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UK Grim

Sleaford Mods: “There’s been a horrible unveiling of fascism”

Culture

UK Grim is the album that shows Sleaford Mods have always been a prophetic band. Things are bleak. But also hilarious. We talk to them about it all.

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…’

Yes I am starting this piece with a quote from Yeats, and here’s more:

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouched toward Bethlehem to be born?

Lines from the apocalyptic poem The Second Coming from 1919 about the descent of dark times, perhaps even the re-emergence of the Devil Himself. Lines which were later referenced by Joan Didion for her legendary essay,  Slouching Towards Bethlehem, about the collapsing hippie scene in San Francisco where the happy clappy Magic Bus was running aground on state brutality, acid-fried malaise and disappearing children. Lines also beloved by that dark lord of existentialist grot and ecstatic fear, Francis Bacon, who marvelled at the beast line, saying it contained a “horror which has a whole vibration in its prophetic quality.”

I mention all this mostly to show off, but also to attempt to get a finger of the racing pulse of Sleaford Mods, the band who seem uniquely connected to the failing cardio-vascular system of this country. Even the most deranged Liz Truss-staring flag-waving optimist could deny things have grown dark, that the centre has not held, and any sense of unity or purpose, has gone careering off somewhere like a bumper car on the loose.

That Sleaford Mods have a prophetic quality is so obvious it’s like pointing out they swear a lot. But it’s worth sticking with it for a moment: the world Jason Williamson and Andrew Fearn have lifted the lid on since Austerity Dogs (2013), of joblessness, hopelessness, addiction, breakdowns, government corruption, street hassle, poverty and squalor and fear –

‘Can of Strongbow, I’m a mess
Desperately clutching onto a leaflet on depression
Supplied to me by the NHS
It’s anyone’s guess how I got here
Anyone’s guess how I go’ 
[Jobseeker, first recorded 2007 by Jason]

– is now the daily experience for huge amounts of people, on one level or another. Once restricted to the sidelines, Sleaford Mods suddenly find themselves centre stage, since the lid they’re now lifting is country-sized, and what’s under it is not the underclass but an entire nation: UK Grim.

That is of course the title of their new album and it is an instant classic, combining both the raw aggression of their early releases with the more introspective cohesion of their last album, and lockdown hit, Spare Ribs. Although it does unflinchingly expose the grimness of life right now, it’s not preachy, not worthy, it’s not a sermon – they have always been funny, surreal, and highly enjoyable, and now operate with a gleeful confidence that comes in the freedom to do exactly what they like.

On the Zoom call with The Book of Man, Jason and Andrew, lovely men both, certainly appear to be a good place, resplendent in their usual style – Jason resplendent in severe haircut and Vintage Boxing gear and Andrew in a bedroom genius beard and printed t-shirt – along with a focused cool befitting a knowledge that they’re cooking on gas. This strange little band they’ve created is getting ever bigger, ever more acclaimed, ever more important. Not that they’re going to worry about it, but they’ve booked the massive Alexandra Palace in December, their biggest gig to date:

Jason: [laughing] Yeah Alexandra Palace…a lot of the greats have played there. 

Andrew: We’re just ticking them off, yknow. [both laugh]

Jason: Just ticking them off, slowly but surely. We were told a couple of years ago that we wouldn’t get any bigger but that’s obviously been put to ruin. We’re looking forward to it, it’s going to be an interesting evening. Yeah, I’ve already planned the set. What do you think to it Andrew? I sent it to you. 

Andrew: Yeah it’s good. 

Casually does it, then. But of course, they’re hardly going to get carried away. It’s been too long coming. Besides, they’re a smart band: street-smart, music-smart, work-smart; they’re good bullshit sniffers, they have the finely attuned radar of born piss-takers. Still, big things are happening. It took a while but world has moved in Sleaford Mods’ direction, and everything now seems right time and right place. Just as Spare Ribs was the right album for lockdown, UK Grim is the right album for today’s shit-show. ‘In England, no-one can hear you scream…’ goes the title track and that feels about right. It’s tough out there, and getting worse.

Jason: It’s a post lockdown album. Everyone was out and about again, and for me lyrically it all changed. I had a big back problem over lockdown so I was on painkillers, quite heavily sedated, so I don’t know if that affected the mood of my delivery on Spare Ribs. But on this new one I’m fine, back in shop shape. Me and Andrew were back out touring too, so it’s more energetic, and more aggressive, because of that. 

But then also you’ve got this absolutely horrible unveiling of fascism that’s in England, and that combined with lots of other things, the segregation, the culture wars, all of those things have gone into the melting pot.

