Sleaford Mods: ‘When confusion reigns the unintelligent prosper’

For more than a decade, Nottingham duo Sleaford Mods have been refining and expanding upon their unique brand of minimalist electro punk and unflinching social commentary, culminating this year with top three album UK Grim and a tour taking in some of the biggest venues they’ve ever headlined. Frontman Jason Williamson joins Headliner for a wide-ranging chat about new EP More UK Grim, toxic masculinity, politics, and why 2023 has been the band’s finest year yet…

“We’re a fully operational machine, as the empire once said, “laughs Sleaford Mods singer and lyricist Jason Williamson. “It’s professional now; it’s above board; it’s legitimate; and I don’t have a problem with that.”

We’re talking about the 2023 iteration of Sleaford Mods, and how Williamson and his musical companion Andrew Fearn have conspired to glide almost seamlessly from niche, underground agitators to Alexandra Palace headliners and chart summit botherers in recent years. All without compromising the fundamental ingredients that make them the such a unique, genre-defying force.

Fearn’s minimalist basslines and lo-fi beats, which defined their early work, remain but the surrounding textures are more sophisticated, more dynamic these days. Likewise, Williamson’s sweary invective is sharper – and often funnier – than ever. The aggression and poignancy are still there, but it feels a touch more controlled, more melodic. Especially compared to their output pre-2019’s Eton Alive.

On the live front, it’s still just Fearn hitting ‘play’ on his laptop and Williamson at his mic stand spitting lyrics with trademark twitchiness and aggression, but this hasn’t stopped the pair conquering ever-bigger stages. Their Alexandra Palace show on December 2 will be Sleaford Mods’ biggest headline show so far, while their support slots with Blur at Wembley Stadium this summer went down a storm.

For Williamson, who is joining us over Zoom from his hotel in Berlin on a rare day off during the Germany leg of their European tour, there are several reasons as to why the band has continued to confound expectations. But principal among them is their change of management in 2019.

“Our previous manager was… I don’t want to sit here and start slagging anyone off, but he reached a point where he couldn’t do anything with it and it suffered,” he says thoughtfully. “It wasn’t maximised. There is an argument to say why should it be maximised? Let it be. And that’s fine, but I always wanted to get as big as we could right from day one. And our new manager has helped shift the dial in a lot of respects. She’s broken down walls of communication, got us talking to the record label, got us thinking about how we can progress the sound. That brought out the best in us, which our previous manager wasn’t interested in doing.

“It became evident that our songwriting started to excel with Eton Alive and with Spare Ribs and UK Grim, and the audience grew because of that,” he continues. “The songs are perhaps a little bit more agreeable now in a commercial sense. I don’t particularly want to aim for Wembley Arena, and the thought of these big gigs is quite scary. But that’s the way it is, and if you want to survive you’ve got to maximise it. And I want to survive. I don’t want to go back to work. Fuck all that shit. I’ve done enough of that. As far as I’m concerned, Sleaford Mods is still interesting and still exciting.”

It’s not as dark now. We were waylaid with personal issues and substance abuse. That's gone now. Jason Williamson

Williamson also points to the much-improved nature of his and Fearn’s mental and physical health today.

“Me and Andrew have also changed and are in a much better place,” he notes. “It’s not as dark as it used to be. We were waylaid with personal issues and substance abuse and alcohol and all that business. That’s all gone now.”

It’s evident in conversation with Williamson that he takes none of Sleaford Mods’ success for granted. He speaks seriously and philosophically about the band and their aspirations. He’s conscious of how far they’ve come, as well as the need to keep evolving without losing sight of what continues to make them such a compelling outfit.

“We don’t want to push it out too much because that would just be stupid; we’re not interested in doing Low or Tubular Bells,” he laughs. “But you have different goals, different needs, different influences, and all these things push it along. When you get to do another album, you’re another year older, your abilities have changed, sharpened. Andrew’s tastes and approach to music is quite flamboyant, you can’t pin it on one thing. He’s influenced by sound and what he sees around him. There is a certain sound to what we do but it’s always slightly different, and that’s what we like.”

Which brings us to UK Grim. Reaching No.3 in the UK album chart, it is their most accessible album to date, spanning the full spectrum of everything Sleaford Mods are about. The title track and album opener is a typically brutal assessment of Tory-run Britain; Force 10 From Navarone, featuring Florence Shaw of Dry Cleaning on vocals, is an instant ear worm and an undoubted high point in their post-2019 oeuvre; while blistering tracks such as Tilldipper and Tory Kong are reminiscent of the band’s earlier work, bristling with rage and humour in equal measure.

