Taking aim at hypocrisy, inequality and apathy, the sharp tongue and infectious grooves of the Sleaford Mods album ‘Spare Ribs’ is a proper vitriolic soundtrack for our dystopian times
These are strange and turbulent days. Here we are in the middle of a raging global pandemic, enduring another lockdown, this time post-Brexit with political ructions and government incompetence on a scale hitherto barely seen – an acutely disaffected and downtrodden population, struggling to stay sane. No wonder it feels like being marooned in a real-life episode of Charlie Brooker’s dystopian television anthology, ‘Black Mirror’.
But, here in the eye of the storm, there’s arguably no one better than Nottingham’s Sleaford Mods to essentially tell it how it is. In sync with the madness around them and reflecting the nation’s despair, their new album, ‘Spare Ribs’, does just that.
“I think we’re a band of the moment,” asserts frontman Jason Williamson. “We’ve attached ourselves to the times, and the times aren’t changing any time yet. Will there be an overnight shift in cultural interests? Perhaps. Will we survive? Probably. We just keep going. I don’t think we’ve faltered. We haven’t come out with shit, we’re not lazy, and I think all that pays off. ‘Spare Ribs’ is another example of the fact we still work hard.”
Their sixth long-player, ‘Spare Ribs’ is an uncompromising and up-close punk-hop broadside. Set to Andrew Fearn’s looping and sophisticated electronic beats, it finds Williamson true to form – lampooning politicians, dishing out home truths and savagely kicking against the pricks in his no-nonsense East Midlands accent, as sharp, witty and splenetic as ever. A perfect riposte to the maelstrom swirling around us, it feels just a bit like the cavalry has arrived.
Politically charged, ‘Spare Ribs’ is the sort of anti-establishment, dissenting tirade we’ve come to expect from Sleaford Mods. Much like their previous output, it’s another polemical triumph. Peppered with salty vernacular, it rails against the machinations of government, politicians’ sense of entitlement, social fragmentation and inequality.
“We’re all so Tory tired,” sings Williamson on the record’s short intro track, ‘A New Brick’, and as a statement of intent, it’s no surprise. He’s been consistency clear about his disdain for the current government (“The political situation, with that cunt in charge, it’s just too much”), a feeling exacerbated by their abject failure in handling the country’s coronavirus crisis, among other things.
“The album title comes from the number of people who died from the first wave of coronavirus,” he explains. “We’re in a constant state of being spare ribs. To a certain degree, we are expendable – it’s literally sink or swim. Under a Conservative regime, if you’ve got your health, you might be alright, but if you haven’t, then you’re in trouble. With the death toll in this country, the negligence, the laziness, the remoteness of the government…”
But as much as these destabilising times are a lyrical gold mine for Williamson, it’s all grist to the mill, ultimately just another element of the wider political and social picture.
“There will always be something to go at, because things aren’t going to change,” he reasons. “There might be small pockets of air for humanity to swim up to, but I think the political system is going to get even worse. It’s at the point now where they’re taking the piss, literally robbing you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Someone who comes in for particular ire on ‘Spare Ribs’ is Dominic Cummings. Williamson prophetically foresees the demise of Boris Johnson’s former chief aide on the catchy-as-hell ‘Shortcummings’ – “He’s gunna mess himself so much / But it’s all gunna come down hard”. It must have felt quite sweet.
“Not really. Apart from his ego, he’s not going to suffer,” says Williamson. “There was no sweet revenge, because you could see it coming – it was pathetic. The way he was with people, if reporters got him on the streets, the way he’d prance into fucking Downing Street in a David Beckham beanie and hooded top. Career psychopath, David Cameron called him. You could imagine, sooner or later, the powers that be were going to wash their hands of someone like him.”
Sonically, Sleaford Mods are not a band to stand still, and ‘Spare Ribs’ feels like their most expansive work to date, especially when compared to the sparse, post-punk hues of their first two “official” studio albums. Listen back to 2013’s ‘Austerity Dogs’ and the following year’s ‘Divide And Exit’, and it’s plain to see how much more robust and full-bodied their music and production values have become.
While 2019’s ‘Eton Alive’ began to nudge them a little further towards the mainstream – on pop-tinged tracks such as ‘When You Come Up To Me’ and ‘Discourse’ – ‘Spare Ribs’, with its of-the-moment diatribe and even more straightforward tunes, seems poised to tip them over the edge. Although it retains that signature Sleaford Mods sound, there’s a definite sense of commercial progression creeping in.
