Andrew Fearn: “Music is important for a healthy mind.”
An interview with the Sleaford Mods music-making genius on retaining the bedroom amateur feel in the face of success, the making of Spare Ribs and why kids love them...
Andrew Fearn is famously the bedroom musician whizkid who was not so much of a kid when his and Jason Williamson’s paths on the fringes of the music scene collided ten years ago – nothing much was happening to either, until Jason hit upon the idea of ranting over some looped death metal, then found Andrew to provide the stripped back electro tunes that could permanently drive Sleaford Mods. From 2013’s Austerity Dogs, Andrew has been consistently making the deceptively simple tunes that are somehow basic but innovative, loose but tight, serious but playful, which doesn’t give a shit if it’s ‘good’ or not, consequently making it great. We spoke to Andrew about the new album Spare Ribs, his work ethic and how cassettes changed his life…
How did you approach Spare Ribs? Did you have an idea of what you wanted to do with the album or does it come together in a looser way for you?
It’s slapped together really, but I guess the other element is thinking about who I’m working with. It’s about making it sound natural, removing as much pretence as possible. It’s not about the instruments, it’s not about genres, or at least it’s about mixing genres together, which is what modern music does now.
Fusion used to be a cheesy thing back in the 80s and 90s, genres wouldn’t want to mix together, but they’ve ended up blending. You can still be a purist band if you want – like a heavy metal band – but you’re not going to turn too many heads.
Is it also that people are exposed to more music than ever in the past?
Yeah I think and younger people are discovering older music and enjoying that. There was some Reels thing this morning with some kid in Russia doing some dance to the old Technotronic track. The kid was going crazy about this tune that’s 25 years old.
How did you get to listen to stuff in your teenage years?
I think the most influential thing was cassettes that people would give me. I had a Smiths cassette that had Hatful of Hollow on one side and some other tracks on the other. I didn’t know what they looked like or what the covers looked like but I played that cassette to death. In some ways we’ve gone back to that with the internet because you don’t have the album anymore, you don’t have the artwork as much, it’s instant. We’ve come a full circle in a way.
I dropped out of college in Newark when I was 17, and was unwilling to go home so I slept on friends’ floors. And this girl once had this cassette with Big Black and Butthole Surfers on, and my mind was totally blown. From what I’d been listening to before I was like, ‘what’s this?’
What was the making of Spare Ribs like?
We got some of it done before lockdown kicked in, and we didn’t do another recording session until later in the year but because we work quite fast, we just boshed it out like we usually do. But there is a lot of pre-work. I’ll send Jason the music and he’ll write the lyrics to it and put the ideas to it – initially we didn’t know if it would go anywhere or what we were doing, so we try to keep that concept of working together. We live in an instant world so I think if you do anything too laboured in music, I think it shows. Especially now people know how music is made a lot more – if a band writes a tune and tells you it took a year to make you think ‘What? Get on with it…’ It’s just some chords!
Over-thinking things must be a danger, then – of having a run of albums then going oh, we must progress and get in a big studio?
Even you saying that sounds like a death wish doesn’t it? You want to be going somewhere, you don’t want to be there. You want to be travelling towards something because once you’re there, it’s over.
When you’re making the tracks, do you instantly know what’s going to work?
Some of it. I’ll make a load of stuff and some of it I’ll think sounds like something that would work.
You might want to do something like McFlurry but not to go into that too much, to what McFlurry sounds like – it’s like blurring your mental vision. Creating something with that feeling rather than that sound.
Are you constantly writing and making music?
Pretty much. I have a lot of gear here at home so I have to have days where I purposely don’t, because I could just turn it on and do stuff. I find myself going, this is just too much for my brain now.
Before, when I was skint, it was fine to work all the time, it was quite nice, to be complacent about what you were doing, and rediscover things you’d almost forgotten you’d made. I don’t know how normal that is, I don’t know how other people work.
Has the way you’ve worked in the band changed over the years?
A little bit, there’s always a pressure for it to change, so personally its always been something I’ve tried to hang onto and promote the idea of it not changing. If you do something good and change, you might lose what people liked about you in the first place. Those things have to match don’t they? You have to like it as well as the people liking it.
How did Mork n Mindy come together?
Most of it was made on a teenage engineering pocket operator, and the only thing I added was a bit of bass, which is one note really. To fatten it up a bit. The pocket operator is a device that’s a very now toy – its very good quality for the size of the thing. I’ve realised that as technology has got more affordable that more people need to be using these things to make music with and make good tracks with because they’re valid. There’s so much home studio gear now and not enough people reflecting on the sounds they make. Everyone still wants to play guitar don’t they?
