Few albums have captured the bleak, messy boredom of the pandemic better than Sleaford Mods’ Spare Ribs, a collection of jaundiced rants about days at home, politically-motivated ignorance and, as usual, the posing incompetence of Jason Williamson’s musical peers.
Since 2012 when beatmaker Andrew Fearn joined, the Sleaford Mods have made seven albums, combining raw poetry with brutal beats. The spareness and political edge of the lyrics links the band to punk rock—Iggy Pop and the late Mark E. Smith were both fans—but the emphasis on beats rather than live music puts them somewhere adjacent to rap. Wherever they fall, no other band working currently is as adept at channeling acid disdain into working class poetry. Spare Ribs refines and enlarges their sound, bringing in female artists like Billy Nomates and Amy Taylor of Amyl and the Sniffers to guest on two tracks.
As we talk the pandemic is still reverberating through Williamson’s personal and professional lives. We’d been scheduled to connect a week earlier, but a bump in COVID cases at his daughter’s school had forced a cancellation and he couldn’t make the call. Though no one in his immediate family had been sick, Williamson is still clearly processing a year from hell. “Out There” encapsulates 2020’s shapeless dread in the line, “Just stared out into a cold month with no people near it.”
“That’s how it was in April and even into May. It was going for your allotted walk every day, and it just seemed very barren. Deserted. You know what I mean?” says Williamson, explaining that he and Andrew Fearn and guest artist Billy Nomates had tracked some of Spare Ribs in January. Then the Mods left for Australia. By the time they got back, the virus had set in. He spent nearly all of 2020 in Nottingham in a house with his partner and children.
“It was really odd. And it still is because you lose the sense of who you are. You’re kind of just loading the dishwasher every day,” he recalls. “It’s not a bad thing. I got to spend more time with the kids. I’ve seen the kids grow up. Spending more time with my partner. But we’re both realizing, you need time apart. In this world, you need to have space. It can be a little bit intense sometimes.”
He’s still working through that weird, rudderless, ominous year creatively, and fans can expect more references to the pandemic and lockdown in future releases. “We demo’d some stuff last week, and all that is, again relating to the lockdown and the various emotional stages we went through and still are going through,” said Williamson. “It’s obviously not just due to the actual virus itself but also the political side of things and how governments have reacted to it and how that’s turned people against each other in so many ways, I think. It’s quite incredible really.”
As in the U.S., a substantial proportion of British people have minimized the pandemic, refusing to take precautions as deaths and hospitalizations soared. “We’ve got a lot of denial. A lot of anti-maskers. A lot of anti-vaxxers. People questioning it. People complaining about limits to their freedom,” says Williamson. “Yeah, it makes me sick really. Because we never really have that much freedom anyway. We have to work. We’re slaves to money. I don’t get it. A lot of these people have just come out of the woodwork. Where were they five years ago? Ten years ago? You know what I mean?”
Performance art in the plague year
One of the highlights of a long, bleak 2020 was a live streamed Sleaford Mods set, streamed in June from London’s 100 Club with support from Billy Nomates. Like all live streamed gigs, it was a bit surreal, with songs kicking off out of utter silence and finishing to no applause, no yelps, no reaction of any kind at all. There were 100,000 people watching worldwide, but you wouldn’t have known that from watching. The club looked empty, desolate, like the B-reel of a disaster movie. And yet, Williamson and Fearn put on the same show as always, Fearn in a trucker’s hat bobbing and weaving to his cryptic beats, Williamson spewing venom and darting up to the stage’s lip to lean over…to no one.
Asked if that was weird, doing his act in a vacuum, Williamson shrugs it off. “A little bit, but I love the performance of it. Gigs are like performance art, a little bit. There’s a lot of theatrics. I like that. And so, I was applying that and doing that actively,” he said. “We just told ourselves that it was a posh TV appearance, and also we knew people were watching it, so it makes you perform as you would normally. You want to give people some entertainment.”
Yet while Williamson clearly supports live music, he has little patience with careerist pieties around relief for independent venues. “Elocution” opens with a scathing spoken word intro which goes, “Hello there, I’m here today to talk about the importance of independent venues. I’m also secretly hoping that by agreeing to talk about the importance of independent venues, I will then be in a position to move away from playing independent venues.”
“’Elocution’ is a comment on musicians that front social issue campaigns, and that’s all they seem to do. They never seem to write any music. They’re just always fronting the next thing that’s in the news. Now it’s this idea of trying to preserve independent venues,” he says. “Which is completely valid. I’m on board with it 100%. But these people never seem to do much else. It feels like they’re just using it as steppingstones to get the kind of exposure that you have to work hard for.”
Bringing in a female presence
Sleaford Mods draw a very male crowd; their aggression and political outspoken-ness speaks to an older generation raised on hardcore punk and post-punk. Yet the band has always wanted to be inclusive, communicating to a multi-racial, multi-cultural Britain where, as “Out There” puts it, “I wanna tell the bloke that’s drinking near the shop/That it ain’t the foreigners and it ain’t the fuckin’ Cov/But he don’t care.”
Likewise, Williamson says, they’ve always wanted to make women welcome at their shows and among their fan base and, with this album, they bring the female presence right into the studio with three collaborations with female artists. “We wanted to represent women more, we wanted to represent the female presence, because there’s a lot of it,” says Williamson. We’ve always been affiliated with that, but we wanted to make it work even more.”
