British punks Sleaford Mods release their new album Spare Ribs tomorrow so we sat down with the group’s Jason Williamson to discuss it.

This week in Britain started with the government’s ineptitude being highlighted once again, this time through their mishandling of free school meals for school children that were woefully exposed across social media. It’s bleakly fitting, then, that the country’s prime punk protestors, Sleaford Mods, returned at the same time with their new album, Spare Ribs.

Off the back of a sold-out tour in Australia in March (featuring well-received performances at the likes of Golden Plains Festival and WOMADadelaide), they took to the studio for a fierce three-week spell to record their latest record. It might remarkably be their 11th album but Jason Williamson and Andrew Fearn’s potent combination of snarling humour and intense electronica sounds as vital as ever; the beats are sparse and the delivery is spiky, the pair’s fiery wit and fierce outspokenness remaining sharp. 

It might also be their best album yet, for there are new signs of growth from the old hands. For the first time Sleaford Mods invited guest vocalists to contribute to the album, in the form of Billy Nomates (‘Mork n Mindy’) and Melbourne’s own Amy Taylor of fierce punks Amyl and the Sniffers (‘Nudge It’). They’ve eschewed slightly their favoured hip-hop and electronica in favour of increased pop song structures, an act that fortunately doesn’t soften their aggressive delivery.

It’s increasingly introspective, as on the emotional closing track ‘Fishcakes’, which sees Williamson recall his childhood with sincerity and fondness. These things also make Spare Ribs their most commercial release yet, without losing any of its trademark power and relatability.

The band’s usual targets remain – the failings of modern Britain and its hypocritical government (‘Shortcummings’), the plights of the music industry (‘Elocution’) – but the government’s awful handling of the COVID-19 pandemic also provided much for them to rail against. It’s why the album’s title is notable: Williamson coined the term ‘Spare Ribs’ to describe how the British government views its subjects. Spare Ribs, unwanted, unneeded, unvalued. 

Sleaford Mods, clearly, remain boisterous and working class as hell. They’ve notoriously clashed with other punks over their class credentials (“I hate what you do / And I don’t like you,” Williamson sighs on the lacerating ‘I Don’t Rate You’) but what’s undeniable is that, even this far into their career, Williamson and Fearn remain deeply sympathetic to the plight of the working class; alongside the fact that they truly used to live the experience before fame, it’s what makes them the U.K.’s most distinctive protest band. 

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Ahead of the album’s release, we caught up with Williamson to discuss the state of modern Britain, the failings of its government, and the renewed sound and style of Sleaford Mods on Spare Ribs

Spare Ribs by Sleaford Mods is released via Rough Trade/Remote Control Records on January 15th, 2021.

Check out ‘Nudge It’ by Sleaford Mods:

YouTube VideoPlay

Tone Deaf: You started last year off with a tour in Australia in March, how was that?

Jason Williamson: Yeah it was brilliant. Fantastic. We did Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, New Zealand, and we went over to Tassy (Tasmania) as well.

TD: How did the audiences take to you? You’re quite a British band, with quite local language and references. 

JW: Yeah, straight away! There’s a big tradition of English music in the U.S. and Australia. Also in Europe as well, we’ve got a massive following over there. They took to us really well.

TD: Obviously you’re friends with Melbourne’s Amy Taylor, who features on the song ‘Nudge It’. She’s fantastic. 

JW: She’s absolutely brilliant. We saw her in Melbourne. Getting her on the album was something we were thinking about so we just popped the question and she was well up for it. It was then just a case of trying to figure out what we were going to do. 

TD: Are there any other Australian bands that you like?

JW: Oh god, yeah! Alex Cameron, Aldous Harding although she’s in New Zealand. The Chats are really good. There’s a lot of artists over there that you just get the impression I’m going to like when I come across them. You’ve got that great thing over there, definitely. 

TD: For Spare Ribs, you went back with Rough Trade. Do you think you left them too early?

JW: We definitely left prematurely. It was suggested to us by our old manager that we do that, we did, regretted it, so we parted company with our old manager and that was it basically. We started looking at new labels to go back with early last year, or rather summertime. Eventually we decided Rough Trade was the one to go back to.

TD: Obviously COVID-19 affected the recording of it. Was it three weeks you recorded it in? Is that your usual way of doing it?

JW: Yeah, three weeks. That’s our usual way, we do it fairly quickly. 

TD: Spare Ribs is such an encapsulating term for the way Britain thinks about the working class. Do you think COVID-19 has shown how much apathy the government has towards them?