I think I fly a little flag for the amateur because that’s where I’m from. I’m self taught, I’m a bedroom artist. And there’s a lot of us from the Myspace days – this is where we are now!
What got you into making your own music when you were younger?
I was making music from a young age, 15 – I saved up every week to buy this Casio keyboard, because I was into electronic stuff, Pet Shop Boys, New Order, just chart stuff. It wasn’t til I was 17 that I realised there was a world of music outside pop music. My parents’ record collection was very 50s, very Elvis, there weren’t massively into music. It was just what was fed to me though TV – the Top of the Pops generation.
The Pet Shop Boys were musically the ones I really liked. They’d always have these really subtle things in the background when you listened on headphones. Like car screeches. That sort of dynamic really interested me. You couldn’t make anything high quality so there was a voyeurism for that too with sampling culture. ’19’ by Paul Hardcastle – I remember finding out that it cost £100,000 to make and my heart sank because I thought I’m never going to be able to make the kind of music I want to make. And now you could make it on your phone. The world’s changed.
What were you like as a kid?
I was just mad about music, and was in all the school productions. I’ve always been obsessed with music all my life. I made sure I failed everything else so I could be successful in music and its taken me to nearly 50 years of age to get there!
What were the early days of Sleaford Mods like were you convinced it was going to work or were you just seeing what would happen?
No it’s more the fact that in 2013 I’d pretty much given up. And Jason was the same, so at that low ebb any kind of success was huge. For me to be able to sign off, to make any money out of music was unbelievable. And it still is for musicians, you get paid £50 for a gig and its like ‘wow!’ That’s how unappreciated music is.
But it never stopped going up at a 45 degree angle going up and up. It was really quite amazing. That’s why a lot of people were interested in us in a way that wasn’t happening for a lot of bands. We had that authenticity behind us which seemed to carry quite well with people.
Have you noticed people’s perceptions change about you – what they used to say about you and what they say now?
Yeah, I never really understood why people thought we were so aggro. I’ve always found Jason’s aggression to be very real anger – it’s not heavy metal anger – it’s more of a humanistic anger, its relatable. And that relatability in the aggression is what people tapped into. There’s always been some women at our gigs in a very male world. It’s all gone so fast as well.
You’re very prolific – was that because of not getting anywhere for so long and then having all this energy to unleash?
Yeah, also that’s the kind of time we live in. You’ve got really famous people doing loads of Instagramming, and everyone’s got to keep working, even before the pandemic it was that way. They don’t want to be forgotten. Magazines used to do that job but social media has moved in on that.
Are you missing the live shows?
The first part of last year was nice, to have a break but it did get a bit boring and frustrating. I’m lucky that I’m single and don’t have any kids so I don’t have any pressures that way. But it’s boring getting drunk on your own.
I’m not a massive fan of touring and I hate hotel rooms, but the gigs are always good. If you’ve had a bad day on tour the actual gig always takes that away. I’ll enjoy it when I get back to it.
Are you optimistic about what’ll come out of this last year?
Yeah I think it’s shown people need music ultimately. It’s an important thing for a healthy mind in the times we live in. It will always be there, people will always want to make it. I’d still make music if I wasn’t successful at it. It’s part of who we are.
Do you ever have a hankering to get inside a big Pink Floyd studio?
Not really no. We’re not that type of band. My flat where it all started was tiny and it all came out of that. It’s important, whatever band you’re in, to remember what made you.
Going back to Pet Shop Boys, one of the pleasures of your work is hearing non musical things like car alarms on your tracks…
Yeah I think that came from when you hear a tune and there’s always a musical interlude bit – it was a bit of a derogatory glance at that kind of thing. Why bother having that? Again with the guitar stuff – why have that? Just have a noise!
It was the kind of thing we laughed about. You saying that and it being received well means it reflects things that people out in the world are thinking.
Kids massively love Sleaford Mods – my own always dance to it when its on the radio – why’s that do you think?
A lot of people have said this – I really don’t know why. It may be that a lot of music for kids like K-pop is so garish and sonically horrible. Kids aren’t discerning about nuance they just like beats and sounds. It doesn’t sound so brash and painful to the ear.
Thinking about it, kids always like Little Richard, that stripped back early rock n roll, which I guess is similar in that stripped back sense to you…
Yeah sonically we’re old school whereas a lot of modern pop, I don’t get it. It’s part of that idea of maximising your frequencies for phones. But you don’t have to go to those extremes of making people’s ear drums bleed.
Follow Andrew on Twitter.
Main photo: Simon Parfrement
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