Back in the day, we used to lament the lack of Notts music acts breaking outside of the NG postcode, then a load of ‘em came through at once. But perhaps the most surprising was Sleaford Mods. Two blokes from Notts in their mid-forties who’d been playing open mic nights suddenly tapped into an international zeitgeist and completely smashed it. Frontman Jason Williamson tells us how...
We first interviewed you in 2012 when you were starting to break. Now you’re internationally famous. How did that happen?
For starters, there weren’t a lot of people moaning about stuff. When we came out we were making a lot of statements about the state of the music industry. I regret some of it in a way, as some of those early interviews were probably a bit over the top, but that’s the nature of it. We had a lot of pent-up frustration and while other people were watching their Ps and Qs, we were saying it like it was. I think people liked that about us and it caught on.
Do you get recognised in the street these days?
Sometimes, yeah. Not so much when we don’t have an album out, but whenever we’re doing something or we’ve got a big show coming up. Most people are very courteous and genuinely interested, so if I have time I’ll always stop and talk to them. But sometimes you’re just busy picking your kids up or something. So if I do ever seem short with people in Notts, I don’t mean it, honest.
What was it like seeing your face on Nottingham buses when you advertised English Tapas?
It was brilliant! So funny. We did it on the buses going up and down Mansfield Road, on the route I lived on. So I’m in a shop getting a coffee and as it goes past everyone sees it and is looking at me thinking “Oh for God’s sake.” Our manager Steve used to be a bus driver, too. It’s nice to put a bit of money back into the Nottingham economy.
I watched the Brit Awards recently. Do you ever get invited to those kind of events?
I got invited to the Q Magazine Awards once. It was alright, but I’ll think twice before going again. I’d probably go if we were going to win something and usually you’re told that beforehand. A lot of people use it for networking and to promote themselves, but the atmosphere just reeks of egos; people in bands have big heads, don’t they? Andrew and I are probably just as bad, but the merging of all that together in one room is not something I yearn for.
It must be a big contrast to your life before. Is it true you used to work in a chicken factory?
Yes, that’s true. It was in Grantham in the early nineties and I did two years there, straight from school. The place was called Padley’s and they did chicken for KFC and Iceland. The carcass of the chicken would come across on a conveyor belt and my job was ripping off the wings, thighs and breasts with these clippers and throwing them into different tubs. Or I’d be at the start of the belt putting the chicken on there for someone else to hang, draw and quarter it. It was work, and I got used to it.
I’ve done loads of jobs like that, right up until a few years ago when I was able to go full-time with the music. If I ever needed quick work, factories were the go-to place, but the people behind the agencies were taking more money than us and rolling around in big cars, it’s exploitation. I can imagine it’s even worse in the era of zero-hour contracts.
If you could be Prime Minister for a day, what would you change?
I’d want to make the safety net bigger for people, without any bias. I’d get people back indoors and off the streets as a priority. That’s one of the reasons we wanted to support Beat The Streets festival back in January. I’m glad we played that as it was a great day out and hopefully it’ll do a lot of good.
What’s it like being on tour in your late forties?
It’s hard. I don’t really take my family on tour much now the kids are at school, as the whole experience would be a bit boring for them. The hotels we stay in are nicer these days, but the whole experience is still dull and involves lots of time shut away in rooms and on buses. You’re pent up, psyching yourself up for the gig, so you’re not present because your mind is on the performance. If you’ve got a few days at the same venue it can be better as you get an Airbnb, but it’s just work really, and there’s not many people who’d want to take their kids to work every day.
So it’s not all sex, drugs and rock’n’roll then?
The drugs and all that business is for young people really. I’ve done a few in my time and it’s been great, but at my age the body just can’t take it. In some ways I miss them, but even for young people it’s a test. If you carry on that path as you get older you just start to look stupid and it takes away from what you want to do. At the end of the day, when the drugs have gone, it’s important to make sure you’ve got something left underneath.
How’s Andrew? Is he still living on his boat?
No, he’s left his boat behind and at the moment he’s just mooching about trying to figure out what he’s going to do next before we go on tour again. He’s quite a happy guy overall and he’s just pottering about making some tunes, doing his own stuff as Extnddntwrk, which is good. It’s important to make the most of the gaps we get between albums.
You’re cited as a “voice of modern Britain” but you have big audiences across the globe too. What other countries get Sleaford Mods the most?
Germany. They’re really clued up over there and we fill 2,000-capacity venues like we do over here. France is getting bigger for us too, as are Switzerland, Austria, Spain and Italy. In all of those places we are filling 1,000-capacity venues upwards. It’s really important to us because live gigs are the only way a band like us can get revenue these days.
We’ve learned a lot about the music industry by doing so much of it ourselves. You’ve got to face the truth of where you’re at. It’d be fun to have a crack at America, but at the moment we can’t afford it. For a band like us, you’d basically have to pay to play out there. We went out there and sold out some massive venues, over 1,500 people in New York and 2,000 in LA, but after you’ve shelled out for hotels, work permits and the rest of the infrastructure, you’re not left with much for the time.