JW: Yeah, I think the working class obviously get it more than the middle class. Of course they do. What this pandemic has shown is they don’t give a fuck about anyone really! They’re completely separate from normal life. This is quite present in lots of things, the way they talk, their accents, the ludicrous things that inspire them, it’s just incredible. It’s as if they live on a different planet. Psychologically, they do.

If you’re that rich, if you’ve got over one million pounds in the bank, you’re not going to experience life the way most people do. That combined with years and years of privilege and of an ideology being rammed down your throat that you wholeheartedly believe, these people don’t care anyone apart from themselves and their immediate peers. And sometimes, they don’t even care about them. They’re dogs, they devour each other. 

TD: Well that brings us to Dominic Cummings (former Chief Adviser to PM Boris Johnson)! Did you write ‘Shortcummings’ before the whole Barnard Castle debacle?

JW: Yeah. He was on the landscape way before that but he just annoyed me right from the off, the early days of the pandemic. The song really came about actually towards the end of the election campaign, when the Conservatives won a landslide victory and he was in the background looking very important, looking very intelligent. They don’t change, they might believe they’re carrying different philosophies or insights into how the country should be engineered but essentially, they’re all just the same. 

Check out ‘Shortcummings’ by Sleaford Mods:

YouTube VideoPlay

TD: On ‘Nudge It’ and ‘I Don’t Rate You’, you seem to call out class tourism. On those two, you seem to be targeting someone. Obviously, IDLES are brought up a lot but is there anyone in particular that you’d like to name?

JW: (laughs) ‘I Don’t Rate You’ doesn’t talk about that sort of thing, it’s more a personal slur against someone else. Sleaford Mods is littered with that kind of thing. I really find a lot of enjoyment writing that sort of thing! With the class tourism thing, of course that is something that goes through music or any kind of creative area, it’s quite prevalent. Especially in this country at the moment, you just get the impression the working class are being restricted to grime and drill and are being demonised, the black working class. I know there’s a lot of white people involved in those genres as well but it’s essentially a product of black culture.

You don’t see a lot of working class people in areas gatekeeping positions in the creative sector, it’s just full of middle class people. Or people that are working class who have gentrified their accents to fit in. It’s really interesting, you talk to some people and they say ‘well I come from blah blah blah’ and it’s like ‘why do you talk like that?’ It’s subconscious almost, people tailor themselves to fit the mould.

I think particularly with ‘Nudge It’, the song centres on someone posing outside a tower block knowing full that he doesn’t fucking live in one. It looks like he’s a fucking gangster. This person’s excuse was that they’re into Brutalism (the architectural style) but it’s all just bullshit. So I wanted to talk about that, not just necessarily about that band but they are representative of a lot of people who do this kind of thing. And they also all seem to stick together. 

TD: The British media keep pushing this idea of a punk revival: the likes of Shame, IDLES, Fontaines D.C.. Are there any that you actually do think are worthy?

JW: I don’t mind Fontaines so much. Some of their songs are quite catchy. I can’t help but not like some of them. And I quite like some of the new material Shame are coming out with, that seems a bit more interesting.

I don’t know though, is it down to record companies as well, the labels these people are signed to, are they pushing this idea of a revival? It’s an interesting thing and it’s quite a really deep subject and to actually talk about it in this country at the minute, I get the impression people don’t because they don’t want to be labelled as bitter, jealous, they don’t want to be labelled as uninformed or shortsighted but I think it’s a worthy subject. 

TD: On ‘Elocution’, you’re talking about networking. Do you think if you and Andrew had played the game more, do you think you could have been bigger in your career at this point?

JW: I think, yeah. Of course you can. Whenever I moan about bands, my manager always turns around and says ‘well you can do the same if you want but you’ve just got to walk down bullshit road’! You’ve got to turn into that wanker! And then you’ll get to that place. A lot of these bands do it subconsciously but a lot of them do it consciously too. If you want to get really big, and there are a few exceptions in this, but generally speaking you’ve got to come out with dogshit. 

TD: We’ve seen it with the Gallagher brothers and Tom Meighan (Kasabian), are you scared of ever getting to a level of success were you become too much of an arsehole? 

JW: Yeah but I don’t think I would. I wouldn’t allow myself to. I get too much enjoyment out of making music that I really like. And that’s taken away from you to a certain degree if you’re that big. You’re in an indirect way told what to do. 

TD: I wanted to ask you about Billy Nomates. How did that collaboration come about?

JW: Well she had been sending videos to Andrew about a year and a half ago. Music videos that she was performing in and Andrew was like ‘have you seen this girl, she’s really good?’ We started listening and eventually we started talking to her and sending her some advice and support and sharing her stuff.

