Sweaty basements, smashed up guitars and worn out drumsticks are the images usually conjured at the mention of punk, yet Sleaford Mods have emerged as one of our climate’s greatest punk acts armed with little more than a laptop and a microphone.
Formed in 2007 in Nottingham, Sleaford Mods was originally the solo act of vocalist and songwriter Jason Williamson, taking its name from Lincolnshire’s Sleaford, a market town not far from Jason’s hometown of Grantham – fittingly, the birthplace of the battleaxe of austerity, Margaret Thatcher.
Sleaford Mods have emerged as one of our climate’s greatest punk acts armed with little more than a laptop and a microphone
Prodigiously working class, Jason took to penning his frustrations with songs like Teacher Faces Porn Charges, an autobiographical song about going to the shop in his pyjamas to buy a Mars bar and can of Special Brew – emptying the entire contents of his pocket at the time. The Sleaford Mod’s characteristic electronic punk sound was born when friend and early Sleaford Mods producer Simon Parfrement suggested that Jason combine these lyrics with a loop lifted from a Roni Size track. It hit.
Jason performed live as a solo act for years, bringing looped samples and backing tracks on CDs to pubs around Nottingham. In 2009, Jason met Andrew Fearne after seeing him DJ in a small Nottingham club and by Sleaford’s 2012 album Wank, Andrew was credited on the album. Thereafter, Andrew became the band’s sole producer and Sleaford Mods were a bonafide duo.
Carrying a significance of the likes of The Fall’s Mark E. Smith and Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten
Lyrics and production aside, one of the things that stands out about Sleaford Mods is Jason’s urgent, pent-up punk vocals. Carrying a significance of the likes of The Fall’s Mark E. Smith and Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten, Jason’s East Midlands-affected shouty, rap-influenced vocals are recognisable in a moment. Even outside the realms of punk music, some of history’s greatest vocalists such as Lou Reed and David Byrne are not remembered for carrying a tune, but frequently, by doing the exact opposite. To quote David Byrne himself, ‘The better a singer’s voice, the harder it is to believe what they’re saying.’
Jason’s disquieting vocal delivery forces your whole attention
Jason’s disquieting vocal delivery forces your whole attention, though he actually holds a pretty good singing voice, having spent his younger days fronting rock bands. Sleaford Mods’ new album Eton Alive is perhaps the first time fans are given a glimpse of this in songs like When You Come Up to Me and O.B.C.T, though Sleaford Mods have reached a level of following and crushing cultural relevance that it doesn’t detract an iota from their message.
‘I was blessed with a good vocal range, I’m quite a good singer in the traditional sense – or used to be – so I thought that that was enough, but it’s not. Singing isn’t just being able to sing, it’s being able to communicate an individual, meaningful voice.
‘It’s alright if you’re doing a pantomime or something, that’s all that’s required of you, or opera where you are trained to sing in a certain style and that’s a skill in itself, but to do street music, punk, rock and roll; whatever you want to call it, requires an original voice – one that’s got an original message or a message that is communicated in an original way. Even though the subject matter might be something that has been well-trodden – and social commentary has, oppression has. The older I get, the more it wouldn’t even enter my mind that in order to be a good vocalist you have to have good range – you’ve just got to have a good approach to it. We are cursed with a lot of people that are technically great, but are just absolutely pointless.’
We are cursed with a lot of people that are technically great, but are just absolutely pointless
With early influences, aside from punk, such as Wu Tang Clan and The Streets’ Original Pirate Material, Jason also cites artists like Luther Vandross and Chaka Khan as influences.
‘The singing on the new album is still very much in its infancy. This album has been received well, much to my surprise, because we’re a band that’s known for our punky, ranting, impulsive noise and it’s starting to go into something else now. I don’t know if it’s as effective as it used to be, or what, but clearly people think it still is. And I think perhaps there is better to come from that experiment that is on the two or three songs on the new album.
It’s got to be interesting, you can’t keep reeling off the same old shit
‘You have to keep it interesting for yourself. I’ve known people that in the nineties were in really good, cool garage bands and just got sick of it and joined folk bands. It’s got to be interesting, you can’t keep reeling off the same old shit.
‘I’m influenced now by different things. I think that’s great, fuck it. It’s two fingers up, innit? “What? You were listening to what?” Fuck you. People get these completely wrong ideas about what punk is. We’re not wholly punk, there are other aspects to us. But it’s all about doing what you want.
It’s two fingers up, innit? (…) People get these completely wrong ideas about what punk is.
‘There will always be a little bit of a ranty, rap thing in it, I guess, because I still listen to a lot of rap orientated music. Our sound is so characteristic of us, it’s our own thing and that won’t leave us. You know, we’ll go on – we’ve probably got another four, five years in us – and it won’t probably change massively, but there will be little strains of other influence and this singing thing will probably be one of them.
‘Eton Alive is basically a continuation of life under the lie of austerity, of corporate brawl; it’s a continuation of expression that has bounced from that. With the other albums, they’re very raucous, there are lots of long monologues spitting about this, that and the other. This one kind of just sits there and thinks about it a little bit – it’s a little bit more mature. It talks about personal issues as well as exterior issues. Some of the issues are well-trodden paths – consumerism, capitalism, et cetera, et cetera; but as time went on, these things were very interesting, still, and I found a new way of talking about them.’
This album is a little bit more mature
Though as a frontman Jason could carry a full band, Andrew pulls an equal weight in terms of Sleaford Mods’ unique appeal, with his excellent, genre-disregarding, lo-fi production – taking influences from grime, funk, hip hop, techno and more. When you strip away Jason’s vocals for a moment, you can hear exactly what makes this duo combination so special.
‘Sleaford Mods appears quite punky, because of the way I sing, because of the minimalism and that kind of defiance that comes from everything that you see about it visually and sonically.’
Rumours of Sleaford Mods’ live show often precede an introduction to their music and this month we will have a chance to see it for ourselves, with Sleaford Mods’ UK tour stopping into o2 Academy Bristol on 6 April.
We’re one in the chain of many, many bands throughout history that are just good
‘If you get a chance to see us now and over the next five years, ten years, you can turn around and say, yeah, you experienced a decent band. We’re one in the chain of many, many bands throughout history that are just good. And live, it’s good. It’s proper.
‘It’s meat and potatoes, it’s cabaret, it’s comedy – it’s everything you want. Well, anything I’d want from a decent band, you know. It’s inspiring stuff I would imagine for somebody that’s looking for an act like that.’