How do you do for radio play? I listen to 6music a lot, but it surprises me that you’re not played on it more. Iggy Pop mentions you regularly, but that’s about it…
I think they just have such a backlog of things they’ve got to play, and want to play, that you can’t expect to be played on there every week. I think they do a good job overall; there’s some good people there. You’ve obviously got tastemakers who create a playlist there, but them and Radio 1 are really the only stations that will play new music full stop.
Do you ever get on Radio 1?
No. We’ve had a bit here and there on the evening sessions, but that’s it. Geoff Travis [founder of Rough Trade Records] had a meeting where he asked Radio 1 why they didn’t play us more when we signed with his label, and they said they were worried that people would turn their radios off. That gives you some idea of the mentality of Radio 1. It’s pretty bleak.
What’s Iggy Pop like in real life?
I’ve never actually met him. We email each other a lot, but I’m a bit scared of meeting him to be honest. He came to a show in Finland and watched us from the side of the stage, but he had to leave before we finished so it didn’t quite happen. He’s been great for us though, always saying nice things and playing us on his show. He’s incredible really, still making new music himself and he’s still got the moves when he puts on a show. He looks great. Compare that to Ronnie Wood at the Brit Awards. He looked a right mess. What are you doing mate? You poor sod.
There’s a film about you guys called Bunch of Kunst. How did that come about?
We met Christine Franz through ARTE [a TV Channel] in Germany. She came over to interview us at Andrew’s flat and was really into it. She told our manager Steve that she wanted to do a film, we said yes straight away, and they basically followed us around on tour for two years. It’s her thing to be honest, she did all the hard work. There was a nice emphasis on Steve in the film, too. He masterminded a lot of what we’ve done really. He got us bathed and scrubbed and made us presentable. It’s important that his side of the Sleaford Mods story got told.
You’ve done a few interesting collaborations in the last few years. What was it like working with The Prodigy on Ibiza?
It was great. I knew they were musically and culturally very significant but, to be honest, I never bought any of their albums. I knew Fat of the Land because of the amount of airplay it got. When they asked me to think about collaborating, I did my research and got really into Jilted Generation and Experience. They’re absolutely massive and have been for nearly three decades. We played to a crowd of 60,000 people at the Isle of Wight Festival. Imagine that? They’re all used to it by now as they’ve been doing it for years, but it was an eye opener for me.
Any more collaborations lined up?
I did something with Baxter Dury, just because I liked his stuff and I’ve just done something with Joe Buhdha. I’m mainly concentrating on our own music. I’ve got to be a bit careful, as although it’s nice working with new people, I don’t want to just do anything for the sake of it.
Are Nottingham shows still your favourites? It must be quite different these days from playing to three people at JamCafe...
I love them. The last Rock City one I particularly enjoyed; it was there that our set and my performance started to change. In the past I’ve struggled with remembering some of our lyrics and I couldn’t understand why, so I developed a twitch where I used to hit myself on the back of the head as a mechanism for remembering everything. I was so pent up that I wanted to hit something, so I hit myself. But it was that last Rock City set where, on our home ground, I started to feel more comfortable looking straight at the audience and dancing. It just came out naturally. People have said since then that we’ve changed and it’s less punk, but that’s how it goes after years of doing this thing. You’ve got to evolve.
Your next Nottingham gig is at the Royal Concert Hall. It’s going to be weird sitting down in that grand hall to watch you play…
Yeah. It’s going to be different. We nearly did that venue last year, but we had second thoughts and did Rock City again. But it’s an interesting change. Also, that venue is just as much a part of this city as Rock City; it’s been there longer. We’re looking forward to it.
What does the future hold for Sleaford Mods? I take it you’ve not got any plans to move to London or LA?
Erm… no. I wouldn’t want to do that even if I could afford it. I’ve just moved from Sherwood to West Bridgford and that’s enough of a step-up for now, and that’s only after three years of saving up the gig money. I quite like the idea of owning a house after all this time, I’ve never done it before. I got on the last mortgage with my wife but this time it belongs to both of us and it’s not just me moving into hers. Some things about it still seem a bit weird, but it’s really nice having a garden for the kids to run about in. Am I still from Nottingham if I live in Bread and Lard Island? People say that once you’ve crossed the river it’s different. We’ll have to see.
Finally, it’s our birthday. Got any thoughts on fifteen years of LeftLion?
You’re passionate about it, you’ve stuck with it and you’ve believed in it. That in itself towers above the mainstream press. It’s solid. It’s made a real difference in the city; it’s helped change Nottingham. You’re as much a part of this city as the streets, the trees and the air. It’s part of the pubs and part of the people. We’re honoured to have been included in your magazine. Happy birthday.
English Tapas is out now on Rough Trade Records.
Sleaford Mods website