Billy Nomates, who sings a verse and chorus in “Mork ‘N Mindy,” first appeared on the Mods radar when she started sending Fearn Instagram video of her home-taped recordings. “And eventually Andrew started sending them to me and we started watching them and it became clear that she had something. There was something there,” says Williamson. “So, we started talking to her. We got to know her, and she released her own album on Spotify, so we started listening to that a lot, and it became clear that she was really, really good.”
Nomates dropped in during the January pre-COVID sessions. “I wrote the song, and then I said to her, do you want to sing this chorus? And then just do something else, do whatever. So, she came in and did a couple of verses and she sang the chorus and we just went from there, really,” he says. “It didn’t take too long, actually. We just needed to know which way it was going to go, to try and formulate it. That’s the tricky thing really.”
Nomates appears on one of Spare Ribs’ bleakest tracks, a memoire of Williamson’s formative years in Nottingham. “Yeah, that song’s about growing up in the 1980s. Just terrible really. Just so dull and bland and everything’s grey, burgundy, and rose. Carpets in the kitchen and that type of stuff,” he says. Williamson’s family wasn’t poor. His stepfather, the head of the household the whole time he was growing up, was a successful builder. “So, we had perhaps more than your average working class kid then. In lots of ways, it was good. But in this horrible optionless bleak landscape. Just as a kid, I found it revolting. I just wanted to escape all the time… through drugs and alcohol and music and magazines and films. All of those things,” he remembers.
Amy Taylor’s cameo on “Nudge It” is tough and blistering. Her disdain for artists that don’t work hard enough matches something in essential in Williamsons’ art. But working her verse into the song took longer, because it happened after lockdown and had to be accomplished with file transfers. “Amy went into the studio and did a take and she sent it over. I thought it was great, but everybody else was a little bit unsure where it was going. She sent some more stuff over, and we finally nailed it around July of last year,” says Williamson.
Nomates and Taylor are both punk rockers, a natural fit for the Sleaford Mods’ twitchy, hyper-articulate composition. Dr. Lisa McKenzie who wrote the intro to “Top Room” (“All them skills, all that sewing, all that making Marks & Spencer’s knickers”) is an academic and activist, but Williamson explains how she aligns with his work. “I’ve known Lisa for years. She’s a working class academic, thoroughly steeped in working class history, culture, and she surrounds herself with it,” he says. “But Lisa is really into the history of it, and really into the way the working class move forward as civilization for want of a better word progresses. I always liked her viewpoint. I find it interesting. So, I thought that part of a spoken word intro would be really powerful.”
Originally there was lots more from Dr. McKenzie. “She wrote about two minutes worth. We put the whole lot of it on there, and it just didn’t feel right, so we narrowed it down to that sentence. It just sounded so powerful, I thought.”
Williamson says that he himself has moved away from his working class roots but respects McKenzie’s continuing commitment. “I’m aware of my standing in it, and I’m proud of who I am, but I’m not really into the history of the working class,” he says. “I’m more interested in the effect of it going forward and also the fact that working class people get such a raw deal most of the time and how that connects with middle class culture. You know what I mean?”
Pushing the boundaries
Williamson isn’t done collaborating. In some ways, the physical limitations of the lockdown have allowed him to reach outside his comfort zone. Case in point, the single “Feel Nothing,” in which Williamson collaborated with Amen Dunes’ Damon McMahon. You can hear him singing fluidly, with a bit of vibrato, near the end of the track over a glitchy, psychedelic beat. It’s an unlikely pairing, but it works.
Williamson acknowledges how different his work is from Amen Dunes, but says that’s part of the appeal. “I wasn’t really aware of him, but when he sent his stuff over, I was like, ‘Right, okay, how we gonna work this?’ But I think that’s the beauty of collaborations. You don’t necessarily have to be a fan of someone. It’s more about whether you can pull it off. And you also learn so much. I speak to Damon quite a lot now. He’s a lovely man. He’s becoming a friend, so it’s like…it’s opened my eyes to sort of widening the scope in projects where you aren’t necessarily there because you like their music.”
There are a couple of other expectations-busting collaborations in the works, Williamson says, but he can’t talk about them yet. Meanwhile he’s tracking new demos, listening to Dry Cleaning, the Bug and proggy oldies like Jethro Tull and King Crimson and adapting to the ever-shifting rules around the pandemic and lockdown.
What will music be like when we finally get through this unusual period? “I dunno how it will change. The trends and fashion will change, and I think that usually helps push music along a little bit. You’ll get small pulls from eureka moments of artists who largely go unnoticed, and then the music starts picking up with other people and then everybody talks about the first ones who did it. It’s a tough one, innit, but yeah, I think people will unfold it, of course they will,” he says.
And meanwhile he and Fearn will just be trying to keep it real and interesting and fresh, as they have since the beginning, and that will set them apart from the vast majority of other bands. All the Sleaford Mods albums have had songs about other musicians who have, one way or another, earned Williamson’s scorn. He’s competitive about his career, and it bothers him when other bands with less talent (and less brutal honesty) vault ahead commercially. “Yeah, you do get frustrated that some bands get bigger than you do. Of course, you do. That’s the name of the game, isn’t it? That’s as old as the game itself,” he admits.
“A lot of people are in traps, aren’t they, in this game? They’ve got a certain image to maintain or they’re in it purely because it’s a relatively comfortable job. Sometimes, you’re not cutting through. People are just puppets. I just want to get to the center of whatever it is. Using everything I know now from six or so albums,” he adds. | j kelly