And that relationship evolved into her being managed by our manager, she released her own album on Bristol label Invada, and I did a collaboration with her on it. Then after that, we talked about the idea of collaborations on our album and she was our number one candidate. 

Check out ‘Mork n Mindy’ by Sleaford Mods:

YouTube VideoPlay

TD: So Billy and Amy were the first ever featured artists on any of your albums?

JW: Yeah. We’d always liked Amy, we’d seen her at a festival in Germany a couple of years ago. The music they make and the way she writes her lyrics really appealed. What also appealed was both of these people are women. I found that particularly inspiring because I’d started to listen to more female artists and getting into how female artists apply themselves to their music. It was some light relief from the world of rap that we’re normally sort of connected to. 

TD: What’s your opinion on Andrew’s production? How has it changed between your last album Eton Alive and this one?

JW: He’s got more slicker, it’s more masterful, more commercial, accessible but not in a horrible way. I just think when he applies himself to writing more stuff for us it obviously becomes stronger with each album. It’s not the type of music you can take lightly, you can’t just write anything over it.

You also can’t repeat yourself. I mean, some might argue that we do but I seriously don’t think we do. Every album is a step forward which is the only way we can do it. It would eat you up if you didn’t treat it properly. So it’s always a massive challenge when Andrew sends stuff over but a good challenge.

TD: Have you ever thought about what would happen if you switched roles?

JW: (laughs) Fucking hell, I don’t even want to think about that! 

TD: You seem to discuss childhood a lot on this album. Do you think with the boredom of lockdown, you had more time with your thoughts, to think further back?

JW: I had a back injury over the summer and that was related to an operation I had when I was a kid. I was born with a rare form of spina bifida that the surgeons operated on around 1984. It was quite a breakthrough operation really.

It’s a really rare form, it allows me to still walk but it got to a point where it started affecting my left leg and I could have been paralysed but luckily the surgeons were able to save it and live a normal life, physically with everything in order. So this injury happened over the summer and it kind of related back to that and I started thinking about that again. And that thinking back to being a kid filtered into the lyrics.

TD: Your career trajectory has kind of went up as Britain’s trajectory has went down. If there was an alternative timeline where Brexit doesn’t happen and the Conservatives don’t get into power, how do you think your music would have changed? Do you think you’d be a completely different outfit?

JW: Um, no, because I think any of the two leading parties would’ve brought misery onto the people! Let’s not beat around the bus here, the Labour party are currently just as uninspiring. There would’ve been more room to manoeuvre with a Labour government but the same rules effectively apply. We are still living under a capitalist system and that is obviously a very unfair system and it all travels on and as we carry on as a race of people, as a human form, it’s going to get even more chaotic I think.

TD: Do you think with working class art there’s some voyeurism involved? 

JW: Nobody likes a coarse entity in the room, nobody wants to talk to someone who’s just really quite forward and forceful and honest. And you find that with a lot of working class people, that they are like that. They are rough and ready. That still doesn’t mean they aren’t communicating the same creative qualities as any of these fucking faceless gatekeepers.

But people don’t want it, people want gentrification in the room, people want calmness, people want serenity, people want a perceived intelligence and because of that, a lot of working class culture is stolen and regurgitated by cleaner hands. There is a voyeurism, yeah. It’s constantly being nabbed from the bottom, processed and then communicating in a much more sanitised way from the middle. 

TD: So when you started then, performing in your regional East Midlands accent, was that an act of class defiance?

JW: No, I just got to a point where I didn’t know what else to do but be myself. It’s like backs-to-the-wall. I was obsessed with how rappers edited and formulated, how they put their versed together, how they did choruses.

Also at the same time, I realised that all these great rappers were doing it in their own accents and they didn’t care if people didn’t get it, they didn’t care if it just sounded really local, they just did it, and so that’s just what I did. And I didn’t like it and to be honest a lot of the time I still don’t (laughs). I’m like it’s fucking horrible, what’s that! But it just works.

TD: So after Spare Ribs in 2021, what’s the plan? Just tour a lot?

Hopefully, yeah. I think after this album, we might wait a little longer before releasing a new album. We’re down to release another one with Rough Trade and that might happen soon or that might happen later. The idea is just to play this out and to move forward like that. Gigging is such an integral part because it shapes your perception, it shapes your ideas, your performance obviously, so we’re hoping to get back to that sooner rather than later. 

Check out ‘B.H.S.’ by Sleaford Mods:

YouTube VideoPlay

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