Jason Williamson discusses the electro-punk worldview of politics, art & passion
Since their self-titled debut album, Sleaford Mods secured a name for themselves as an outfit of sometimes aggressive, sometimes obscene, always poetic, and always honest electro-punk hip hop. If their impact was not immediate the road to broader notoriety served them well – the years of touring small venues and developing a direct approach to lyrical dispatch nurtured the abilities of lyricist Jason Williamson and producer of beats Andrew Fearn. When their breakout album, Key Markets, dropped in 2015 they were praised for their approach to pure punk energy, and tagged as being unstoppable.
Currently on tour in the UK, Sleaford Mods will soon take their show on the road to Europe, before visiting North American shores in the new year. Their bare knuckle approach to social issues, and parred down live shows share an energy that is as contagious as hip hop and as vital as punk. Simply put, they are a force to be reckoned with.
ARTISTdirect’s Christopher Friedmann caught up with Jason Williamson ahead of a show at the band’s hometown of Nottingham at the legendary Rock City venue, to discuss the powers that be, the urgency of creative emotion and how to find beauty when surrounded by the constant reminders of struggle.
Christopher Friedmann: We’re talking because you’ve just released your new EP TCR and you’re currently on tour in Europe. How’s the mood in the camp?
Jason Williamson: It’s good, really good. We’ve took a year off to chill, because our last couple of years were really hectic, and we needed a little bit of a breather. We’ve not done as many gigs this year, we concentrated on writing, so I think we got a great album and a good EP out of it. The tour’s going well at the back end of the year, so everyone’s really positive.
CF: You’re coming to the USA in the spring. What opportunities do you think you’ll get from touring in the States that you don’t experience at home or in mainland Europe?
JW: Just new territory really. We’ve only ever done New York, we came to New York a couple of years ago, so it’s a new territory. A lot of people get in touch with us, a lot of American people who want to see us, so it’ll be very interesting to see what kind of reception we get.
CF: You’re playing Rock City tonight – a legendary venue for live music in your home town of Nottingham. Through the years that place has seen icons from all genres. What’s the best gig you’ve ever seen there yourself?
JW: I saw Public Enemy there in 1987, that was pretty hardcore. So, that’s also probably the best gig I’ve ever seen, to be honest.
CF: Sleaford Mods tends to pull from a lot of different places, stylistically – from electronic to punk to hip hop. What is the similarity of these genres that makes you blend them and deliver your own message?
JW: We like the minimal fabric of all those genres. Whether it’s electronic, punk or hip hop, when it’s done well it’s done minimal, y’know? The stuff that drew me in anyway; the stuff that I consider very good in those genres is very minimal, and that in itself is a great vehicle for getting across a powerful vocal. You don’t want too much clutter in the background, because it’s vocally led – Sleaford Mods – but in the same breath, it isn’t! Andrew’s music is just as dominant, but it definitely thrives on a minimalist basis. That’s really important to us.
CF: The album’s title track takes the listener through your hometown of Nottingham. Can you speak a little more on the grey skies and all-day bus passes that make the city the ideal location for the discussion of the English common man?
JW: Just the feeling you get from these streets, there’s a real sense of harsh living in Nottingham, and in England generally. Outside of London there’s a real sense of greyness, of concrete, of rotting 1970’s car parks. Everywhere you look is just grey. And while now in England, and in America as well, there’s gentrification – not trend – but oppression – they’re chopping out all the living, breathing spaces. Nottingham still can’t hide that… that greyness, it’s about trying to express that atmosphere, which I think we’ve done.
It’s a beautiful city, you can find the beauty wherever you go, we’re not really given a lot of options as human beings – not under the present way things are run – we can find beauty in it, but at the same time it’s very oppressive.
CF: Whilst we’re on the subject of Nottingham – who’s your soccer team there – Forest or County?
