I had this escapism idea from. I don’t suppose the fact that the whole world, all the papers, everyone on telly, despised the Pistols helped. That wasn’t what I was looking for.
Ban this filth.
Quite. The Jam, however, were accepted by my peers so that’s when I got into all things Mod. I loved The Jam, but I still didn’t marry that with the idea of fame. There’s just nothing glamorous about Paul Weller, is there? Absolutely nothing. I mean, he’s very cool. And I’ve learned a lot from him, aesthetically, musically. But he’s not a glamorous person. So The Jam were never a form of escapism, it was a confirmation of my identity.
Did that sour?
I fell out with the idea of Weller after the Heliocentric album. The cover: what are you doing?! It looked like a Top Of The Pops LP cover from Woolworths in the ’70s. Then when he did that work with Kelly Jones [of Stereophonics], I was, like, Fuck you! But I’ve come full circle with it now. I’ve not listened to anything else for the last few months other than Weller. I’ve come back to The Style Council, the first five solo albums, and I’m edging into the later ones. You hear it and you just think, Oh fuck. It’s still there.
Did Weller inspire you to write songs originally?
The first Weller solo albums, particularly Wild Wood. We were listening to The Cost Of Loving by The Style Council a lot. Also Marvin Gaye, What’s
Going On, around ’91. This was after I’d given up on acting school. I tried auditioning, but it was just impossible.
I went to auditions, but I didn’t get into any of the drama schools and, after the last refusal letter, I was just broken. I went to my mate’s and we sat there. Wild Wood had been out for about a week. Oh, let’s listen to that. It suddenly dawned on me that this was my calling, because it combined The Jam and The Style Council with this newfound confidence. It meant so much.
So you heard Wild Wood and started trying to write songs in that vein?
I got thrown out of a band that I was in in college in Grantham doing my ‘A’ levels: Marmalade Jay. Dog shit. Terrible. I was the singer, but I wouldn’t buy a microphone. So they threw me out. I got talking to my cousin in California, sent her a few letters. She was, like, “Come over to San Francisco.” So I got a job here in the pet food factory for six months, 12-hour shifts. Brutal, but it was 300 quid a week. Good money and it needed to be: it was pallets of pet food in plastic bowls with lids on. You had to take the lid off to make sure that the foil was intact. When you got a bad one? Horrible. You never forget it. Saved up enough to go to San Francisco for eight months, much to her displeasure. I wanted to start a band over there.
How did that go?
Badly. I got a job as a security guard, patrolling an apartment complex in a place called Hayward, just outside of San Francisco. I’d walk around this complex for five hours a night, from 10pm till 3am. Really scary. Didn’t get a band together and after eight months she told me to leave. So I got a plane ticket back to England and went straight to work in a chicken factory.
How was that?
I was in the butchery bit. The birds come in,
semi-frozen in trays. You gotta flip them onto the rack, and then the full carcass will go along the line and get chopped up into different bits and you pull breast meat off, pull wings off. Fucking bleak, but someone's got to do it. Just get on with it.
Not advancing your acting or musical dreams, though.
No, so I moved to London. This is around '93. I had the sole intention of buying a guitar and amp, getting a band going, doing a Wild Wood thing. I moved to Brixton but I just kept meeting ex-Jam fans that were 15 years older than me, living on their own in high-rises. Big disappointment. Blur had cornered the market. Oasis, as well. So forget it. All my mates had moved to Nottingham from Grantham. I couldn't afford to live in London so I moved back up here with my guitar, my amplifier, and I formed Meat Pie.
Meat Pie is a great name.
It was originally called Sunday Dinner. Meat Pie was a combination of the Small Faces, Guns N'Roses and obviously Paul Weller. I had quite a powerful voice, a cross between Steve Marriott and Weller. We gigged around town, got a little bit of a following because Oasis was massive up here. Everyone had a feather cut, everyone had button-down shirts. You couldn't get away from it. I had mates who had tried to make it in music pre-Oasis, 10 years older than Noel and Liam, and they got Oasis covers bands together. They'd walk around Nottingham on Saturday like rock stars. They were selling out 500-capacity venues doing Oasis covers to Forest fans. Oasis couldn't be everywhere, could they? Supply and demand.
That’s Liam Gallagher’s business model.
I met Liam the other month. We played with Iggy Pop and he supported the night before. He and Andrew got on like a house on fire! You just wouldn't think they would, but they were like long-lost cousins. He was going to Andrew, “I want to break out of this and do something different musically.” I told Andrew that he was probably asking him for some beats. “Do you think? I couldn't do that.” I said, “You could.” They were off their heads. It was like being in a bar in the early noughties. A few of his band were fans of us and we were all stood there watching Iggy Pop, then Liam walks in, tiny man in a big hat. I'm a bit nervous. This is a huge part of my life. He turns around and he was a lovely bloke, but battered. Debbie [Gwyther] was there, his missus. They're all really nice but it got a bit weird because Debbie said, “Can I have a word with you?” “Of course.” “I've heard some bad things about you.” I said, “Why, what?!” “You've slagged Liam off, haven't you?” “Probably!” She said, “I can't trust people like that.” I'm, like, “Well, I'm not moving in with him. Let's face it, I've learned from the best here.” I know she's a bit younger than him, but I said, “You have to understand that the Gallaghers were massive bullies. You're talking about Liam Gallagher, here, Debbie. You can't ask me to worry about his feelings.” “Oh, OK, right.”