So it’s kind of business as usual again, back to the old way of just screaming, do you know what I mean?

Sure do. This slouch to the right-wing has been a sorry sight indeed, leaving life tougher than it has been since the 70s and equally ‘No Future’ for many young people. Those in charge have a viciousness only matched by their incompetence, one built on arrogance, an assumed higher status over the population, with the likes of Rishi Sunak and Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock running amok, in mockery of responsible duty.

Jason: “I’ve got crisis stamina.” [lyric from UK Grim] -You just get numb to it. but we’ve also got to remember that it’s a government that’s unravelling. They’re just completely directionless. It’s hard to think how anybody’s doing anything. I mean who’s running the fucking country? There just doesn’t seem to be any emphasis on the people, does there? I know that is a Conservative Party in charge, but for fuck’s sake…its not great is it?

They just don’t want to be leaders or people who want to govern seriously, its just some kind of job. I know its easy to say they’re careerists but it really does come across like that. Why does Rishi Sunak want to be a politician at all? Why do any of them? The only reason why they want to be politicians is because it’s a good position to make money and if you want to make contacts. If  the Conservative Party has shown the public anything, it’s that careerism will fail. It’s completely transparent.

All over the news at the moment is Suella Braverman, denying how fascistic her anti-immigration rhetoric is by by fascistically pushing a national sports broadcaster out of action for calling her language fascistic. And it all opens the door to old school far righters from the NF days, and inverse nouveau riche far righters like Lawrence Fox, along with a million other hateful conspiracy-theory dweebs online…all of whom claim the right of free speech while peddling hate speech. Men of the people…who hate people. Deluded plumbs with a secret authoritarian hard-on for Putin. (“Vladimir’s got his top off, He’s got his top off! Quick reach for your bits, Shit he’s so fit.” – UK Grim).

Jason: They’re very closely related, the aristocracy and the lower echelons of society. There’s still that relationship there, the kind of master of the house and the stable hand.

I was arguing on Twitter – I put up a think saying if you truly believe that people coming over on a boat is affecting your welfare, you’re just a cunt. And people were vehemently defending the idea that these people are dramatically affecting the economy. Its fucking insane. Why? Why are they thinking this? That our borders need protecting. Borders? You’ve never seen a fucking border! It’s just bizarre.

All the delusion and fuckwittery can drive you to distraction. Online, it’s like you’re having to deal with people from a different era every day: John Bull in the pub and Oswald Moseley in government. Faced with this, the disbelieving apoplectic insanity of Sleaford Mods is today’s normal morning mood.
(“The silent enemy lurks/ Looks trustworthy, but when the guard’s down, it will sing/What’s fucking wrong with loving ya country?/Everything!” – I Claudius)

Jason: I can’t see why people are not connecting the fact that the reason why they perhaps feel marginalised financially, is because of the people that are governing. Rather than some people that are coming over on a boat. I mean there seems to be such a massive emphasis on it. I know they’re using this as a tool to sway’s peoples attention back from the fact they’re a terrible government and playing into people’s nationalist beliefs. But 40,000 people turned up for a demonstration in Dublin. 40,000!

Andrew: At least it’s bringing people together! [both laugh]

When Noel Gallagher sneered at the band back in 2015, it felt like mere sour grapes: “There’ll never be another Bowie, or people driving around in gold Rolls-Royces, because cunts like Sleaford Mods’ll fucking sneer at them. And rockstardom will die.”

That now sounds unbelievably archaic, like a Cliff Richard quote – does anyone want to see any big rock star in a rolls swaggering around now? The only people who might are catered to by Andrew Tate. For everyone else not living in an adolescent fantasy world, it’s laughable. And this is the crucial bit of prophesy when it comes to Sleaford Mods: fantasy bubbles are getting popped. The old secret elevated environs where rock stars, CEO’s, politicians, celebrity, royalty, could live it up in excess away from the gaze of the plebs, have had their windows smashed in. But then all of us, from every strata of society, are now exposed for everyone to see. Yes, social media has done the job that Sleaford Mods were always into: revealing all the horrible secrets usually hidden away. For all the motivational quotes on line and the inspirational Influencers, social media has first and foremost revealed humanity in all its true forms. And it’s not pretty.

Spend more than ten minutes on social media – and if you’re like me, a person who nervously checks the ‘daily screen time’ notification on a Monday, it may be many hours a day – and there is one feeling that takes hold above all else: disgust.

