22 Feb 2019

Interview: Sleaford Mods' Jason Williamson on new album Eton Alive

From RNZ Music, 9:00 am on 22 February 2019

British duo Sleaford Mods have been serving up "electronic munt minimalist punk-hop rants for the working class" since 2007, across more than ten albums. Andrew Fearn makes the music (replacing Simon Parfrement in 2012), and Jason Williamson deals with the words, delivering eloquent tirades about austerity, unemployment, and whatever else takes his fancy.

Their acerbic approach propelled them into the spotlight via an appearance on Jools Holland, collaborations with The Prodigy and Leftfield, and a series of acclaimed albums.

RNZ Music’s Tony Stamp called Jason to find out more about the Mods’ new album Eton Alive.

Sleaford Mods (Jason Williamson, Andrew Fearn)

Sleaford Mods (Jason Williamson, Andrew Fearn) Photo: Roger Sargent

TS: In the documentary Bunch of Kunst, you say “I think we’ve bitten off more than we can chew with this ‘voice of the people’ tag”.

In that same documentary Iggy Pop calls you ‘the world’s greatest rock n’ roll band’, and since then you’ve been called ‘the soundtrack to post-Brexit Britain’ by The Guardian. Do you still feel like you’ve bitten off a bit too much?

JW: No, not really. You come to realise that a lot of these things are narratives, and you fall victim to what the press want to hear, and how they want to tailor their article.

When we came out there wasn’t anyone saying anything, to be honest. There were fringe acts saying interesting stuff, but we managed to break out of the underground.

Do you have a good relationship with the music press in Britain?

Yeah. I mean some of them have gone onto pastures new, as you’d expect. People don’t give you the same attention you get when you first came out. And that’s something you have to get over yourself, because you get used to that. Your ego gets used to that. So you have to step back from that and think ‘this is how it is’.

But generally they’re good to us, and they’re interested in us. Which is quite surprising sometimes, because I must have badmouthed a lot of them. But they know the game. They just let it go over their heads.

Another label you’ve been given is ‘the angriest band in Britain’. Is that a mantle you’re happy to wear?

At the time they gave us that it was funny, you know?  But you can understand it. There wasn’t anything like us, the landscape was still hungover from guitar bands, you know?

It was generally not very interesting. I mean there was grime, and dance music in all its forms and genres are ever changing and interesting. But generally speaking in England the indie landscape was pretty dry.

You kicked down the door in some ways for these younger acts, in terms of lyrical honesty. Do you feel like a mentor to them?

No, not at all. I don’t like any of them. It doesn’t ring true. A lot of it isn’t very believable. I can’t get into any of the white indie bands who are supposedly talking about a more fractious society, because I just don’t believe them.

You know a lot of these bands are covered in tattoos, and they’re stood there with their legs apart strumming guitars and screaming at people, and it’s just not enough, I’m sorry.

You get put down for being critical all the time in this country. People don’t knock other bands really, especially in the industry. It’s not the done thing. People have become quite tame in their expressive opinions.

Why do you think that is?

I don’t know. People just want to get on, and they find they get on better if they fit in, and don’t react to things around them. And people probably just don’t have opinions about other things. They aren’t that bothered, you know?  It just so happens that people like myself are.

Sleaford Mods

Sleaford Mods Photo: Roger Sargent

What’s the significance of Eton Alive as the title for the new album?

The country’s still in the throes of policies that were partly engineered by people that were educated at a place called Eton College. And numerous other private colleges that charge quite high fees per term, and are basically areas for privileged, wealthy people.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with that in a lot of respects, but in other respects, there is, because it just breeds elitism and ignorance toward the rest of the world, especially when certain pupils are going into politics as a career.

For example, David Cameron, educated at Eton, went from being a PR boss at a TV channel, to a Conservative candidate, to Prime Minister. It’s just insane.

And I know people’s routes into politics are largely different and very varied, but it just stinks. These are the people who engineered the austerity lie, and that brought in lots of misery, lots of murder, and eventually resulted in an EU referendum which has caused even more deep-seated division and smokescreens.

