They've collaborated with Perry Farrell and count Iggy Pop, Damon Albarn and Iron Man as fans: Sleaford Mods on becoming broken Britain's best cult band

A portrait of Sleaford Mods stood outside a gloomy building
(Image credit: Ewen Spencer)

Jason Williamson’s favourite part of the day is just after he’s woken up. The Sleaford Mods frontman ambles downstairs at 6.45am, his wife Claire hands him a coffee, and he takes a seat at the table, where Claire has lit two candles, and has breakfast with his family. This is when Williamson is at his happiest. “I’ve known being down at the bottom of the barrel,” he says over the phone from his home in Nottingham, “but I’ve also known being at the top and that is one of those examples, getting up in the morning and seeing everything I’ve got around me that we’ve worked hard for and the kids.”

It's no surprise that Williamson paints a scene uninterrupted by any outside interference because, God knows, when he steps out of the door and into the world, his contentedness is sorely tested. No-one is currently better at putting their displeasure into song than Williamson. His lyrics are fierce, ferocious, biting and hilarious and, with his bandmate Andrew Fearn, he has amassed a catalogue of songs that compellingly take the temperature of Crisis-To-Crisis Britain. The duo’s music ranges from lo-fi post-punk to minimalist electronic-pop to warped hip-hop beats and lurching grooves, the one constant being Williamson’s gripping sing-speak delivery. 

They have connected in a big way over the past decade, a breakthrough that no-one, especially not the two blokes who were in their mid-forties at the point people started paying attention, saw coming. They may well be outsiders but there must have been a hole in the fence because Sleaford Mods are very much a mainstream concern these days – their past three records have all gone Top Ten in the UK and their excellent 12th album UK Grim, released back in March, reached Number 3.

This month, they release a sister EP titled More UK Grim containing music from those sessions that didn’t make the cut. “They didn’t fit on the album, so you’re like, ‘Oh, they’re shit, they’re not very good’,” says Williamson. “But it’s not that they’re not very good, it’s that they didn’t fit the tracklisting. I had to get my head around that and stop thinking real negative things all the time, because you do don’t you? I think the EP is great, it stands on its own.”

The central track on the EP sums up everything that’s great about Sleaford Mods and their ability to get to the heart of the matter by (a) making a killer tune and (b) writing fiercely topical lyrics without making it sound like a broadsheet opinion piece. It’s a menacing, bass-y rumble called Big Pharma. “It’s about how people have uprooted and used that word,” explains Williamson. “There’s obviously massive problems with big pharmaceutical companies but there’s a lot of it that isn’t, I imagine. The song is more about people that use the phrase to help push chaos theory, pandemonium, throwing people off their mark, confusing people, making people angry about something that largely doesn’t exist. That goes for Brexit to vaccinations to transphobia. Those three things chiefly are what pushed the idea of the song.”

Williamson is a bolshy, aggro presence in his music, all barbed eloquence and frenzied exasperation. It has led, he says, to a common misconception from fans that he’s a violent sort. “I get a lot of that,” he sighs. “I don’t feel aggro, well… I do but I don’t go round hitting people, I don’t think I could, I don’t think I’ve got that gumption in me to be a fighter. And I wouldn’t want to be, it’s a horrible emotion, physical anger, it’s not going to get you anywhere. I’m constantly at war with myself, as we all are, so perhaps that comes over in the old facial expression.”

In his defence, there’s a lot to scour at in 2023. His current villains – you imagine this is a frequently updated list – have Secretary Of State Suella Braverman occupying the top spot, with Rishi Sunak close behind. “Anyone that is contributing to bigotry, and there’s quite a few of them in the music world,” he states. “People are veering towards this right-wing way of thinking, this freedom of speech thing. If you trail the paper chain right back, it will lead to right wing policies, right wing ideology or people that invest in those things. People are trying to analyse the carcass that is this country but leaning towards the shutdown of freedom of speech without actually saying it as a way of trying to think that they are pulling through some netted wall of clarification about the meaning as to why we are in this situation, which is winding me up.”

When Williamson is wound up, he usually writes a song about it. Historically, his other option was to go on what was Twitter, now X, but he says he’s currently trying to avoid posting any online criticism of individuals. “I’m more hesitant now,” he says. “I think ganging up on people is not very nice and I’ve done plenty of that, and I’ve been ganged up on so I know how it works either way. I’m getting to the point where if you’ve got a problem, you tell them face to face or I put it in a song and dress it up and don’t make it direct. I think that’s a good way of doing it for me now. Even with people where it doesn’t matter, quite evil people, what help is it to gang up on someone?”