Disgust with one another is really the central phenomenon of the social media age, and Sleaford Mods are the only ones dealing with this head-on. It seems weird that two 50-somethings are the ones to have captured the Digital Age best, but it also makes perfect sense: looking around at people and saying, “this is horrible,” is what they’ve always done. Now we’re all at it. Can’t escape it, in fact.

Not that any of this is particularly by design. Jason and Andrew are not project managing ‘state of the nation’ albums. It’s just happened that way. (This is always the case with truly great artists, by the way, they’re instinctive. They are not, repeat not, signing up to Andrew Tate courses called ‘Music = Money = power = women’) So asking them how the album began and it’s hard for them to pinpoint, since they haven’t really stopped recording since Spare Ribs. They’re in that high-speed creative stage where everything is humming along at a high level so it’s more like staying attuned to the ride:

Jason: It always starts with Andrew because his music will bring the little lyrics in my phone to life straight away. It will start to dictate whatever road we go down. And we don’t ever go down a singular road, the music’s all quite different. Its instinctive, we don’t sit there and plan it out, I think that would be a disaster really.

Andrew: By the end of the last session we had nearly 30 tracks to choose from. They say it gets harder as you go on, so it’s quite good having that many songs.

Jason: We’re at the stage now where every demo is quite well written, well produced, well thought out, so sometimes it’s tricky to differentiate and cut them out.

Andrew: Out music has got legs so you can try lots of different thing. I’ve always thought that about it.

Jason: Experimenting – you don’t talk about it, you just get on with it.

We have on the album, then, a collection of perfectly formed songs that reward repeated listening. From the more Kraftwerk pop of On the Ground, about confronting online trolls ‘irl’, to the brooding cold despair of Force 10 from Navarone (‘Force 10 from a country that still believes its not dead, but it is’) featuring Florence from Dry Cleaning, to the crap job petty thieving of ‘Tilldipper’, to the influencer lampoon of So Trendy, featuing Perry Farrell, and the block party hellscape of national delusions in Rhythms of Class. To name a few. The whole thing brings to mind The Kinks, in its little vignettes, or at least The Kinks crossed with Throbbing Gristle. Yeah, it’s funny but unnerving too, recognising all the disquiet in the nation is causing a lot of actual violence.

Jason: Yes and that’s prevalent in quite a few of the songs, whether it’s me having violent fantasies, or on ‘Smash Each Other Up’ talking about how just getting into your car and driving down the road is one of the best ways to measure people’s aggression. The tension and the look in some people’s eyes. They’re just waiting. It’s been like that for a while hasn’t it? But people are being that fucked about they don’t know what to think anymore. I think it’s just coming out in anger isn’t it?

“Excuse me, mate, you’ve just dropped one of your tattoos, yeah, just over there” Williamson begins on the post-punk scenester baiting DIwhy, before pointing out “You’re like an edgy version of something shit” Post-punk scenesters trying to capture the disquiet of our times – trying a bit too hard – have been a source of Jason’s ire seemingly since birth, and he still can’t leave it alone. Mind you, he’s self-aware at least, “Oh yeah, not another white bloke aggro band, Oh yeah we’re all the fucking same, let’s not kid ourselves, man.”

All of us social media fiends know that disgust at what we see is matched by disgust at ourselves for being part of it. In a particularly inspired moment on the track, he goes to the doctors with his rage about “post-punk dross,” and asks why he feels the need to slap them, to which the doctor replies, ‘Because they’re fucking cunts, Jason…fucking hit ‘em…”

Jason: I do have some things I want to explore and at the same time I just put things down that’s on my mind as well. I don’t want to betray that because it’s been so good to me. You do also look for new things. But those new things can a lot of the time be inspired just by Andrew’s music. just by the way my vocal will bounce off the edges of his music. The lyrics I put down are very much improvised sometimes. I don’t know, you just pull out anything that sounds good. If it doesn’t make sense, I don’t care. What I’ve noticed is that they do actually make sense when you go back to them.

Instinctive operations combined with years of hard work have resulted in UK Grim, perhaps the only honest musical document of 2023, one that hits the way so many of us are feeling. That we’re in some terrible end point that has been coming for a long time.

Bleak? Well, clarity it not always pretty. But it is necessary. And actually, the reason why Sleaford Mods keep growing in appeal is the sense that we’re all in this together – they’re weirdly inclusive and warm. We’re all fucked! But at least we can have a laugh and a dance with them in the filth.

Jason and Andrew foresaw it all, and we are all living in the world they always saw. Only one certainty remains: we are all Sleaford Mods now.

Photos by Ewen Spencer. UK Grim is out now. Follow Sleaford Mods on Instagram:

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