A Liam Gallagher album produced by Sleaford Mods, there’s a thought.
You can't beat him live. Our tour manager was watching: “I hate this little cunt, but fuck me he's good!”
So what happened to Meat Pie?
Fizzled out. I was doing loads of cocaine. I was doing whizz, pills since 1991, every weekend. But cocaine, I started doing that as soon as we moved up to Nottingham. When you first started doing it a quarter of a wrap is fine. Quickly grow out of that! So I started getting some daft ideas, falling out with people and being very aggressive, doing gigs and not packing up after. Not good.
Did you seek more groups?
Yeah, I formed a band called Stone Cold Williamson. It was me up front and this soul acid-jazz band behind, trying to do a Terry Callier thing. We got quite good. It could have… again, drugs, mental health issues with all the people in the band. Just petered out.
At this stage, you probably felt desperate.
Not desperate. Determined to squeeze as much as I could out of the flannel. I was determined to find my thing while becoming increasingly bitter, cynical, but nothing was going to do unless it was original.
From these emotions you conjure up Sleaford Mods…
I was in this project called Good Livers. It was high-gloss pop with this guy, Gary Marsden, who had Rubber Biscuit Studio up the road. I was the singer. I learned a lot from that: production, getting it completely right. But
“I got thrown out of a band in Grantham: Marmalade Jay. Dog shit. I was the singer, but I wouldn’t buy a microphone.”
he was obsessed with wanting to get onto Radio 1, which I was not interested in. He had this guy Parf [Simon Parfrement], who was engineering. I was working then at a warehouse for Playboy, packing knickers in boxes, and the supervisor would put on Wu-Tang Clan, Madlib, MF Doom, Philly soul stuff on rotation. I really got into all that. Some of the raps on the first Wu-Tang, they’re just moaning. And because I was such a sad person at that time, I connected to it. So I said to Parf, “I’ve got some ideas, but I don’t know how to do beats. Would you help me?” “Nah.” He was not interested.
You persevered, though.
A stoner rock band came in the studio, gave us their CD. Parf put it on, “Oh this is shit!” But there was one part that I asked him to loop. I made a song called Ashtray from it, slagging off David Bowie, Dire Straits, talking about being in the pub. And it worked! I took it to work and people were like, “Put that back on.” Oh! So I said to Parf, “I want to do more.” I wrote a song called Teacher Faces Porn Charges over a Roni Size loop and it was immaculate. Strong verses, strong chorus, bang! I couldn’t stop listening to it. I was playing it really loud at home. My flatmate came in after work, furious, “What you fucking doing?” I said to him, “I’m there. This is it. Everyone’s gonna fucking get it now.” The way I saw it was that I could put all of my anguish and resentment into these songs. That was the Eureka moment.
You’d hit on something that many British people experienced in that era between Britpop and Brexit: life was miserable, but it had no soundtrack.
It’s really powerful not to have any money. I mean, my parents were quite well off because of my stepdad’s building company, but I had to look after myself. They bailed me out with the old drugs debts, and let me go home when I had nowhere else. But life was completely hopeless. There was nothing for me. So then you started to look at things politically. When you couldn’t go out with your mates at the weekend and they were all driving around in company cars, earning forty grand a year and you’re on 11 grand, working in a warehouse. You started seeing things for what they actually were for people on unskilled wages. You become politically conscious when nobody else in music was. Everything else was still under the shadow of Oasis and The Libertines. The Strokes and The White Stripes. Rock’n’roll, the idea of it, was just bullshit.
And it had passed you by.
You think the opportunities had gone.
I was doing the drugs, but I was not living a glamorous life. Even those early Sleaford albums, nobody cared.
The irony of you wanting fame so young is that your first Sleaford Mods album was made when you were 37.
I got to a point where I thought that if I can’t have fame, then I want to be respected by people round here. And that first Sleaford Mods album, pre-Andrew, I got respect for that. That was a real buzz. So I thought, OK. People like this. I’m gonna be famous. But by then I’d become so connected to the idea of loving music for what it was, and trying to find avenues to try and invent something, that fame was a bonus. It was like the cream to go on the mince pie if I wanted it. But it took another five years.