The singer thinks UK Grim marked a musical breakthrough for the duo in the way it was slightly more restrained and less impulsive. "Subtlety is more of a goal with us these days,” he says. He wants Sleaford Mods to be as big as they possibly can but says he’s aware there are pitfalls that come with that. “Bigger audiences mean shitter music,” he opines, “that’s just how it is. If you want a bigger audience, the music has got to be dumbed down a bit but I don’t think we have to do that. I think if we carry on like we are, we’ll be able to commercially appeal to a bit more of a broader audience. I don’t think we’ll be able to go to the heights of The 1975 or even some of the bigger indie bands, IDLES for instance, I don’t think we can get to that but I think we can extend it just a little bit more.”

If he’s not writing new lyrics, Williamson is constantly thinking about his band’s place in the cultural landscape and what it means, pinballing between worry that their best days are behind them and excitement that they’re only just getting started. Some of that, he says, is down to the fact that they are much older than peers who’ve been around for the same amount of time. “I go through periods of thinking that we’re ten years older and all these new bands that come up must look at us in the food hall and think ‘Oh, that’s Supergrass’, – no offence to Supergrass but they were a couple of decades ago – so I go through that, that we’ve been around,” he explains. “And I go from that to, ‘No, we’re on our own, we do what we want, the sound is us and as long as I keep thinking about the songwriting and Andrew does, I don’t see why it shouldn’t just keep going.’”

Evidence for the latter point comes at just how natural they look on bigger stages these days. In the summer, they supported Blur at Wembley Stadium and Williamson took heart from how different it felt from when they opened up for The Stone Roses at the same venue back in 2017. “It was wicked, it felt comfortable,” he says. “Last time, it was a bit ‘Oh my God!’. There must have been about 20,000 watching, which is good. And I’ve done Wembley Arena with The Prodigy so it’s not like you get used to it but it doesn’t faze you as much.”

Blur frontman Damon Albarn has been a fan since the early days, he states. “He always expressed a liking for what we did so we’re quite chuffed with that,” says Williamson, who also had to bat away queries from fans at how Sleaford Mods could support Blur when he’d previously slagged them off online. “Well, people fucking change, don’t they?” he shrugs. “I’m not gonna hide the fact I’ve slagged them off, I’ve slagged everybody off! It’s boring and I’m finding these days that I’m having to do a lot more apologising and thinking and discussing it with myself, but it was great, it was good of them to ask.”

Albarn isn’t their only high-profile fan. Sessions for UK Grim began when Jane’s Addiction frontman Perry Farrell got in touch wanting to collaborate (it resulted in the incessant and playful cut So Trendy) and Iggy Pop is a long-time admirer. The most famous Sleafords convert, however, is Iron Man himself. In an interview to promote Oppenheimer earlier this summer, Robert Downey Jr. mentioned the band when discussing music he’s currently enjoying.

“It’s just insane,” Williamson states. “Especially when you’re watching these films, which we do, they are staple films to watch on a Sunday with the family.” Recently, Williamson was revisiting some of the band’s most stripped-down, dour work in 2014’s Divide And Exit and 2015’s Key Markets and wondering what the hell Downey Jr. was connecting with. “How can one of Hollywood’s top earners be listening to that and think it’s any good?” he laughs. “How the fuck are they figuring that one out? It’s quite something.”

The singer has been in front of the camera himself recently, shooting a role for a film in Bristol but not one he can yet disclose any details about. He’s back in Sleafords mode now, though, and has already turned his sights towards their next record. “I’ve been thinking about the new album and who we can collaborate with,” he says. “I’m trying to listen to new music, to stuff I wouldn’t normally listen to. It’s fucking painful.”

However it emerges, it’s sure to be another brutal, brilliant survey of modern Britain. Their targets might have changed, says Williamson, but the story remains the same. “People are like, ‘That politician isn’t out and about anymore’,” he says, referring to their older material, “and it’s like, that doesn’t matter, the politics that have been ousted onto the public, which is largely neo-liberal right to far-right ideology, is pretty much the same and has been since 2009. It doesn’t matter who’s shelling them out, the messenger isn’t important.”

More UK Grim will be released on 20th October via Rough Trade Records.

Niall Doherty

Niall Doherty is a writer and editor whose work can be found in Classic Rock, The Guardian, Music Week, FourFourTwo, on Apple Music and more. Formerly the Deputy Editor of Q magazine, he co-runs the music Substack letter The New Cue with fellow former Q colleagues Ted Kessler and Chris Catchpole. He is also Reviews Editor at Record Collector. Over the years, he's interviewed some of the world's biggest stars, including Elton John, Coldplay, Arctic Monkeys, Muse, Pearl Jam, Radiohead, Depeche Mode, Robert Plant and more. Radiohead was only for eight minutes but he still counts it.