On UK GRIM Sleaford Mods Prove Their Angriest Days Aren’t Behind Them

The influential post-punk duo share the aggravations that inspired their 12th album

Music Features Sleaford Mods
On UK GRIM Sleaford Mods Prove Their Angriest Days Aren’t Behind Them

Like having the genetic trait of uncontrollable perspiration at the faintest hint of spice, as much as some people try not to sweat the small stuff as they grow older, it’s impossible to ignore the urge to flip a table when they detect bullshit. For the highly influential Nottingham post-punk and electronic duo Sleaford Mods, their infectious brand of anger isn’t necessarily a default setting, but it’s a feeling they’ve learned how to tap into.

This year marks the 10-year anniversary of their sixth full-length Austerity Dogs which set the table for their international acclaim the following year with their breakthrough Divide and Exit. Both albums presented the one-of-a-kind vocalist Jason Williamson’s agitated working-class poetry and the inventive-yet-sparse beats of producer Andrew Fearn as a thrilling new direction for post-punk. With their 12th album  UK GRIM, Williamson and Fearn have delivered an album that recaptures that unbridled fury while pointing towards an evolution in their sound. “You’d think that the angriest stuff is behind you, but clearly not,” laughs Williamson as the three of us connect over zoom.

The two started writing the songs that would eventually become UK GRIM in March of 2021 just before setting out for their Spring tour supporting their  Spare Ribs, their highest charting album to date. That album provided such an of-the-moment understanding of what we were all going through during heavy periods of lockdown and isolation. Like on Spare Ribs, Williamson’s writing on this new album is a continuation of that he aggression felt towards the complete breakdown of UK society at the hands of its bumbling government and taking aim at the new order of the world now that we are being told to live our normal lives again. “As society opened up again, the world started to work as it did before,” Williamson explains, “So [the album] kind of discusses all of those things that came out after that which was mainly aggression, pettiness, paranoia, anxiety. All these things are rolled into the energies on UK GRIM. A failing government. A complete catastrophe of a collection of people governing the country. All of these things melted in there.”

Those in high offices instructing the masses to behave, and those who put their faith in elected officials to have their best interests in mind expecting a better way of life if they stay the course, that’s been a power struggle that Williamson has mined for the majority of the group’s run. As we now depend on our governments to put the pieces back together, he was saddened and angered to see that the charlatans in charge didn’t grow a conscience in the face of adversity, rather they just found a new way to line their pockets from the safety of their elected titles. “It really did show the the conning of some of these people or the lack of care they showed for the people they were supposed to be governing,” he says with a heavy sigh. “It showed a lot of people for the careerists that they are.”

His frequently hilarious and justified lashing out towards the higher powers has become expected with each new Mods release, but Williamson has also never shied away from taking down a different kind of nefarious hierarchy: the posturing infiltrators in the underground music scene, which he believes has only gotten worse as the live music infrastructure has returned. On the new song “D.I.Why,” he offers a litany of “reasons why” he says, “death to your D.I.Y.” He portrays a new slew of unorginal post-punk poseurs seeing the unexpected success of Williamson’s Sprechstimme singing approach and trying to copy it without a shred of his personality or anything close to his unique worldview. In his eyes, the majority of these new bands are just trying to make an “edgy version of something shit.” In a funny anectdote within the song, he sees a doctor to sort out his animosity towards these “BnM Goths” and “post-punk dross” only to have the doctor confirm that they deserved to all be slapped. It would almost be like a post-punk re-telling of the great sad clown Pagliacci’s story if the group’s influence wasn’t so easily traced to so many new bands enjoying wild successes today. While he believes there are many bands working within this kind of blueprint created by artists like The Fall and Nick Cave, Williamson believes the door has been left open for others to water down the richness of the sauce.

“People are holding on to a movement that I think has become just as stale as the commercial side of things,” he says, “It’s no longer this playground for masses of original ideas because everyone’s become amalgamated into the same uniform, same hair color, same tattoos. The ideology is roughly the same, lots of naivety. Which I wouldn’t attribute to creative progressions. Obviously, there are people in that environment that are very good and are very true to what they believe, without a doubt, of course, but I think it’s worth noting that there isn’t as well.”