“I think if it works, it works, regardless of whether it’s commercial or not,” argues Williamson. “Andrew and I both like pop, we always have done, and the way the albums have followed each other, there’s been this steady progression of trying to understand where pop sits with us. With this one, ‘Nudge It’ and ‘Mork N Mindy’ are probably the most accessible songs we’ve done. I think it’s every musician’s aim to be able to write something poppy – whether they admit or deny it – but in their own way.”
With that commercial progression comes wider exposure. Sleaford Mods are regarded by many as one of the UK’s foremost and unpredictable alternative groups, and their profile has never been higher. Even Robbie Williams got in on the act, posting an impromptu karaoke rendition of ‘Kebab Spider’ on Twitter last year.
“It’s what everyone wants,” says Williamson. “If you’re in a band, you want to be successful and be respected. You want to do stuff that means something, and we’ve got all that, so I’m quite happy. I’m never usually happy, don’t get me wrong. But it’s nice it’s happened, you know?”
Despite the Sleaford Mods’ rise, it hasn’t all been plain sailing for Williamson and Fearn. Having signed to Rough Trade in 2016, they released ‘English Tapas’ the following year but then left the label in 2018 on the advice of their long-term manager Steve Underwood (“That was just a car crash,” recalls Williamson, wincing), before self-releasing 2019’s ‘Eton Alive’. Later that year, following their subsequent split with Underwood – the duo are now managed by Williamson’s wife, Claire – they re-signed with Rough Trade, a move very much welcomed by both band and label.
The ensuing 2020 compilation, ‘All That Glue’ – with its witty cover homage to Marcel Duchamp’s infamous ‘Fountain’ urinal sculpture of 1917 – was also well received, featuring long-unavailable crowd favourites such as ‘Jobseeker’ and ‘Jolly Fucker’. And yet it felt like a line in the sand. During talks with Rough Trade, various ideas were kicked around about where to go with the next record, including working with new producers. Neither Williamson nor Fearn was keen to explore the concept, but the dialogue seems to have opened their minds to new possibilities.
“Because I work so quickly, I can pretty much have a finished idea in a few minutes once I’ve found the right thing to say,” states Fearn. “The signature for Sleaford Mods is quite minimal – what definitely wouldn’t work would be someone coming along who wanted to fill all those gaps. It’s the stark, less-is-more thing that defines us. That’s difficult to change.”
“We’re not a producer-led band – that would kill it,” adds Williamson. “It certainly wouldn’t be rubbish, but it would lose something. We talked about getting someone in to mix, but Andrew is really serious about what he does. I don’t think he wants anyone fucking with it. With all this in mind, we did the new music with an enlightened approach. One of the suggestions was to get collaborators in, and that’s where some of the tunes came from.”
‘Spare Ribs’ duly sees the Mods hooking up on ‘Nudge It’ with Amy Taylor from Australian punks Amyl And The Sniffers, while relative newcomer Billy Nomates (aka Tor Maries) adds a touch of no-wave edge to the woozy refrains of ‘Mork N Mindy’.
Based on Williamson’s experiences growing up in 1970s Grantham, Lincolnshire – home town of Margaret Thatcher – the song is a vivid nostalgic snapshot, lyrically and visually. The accompanying video, shot by filmmaker and ardent Mods fan Ben Wheatley, even features a house strikingly similar to the one Williamson lived in as a boy, yet the song’s depiction of childhood is far from rose-tinted – “Outside, there wasn’t anything nice to see / I wanted things to smell / Like meadows, not like hell”.
“I don’t have very fond memories of my childhood,” he reveals. “It was quite boring, a series of uninteresting experiences, so I wanted to try and honour that by giving songs like ‘Mork N Mindy’ and ‘Fishcakes’ the same kind of vibe.”
The subject matter might not always be the prettiest, but as an urban storyteller with a raw punk ethos, Williamson’s confrontational delivery and unabridged flow are astonishing. There are half-tinges of John Cooper Clarke, Mark E Smith and a sort of northern Mike Skinner in there, but he’s undoubtedly out on his own.
