Sleaford Mods and the Ballad of Britain’s Lost Rave Generation
How the Nottingham duo went from drug binges and railing at British austerity to living clean.
The fog outside the window extends into the distance, gradually revealing Nottingham's outer reaches. Junkyards and MOT garages emerge, preceding a funnel shaped tower that signals the arrival at the East Midland train depot. The Cross Keys Inn pub is a ten-minute walk from the station, attached to a series of cobbled streets that once played host to market traders and now houses the usual run of Carluccio's and Whistles outfitters. Jason Williamson, frontman for Sleaford Mods, is comfortably waiting at a table inside.
The band are releasing a new album on Friday, in the form of English Tapas. Its release on Rough Trade marks a new chapter of sorts for the group, who have, in the last seven years, released nine albums through lesser-known independent labels. Looking back on press about the band (which, alongside Williamson, comprises another member in Andrew Fearn), there's always been a sense about two things: that they've been positioned as the embodiment of all the spitting, politicised rage of the working class – and that they like banging away shitloads of drugs.
On the one hand, this placement is understandable: when the band emerged with their break-through track "Tied Up In Nottz" in 2014 – a hungover and pumping sojourn through the piss-scented topography of Nottingham (and beyond) – they captured the specifics of a British experience that more pristine and clandestine groups of the time had never and would never have engaged with. "Can of Strongbow, I'm a mess / desperately clutching onto a leaflet on depression supplied to me by the NHS," Williamson sings on "Jobseeker" – another song, originally recorded in 2008, that the band also released three years ago. As for the drugs? "[I was] probably [doing] about three or four in a night. Grams [of cocaine]", Williamson said in an interview with The Guardian.
As inequality in Britain became more dangerously prevalent than ever before – and, in doing so, developed into a buzzword – Sleaford Mods slotted neatly into the "fight against austerity" space some well-groomed critics had been waiting for an act to fill. But Williamson has never seen himself as a voice for the working class as much as the media positioned him as the figurehead for it. "We just talked about getting up and going to work", he told The Quietus in 2016. "This idea that we're crackhead poets, you know, 'touching the vein of austerity Britain'... it's like, no, it's not about that, it's about the pain of actually existing underneath that stuff."
For anyone who has ever scraped together the change they keep in a mug beside their bed to do nothing more than marinate in the amber-soaked settee of their local pub, the nuance of how it feels to have no money (and no future) is evident in Sleaford Mods back catalogue, whatever your age. It's something that goes beyond a perceived environment, a collection of words, a few songs. It's a perennial feeling, an atmosphere; if there is such a thing as a spirit, then everything Sleaford Mods touch upon is part of it.
Three years and several albums and EPs later, Williamson has – in his own words – "got money now". That's not to say having money has changed the band, though. Far from it, in fact. So what's English Tapas about, then? At its root, it's about the environment that continues to inform the work of Sleaford Mods. Perhaps more so though – and to give it some more nuance than that – English Tapas documents a part of society that's rarely discussed through music; a loose discussion, of sorts, of what happens when the spirit of Sleaford Mods' world approaches the latter end of its spluttering existence, bad habits and demons and circumstantial situations still intact.
In order to get into that in full though, to understand the minutiae of an experience many go through but others do not, it's important to get into the backstory that provides the foundation for English Tapas – or, rather, the spirit of Jason Williamson. Like all stories, it starts at the beginning.
"I always wanted more for myself than a factory job," Williamson tells me as I settle down into a seat in the pub. Initially, he wanted to be an actor. As the child of divorced parents, he remembers being taken in by "magnificent, colourful Hollywood productions" – films like the Wizard of Oz and Ben-Hur. He studied drama at school but was expelled in the April before his final exams for piercing a friend's ear. "It was like the Labour Party cull," he says. "They were just kicking people out. Probably because they couldn't be arsed to take them into exams."
For a while, Williamson kicked around Grantham – a small market town 25 miles or so outside of Nottingham, where he grew up. He went on the dole; he hung around in town. Eventually though his Father needed to see "some board" and Williamson took on his first factory job where he worked for a year and a half before reapplying to college to study art, drama and English. For a year or so after graduating, Williamson unsuccessfully applied to acting schools. They said he wasn't quite ready, he should come back next year, except he never did. Instead, he got into drugs and clubbing, discovered his own passion for music, and started tinkering in bands.