While many have followed Williamsons’ lead vocally, Fearn’s production style has come into it’s own over the years and has provided a unique force of attack that has rarely been replicated. His minimalist, gritty lo-fi beats offer the right amount of drive yet never overcrowd, leaving ample room for Williamson to suck up all of the oxygen with his mile-a-minute rants. As they have released more material, his production style has become more nuanced. He explains that while he attempts to make music every day, being under lockdown forced him to dig deeper and to search out more modular gear to add to his arsenal and to incorporate a mix of live instrumentation into sample-based loops. Much of the sound of UK GRIM pays homage to pre-Def Jam era hip-hop, as Williamson namechecks artists like Melly Mel and Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five as big influences during our call.

“Some of the tracks from other albums were for-track tunes that I made, because it always made the production of that album sound more interesting,” Fearn explains of his process of expanding their sound. “It always seemed like something that we could do because we have because we’re not a four-piece band that had the same sound and then we every track, we can mix it up a bit more.”

Their winning formula has attracted like-minded peers within the industry to guest on their albums. On Spare Ribs the duo collaborated with Billy Nomates and Amy and the Sniffers singer Amy Taylor. This time around, they welcomed one-of-a-kind Dry Cleaning vocalist Florence Shaw (“Force 10 From Navarone”) and an unexpected call to feature from Janes Addiction and Porno for Pyros frontman Perry Farrell (“So Trendy”). All of the production is in service of Williamson’s lyrics, of course. As the take-no-prisoners flow of the album was directly inspired by the aforementioned issues vexing Williamson at the time. Another in the long list are those who saw the imposed lockdowns and roll-out of the COVID vaccine as a hindrance on their personal liberties and chose to politicize these life-saving measures. It’s those people who had their brains massaged by misinformation that Williamson skewers on the tuneful standout “Right Wing Beast.”

“All these people that have become so politicized over it that you just know couldn’t give a fuck about any politics before that,” says Williamson. “The same with Brexit. I found that a lot of people who were sticking up for Brexit were people didn’t care before. So what does that say to you? The virus is under control. It’s it’s not as bad as it was. It’s gone virtually and yet people are still going on about the fucking vaccination. It’s just a way of causing division. To have people that you’ve known for years allude to is a bit depressing.”

Both Williamson and Fearn started gaining success with Sleaford Mods in their forties. For a time, the idea of navigating success in the music business at this age was a cause of worry for Williamson. Now that the two are in their early fifties, he sees that the ageist rules in pop music have become antiquated things of the past. “It was so based around the idea of youth, but I think over the last 10 years that’s changed,” he says. “You’re getting a lot more older people doing it. It still fucks with you a bit, the ageism thing. It will always be there I think, but you’ve just got to try and combat that as much as you can.”

At the time of our conversation, UK GRIM is just a week out from being released and Sleaford Mods have a busy touring schedule that will take them through Europe and the States in the coming months. Seeing the duo in a live setting creates a strange phenomenon within any given audience. It’s one thing to hear Williamson workout his grievances and Larry David “Social Assassin”-style scenarios in the comfort of your own home or pass along secrets shared in confidence through headphones. But seeing him passionately bring his stories to life onstage—flailing his arms about with and taking short breathes between each couplet, with Fearn calmly swaying along while queuing up each song on a laptop—can give a sense of a permission to the audience to let go of their inhibitions.

I’ve seen the phenomenon play out in different ways first hand over the years. At their first-ever U.S. show back in 2014 at the now-defunct cavernous concert venue in Bushwick, Brooklyn called The Wick, there was an early sign that American audiences couldn’t comprehend this form of aggression—at least the drunken Bushwick crowd that turned out on a Friday night to see what all the buzz was about. During one song a full pint glass came hurling up onstage right at Williamson’s head as the singer dodged it midsong without missing a beat. The duo laugh remembering that night and recalling a fight breaking out in the crowd to snuff out the thrower. However a recent performance in Philadelphia’s The Foundry nearly 10-years later, a pit engulfed the crowd for the majority of the show as fans shouted along to each word, much to the delight of Williamson.

As the musical landscape has changed around Sleaford Mods, Williamson has noticed crowds being more receptive with each passing tour. “A lot of people just didn’t know how to respond to it. But a lot of people liked it,” Williamson recalls of those early touring days. “We’ve become a bit more of a household name. But still people don’t get it. You still get a lot of traditionalists that continue to operate and are allowed to operate because people want traditional data, you know. But for the most part, people now accept it.”

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