As ever, there’s a semi-surreal edge to his lyrics, which bristle with dramatic phrasing and deft wordplay. Take the breathless torrent of ‘Thick Ear’, for example, on which his words tumble out as he raps in his idiosyncratic style – “Hanging like plants / Indoor bizness / Chrome knocker / These young kids ain’t ready for this original rocker”. He’ll often take himself out of his comfort zone, as on ‘All Day Ticket’, where his default ranting is replaced by actual singing, which really works in its own rough-edged way. But it’s not all about Williamson – far from it.
While Williamson admittedly does most of the talking, Sleaford Mods are very much a two-man outfit, and Andrew Fearn’s music is an essential part of the mix. Tracks such as ‘Spare Ribs’ and ‘All Day Ticket’ both have seriously good low-slung bass going on, while ‘I Don’t Rate You’, an out-and-out ravey banger, is one of the album’s real standouts. It all adds up to some of the catchiest, most dancefloor-friendly material Sleaford Mods have produced.
“Those ideas just popped up,” says Fearn. “The relationship between me and Jason and the era we’re from, that kind of emanates out to a larger audience – it’s something everyone can relate to. Those are the sounds for me to find, then try and do them in our own style.”
Fearn’s electronics deservedly take equal billing, although they have been described in the past as “rudimentary beats”. This feels wholly unjust, given how prolific he is, diligently sifting through piles of old tapes, continually improvising and experimenting to get the right sound. Does this sort of derogatory tag bother him?
“A little bit, yeah,” he admits. “Music has always been a bit of a commodity. If you imagine all the films you see without a soundtrack, they’re not going to be anywhere near as good. Music is taken for granted, I guess. It’s like extras in a movie – without them, it looks a bit weird. The creative part of me gets annoyed that people don’t seem to appreciate music, but then I can see why, because it’s part of their narrative, like the radio being on in the car – it’s just there, isn’t it?”
The B-side of the ‘Mork N Mindy’ single showcases Fearn’s side project, Extnddntwrk (pronounced “extended network”), with a track called ‘Little Bits’. Naggingly good, featuring a chugging beat reminiscent of Renegade Soundwave, it’s another example of how Fearn’s music, taken on its own merits, could easily fit on an influential electronic label such as Warp or XL. But that’s for the future – for the moment, there could well be new Extnddntwrk output in the offing.
“It’s an opportunity to be a bit more indulgent or true to my own musical ideas,” says Fearn. “I’m looking at maybe putting out a few things myself, but it’s tricky because there are a lot of people out there making good music – you can spend all day on Bandcamp listening to ambient and experimental stuff. I’m more well known so I’m in a better position than most, but you’ve still got to do the work.”
“What Andrew tries to recreate in his music is how he feels and what he sees around him, which is pretty much what I do with the lyrics,” adds Williamson.
Although different personalities, Williamson and Fearn are kindred spirits, whose simple, well-oiled working process only enhances their connectivity. Fearn generally comes up with rough sonic sketches, demos and loops. Williamson adds lyrics, then they go back and forth until a song is finished. Occasionally Williamson contributes the odd bassline or suggests a musical direction, as on ‘Thick Ear’, which was inspired by The Prodigy’s crashing beat on ‘Break & Enter’ from 1994’s ‘Music For The Jilted Generation’.
They work at full pelt, too. Conceived at the start of last year, ‘Spare Ribs’ took shape very quickly and was recorded in a few weeks. Is there something about working at speed that gets the best out of them?
“I just prefer it, and I think Andrew does too,” says Williamson. “We don’t want a big laboured sound with fucking massive tunes. I like that shit and listen to a lot of it, but when it comes to our stuff we still like a basic palette. Early on, I kind of knew we’d smashed out a couple of singles. We did ‘Mork N Mindy’, ‘Shortcummings’, ‘Nudge It’, ‘Elocution’ and ‘Thick Ear’ in the space of a week, along with a few others that didn’t quite make it.”
Does Fearn’s music ever surprise him?
“He taps into what he thinks I’d like and then comes up with a version of it,” continues Williamson. “It’s the featureless ones he sends over, where it’s just a beat – he might have a bit of a melody behind it, but you can’t really hear much – they’re the real traps because you can overlook them. They can contain suggestions that ricochet off your own ideas. You can come up with great songs from something that’s hardly there.”
A former disability benefits officer and session musician, Williamson started Sleaford Mods in 2006 with studio engineer Simon Parfrement, releasing unofficial CDs before his fateful meeting with Fearn, who he first saw DJing in a Nottingham pub in 2009. Williamson was quite taken by his remix of George Michael’s ‘Careless Whisper’, so the story goes, and Fearn officially joined the band the following year.
