Notts landing

East Midlands duo Sleaford Mods discuss what a new record deal will mean and how they avoid the worst of the music industry

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“Listen,” says Jason Williamson, before sipping his latté in an upmarket Nottingham café. “I’m as shocked as anyone by how well it’s going. I can’t believe it sometimes.”

He returns his cup to its saucer and gives a short shake of his head, a small smile transforming into a broad grin.

He’s not the only one taken aback by the Sleaford Mods’ ascent. Conceived by Williamson a decade ago – and initially featuring him as the sole live performer, operating beats created by Simon Parfrement via a remote control CD player – it wasn’t until he collaborated with musician Andrew Fearn during 2012 that momentum began to build.

Despite frequent comparisons to the work of John Cooper Clarke, Shaun Ryder and The Fall, the band claim to take inspiration from a much wider palette, citing influences as diverse as the Wu-Tang Clan, mod subculture, acid house and even black metal. Quite how that’s led to the duo becoming the entity they now are – a sample powered, bounding, beat-fuelled powerhouse fronted by an expletive-riddled middle-aged man shouting – is certainly puzzling. But those disparate influences likely explain just why Sleaford Mods sound so fresh and unlike anything else current.

“The attention can be awkward, especially when we get this ‘voice of the disenfranchised’ thing.”

The pair have become Britain’s best live band. On stage Williamson stands side on to the audience, barking, shouting and spitting his cutting, biting, sarcasm-soaked lyrics into the microphone, a bundle of twitching nerves and rapid-fire attacks. Fearn bounces and bobs behind a laptop, silently mouthing the occasional lyric and frequently sipping from whatever can or bottle has been provided. And that’s it. No laser show, pirouetting guitarists, guest appearances via hologram or pyrotechnics and not a costume change in sight.

“It sounds shit, doesn’t it?” confesses Williamson, laughing again. Is there a secret formula to change the prosaic to the phenomenal? “I honestly don’t know. I think what we have done is really drawn on that traditional pub mentality, the attitude of people having a laugh with their mates. It’s very strange how well it’s translated and connected with people.”

Speaking on the telephone the next day Fearn – he lives on a boat and is sometimes a bit tricky to get hold of, the band’s manager had warned – is similarly stumped by Sleaford Mods’ rise. “I was amazed years ago when 30 people came to see us. But now the audience, whoever they may be, have collectively claimed the music and are all having a good time rather than standing studying some pompous band. We’re definitely putting out that ‘we’re one with you’ vibe, and that’s what people pick up on and love.”

In life Fearn and Williamson are much as their on-stage personas would lead you to believe. Fearn, responsible for the beats, is softly spoken and considered with a gentle accent. Originally from Saxilby near Lincoln, he subsequently lived in Newark and Nottingham, had a brief spell at music college – “It was awful, regimented and pompous, as if you were studying to be a lord, not a musician” – before adopting the freewheeling lifestyle of a narrowboat dweller two years ago.

Lyricist and frontman Williamson is from Grantham, just 10 miles from Sleaford, and now a family man with two young children. He resides in Sherwood and has a strong, acerbic East Midlands accent. He’s friendly, quick-witted, frank and swears profusely. It’s not always angry and, thankfully, only occasionally loud enough to cause the odd double take from the café’s other patrons.

“Sometimes the attention can be a bit awkward, especially when we get this ‘voice of the disenfranchised’ thing,” the singer, dressed in knee-length shorts and a polo shirt that exposes tattoos explains. “My lyrics are just like everyday speech – stuff you did as a kid, talk about this and that and pubs and shops – so you have to be wary about getting billed as voice of a generation or whatever. That’s a double-edged sword because when people put you on that pedestal, sooner or later you’re going to fail in the eyes of those same people. One day: BANG! You’re slapped down.”

If that sounds like a hint of insecurity it’s not the only one. Williamson left his job working for the council in Beeston during 2014. Does he feel detached from songs he wrote as a wage slave several years ago? “Of course I do. And guilty. It’s like, why have my earnings gone up considerably compared to my friends while I’m doing this and they’re still doing their same jobs?”

But it’s not like you earning more money from Sleaford Mods is taking anything from your friends’ pockets though, is it? “No, but I have to really dig my heels in and really have to have a conscience and make sure I’m not veering towards the wanker side of things: sometimes that’s really hard, believe me. You feel like an imposter with the shallowness of it all.” He adds, leaning forward and lowering his voice: “And then there’s being in the music industry, being everyone’s entertainment, so that closes in on you as well.”

The music industry – three words which, until very recently, you’d never have associated with Sleaford Mods. Releasing albums on manager Steve Underwood’s DIY record label Harbinger Sounds, consciously keeping ticket prices below the £15 mark, eschewing the stereotypical band tour bus in favour of a nice hatchback and a drive home post-gig was the band’s preferred business model. However, earlier this year they signed to Rough Trade Records – a sizeable shift from the duo’s previous circumstances.

“I thought the Key Markets album wound up a period for us and we’d branched out as far as we could on that level,” says Williamson, who is shortly to feature in independent film Lost Dog, about a few days in the life of a disabled man.

“And then Rough Trade contacted us. It’s not a ‘record deal’ record deal, if that makes sense – one where our hands are tied to the table. We thought we’d give it a shot.”

“It’s just a progression and we needed to progress that little bit,” Fearn agrees.  “There is a feeling we’re slowly being sucked into the music industry. But even though I come from, for want of a better word, an alternative perspective I’ve never been a snob about the fact that mainstream music has the potential to be amazing.”

The first fruits of the Rough Trade deal come in the shape of five track EP TCR. The title track is, at least on the surface, an ode to the late-1970s kids toy Total Control Racing, a notoriously unreliable Scalextric offshoot. Dig below the surface though, and it’s clear Williamson is using the game’s circularity and repetition as an allegory for the stereotypical, routine-laden lifestyle forced financially upon many. It’s a bounding, poignant and pithy hook-filled triumph.

“It’s poppy for us, but tunes that are poppy for us aren’t necessarily poppy in the grand scheme of things,” says Fearn. “It’s still sampled, looped music with punk beats and shouting over the top.”

Williamson is similarly lacking in hype. “It’s just the same old shit. What we’re really doing is exploring the songy type track, which is something we’ve always done, but just pushing that a bit harder and looking at it in a slightly different way.”

As the interview winds up there’s just time to ask Williamson about his well-documented derision for what seems like every other band in the industry. Will his more considered outlook prevent further profanity-riddled outbursts aimed at posturing, say-nothing guitar bands?

“My contempt remains but I’m cutting back on the gobbing-off, because you get sick of your own voice.” He knocks back the remainder of a second coffee, lets a wry smile spread across his face and adds: “But it will be interesting to see how any of these guitar band idiots turn out. My forecast is they’ll become so wounded by their experiences, despite initially becoming so enamoured by the bullshit hype, that they won’t last two minutes.”

Suitably unburdened, he calls the waitress over and politely requests the bill.

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