In April this year, I rammed my forty-six year old self into the 150 capacity 12 Bar club in Denmark Street, Soho. On stage, a tall haunted man bobbed to the beats of his laptop like an aging rave survivor lurking in a municipal park, and another twitched and ranted like the cash-cadging last orders cokehead he might once have been. A conflagration of showbiz tastemakers and dedicated fans agreed that something superb was happening. Despite thirty-three years of weekly gig going, I’ve rarely been in the right place at the right time. I may have missed The Sex Pistols at The Manchester Free Trade Hall in 1976, but I was there for Sleaford Mods at the 12 Bar in 2014. And now Sleaford Mods have descended upon me, like an enormous yes.
Jason Williamson, a brick-built office worker long marinated in quietly suppressed fury, started recording as Sleaford Mods in 2007, dropping dirty realist observations in a distinct East Midlands argot over home-grown sample-heavy slabs. Things stepped up a gear in 2011 when Andrew Fearn, a lanky laptop jockey with laughing eyes who lives in a perpetual state of secret amusement, arrived with his hydroponically nurtured musical hybrids, floppy dance rhythms cross-pollinated with Peely post-punk noise.
“When we first got together,” recalls Williamson, “I just told him to make it faster and sound like the Wu Tang Clan.” “Jason was a bit suspicious of me,” Fearns remembers, “I’d make a mix-tape with The Butthole Surfers and Abba on it. He didn’t know what would work. I’d put a synth pad or something in and he’d say, ‘No. Change that for a car alarm.'”
When I first heard Sleaford Mods’ genre-collapsing speed-poetry I imagined I’d finally stumbled across young people making obviously contemporary records that nonetheless matched the incendiary energy of similarly smouldering sounds that had scorched me decades ago– The Specials, The Fall, Husker Du, Conflict and Public Enemy. But the duo, it turns out, were in their early forties, having served long apprenticeships in the Nottinghamshire music scene; Fearns nurturing a larder of supposedly incompatible sources to draw upon; Williamson accruing a lifetime’s supply of archly observed turns of phrase and awkward situations to concertina, cut-up style, into car-crash images of quiet desperation.
“I suck on a roll-up. Pull your jeans up. Fuck off! I’m going home.”(Jobseeker, Chubbed Up, 2014)
Jaded middle class opinion formers like me trip over themselves to declare Sleaford Mods the authentic voice of the English provincial working class, a bona-fide Prole Art Threat, to quote The Fall. In the 1930s, the American folk song collector John Lomax employed the jailbird bluesman Lead Belly as a driver come butler, whilst also recording his music, and there’s something crass and telling about the way metropolitan media treats Sleaford Mods’ distinctive voice, the sort rarely heard today outside of poverty porn TV, as somehow exotic. But standing in the smokers’ courtyard of a sensitively refitted olde London pub in newly gentrified Finsbury Park, the sort of disputed cultural territory Sleaford Mods regularly mock, it becomes clear these marginalised outsiders are within snatching difference of the keys to pop music’s executive toilets. But will they smash up the cistern or just redecorate?
“Who gives a fuck about yesterday’s heroes, who seem to think that they are still today’s heroes? It’s not a pyramid, you’re not a fucking pharaoh.” (Pubic Hair Ltd, Austerity Dogs 2013)
“Johnny Borrell fucks off to an island for four months at the height of his fame. Was the country bothered? Was it fuck. He made a massively bad calculation, the thick cunt.”(6 Horsemen (The Brixtons), Tiswas 2014)
I put it to Sleaford Mods that, given the naked hostility they appear to display to identifiable individuals, they’re lucky there is some separation between them and the characters that narrate the songs. The ungrateful houseguest in You’re Brave, (on the last album Divide And Exit), who ridicules Chumbawumba, secretly masturbates in his “fucking tit-rifle” host’s toilet, and then nicks his biscuits, as some obscure act of social justice, is not the same person as the suddenly conscience stricken drug consumer in 2011’s Double Diamond, who takes issue with a dealer supplying to crack-addicted prostitutes.
So who is firing off these zeitgeist-derailing zingers and insulting all these pop stars? Is it Sleaford Mods themselves or a succession of different semi-fictionalised characters? Fearn gives an answer that I suspect is slightly off-message; “They’re being insulted by us really I think. But it’s just a wind up as well, pub humour, where you take the piss out of your mates.” But how will their Holy Fool outsider act play if Sleaford Mods become massive? “It remains to be seen. But I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately,” says Williamson, typically more pensive. “It’s inevitable that you are sucked in.”
Fearn is acutely aware of how success might change the duo, but is enjoying the ride. “Manchester last week was amazing. There was this whirlwind of young people, all crowd surfing. Whatever is happening, it’s here now. We just carry on doing what we do on stage but you can’t control how it’s going to be perceived. We’ve been trying to do things the traditional way, and you get a reputation for being real and hanging out in the bar but then there’s kids everywhere wanting to talk to you and doing selfies…” He tails off. Williamson continues for him.. “And you can’t carry on. Sleaford Mods has been wrapped in an energy dictated by being in full time work and having to dedicate 80% of your life to something you don’t like. But when that changes you have to see how it goes from there.”
Williamson’s quitting his job this month to be a full time Sleaford Mod, but his stories are acutely informed by his workplace experiences, a strange mix of cynicism and empathy, contempt and pity. What will Sleaford Mods write about now? Will they get angry with journalists and air travel like Kelly Jones on the third Stereophonics album? Fearn isn’t worried, and has touching faith in Williamson’s abilities to find friction in things “as simple as the coining of British phrases, like ‘You couldn’t make it up’. It’s such a British thing to say. Everything people say could be musical.”