"I thought, 'this is what I want to do'," he remembers. "'[Music] says more to me about my life than acting does.'" So, like most aspiring artists, he ventured toward the capital. Living on £50 a week Williamson moved between places in west, southwest and southeast London. Yet in the end, this approach proved as fruitless as enrolling in drama school. Not content with joining the ranks of Britpop bands that had infiltrated the capital, Williamson moved back to the Midlands, eventually settling in Nottingham and away from family.
Here, Williamson needed to make a living for himself. So, he worked: in chicken factories, in high street stores, in temporary positions on farms – essentially, every role that, as a child, he hoped he would not have to do as an adult. In total, Williamson reckons he's had around 25 to 30 different jobs – and has been sacked more times than anyone I've ever met. That's not to say he gave up music, though. From around 1996 onward he played in a collection of bands. At one point, he embarked on a solo voyage into the world of folk. But nothing stuck. The music didn't feel right; it wasn't located in the "here and now". Besides, Williamson was at the lowest of the low. By his own admission, he was doing loads of drugs. It was, in his words, a time of "fucking bad news".
The turning point came when Williamson was working – of all places – in a warehouse packing knickers for Playboy. It's been documented in previous interviews that the Sleaford Mods style – sparse beats layered with urgent vocals – was partly inspired by the Wu Tang Clan, whose music played through the factory. Ultimately though, the aesthetic of Sleaford Mods came from Williamson's need to express what he was feeling in real-time – something also inspired, in part, by The Streets debut album Original Pirate Material. "I loved the idea of the minimalism of it all – someone on a microphone, and someone on a computer. I thought it said so much about today. It had a modern feeling to it," he remembers, before reflecting on elements of Britain's current music. "I'm sick of guitars and bullshit. It's not changed, has it? Fuck off. You've got to do something new with it, but it's been replicated so much – reinvented, reinvented – I don't think it has much of a life now."
Thus: the spirit of Sleaford Mods and their next ten records was born. It's a desperate yet determined essence of the life Williamson initially never wanted; a distillation of decades spent working toward being an artist that, through the sum of its parts, became a temperament of the times and the best thing Williamson had ever worked on. Soon afterward, the media caught on.
Yet like all drug habits that start small and never seem to go away, the runaway success of Sleaford Mods did little to quell Williamson's taste for late nights and perpetually wired mornings. As a factory worker, Williamson would steal, borrow and get into debt in order to buy drugs. And as a member of a paid-up band, the money on his debit card stretched further, to the point he was "buying big mounds of it." But then came a realisation. "I have two kids. I was fucking it right up."
When we meet today, Williamson is sipping from a cool glass bottle of water. He looks lean too, the shadows of weeknights spent drinking replaced with what looks like the warm glow of at least eight hours' sleep. On the new record (which he says is almost entirely from his own perspective, as opposed to talking through the lens of wider society) he references being gluten-, drug- and alcohol-free – and, at one point, "wank free". It's a different shade from a man who once boasted about having "drugs to take and a mind to break".
As a product of the rave generation, and later, of working in low-paid jobs, Williamson sees himself and those around him as the test-pilots for a drug-taking culture that has now made the men and women of Britain the premier wreckheads in Europe. On a new song called "Drayton Manor 2" he discusses how his generation were warned about taking ecstasy, how most laughed it off and took the drug recreationally for a while, then stopped – and how others didn't and have carried on well into their forties. "We are the guinea pigs," he sings, "But now I realise few of us grew from guinea pigs / into proper dives, head dives."
As the decades passed, the consumption of drugs and the mood swings that come with them became part of Williamson and his friends' personality. "In a way all my mates don't know how to express themselves," he says. "They've got no identity. It seems perfectly normal to just" – *makes sound and motion of downing a pint* – "wax it up. It's okay when you're young, but when you're older it's insanity." The new album touches on this mid-forties lack of identity with both a sense of nuance and direct reference: of comedowns, leaving your mate's house and avoiding people on the street, getting into a damp and cold bed, looking over your shoulder if you're having a cigarette. "When you think about it it's quite insane," Williamson says. "It's almost like the hippie generation."
