Sleaford Mods are isolating themselves. As the pincer movement of Donald Trump and Brexit shunts us into a disquieting limbo, the Nottingham minimal ‘punk-hop’ duo feel increasingly marooned on an island of their own making. Their fans regard them as the poet laureates of Broken Britain, writing bracing songs about those who have fallen through the cracks of a life that is stacked against them. Their critics, recycling an old Noel Gallagher line, see them as doing little more than shout about “fucking cider and fucking shit chicken”.
With typical belligerence, they don’t care either way what anyone thinks of them or their music.
We meet in a pub in an increasingly gentrified King’s Cross, in London. It’s the kind of pub you would have thought twice about entering 20 years ago as that part of town was awash with heroin but now has a mannerly clientele drinking lattes in the afternoon. That world might be airbrushed out of the prime real estate of city centres but it still exists in all its ugliness in the Sleaford Mods’ songs.
Andrew Fearn – gangly, whippet-thin and dressed in a baseball cap, red and black checked shirt and saggy grey tracksuit bottoms – is the first to arrive. He provides all the music, and on stage appears to do little more than stand around drinking a can of beer and pressing a key on his laptop to start the next song. He’s recently moved from the Midlands to London, living on a barge as it’s more affordable than renting.
Singer Jason Williamson wheels in dressed in a brown jacket buttoned all the way to the throat, blue tracksuit bottoms that stop above his ankles, and on his sockless feet a jarringly ostentatious pair of Paul Smith shoes – made up of brash blue, green, white, black and tan stripes – that are his one concession to pop stardom. He’s just off the train from Nottingham where he lives with his wife and two children.
“I don’t know if we are part of the landscape,” says Jason, bluntly, when asked where he sees his band fitting in today. “All the stuff I write is because I’m pissed off with stuff. It’s fuelled by hate.”
English Tapas is their first album on Rough Trade, part of the mega-indie Beggars Group, which technically means they are label mates with Adele, the biggest recording artist in the world.
Unlike Adele, they work fast and cheaply, they say, their minimalist music buckling under the weight of Jason’s pepper-spray lyrics. Lead single B.H.S. (“We’re going down like B.H.S., while the able-bodied vultures monitor and pick at us”) is typical of the rest of the album, sticking up for the underclass while railing against society’s collapse. Drayton Manored talks of how “a trip to Spar is like a trip to Mars” while Just Like We Do castigates a “pretentious little bastard on social media” and a culture of wallowing in failure (“funny how fucking England hates any success”). There is, as you may have gathered, a lot of swearing.
They say they got together in 2012 because no one was making the music they wanted to hear or singing about the subjects they felt should be addressed. “It occurred to us that we were actually doing something that was quite good and quite original, new and vital,” says Jason of their early days. “It made everything in the landscape react to us in such a crap way that it made them look so dated.”
Did they feel they were showing other bands up? “Yeah, yeah – too fucking right,” he shouts. “Absolute dog shit. It was laughable. It still is laughable.”
“You can’t be elegantly wasted… the only way to counteract that is to use force. But we don’t have force. We are completely powerless. There’s too much control”
To reaffirm their self-imposed quarantine from the rest of music, they say there is nothing being made today that they like. When pushed that there has to be something out there they like, they add the caveat that there is nothing they want to be paralleled with. “I like some music but I don’t want to be aligned with it,” says Jason, and then – almost under duress – reels off the handful of modern artists he likes. “The last thing I bought was Wiley’s new album. That’s alright. It’s just solid grime, innit. Before that – Solange. It’s not bad. Before that, Frank Ocean – that’s alright.”
In the wearying world of the Sleafords, even the stuff they like isn’t greeted with effusiveness.
While Jason says their “assault was on music, it wasn’t on politics”, they are a political band. They see no fault in that and believe, because of the political maelstrom we are in, musicians have an ethical obligation to talk more about politics. “You can’t be elegantly wasted [today],” says Jason. “It’s improper. In this day and age, you can’t be like that.”
They initially came out in support of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader. Nearly 18 months on, and in the wake of him not voting to block the Article 50 bill that will trigger Brexit, they are more than disappointed.
“Every time I see him, I just think – bless,” sighs Andrew. “I kind of want to like him and he’s a good man – but then he is a complete wuss. He doesn’t really want to do it. Being the PM drains the life out of you and he just doesn’t want the job.”
I suggest that Corbyn’s title, ‘leader of the opposition’, is a double oxymoron as he’s not showing much leadership and even less opposition. “It’s like a shit manager’s job,” says Jason. “Yeah, at Accrington Stanley!” hoots Andrew.
“It’s not helped by the fact that the media have just shunned him completely,” argues Jason. “There has been no support for him. Not really. The Daily Mirror have been alright. Parts of The Guardian have been alright. The Independent a little as well. But there has been no massive coverage.”
They are old enough to remember Margaret Thatcher and the old Labour Party of Neil Kinnock but feel they let down the working classes just as much as Labour today is accused of doing. Kinnock, it’s fair to say, is not a hero of the band.
