What makes the Nottingham duo’s simplicity so succinct
Jason Williamson and Andrew Fearn of Nottingham’s Sleaford Mods have been railing against everything that irritates them since they released their debut, Wank, in 2012 (Williamson ran Sleaford as a one-man operation from 2007-2012).
Their list of irritants is exhaustive, but frequent targets include the Tory Party, Top 40 musicians, and wankers of every kind. It might be tiresome if it wasn’t so funny.
Granted, there are those who would describe Sleaford themselves as irritants, hence a 2016 nomination for NME’s Worst Band Award, a dishonor shared with Nickelback, One Direction, U2, Little Mix and, that year’s winner, 5 Seconds of Summer. Though the lads wouldn’t receive another nod, 5 Seconds won three years in a row. It seems unlikely that the Nottingham duo really cared one way or the other.
If the lads have barely changed their rudimentary musical approach over the ensuing 11 years, what might seem like a lack of growth for any other outfit has served them exceedingly well, since it’s all about Williamson’s lyrics and Fearn’s head-nodding beats. There’s little need for anything else.
Though Williamson is normally more of a ranter or barker, he actually sings on English Tapas’ “I Was So Wrong” and Eton Alive’s “When You Come Up to Me” and “Firewall,” and his voice isn’t half-bad–though it’s odd to hear him without his signature Midlands accent. If anything, he sounds a little like Greg Lake (King Crimson, Emerson, Lake and Palmer). If these brief detours into singing, circa 2017-2019, didn’t mark a new direction for the duo, they indicated a desire to shake things up on occasion.
VIDEO: Sleaford Mods SMtv UK GRIM Special
For the most part, it all comes down to the lyrics, and Williamson, like Mark E. Smith, doubles as an insult comic. On “Fizzy,” possibly their angriest song, he rails against “the cunt with the gut and the Buzz Lightyear haircut,” going on to shout, “You pockmarked four-eyed shit-fitted shirt, white Converse and a taste for young girls” and “You got no chin; an’ you got no balls to chin ’em with.” For all his japes about haircuts, though, Williamson’s Caesar cut on the cover of Divide and Exit isn’t anything to brag about.
Then there are his words about other acts, i.e. “That Ian McCulloch white boy, bore me fuckless terrace bit” (“My Jampandy”), “Chumbawamba weren’t political, they were just crap” (“You’re Brave”), and “Spitting out fine cheese made by the tool from Blur–even the drummer’s a fucking MP–fuck off you cunt, sir” (“Rupert Trousers”). Other musical non-favorites include Ed Sheeran, Robin Thicke, the Von Bondies, “fucking Lou Reed,” “G.G. fucking Allin,” and “fucking Journey.” (If it wasn’t already clear, radio airplay isn’t a top concern or they would minimize the profanity.) The rare exceptions? “I wouldn’t fuck about with Jack White” (“Bronx in a Six”) and “Kate Bush did it–she’s great!” (“Cunt Make It Up”).
Beyond the song “Force 10 from Navarone,” a title shared with an action movie starring Gregory Peck, movie and TV references also abound. If it’s clear where Williamson stands on pop stars like Ed Sheeran–he isn’t a fan–I get the impression that he enjoys unwinding with a little audiovisual entertainment. He’s even appeared in a few TV shows, like Peaky Blinders and Ben Wheatley’s take on Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, while Andrew Fearn has provided music for a few others, like Us and Them.
A list of movie and TV references in Sleaford lyrics includes Top Gun, Gary Oldman, Nicolas Cage, Gary Cooper, Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell’s Escape from New York and Escape from LA antihero), Steve McGarret (Jack Lord’s raven-haired Hawaii 5-O detective), James Mason, Jim Morrison, Keanu Reeves, Bruce Banner, I, Claudius, and, I think, Richard Gere (“What happened to Richard? All I can see is gear”). And in a sure sign that Williamson has two kids, even Thomas the Tank Engine puts in an appearance.
For my money, 2021’s Spare Ribs marked a breakthrough as a trio of spirited women trade and/or co-write lyrics with Williamson, and it works a treat. Amy Taylor, front woman for Melbourne punk-pop four-piece Amyl and the Sniffers, guests on “Nudge It,” University of Durham anarchist and research fellow Lisa McKenzie co-wrote “Top Room,” and Bristol singer-songwriter Billy Nomates guests on the sinuous “Mork n Mindy,” which topped the UK vinyl singles chart–Ben Wheatley directed the video.
If it’s only three tracks, it proves that “laddish” isn’t Sleaford Mods only mode. For my money, it’s their most confident work to date. If you’ve never heard the band, this album would be the place to start.
This brings us to UK GRIM, which arrived in March, and the title makes it clear what’s on offer. As Williamson sings on the title track, “In England, no one can hear you scream–you’re just fucked, lads.” (Nice Alien reference.) This time, Florence Shaw, front woman for London’s Dry Cleaning, adds her hushed alto to the aforementioned “Force 10 from Navarone.” Once again, the Mods found a unique female voice that fits in perfectly with their minimalist aesthetic. More surprisingly, the decidedly maximal Perry Farrell (Jane’s Addiction, Porno for Pyros) adds some zest to the bouncy “So Trendy.”
VIDEO: Sleaford Mods “UK GRIM”
Born in 1970 and 1971, respectively, Williamson and Fearn were already in their 40s when they joined forces (they considered “That’s Shit, Try Harder” as a band name). Now sober after years of substance use–with the exception of the occasional cigarette or micro-dose–the lads are in their 50s. Williamson is married (his wife, Claire, is their manager) and Fearn is partnered. As Fearn told The Guardian’s Miranda Sawyer in March, when asked about their longevity, “It’s good, I think, to be around still. You’re sending out a great message to people in their 30s and 40s to say, ‘You’re never too old for creativity’.”
All told, Sleaford Mods have released eight studio albums, four collections, four extended-play recordings, and one live album. As of 2023, they show no signs of stopping. As long as privileged twits like Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak lead the UK–and as long as wankers walk the land–Jason Williamson and Andrew Fearn, foul-mouthed poets of the working class, won’t run out of material any time soon.
UK GRIM is out now on Rough Trade. Sleaford Mods will be touring the US through April, including an April 16 stop at Coachella in Indio, CA. In May, they take their show to New Zealand and Europe.
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