It's a pertinent point and one that makes English Tapas perhaps Sleaford Mods' most important release so far – especially when looked at as a byproduct of existing under "the vein" of "austerity Britain". Each time a broadsheet publishes an article – usually something like "How the Eighties Rave Generation Grew Up" – it focuses on the clean-faced ex-ravers who have become food stylists or magazine editors. Rarely has there been a document related to the on-going casualties. Beyond the usual tabloid fodder related to the working class troposphere of Sleaford Mods' music, there is little discussion related to the inner make-up of those who are part of that generation. There is no feeling, humanity – in most cases, rarely even a sense of reality, which is what Williamson captures best.
That's not to say English Tapas is a self-indulgent record about being clean and healthy, because it's not. The references to Williamson's story are cleverly disguised and wrapped up in well-written songs that speak to a larger cultural experience. It's still loud; it's still fiercely poetic; it still captures the burning sensation that comes from being a human being who often cannot dictate their own life. In a way, the album is about shifting representations. Not just of the identity of 40-year-old men, but identity as a whole. The name, English Tapas, is a reference to how English people can take things from other cultures – beautiful things – and completely bastardise them. Andrew Fearn, who produces the music for Sleaford, saw the phrase on a pub menu advertising a selection of items including but not limited to half a Scotch egg and a cup of chips.
The album's opening track "Army Nights" is about someone Williamson ran into at the gym – "the kind of guy anyone cool would hate and think to be a vacuous person", who would work out in the week and go out at weekends to try and pull women. It's a great introduction to how English Tapas touches on the way we view identity. "There's this whole thing about the gym where people are like, 'it's full of people who are self-centred and lobbing photos of their arms on Instagram all day.' But it's not, really," Williamson says. "What else have a lot of people got? It occurred to me there was nothing negative about what he was doing, it was completely positive."
Like most records from the Mods, English Tapas speaks to Britain's current political situation too. The chorus to "Mop Top" is a great dig at Boris Johnson's haircut. "Snout" compares The Crusades – where people were going overseas in the name of Christianity and murdering people – to the present day, dulled, bummed-out masses who are being sucked in by the flag. "Carlton Touts" references neo-liberalism. Lead single "BHS" includes the now defunct superstore-referencing lyric: "We're going down like BHS while the able bodied vultures monitor and pick at us." At first glance, English Tapas focuses on some similar material to the group's previous record but the way Williamson's story surrounds and informs these views is as important – and feels more fresh – than anything they've done before.
The album's closing track "I Feel So Wrong" is a stand-out, defining the experience of Williamson deciding to move toward a healthy lifestyle – of dragging money out of a cash machine to buy more gear but looking at the moon and feeling wrong, self destructive, sick. At first, Williamson was worried about the track. "I didn't want to come across as y'know, 'oh yeah this is the bit where I talk about giving up drugs'. So many bands do that shit. But what can you do? So I tried to dress it up in a way that wasn't too…" and his voice trails off.
I mean – it could mean you're taking out money to buy drugs and now feel wrong, as in the good kind of wrong, I say.
"Exactly. It could mean a lot of things."
Yet whether or not the lyrics are open to interpretation or raw and direct, English Tapas is rooted in the idea of authenticity. Of making music about an experience that is real. Of not pretending you're numb to what's happening in the world and writing music about your own reality within it. Of capturing something that resembles life. Ultimately this approach defines Sleaford Mods and Jason Williamson – and is what sets them apart from so many of today's anaemic, posturing and pointless artists (hello Blossoms!)
Toward the end of our conversation – and as I drink my second beer before lunchtime – I tell him I've started to become worried I'm drowning in my own problems, but in doing so, have created more. "As long as you're not getting in the realms of complete and utter abandonment spiritually or psychologically I don't think it's a bad thing," he says. "In this world – and in the sense of learning – chaos is the only real currency. You can't really learn from playing it safe all the time. The things you don't want to do, the things you fear the most and end up doing – that's what shapes you."
It's a fair point – and one I bring with me to the pub later that evening. As we get up to leave, I wonder if Williamson feels any better now he's given that life up. If being healthy and going to the gym and doing yoga has meant he feels any better as a person, living underneath the film of shit that covers the United Kingdom?
"Not really. But it's got to be done," he concedes.
A new chapter, indeed.
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