Sleaford Mods’ guide to modern Britain: ‘There is lots of pain’

The Nottingham duo’s furious attacks on modern Britain look oddly prophetic since the Brexit vote. After four intense years on tour and with a new album, English Tapas, what do they make of the nation now?

Sleaford Mods’ Jason Williamson and Andrew Fearn are posing for photographs in Housmans, which bills itself as “London’s premier radical bookshop”. Preparing for the release of their latest album, English Tapas, the Nottingham-based duo glare into the camera, Williamson in particular bringing a touch of the bug-eyed intensity he generates on stage, where he rants and swears wildly as Fearn nods silently next to his laptop.

Toiling away for more than a decade, the fortysomething pair’s raging, cussing, febrile skewering of modern British life now seems prophetic of the chaos and divisions that have opened up following last summer’s Brexit vote.

Cue eye-rolls. Williamson is weary of being seen as any kind of political commentator. “Half the time people aren’t even listening to the fucking words. You get a reputation as the voice of the working class, but I write about the day-to-day. Just because I was working nine to five, predominantly unskilled jobs, doesn’t mean I was working-class. I grew up in a working-class area and it was shit. I just wanted to get out.”

In person, the duo’s yin-yang stage dynamic is reversed, with Fearn animatedly chatting away 19 to the dozen, while Williamson listens and chooses his words with care. Both are funny rather than scary, and thoughtful rather than confrontational.

English Tapas is their first album for Rough Trade, and comes after a short break following an intense four years near constantly on the road. Recorded in the London studios of former Pulp bassist Steve Mackey, it deepens and stretches the trademark Sleaford sound. “What we do is quite a minimal, original thing; it doesn’t need pratting around with,” says Williamson. “But we didn’t want to keep repeating ourselves. When we went back into the studio, we found it changed itself organically anyway, like bio yoghurt in the fridge overnight.”

English Tapas presents acute portraits of masculinity, painted in the bold brush strokes of Williamson’s stream-of-consciousness lyrics and given wings by Fearn’s sinister, slithering synths and propulsive bass lines. The humour is still very much there in songs like opener Army Nights, an affectionate celebration of the camaraderie of gym culture, and Drayton Manored, an odyssey through a bender at home, where “a trip to Spar is like a trip to Mars”.

“Men in their 40s are still taking coke and drinking vast amounts of lager on their own, because they don’t know what else to do,” says Williamson. “The euphoria is gone, though. The character in the song ends up hiding in the garden shed, because even smoking is unacceptable now. I see people smoking on the street and they look around to see who is watching. They are clawing back to the brick of the wall to try and get out of the way.” He himself has been sober for the past eight months. “I have felt a lot calmer and more happy. I had to sort myself out. I was boozing too much on the road.”

On English Tapas the father of two dials down the anger and swearing for a greater introspection – and even some singing – while maintaining the visceral, sometimes bleak intensity of their sound. “The music Andrew was coming up with felt like it demanded something more inward-looking. Going out and getting wasted – it’s just a constant state of numbness. It is about exploring that. I found I really struggled with writing stuff like I Feel So Wrong because I thought people might not want that, and I don’t want to sound like one of those arseholes from the 90s doing some kind of ‘why are the leaves falling on my soul?’ bullshit.

Sleaford Mods on Brexit: ‘You can’t ignore things any more’

“This album has been a revelation to me. A lot of people will listen and say ‘What’s this twat on about? It sounds the fucking same.’ But to us, it has moved on. It’s given me scope for a new mindset, to write more internally about my own experiences and not just about the stuff around me.”

Fans of the band’s brutal observational style need not worry. Giving us their guide to what is great – and grim – about modern Britain, they are piercingly honest and passionate about what they like as what they loathe. “You have to talk about what you see around you. It is not just cynicism,” says Williamson. “There is lots of pain in life. But that is existence. We were speaking to Stewart Lee and I was concerned about what I was going to write about now that our lives have changed. He said, you have the last 40 years to write about. All the memories. I know what he means now. Pull that fucker out. And why not, why be ashamed about that.”

English Tapas is out now on Rough Trade

The guide

Best/worst place
Andrew Fearn: Newark [on-Trent], that’s both the best and worst. I lived there for three years. It is the sort of place you get punched for no reason. These small towns have got nothing to inform them. Sometimes when I am out there I get that Wicker Man feel, like they are burning people in the back garden. They feel like they don’t get what they get down south, but they don’t want anything either.