The Mods have come a long way from those early roots. Listen to ‘Spare Ribs’ closely and you’ll detect left-field electronics and even a dubby feel in places, but they also draw on the heritage bands of their youth. Growing up listening to the Sex Pistols and The Jam, Williamson discovered Motown and northern soul before getting into Def Jam, Public Enemy, LL Cool J, Eric B & Rakim, Run-DMC, The Stone Roses… quite the melting pot. These days, there’s a fair bit of electronic music that floats his boat.
“I’m definitely partial to electronica,” he says. “I was quite influenced by Photek’s ‘Modus Operandi’ from 1997, Red Snapper as well, and lots more hip hop from the mid-2000s onwards obviously. I talk to Keith Tenniswood from Two Lone Swordsmen quite a bit – he sent over some links to music that influenced ‘From The Double Gone Chapel’, which was the main album I was into by them.”
For his part, Fearn remembers “rattling around” his parents’ house as a kid, obsessing over music and TV themes, watching “cop shows and ‘Dirty Harry’ movies”.
“I had a keyboard at home,” he reminisces. “I couldn’t notate music but if I heard a melody or a key, I could figure out how to play it by trial and error. There was a lot of good stuff. It was a big part of 1970s television because the graphics weren’t very good, so the music had to be that much more enriching and evocative to lure people in.”
Fearn grew up with ABBA and then “sampled 1990s music and hip hop”, both of which were a major influence. He also admits to having had a bit of a soft spot for Pet Shop Boys.
“There was stuff there to listen in to – it was a headphone world, so you lived in your Walkman,” he says. “A lot of 1980s music was quite brash, but the Pet Shop Boys were more about production or car screeches, which fascinated me. Other kids had cool uncles playing them Kraftwerk, but I didn’t have any of that. I always felt I missed out a bit growing up – I didn’t hear Kraftwerk until I was 18 or 19.”
Recently, both Nick Cave and Public Service Broadcasting’s J Willgoose Esq have admitted how difficult they’ve found not being able to tour because of pandemic restrictions. As our conversation swings back to playing live, it becomes clear how much Williamson misses being out on the road.
He and Fearn did a livestream from London’s 100 Club last September, playing to an empty room (“We treated it like an extra-long TV performance,” shrugs Williamson), but it’s obvious he yearns to perform in front of a crowd once again.
“Lockdown has taken our income away, but we’re in a better position than a lot of our contemporaries,” he says. “Some of their livelihoods have been absolutely destroyed by this. It still weighs heavy. I go through spurts of being positive and negative about it.”
Watching Sleaford Mods play live is a hugely thrilling, mesmeric experience. Onstage, Fearn usually stands by his laptop, swigging a beer as he casually nods along to the programmed beats, but you can’t help but fix your gaze on Williamson as he locks into each song, expending every ounce of pent-up energy through involuntary tics, jerks and movements.
“It’s the only way to take my mind off the fact I’m nervous and worried I’m going to forget words,” he confesses. “If you start thinking you’re going to forget the words, you do. So to push the fear away, I started slapping my head and doing stupid dances. Once I realised those movements were working as a visual thing, I started to manipulate and exploit them, and add more. If it’s new material, I’m generally slapping my head more because it’s the only thing that keeps me connected to my muscle memory.”
While the Mods haven’t been able to play live, social media has helped Jason Williamson get through. During lockdown, he’s kept himself busy blitzing Instagram with his slightly creepy but hilarious ‘Baking Daddy’ sketches and spoof ‘Late Night With Jason’ chat show, featuring cackle-inducing guest turns from the likes of Bobby Gillespie, actress Diane Morgan and – that man again – Robbie Williams.
“It can be quite arduous creating these things,” he says. “You’re always on your phone, and it fucking does your head in after a while. It’s not only creating them and putting them up – you have to follow through by answering most of the comments. But you’ve got to do it. There’s no meeting people, no gigs. Social media is the only way of communicating.”
However you slice it, and whatever happens next in terms of music and performing live, it’s good to know Sleaford Mods will be in our faces for the foreseeable future.
“We’ve got our own little story to keep telling – I don’t think it’s been fully told yet,” says Andrew Fearn. “And we’ve still got some go in us. We’ll just keep going until we’re a pastiche or out of date.”
‘Spare Ribs’ is out now on Rough Trade