Sleaford Mods on Eton Alive: “It’s about getting stuff out there that connects with people”
Where escapism from the toils of life depicted so adroitly in his lyrics may once have been found via the bottom of a pint glass, these days Sleaford Mods frontman Jason Williamson prefers to let off steam by, as he puts it, “fucking about a bit” in the gym. It explains why his usual attire of fashionable long coat and trousers has been ditched today in favour of a baggy hoody, shorts and running tights; while another change has seen the trademark cropped fringe replaced by a sharp buzz cut, lending more leanness to the features of a guy who has clearly been looking after himself recently.
“I didn’t know if the fringe thing was me anymore,” he explains. “I kept thinking I was too old for it. I thought to myself, ‘I look like a c**t with this; I look like Sting!”
His choice of interview location, a trendy café around the corner from Nottingham train station, could also tell us something about the far more wholesome lifestyle he enjoys these days. That’s not to suggest, however, that there’s been the slightest of mellowing on the notoriously hot-headed artist’s part, as confirmed via the singles released ahead of new album Eton Alive – ‘Kebab Spider’ and ‘Flipside’ – which take on everything from the mediocrity of instant fame reality TV to Graham Coxon looking like a “left-wing Boris Johnson”. Throw into the mix some highly-publicised recent jibes at IDLES and the Fat White Family and there’s plenty to discuss as we settle down to get the latest from one of the country’s most plain-speaking frontmen.
Is there anything that you wouldn’t discuss in an interview?
Erm. I dunno really. I suppose not, but it depends what you feel like on the day. Slagging off bands gets you in trouble, especially in the industry today where people don’t do it because it’s seen as not very intelligent. You get the impression that people are more concerned about not rocking the boat.
Have you ever regretted having a pop at someone?
No, it’s just one of those things. People will have a go at you about it and you’ll get accused of being jealous or whatever – but so what for fucksake? I probably am!
But you’ve spoken about trying to rein it in a bit with that sort of stuff, on social media in particular. How are you doing with that?
Not really well. I don’t necessarily slag bands off on social media, but if I do, I subtweet it. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that either.
Have you ever been in a situation where you’ve called someone out and it’s led to an awkward moment backstage at a festival or whatever? Or is all that just hyped up a bit?
There have been a couple of times, yeah. But nobody says anything. What are people going to do? What am I going to do? I suppose if someone was really offended, they’d say summat. You’re not gonna hit people, are you? They’ll just think I’m a wanker probably.
Does it frustrate you when you see bands or artists reluctant to give genuine opinions on things?
But that’s because a lot of them haven’t got any, have they? A lot of them are just homogenised; they are as memorable as [points to the corner of the room] that coffee maker. You know what I mean? They look like [points again] the cakes on top of there – just blending in, background music, a complacent experience, so you’re not going to get any opinions really. But also, unless you’re a hardened drill artist, or someone who’s experiencing great difficulty, your views ain’t gonna be… well, they might be interesting enough, but people can make something interesting out of nothing. A lot of these bands they’re just shit, they’re not saying fuck all. They’re talking about love, about miserable experiences from relationships, done in such a boring way it doesn’t connect.
On that note, do more working class bands have a duty to write fewer songs about pulling on dancefloors and more about social realities?
I dunno. Yeah. But that in itself can be political. Sometimes maybe being a bit unimaginative and downplayed is a statement; I’d rather have that than some fucker growling down a microphone going, “Wuhhh, austerity!” I’d rather have someone do some con Oasis stuff, dressed all in black, and not really say owt because at least there’s no pretence. It would be nice to see more of it, but what do you expect? I’d rather see a working class person go on X Factor, all tanned up and with a shit haircut; I’d rather that than some fucker groaning into a microphone about how much they care. They don’t.
You’ve spoken about how you listen to a lot of drill and grime, and you’ve given opinions on some bands coming along as part of the post-punk brigade and sort of hijacking austerity by claiming to understand what life is like on the bottom rungs of society.
Bit dodgy, innit?
As an artist, do you feel more in common with the drill and grime MCs – as they’re at least talking about genuine lived experience and surroundings in much the same way as Sleaford Mods do?
I wouldn’t say I had more literally in common with them, as a lot of these people are in gangs and have been to prison. But yeah, it is kind of proper music from the street – good ground music. I don’t find some of the so-called “post-punk” bands post-punk for a start – that was about creativity, art, being avant-garde. It’s not even cliched, it’s just really patronising and…
A little bit. I’m not sure if they know they are being opportunistic but it certainly looks that way sometimes. My man from fucking IDLES going: “I want everyone in the crowd tonight to go out and hug an immigrant after the show.” Fuck off. It makes me fucking mad, man. I don’t rate it. It’s all a bit fucking “Hello campers” – you know what I mean?
Poverty porn has been a big business on a wider scale for a while now.
Yeah, it has. Somebody accused me of that once in one of the books I’ve written, some German writer. I went up the fucking wall. The reason we started talking about what we talk about is I felt it, lived it for a long time, and I hated it. I couldn’t understand why life was so shit, why I’d become so shit. So I started looking into that and talking about it, then it eventually became clear to me that there was nothing else to write about. But you have to do it properly; you can’t be fucking around with it. No point trying to act menacing on stage, taking your top off and glaring at people – that’s not good enough. What we do is really close to the bone, and I don’t see the other bands doing that shit. And I know it’s cynical, but we are living under an atmosphere of negativity – and perhaps I’m a victim of that too.