The big shift was when you met Andrew Fearn. Why did you find an audience as a duo? It’s original. And because of the brashness of it. You can’t go online now and be unreasonable. But people are unreasonable, all the fucking time. I was really inspired by the sound of last orders in pubs. It’s the sound of fury that you’ve got to leave, but at the same time
“I wasn’t bothered about our age because I knew that we’d hit this thing. This was my Paul Weller moment, my Oasis moment.”
people are lubricated. People were still able to stand up and have conversations because cocaine was a big part of it, but absolutely pissed out of their heads as well. I found that so inspiring. It’s an honesty that you wouldn’t normally get. I wanted to recreate that. Also, that’s how I was all the time. Just so… fuck off! I’d become fearless. I didn’t care what happened to me. I really didn’t. Once you reach that consciousness, things are very near to the bone. I didn’t care and I wanted to put that on record.
Then, at 44, fame arrived.
I wasn’t bothered about our age because I knew that we’d hit this thing. Nobody was doing what we were doing. I was convinced that we were untouchable. We were very cool and this was it. This was my Paul Weller moment, my Oasis moment, my everything rolled into one moment.
Let’s talk about the new album title, UK Grim. Came from Paul Stokes.
I was doing questions online. Somebody asked me what I would call the music. Paul came straight in on Twitter with “UK Grim”, tying in with UK grime.
It does describe your output.
I was, like, This is brilliant. So we used it as a hashtag for the last LP, and towards the end of finishing the new one we still didn’t have a title for it. Andrew wanted to call it ‘Yes Lads’. Haha!
I mean. Claire said, “What about UK Grim?” I thought it was too cheesy. She was, like, “What the fuck do you think people expect from you?” We are what we are.
Claire is your wife and manager. She carries the can. How did you meet?
I was at a party doing pills one night, on the phone, looking at Facebook. She’d put her status as single. I worked at the Heavenly Social and she worked on the door. I used to glass collect. And she’s really fit. I’d tried to flirt with her, but it was no good. I messaged her off my head, “Can I take you out for a drink if you’re single now and give you a big kiss?” Like a right twat. Two days later when I’ve come down it’s, Oh God. So I apologised and she was like, “Oh, I didn’t mind.” She’s like an angel, an angel that sorted me out. She came at the right time, because I was living at my mum’s and working in a chicken factory again. I was doing lots of speed because cocaine was unobtainable and if you’re doing lots of speed you get to know some not very nice people. She came to the house and I remember my family couldn’t believe it. My stepdad was just, “What the…?!”
My favourite lyric on UK Grim comes from D.I.Why: “Excuse me mate, you’ve dropped your tattoo.” Who’s that directed at?
All of those cunts with black tattoos, nicely spaced. I walked by one bloke and he’s got a ladder on his thigh. A ladder. There seems to be a uniform with certain underground music people and tattoos. I got into trouble with a load of DIY-ers, noise artists on Twitter last year, arguing about Spotify. I put up a post, “Stop being so fucking edgy – just work around it. Everyone knows it’s shit. Grow up.” And all of them techno noise artists with 2000 followers piled in: “The special people,” as Geoff Barrow of Portishead calls them. That’s who D.I.Why is about. You look on their feeds and you get the impression they believe that they’re something bigger than reality. It’s the curse of Twitter – people lose their bearings. Your music is not very good and you look like everyone else. That’s not Spotify’s problem.
Sleaford Mods is your ultimate right to reply. It’s my way of getting the last word in. God knows what I’d be like if I didn’t have it.
Broken Britain is a career-long muse, but there’s affection for the place in your music, isn’t there?
Absolutely. I love the dress codes. I love terrace fashion, Mod fashion, grime fashion. There is an Englishness that is acceptable. It’s just not the Englishness that’s being pushed on us, this nationalism, a pathetic idea about a past England which was shocking anyway. The subcultures are the best bits. They make us what we are.
How does this very English mindset translate to America?
It’s getting good. The tour last year was mostly sold out. I mean, they were only a thousandcapacity venues, but that’s not bad for a couple of middle-aged blokes from the East Midlands. The more time we spend there, the more I like it. I think Andrew struggles with it a bit still, but some of the scenery is just incredible. Had more impact on me than the gigs really.
How do you think Sleaford Mods have changed musical culture?
I’ve started to realise I’m just a little person like anybody else. I had a real problem with it before, particularly when we signed to Rough Trade. I felt that the buzz around us was dying out, that really fucked with my ego. I was slagging off other bands, jealous some were getting bigger than us. I’ve started to get over that. I’ve got an ability, a skill set, but it doesn’t mean that I’m better than anyone else. I’d like to be remembered for starting something, a blip in music. I don’t think it’s as prominent as Britpop or punk. But whatever we are, whatever we’ve inspired in other bands, it is certainly something in the musical timeline of this country.
And it wasn’t there before you.
I’ll take that. We’ve created something. I’m really proud of it. Andrew is really proud of it. But there are bigger things, aren’t there? We blew up a bit and we had to find our place, ego-wise. We’re not turning into cunts.
That’s the main thing.
Always keep the music interesting and try not to be cunts.