So we thought Eton Alive was quite apt for how things are feeling in the country at the minute. People are numb, people are beaten. Just unresponsive to what’s going on around them. People are no longer shocked. They’re just being whipped into a mound of nothingness.

You’ve warned in the past about the idea of ‘policies as shining beacons of hope’. You said ‘they’re not, they’re a band-aid on a knackered trap’. I assume that’s what the song ‘Policy Cream’ is in reference to?

Yeah. Just how people cling onto hopes in government policies. Sometimes it works, a lot of the time it doesn’t.

It’s a lot better for the country if the Conservatives aren’t in power. Things are a bit leaner, but not much. Labour morphed into a kind of diluted version of the Conservative party anyway. You’ve got this constant jumping from one barrel to the next in order to feel comfortable, depending on what policy appeals to you.

You had a quote accompanying the release of ‘Kebab Spider’, that said ‘it’s the accumulation of torment for those that refuse to capitalise solely through mediocre channels, and as a result are ejected back onto the concrete, obscure and under the horror as a giant spider crawls out the crown of their small portion of street meat’.

I get the gist, but are you referring to anything specific with that?

I’m glad you get the gist, because it is a bit weird isn’t it. It was just my experience of going to awards ceremonies and dealing with press, where you get the impression that to win, to come out on top, to become one of the big people, you’ve got to fully immerse yourself in the commercialisation of it.

People are well aware of how horrible the music industry can be, and how shallow the idea of celebrity and fame is. People aren’t stupid, this is old news. But when you’re confronted with it, it’s quite something to see in all its un-glory. It’s quite disturbing.

It’s just this feeling of overall pointlessness, and I wanted to get that across. But at the same time, it draws you in. It makes you want to be like that. It lures your ego in. I wanted to paint these weird pictures of a twisted perception of it all.

You’re alluding to compromise.

Completely, yeah. And it can work for you, but you just end up looking daft in the end. You won’t be remembered for it. The whole idea is to make your mark, and not just slip into something for the sake of it, and be forgotten after ten years.   

What are ‘flag tits’?          

Nationalists. Patriotic idiots. I suppose there's nothing wrong with loving your country but the way it is at the minute is just stupid.

We’re back to being ‘we don’t need ‘em here’. Really?!

Sleaford Mods (Andrew Fearn, Jason Williamson)

Sleaford Mods (Andrew Fearn, Jason Williamson) Photo: Roger Sargent

Have you quit drinking?

Yeah.

Any big decision behind that, or was it just time to knock it on the head.        

I had to knock it on the head because it was killing me.

Oh really?

It wasn’t so much the drinking, it was drugs really. And drinking was always a gateway.

But saying that, I could knock it down. I was drinking most days. I had this big belly. I didn’t see it at the time.

I’d lost my mind really, towards the end. So I had to stop the drugs. I tried doing that by getting psychotherapy, which was great, but I was still drinking. And then I fell off the wagon a couple of times, so my wife and I decided I should try to stop drinking.  

And I did, and everything fell into place.

Did you go cold turkey?

Yeah, which was alright, because I wasn’t an alcoholic, I was using it to get to somewhere else. I had a good eighteen months of psychotherapy and found out this is all childhood trauma-related.

We didn’t come to any conclusions, but when you pull it apart and you can understand it, it’s this object that you can look at and think about, as opposed to it being firmly indented on your psychology. It’s not invisible anymore.

It levelled me out. I understood myself better, and lots of feelings of guilt and anger went away.

At forty-four, you don’t expect someone to change, but I’m lucky that I did.

Eton Alive is coming out on your new label Extreme Eating. Where did that name come from?

It’s just an in-joke me and Andrew had on tour. We were talking about being in your house late at night and you can’t be bothered fixing yourself anything to eat, so you just get a spoon out of the drawer and go into the fridge and just get a bit of mayonnaise on the spoon, or like a bit of tomato sauce.

That’s extreme eating innit? It’s pointless, but it’s quite extreme because it’s this concentrated bit of flavour.

Eton Alive is out now.