An interview with guest editor Jason Williamson
As Sleaford Mods guest edit The Book of Man, here’s part one of our interview with Jason about lockdown, and the making of new album Spare Ribs.
Now this is the way to start a year: a guest edit from one of the most important voices in British culture. In fact, it represents more than that, this guest edit is here to provide a much needed dose of reality by people committed to the truth; which in a time of lies, posturing and outright bullshitting – and that’s just the leaders of the free world – is more valuable than it’s ever been. Inspirational, in fact.
Of course, with Sleaford Mods – for it is they who are taking the reins of The Book of Man this week while we sun ourselves under a fridge light – the truth they are intent on grappling is the messy kind of truth: the uncomfortable truth, the inconvenient truth, the kind of truth that gets stuck in your teeth only to reveal itself when you try forcing a smile on a Zoom brainstorm.
Sleaford Mods – “they’re not from Sleaford and they’re not mods” complained their pal Stewart Lee once, but that’s another story – are the Nottingham-based musical act known casually for frontman Jason Williamson’s raging, outrageous, brutally funny, lyrical cluster bombs and for backman Andrew Fearn’s stripped back tunes which you may call ‘electro-doom-fire alarm-no wave-techno’ before pursing your lips and muttering, “unclassifiable”. After ten years of toil and a succession of albums which serious music journalists like to call ‘incendiary’, we find them today at a point where they have achieved genuine hearts and minds success everywhere, thanks partly to the 6Music endorsements of Iggy Pop, but also the gradual dropping of first glance assumptions about them (sweary, miserable, regional – ugh!), and the consistent quality of the music. Plain and simple: they’re genius. Uniquely inventive, searingly insightful, bristling with ideas, and out-and-out hilarious, it’s hardly a stretch to call them the best band of our era, one who have ever increasing importance in a post-truth world. Sleaford Mods bring it back to hard truths. As such, it can make people nervous, provoking Noel Gallagher and similar types to bring up variations on the old Oscar Wilde saying, “We are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars.’ Instead, Sleaford Mods are tugging on your sleeve saying, “No mate, really, you’re in the gutter, you’ve got takeaway in your turn-ups and that guy has stopped his Rolls Royce to repeatedly kick you in the head.”
Which brings us nicely to the last year in this country, with the pandemic, lockdown privations, mirthless slapstick leadership, extremist bug-eyed ‘debate’ and large sectors of society suddenly considered entirely expendable. The word is out that the people in charge are not simply inept but may be an entirely new species of human, one incapable of the basic functions of empathy and rationality. Right on cue, as 2021 stumbles onto its arse right of the blocks, we have a new Sleaford Mods album here to help us make sense of it all.
Called ‘Spare Ribs’ – referring the spare ribs of society, those who are surplus to requirements in a system with economics as the primary concern – it rips down the stained curtain of the Wizard of Boz, and finds much to disturb. It features Jason reflecting (in his own incensed way) on life today as well as his childhood, and is an album which manages to combine the personal and political in a way uniquely attuned to our situation.
Anyway, before we overstay our welcome in a way that the band may not approve (this is, after all, their guest edit), let’s get on with part one of our in-depth interview with Jason. It was done over Zoom, as all human contact is now, occasionally interrupted by various children, and we started talking how lockdown bled into the making of the album…
How did you get started on Spare Ribs?
Well we came up with [first single] Mork N Mindy about two years ago – me and Andrew wrote it on tour in the UK. I don’t know why I went back to a childhood thing around that period, but I went with the idea of being a kid and being reduced to playing violent games with your sister’s dolls and your Action Man, under a blanket of the early Eighties. I found it all very bleak and very boring and not inspiring at all. The irony being that obviously it has started inspiring me now. But back then it was shit really. I wanted to try and bring that across. It was another way of trying to express my ongoing interest with all things optionless. That’s pretty much the way I view life most of the time, without sounding depressing, because I’m in a great position now, course I am. But that’s what I wanted to put across.
[New single] ‘Nudge It’ was written in January 2020 when we went into the studio and also recorded album tracks ‘Elocution’, ‘Shortcummings’ and ‘Thick Ear’. I had this idea for ‘Nudge It’, which was my ongoing disdain for the lack of creativity and vision in this game. ‘Nudge It’ talks about the way bands adopt certain images when it doesn’t necessarily align with their experiences as an individual.