“Look at the cunt now – he’s a member of the Lords,” roars Jason. “He was looking for that fucking central heating and he got it. He fucking got it, didn’t he? They all did. It’s just a job, innit?”
The impact Thatcherism had on the UK, especially in formerly industrial cities like Nottingham, is happening again but is exacerbated this time by a de-unionisation of the workforce and the imposition of pernicious zero-hour contracts.
“You have these jobs that were shit anyway and now they have been replaced by nothing or jobs in supermarkets,” says Jason. “Capitalism is just fucked. It’s just going to keep eroding shit.”
Every time I see him [Jeremy Corbyn], I just think – bless. I kind of want to like him and he’s a good man – but then he is a complete wuss.
If capitalism is broken, is protest – both on the street and in music – just as shattered? Does it have the power to change anything?
“Peaceful protests are literally just that – peaceful protests, aren’t they?” says Jason. “You sign a dot.org thing and it’s just literally that; you’re signing a dot.org petition.”
Thousands of people marched on Downing Street the previous week to protest against President Trump’s state visit to the UK. Wasn’t that something that went beyond passively filling in an online form and proved a physical manifestation of popular protest?
“It was a physical thing but it didn’t kick off,” says Jason.
But wasn’t it good that it – and the Women’s March in January – were peaceful? Wouldn’t it have negated or delegitimised their point if a faction started smashing up shop windows?
“To criticise it for that is to undermine their protest anyway,” suggests Andrew. “The idea that it’s not great to smash windows as part of your protest… If that’s what you want to do, then it’s your freedom to go and do that.”
— Sleaford Mods (@sleafordmods) February 28, 2017
Well, it’s not your freedom to do that as it’s an illegal act and you could get arrested…
“That’s fine but that’s your choice,” says Andrew. Jason adds: “The only way to try and counteract that is by using force. But we don’t have force. We are completely powerless. There’s too much control.”
On the theme of Trump, they are less incensed than one might expect, but they risk veering towards the dulled take that your student friend who smoked too much low-grade weed at college cranked out.
“I don’t want to go on about control and stuff but how far down the rabbit hole do you want to go?” asks Andrew. “People say China has paid for everything and that China owns America. Donald Trump – it’s just laughable. It’s hilarious, innit.”
Jason chimes in. “He’s like Peter Stringfellow!”
But beyond the terrible hair and appalling antediluvian attitude towards women, aren’t they concerned not only about what Trump represents but also what he has the power to do?
We are in the fortunate position that we are actually quite a commodity at the minute,
“His Twitter is just fantastic – the way he normalises things that are potentially internationally fucking horrific,” says Jason. “He just simplifies them; makes them sound almost like, ‘Hey – don’t worry about it!’ His Twitter almost makes you like him. Do you know what I mean? He plays the innocent.”
Now they are on a large indie label and playing increasingly larger venues, including the Roundhouse in London last year, there must be growing pressure for them to start putting on more of a show. A static man with a laptop and another wheeling around in circles slapping the back of his neck while shouting into a mic is not very razzamatazz.
“I thought about getting some Kenny Everett big hands,” laughs Andrew. “If they give us the key to the BBC wardrobe then every day we could dress up in Kenny Everett gear.”
Jason immediately mimics Everett’s Cupid Stunt: “It’s all done in the BEST POSSIBLE TASTE!”
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Touring overheads are almost non-existent for them as they just have one laptop and a microphone – drawing in a sound engineer for the larger shows. Otherwise it’s just the two of them. Alone as usual.
“We are in the fortunate position that we are actually quite a commodity at the minute,” explains Jason. “You don’t make that much off records, do you? We make money off gigs and there’s only me and him and a laptop. All of that backline is gone. We don’t need a tour bus. We don’t need fuck all. So most of the money that we make from gigs comes to us.”
That doesn’t mean people don’t suggest they tour with screens or other concessions to showbiz. “People can’t leave it,” moans Jason. “They have to have their penny’s worth. Just fuck off! [Affects whiney voice] ‘Oh, it would be really good like this.’ Oh, really? It’s like they think we haven’t thought of that. Of course we have. It was shit! We dismissed it in seconds.”
Andrew immediately brainstorms another idea. “We could come out on stilts,” he proposes. “Have the laptop up on a really high table,” miming himself struggling to reach it.
“And a barbecue!” howls Jason. “That could actually work,” nods Andrew.
This is a side of Sleaford Mods often missing from their dour and finger-jabbing interviews – they are really funny and tremendously good company. They could fit in more if they wanted but that feels antithetical to their carefully constructed outsider status.
“People hate us, don’t they?” says Jason of the venom they need to keep moving forward. “They think we’re cunts.”
Square pegs in a world of round holes, they know that without absolutely everything to rail against and becoming even more fuelled by hate, Sleaford Mods would cease to exist.
Sleaford Mods’ new album, English Tapas, is out now; sleafordmods.com