Jason Williamson: Newark is hardcore. Fighting lads. I used to work the market stall there when I was younger, and get free scotch eggs. Ukip tap into that mindset of wanting to do away with the establishment. And that mindset has always been there, of small-town, redneck conservatism, but against the establishment. It’s the same in Grantham, where I grew up: people hated Thatcher there, but there are still rednecks; they hate outsiders.

The marketplace at Newark-on-Trent, Nottinghamshire.
The marketplace at Newark-on-Trent, Nottinghamshire. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

Best venue
JW: The Roundhouse, north London. I got a sense of achievement after we played there. It was the last gig of the tour. As I walked out I remember thinking, “I never thought it would come to this.” I liked the fact that it was still just us, just a microphone and a laptop in this big venue in front of 3,500 people. I couldn’t feel anything from the audience, though. London audiences are quite reserved, they don’t go bonkers. You forget that people come for different things. People come along to make sense of what you are saying, and also to just watch this bizarre spectacle of me and Andrew stood there, him on his laptop and me dancing around like a cross between Axl Rose and James Brown.

We’d love to get bigger. We always said big stages would fuck us up, but we’ve been on some of the biggest now, when we supported the Libertines. The crowd hated us. I don’t think there is much difference between two people on stage, with a laptop and a microphone, and four with instruments and a set of drums. It is what you put into it.

The Roundhouse venue in London.
The Roundhouse venue in London. Photograph: Christie Goodwin/Redferns

Worst venue
AF: The Basement Club in Lincoln was the worst place we played [in March 2015]. That place was a fucking dump. The promoter was wasted when we turned up. The gig was in the cellar. The promoter tried to give me the money at the beginning of the night, and £20 out of that to buy a round. Then they had loads of bouncers who were nightclub bouncers and not really briefed on how to do a gig. The room was L-shaped so half the people couldn’t see us. There were no lights on. And then there was a fight. We don’t get a lot of fights usually. It’s worse when there are a lot of meathead nightclub bouncers who wind the crowd up. I have seen some horrible things in there that I can’t unsee. It is quite oppressive.

Some places in Germany don’t even have barriers but there are no problems. We are a bit nanny state here, too much control.

JW: The Water Rats [King’s Cross, London] is also terrible because you had to have a guaranteed audience to play there, and it is a shithole. A lot of the small places we played have gone.

AF: Denmark Street in London has gone. The Kazimier in Liverpool closed down a month after we played. It was this huge amphitheatre and the night we played was packed; it meant that it was like facing a wall of people. It was immense.

JW: Areas that have a history of oppression or poverty, it is always a big honour to play.

AF: There is more of a need for magic. They stood there quietly for the whole gig and then they erupted at the end. It was like we’d played opera.

JW: The Roundhouse was good but I didn’t enjoy it. I worried whether it was going over people’s heads. We were playing a lot of new stuff that people hadn’t heard.

AF: There is always going to be that pressure on new stuff and how people are going to react. There is a truth that you are only as good as your last album, you can’t rely on the thing you did five years ago.

Nicest place to hang out
JW: I spend all my time hanging out at coffee shops on the high street in [Nottingham suburb] Sherwood. They are all independent. I go somewhere different every day. I take my one-year-old and I will have a bacon sandwich and a flat white. That’s all me and my wife do; go and sit and drink coffee and debate politics. I look after my boy three days a week. I take him to the play centre in the morning, then he comes home and has a kip, then we go for a coffee in the afternoon. It took a lot of adjustment being at home from working full-time.

The river Wey, near Guildford in Surrey.
The river Wey, near Guildford in Surrey. Photograph: Derek Croucher/Alamy

Best view
AF: I live on a boat. Where we are moored at the moment on the river Wey near Guildford it is National Trust land. There is no litter anywhere. When trees die, they have to stay there to give the energy back to the land. Everywhere you look there are dead trees being propped up by things. It is incredibly beautiful.

Best shop
JW: My shoes are from Paul Smith. In Nottingham, people my age still like Smithy but people younger aren’t bothered. His stuff isn’t too dressy. It’s not too ‘look at me’.