There was, however, a collection of songs that for one reason or another didn’t quite make the final cut. These have now been released in the form of More UK Grim, a six-track EP that treads a similar path. Songs like Under The Rules and Big Pharma engender the more recent musicality of Sleaford Mods’ output, while the wonderfully titled My 18 hr Girdle motors along at pace, lambasting notions of toxic masculinity by referencing a girdle ad campaign from the 1970s in which the wearers of said garment forget they are wearing one.

“The songs we selected for UK Grim were selected because they gelled together as a tracklisting,” he says, giving context to the new EP. “And we still had more than we have used on More UK Grim, but again they didn’t fit this six track EP. You like some tracks more than others and some become more appealing as time goes on with this stuff. Some of them become more interesting as the years go by. All the tracks on this EP are really interesting, although I don’t know if they have the same single quality that some of the stuff did on the main album, but they are definitely good tracks.”

If you want to survive you’ve got to maximise it. And I want to survive. Jason Williamson

While Sleaford Mods’ steady rise in popularity over the past few years has undoubtedly been driven in part by Fearn’s brighter, more expansive musical pallet, we posit that Williamson’s lyrics are perhaps resonating with a wider audience at greater volume, given the splintered state of society and politics today.

“Maybe a little bit,” he responds, not sounding entirely convinced. “There are a lot of people who listen to us that have completely different politics, and that’s been proven time and time again online. A lot of people listen to it just for the music and that’s fine. But, yeah, I’d imagine there are a lot of people who have similar politics that have connected to it because of that.”

From the moment Sleaford Mods first started flirting with public consciousness, the headlines surrounding them tended to centre on the rage and the undiluted detail with which Williamson depicted the state of the nation. What was often overlooked, maybe slightly less so today, was his ability to be laugh-out-loud funny while dismantling his targets. The aforementioned My 18hr Girdle being a case in point.

“Yeah, we were all laughing about that advert,” he says, before moving quickly on to the rise in recent years of high-profile figures pushing ideals of hyper masculinity. “As human beings, particularly men in this society, we are so much more than just some fucking alpha male bullshit or hunter gatherer nonsense, and there is a lot of that being projected currently. People like Andrew Tate or Jordan Peterson enforcing these ideas of religion, machoism, the guardian of the family unit being down to the man. It’s quite powerful.

“I saw an interview with Tate the other day where he was kickboxing, and he was being interviewed before the match and he said, I don’t care about the sport, I hate it, I hate training, I just want to kill. And that’s powerful. It’s carnal. It appeals to people that are confused and have no regard for their responsibilities in society. 

"And then you’ve got Peterson who is pushing the philosophical side of it. And people suck it up. He’s good at pushing that ‘intelligent’ message. You have either side – the physical, brawling side and the intelligent philosophical side. One legitimises the other.

“That’s coming out again because people are so confused, and when confusion reigns the unintelligent seem to prosper. So that song is kind of having a go at machoism. I see the queer community, and anyone associated with that, as far more intelligent than Mr Alpha Male. But as a song it’s quite funny,” he laughs.

The confusion Williamson speaks of feels rampant as ever in the political world. In just over a year since Headliner and Williamson last spoke (an interview detailing the band's earliest days working the grassroots venue circuit), the UK has had three Prime Ministers and numerous senior minister comings and goings. Did he at any point consider that things might return to something resembling normality? Particularly after the departure of Boris Johnson and ‘Partygate’?

“No,” he replies bluntly. “Has there ever been such a change of hands? None of them have any notable characteristics that would encourage the idea of positive leadership. That would signify intelligence and reason. They are all mid-level businesspeople, so all we’ll get is a lot of empty words while they go about doing really bad business deals to enamour themselves and their colleagues. That sounds a bit cynical, but from what we’ve seen I’m not proved wrong. It’s incredible really. You may as well just have cameras in the HQ of Johnson & Johnson or IBM and just watch how a company goes about trying to survive on the market.

“Then you have an opposition that doesn’t go too far from the ideological mark of the Conservatives for fear of losing votes. In fairness to the Labour party, I think it’ll be slightly better than what the Tories are doing at the minute. Appeasement will only be for those with capital in the bank. The people that matter will be the ones who can look after themselves and the rest will be thrown about. We’re screwed, aren’t we?”

Before our time together is up, we draw our focus back to matters Sleaford Mods. Reflecting on all that has happened for the band and the achievements they’ve racked up in 2023, is it accurate to describe it as their best year yet?

“Yeah, which is a bit odd really,” he says before pausing. “As far as I was concerned, when we first came out, that was the pinnacle of it. I couldn’t believe that we’d become successful to be honest. It was quite a surprise for both of us, so anything after that has been a bonus. But you get on in this game and you want to survive, and the only way to survive is to grow and spread your wings and learn. So that’s what we’ve been doing. And UK Grim is just another example of that.”

You can listen to this interview in full below.