Interview: Sleaford Mods talk conquering America, humor in lyrics, and the state of Trump

Sleaford Mods are fucking shit.

They’ll be the first to say it — just check the tweet from their official account earlier this week. They are also one of the freshest acts in music, and have been since Vanyaland dubbed them, “The most important band in the UK” way back in 2014. We stand by that, and beginning tonight at Warsaw in Brooklyn, the duo set to prove it with a six date, coast to coast roll across North America. It’ll be their first proper tour here. The Toronto gig Saturday had to be moved to a bigger venue.

The Mods are actually Nottingham natives, but chose to name themselves after nearby Sleaford because it sounds better. Delivering killer tracks like, “Jobseeker,” “Bronx in a Six,” “Moptop” and “B.H.S.,” the last two from their latest LP — and first for Rough Trade — English Tapas, the name hardly matters. The new album is a strong set of beats courtesy of Andrew Fearn that grab you immediately with Jason Williamson spouting off and singing better than ever. That’s right — singing. The frontman has extended himself beyond the primal, political rants of yore to what is sometimes more personal in nature, with Tapas’ highlight “I Feel So Wrong” topping the list.

That’s not to say the Mods have gone soft. They’ll be the first ones to tell you to sod off if you think otherwise, or obliterate certain members of the UK government with a verbal assault that’ll leave them hurting in the arse. Vanyaland checked in with Williamson ahead of the Stateside shows to discuss all those things, his bandmate liking metal whilst he prefers Aretha Franklin, and, basically, why they matter more than any other band from England.

Michael Christopher: The North American invasion begins this week in Brooklyn.

Jason Williamson: [Laughs] So to speak, yeah.

What are you most looking forward to about the jaunt?

The reaction, really. See what kind of reaction we get and see if it catches on with a few more people when we leave. See if we can build a relationship with your country and to get a bit of a more extended fanbase so to speak.

So this is just a short run to test the waters and if there’s enough interest, do a tour on a grander scale?

Yeah, that’s the idea. I suppose that’s any kind of band’s goal, isn’t it really? Go over there, do a tour; we’ve been looking to create sort of a buzz there just by releasing records. To keep coming back, that’d be great, that’d be fantastic. It’s a country that I’ve not explored extensively.

Was there a worry that a bulk of the material, lyrically, might not translate across the Atlantic? Especially on the earlier records, because it’s so English-centric in topic.

I think so. I’m not expecting great things to come off of Sleaford Mods to be honest — full-stop, you know? I think we will disable ourselves to a certain degree with the language. I don’t know though, because in Europe, we’re quite popular over there… you never know, you know what I mean? But I’m sure there’ll be some kind of a barrier. What it does have going for it is it’s classically English, and that might appeal to people, regardless of whether they can understand it or not. Some people might get a kick out of that.

At first, Sleaford Mods could’ve been seen as a novelty act by some people. There’s a guy on a laptop bouncing away while swigging on a can of lager, and this mad frontman ranting in almost a stream of consciousness manner. Then Iggy Pop comes out and calls you “the world’s greatest rock and roll band.” You do a single with the Prodigy. Vanyaland has been calling you, “The most important band in the UK.” Were you caught off guard by all of it, how the profile raised so quickly?

Yeah I was, yeah definitely. We were just under the impression we would be kind of received in more studied quarters, a kind of niche band in niche environments. It did come as a surprise, yeah — totally. But you can never judge the public and take them for granted. The masses are sometimes capable of beautiful things [laughs]. When a certain segment of that population started to see out music the way we did, it was a good time; 2013, ’14 we were coming out of obscurity to the public eye and being described in a way that we wanted to be — to a certain degree — was really quite humbling. There’s grounds to be conquered, in places like America.

With English Tapas, it still has that Sleaford Mods sound, but there’s real growth on it. Something like “I Feel So Wrong” is not just different, it’s growth.

[“I Feel So Wrong”] is about personal failure, it’s about personal disappointment. It was tinged with experiences of a personal nature, so it was the only way to do a song like that really. We’ve covered the ground with the rant thing and the aggressive vocal approach so much that, although we’re not distancing ourselves from that, it felt like there was room to do something else. I was a singer before Sleaford Mods came about, so I just brought that back into the mix again but made it more natural as opposed to affected.

The subject matter is more expansive as well on the album as a whole; it’s not so centralized to the UK. Was that a conscious decision, to give it a wider range of appeal?

Yeah, because you can only keep repeating yourself so much, and it was worth repeating originally. There is obviously traces of that on English Tapas, but it was just a case of where it changes as an individual, you just become better at expressing yourself with each album.

Of course, one of the first things that happens when a band attains any modicum of success, the backlash begins. Though you did kind of beat people to the punch with that: “Fuck me, we’re fuckin’ shit” tweet this week.

Thank you, yeah — I’m glad you got it. A lot of people didn’t. But I did have a moment, I watched myself on the 6 Music Festival we did last weekend. I try not to watch us live because sometimes it works, and other times it’s like, “Ah — that’s shit… that’s shit.” And you just put it on, and why not — why shouldn’t you? [Laughs] It’s like you can’t say anything can you? Like, “Yeah, I do think we’re shit sometimes, but that’s the way it goes.”

