Search The Line of Best Fit
Search The Line of Best Fit
Sleaford Mods Jason
Nine Songs
Jason Williamson

From climbing into building sites blasting The Kinks, Public Enemy shaping concepts of originality and Wu Tang-Clan’s revolutionary sound, Sleaford Mods Jason Williamson talks the pivotal songs that paved the way for the birth of the band.

10 March 2023, 09:30 | Words by Maddy Smith

Intrinsically linked to Britain’s cultural identity, a decade on, Sleaford Mods continue to paint a bleak portrait of the crisis-ridden state of the UK with an unyielding level of wit, grit, groove and spoken-word modern angst.

Alongside multi-instrumentalist Andrew Fearn, Williamson continues to pelt the nation’s eardrums with self-aware commentary and critiques of the nation’s faults and failings through post-punk electronica.

As Sleaford Mods mark this milestone, as well as the release of their latest and seventh official record UK Grim, Williamson explores the musical decades that came before, which ultimately through an amalgamation of influence, crafted Sleaford Mods’ sound.

“In England nobody can hear you scream” barks Williamson, on the opening title track of UK Grim, referencing Ridley Scott’s Alien. Undoubtedly resonating with those of the population who, after years of Tory rule, are noticing and feeling the effects of political unrest, the song’s video is directed by artist and satirist Cold War Steve.

Au fait with collaborations of varying mediums and genres, the pair have also collaborated with likes of Billy Nomates, Amy Taylor and The Prodigy in the past, who offer ample backing for the themes of disdain and irritation at our political, economic, and social climate at large - a trademark which pulses constantly throughout the work of Sleaford Mods.

It’s given the sound a new dimension”, Williamson explains. “It was important we achieved that, because when we reached the end of Eton Alive, we needed to go somewhere else, but we weren’t too sure where. Then, we obviously came across the idea of collaborations and so that helped to shape a new period for us. And UK Grim continues that, which I'm ecstatic about.”

The title track’s conception began in early to mid-2021, which Williamson tells me was quite a lengthy process. Sleaford Mods were approached by Jane’s Addiction frontman Perry Farrell and guitarist Dave Navarro for a collaboration, the pair instantly agreed and considered the song’s potential for expansion across the pond, into the US.

“But when it was done, we thought it would work really well for the album and it kickstarted that period of writing again. We took our time to really think about it.” Williamson explains. “It’s tough innit? In a sense I’m not the best advocate for what we do - I can be a bit negative about it or be really over-the-top confident about it. Perhaps after 10 years you have to look at yourselves and say, ‘This is who we are - we are who we are.’”

With greater self-assurance, Williamson feels he now knows his limitations and abilities as the group celebrates ten years. “You don’t need to get yourself into a mess with it, but you do have that inevitable slump after a project, where you feel creatively drained, which almost verges on depression. I’ve got it so fine-tuned that after about 6 months my antenna comes out and starts looking for more inspiration. I’m not as unconfident about it, the self-doubt is still there, but I know what I can do.”

It’s evident that discussing a lack of social and political change is an incredibly necessary, but challenging, process for all parties involved, an awareness which Williamson explores as we turn to delve into his Nine Songs selections. “It’s depressing, and also constructed in such a way that if you start going up the social ladder, or if you achieve some kind of social mobility, the system says ‘How dare you criticise and talk about it!’ Because you should feel ashamed because you’ve conformed to it - so there’s that aspect of it as well.”

“You will always have something to talk about - not directly, a lot of it doesn’t touch me now because I earn good money - but I still think I have to be near some kind of subject that talks about injustices - it’s not that far away from me, or anybody.

“What we see around us is the same blanket corruption and the same frustration and anger that’s created by these idiots. It trails into all walks of life and it can affect your relationships with other people. The amount of divide and rule tactics, all of these things encompass your daily life. You’re never going to fall short of something to talk about.”

“All Day and All of the Night” by The Kinks

This was one of the songs that first introduced me to the idea of mod. There were three songs ticking around on everyone’s tape player and that was “My Generation” by The Who, “All Day and All of the Night” and “You Really Got Me” by The Kinks. These were big songs for people I was at school with.

I first heard this on a building site - we used to break in and climb the houses, you know what I mean? A friend of ours brought a tape player along with that song and I was automatically hooked.

It’s one of their more popular songs and I'm not really a massive Kinks fan to be honest, but those two songs I love. I think it was an A and a B side, but I was totally taken by that sound. There’s something very English about it isn't there?

BEST FIT: Was this your gateway into mod?

Completely. This and “My Generation” and then Quadrophenia, the film, and obviously the backdrop of The Jam, who were a more contemporary version. I think this was a couple of years after they split up, in ‘82. I didn’t really discover these things until ‘83.

