Recent victories by right-wing parties in the U.K. and the U.S. have led some pundits to predict a new wave of hard-charging, politically outspoken music from the left. But that theory doesn’t hold water for Jason Williamson, lead shouter in the longstanding, obstreperous and radically inclined English group Sleaford Mods. “That should have happened a long time ago,” the 46-year-old tells Rolling Stone. “Administrations really don’t differ, do they? Obama is obviously a lot better prospect than Donald Trump, but administrations are just bulletproof modules of control.”
Sleaford Mods’ tracks, a strangely catchy blend of Williamson’s wry, heavily accented talk-sung rants and producer Andrew Fearn’s minimal electropop beats, often bristle with anti-bourgeois sentiment. Williamson’s lyrics zero in on the difficulties of making ends meet for those on the bottom half of the income ladder and the soul-killing aspects of banal, dead-end jobs – problems that leaders on the right and left have both failed to address. While songs on these subjects are mostly absent from large swathes of modern pop, Williamson is wary of being pegged as a crusader for social justice. “I just see it as narration and observation, really,” he says of his music. “It’s political in its nature, but we’re not activists; we’re not writing a manifesto. It’s just talking about how things are, which is so utterly unavoidable these days.”
Perhaps in part because their outlook is underrepresented, Sleaford Mods don’t turn off the spigot – in a decade, they have released eight studio albums, a live record, a stream of singles and EPs, and a pair of compilations. Productivity has helped the duo build a fanbase and acquire a bigger megaphone: English Tapas, their ninth studio LP, is their first to arrive via Rough Trade, a label well known to rock fans. This alliances suggests that the Sleaford Mods have achieved a touch of mainstream commercial viability, though they certainly haven’t gone out of their way to court it.
Funnily enough for a man releasing music on a label associated with groups like the Strokes and Parquet Courts, Williamson is bored to tears by rock. “I was doing rock bands since about ’97,” he remembers. “It was shit, to be honest. The classical setup of guitar, bass, drums and singer has been replicated so much and explored so much it just wasn’t doing it for me. I couldn’t work anything with it, and anybody put in front of me that was doing it, whether they were successful or not, I found to be quite boring.”
But he was snapped out of a rock-induced stupor by a grubby strain of New York rap from the mid-1990s. “The Wu-Tang Clan showed me a different path,” Williamson says. “The chaos of it, the D.I.Y. nature of it, particularly with their first album, Raekwon’s first solo album, Ghostface Killah’s – there’s something almost amateurish about it, but what ties it all together is the sheer talent. You don’t know what’s going to happen next; the tune could fall apart. You’ve got this vocal that’s rapping but sometimes just shouting; in other parts they’re not even rhyming anything. It’s a real big fingers up to the confines of white rock.”
Sleaford Mods debuted on record in 2007, with Williamson decrying and heckling over loops that make the first Wu-Tang album seem fussy and overelaborate. He crooned some in the early days – “Right Back to You” shows Williamson singing funk, which is startling to hear now – but that soon fell by the wayside. By 2012, when Fearn took over beat-making duties, the formula was set: Williamson worked in two modes, loud and louder, and ran over the demarcations of the beat with such regularity you wondered why he bothered to use an instrumental; Fearn put together comically simple backing tracks that were exercises in subtraction.
The group doesn’t deviate from the well-trodden path on English Tapas. “Carlton Touts” is set in what Williamson calls a “typical working-class pub – cheap lager, everybody’s just watching the BBC news.
“The BBC news has got a reputation over here for being very biased; it almost verges on propaganda,” he explains. “It struck me that one of the forms of control is that: sticking around in a pub, looking at false news all day and getting pissed. People are powerless. Why do people feel powerless? It’s fear, isn’t it? Nobody’s going to stand up – people have got their lives to live; people need to eat. I can’t see anything happening, really. I can probably only see it getting worse.”
But this sense of fatalism doesn’t extend to the prospects for his band. “We want to try to make this last as long as we can,” Williamson says. “Creatively, it’s still bulletproof.
“You spend so many years doing it, and you don’t get anywhere,” he adds. “Out of the blue, when you least expect it, it comes.”