AF: CeX in Nottingham. I’ve spent a lot of time there. It’s an electronics exchange shop – in there you can live in the past. You can get something for 50p that cost everyone else £10 last year. People can get their Christmas presents there. You can get an iPad for a fraction of the cost. They are also doing so much recycling of mobile phones there. There is a working-class value to that shop.

Worst shop
JW: Ted Baker and Jack Wills. Jack Wills is selling a lifestyle that is quite carefree and elitist – trips to wherever for the summer. Everyone is ya ya. I look at Jack Wills and I just see Jude Law and Mumford & Sons.

Favourite book
JW: I’m reading a book by the Donnelly Brothers called Still Breathing. They were responsible for the fashion label Gio Goi that the Happy Mondays and Stone Roses wore. It is quite a bleak book. Their upbringing was quite hard, and they go from that to coming up with the rave scene in Manchester, and then going to prison. I’m also reading Stuart Jeffries’s Grand Hotel Abyss at the moment. I’m quite interested in critical theory and the Frankfurt School. This book gives it a more step by step insight into what they thought but also how they lived. I think Jeffries has done it really well. He translates it really well. A lot of that stuff they wrote about still applies.

Banksy’s Dismaland theme park.
Banksy’s Dismaland theme park. Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

Best/worst art
AF: We played at Banksy’s Dismaland and all the art there was great.

JW: The art you see in local shops… the paintings are always shit. If you like colouring, get a colouring book.

Holiday destination
JW: Norfolk. I go around the big stately home, Holkham Hall, and look at the monuments of the elite. My wife introduced me to the area… it’s so beautiful, it’s not tamed. A lot of these big stately homes have a sinister vibe about them, but Holkham Hall is majestic.

I am a member of the National Trust, because I visit Belton House in Grantham quite a lot. Once, when I was seven, my mum, sister and I were visiting the house when this Austin Montego came out of nowhere and knocked my mum over, and broke her jaw. My mum had seen it coming and pushed me and my sister out of the way. It was being driven by the lady of Belton House, who was a chronic alcoholic.

I hated that woman and the house for such a long time, because she put my mum through so much pain; but later on it made me think about how these people in elevated positions have a lot of the same problems as people at the other end of the spectrum. Life still gets them; you can’t have a champagne bath every day.

Electronic noise outfit Consumer Electronics.
Sarah Froelich and Philip Best from electronic noise band Consumer Electronics. Photograph: No credit

Best up-and-coming British band
JW: Consumer Electronics’ Dollhouse Songs came out last year on our former label, Harbinger Sounds. They are an electro noise outfit made up of Philip Best, Sarah Froelich and Russell Haswell. The album is brilliant. A bit like Best’s former band, Whitehouse, some of the music is quite hard to take in at first, but they are discussing similar things to us, like control.

Biggest villains
JW: There are far too many villains. The last person to make me really angry is Marine Le Pen. Farage is a constant needle in the arse. And anybody feigning liberation for the people.

AF: Trump has made Farage look like an inflated fart, because what he is doing is so much more insane. Trump’s going to walk, he’s not going to last. There are too many states in the US that won’t have anything to do with him.

JW: Everything feels unknown at the moment, but there is nothing you can draw on. It’s all a mess.

Person you are proudest to have offended
JW: I’m proud to have offended anybody I have but I wanted to move away from just taking pops at people. I’ve realised you can not like somebody and you don’t have to say it. I still feel strongly about the same targets but once you’ve slammed an obvious pop star, there is no point in slamming another one. You become a party piece. I don’t want that because the way I feel about those people is deadly serious.

Timothy Evans in Rillington Place.
Timothy Evans in Rillington Place. Photograph: BBC

Best TV
JW: I really liked Rillington Place. It was really bleak but it was great. I loved the naturalism of it and you got a real idea of what it must have been like to be under John Christie’sthumb. It was also a brilliant depiction of the time. Although we won the war you could see it completely drained us. You got the impression the time was quite lawless. And just the horror of having to live with somebody like that. There was nothing there.

Biggest hero
JW: I prefer the unsung heroes rather than any big names. I bumped into an old friend of mine who works at a food bank for very little money. They are the heroes who are actually trying to help people. There are celebs saying decent things online but that is not really heroic. There are no people who I felt have saved the day. Everyone is generally powerless, and so there are not many roads through this absolute block of idiocy we are surrounded by.

• This article was amended on 7 March 2017 to correct the name of The Kazimier in Liverpool.


Bernadette McNulty

The GuardianTramp

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