In a way it set this song as the standard. You've got to be as effective as this, and obviously it's not just talking about a well-written song. It’s about how it works together and how it’s produced. It’s the aesthetic behind it. I wasn’t that bothered about the lyrics, but it was more about the very mono, guitar sound.

It’s very cool - so that aspect of it appealed as well. The thing about modern music is that when it's done right, it’s very cool.

“Needle in a Haystack” by The Velvelettes

And then you had the introduction of Motown, which was “Needle in a Haystack” “S.O.S” by Edwin Starr, R. Dean Taylor’s “There's a Ghost in My House”, “Jimmy Mack” - all of these big hitters. It was an onslaught of that kind of music.

Then behind that, you had “The Snake” by Al Wilson, which was more of a Northern Soul thing, but these tracks were massive. When I was introduced to that, which was roughly around the same time - what are you supposed to do? These songs were infectious.

It brings me back to school discos and dancing in your bedroom. I used to use the corner of my wall as a microphone. I’d play air guitar and that would be the microphone, I’d have it down to a T. I would either be Paul Weller or Edwin Starr or Paul Fenech from The Meteors.

“Did You No Wrong” by Sex Pistols

I think this is up there with “Pretty Vacant” really, I think those were two of their best songs. I’ve talked about “Pretty Vacant” loads, but this one is brilliant, even from the opening bassline. It’s complete and utter rock and roll - obviously the addition of John Lydon made it something else completely.

It’s everything about it, the bassline kind of gets hidden when Steve Jones kicks in. As for Paul Cook’s drumming, it’s nothing otherworldly in the sense of technique, but it’s complete and utter meat and potatoes 1970’s pub drumming almost. Which I guess is pretty much all they had. Obviously, Lydon’s vocal is screechy, back of your throat - which doesn’t last for long, so you really need to harness it when you can.

It’s almost proto goth, you’ve got this Stooges guitar line going on but what Steve Jones added to that was this kind of weird Englishness, that’s similar to the Kinks’ tune we’ve talked about. It’s very much connected with the idea of this country. I don’t know why. Obviously post-punk and goth happened from guitar lines like that.

Again, the barometer is set - I used to think to myself that you need to be as effective as this. It’s the full package.

“Green Onions” by Booker T. & The M.G.’s

I think I discovered this song on the Quadrophenia album, there was a beautiful side 4 or something. It’s beautifully illustrated with tunes of Pete Townsend in that period. It had lots of beautiful songs that you didn’t necessarily hear at school discos or on people’s tape sets, so it introduced me to another whole load of stuff.

James Brown’s “Night Train” was on that tape as well, "Louie Louie" by The Kingsmen, a brilliant cover of “Hi-Heel Sneakers" by Cross Section, such a cutting riff of a blues track. And “Green Onions” is just a bizarre, hypnotic, almost hallucinogenic / acidy / prog track. And you’ve got Stax Records’ house band Steve Cropper on guitar.

They’re totally mod as well. It’s probably the most mod song ever. It’s so powerful, and there’s the live version, there was a giveaway version on the cover of Mojo years ago, which was almost punk with all that tension live on stage.

“Saturday Love” by Cherrelle

I wanted to give an idea of my real connection and affinity with the R&B of the time. It doesn’t have to be old, and there's still some really good singers doing that.

This is just one example of that and of the genre, and of the faultless talents of Cherrelle and Alexander O'Neal on this, they’re brilliant artists in their own right. What I like about Alexander O'Neal is he almost gives out a tune that you can’t quite reach but it kind of works, he gets away with it.

They were in the charts, it was a well-promoted genre, it was popular with people and it was always on when you went out on the piss. Obviously, Alexander O'Neal was in his element around this time with “Criticize” and Hearsay. It was a brilliant album, typical of that ‘80s sound that’s just so good.

“Saturday Love” is definitely in my top five - you can never really remember the songs that you’re into, but I'd put it into my top five easily.

“Rebel Without A Pause” by Public Enemy

I got into Public Enemy right from the debut album, but this was a completely different prospect altogether. Yo! Bum Rush the Show was a good album, don’t get me wrong, and they were clearly finding their feet, The Bomb Squad production was finding its feet with them as well.

But by the time It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, they’d fully got into their swing. It’s possibly their best album ever and just full of bangers. This one is just weird. It’s like, what is it? It’s just bizarre and it still sounds completely fresh.

BEST FIT: Do you think anything about this has shaped your approach to writing?

Yes, it sets what the standard should be, that what you do should incorporate a lot of originality. Originality is just familiar thoughts recycled into a more interesting formation, but there are levels to it. You can be really annoying and be original, you can be really tedious or boring and still be original. You can be middle-of-the-road and yet be original.

And also at the same time, originality - does it matter? The late Andrew Weatherall was a master of unpretentiousness or modesty. There was a period where perhaps I think he was up his arse, but you learn from it swiftly and grow from that.

