Matt Withers talks to the Poet Laureate of Brexit Britain about Europe, lockdown and cultural appropriation in music
This time last year Jason Williamson of Sleaford Mods, the Poet Laureate of Brexit Britain, was writing the first songs for the band’s sixth studio album. The themes would have been familiar for those who know the acerbic East Midlander’s work. But then… well, you know what happened next.
The album, Spare Ribs, ended up recorded under lockdown at Nottingham’s JT Soar studio). Technically, it made little difference – “Same business as usual apart from the fact we were wearing facemasks,” says Williamson – but inevitably the virus impacted.
“It would’ve been an album about whatever anyway,” says the 50-year-old, speaking to me from Nottingham on Zoom.
“We tend to generally talk about the things around us. We wrote four or five of the tracks in January of last year so we had a rough idea of where it was going, but obviously when Covid hit… I didn’t really want to talk about it because I just felt it was a bit obvious, we didn’t really know enough of it, we didn’t really understand our experiences of it. It was a little bit too premature, I thought.
“But as the summer rolled on it became quite clear that it was a f***ing s***show and it then started to weave itself into the ideas, you know.”
That emerges in an album which opens with A New Brick (“We’re all so Tory tired/And beaten by minds small”) and, in Shortcummings, immortalises Britain’s most famous self-prescribed eye-tester in music.
“I think it’s shown people for what they are even more, but what is depressing about that is that the electorate who voted them in don’t seem to care, you know?,” says Williamson.
The three themes which thread throughout the album are lockdown, childhood, and, as Williamson puts it “the kind of class tourism that you find in music, in creativity as a whole, I guess, in anything really… cultural appropriation”.
This is a theme Sleaford Mods (who are neither from Sleaford nor, really, mods) have turned to before: in 2019 Williamson sparked a spat in what remains of the music press when he turned his fire on Bristol rock band Idles, accusing them of “appropriating a working class voice”. It’s something he alludes to in Spare Ribs’ Elocution, mimicking a middle-class artist talking about the importance of independent venues, hoping that the resulting profile boost would mean not having to play them again. “I wish I had the time to be a w*nker just like you,” replies the real Williamson in the song.
“What we know about other acts that I’ve criticised is, you know… for the most part they’re middle-class,” he says.
“It’s like… do not put yourself in a position where it looks as if you are aligning yourself with imagery that you really haven’t been connected with in your life. And it infuriates me. And I think it’s an age-old thing, it’s been going on from the dawn of time. Plenty of singers, plenty of bands have adopted the working-class culture to use quite successfully for their own work.
“You hear things about people, like, ‘oh, you know, his dad used to be into pottery’. And you’re f***ing stood outside a high-rise, you c***? It’s like, this isn’t right. This is not f***ing right, you know? So it makes me angry. Obviously pottery isn’t just confined to the middle-classes, any f***er can do it. But you just know that these people are from that stretch of the woods, you know, and yet there is still this usage of historical items on the landscape from other cultures, from other sort of classes. So it does make me mad, yeah.
“Why can’t you just investigate the corridors of your own self? Why should that not be as entertaining as thinking that hijacking other people’s misery and using it as a uniform for yourself is gonna be any better, you know?”.
Sleaford Mods’ music, with its uncompromising nature and Sprechgesang style, is relatively rare as an unambiguous, unrelenting response to this government, its hard Brexit and haphazard response to a pandemic. But weren’t we always reassured that such times were fertile ground for art, for policitised music? Where, I wonder, is this generation’s? There’s no 2021 equivalent of the Specials in the charts, for example.
“One point perhaps is that the anger’s changed,” says Williamson. “It now exists in bravado, it now exists in talking about killing people in rival gangs, it now exists in talking about buying 20 pairs of trainers and look at all my money. It now perhaps exists in misogyny.
“And all of these things you can find in drill music, in grime music, do you know what I mean? Where the four walls are 2cm away from your nose, and so then you’ve got all the ensuing emotions that follow that.
“I definitely think that’s where modern-day anger is. When people say that ‘oh, kids are just talking about owning fast cars, and talking about how many people they’re having sex with’, surely this is a political statement. Do you really think that human beings are happy with that? I don’t think so. I think people are massively overlooking that, definitely.”
As for the Sleaford Mods’ own music, he says, he’s not exactly looking to trojan-horse his way on to the Radio 2 playlist.
“As long as I am exercising my anger to a certain degree – and most of these songs are angry songs – if I’m exercising my sadness if it comes to that, or whatever emotion I want to convey in a song then I’m happy, you know what I mean?”.
He is an unapologetic Europhile, a Remain voter but also a working-class boy who grew up in Grantham, where 60% of people voted to leave the EU (Lincolnshire voted heavily for Brexit – bandmate and producer Andrew Fearn’s home village of Saxilby voted to Leave by 62%). Where does Williamson’s fervour come from?
“People go on about the… and there was a massive working-class presence with the Leave vote, but also there was a massive old vote within it as well,” he says. “And let’s not forget the middle-class that voted for it as well. I don’t think you can necessarily blame the working-class for it, which a lot of people are doing – which I tend to do sometimes as well, I might add – but places like Manchester, Leeds, they were Remain.
“I don’t know, it’s a weird one. I mean, I am a working-class person. Or was. I come from that area, but I always wanted to get out. And where does my support for the EU come from?”. He lists “the c***s” who led the Leave campaign – Farage, Johnson, Gove – but adds: “Perhaps I’ve been rewarded with my hard work by being able to experience Europe by touring.” (Next time the band is able to play in the EU the red tape will be far greater but he’s confident there will be a waiver for musicians eventually).
“And so therefore my allegiances with it are very strong. I love Europe, you know? My time in Germany and Amsterdam, wherever – places I wouldn’t have gone to before, have obviously swayed my vote.
“So really, getting down to it, is that a good thing? Is my vote just, because a lot of people can’t experience that, they will never experience that? At the bottom of the pile, when you’re on minimum wage, you’re not going anywhere.”
Finally, the day we speak there is another newspaper report about the streaming services, particularly Spotify, and the tiny sums which artists make from their streams. It comes weeks after a number of artists, including Guy Garvey, Nadine Shah and Radiohead’s Ed O’Brien gave evidence to the Commons’ Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee. Does Williamson share their fears?
“I’m not concerned with it,” he says. “They’re just c****s and there’s nothing you can do about it, as simple as that. So if they want to do that they’ll f***ing do it. Absolutely nothing. Am I interested in heading some f***ing campaign against them? No, am I f***.
“It makes me angry that that c*** [Spotify CEO Daniel Ek] sits there and says ‘oh, you know, yeah, you’re gonna have to release an album every year’. He’s a billionaire. That makes me very angry. But am I gonna do anything about it at this point? No.”
A shame: Jason Williamson in front of the Culture select committee could have been what we all needed in 2021.
● Spare Ribs is out now on Rough Trade