JW: None of them! (Laughs) I cannot be arsed with f***ing football man! (Laughs) A lot of my friends do – a lot of the real locals love County, and then again a lot of the real locals do Forest – it’s just a split. It’s different to Manchester United and Manchester City where you get a lot of tourists – supporting those teams. But here, you don’t! (Laughs) it’s just locals – Forest are the bigger team in the sense of fanbase, but Notts County fans are real too!
CF: The English towns outside of London often produce some of the world’s greatest bands. What do you think it is about those grey skies and 1970’s rotting car parks that make it the perfect breeding ground for art?
JW: I don’t know! We’ve got no other option other than to analyze it all. It struck me that there is nothing else really. At the end of the day, when it’s all gone, all the nice stuff, nice restaurants and everything – when it’s all gone all you’ve got left is that greyness. It struck me that it’s really important to try and document that, because that’s the only truth we’ve got really. It represents control, and I thought that’s where it’s at.
Having money or being popular or taking drugs or having sex – all of these things don’t last, and yet the control still lasts. That control is embedded in the grey skies and the 70’s car parks. The idea that you need a vehicle in order to go to work, or to get around – in every aspect, in all of the industrial ruins there is a reminder of control, state control, the elite control. Depends on which country you’re in but everywhere you go there are those reminders of capitalism, of engineering – of the way of the world.
CF: You said, “I Can Tell”, the second track off the EP, was “Basic Politics for the discerning skeptic”, and lyrically you say “The streets are cold and they’re squeezing us until we pop… we’re F***ed.”
JW: It’s just like what will happen. No one knows what will happen, but you can bet that whatever does happen people are going to suffer, people always suffer. And I think we’re just being thrown around at will by those people that are bought up by the elite, and we’re being thrown around by those people.
The masses – some of us get lucky and get away with it and have okay-ish lives, and others go through hell, whether it be the people of Aleppo of whether it be the people in the restaurants in Paris that got shot, or whether it be me or you who are living relatively alright lives – it could be any one of us at any one time – it’s almost like you’re waiting to be knocked of, to be chosen at random and be knocked off by somebody that’s been affected by something the elite have decided to do with the world. It can be seen as paranoia from my point of view or ignorance, or just complete stupidity but that’s how I feel about it.
It doesn’t matter what we do, in a way we’re kind of f***ed. The nature of the human being is just chaotic – we’re just animals really. We’re in a period of time where we’re nowhere near fully realized in our capabilities, so it’s a standard time. If we look back at the Saxons, or any beginning of any big civilization; your country or my country and we think “F***ing H*** it’s so primitive” but y’know we’re still primitive! I could go on all day… I’m just trying to communicate that kind of thing.
CF: As you say, we don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow and everything politically is in upheaval, from the Brexit vote to the US elections. What do you see is the role of the artist at this point in time?
JW: Well, I think anyone who ignores it, and who goes along with what some record label wants them to do in order to make money is the enemy. As long as you’re doing something that is important, as long as you’re doing something that you think is right, then that’s fine. But so many people are getting numbed up by a load of bollocks.
A lot of young bands are getting signed up and they’re saying f***-all. It’s not that they think that’s right, it’s just that they’re young and dumb and don’t know any better. I just think anyone with a conscience, anyone who has started to master their skill in music should be doing something integral and commenting on the day to day, maybe not so much in the political way… but that said, everything is political!
CF: You’ve been in music for a long time, Sleaford Mods have been around since 2009. Given the longevity of your career and the experiences you’ve had could you share something that’s been a humbling moment in your career?
JW: The most grounding moment? I don’t think I have! (Laughs) I’m not sure! Every night I go up there, every time I play a gig is what’s it’s about. I’m not sure I get humbled by it. I get humbled by crowd reactions and people being really appreciative of the fact you’ve come and played. In smaller venues, those crowds are great. We did a tour of small towns in the UK, we didn’t have to but we did, because we wanted to try and play places that people don’t usually go to.
We’re talking about our own experiences and a lot of people connect to that… and that’s pretty good.