Going back to these songs and the effect that they had on me - this is how you stand out, by creating something that’s interesting. What I didn’t realise at the time was - and what I’m only starting to realise now - is that my version of interesting isn’t paramount. It isn’t the be all and end all. My version of interesting is just my version, so it’s a weird one. I've stopped trying to be so authoritarian about it.

BEST FIT: It brings up the discussion of originality vs authenticity, do either of these concepts matter?

I think authenticity is a must - because so many people are getting away with things that aren’t necessarily connected to them and their lives and experiences. A lot of people hijack others’ narratives - maybe subconsciously and they’re not doing it out of spite, they might think they’re doing it to honour their influences, but I find it hard - that’s not right.

“Sunflower” by Paul Weller

I was going to pick a Jam song, but I think “Sunflower” is up there with his best ever. It’s a brilliant song, the way it comes in at the start. He gets away with singing in an American accent but he makes it his own, he almost doesn’t live up to the soul singers he’s influenced by.

BEST FIT: But it’s his own twist?

Yes! And why not, there’s no rules like that. I love this period of Paul Weller and again it gives another insight into how you can bend the rules. How you can nudge things along a little, but not too much.

I really liked the unashamed feel, is it cheesy? A bit clichéd? But I like that. I think you either like it or you don’t.

BEST FIT: I’ve done quite a few of these interviews and Paul Weller is on a lot of artists Nine Songs.

He’s a lucky man! I was a massive Jam fan, a Style Council fan - I had all the records. I was obsessed with him and then I lost interest around ‘87. Then he came back with The Paul Weller Movement in ‘91, I went to see him at Notts Poly and got a bit more interested in what he was doing. Obviously, that changed completely when Wild Wood came out - I was hooked back in. I think he found his direction again.

Then he came back with all this introspective stuff, coming-of-age type lyrics, which was interesting because not a lot of people were doing that, but which then dominated for the next ten years, not just his work but people like, dare I say it, Noel Fucking Gallagher - who were talking about this introspective, whimsical, retrospective approach to describing their emotions.

I was absolutely dumbfounded by his first and second solo records and Wild Wood. I was convinced this was the way forward, and soon after that, Oasis cornered the market with Definitely, Maybe. And so, the landscape was set for the next ten years for me really.

“Da Mystery Of Chessboxin'” by Wu-Tang Clan

This was the start of my reawakening with regards to my direction as a songwriter. I was in and out of bands from ‘96 onwards, initially guitar bands, and then I would sing and not play guitar - experimenting with influences.

My first band was called Meat Pie, then Stone Cold Williamson which was more of a folk/soul type thing, late 60’s trippy shit. And then I went to an electronic band called Good Livers, which was more middle-of-the-road pop and that’s where I started to learn about the electronic approach.

The Wu-Tang Clan started to inject into me this idea of, basically, shouting over beats. I had, and still have, a very fractious and very hostile personality and I was a very mixed-up, non-directional angry person and so that almost suited the approach.

And so, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), was the first album, the gateway album, and it happened very subtly but over a period of time, where I started to think that this completely overshadowed everything I’d known before.

I started to look more at minimal approaches and would automatically be interested in anyone who had this type of set up - computer programmes and a keyboard - I began to see that as the absolute, that this is how contemporary music should be going now.

“Formica Fuego” by Two Lone Swordsmen

Ah, the icing on the cake - the reason why I think, and I'm going to blow my own trumpet here - they are responsible for this current post-punk boom via Sleaford Mods. Their influence is transmitted through what we did in 2013 and has shaped the last 10 years of pop music in this country, for better or for worse. I was really into those heavy, punky bass sounds and the loop of an old-style bass.

When I met Andrew - this was one of the key aesthetics to our songs, which I used to manipulate and would help me manipulate my own vocal and make it more punky. And so this kind of kick-started this whole idea of post-punk for us.

I actually first heard this through a friend, I was working at a shoe shop at the time and he brought it in for me to listen to. I was completely blown away. It was very different to what they’d done before as a duo, and it really shaped my musical consciousness.

BEST FIT: In what way?

It basically cemented the idea for me that electronic music was the way forward, it had to be cool, original and really fucking edgy - all of these things that people try to do but can’t. It really set the marker for me - I know that sounds a bit pretentious, but now, when people are trying to eat barbed wire sandwiches and they end up running to the hospital crying - you’ve still got to front it. With everything that’s going on in the world, with all the chaos, you’ve got to do it properly and you’ve got to be regimental.

If you haven’t got what it takes you can’t front it. You can get what it takes - it’s quite accessible - you've just got to be tuned into it. This album confirms this, along with all the other tracks here.

I kind of amalgamated the Wu-Tang influence with the Two Lone Swordsmen influence and a hearty helping of everything that had gone on before that - and then you get Sleaford Mods.

UK GRIM is released 10 March via Rough Trade Records

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