Yeah, you’re not only able to take the piss, but also, “Right — we’re not 100 percent all the time, we’re not perfect.”

No. No, definitely not. In the live situation it can be hit or miss, and I don’t like to be represented live on video if I’m not happy with the performance. But sometimes you haven’t got a say in that and it just goes up. Album sales went up 20 percent over the weekend because of that, so you can’t really argue with it, but at the same time I was just sort of… disappointed with the performance. The way we looked and the way we moved about I thought, “Fucking hell” [laughs].

I caught you guys at Iceland Airwaves a couple years back, and I know you were very unhappy with that gig.

Well no, because that was at a really turbulent time really. I was personally going through a lot of grief and I just wasn’t getting my act together. I’d had enough by that time; it was the last gig of the year, and so we just wanted to come home. And the audience didn’t help; there was a fair few thousand there, which was great, but a lot of people didn’t get it I don’t think.

That same week, you and Andrew guest hosted Iggy’s BBC Radio 6 show. Some of the choices you spun made sense, like the Meteors, the Jam; but you also pulled out some really interesting choices like Hot Chocolate, Aretha Franklin and Laurie Anderson — stuff that might surprise people.

You’d think it wouldn’t, would you? But I guess it would. I mean, a lot of people don’t really pay attention to music, do they? They just listen to it. People’s kind of perceptions of how it’s made and what these people are like and what their tastes are like never enter into it. When they’re presented with someone that’s going, “Right, I’m into this, that and…” they’re like, “Well hold on mate; you’re in this band.” And it’s like, “Well yeah.”

By the same token, there’s quite the contrast in what you and Andrew like. He was telling me about all the heavy metal bands he was into, and that’s a scene that didn’t really appeal to you at all.

No — not at all. I don’t mind metal, don’t get me wrong. Andrew’s got such good taste that he can pull something out and go, “I’m into this,” and it’s like, “Yeah, that’s actually really good.” But I’ve never been exposed to it; it’s not something that’s interested me. If it’s just in front of me and it’s good, 10 out of 10 times I’ll probably like it.

What do you think it is that’s the main thing that connects the two of you?

God knows. I really don’t know. It’s a really weird thing. Without sounding stupid, it just comes from whatever; fate? I don’t know. A meeting of energies at the time… we just connect. It’s important to not dabble with that, not try and manipulate it. It’s kind of a weird unspoken thing that just occurs. Weirdness.

Shifting gears a bit, can you recall a moment if your lifetime — or anytime really — when both England and the United States were so fucked?

No, not really. I wasn’t too clued into the ‘80s because I was a kid. I’m thinking, the Cold War period? Reagan Thatcher administrations? I mean, was it pretty bad then? I don’t know. Were jobs more plentiful back then? Was racism as bad back then as it is now? Probably worse actually. I couldn’t tell you. I think we’re at a period right now where we haven’t hit a wall, but we’re going to at some point. What happens after that is who knows. Human nature is quite an untamed beast.

Looking in from the outside, what do you make of Trump?

I don’t get a good feeling. I don’t know that the administration quite know what they’re doing, or, at least, Donald doesn’t know — does he? I don’t know how that administration is working. I don’t know if Bannon and the rest of them are making the moves and they’re just using Trump as the front person, and when he gets wiggled out to put a case over the chaotic mess, he kind of messes that up [laughs]. I mean, his speeches and press conferences are… I don’t know where they go. Where do they go? [laughs] They’re a lot like the ones over here where they don’t go anywhere. When pressed about the progress of the country, pressed about failed policy, the answers aren’t clear answers — the question is not answered at all. It’s hijacked by back chat and reversed logic – it’s weird. And this is characteristic of neo-liberal leaders, isn’t it?

You’ve been pretty vocal about not being a voice for England. But you’ve got no problem delivering a commentary on what’s going on — as you’ve got a right to. Do you try to find a balance in what your lyrics are like so you don’t become saddled with that tag?

I’m not too sure. It’s up to somebody else to say that about the work we do. Sometimes it’s quite complimentary; it’s a positive reaction — isn’t it? It’s someone saying, “You’ve got valid points. You seem to be expressing yourself in a way that nobody is.” On the other side of that, it can have a bad effect with people that are reading it and the tag you get. Then people have it in their minds that you’re always gonna be like that and it can sometimes affect you if you let it. The balance comes with humor and not taking yourself too seriously with it all and keeping your feet on the ground.

So you do see the humor in a lot of Sleaford Mods as well. There’s lyrics that can have people doubled over laughing.

Yeah, yeah. Because when the funny lines come, they come. It’s the spice of life isn’t it? Humor is almost like the fountain of youth isn’t it? [laughs] You forget about things. You laugh. You have a common connection with the person next to you — if it’s good humor. You can have dark humor — whatever kind of humor; racist humor, sexist humor, misogynistic humor, but those aren’t good energies. To get good humor material into songs, things that people can relate to and laugh at, that’s quite hard to do. We do achieve that a lot of the time, and it’s a real accomplishment I think.

Mods NA Tour 17