With a society messed up in so many ways, how do you pick out which topics to take on?
I dunno. Just stuff that comes up and finding interesting ways to talk about it: consumerism, loneliness, isolation are ones people might be familiar with. I think with this album I’ve… I’ve not really mellowed, but I’m not what I was four years ago, so it’s a case of trying to communicate the ideas I’ve got now in an honest way.
And in what ways have you changed as a person since the release of the early records? You went sober a couple of years ago, which must have been a significant shift.
Yeah, I’m sober now so I don’t drink or take drugs anymore, which means I’m more in control. It’s been three years now. I’m more switched on with it. I don’t suffer fools anymore – can’t be bothered. Before I was willing to put up with people because I had my own shit going on, but now I’m just like, “Fuck off”. I’ve become much more professional, which to some might been seen as selling out, but whatever. I’ve just grown up.
Since the first two albums [Wank (2012), Austerity Dogs (2013)], both released living under a coalition government during peak austerity, have things got better or worse for the country? Or is it still the same?
It’s worse, innit? A lot worse. Now people aren’t bothered anymore, are they? More people on the street and people are getting poorer. Imagine what it’s like living in a massively poor area. Must have been bleak thirty years ago – but now? Fucking ‘ell, forget it. It’s lawless.
The reason we started talking about what we talk about is I felt it, lived it for a long time, and I hated it. I couldn’t understand why life was so shit, why I’d become so shit. So I started looking into that and talking about it, then it eventually became clear to me that there was nothing else to write about. But you have to do it properly; you can’t be fucking around with it
The title Eton Alive needs no real explanation. In a country where 10% of the richest households own almost 50% of the wealth and the poorest 50% own just 8%, where do you even start with addressing inequality?
Violence is probably the only way it’ll ever change. I think we’ll be living like this for a very long time. However, saying that, I think people are starting to veer towards a form of non-party politics, to start thinking about things in more of an anarchist way perhaps. That’s just another theory, I suppose, isn’t it? But realistically? They’ve got their hands around you.
Do you think music can play a role in changing things for the better? Or is that a bit too idealistic?
I don’t think it can change things, but it can certainly talk about it. Good music acts are too few and far between; it’s about getting stuff out there that connects with people. And I feel that’s what we did. Other bands have come out and done that too, but it’s not a vehicle for changing things.
How do you measure success? Obviously it’s not the ‘sign a record deal and move to LA’ model.
No. I guess it’s just about keeping going; I want it to get bigger. Then again, I worry about whether we’ve had our time with it creatively, although I do feel this album is one of the best we’ve done, which some people might view differently. People often look back on our early years as the best period, and I do worry about that lot. So: I want it to get bigger but I want it to retain its worth, too. There’s no point in doing it if you’re just flogging a dead horse, but I don’t think we are yet – and I don’t think we would if it ever came to it.
What’s your level of fame like in Nottingham these days? You don’t strike me as much of a selfie person.
Not really, but if someone says hello you do have a chat. I always try to do that.
I guess that’s the thing with sticking around in your own city – they’re effectively big villages.
Yeah, big time. It’s just like a big town really. You know, it’s not like we’re One Direction or summat, we don’t get that much hassle. But yeah, people do say hello and if they want a picture, give them a picture. I’ve really got no problem with that. Sometimes you might not have the time or whatever, but most of the time it’s cool, you know?
How integral is Nottingham to your writing these days? The first albums very much felt like a by-product of life in that city.
Sure. But yeah, not so much now. I find that the subjects are getting a bit more general, they’re not as cutthroat and on the brink of desperation as they were – and I quite like that. You change, don’t you? I’ve still got that anger, though, and sadness and sometimes depression, loneliness, just like anyone gets.
If you didn’t have music to channel those feelings, how do you think they’d be expressed?
I wouldn’t be happy. I’d be fucking bored. That’s why I got into creative things because I wasn’t happy just doing jobs and going home. That wasn’t enough. After a while I found life so terrifically stupid, so terrifically mundane most of the time, that I felt it needed to be talked about.
You’ve spoken about how the album goes down a bit of a poppier route, influenced partly by listening to soul and R&B records. Are there a few nerves about how this change of tack might be received?
There are two or three poppier songs that aren’t necessarily in the vein of the music I’m inspired by, but I love the formula and production of these 80s tunes by people like Cherelle, Alexander O’Neal, Chaka Khan, Luther Vandross. I was also listening to a lot of drill, the first two albums by Drake, a lot of trap where you have quite soulful vocals coming in and out. So, yeah, I wanted to bring a lot of that across, and some of it came out sub-consciously, while others were more like a conscious effort to make a song. I was quite worried about it at first: tracks like ‘Firewall’ and ‘When You Come Up to Me’ made me quite nervous because they do depart quite a lot from the normal sound, but I like that at the same time because it makes the record sound fresh. It feels like we’ve moved on, and if people turn around and say it’s shit, well, fine, but at least I wasn’t repeating myself and being a wanker. What’s the point in that? All the things we talked about in the early albums still stand, but I’ve said them now so what’s the point in repeating it?
What do you want this record to say?
I always just try to go, “Fuck off, whatever.” It doesn’t matter about the context or this, that and the other. My voice, the way I write, everything, it’s just “Fuck off”. I still want that to come through, and it might not to a lot of people but I think I’m really proud of it. It’s the kind of music that I’d be into and I like the fact it’s still quite local and talks about things we haven’t covered. I just hope it’s received as well as the others.
Eton Alive is out now