So things were forming in January, then we went on tour in Australia, and the pandemic hit as soon as we got back. That started to lace the album as well. Stuff like ‘Top Room’ and ‘Out There’ talk about the claustrophobia and monotony of lockdown.
Also I injured my back over the summer and that got me thinking about childhood again. I was born with this rare form of spina bifida, so I’ve been told. I didn’t find this out until summer. Obviously I knew it was serious because I’d been through this massive operation when I was a kid, but I didn’t realise it was Spina bifida. I was told that over the summer, so it all became quite emotional. That kind of pushed this idea of childhood further into the album, which I liked – it all fell into place nicely.
It’s not nostalgia is it? that suggests a fond looking back, but you’re looking back on it as a bit crap…
Oh god yeah. But when you’re a child you don’t know anything else, so it’s all gravy isn’t it? In that sense it wasn’t a particularly disturbing childhood by any stretch of the imagination. My parents divorced – they were only 20, 21 when they had me – but it was a pretty average, featureless, working class upbringing I think. My only salvation was that my parents had their eyes open a bit more they weren’t out-and-out fucking thugs like some of my mates’ parents. I was lucky in that sense but I wanted to paint a picture of my experiences of that time, not necessarily to turn it into a sob story but to paint a more realistic image.
Your work looks at your environment and records the truth about it and now you’re applying that to the past – is that fair to say?
Sure, definitely – that’s ongoing, and I think that will always be the same with us. That’s the main vehicle.
What were you like as a kid?
Alright. I was easy going, I wasn’t bullied, I didn’t get into fights. I tried to stay away from trouble as much as I could because I sensed it was not a good idea; crime or anything like that. I was okay. I got on with the hard kids. I lived a relatively hassle-free childhood, through school especially.
Did the Spina bifida operation have an effect on you that you can remember?
Not really, apart from the chronic back pain from the age of 3 onwards. There was a history of Spina bifida in the family – my sister died at birth about a year after I was born. I think it was quite a thing in the 70s, there were a lot of cases of it. Now we know a bit more about it, but back then it was a rife. I don’t know why. It all sent my mum into a massive depression, and in order to combat that they gave her electric shock therapy which put her out of the picture for 2 or 3 years. And my dad wasn’t great so I think that must have rubbed off on me. But to be honest I was not aware of it, really.
Up through 5, 6 and 7 I started to get worse pain in my back, but the doctors said to my mum I was just pulling her leg. This was the kind of mentality you had to deal with. Our local GP just said I was pulling her leg, which is incredible, isn’t it?
It got to about the age of 12 and I got up to go to school and couldn’t walk. That’s when the operation was drafted in. I was taken to Derby, and this spinal surgeon and his team performed a pretty state of the art operation on my spine. They removed a benign tumour and then the horse’s tail at the bottom of my spine, that was all tangled, so they did something with that. My spine kind of opens in the middle and then there’s some weird shit that goes at the top. It was a 50/50 operation but it was a success, I was able to walk.
After that I forgot about it. I lived a relatively normal life and I have been doing. That was that, really.
It would be tempting at this stage to indulge in a spot of amateur psychology, which we’ll resist, bar an important acknowledgment that his experiences and surroundings led to a desire to become famous. Jason wanted to be an actor before he turned to music – and popped up Ben Wheatley’s ‘Rebecca’ recently – but I’d argue it wasn’t truly about being a star, it was about becoming Grantham’s own surgically enhanced ‘Six Million Dollar Man’ (as we’ll come back to in a story on Sleaford Mods’ favourite childhood TV shows), a need to break his limitations and become something greater than what was expected of him. And then finding after many years that his superpower happened to be lyrical invective not X-ray vision. Here’s the thing though: I’d venture he does want to save the world. Sleaford Mods are not nihilistic – although hopeless despair and anger is very much present, they do care. This are incensed by the exploitation and degradation around them. Running through the concern with crap jobs, obscene bosses, the toilet of the music industry and the crap bands clogging it up, authoritarian cruelty, the scatological revulsion of life at the bottom, and the dire comedy of humanity, all of it, really, is run through with the same radar for injustice, and its old chums, hypocrisy and lies. There is no comfort in this music, it holds the filth up to the light so we can see it’s our own. It’s an accusation but also exciting and a relief. Not merely the relief humour can bring, but the exhilaration of hearing the stuff that lingers in our consciences being brought to the surface and shouted about – the message seems to be: don’t deny it, deal with it.
