“You can't really deny or ignore the damning influence that the privately-educated few have had on the country…' - hmv.com talks to Sleaford Mods
For more than a decade now, Nottingham duo Jason Williamson and Andrew Fearn, better known collectively as Sleaford Mods, have been carving out their own niche in the musical landscape with their brash, lo-fi sound and expletive-laden tales of life on the lower rungs of Britain's social ladder.
As well as being one of the most unique fixtures on the independent music scene, they're also one of the most prolific, churning out 10 albums and a handful of EPs over the last 12 years. Their most recent, English Tapas, arrived in 2017 and this week the pair are back with their 11th full-length offering, the superbly-titled Eton Alive.
With the new album landing on the shelves in stores today we caught up with frontman Jason Williamson to talk about the unlikely influences on their new record, the divided state of the country, and why there isn't enough protest music around these days...
It's been nearly two years since your last album, which is quite a long gap by your standards. Have you been touring more, or did you just want to take your time a bit more with this one?
“I don't know really, it didn't really occur to us to say we want to take our time with this one or whatever. I still think we're releasing too much stuff. I think we could've got away with not releasing the EP in the meantime. But I really thought those songs were great and I wanted them out, we just weren't sure if they were album material, although Stick In a Five could've gone on the album as a single, obviously. We just thought that session belonged to an EP, you know? So we thought we'd do that. Rough Trade were alright with it, we were still with them at the time, so that's what we did.”
“It's occurred to me that perhaps for the next one we might take it easy, a couple or three years maybe. But you get itchy feet and you want to record. I'm aware of the fact that some people might be sick of it. We're an established band now, I worry sometimes that people are like 'oh, here they come again with their swearing and their political bullshit', but generally I think it's still very fresh and so it's justified.”
There isn't really anybody else around that's doing what you're doing in terms of sound and message, it's hard to work out what your musical reference points are...
“There's a wide range of influences, I mean at the minute, currently, what's influenced Eton Alive for me was a lot of 80s R&B, Cherelle, Alexander O'Neill, that kind of stuff.”
As unlikely as that sounds, first impressions on listening to this are it's quite a bit more melodic in places, especially on things like 'When You Come Up To Me', there is a bit of an 80s feel to it. Is that something you're thinking about at this stage, evolving the sound a bit?
“Yeah, definitely. And could you hear that in there?”
There's a definite 80s vibe in there, yeah. We probably wouldn't have guessed Alexander O'Neill, if we're being honest...
“No, I mean that's an example, whether or how much that influence comes through I'm not sure. But yeah, I was caning that album Hearsay, and Cherelle's second album Fragile. There's so much of it to look at and I still don't think I'm finished with it.”
How does it work between you two in terms of production – is it all Andrew, with you writing lyrics, do you get involved in that side of things as well?
“Sometimes, but mostly it's his stuff. He sends me the tracks through and I just work on them at home. I don't really tell him what to do, I don't have to these days anyway, he's made it his own. He was sending stuff through like that even as far back as the EP with 'Joke Shop', which really reminded me of that 80s R&B kind of shit.”
“I wanted to try and work that stuff in there, but obviously when you put that alongside what we do, it would be such a departure, it could fall on its face. So I was careful not to over-egg it, and I don't think we have.”
It's still very much filtered through the Sleaford Mods lens, if you like...
Didn't you work as a session muso with Spiritualised at one point?
“Well, I've done some stuff with a couple of session guys from Spiritualised, they joined the band at the end of the 90s and they're still in the band – well, they are the band now, as in I think they're just as much of a part of it as Jason Pierce is. But yeah, I was doing some stuff with them and the opportunity for them to join Spiritualised came along at the same time, so that's where that little story came from.”
I get the sense that you're a band who produces a lot more than you end up releasing, is that accurate?
“Oh god yeah, there's loads of clippings. We even thought about doing a B-sides album to release next year, but we'll see what happens.”
Eton Alive feels like an apt title for the times we're living in... Do you tend to have a theme in mind when you start writing lyrics for a new album, or is it more scattershot than that?
“It's more scattershot really, whatever comes to the front. You can't really deny or ignore the damning influence that the privately-educated few have had on the country. I often wonder if this registers with them, or if they believe they're actually doing some good for the country. An hour with a couple of these people and few direct questions could be incredible, couldn't it?”
“So yeah, it is quite an apt title, but I didn't want to weigh too heavy on the thing. I wanted Eton Alive to be, as the title suggests, about the fact that we've been eaten and ground down, desensitised, nothing shocks us any more. The idea of isolation and being insular is even bigger, and we're worlds apart from each other because of it. I wanted to put all of that in there and address it in the spirit of the mood that's going on at the minute, rather than making direct, political lobbying kind of punk songs.”
More about the social effects of politics than politics itself?
It seems like most bands have given up on any kind of social or political commentary, why do you think that is?
“Because I don't think a lot of people are really close to it, a lot of the younger bands. I mean, we're quite an old band for the level we're at, our peers are often 10 or 20 years younger, and I would say there's also a massive middle-class contingent in popular music, especially in white music, that really can't ape the experience of struggle endured by the lower class. I'll get shot down for that, but it's f**king right”.
“There is a slightly better level of living for the middle-class person, and there's nothing wrong with that, but whenever they try and do protest music, it's not great, I don't think. Bands like Shame, Idles, these people appear to be of that ilk. Compare that to real lower class music like Drill and Grime. Grime has sort of been welcomed into the pop domain now, but Drill is still ignored and shut down when there are real issues being spoken about.”
When you see what's happening with the discourse around Drill music, it feels like we've been here before with the rave scene in the 80s and with gangsta rap in the 90s. Any sub-culture that emerges is often portrayed as a threat...
“It's quite incredible, really. You have to put this down to the fact that the people making this music, generally, they exist in environment that isn't as lucrative as their neighbours in the class above. I think this is why there isn't a lot of good protest music around, especially when you've got the X Factor culture, the cult of celebrity, all of these things have turned into quite domineering ways to control people's psychology.”
What are your touring plans for the new album? You've got some UK dates coming up, any plans for touring Europe? America?
“Europe is a foregone conclusion, we're doing France and Germany this year. The U.S. is a bit harder, really, it's just quite expensive to go out there.”
What have reactions been like in places like Europe? Anywhere you go down particularly well?
“Yeah, yeah, the Germans love it, they think it's fantastic. And France as well, we're getting quite big in France too now. Yeah, it's good, it took us by surprise a bit, the whole European thing, all those years ago, but we're up to speed with it now."
Do you write material on the road? Or do you need to hunker down to put an album together?
“No, ideas come and go wherever, really. Anywhere. Yeah, it's not a problem, it's whenever inspiration hits you, really.”
Eton Alive is available in hmv stores now.