Irony isn’t so much your friend as a stranger who gleefully punches your lights out at the moment; for Jason Williamson, that Sleaford Mods’ excellent sixth album Spare Ribs was recorded at the end of one British lockdown only to now be released during another is the sort of pandemic banter he and everyone else could do without.
Live4ever’s Andy Peterson caught up with him to talk about opening up the duo’s creative process to outsiders, opening up himself through writing about his adolescence, and how the pair remain one of the most misunderstood bands in a hugely divided country.
Whilst nobody could ever accuse you of bringing a knife to a gun fight, each Sleaford Mods album in turn has had subtle progressions compared to the last – but on Spare Ribs this shift feels more pronounced than before. Is that fair?
I think you’re right. To me it’s a lot more pop based, it’s more commercial, and the songwriting’s better, but obviously keeping things under the banner of what we do.
For the first time since you and Andrew (Fearn, the Mods beat-maker) got together you’ve been working other artists. How did getting Amy Taylor (of Amyl & The Sniffers) and Billy Nomates (AKA Tor Maries) to work with you come about?
Quite a lot of the process for this album was different. We’d re-signed to Rough Trade (after self-releasing 2019’s album Eton Alive) and the suggestion was that we re-familiarised ourselves with them.
We already knew that we wanted to take the production forward, but we didn’t need a producer as we’re not that sort of band. We also had our own ideas about mixing as well, so rather than bringing in someone to do that, we started exploring the idea of collaborations.
How did you come to choose Amy and Tor, were they recommended to you?
We were already big fans of both of them. Tor befriended Andrew on Instagram and then sent him some music which we really liked, and then I ended up contributing a vocal to her album.
On Mork N Mindy, we already had a vocal line in mind which was OK when I sang it, but we knew was perfect for her. And with Nudge It (featuring Taylor), we knew what she could bring as we ‘d already met her when we last toured Australia. All of it took longer than we’d expected though due to lockdown because everything had to be done remotely, but it was worth it as for me they’re the best tracks on the album.
Things like lockdown and the way the government have handled the pandemic in general are dealt with harshly on songs like Shortcummings. Do you think there’s an understanding that you’re bringing politics into street vernacular, versus the neutral tone of mainstream coverage which many seem to find disengaging?
Yes, but equally we get a lot of people liking our music who probably wouldn’t see themselves as nationalists but are, and also some who believe in very specific ideas about what patriotism is. Everyone’s welcome to a certain degree, but there is some misinterpretation of what we’re about.
Spare Ribs is a January release, which can either set the tone for the year or end up being a bit lost…
Yeah. I’m not sure why January, but is there ever a good time to release an album now? If we were worried about it getting into end of year lists we’d have waited, but I don’t really care about them. We definitely felt we had to get this record out as soon as we could, as an accompaniment to these strange times. Not in a negative way but as a form of creative expression which could somehow be a part of it.
Come release day it’s made available on streaming platforms, but physical distribution’s really hard at the moment. What’s the experience like for you?
It’s hard because with every record you’d like it to do as well as possible, you want it to chart, but at the same time right now you have to recognise that we’re all living under extraordinary conditions.
You can’t play live either at the moment…
At the minute it’s bad. Me and Andrew have worked hard for seven years to get here and done OK, but am I worried at the moment? Honestly? Yes, I am. We’ve got a tour booked for the end of the year, so I’m hoping at least that’ll go forward.
Fingers crossed. A couple of the songs on Spare Ribs are about unlocking your childhood memories – what led to that?
The urge to write about them was brought on by a number of things: by lockdown, by recalling a back injury that required an operation, and also living by a council estate when I was young. Thinking about these became a daily occurrence and to an extent the memories are scattered throughout the album, not just in the obvious places like Mork N Mindy and Fishcakes.
You also deal with class tourism on Elocution…
Some out there are feigning an understanding of working class culture, but they aren’t being honest. What they do also gives out the wrong message because they clearly don’t have first-hand experience of it. And in a way, pretending like that just restricts opportunities for those who genuinely come from those backgrounds.
What would you say to anyone who hasn’t heard your music before who was about to jump into Spare Ribs?
Stick with it. I’d like to think our music is intelligent, it’s got dark humour, but it adheres to the traditions of English observational songwriting in the mould of The Kinks, The Jam or The Specials.
Finally, our curve ball question. Why do you think, after all these years, nobody’s obviously imitating Sleaford Mods?
(Laughs) Because it’s really fucking hard to pull something like that off and not look like you’re just stealing someone else’s ideas. Good expression comes from thinking about it, not just picking things up lazily. If you’re unconscious about what you do, then you’ve got to ask yourself about the bad art that you’re pedalling.