How was the period of the first lockdown for you as you were reflecting? At what stage did you want to turn it into songs?
We had those five tunes in the bag in January, I knew somethng was stirring. When lockdown kicked in I started writing to more stuff that Andrew was sending over. A couple centred around the lockdown. I didn’t want to talk about it too much because people are going to expect that from us, aren’t they? I didn’t want to deliver some obvious bullshit, I tried to stay away from it but as lockdown went on…
I started getting really frustrated and angry, particularly at the political figures leading it. Dominic Cummings was a fixture anyway with ‘Shortcummings’ and I started to delve into his notes on how to rearrange society, that thing he wrote in a couple of years in the bunker at his parents’ castle! You could pull it out of a cartoon, couldn’t you? Don’t get me wrong, it’d be silly to say it was dogshit and stupid to say he’s not intelligent, he clearly is, but it’s just like, oh god. In his defence he was asking questions like ‘why are people still illiterate? Why are there large swathes in this society that can’t read?’ I’m thinking: why? What do you fucking think? Look at you, you cunt! WHY?? He regarded, and still does I would imagine, the ways in which the fabric of society and the administrative political centre, as old hat and dated, and regarded a lot of his Tory peers as out of their depth and no longer relevant. Which is fine, but we’re not going to get the answers from Dominic Cummings are we?
And his arrogance. I remember a reporter collaring him before the election result and he was just acting like he was going to bang him out. People who care about people don’t act like this. People with a greater vision about how humanity should move forward don’t act like this.
For these people its playtime, they can design systems without having any idea of the reality of what that means for actual people.
This is my point about it. You can argue the toss about his essay all day long, but he was brought into a landscape where he’s not eating sliced white bread in front of an electric heater in January, having to put 50p into the TV. He’s never experienced that, so how on earth do you think you can rearrange things for the benefit of the British public? It’s incredible.
In the songs Top Room and Out There, you seem to be reflecting on lockdown but also projecting outwards, to look at the break in the way we live. Are there positives in that sense in the way it made everyone question the way they were living?
Yeah, a little bit. But that soon vanished didn’t it? There was almost a feeling of positivity at the start of it, particularly with the financial assistance being handed out, but that soon ended didn’t it? And so did the feeling that maybe another life is possible. Obviously there is another life possible, of course there is. And of course there is the possibility of a governing body of people that are for the people. I had a moment looking out thinking things can change, but it ended when people were starting to congregate in the park to get pissed. It slowly seeped back in – bars started to open and then the splinter groups formed, the anti-maskers and conspiracy theorists. I still have friends saying to me it’s the Big Restart. If Bill Gates wants to make money out of my life, he doesn’t need a pandemic, he’s going to do it anyway.
I think it was heartbreaking the way you could see people’s opinions being swayed so easily by the press. It’s clever how they do it and I don’t think it’s just one collection of people obviously, but it turns into an energy of ignorance.
There is a tendency to believe in fictions, and is that a stimulus for you, to puncture these fantasy worlds? We always seem to be harking back to glorious past, when if you look at the lived realities going back through your own generations, you have to ask: when did that happen?
It only happened for the people who were controlling things, didn’t it? What we now know about our country’s history and our behaviour in the sugar trade and India and the oppression of other people and their resources, it’s embarrassing. There was no Empire, it was just a robber’s hall. When you go to Paris or London, all these massive buildings are just off the back of corruption aren’t they? It’s just propaganda isn’t it?
Sleaford Mods exist as an anti-propaganda machine. If their truths are uncomfortable, that’s because the truth is usually uncomfortable. That they have the front and will to repeatedly grab the truth like a dog with a rib, makes them pretty powerful. And isn’t that desire to speak the truth what any band, any person, for that matter, should seek? The old social system has broken, everything seems chaotic and up for grabs, we seem on the cusp of something new but there’s so many false voices around, you can get lost. Steering a path close to the truth is a battle in itself, but there are folk out there doing it. If Sleaford Mods are fixated on the gutter, it’s to try to find a way out through the grates, into the sewers where raves are had amongst the fading old toys, radioactive superpowers are given, and the foundations of the old cities are beginning to crumble.
Part two of this interview with Jason will be out on Friday. The Sleaford Mods guest edit of The Book of Man will be on all week. Stay tuned to our Instagram page and sign up to our newsletters below for the latest stories on their collaborators, social concerns and really crap toys.
Spare Ribs is out on 15th January.
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