“I always found it hard to write love songs,” confides Williamson, “with a bridge and a chorus, then I stopped trying and it came easily. What’s interesting to me is the horribleness of everyday things, that ashtray on that table, the concrete on the floor, and I’ve been trying to hone in on that, thinking about what naturally comes out.” Williamson sees magical strangeness in the banal, and his apprehension of the ashtray echoes Jean Paul Sartre’s horrified encounter with a doorknob in the existentialist classic Nausea.
Jean Paul Sartre? Really? In the ’80s the music press creaked with such heavyweight cultural names, dropped into Bananarama 7″ reviews through ducts of newly minted critical theory. Today Sleaford Mods are making pop music sturdy and significant enough to take the pounding of music writers’ art-crit ambitions. The car alarms and flushing toilets that Fearn chops into the tracks echo the unadorned urinal Marcel Ducamp dumped in an art gallery; and writing in The Wire, the academic Mark Fisher offered analysis of Sleaford Mods informed by concerns about global capitalism. There are things here to wrap your brain around, to take to your heart. But Williamson is worried about how reading such criticisms might influence the duo’s work.
“I started to read Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism after he reviewed our album because I thought the way he explained it was really interesting. He’d seen stuff we hadn’t. But that kind of criticism makes you self-conscious. I don’t want to do what we do to order. Now I could probably reel off something that sounded like A Level Government Politics or whatever if I wanted to but you are wary of doing that because a) it’s really fucking patronising and b) it sounds shit as well. It’s better to talk about the sociological things you’ve experienced in a ‘feet on the ground’ sense rather than an academic sense.”
While Sleaford Mods’ feet are definitely on the ground, Williamson’s words and Fearn’s occasional psychedelic touches conjure a visionary mood. Liveable Shit, from Divide And Exit, is a key track. It begins with the scatological satirical bent of a Viz comic strip, describing Williamson’s daily workplace encounter with the same shitty smell and the co-worker responsible for it, then expands into a critique of the shitness of life, with David Cameron’s face “hanging in the clouds like Gary Oldman’s Dracula”, lyrical allusions to acid-godfathers The Doors, and sudden watery sunspots of tonal backwash. William Blake saw heaven in a wild flower and eternity in a grain of sand. Williamson sees the world in an office toilet.
“Liveable Shit was based on seeing the same bloke in the same shirt going in the same toilet, where you spend most of the day, going backwards and forwards, drinking your coffee, in the same workplace at the same time every morning,” Williamson remembers, “And we didn’t get on anyway. I forget what his name was. He went for a job I was going for it and he fucking got it. And he turned up the next day in these fucking trousers, rocker’s trousers – he was a rocker – and I went “You got the fucking job!”
Sleaford Mods’ age and cultural and geographical positioning fingerprint their work, making it quintessentially English, and magically timeless, regurgitating decades’ worth of reference points whilst remaining utterly contemporary. The new single Tiswas cites Chris Tarrant’s forgotten early ’80s comedy project OTT. And who talks about ‘rockers’ anymore anyway? Mark Fisher pointed out that even the duo’s name seems like ‘vintage graffiti’, and I imagine it scrawled on an M6 motorway bridge sometime in the late ’70s. Why ‘Sleaford Mods’?
“It was just random one night,” Williamson recalls. “The old engineer said, ‘You’ve got five or six tunes here that are all really good. You’re going to need a name sharpish.’ I was sat in the pub and it just popped out. I like the Mod thing. It’s not trying to be subtle. It’s just like someone shouting ‘MODS!'” Why ‘Sleaford’ though, a small Lincolnshire market town? And then someone from the NME uses the Gents behind the window in the pub courtyard and triggers the flush cycle. When I transcribe the tape the rest of The Sleaford Mods’ conversation is masked by the sound of the gushing urinal. Beneath the flow I can just make out Williamson’s still small voice, reaching back across the years. “I used to go to Sleaford, from Grantham, as a kid, with my parents, to go to the cinema and that. I saw Superman there, with Christopher Reeve. Sleaford was a real treat.”
Sleaford Mods’ Tiswas ep is available on Invada from Nov 24th. The Chubbed Up album is reissued on October 26th. They tour Britain this month and support The Specials in November. Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle Series 2 is available on DVD and download from Nov 10th.
Sleaford Mods’ are our current kings of swearing. But here’s five of their forebears.
Philip Larkin – Sunny Prestatyn (1964), This Be The Verse (1971) and High Windows (1974). The Hull poet punched through poetic convention with well chosen expletives. “They fuck you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do.”
George Carlin – Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television (1972). The brilliant American stand-up explores the cultural context of swearing. The seven words are shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits.
Crass – Reality Asylum 7″ (1979) Anarcho-punk pioneer Eve Libertine’s cut-glass voice intones, with impossible precision, a studiously blasphemous collage of holy imagery, feminist protest and fantastic swearing. “Fucklove prophet of death. You sigh alone in your cockfear. You lie alone in your cuntfear.”
John Cooper Clarke – Evidently Chickentown (1980) The punk poet’s howl against urban living is the ultimate versified fuckathon. “The fucking clocks are fucking wrong, The fucking days are fucking long, It fucking gets you fucking down, evidently chicken town.”
The Opera Device – Stockhausen soprano soloist Lore Lixenberg circled the fringe of the ’90s comedy circuit in a titanium bra crushing hecklers with operatically arranged put-downs like “Fuck off you cunt”, composed by future Jerry Springer The Opera creator Richard Thomas.